Functionalist theories of religion


He argues that religion performs psychological functions. Salinowski argues that religion is used in a time of life crisis. So, when there’s a death, for example, or birth, or even that scary time when a teenager realises they are experiencing “changes”… Malinowski proved his theory through the study of the Trobian Islanders. He found that when they were about to fish in the vast, uncertain ocean the Islanders prayed to their totem but when they fished in local lakes they did not pray. This proved that religion provided certainty and comfort in a time of life crisis or uncetainty.

A slightly more modern example would be President Bush’s words after the 9/11 attacks. Watch this video from 3:30 to see how Bush calls upon religion.


  • Malinowski’s theory is quite dated but the Bush example would make a nice counter argument
  • What about the times where religion is prevalent but there is no evidence of a life crisis? Think about the people who go to a religious place every week…


Firstly, Parsons believes that religion is used to answer the “big” questions in life. Eventually we begin to ask ourselves questions such as: why are we here? Why do people die? What happens after death? According to Parsons, the fraction of religion is to act as a primary source of meaning to these questions and the ability of his questions to be answered can help society deal with certain events that may arise. For example, Christianity is states that after death the soul lives on and this can help some people deal with the death of a close one.

Secondly, Parsons argues that religion’s function is to create and adjust to my society’s values. This is done by religion’s ability to sacralise the norms and values of society. For example, some societies are centred around the belief of being charitable and selfless and this is reiterated by religion which promotes charitable giving and selflessness. So religion makes the basic norms of society sacred.


Bellah argues that it is not just mainstream religion that takes place in society but that there is a civil religion that can integrate society in a way that mainstream religion cannot. For example, a civil religion would be the American God. The American God is not an actual God but it is representative of all the sacred values and norms that underpins the American way of life – it is socially constructed. The American civil religion promotes loyalty to the state and a belief in this American God. Now, the American civil religion is able to bring people together because it appeals to all American’s and its aim is to unite all the people as one nation.

Functional alternatives/functional equivalents

These are not the religious beliefs, ideologies and practices that have the same function as religion such as social cohesion or reinforcing shared values. For example, Nazi Germany and the American civil religion. The main problem with functional alternatives is that it blurs the distinction between what is religion and ways in. Accordin Ato the substantive definition there must be a belief in the supernatural but others would disagree.


  • Ignores religion as a source of division and conflict
  • Is a civil religion really a religion?
  • Ignores the negative aspects of religion
  • Does religion sacralise society’s values or is society simply basing its values on religion?

Functionalist theory is slightly outdated because it has not taken into account the secularisation taking place in modern society – sacralising values may not have much impact in society today and people may have found compensator is for those “big” questions

Definitions of religion

There are 3 main definitions of religion:


Religions under this category MUST have a belief a god or some type of supernatural figure. E.g Catholics believe in God or Muslims believe in Allah. This definition is exclusive. In other words, it makes a clear line between what is a religion and what isn’t, there are no maybe’s. Some believe this is not fair to non-Western believes that such as Budhism that do not believe in the supernatural but is seen as a religion.


You can define a religion by the social or psychological functions it performs for individuals. E.g integration or asking big questions. This definition is inclusive. In other words, it applies to many religions. However, by this definition football can be defined as a religion as it brings people together and makes them feel part of a group- football fans are integrated!

Social constructist

Focus is on the definitions individuals put to religion and these definitions are constructed. So it’s more about what I as a person thinks religion is rather than what other institutions are telling me  it is… Social constructists do not have a single definition of religion and don’t believe religion needs a god or supernatural or perform a function to society. All they care about is the meanings