Short Essay on the Functional Theory of Religion

How does religion serve to achieve social solidarity? Kingsley Davis, one of the champions of functionalist approach, says that religion does this in two ways: Firstly, “Religion is a part of society. It is common to the group; its beliefs and practices are acquired by each individual as a member of the group. The worship of gods is a public matter supported by the community and performed for communal purposes. ..”

Secondly, the “common beliefs through common ritual seems to enhance the individual’s de­votion to group ends. It strengthens his determination to observe the group norms and to rise above purely private interests. It reinforces his identification with his fellows…”

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W. Robertson Smith seems to be the earliest exponent of this theory. In his book “The Religion of Semites 1894 ” he concluded that “ancient religions consisted primarily of institutions and prac­tices “, that is, of rites and ceremonies, and that myths, that is, beliefs and creeds, were an outgrowth of these”. In fact, Smith’s ideas later contributed to the formulation of the sociological theory of religion.

Emile Durkheim, one of the earliest functionalist theorists, was the first sociologist to apply the functional approach to religion in a systematic way. His theory of religion got its proper form in his famous book “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912”.

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. From this fact Durkheim concluded that when people worship religion, they are really worshipping nothing more than their own society: “divinity is merely society transformed and symbolically conceived”

What happens, Durkheim argued, is that the members of the clan gather periodically. They participate in some group functions with emotional excitement and feel great ecstacy and elation of a kind which they would never feel alone. Now, the “Men know well that they are acted upon, but they do not know by whom “.

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). Their shared religious belief arises from the society and, in turn, it helps to hold the society together.”—Ian Robertson.

The unity and solidarity of the community is further increased by the rituals that are enacted on religious occasions. These rituals also have the capacity of bringing people together and reaffirming the values and beliefs of the group. They also help to transmit the cultural heritage from one genera­tion to the next.

The rituals maintain taboos and prohibitions and those who violate them are pun­ished. The disobedient or violators of norms may even be required to undergo ritual punishment or purification. The rituals have another function also.

In times of individual distress or group crisis the rituals provide help and comfort. “The social function of shared religious beliefs and the rituals that go with them is so important, Durkheim argued, that every society needs a religion or at least some belief system that serves the same function”—Ian Robertson.

According to Durkheim, much of the social disorder in modern times is due to the fact that people no longer believe deeply in religion and that they have found no satisfying substitute for that. Lacking commitment to a shared belief system, people tend to pursue their private interests without regard for their fellows.

It is true that much of Durkheim’s work on religion was purely speculative. His account of the origins of religion would not be accepted by most of the modern sociologists. Goldenweiser, for example, criticised Durkheim’s theory as one-sided and psychologically untenable. He argued that a “society possessing the religious sentiment is capable of accomplishing unusual things, but it can hardly produce that sentiment out of itself.

Some others have stated that “by making the social mind, or ‘collective representations’ the sole source of religion, Durkheim resorted to something quite mysterious in itself and, hence failed to give a satisfactory explanation”. But the real merit of his analysis is his recognition of the vital social functions that religion plays in society.


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