What is a functionalist perspective of religion

Functionalist concept of religion. Significance and function of religion in society

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2. The elementary forms of religious life

3. What is religion?

4. The totemism of the Aranda

5. The function of religion

6. Closing words

7. Bibliography

1 Introduction

Religions have a function.

The Polish social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski noted this when he pointed to the affect-stabilizing effect of religious practices. For example, a ritual before a long voyage makes the seafarers feel a certain confidence so that they can trust that they will return home safely. Roy Rappaport, an anthropologist from the USA, recognized the regulation of social and ecological equilibrium as a function of religion. His investigations into a ritual cycle in New Guinea showed that the sacrifice of domestic pigs depends on their number. If there are too many, they are sacrificed, but only if they are protected at the same time when the population is low. In the ritual, which is an integral part of religion, the number of domestic pigs is regulated. These functional approaches are linked to the cognitive and structural approach, which understands religion as an image of human activity and, at the same time, as a model for it. “From this perspective, religions hold ready the categories with which people create their society” (Heidemann 2011: 188, 189). Heidemann cites the religiously declared food regulations as an example. These create status groups and layers and form communities. In other words: one group of people is separated from another and develops its own, very special identity (Heidemann 2011: 189).

This work will deal with the beginnings of the functionalist approach, with the first steps towards the conception of religion as a human institution with a function for society. One of the pioneers for this approach was Émile Durkheim. His theory on the concept of religion and the meaning of religion is highlighted and explained on the following pages.

First of all, he believes that religion is not the result of deception, although religious ideas can often appear unreasonable and irrational. Durkheim sees social conditions as part of nature and since nature is not wrong, logic is not wrong either. The human lunatic are therefore also limited, so that religion cannot be a mere illusion, since it was created by man. As irrational and contrary to reason it may be, it still has an effect and fulfills a function (Laubscher 1983: 244).

2. The elementary forms of religious life

The French ethnologist and sociologist Émile Durkheim is considered the father of sociology (Heidemann 2011: 97). His principle that the social can only be explained with the social marks its beginning as an independent science (Homann 1997: 288). Durkheim had a great influence on the development of ethnology, in particular on that of religious ethnology (Laubscher 1983: 242), as well as on many American and British intellectuals (Heidemann 2011: 97).

His 3 most important works include De la division du travail social (1893), Le suicide (1897) and The formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (1912), which we will deal with in more detail below (Homann 1997: 291).

In The formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse Durkheim examines the importance of religion for society. He assumes that every religion, regardless of whether it is a world religion or a small cult, always fulfills the same function in any form of society (Homann 1997: 290). Based on this assumption, according to Durkheim, it is possible to research a single society with its cult or religion in more detail and to transfer the results to all other societies. The meaning of religion would always be the same (Durkheim 2007: 16).

3. What is religion?

Before the question of the meaning of religious phenomena can be answered, the concept of religion must first be defined. This definition is important because non-religious acts, systems of ideas and practices must be distinguished from religious ones. Religion should be examined as a tangible reality, as a natural expression of human activity, free from passions, prejudices and habits.

Current definitions attribute the characteristic of the supernatural to religion, belief in a deity or, to put it more generally in E. B. Tylor's words, "religion ... belief in spiritual beings" (quoted from E.B. Tylor in Laubscher 1983: 232). Durkheim distances himself from all of these statements because they do not apply universally to every existing religion. In addition, they look at religion as a whole, whereas Durkheim sees it as a sum of many individual parts, as a “complex system of myths, dogmas, rites and ceremonies” (Durkheim 2007: 60). This sum can only be defined by its components.

But what all religious beliefs have in common is the division of things, even the world, into two classes or areas: profane and sacred. What is holy and what is not is determined and understood by the respective religion, so that there is no fixed circle of holy things. Every thing can be sacred, whether stone, tree, rock or golden chalice.

So how can profane be distinguished from sacred? A single distinguishing feature is sufficient: their otherness. Both categories are so different that they are thought of as separate, like two beings of completely different nature. The otherness is so great that they are hostile to each other. One cannot exist near the other. One side has to give up its character, go through a true metamorphosis, e.g. become holy through a certain rite, in order to be able to approach the other side. As an example, Durkheim cites the initiation rite, in which a man ritually dies in its profane form and is reborn transformed in order to be introduced into the world of the sacred in this way.

Religious beliefs allow believers to understand the nature of things and their relationship to one another. The rites contain rules of conduct that prescribe how one should behave towards a sacred thing. So holy things are not only protected by prohibitions, they are also treated with respect.

In summary, one can say that the sum of all religious beliefs and rites results in the religion, provided that they relate to a uniform system of sacred and profane things (Durkheim 2007: 43 - 96). Another essential characteristic of religion in addition to the division of the world into profane and sacred is the community character. Religious beliefs develop in a community of individuals, whose members are linked by common beliefs. This common conviction is expressed in common rites and unites people in one church (Laubscher 1983:


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