In an attempt to discuss the impact of sociological theories on religion, it will be imperative to have a view of what sociological perspective and religion in general entails. Sociological paradigms are said to be multifaceted theoretical frameworks that are adopted in evaluating and giving reasons to object in studies.
Theories are arrived at through epistemological debates as the most authentic and reliable procedures to be utilized in caring out social science investigations. Perspectives are also used to refer to the main assumptions concerning the ontological character of the society. Religion on the other hand relates to that which an individual or group of people hold as their highest reality or belief , or it could be said to be the connecting link between an individual and his God, which is expressed in diverse ways. This could be through the use of signs and symbols all in an attempt to depict ones belief (Merton, 1957).
It is thus said and believed that fundamentalism is the oldest and most dominating of the sociological theories, it is used in the evaluation of the correlation that exists between an individual and his immediate environment.
It is believed that the secular world can be studied in the same way the material world is today. In that light, the functionalist views the world as real, as it can be deducted from laid down techniques such as interviews. The social sciences is been viewed by the functionalist from a positive angle and as such asserts that an attempt at the evaluation or critical analysis of the secular world can be charge free.
Functionalist tend to lay emphasis on the fact that for the society to be together or exist as one then certain vital needs must be met. And in addition they belief that the way in which various institutions of the society attempt at satisfying those basic needs is of paramount importance. Take for example a functionalist will be of the view that religions exist in all societies, this view is based on the belief that religion as an institution has its functions to play as regards the survival of the society or the social system. This is likened to the fact that it is unusual for the body to survive without its various organs, this then suggest that every other organ of the body needs the other in order to survive, this is also same with the social world(Merton,1968).
This comparison of an organism and the social system is directed on the homeostatic character of the secular or social systems. That is to say at every point in time the various organs of the social system are collectively working to be in equilibrium , and if in the processes there is a distortion they tend to return to their original state of being. This form of equilibrium is arrived at when there is an integration of all the organs of the society through their norms and values. In situations where members of the society are not properly integrated through the societal norms and values, other mechanisms are put in place to isolate such members of the society. This mechanisms adopted by various societies come in different forms; it could be through gossip or formal sanctions by the leaders of such societies.
It is thus common to observe some form of connection or similarities in the terms used by functionalist and the language of computer scientist. The general society is seen as a collection of different parts which have some form of connection or relation to one another, and as such an alteration in any of the parts affect the whole system. When you take a good view at the operation of the system within its boundaries, the exchange of information among the members give rise to what is referred to as homeostasis. Most of the alterations that occur within the system are as a result of growth, and sometimes due to outside interference.
Religion: A functionalist assessment
Taking into cognizance the fact that, the functionalist sees the society as a system that is inter-related, and each organ of the society been dependent on the other. And how the different institutions in the said society or system work together to establish an equilibrium within the system. It will be reasonable to note that studies carried out by sociologist, seek not to bring out the mysteries underlying the supernatural, but while making deliberate attempts at evaluating and understanding the function that religion plays in the society, such researchers have been condemned by various groups who feel this sociologist are not positively disposed to such religious groups (Durkheim, 2008).
It is believed that Emile Durkheim is the father of the sociological theory functionalism, in his studies he was of the opinion that the secular or society tends to divide the world in to the sanctified or religious and the profane or non religious. He further stated that this can be observed in the fact common signs of the cross made of wooden materials provoke serious emotions in Faithfull’s of the religions that the cross has some form of significance, in as much as such materials hold no power of their own. And for Durkheim the wooden object does not in any way symbolize sacrifice. And as it is common with all the religions of the world, such symbols only stands for collective conscience, on which such faiths hold the general society. Durkheim did not just state this; he arrived at a conclusion after a careful and serious examination of the aborigine in Australia. In his observation of the aborigines, he discovered that all their societies where divided into different clans and every clan on its part had its symbols which represent different things to the different clans. He further stated that man tend to see the society has been sacred just because he totally relies on it.
From Durkheims findings it will be observed that he has excluded God from his discuss, or from the subject of religion, it will be important to deduct from his studies that he sees religion as an important positive motivator of man. He also sees religion as providing man with the ability to face life in spite of the challenges of life. This he said is achieved through the proffering of support and the giving of a sense of belonging to the Faithfull’s of such religions. For the general society he sees religion as an important factor in unifying the people or members of such faith through the same belief and life values. He finally stated that as the society will be developing things will change and the people will start becoming individualistic and as time goes on less dependent on the society. This he said will go a long way in reducing the strength in the beliefs that hold people together collectively. And as such conscience will have a lesser effect on the behaviors of the people or members of such faith (Layton, 1997). A long term effect of this will be that people will see less of the society as being supreme; hence there will be a change in attitude as regards viewing the society as being religious or change the religious approach to societal issues. Instead of looking at the environment as sacred, the concept of religion will be based on the celestial within, and this he called the cult of man.
