The fact that religion seems to have continually played an important role in every known society should highlight the idea that religion serves some sort of purpose. The various sociological explanations of this purpose are what the key is. The questions that arise include, why people believe in “gods”, “spirits” and “supernatural beings” and the reasons for the existence of religious beliefs and practices. When we look at theories of religion, the focus is therefore on the way religious behaviour differs between and within societies and the consequences for social interaction of religious activity and organisation.
Functionalist sociologists focus their attention on the nature of institutional relationships in society. This Structuralist perspective focuses on the ways individual behaviour results from the nature of institutional relationships in society. According to Parsons, for example, all institutions in society (family, work, education, religion and so on) have a particular set of functions. Cultural institutions, from a Functionalist perspective, develop to create and maintain of a sense of order and community in society.
Their main function is to provide the individual with a set of meanings (values) that make sense of society. Religion, which is a cultural institution, serves to reaffirm existing values and maintain social stability and order. The functionalist view is that societies cannot be physically sensed or seen and touched, 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 creating a system of common values, people see themselves as having things in common and this helps to develop social cohesion and 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 common values such as a belief in some form of god, common experiences for example at religious ceremonies and common interpretations such as the world was created by God. Another point of the Functional theory on the role of religion that is convincing is that educational and media institutions only develop in complex societies but religion develops in all known human societies.
This shows that religion must have a role in supporting cohesion and integration as people need to be given a sense of belonging to society by having something in common with their fellow human being and in societies where there is no media and educational institutions, religion must be the best means of providing a sense of social belonging and cohesion. Durkheim was one of the first Functionalist sociologists to write about the role of religion in society. He saw religion as an integrating force in society.
His view was that societies consist of individuals with their own consciousness, in order to exist as individuals we have to bond with others to create a sense of society. Shared values can only be upheld by constant, collective, repetition. Without this collective activity, central value systems would cease to exist. This need for reaffirmation has to be in some form of collective ritual and it is perfectly served by religious belief and experience. Collective ceremonies arise to meet this social need.
In societies where scientific forms of explanation are inconclusive (cannot provide scientific explanations) “mystical” or religious explanations are used to fill the knowledge gap. According to Parsons the basic function of this central value system, therefore, was to promote social integration (a feeling amongst people of belonging to a social group), and social solidarity (a sense of togetherness and having things in common with other people in society). In basic terms, one of the main ways that people develop a common sense of social identity is to develop common values. In short religion provides moral guidelines for action.
Standards against which our own and others’ actions can be evaluated. Malinowski developed some of Durkheim’s basic ideas. In his study of the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea, Malinowski agreed with Durkheim that religion functioned to reinforce social norms and values and promote social solidarity. But in looking at the specific function of religion for the Trobriand Islanders, he argued it served the social purpose of “easing emotional stress, tension and anxiety”. Therefore in this addition to Durkheims’s work, Malinowski adds the idea one of the major functions served by religion is that of “explaining the inexplicable”.
In this respect, although the Trobriand Islanders had some scientific knowledge, there were times when this belief system was unable to explain events. When this happened the Islanders turned to a belief system (religion) that could provide some sort of explanation. There seems to be a certain plausibility in Durkheim’s argument, however we also need to be aware that there is a kind of circular argument involved here (also known as tautology) and this represents an initial point of criticism of Durkheim’s argument.
For Durkheim, the collective affirmation of the sacred functioned to draw people together to promote integration and social solidarity. It existed to meet the needs of the people involved. But, in order for religion to have this function, society must exist prior to its establishment. Thus, we have a unusual form of reasoning in which society needs to develop cultural expressions of solidarity, whilst these expressions function to create society.
Sociologists have criticised Durkheim for his incomplete knowledge of religious practice and his reliance on secondary sources, he did not observe personally the religious practices about which he wrote. By emphasising the integrating aspects of religion as the basis for social solidarity, conformity to group values and so on, Durkheim has neglected to look at religion as a source of conflict and social change. It can be seen that religion can be used to the interests of various groups within society. So religion as a force for conflict and change can be set against the interests of an established social order.
