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Assess the usefulness of functionalist theories in understanding religion today Essay

Assess the usefulness of functionalist theories in understanding religion today (33 marks) There are a variety of different definitions of religion including substantive definitions, which refers to focusing on the content or substance of a religious belief such as God, functional definitions, which refers to religion in terms of the social or psychological functions it carries out for the individual and there are also social constructionist definitions which focus on how members of society actually define religion.

Functionalists hold a consensus view and argue that society requires both social order and solidarity in order for it to run smoothly, and religion is one way of providing this as it encourages shared norms and values. As previously mentioned, functionalists argue that social order and solidarity to run smoothly – Durkheim argued that there are four main ways in which religion maintains value consensus.

One way is through the sacred and profane, he argued that sacred referred to things that are separate from society and create feelings of awe, wonder and fear whereas profane referred to things that were inferior with no real significance. Durkheim therefore argued that the only thing powerful enough to inspire people in the way religion does is society itself therefore meaning people are not worshipping their religion or god, but in fact society – this means that people unite under the same belief, spreading shared norms and values all over and therefore creating consensus within society. Another way in which religion helps to maintain value consensus is through Totemism – Durkheim argued that heart of all religions could be identified by examining its simplest form in the simplest type of society which he called a clan society.

He carried out a study in Australia with a tribe with a clan system. (Arunta) This tribe consisted of a close knit community who carried out rituals together with involved the worshipping of a sacred totem, such as a plant of leaf that identifies the clan therefore creating a sense of social order and solidarity. Totemism is similar to the sacred and profane as it causes individuals to unknowingly worship society instead of a God or supernatural being, therefore again spreading shared norms and values. However, there are criticisms to this view; Worsley argues that there is no difference between the sacred and profane and his view of totemism would only apply to small scale communities with a single religion, but not larger scale communities with multiple religions as there are commonly conflicts between them,
meaning there is no longer social order and solidarity.

Malinowski argues that religion promotes social order and solidarity through it psychological functions, which helps individuals who are going through hardship therefore preventing them from going against society’s shared norms and values. Malinowski suggested two different types of situation in which religion helps to perform this role. One way is when the outcome is important but is uncontrollable – he compared the differences between two different ways of fishing when carrying out a study in the Western Pacific, he argued that lagoon fishing is predictable, safe and has a more successful method of catching fish meaning there is no ritual. However, when the islanders were ocean fishing, he identified it as more dangerous and uncertain which required the islanders to carry out rituals in order to ensure their safety whilst fishing. Malinowski argued that the ritual gave the islanders a sense of control and more confidence, again highlighting solidarity.

The other situation was at times of life crises, this meant events that cause significant change such as birthdays, weddings, and death religion is useful as it helps bring little disruption. Similarly, Parsons argues that religion helps individuals to handle unforeseen events and uncontrollable outcomes. He identified two ways in which religion does this – one way is by creating and legitimising society’s central values but making them sacred. For example, in the USA, Protestantism helped make the American core values of meritocracy, individualism and self-disciple sacred.

This therefore helps to promote social order and solidarity as the vast majority of Americans would have the same norms and values, creating little conflict and greater social cohesion. The other way is by answering people’s ultimate questions, such as who created the earth, and why do some people die young. It gives individuals a sense of security and makes people less likely to rebel against society. However, not all sociologists agree with the functionalists and their view of religion and its role.

Feminists argue that the role of religion is to oppress women and help maintain patriarchy within society. One way in which religion maintains patriarchy is through religious organisations – these are significantly male dominated, for example, Orthodox Judaism and Catholicism do not allow women to become priests. Armstrong argues that this is evidence for the marginalisation of women in religion and society. Places of worship often separate the sexes, placing men on more holy ground with women sitting behind a screen. Women are also not allowed to preach or read from sacred texts.

Additionally, menstruating women are not allowed to touch the Qur’an, this therefore reinforces patriarchy as women are forbidden from doing important rituals within their holy ground and are also discriminated against. Sacred texts are often focused on the actions of male gods and prophets and are commonly written by men. Women who are featured in sacred texts are commonly portrayed through stereotypes such as Eve, who caused the fall of humanity and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Lastly, religious laws and customs ensure that women are given fewer rights than men, such as access to divorce, how many spouses they can have, decision making etc. In conclusion, there are a variety of different theories as to the usefulness of lack of in regards to religion.


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