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Benefits of Religion on Society and the Individual: Assessing the Functionalist View

By Caitlinmoran Apr 23, 2015 1590 Words
Assess the functionalist view that religion benefits both society as a whole and its individuals (33 marks) For functionalists, society is a system of interrelated parts known as institutions, such as religion, the family and the economy. Each institution performs certain functions- each contributes to maintaining the social system by meeting a need. Society’s most basic need is the need for social order and solidarity so that its members can cooperate. For functionalists, what makes order possible is the existence of the value consensus. Without this, individuals would pursue their own selfish desires and society would disintegrate. For functionalists, religion is a mechanism used to create social order and maintain the value consensus thus making society run smoothly. For functionalists such as Emile Durkheim, religious institutions play a central part in creating and maintaining value consensus, order and social solidarity. For Durkheim the key feature of religion was not a belief in gods, spirits or the supernatural. But a distinction between the sacred and the profane found in all religions. The sacred are things set apart and forbidden that inspire feelings of awe, fear and wonder, and are surrounded by taboos and prohibitions, Durkheim suggests the fact that sacred things evoke such powerful feelings in believers is because they represent something powerful, in his view this thing can only be society itself. When they worship the sacred symbols, therefore people are worshipping society itself. For Durkheim, although sacred symbols vary across all religions, they all perform the function of uniting believers into a single moral community. By contrast, the profane are things that have no special significance- things that are ordinary and mundane. Furthermore, a religion is never simply a set of beliefs. It also involves definite rituals in relation to the sacred, and these rituals are collective. Durkheim believed that the essence of all religion could be found by studying its simplest form, in a simple society – clan society. Therefore he studied the Aboriginal tribe system. This clan system consist of bands of kin who come together to perform rituals involving worship of a sacred totem. The totem is the clan’s emblem, such as an animal or plant that symbolises the clan’s origins and identity; the totemic rituals reinforce the group’s solidarity and sense of belonging. For Durkheim, when clan members worship the totemic animal, they are really worshipping society – even though they are not aware of it. The totem inspires feelings of awe in the clan’s members precisely because its represents the power of the group on which the individual is utterly dependent. Critics have argued that Durkheim studied only a small number of Aboriginal groups, which were somewhat untypical of other tribes. It may therefore be misleading to generalise about Aboriginal beliefs from this sample, and also generalising about religion as a whole. Durkheim believed that social life was impossible without the shared values and moral beliefs that form the collective conscience. Without this there would be no social order, social control or social solidarity. Religion reinforces the collective conscience; the worship of society strengthens the values and moral beliefs that form the basis of social life. By defining them as sacred, religion provides them with greater power to direct action. For Durkheim, regular shared religious rituals reinforce the collective conscience and maintain social integration. Participating in shared rituals binds individuals together, reminding them that they are part of a single moral community. Such rituals also remind the individual of the power of society. In this sense religion also performs an important function for the individual; by making us feel part of something greater than ourselves religion reinvigorates and strengthens us to face life’s trials. Critics have argued that Durkheim may have also overstated the degree to which the collective conscience shapes the behaviour of individuals. Hamilton argues that sometimes religious beliefs can be at odds with societal values, and as Marxists believe religion can sometimes be a force for change and a cause of conflict and divisions. Malinowski agrees with Durkheim that religion promotes solidarity. However, in his view, it does so by performing psychological functions for individuals, helping them cope with emotional stress that would undermine social solidarity. Malinowski defines two types of situation in which religion would perform this role. The first being ‘where the outcome is important but is uncontrollable and thus uncertain’, he used his study of the Trobiad Islanders of Western Pacific to describe this. Lagoon fishing is safe and predictable and therefore when the islander’s fish on the lagoon there is no ritual. However, ocean fishing is dangerous and uncertain, and therefore rituals are used to ensure a safe and successful expedition. This gives people a sense of control, which eases tension and reinforces group solidarity. The second time religion would help to come with emotional stress is ‘at times of life crises’ this includes events such as birth, puberty, marriage and death. Religion helps minimise disruption, for example the funeral rituals reinforce a feeling of solidarity among the survivors, and comfort for those who have lost a friend or family member that they will be ‘in a better place’. However, Malinowski’s points can be criticised as he uses puberty or birth as ‘life crises’ which may not be the case. In fact the birth of a new baby can help to bring people together rather than disrupt social relationships and destroy social solidarity. Robert Bellah is interested in how society is unified by religion, especially a multi-faith society like America. What unifies American society is an overarching civil religion – a belief system that attaches sacred qualities to society itself. In the American case, civil religion is a faith in Americanism. Bellah argues that civil religion integrates society in a way that individual religions cannot. While none of the many individual churches can claim the loyalty of all Americans, civil religion can. American civil religion involves loyalty to the nation-state and a belief in God, both of which are tied with being a ‘true’ American. It is expressed in various rituals, symbols and beliefs; such as the pledge of allegiance, and the national anthem. There is no specific God in Americanism, but rather an ‘American’ God. It sacralises the American way of life and binds together Americans from many different religious and ethnic backgrounds. According to Gerald Parsons, ‘the most widespread and visible expression of British civil religion’ is probably the events and ceremonies which annually surround Remembrance Sunday – which in contemporary society is still relevant and still celebrated heavily. With this year being the 100th Anniversary the events have been widespread across the country. Millions wear red or white poppies and observe a short period of silence at 11am. Taken together, such rituals and symbols function ‘as a means of transcending divisions and unifying what might otherwise be a deeply divided national community’. Clearly, in the UK, the monarchy has provided a focus for sentiments of what may be called a civil religion, more recently the Royal Wedding was a huge event across the country, where most people had a day off work or school and celebrated with street parties. James Beckford recognises that there are occasions when the nation is drawn together by rituals and observances such as the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997 and the Queens Golden Jubilee. However, although civil religion in America is a belief in God, Bellah argues that this doesn’t have to be the case. Some other belief system could perform the same functions. For example, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had non-religious political beliefs and rituals around which they sought to unite society. Also, the idea of functional alternatives ignores what makes religion distinctive and different- its belief in the supernatural. Despite showing the ways in which religion can be used to unite a society and help to maintain value consensus and social solidarity, Functionalism neglects negative aspects such as religion as a source of oppression. This is what Marx argues who see societies as divided into two classes, one of which exploits the labour of the other; religion is this sense is used as a tool to oppress the lower class and make them believe that society is fair and just, and the oppression is inevitable. For Marx, ideology is a belief system that distorts people’s perception of reality in ways that serve the interests of the ruling class. He argues that the class that controls economic production also controls the production and distribution of the ideas in society, through institutions such as the church, the education system and the media. Feminists would also criticise the Functionalist perspective of religion, as they believe religion is patriarchal, and is used to oppress women. This can be seen in the sacred texts, and the fact that women tend to be seen as ‘dirty’ when menstruating in certain religions, and also aren’t allowed to touch sacred books, and thus instead of reinforcing social solidarity, religion in fact creates a divide between two groups, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in Marx view, and men and women in the Feminist view. Functionalism also ignores religion as a source of division and conflict, especially in today’s complex modern societies where there is more than one religion – e.g. Northern Ireland. Where there is religious pluralism, it is hard to see how it can unite people and promote integration. Also, Postmodernists argue that Durkheim’s ideas cannot be applied to contemporary society, because increasing diversity has fragmented the collective conscience, so there is no longer a single shared system of values for religion to reinforce.

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