Karl Marx provides an alternative theory of religion to Functionalist writers such as Durkheim and Parsons Marx’s basic arguments can be considered as criticisms of Functionalist theories. The theme of Marx’s analysis of religion is that of ideology. Religion is considered in terms of its status as a belief system or ideological framework that plays a part in the way in which people see the social world and their position in that world. Religious beliefs represented a significant way in which people were oppressed and exploited within the Capitalist society.
Marxism argues religious ideologies provide people with a sense of well-being and contentment that is an illusion. For example, is can be compared to the happiness of the drug-taker who uses drugs to get high for a few hours, during which the concerns of the world do not seem to matter, until the effects of the drug wear off, leaving the drug-user in exactly the same condition as before. The need for illusions about the world is needed in a situation where people are oppressed and exploited in the real world, so illusory happiness is a substitute for real happiness.
Religion, served as a kind of “false consciousness”. That is a form of social control that attempts to prevent people understanding their true social condition and true social identity. Marx said “Religion is the opium of the masses”. In ideological terms, Marx, like Durkheim and others, viewed religion as a powerful integrating force in society as it represented a means of creating feelings of togetherness, common bonds and shared values. Unlike Durkheim, Marx did not see this ideological aspect of religion in terms of its integration function for society as a whole.
Marx’s basic theoretical position involved the idea that Capitalist society is composed of various conflicting social classes, and he saw religion as one aspect of the social control mechanisms seized upon by the ruling class to enforce their ideological domination of other classes in society. It also served the purpose of justifying the unequal distribution of rewards, for example, the social world could legitimately be portrayed as “god-given” and consequently beyond the power of man to change. It also is used to legitimise economic exploitation and justify poverty and inequality.
Under a Capitalist form of economic system, Marx argued that all classes in society are alienated in one way or another and all classes, therefore, seek to relieve this sense of alienation by adopting various cultural forms of interaction and, in particular, religious forms. The unconvincing aspect of this idea is that if religion is related to exploitation and oppression in Capitalist society, the members of a ruling class should not be very religious, since they would, have no need to “dull the pain of oppression”.
In addition, if religion is a form of propaganda that seeks to hide the reality of exploitation and oppression in Capitalist society from the working class, it seems unimaginable that the bourgeoisie would believe their own propaganda. Also the Marxist theory does not take into account secularisation and the fact less than 10% of people attend church. Another point is that religion can also be a force of radical social change, which can help to remove the ruling elite. For example The Archbishop Trevor Huddleston wrote a book criticising the ruling elite and the apartheid regime.
This demonstrates that religion can legitimate radical revolutionary ideas as well as ideologically conservative ones as Marx considers. In this case religion is used as the source to oppose the ruling class. Marx’s theory would suggest the ruling class use religion for their interest but in this case religion was used to gain awareness of the apartheid regime which implemented inequality and injustice which in Marx’s theory was the role of religion to legitimise such things. The analysis of each theoretical perspective’s view on the role of religion has not enabled me to clearly support a specific theory.
This is because I find certain aspects of all the theories of religion convincing and also certain aspects less convincing. The role of religion as a means of maintaining social order from the Functionalist view is true as it gives people moral guidelines that they adhere to. Also you can see how certain laws and legislation are influenced by religion such as you are not allowed to steal as in the Ten Commandments it is seen as a sin. But this theory does not take into account the fact that religion can be a source of conflict like in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East.
In addition not all religious views are in line with society’s beliefs. The Marxist perspective on the role of religion can also be valid as a way of dulling the pain of life and justifying the social order. As people accept their suffering and social position as they believe they will be rewarded in the after life. But the view of it as an ideological tool for the dominant class and to create a false class consciousness may be questionable as it can be the means of revolutionary social change.