Functionalism is one of the most popular theories of religion in the 20th century. Functionalism has been especially important to social scientists.
The anthropologist Bronislaw M ALINOWSKI coined the word “functionalism.” He used it to describe what he thought scholars should do when they study cultures, including religions. Until his time anthropologists had tried to identify the stages through which culture and religion had evolved. A good example is James George FRAZER’s famous book, The Golden Bough. Malinowski suggested that scholars do something else instead. He suggested that they limit themselves to a single culture and study that culture as a functioning whole. This starting point determined the goal of studying religious beliefs or RITUALS. According to Malinowski, scholars should explain these beliefs and rituals in terms of what functions they fulﬁ ll, that is, in terms of what they do for the culture as a whole. Almost every sociologist and anthropologist who studied religions followed Malinowski’s advice until the 1960s.
For functionalists, function does not mean purpose. People do perform religious actions for particular purposes. For example, in the middle of a drought people living in a farming community may pray for rain. But functionalists would not consider the function of the PRAYER to be obtaining rain. That is because praying for rain does not actually produce it. Malinowski liked to say that the function of religious rituals was to fulﬁ ll biological and psychological needs. Thus, a prayer for rain in the middle of a drought may function to relieve anxiety.
A scholar who inﬂ uenced Malinowski tremendously was Émile DURKHEIM. Unlike Malinowski, Durkheim emphasized social, not psychological, functions. For him, one important function of religion was that it integrated people into a society. A later sociologist, Peter Berger, suggested that religion functioned to legitimate cultural creations. For example, in North America children have traditionally taken their father’s last name. But they could just as easily take their mother’s. Religion, Berger said, helped make current practices seem legitimate. In the NEW TESTAMENT the apostle PAUL writes that the father is the head of the family, just as JESUS is the head of the church.
Functionalism has had its critics. Some accuse it of justifying the way things are. According to them, functionalism assumes that society works. It overlooks aspects of society that may need to be changed.
This criticism may apply to some functionalists. It does not apply to all. For example, Karl MARX made claims about religion that are similar to functionalism. He called religion the opiate of the masses. He meant that religion helped people tolerate miserable social circumstances. But for Marx that was not a good thing. Like opium, religion robbed the masses of energy. As a result, they failed to do what was needed to eliminate their misery.
Other critics of functionalism question just how much it actually explains. Consider the example of the farming community praying for rain. Psychological tests can show whether a particular prayer actually alleviates anxiety. But does that explain why the community prays? Perhaps not. Other acts may alleviate anxiety, too. The community could SACRIFICE to the rain god, or it could simply hold a meeting at which community members shared their concerns.