functional theory of religion

functional(ist) theory of religion

theoretical accounts of RELIGION which explain its origins, and also its continuation, in terms of the contribution it makes to society (see also FUNCTION, FUNCTIONAL(IST) EXPLANATION). The most influential of these theories by far is DURKHEIM's, and his ideas were further explored by RADCLIFFE-BROWN. MALINOWSKI's theory is also functionalist, and in many ways a broadly functionalist account of religion – albeit with marked variations, in emphasis – is behind many of the mainstream sociological accounts of religion on offer. If‘function’ is used in a general sense, functional(ist) theories of religion extend from COMTE and the earlier evolutionary sociologists to modern functionalism, and even include Marxism. Though regarding it as eventually dispensable, MARX saw religion as ‘the opiate of the proletariat’, in that it performs social and individual functions.

In its modern form, the functional(ist) theory of religion has two strands: within modern str uctural-functionalism, and within structuralist theories. There also exist numerous theories and empirical accounts which are presented as counter-theories.

In modern structural-functionalism (especially in the work of PARSONS, the functionalist theory of religion most directly deriving from Durkheim) three main functions of religion are identified, which correspond to the three MODES OF MOTIVATIONAL ORIENTATION formulated in Parsonian theory:

  1. the provision of a central, ultimately unifying, belief system – the ‘cognitive’ function of religion;
  2. the provision of ceremony and RITUAL, seen as possessing a central role in fostering social solidarity – the ‘affective’ dimension of religion;
  3. the enunciation of ethical principles, and along with this the bolstering of ethical values by positive and negative sanctions – the ‘evaluative’ aspect of religion; All of these contribute to the ‘essential’ role religion is seen as playing in the maintenance of social solidarity (compare Durkheim's similar emphasis – see CIVIL RELIGION). Durkheim's notion that religious beliefs are direct representations of society, however, is dropped.

Structuralist theories of religion have also built upon Durkheim's functionalism, but in a different way from structural-functionalism. In these, it is the ‘sociology of knowledge’ aspect of Durkheim's theory, played down by structural-functionalists, which remains more central, e.g. accounts of the part played by MYTHOLOGIES in the organization of social activities (see LÉVI-STRAUSS).

A counterbalance to either functionalist or structuralist theories, with their emphasis on general outcomes, exists in the many empirical studies of religion which explore the effects of religion in a more ad hoc way, i.e. are not tied to any one set of general assumptions.

As a relatively loose general framework involving accounts of the contribution made by religion to society, functionalism retains a wide currency, especially its general injunction to look for ‘latent’ function (see MANIFEST AND LATENT FUNCTIONS) and UNANTICIPATED CONSEQUENCES OF SOCIAL ACTION. The fact that religion divides as well as unites is not necessarily a problem, for this can be accommodated within functionalist theory, since it is the provision of social solidarity by religion that both unites and divides societies. Rather, the main problem is in achieving a precise meaning when claiming that religion fulfils ‘functional needs’. Once one begins to talk of ‘FUNCTIONAL ALTERNATIVES’ for conventional religion (e.g. ‘civil religion’ or modern international sport), a functionalist account tends to lose out in arguments involving its most central claim, that religion provides for universal human needs which only religion can answer.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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