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Functions of Religion

Functions of Religion

Author: Zach Lamb

Examine the functions of religion in society.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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Hello. Welcome to sociological studies. We've got a great lesson today, one of my favorites in the entire sociology course, and that is the functions of religion. We're going to talk a lot about Emile Durkheim who theorized religion in a functionalist fashion.

Durkheim argued that the world was divided into two planes-- we have the sacred and the profane-- and that each society constructs notions of the sacred and the profane for itself. The sacred is used to describe objects and ideas that are treated with reverence, veneration, and awe. Profane, on the other hand, is used to describe the everyday objects and ideas, everyday mundane commonplace ideas. So not vulgar, which is what you commonly think of when you hear profane, but just everyday, trivial, and commonplace.

And society constructs its own notions of the sacred and the profane, as I said. In India, the cow is sacred, but in America-- like my lovely cow-- the cow is profane. We just eat it. It's an everyday, commonplace thing. The point is that religion is a social construction just as is gender, race, et cetera. That's how sociologists view religion. We construct sacred and profane notions for ourselves in each society.

So if societies construct notions of sacred and profane, the brilliance of Durkheim was to argue that God, the sacred, equals society, and that society constructs a religious cosmology in its own image. So how could society be God? How could society be what we worship when we engage in collective rituals and get together? How could society be sacred?

Well, let's look at Durkheim in his own words, what he said. He gets a bad rap sometimes for being a bad writer, but I think his writing in this book, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, is brilliant. There's passages that just capture this idea amazingly. Durkheim writes that, "In a general way, it is unquestionable that a society has all that is necessary to arouse the sensation of the divine in the minds of men merely by the power that it has over them. For its members, it is what God is to its worshipers."

Well, how is this the case? Well, Durkheim goes on, then, to argue that, "We speak a language that we did not make. We use instruments that we did not invent. And we invoke rights that we did not found. A treasury of knowledge is transmitted from each generation to the next that it did not gather." So we owe these benefits, then, to society. We know we didn't make them. We just get them. We're born into it.

So Durkheim goes on, then, to argue that we could not escape feeling that outside of ourselves are active causes from which we get the characteristic parts of our nature. And this can arouse a feeling of divine, something over and above the individual that exerts power over them. And this was Durkheim's key insight into seeing that society had all it took to arouse a sensation of the divine, God, in the minds of men. So if society constructs its notions of sacred and profane, it does so in its image in a God-like worship of itself.

So finally, then, Durkheim writes, "Since it is in spiritual ways that social pressure exercises itself, it could not fail to give men the idea that outside themselves there exists one or several powers upon which they depend." And since we cannot see these powers connecting to our lives in a clear fashion, we develop a religious cosmology, Durkheim maintained. And he argues that if we could see these influences, then we would undoubtedly not have the religious interpretations that we do.

So if we construct the sacred and the profane and society is God-like, well what is God-like in our society? What is sacred in American society? Capitalism is sacred. You cannot challenge capitalism. Money and accumulation is sacred. The Constitution, our founding fathers are sacred items. Marriage between a man and a woman is sacred in this society. You see that in the contestation going on right now trying to advance equal rights to marriage for same sex couples. They're challenging a sacred institution in American society-- marriage. Moreover then, even freedom to challenge itself-- democracy is sacred. Democracy and the freedom of expression-- these are things that are paramount American values that are sacred items.

Durkheim, in a very famous passage that sums this up, he writes, "Society concentrates things, especially ideas. If a belief is unanimously shared by a people, it is forbidden to touch it, that is to say to deny it or to contest it. A man who should totally deny progress or ridicule human ideal to which modern societies are attached-- these things right here-- he would, in effect, produce a sacrilege, Durkheim writes." That's a really powerful way to say that society concentrate its ideas as sacred. Society is God, Durkheim maintained.

I mean, just try it. Just try and challenge capitalism and say that it needs to go. You're going to be looked at as if you're producing a sacrilege. Likewise, just try to say the founding fathers were wrong, or they were idiots, or they didn't do this in the Constitution. You're not going to be liked. Likewise, the struggle with marriage, as I already mentioned, people trying to advance equal rights for same sex couples to marry, this is challenging a belief. So this is going to be severely censured. Likewise, even if you try to say democracy needs to go, you would produce a sacrilege.

Well, what does this mean? Looking at this in functional language, what might religion conceived of this way-- what might that do for society? How might it benefit society? What functions might it have? Durkheim theorized that religion, then, conceived of in this fashion, has three functions-- cohesion, control, and meaning.

Firstly, social cohesion-- religion unites us as we share a culture. We have rituals, and we share the same norms and ideals and values. We have the same conceptions of what is sacred and what is profane. And these things help to create social and civic order and cohesion when we're all on the same page. We don't have time to get into it, but Durkheim argues that as members come together in groups to engage in religious ritual and worship, they collectively venerate the group and help to solidify the bonds. He's got these fascinating looks at tribal societies coming together in these chaotic rituals. It's great reading, but we just don't have time to get into it.

Second, social control-- society uses religion as a source of conformity to encourage people to follow norms and customs. Religion can be used even in this way to control people and support oppressive political or economic regimes. You could think of a quote by Marx-- a famous quote you've probably heard-- he says, religion is the opiate of the masses. He says this because rather than directing your angst and animosity at the status quo and trying to challenge it now, you're passive because you think your salvation is going to come in the next life. So in this way, you cling to religion is an opiate for the pangs of what's happening to you right now. So religion can help control people, then.

Thirdly, religion provides meaning in society. It gives us a greater purpose in life and prevents us from despairing too much in the face of tragedy and adversity. Without the notion that there might be some other purpose in life, Durkheim reasoned, some societies might fail and fall into chaos and just general consternation. They wouldn't go to work. They wouldn't have families. They wouldn't fulfill their roles and duties, all the functions that keep society going. So in this way, religion can provide meaning to life.

Finally, I want to finish talking about religiosity, which is a measure of how religious somebody is. Religiosity is just a term meant to capture how religious a person is, or how much religion matters to their life. It can be more or less religious. So we call that the measure of religiosity. So take a Christian, for example. They can be very strongly attaching their meaning in life and meaning systems to religion. And then at the same time, they will have these other two functions of religion fall in place, control and cohesion.

Somebody else in society might not be very religious, but yet they still obey and follow these same rules. And then the same functions take place. But they might do so in less of a religious fashion. So religiosity is just meant to capture the extent to which religion is important in somebody's life.

I hope you really enjoyed this lesson on the functions of religion and the introduction of the ideas of Emile Durkheim with respect to religion. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Durkheim's Three Functions of Religion

Durkheim highlighted three important functions of religion: 1) Social Cohesion; 2) Social Control; 3) Provides Meaning.


Everyday objects and ideas, or the mundane and the commonplace.


A term meant to capture how religious a person is, or in other words, how important religion is in someone's life.


Objects and ideas in society that are treated with reverence, deference, and awe.