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The Functions Of Religion

With the essentialist approach in mind—an approach adopted by those who presume religions house a core experience that is set apart from all other human behaviors—it may be contrasted with the functionalist approach. Consider the thing that appears in many classrooms: a lectern behind which the professor stands while lecturing. What is the difference between a lectern and a pulpit, for the same physical object could easily be identified as both? For the functionalist scholar, there is no one essential feature that unites all things people call "lecterns"; instead, the context into which something is placed, the expectations placed upon it by its users, and the purpose it serves are what cause things to be defined as this and not that. For early twentieth-century scholars, it was this shift from speculating on universal, nonempirical qualities and affectations to observing the role of local, historical context and empirical effects that signified the development of a truly scientific (i.e., historical, documentable) study of religion, in distinction from a well-meaning but, nonetheless, theologically motivated study of religion's enduring value or groundless speculations on its prehistoric origins and evolutionary development.

While there is a staggering amount of data, phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religious—there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar's study. It is created for the scholar's analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no existence apart from the academy. For this reason, the student of religion … must be relentlessly self-conscious. Indeed, this self-consciousness constitutes his primary expertise, his foremost object of study. (Jonathan Z. Smith, p. xi)

In the early twenty-first century, functionalists owe much to such writers as Karl Marx (1818–1883), whose materialist, political economy theorized religion as a social pacifier that both deadened the oppressed's sense of pain and alienation while simultaneously preventing them from doing something about their lot in life since ultimate responsibility was thought to reside with a being who existed outside history; Durkheim, whose sociological study understood intertwined sets of beliefs and practices to enable individuals to form the idea of a common social identity; and, of course, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), whose psychological studies led him to liken public ritual to private obsessive-compulsive disorders and myths to the role dreams play in helping an individual to express symbolically antisocial anxieties in a manner that does not threaten their place within the group. Twenty-first-century scholarship is pressing such classic work in new directions—for example, drawing on materialist scholarship and semiotic theory to study myth (Lincoln); using a social theory to account for such things as the beginnings of Christianity (Mack); and developing a theory of religion based on the findings of cognitive psychology and evolutionary theory (Boyer).

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Reason to RetrovirusReligion - The Beginnings Of "religion", The Essentials Of Religion, The Functions Of Religion, Religion As An Item Of Public Discourse