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Social functions and dysfunctions of religion

Social scientists have analyzed religion in terms of what it does for the individual, community or society through its functions and dysfunctions. Many of these social scientists are known to belong to the tradition of functionalist thought. A famous social anthropologist of early twentieth century, Malinowski, saw religion and magic as assisting the individual to cope with situations of stress or anxiety.

Religious ritual, according to him, may enable the bereaved to reassert their collective solidarity, to express their common norms and values upon which the proper functioning of the community depends. Religion can also supplement practical, empirical knowledge, offering some sense of understanding and control in areas to which such knowledge does not extent.

A more influential tradition of functionalist thought on religion derives from Durkheim, whose Elementary Forms of the Religious Life presents a theory of religion identifying religion with social cohesion: religious beliefs and rituals are understood in terms of the role they play in promoting and maintaining social solidarity. Radcliffe-Brown argues that religious ceremonies, for example in the form of communal dancing, promoted unity and harmony and functioned to enhance social solidarity and the survival of the society. Religious beliefs contained in myths and legends, he observes, express the social values of the different objects which have a major influence on social life such as food, weapons, day and night etc. They form the value consensus around which society is integrated.

Recent functionalism while retaining his notion that religion has a central role in maintaining social solidarity has rejected Durkheim's view that religious beliefs are merely symbolic representations of society. Kingsley Davis argues that religious beliefs form the basis for socially valued goals and a justification of them. Religion provides a common focus for identity and an unlimited source of rewards and punishments for behaviour.Functionalist theories of religion face a problem in the apparent decline in religious belief and participation. What is viewed as secularization in other theories is seen as simply religious change in functionalist terms.

Functionalist theorists argue that religion takes different forms in apparently secular societies: it is more individualized, less tied to religious institutions. The character of modern industrial capitalist society, particularly its rampant individualism, is thus seen to be expressed in the differentiated character of religion in a society like the USA. Although seemingly having little basis for integration, the celebration of individualism is itself an integrating feature of such diverse religious forms. Moreover, new and distinctive forms of religion may perform latent functions for the system by deflecting adherents from critical appraisal of their society and its distribution of rewards.

In anti-religious societies such as some communist States this argument cannot hold, but here it is claimed that functional alternatives to traditional religion operate. Other systems of belief such as communism itself fulfill the same role as religion elsewhere. National ceremonial, ritual celebration of communist victories, heroes, etc., meets the same need for collective rites, which reaffirm common sentiments and promote enhanced commitment to common goals. Finally, even in highly secularized Western societies civil religion exists. This consists in abstract beliefs and rituals, which relate society to ultimate things and provide a rationale for national history, a transcendental basis for national goals and purposes. Robert King Merton, a twentieth century functionalist, introduced the concept of dysfunction. Talking about religion, for instance, he pointed out the dysfunctional features of religion in a multi-religious society. In such a society religion, instead of bringing about solidarity, could become the cause of disorganization and disunity.

Apart from Merton, many other social thinkers have highlighted the dysfunctions of religion. Marx regarded religion as a source of false consciousness among the proletariat, which prevents the 'class for itself' from developing. It prevents them from developing their real powers and potentialities

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