Religion's Role in Society


“Religion helps sustain social solidarity in times of transition and stress.” - Discuss.

Many sociologists believe that religion plays a vital role in society and helps individuals come together in times of hardship, reinforcing social solidarity within a particular community. Some believe that without religion, societies would in some cases fall apart and there would not be social solidarity as

people would not have a sense of closeness with each other, nor would they have anything to believe in. This is discussed by Durkheim and Malinowski as the Functionalist view on religion in particular.

Functionalists, Marxists and Feminists have generally dismissed the possibility that religion can cause changes in society, They believe religion acts as a conservative force and that it is changes in society that shape religion, not vice versa. Functionalists claim that religion prevents change and acts in this way because it promotes integration and social solidarity. From a functionalist perspective, religion provides shared norms and values, and helps individuals to cope with stresses that might disrupt social life. In these ways it facilitates the continued existence of society in its present form. Marx had similar views although he saw religion as maintaining the status quo in the interests of the ruling class rather than those of society as a whole.

Durkheim believed that social life was impossible without the shared values and moral beliefs that form the collective conscience. In their absence there would be no social order, control, solidarity or cooperation. In short, there would be no society. Religion reinforces the collective conscience. The worship of society strengthens the values and moral beliefs that form the basis of social life. By defining them as sacred, religion provides them with greater power to direct human action. In a worshipping society, people are in effect, recognising the importance of the social group and their dependence upon it. In this way, religion strengthens the unity of the group: it promotes social solidarity.

Most sociologists believe that Durkheim overstated his case on religion. While agreeing that religion is important for promoting social solidarity and reinforcing social values, they would not support his view that religion is the worship of society. Durkheim’s views were more relevant to small, non-literate societies, where there is a close integration of culture and social institutions, where work, leisure, education and family life tend to merge and where members share a common belief and value system. His views are less relevant to modern societies which have many subcultures, social and ethnic groups, specialised organisations and a range of religious beliefs, practices and institutions.

Like Durkheim, Bronislaw Malinowski sees religion as reinforcing social norms and values and promoting social solidarity. Unlike Durkheim however, he does not see religion as reflecting society as a whole, nor does he see religious ritual as the worship of society itself. Malinowski identifies specific areas of social life with which religion is concerned and to which it is addressed. These are situations of emotional stress that threaten social solidarity.

Anxiety and tension tend to disrupt social life. Malinowski notes that in all societies, life crises are surrounded with religious ritual. He sees death as the most disruptive of these events and argues: “The existence of strong personal attachments and the fact of death, which of all human events is the most upsetting and disorganizing to man’s calculations are perhaps the main sources of religious beliefs.”
Different events and hardship that may come about in a society are dealt with in different ways. For example a death in society is socially destructive because it removes a member of society. At a funeral ceremony however, the social group unites to support the bereaved thus this expression of social solidarity reintegrates society. Malinowski has been criticised for exaggerating the importance of religious rituals in helping people to cope with situations of stress and uncertainty.

The last functionalist view of religion is Talcott Parsons. He believes that religion is part of the cultural system within a society and thus provides guidelines for human actions and standards against which people’s conduct can be evaluated. In a Christian society, the Ten Commandments operate in this way. They demonstrate how many of the norms of the social system can be integrated by religious beliefs. By establishing these general principles and moral beliefs, religion helps to provide the consensus which Parsons believes is necessary for order and stability in society. Like Malinowski, Parsons sees religion as a mechanism for adjustment to such unprecedented events as death or illness, and as a means of restoring the normal pattern of life.

The functionalist perspective emphasizes the positive contributions of religion to society and tends to ignore its dysfunctional aspects. With its preoccupation with harmony, integration and solidarity, functionalism neglects the many instances where religion can be seen as a divisive and disruptive force. It bypasses the frequent examples of internal divisions within a community over questions of religious dogma and worship – divisions that can lead to open conflict. It gives little consideration to hostility between different religious groups within the same society, such as Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq or Hindus and Muslims in India. In such cases, religion can be seen as a direct threat to social order.

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