The role and function of religion in society.

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Many feminists would say that religion (like the family and the welfare state...) is another site of patriarchy. It is a place where women are oppressed by men, and it serves to reproduce this oppression and spread it throughout the wider society. The Catholic Church is a favourite target. It is against women's rights such as contraception, abortion, and divorce. It is headed and run exclusively by men. God is seen in male terms; Jesus is a man; and although there is great respect for the Virgin Mary, she is hardly a useful role model for most women today. Islam has also been criticised on similar grounds. We will look at the practice of veiling, which many feminists see as oppressive. Watson's qualitative research, on the other hand, tries to show that veiling can be liberating for women. Further arguments against the feminist view of religion being always patriarchal include the Church of England, now accepting women priests; and the growth of some new religious movements which value femininity, such as Wicca and "Earth Goddesses".

The key concern of functionalist writing on religion is the contribution that religion makes to the well being of society, its contribution to social stability and, value-consensus. Durkheim argues that the function of religious ritual is to maintain social solidarity by affirming the moral superiority of society over its individual members. Durkheim believed that social life could only exist if values were shared and society integrated into a coherent whole. Religion is an important aspect of this process, not only providing a set of unifying practices and beliefs, but also by providing a way in which people can interpret and give meaning to the world. Durkheim's distinction between the sacred and profane is, in effect, the distinction between people and society. For Durkheim the sacred are symbols for society, thus in worshipping God, humans are really worshipping society. The relationship between god and humans (power and dependence) outlined in most religions is a reflection of the relationship between humans and society. It is not God that makes us behave, and punishes our misdemeanours, but society. Therefore religion reinforces the collective conscience; it strengthens values and beliefs and promotes social solidarity since the attitude of respect to the sacred is extended to the individual's social duties. Collective worship is regarded as particularly important for the integration of society since it enables members to express their shared values and strengthens group unity. By worshipping together people have a sense of commitment and belonging and individuals are united into a group with shared values, thus social solidarity is reinforced, deviant behaviour is restrained and social change restricted. In maintaining social solidarity, religion acts as a conservative force. When it fails to perform this function new ideas emerge, which become the new religion. So Durkheim regarded Nationalism and Communism as the new religions of industrial society, taking over from Christianity but performing the same essential functions. As a result Durkheim and other functionalists are not saying that religion does not change, clearly its form does. Parson's argument concerning differentiation, but what does not change is the function, and that essentially is to offer support for the existing status quo. Politics and its associated rituals for example, flag waving; parades are the new forms by which collective sentiments are symbolically expressed. Consequently religion, in one form or another is a necessary and essential feature of society.

Criticisms of the functionalist views are that Elementary Forms was based on bad (and second hand) anthropology. It is argued that Durkheim misunderstood both totemism and the aboriginal tribes on which his study was based. It is claimed that Durkheim's analysis is not applicable to societies that are typified by cultural diversity.

The idea that...
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