Functionalist view religion essay


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Robertson Smith seems to be the earliest exponent of this theory. Emile Durkheim, one of the earliest functionalist theorists, was the first sociologist to apply the functional approach to religion in a systematic way.

Durkheim in his study stressed the social role or functions of the most simple form of religion called totemism of Australian Aborigines. The totem, as it is noted already, denotes a common object such as an animal, or a plant, and a symbol representing that it is sacred.

Each tribal clan is organised around totem. The totem, then, is sacred but is also the symbol of society itself. What happens, Durkheim argued, is that the members of the clan gather periodically.


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They participate in some group functions with emotional excitement and feel great ecstacy and elation of a kind which they would never feel alone. They pick on some nearby item such as a plant or animal, and make this the symbol of both their clan gathering or society and their experience of fervour and ecstacy or religion. Emile Durkheim Studied Totemism among Australian Aboriginal clans in which the sacred totem represented different clans. Religion reinforces a sense of belonging and shared identity to society.

Bronislow Malinowski Argued religion had more specific functions than Durkheim: Religion helps individuals to deal with the psychological stresses which occur in times of social change — such as births, marriage and deaths. Religious rituals also help society through the disruption to social order caused by life changing events such as death. Religion helps people deal with situations which they cannot predict or control — e. Talcott Parsons Saw the main function of religion as being the maintenance of social order.

Religion promotes value consensus: many legal systems are based on religious morals for example. The symbol—word, gesture, act, or painting, music and sculpture—provides the medium of genuine communication and sharing and thereby the basis for socializing the religious response. When it is lost a central element in the religious life disappears. Moreover, when the resonance between the external and internal is lost, the symbol often becomes a barrier where previously it had been a structured pathway.

It then becomes the object of aggression. Hence it is that the English Reformation concentrated so much of its fire upon the Mass, the priest as the celebrant of the Mass, the destruction of altars, stained glass, statues, etc. The radical anti-symbolism of the Puritans derives from the same experience of lost resonance with the established liturgy. This is one kind of protest that can arise as a response to this dilemma. In the Catholic and Protestant movements for liturgical renascence to be seen in our own day we see another kind of response to these developments.


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  7. Max Weber showed that charismatic leadership soon undergoes a process of routinization into a traditional or rational-legal structure made up of a chief and an administrative staff. There is an elaboration and standardization of procedures and the emergence of statuses and roles within a complex of offices. One important aspect is the development in many cases of a distinction between the office and its incumbent, which has become characteristic of the bureaucratic structures of the modem world.

    The Catholic Church has been the chief prototype in this evolution of the concept of office in European society. It is characteristic of bureaucratic structure to elaborate new offices and new networks of communication and command in the face of new problems.

    Functionalism and Religion

    Precedents are established which lead to the precipitation of new rules and procedures. One result may indeed be that the structure tends to complicate itself. This state of affairs evolves in order to cope with new situations and new problems effectively. Yet such self-complication can overextend itself and produce an unwieldy organization with blocks and breakdowns in communication, overlapping of spheres of competence, and ambiguous definitions of authority and related functions.

    In short developments to meet functional needs can become dysfunctional in later situations. Weber noted that bureaucracy of the rational-legal type was the most effective means for rational purposeful management of affairs. The tendency of organization to complicate itself to meet new situations often transforms it into an awkward and confusing mechanism within whose context it is difficult to accomplish anything.

    This dilemma of the necessity of developing a system of administrative order versus the danger of its over-elaboration must be seen in relation to the first dilemma—that of mixed motivation. For the involvement of secondary motivation in bureaucratic vested interests complicates this third dilemma considerably.

    Genuine organizational reform becomes threatening to the status, security and self-validation of the incumbents of office.

    Essay about Functionalist approach to religion - Words | Cram

    The failure of many attempts at religious and ecclesiastical reform in the 14th and 15th centuries is significantly related to this third dilemma and its combination with the first. The Tridentine insistence on organizational reform in the Catholic Counter Reformation as well as the great concern of the Protestant Reformation with the forms of ecclesiastical organization indicates that contemporaries were not unaware of this aspect of their problems. Certainly such self-complication of procedures and offices is one of the elements involved in Arnold J.

