The Functionalism of Religion

Religion is an ancient phenomenon whose roots are in the human need for protective systems, as well as its need to find meaning. Religious practices are not only morally important but have been shown to help people deal with stress, form social connections, and develop coping strategies. Despite its negative impact on some groups, most people find religions to be positive influences in their lives. It is for these reasons that the research on religiosity has been so prolific and fruitful.

Yet, for scholars studying religion, the problem of defining it is as old as the discipline itself. Various definitions have been proposed. For some, such as Emile Durkheim, the concept of religion encompasses whatever system of beliefs and practices unite a group into a moral community. For others, the term is a way of living that involves devotion to a higher purpose and a sense of transcendence. Still others think that the definition of religion should be based on its distinctive kind of influence, rather than on a particular belief in a supernatural reality. This approach is referred to as a functional definition.

These different approaches have a common goal of sorting out what is and is not a religion, but they have diverged in their focus on the question of what makes something a religion. Most of the different definitions have emphasized substantive elements such as beliefs in unusual realities, but there has been a recent shift toward what might be called a “functional” definition of religion. This approach, which was developed by historian Charles Taylor, focuses on what role a religion has in society, and not on whether it believes in unusual realities.

The functionalism that has been embraced by sociologists and historians has also spawned a number of philosophical issues that are relevant to the study of religion. These issues, which will be considered in the next section of this essay, raise questions about the nature of religion itself.

The Functionalism of Religion

The debate over what constitutes a religion has been fueled in part by a desire to evaluate the usefulness of various forms of spirituality. Studies have shown that religions are associated with positive outcomes such as improved health, learning, economic well-being, self-control, and empathy. They are also linked to lowered rates of social pathologies such as out-of-wedlock births, crime, delinquency, and addictions.

Those who study religion have a strong interest in assessing these positive effects and determining how to enhance them. This research is a complex endeavor that requires a deep understanding of the various religions and of how they interact with one another. It is also important to note that a person does not need to ascribe to a formal religious organization in order to reap these benefits. Indeed, many of the same benefits can be reaped by engaging in activities that are not organized or regulated in any way. In fact, such activities may even be more beneficial in some cases than participating in a formal religion.