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Religion Functionalist Perspectives
As far as it is possible to know, given an incomplete knowledge of human history,
some form of religious experience or activity has been common to all societies.
This is not to say that all types of religious activity take the same form, since it is
evident that we live in a world where Christianity (in its various forms) exists
alongside Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and so forth.
However, the fact that religion seems to have continually played an important role
in every known society should sensitise us to the idea that religion serves some
sort of purpose and it is the various sociological explanations of this purpose that
concerns us in this section of the syllabus.
In this section of the course, however, we are not so much concerned with the
variety of different religious forms that exist today and have existed in the past
(we will consider these at a more appropriate point). Here, our concern is with
explanations for the existence, persistence and decline of religions. Our concern,
therefore, is with an understanding of the social purpose of religion. That is:
Why people believe in "gods", "spirits" and "supernatural beings" and
The reasons for the existence of religious beliefs and practices.
Sociologically, we are not concerned with the question of whether or not "god" (or
"gods") exists, since this is not a question that sociology is equipped to answer.
Rather, the sociological objective is to try to provide an answer the question "what
does religion do for the individual and society", rather than to make judgements
about the rationality or otherwise of religious beliefs.
When we look at theories of religion, therefore, the focus of interest is mainly on
the way religious behaviour differs between and within societies and, most
importantly, the consequences for social interaction of religious activity and
Bearing the above in mind, therefore, we can start to look at sociological
explanations of religious behaviour put-forward by various writers. Although what
follows adopts a rough perspective theme (in order to convey the flavour of what
different theorists have argued), it needs to be remembered that writers
supposedly working within the "same" theoretical perspective may have very
different views about the nature of religious behaviour. As always, sociological
perspectives should be seen more as convenient ways of teaching the subject
than as a hard-and-fast way of categorising sociologists...
Chris.Livesey: www.sociology.org.uk Page 1
Religion Functionalist Perspectives
Issue: How Do Functionalists Explain Religious Belief and Practice?
1. WHAT theories / concepts might explain this idea [Knowledge]?
Functionalists use a range of concepts to explain religion. These include:
Social Institutions. Collective consciousness.
Institutional (Structural) Sacred / Profane.
Differentiation. Manifest and Latent Functions.
Social system / Cultural Sub- Central Value system.
system. Structural imperative.
Social Integration. Civil religions.
Social solidarity. Secularisation.
2. WHY are these theories / concepts significant [Interpretation]?
Functionalist sociologists focus their attention on the nature of institutional
relationships in society. This Structuralist perspective (Functionalism)
concentrates on the various ways individual behaviour results from the nature of
institutional relationships in society. Social action is a reaction to the various
forms of social stimulation that an individual is subjected to as part of the
process of living in a particular society.
3. HOW is this theory / concept significant [Application]?
According to Parsons, for example, all institutions in society (family, work,
education, religion and so forth) have a particular set of functions (economic
institutions, for example, develop to meet the requirements of social survival).
In addition, from a Functionalist perspective we can group various related
institutions into what Parsons calls four related functional sub-systems:
An economic sub-system - various institutions that develop to ensure human survival.
A political sub-system - various institutions (such as government, legal systems and so
forth) that develop to regulate political activity.
A kinship sub-system - various institutions (the most important of which is the family) that
develop to socialise the individual into society.
A cultural sub-system - various institutions (such as religion, education, the media) that
develop as a way of giving people a sense of belonging to a particular society.
It is this latter sub-system - the cultural - that is the main focus of our attention here, mainly
because it is into this group that religion falls.
Cultural institutions, from a Functionalist perspective, develop to create and maintain of a
sense of order and continuity in society. Their main function is to provide the individual
with a set of meanings (values, for example) that help him / her to make sense of society.
Religions, as cultural institutions serve to originate new ideas and categories of thought
and to reaffirm existing values.
Chris.Livesey: www.sociology.org.uk Page 2
Religion Functionalist Perspectives
Because societies do not have an empirical existence (they cannot be physically
sensed - seen, touched, tasted, heard or smelt), people have to be encouraged to
feel that they belong to a society; they need to be integrated into society. One way
this is achieved is by "making society real" to people. By creating a system of
common values, people see themselves as having things in common and this
helps to develop social cohesion (a sense of belonging to a society).
Religion is a very important source of cohesion and integration in society, since
it can provide people with such things as:
Common values (a belief in some form of god),
Common experiences (communal ceremonies, for example),
Common interpretations (the world created by God, for example).
In very simple, relatively undifferentiated (that is, a society with very few
institutions that are, therefore, multifunctional), pre-industrial societies, the role
of religion is likely to be very important since it will be the only institution that can
perform the functions of social cohesion and integration.
Educational and media institutions only develop in complex societies. Educational
institutions, for example, develop to serve the needs of a complex form of
economic organisation, whereas a mass media develops, when the technology is
available, in a society that can no longer communicate simply by word of mouth.
Religion develops in all known human societies because:
If people need to be given a sense of belonging to society (having something in
common with their fellow human beings) - a functional imperative if society is to
exist - it is not surprising that religious institutions start to develop as the best
initial means of providing a sense of social belonging and cohesion.
This follows precisely because of the essential nature of religion, namely the
worship (veneration) of something (a God or Gods) that is more powerful than and
superior to mere mortals, lends itself to these functions.
God(s), therefore, represents a symbol about which everyone can more or less
agree and, by so doing, start to develop common values and beliefs (what
Parsons, for example, calls a central value system in society).
We can develop the above ideas by looking at a number of Functionalist writers
concerned with the explanation religious organisation and practice..
Chris.Livesey: www.sociology.org.uk Page 3
How did Emile Durkheim understand sociology? Émile Durkheim defined sociology as as the study of a complex system of interrelated and interdependent parts that work together to maintain stability. Therefore, he defined society as a system (1893). He established sociology as a formal academic discipline.
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