Last updated: September 25, 2019
Topic: EducationTeaching
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Functionalism is a macro theory, which is based on society as a whole, rather than just that of the individual. It is argued that functionalism generates many things for society. Religion, from a functionalist point of view, socialises people, teaching them norms and values of society, which are the basis for social unity. Religion further is a structure within functionalism which aids in influencing individuals lives. Functionalism claims that social solidarity, the uniting of people in society is an important part of maintaining social order, which is a functional pre-requisite for society to survive.

In addition, Functionalists use the term, ‘Organic Analogy’, which is the comparison between society and the human body. The idea that like organs is a necessary condition in a human body, ensuring it functions correctly, society has different institutions, like religion which join up with others to enable society to work well, maintaining mutual agreement in society. Durkheim researched into the Aborigines in Australia in 1912. The native Australians, believed in Totemism, the belief in worshipping objects with divine properties, such as plants and animals.

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The Australian aborigines carried out many religious ceremonies to worship their totem, which is an example of collective consciousness securing social solidarity as the tribe were brought together to worship as a group. Durkheim definition of religion was split into two parts: the Sacred, which consisted of all things Holy or spiritual, and the Profane, the ordinary things. The Aborigines’ ultimate holy object which also was seen as a place of worship was the Ayres Rock. Durkheim found that the Aborigines were divided into several clans, and each clan worshipped their designated totem, which performed as their God.

Durkheim argued that having religion provided a set of moral beliefs which shapes collective conscience within society. This was seen as a positive thing as it meant people had shared beliefs and moral values and by worshipping together it kept society strong. Durkheim believed that the worship for totems was in fact the worship of the society. It can be argued in many ways that there are many faults with his study of the Aborigines. Durkheim carried out his research in 1912, and can be criticised for being out of date. This is because things may have changed in the way Aborigines live, as society has hanged over time. Furthermore, Durkheim came from a westernised background, in comparison to the way in which they lived their lives which was evidently very different. His culture could have distorted his study as he may not have had a full understanding of their way of life. This could also show Durkheim bias, as he would have been influence by his cultural beliefs. It could be argued that the Aborigines themselves had acted differently with Durkheim present. This is called the Hawthorne effect in which the participants are aware they are being studied.

Durkheim clearly was of a different ethnicity, meaning this was a possible fault in his research. Malinowski studied the Trobriand Islands in 1915-18. Malinowski believed that religion was a vital factor for reinforcing society’s norms and values. However unlike Durkheim, he was more interested in the psychological functions which religion gave every individual. One thing Malinowski did was separate situations in life which threatened social solidarity. These two categories were, 1. Crisis of life and 2. Uncontrollable Events.

He claimed that for crises of life, religion had a dramatic effect upon helping those in need. For example, parents with a new born baby would find life very stressful and emotionally challenging, however, Malinowski argued that their turn to religion would provide them with strength and motivation to cope in life. Whilst in the Trobriand Islands, Malinowski studied the contrast between fishing in the open sea and in the sheltered lagoon, two ways in which people there fished. He found that people felt safer to fish in the sheltered lagoon rather than in the open sea.

Religion played an important role in the Trobriand Islands as people would only fish in the open sea once performing a religious ceremony, as it was evidently more dangerous. On the other hand, the islanders felt it was unnecessary to pray when in the lagoon. Therefore, Malinowski continued that religion not only reinforced society’s norms and values but also created calmness, enabling them to cope in their daily lives, allowing them to continue to make a living, maintaining social harmony. Malinowski remained in the Trobriand Islands for a long period of time, further developing his ideas on religion.

His use of participant observation can be criticised for many reasons. Malinowski, like Durkheim, based his research on a small scale, meaning there was lack of generalisiblity. Additionally, it is largely argued that Malinowski spent too much time there and is argue that he had many sexual affairs with women there, which could suggest his research could be flawed as his original opinions have probably changed and become very different, and this leads to the fact that he may have loss of objectivity, as he had bonded to closely with the participants of the study.

Participant observation did however enable Malinowski to gain in depth research, which Weber would call, “Verstehen”, the empathy gained when using participant observation. Functionalist, Parsons believed that religion acted as a mechanism for social adjustment. This meant when society’s equilibrium is damaged or people were affected by “Life Crises” religion steps in to help society return back to a sense of normality, consequently preventing what Durkheim called anomie, a sense of normlessness within society.

Like Malinowski, Parsons claimed that religion assists individuals in coping with unforeseen events like death as a funeral will be held, which can help answer big questions in life. Religion can also act as a mechanism for adjustment as it gives meaning to life, for example, when somebody dies, religious communities find themselves coming together and comforting those in need and creates hope and the belief that that person has gone to heaven. Therefore, Parson continued to argue that religion protects social order, as it keeps social solidarity which maintains the harmony in society.

Parsons studied modern society in 1950 and 60’s America. He acknowledged that religion also has two other essential functions which it performs in modern society. He claimed that it legitimised social norms and values. Parsons built on the work of Durkheim but made it more relevant to modern pluralistic societies. Religion for functionalism socialises people through the norms and values which are the basis for social solidarity. Religion is perceived as a good thing for society, because without it, functionalists would argue society wouldn’t survive.

Marxism can be said to have similar ideas with functionalism, however, both theories would those ideas argue differently. For example, both Marxists and Functionalists have the interest of how social order is maintained; however have very different opinions surrounding it. Marxists would argue that social order is maintained in an unjust and immoral way. This is because the ruling class ideology and their beliefs and values only benefit the wealthy and are a reflection of the ruling class’s interests. They would argue that religion is used as a tool of social control to keep the working class under false class consciousness.