The Limitations of Functionalism
Certain schools of thought have tongue lashed structural functionalism due to its inability of giving reasons for social change , but instead focusing so much on the social order and the establishment of balance in the society. For instance, observation over time has shown that the four walls of the class room do not prepare people for the challenges of work life, except for those that are into ministry work. Structural functionalism looks at the fundamentals of social life in comparism to their present conditions and not the past. Structural functionalism finds it difficult to explain why the function of the fundamentals of the society might experience alterations or in order words how such alterations or changes come about. One other demerit of structural functionalism is that it portrays the society as not having its unique needs as individuals do, and even if the society has needs, it is not important that such needs be met. The undisputable fact that the society as an entity has its unique needs is not a debatable statement, this is as a result of the fact that the society exist and is alive as it has humans living in it who are themselves alive. One other disadvantage of this theory is that it tends to back the status quos. Some schools of thought argue that structural functionalism looks at conflict and other hurdles faced by the status quo as dangerous to the society, and this alone tends to be the pillar on which those who hate to think base their arguments on.
Some people often find it very difficult differentiating conflict theory from functionalism. Conflict theorist does not see the society as a system that is always in the struggle to achieve equilibrium, but rather it sees the society as a system that is highly competitive. The conflict theory posit that the society consist of individuals who are constantly competing for resource which are limited. Some of the things conflict theorists see individuals constantly striving for are sex, money etc. And on a more larger or complex platform, religion. This is to say certain people or organs within the society have more money and resources at their disposal and as such use the resources they have to keep their positions within the society.
It will be right to state categorically that this theory was postulated to make up for the limitations of the Structural functionalism theory. In that, the aim and focus of the structural functionalism theory is on equilibrium at the detriment of social change. Conflict theory is hinged on certain assumptions amongst which are that the society in which we all live is driven by competition and it is the bases on which relationships are established. Another assumption of this theory is that those who have more resources at their disposal are constantly working very hard to maintain such powers. Lastly the theory tends to give reasons to change in the society that, it is as a result of the competition for the scarce resources that conflict result, and this conflict is responsible for the changes we see in the society. Certain questions when asked will go a long way in assisting one to think in the direction of the conflict theorist. One of such questions is that in whose advantage are the various elements of the society? Another of the questions is in who’s benefit are the educational systems of the world? The answer to these questions is that those who stand to benefit from this structure are obviously the rich or those who have the vast resources of this world to at their disposal. Simply because this acclaimed service are not rendered for free. Now what the society those in this case is that it screens out those who don’t have the resources not the they cannot compete in the academic environments , but simply because they don’t have the resources with them. Another extension of this is that since the poor cannot pay for good higher education they are automatically screened from the good high paying jobs of the society. Thus a combination of this two theories helps one understands how the society works.
It is not surprising that the main disadvantage of this theory is that it does not in any way consider stability of the society. In as much as there are alterations in the society, most of society’s elements are stable over time. This shows that in spite of the demerits of the functionalist theory it thus has some great deal of reality (Blumer, 1986).
Interactionism as a theory tends to oppose the wide approach of functionalism and the conflict theory. Interactionism as a theory basically tends to establish a relationship between the individuals and the society in which they live. The theory posits that one can only comprehend human behavior through the exchange of signs that are meaningful (Durkheim, 1915). This theory see the individuals in the society as the one acting, instead of seen them as being acted upon. Some of the main assumptions or principles on which this theory is hinge are that, humans tend to relate to thing only when such things make meaning to them. This can be viewed from the religious perspective as the earlier mention sign of the cross which is observed to provoke a deep feeling of emotions among the Christian faithful. The sign which depict the dead of their savior on the cross, and as such the sight of the sign reminds them of the suffering he went through for their sins.
One of the basic and most visible limitations of this theory is the fact that it has totally over looked some societal structures like values and norms.
It is thus interesting to note that the three theories are not independent of the other, each of the three theories tend to make up for the limitation of the other. This can be seen in the way each theory complements the other, and thus It will be right to state categorically that the conflict theory was postulated to make up for the limitations of the Structural functionalism theory. In that, the aim and focus of the structural functionalism theory is on equilibrium at the detriment of social change. It will also be reasonable to note that irrespective of the limitation of the individual theories they have helped us in understanding the society in which we live (Durkheim, 1915). For example the Functionalist tend to lay emphasis on the fact that for the society to be together or exist as one then certain vital needs must be met. And in addition they belief that the way in which various institutions of the society attempt at satisfying those basic needs is of paramount importance. Take for example a functionalist will be of the view that religions exist in all societies, this view is based on the belief that religion as an institution has its functions to play as regards the survival of the society or the social system. This is likened to the fact that it is unusual for the body to survive without its various organs, this then suggest that every other organ of the body needs the other in order to survive this is also same with the social world. And finally in as much as this theories have attempted to account for the social order of this world, the theories have not in full discuss religion, which is the bedrock of mans actions. Instead the functionalist only sees man as deviating from being religious.
Blumer, H. (1986). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method.California: University of California Press.
Durkheim, E. (1915). The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology. Translated by Joseph Ward Swain. New York: Macmillan.
Durkheim, E. (2008). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. abridged edition. Oxford University Press, USA.
Layton, R. (1997). An Introduction to Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Merton, R. (1968.) Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.
Merton, R.(1957). Social Theory and Social Structure, revised and enlarged. London: The Free Press of Glencoe.