The Functionalist Perspective on Religion

Functions of Religion

The functionalist perspective, which originates from Emile Durkheim’s work on religion, highlights the social role of religion.

Learning Objectives

Explain how functionalists view the purpose of religion in society

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The positivist tradition encourages the study of society using dispassionate and scientific methods.
  • Emile Durkheim argued that religion provides social cohesion and social control to maintain society in social solidarity.
  • Collective consciousness, which is the fusion of all of our individual consciousnesses, creates a reality of its own.
  • Critics of the functionalist approach point out that religion can be dysfunctional. For example, religion may incite violence by a fundamentalist religious group.

Key Terms

  • social control: any control, either formal or informal, that is exerted by a group, especially by one’s peers
  • social cohesion: The bonds or “glue” that maintain stability in society.

Functions of Religion

The structural-functional approach to religion has its roots in Emile Durkheim’s work on religion. Durkheim argued that religion is, in a sense, the celebration and even (self-) worship of human society. Given this approach, Durkheim proposed that religion has three major functions in society: it provides social cohesion to help maintain social solidarity through shared rituals and beliefs, social control to enforce religious-based morals and norms to help maintain conformity and control in society, and it offers meaning and purpose to answer any existential questions. Further, Durkheim placed himself in the positivist tradition, meaning that he thought of his study of society as dispassionate and scientific. He was deeply interested in the problem of what held complex modern societies together. Religion, he argued, was an expression of social cohesion.

Religion, for Durkheim, is not imaginary, although he does deprive it of what many believers find essential. Religion is very real; it is an expression of society itself, and indeed, there is no society that does not have religion. We perceive as individuals a force greater than ourselves and give that perception a supernatural face. We then express ourselves religiously in groups, which for Durkheim makes the symbolic power greater. Religion is an expression of our collective consciousness, which is the fusion of all of our individual consciousness, which then creates a reality of its own.

It follows, then, that less complex societies, such as the Australian Aborigines, have less complex religious systems, involving totems associated with particular clans. The more complex a particular society is, the more complex the religious system. As societies come in contact with other societies, there is a tendency for religious systems to emphasize universalism to a greater and greater extent. However, as the division of labor makes the individual seem more important, religious systems increasingly focus on individual salvation and conscience.

The primary criticism of the structural-functional approach to religion is that it overlooks religion’s dysfunctions. For instance, religion can be used to justify terrorism and violence. Religion has often been the justification of, and motivation for, war. In one sense, this still fits the structural-functional approach as it provides social cohesion among the members of one party in a conflict. For instance, the social cohesion among the members of a terrorist group is high, but in a broader sense, religion is obviously resulting in conflict without questioning its actions against other members of society.

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Catholic Church Gathering for Mass: Congregation Gathering Service for the Virgin Mary

Religion and Social Support

According to many social science studies, psychological well-being is positively correlated with religious engagement.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the relationship between religion and social and individual well-being

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Many studies suggest that religious people are happier and less stressed than their non-religious counterparts.
  • The Legatum Prosperity Index reflects the research that there is a positive link between religious engagement and well-being.
  • Religiosity has a salutary relationship with psychological adjustment, because it is related to less psychological distress, more life satisfaction, and better self-actualization.

Key Terms

  • well-being: a state of health, happiness and/or prosperity
  • self-actualization: Self-actualization is a term that has been used in various psychology theories, often in slightly different ways. The term was originally introduced by the organismic theorist Kurt Goldstein for the motive to realize one’s full potential. However, the concept was brought most fully to prominence in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, in which “self-actualization” was the final level of psychological development that can be achieved when all basic and mental needs are fulfilled. In such a case, the “actualization” of full personal potential takes place.
  • religiosity: An index of how strongly religious a person is

Religion and Health

There is now extensive research suggesting that religious people are happier and less stressed than their non-religious counterparts. Social scientists have identified a number of mechanisms that might explain why religion might make an individual happier, none of which rest on the explanation of divine intervention or supernatural phenomenon. Certain features of religious practice may facilitate greater well-being for members. These include the following:

  • basic social contact
  • a large, non-family network of social support
  • the positive mental health one derived from optimism and volunteering,
  • coping strategies to enhance one’s ability to deal with stress
  • a worldview that prevents existential questions from arising

Scientific Studies of Religion and Health

The Legatum Prosperity Index reflects the research that suggests that there is a positive link between religious engagement and well-being. People who report that God is very important in their lives are on average more satisfied with their lives, after accounting for their income, age and other individual characteristics that might bias results. A 1993 study by Kosmin & Lachman indicated that people without a religious affiliation appeared to be at greater risk for depressive symptoms than individuals affiliated with a religion. Surveys by Gallup, the National Opinion Research Center and the Pew Organization conclude that spiritually committed people are twice as likely to report being “very happy” than the least religiously committed people. An analysis of over 200 studies contends that high religiousness predicts a lower risk of depression, a lower risk of drug abuse, fewer suicide attempts. Those same studies associate religious involvement with reports of higher satisfaction with sex life and a sense of well-being. A review of 498 peer-review academic studies revealed that a large majority of them showed a positive correlation between religious commitment and higher levels of perceived well-being of self-esteem. These same studies revealed a positive correlation between religious involvement and lower levels of hypertension, depression, and clinical delinquency. A meta-analysis of 34 recent studies published between 1990 and 2001 found that religiosity has a salutary relationship with psychological adjustment. Religious involvement was related to less psychological distress, more life satisfaction, and better self-actualization. Finally, as signaled in a recent review of 850 research papers, the majority of well-conducted studies suggest that higher levels of religious involvement are positively associated with indicators of psychological well-being (life satisfaction, happiness, positive affect, and higher morale). In these studies, religious involvement was associated with less depression, fewer suicidal thoughts, and less drug alcohol abuse.

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Tharlam Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism: An apparently happy man wears the 5 Dhyani Buddhas Crown and holds a Flower and Dorje (vajra).