    Toynbee's observation that an elite seldom solves two major problems challenging its leadership, for successful solution of the first transforms and incapacitates it for meeting the second. In order to affect the lives of men, the import of a religious message must be translated into terms that have relevance with respect to the prosaic course of everyday life.

    Functionalist Views on the Role of Religion

    This translation is first of all a process of concretization. It involves the application of the religious insight to the small and prosaic events of ordinary life as lived by quite ordinary people. In that process the religious ideas and ideals themselves may come to appear to be of limited prosaic significance. Concretization may result in finitizing the religious message itself. For example, ethical insights are translated into a set of rules. Since rules, however elaborate, cannot make explicit all that is implied in the original ethical epiphany, the process of evolving a set of rules becomes a process of delimiting the import of the original message.

    Translation becomes a betraying transformation. Moreover, the more elaborate the rules become in the attempt to meet real complexities and render a profound and many-sided ethic tangible and concrete, the greater the chance of transforming the original insight into a complicated set of legalistic formulae and the development of legalistic rigorism.

    The Functionalist Perspective on Religion

    Then, as St. Paul put it, "The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life. Yet the fact is that the ethical insight must be given some institutionalized concretization or it will remain forever beyond the grasp of the ordinary man. The high call of the ethical message may well, however, be reduced to petty conformity to rules in the process.

    Brahmanic developments of ritual piety, Pharisaic rituals in late classical Judaism, and legalism in Catholicism offer three examples. This fourth dilemma may be compounded with the third and the over-elaboration of administrative machinery may be accompanied by a deadening legalism. It may also become compounded with the second, and the delimitation of the religious and ethical message may contribute to and be affected by the loss of interior resonance of the verbal and other symbols involved. The Dilemma of Power: Conversion versus Coercion. The religious experience exercises a call. With institutionalization of the religious movement, such a conversion may be replaced by the socialization of the young so that a slow process of education and training substitutes for the more dramatic conversion experience.

    Sociology of religion

    Yet even in this case, the slower socialization in many instances serves as a propaedeutic [Ed: an anticipatory or introductory course] for conversion. Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, agree that the act of acceptance must be voluntary, involving such interior turning.

    However, as religion becomes institutionalized it becomes a repository of many of the values from which much of the life of the society derives its legitimation. Thus the perseverance of religious beliefs and even the maintenance of the religious organization can come to be intertwined with societal problems of public order and political loyalty. This tends to become the case whether or not there is a legal separation of church and state. In addition, since religion is dependent upon interior disposition and since that disposition is subject to numerous unexpected shocks and is always weak among those merely nominally religious, there is always the subtle temptation for religious leaders to avail themselves of the close relation between religion and cultural values in order to reinforce the position of religion itself.

    A society may find itself unable to tolerate religious dissent, since such dissent is seen as threatening the consensus upon which social solidarity rests. Religious leaders may be tempted to utilize the agencies of a society so disposed to reinforce the position of their own organization. While such an interpenetration of religious adherence and political loyalty may strengthen the position of religion in the society, it may also weaken it in important respects. It may antagonize members of the religious body who are political oppositionists, and it may antagonize political oppositionists who otherwise might have remained religiously neutral.

    Second, it may produce an apparent religiosity beneath which lurks a devastating cynicism. History offers many examples of such a coalescing of religious and political interests. A genuine dilemma is involved. Religion cannot but relate itself to the other institutions of society since religious values must be worked out to have some relation to the other values of a particular cultural complex.

    Since religion is concerned with ultimate values which legitimate other values and institutions, a relation with established authority and power structures is unavoidable. Such partial identification of basic values in religion and culture tends to strengthen both religious conformity and political loyalty. Yet with the progressive differentiation of society, the confusion of the two soon tends to be detrimental to both.

    It weakens the bonds of the religious community by weakening voluntary adherence and thereby diluting the religious ethos and substituting external pressures for interior conviction. It weakens the general society by narrowing the possibility of consensus among the population by insisting on a far greater area of value agreement than would in fact be necessary to the continued life of society.

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