With the proletariats unaware of the ruling classes doing, they continue to be exploited, and creating a false understanding of what society should really be like. Furthermore, religion plays an important role in aiding the ruling class. Marxists argue that religion acts a mechanism of social control which is similar to functionalism, but is different as they claim is ensures the exploitation of the working class is continued. Marx, 1818-1883, claimed that religion’s primary function was to reproduce, maintain and justify class inequality.

His quote: “Religion is the Opium of the people”, suggests how religion can dull the pain of oppression as it promises eternal paradise in Heaven after death and rewards for suffering. For example, in the Hindu caste system, it clearly states who belongs to which caste and the people in the “untouchable” caste, are left to believe that it was pre-destined and they should just accept this as God will, but religion also promises that if they live without complaining and be good people they will be rewarded in their next life.

This illusion of optimism and hope only make the lower classes less rebellious to overthrow the system of the ruling class, which for the ruling elite is how they maintain social order. Functionalists however would argue that religion helps maintain social order through value consensus, the sharing of beliefs within society, which creates social solidarity, therefore bringing about social order. For Marx, religion is ideological because it promotes the idea that class inequality is god given and natural, also, religion distorts the true exploitation of the proletariats and keeps them passive and unaware of their fate.

Functionalists would state that society has value consensus, the mutual agreement on norms and values which socialises people. However, in contrast to Functionalists, Marxists say that there is no value consensus, because the working class have no say in what happens in society, because the ruling elite are in full control with the help of religion enforcing these rules through for example, the Church’s hierarchy. The ruling class force order in society through the use of having ideological state apparatus.

This means, the ruling class have apparatus’s such as teachers in the education system and the media which are used as tools to oppress the poor and ensure there rules and belief in justifying class inequalities is kept in society. Feminism clearly argues that the state operates in the interest of men. Feminists would argue that religion is used to exploit women by reinforcing traditional gender roles and argue that religion is made up of patriarchal ideology which is used to oppress women.

This is significantly different to the functionalist view on the role of religion as functionalism focuses on society as a whole and not particularly on men or women. Armstrong argued that in the pre-Christian world, particularly in Europe and Asia, Paganism was extremely popular. Paganism consisted of the belief in more than one god- Polytheism. She also claimed that women had a more accepting and important role in religion, it was only when Christianity came about that things changed and the idea of mono-theism, the belief in one god happened. Consequently, women were seen in a different prospect, which resulted in god becoming male.

This would support feminists and how their ideas would differ from functionalism because; they believe religion is a male dominated organisation, where women have little control over anything. Quotes from the bible show how religion has had a knock-on effect on society’s attitudes towards women, something which continues to exist today. “Wives, submit your husband’s as to the lord. For the husband is the head of the wife… ” This quote clearly shows how Christianity has perceived women, and emphasises the feminist approach on how religion is made up of patriarchy.

Functionalists believe religion is a good thing for society as it gives meaning and purpose to lives and that it meets the need of everyone therefore it is universal. Feminists would also claim that there have been changes towards the inequalities between men and women, for example the Church of England had permitted women in 1992 to become priests, which shows how women have been permitted to climb the hierarchy of the church, but there are still restrictions, therefore, religious institutes still need to show equality for women, in religions such as Catholicism, and Islam where female oppression is shown explicitly.

Berger, an Interactionist, believed that in the pluralistic modern society, globalisation was occurring- more people from different cultured and religions were coming together in unity. However, this meant that religion was being compromised, as people started to choose and combine different religious explanations. This resulted in people losing their true identities and this made people uncertain about religion. Pluralisation meant that people no longer lived a simple life, but instead lived a more diverse and hallenging life. Berger stated that religion acted as a bulwark against anomie, creating a stop to homelessness, the loss in faith and reinforced societies norms and values. Exchange theorists Stark and Bainbridge view religion as something which helps meets the needs of individuals in society, in contrast to functionalists who argue that religion helps meet the needs of society as a whole, because religion is universal. The exchange theory is similar to functionalist Durkheim’s belief that religion helps prevent anomie.

Stark and Bainbridge argued that religion offered compensators- the belief that one will be rewarded in the near future or after life. This for many reasons, maintain social order and prevents anomie as everyone within society tried to sustain a good life, meaning there will be less conflict and a sense of normlessness will not be created. They continue to argue that due to compensator which meet universal human needs, religion cannot decline, as it plays too much of an important role in life.

Nevertheless, they claim that religion should not compromise their beliefs in the supernatural and if this was to happen, less people would turn to the Church and instead to more supernatural based organisations such as cults and sects. Stark and Bainbridge’s survey study showed that 60% of people who had no religious background still turn to religion, which suggests that religion is not declining. The Ecumenical Movement is the claim that religion has started to compromise their beliefs and “watered down” religion making it seem more approachable to everyone.

Exchange theorists, like Stark and Bainbridge, dispute that religion will never fade away, to result in secularisation because people depend on religion to answer the big questions in life as well as the fact that it meets the needs of us, and is universal. Steve Bruce, 1986, argued against Stark and Bainbridge, claiming that NRM’S (New religious movements) are not attracting as many people who have belonged previously to an established religious organisation.

He also criticised Stark and Bainbridge’s study as they failed to recognise how society and culture would affect the “big” questions asked and their specific human desires, meaning they disregard social factor which maintains religion. For example, how religion may suggest the oppression of women through male dominance. The view of the Exchange Theory differs from functionalism as it takes a micro approach on religion and its role on the individual but is similar as it claims that religion sustains social order hrough offering compensators. Post Modernism takes an entirely different approach on religion in comparison to the other theories including Functionalism. They argue “The collapse of the meta-narratives, like Islam, Christianity and science all attempted to illustrate social issues which religion has the answers to. However, they state that society is changing rapidly and religion is becoming a less open matter, where people find themselves not being a part of religious activity, therefore there cannot be any absolute universal truths.