Sociological Theories of Religion: Structural Functionalism
Functionalism is a theoretical framework used in sociology that attempts to explain the nature of social order, the relationship between the various parts (structures), and their contribution to the stability of the society. Functionalists examine the functionality of each structure to determine how it contributes to the stability of society as a whole. When applied to the sociological study of religion, this approach views religion as a functional entity within society because it creates social cohesion and integration by reaffirming the bonds that people have with each other. In the functionalist view, religious rituals express the spiritual convictions of the members of the religion and help increase the belongingness of the individuals to the group. Although functionalism may be useful for explaining how religious phenomena occur, it is less useful for explaining why they occur. Similarly, it fails to explain—or even adequately define —religion as a whole.
Keywords Belief System; Collective Consciousness; Functionalism; Postmodernism; Religion; Ritual; Worldview
Sociology of Religion: Sociological Theories of Religion: Structural Functionalism
To make sense of the world around them, people make and revise theories in order to develop models of real world phenomena and behavior that will help them better understand and interact with others. To the extent that these models work (i.e., adequately and accurately portray the real world and the interaction of the various parts), the models are retained. To the extent that they do not work, they are revised or discarded. In the social sciences, one of the phenomena that many scientists try to explain is what makes a society stable and why change in one part does not result in anarchy. Functionalism (also called structural functionalism) is a theoretical framework used in sociology that attempts to explain the nature of social order, the relationship between the various parts (structures), and their contribution to the stability of the society by examining the functionality of each part to determine how it contributes to the stability of society as a whole. Using this framework, structures are analyzed in terms of their functions or the role that each plays in maintaining or altering a society. Structural functionalism attempts to explain the highly cohesive nature of societies with unified by a belief system and the relatively less cohesive nature of those societies that are not (i.e., are more diffuse or have competing belief systems).
When applied to the sociological study of religion by such theorists as Émile Durkheim, structural functionalism views religion as a functional entity within society. Religion creates social cohesion and integration by reaffirming the bonds that people have with each other. In the functionalist view, religious rituals express the spiritual convictions of the members of the religion and help increase the belongingness of the individuals to the group. Examples of such religious rituals include Christians' pilgrimages to the holy land or Muslims' pilgrimages to Mecca. Religious rituals occur in smaller ways as well. For example, the daily prayers and cleansing rituals of Islam or the forms and rites of Sunday morning worship in Christian churches serve to unite those who enter into the forms and rituals and separate them from others who do not. According to Durkheim, these reminders of religious belongingness create, express, and reinforce the cohesion of a social group.
According to functionalism, individuals who perform a religious ritual or practice do so not only for spiritual reasons, but also to express their identification with the religion and its adherents as a whole. Further, religious rituals serve to remind individuals of the tenets of the religion. For example, in part, the daily Islamic prayers remind one of the transcendence of God while Christian participation in the Eucharist (Communion) reminds one of the price of salvation. Durkheim further believed that one of the roles of religion was to confer identity on an individual. He believed that religion allowed individuals to transcend their individual identities and, instead, identify as part of a larger group. The wearing of religious symbols in (e.g., the yarmulke of Judaism, the cross of Christianity, or the hijab of Islam), for example, declares to the world one's religious identity and connection with others of similar religious beliefs. According to the functionalist perspective, religion helps establish a collective consciousness (common beliefs of a group or society that give members a sense of belongingness) that helps bind individuals together.
According to the functionalist perspective, there is another component to religion: emotion. Religion allows both the expression and control of emotion which in turn enables the attachment of individuals to one another and thereby increases the cohesiveness of the group as well as reinforces the norms of the group. The expression of emotion can be seen in such examples as the emotional displays at revival meetings or in charismatic worship. However, religious controls on emotion and its display are enforced through definitions of proper versus improper behavior and standards for legitimate behavior within society. This sets social controls that help the society to function.
Like the sociological frameworks provided by conflict analysis, structural functionalism is an approach to studying religion from a sociological perspective that is arguably of interest primarily from a historical view. However, many contemporary theorists no longer see these approaches to be very applicable from a practical point of view. Theorists have argued over why this is true. For example, one of the difficulties with the functionalist approach as applied to religion today is that the role of religion is different in the postmodern era than it was in the modern era in which societies were viewed as totalities (Denzin, 1986). In order for postmodern theories of religion to adequately and accurately reflect the reality of the religious experience and its impact and influence on society, theorists need to work within postmodern reality and leave behind the assumptions of the modern era (such as viewing societies as totalities). This does not necessarily mean that modern work (including Durkheim's) needs to be thrown out without further thought. However, it does mean that it needs to be reevaluated within the realities of postmodern societies. It is only in this way that such theories (or any theories at all) can truly model the postmodern experience.
Eliminating the Divine
In addition, all too often social theories— including functionalism—try to take the concept of the divine out of the equation and view religions not as faith systems but as social systems despite the fact that this was neither their intent nor the reason that they attract adherents. Even during the period of modernity, these theoretical frameworks fell short. As Stark (2003) rightly points out, to leave the concept of the divine or supernatural out of the sociological theory of religion is to doom the theory to failure from the start. Yet, this is what many such historical theories do. However, as Stark goes on to argue, most religious people find the concept of God or the gods to be integral to their definition of religion.
Stark examined Durkheim's structural functionalist approach to studying religion and concluded that the omission of the concept of the divine from Durkheim's theory was in error. Structural functionalism and other early sociological theories of religion emphasized how religion was used within society while deeming the concept of gods as unimportant. For example, structural functionalism viewed the rites and rituals— rather than their underlying meaning— as the important elements of religion. In fact, Durkheim advocated that sociology pay little or no attention to the differences in the ways that people conceptualize the divine or the mysterious. Rather, Durkheim and others advocated that...
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