How Does It Work? The Functions of Religion in Society

La Sagrada Familia

More than a cultural phenomenon or experience, religion is one of the fundamental institutions of all societies.  As a social construct with spiritual or abstract dimensions, its contributions and limitations are real, undeniable, and subject to different interpretations.  Differences of opinion are also real regarding the roles religion plays or should play in our world.  And yet, because every opinion is contextually-situated, finite y partially valid, each one of them deserves our thoughtful consideration. We must listen to and learn from a wide spectrum of possibilities finding a path to integrating them into a complete whole and giving room to a healthy critique.

  1.  General Framework.  The specific roles that religions play in every culture are usually framed by powerful, symbolic constraints that constitute the larger picture worth naming.   In the scientific study of religion, and thanks to the contributions of the field of Sociology, there are three main views that help us understand how religion fits in society and what purposes it serves: The Functionalist view, The Conflictivist view and The Symbolic-Interactionist view.   Together and individually these views are important general methodological criteria for a systematic interpretation of religion.  Let us briefly describe each one of them.

a.   Functionalist View.   First of all, minimizing social conflict, religion usually reflects, maintains, and preserves the dominant establishment of any society, in terms of their main values, beliefs and acceptable, normative behaviors.  From this standpoint, religion, like other social institutions produced by humans, creates balance and harmony in people’s lives to make things “work.”  It is another piece of the big machinery we call “society”, a micro-organism of a larger, integrated body in which all its parts have an important place and role.  As such, religion makes some contributions and has limitations as well.

b.  The Conflictivist View.  Second, seen through the lens of how its values, beliefs, and actions embody the structures, ideologies, and patterns of behavior of the larger society, religion typically replicates the same tensions, fractures, and conflicts we find in the secular world.  This is especially true with respect to the issues of power, privilege, relations, interactions, inclusion, use of resources, and classes of people, with the corresponding inconsistencies or ambiguities.  As such, religion plays a pivotal role in facilitating social change, slowing it down, or making it harder to be achieved.

 c.  The Symbolic-Interactionist View. In addition to the first two generally accepted views, religion also provides spaces for its members to interact with each other in changing, symbolic, complex ways, and to exercise different levels of influence in doing so.  This interaction is part of larger societal systems and is meaningful, even when its members might not be fully aware that their actions stand for particular patterns of conduct, values, and ideologies.  Because this perspective focuses on human relations and their deeper, complex, and changing meanings, scholars refer to it as a symbolic-interactionist.

  1. Specific Functions. Putting all these views in the back burner for a moment, we need to point out that the functions or roles depend rely heavily on the area or discipline from which this issue is approached or responded to.  With this in mind, religion plays more specific functions, many of which might resonate with a more down-to-earth understanding of its usefulness or lack thereof.  Rooted and influenced by the 3 main areas we identified above, we hereby summarize some of the most important functions of religion.

a.  Religion creates and develops many networks of significant relationships. Through common values, beliefs, and actions, religion unites believers in a fraternal spirit so that all of its members may have fellowship and show solidarity to each other in order to strengthen their faith as they invite others to join. Religion helps people connect to others thus creating a sense of community.

b.  Religion provides moral guidance on how to live in the world. Religion is like an existential GPS or handbook that leads people’s path in their effort to express their solidarity to those who suffer or need a loving hand. It gives people an idea about to live and act in goodness with respect to a Higher Reality and themselves.

c.  Religion offers some answers to the reality of good and evil. It its effort to guide people to live a good life, it is true that religion many times fails to answer all the questions regarding what is right and what is wrong, why there is evil in the world, and role – if any – the Holy plays in it.  Fortunately, believers are not left orphans in as much as religion offers them some faith-based answers regarding morality and the problem of theodicy.

d.  Religion gives emotional support.In response to the uncertainty and challenges of life that tend to overwhelm individuals and communities.  Religion gives people faith and hope as it helps them monitor and deal with emotions such as guilt, self-esteem, fear, and concerns in light of deeper, spiritual values. Believers can find in it the incentives and spiritual medicines to deal with many psychological challenges constructively.

e.  Religion controls people’s lives. Through the creation and enforcement of religious values  and moral norms, religion exercises a strong social influence in the believers’ life-journeys. This form of social control, in addition to some structural constraints, is only possible thanks to people’s free-will decisions to believe in and accept those values and norms.

f.  Religion helps cope with present misfortunes in light of a better world. In religious communities, tragedy, pain, disease and/or death are normally understood in terms of spiritual, overarching better plans and believers are guided to look forward to a superior life in this life and the next one.  Life’s present ordeals are part of a preparation for the future.

g.  Religion takes side with and supports the status quo. As a replica of the larger society, religions (by intent or default) normally play a conservative role identifying themselves with people in positions of privilege and power, while doing nothing or little to criticize, oppose, or fight against the establishment, and even neglecting the needs to those who suffer most.  When this happens, religion equips people for “heaven” and ignores “hell” on earth.

h.  Religion generates morally ambivalent or paradoxical results. As a pervasive human phenomenon- with its possibilities and limitations- religion both includes and excludes, gives life and takes it away. To our surprise, while It seeks to do good, it also produces the opposite effect. No wonder religion, just like other institutions, is guilty of oppressing, exploiting, or hurting others.[1] At the end of the day, no institution is morally perfect or absolutely innocent.

In no way are we suggesting that these are all the roles religion plays or that religion fulfills all these functions at the same time.  In principle, they are all reasonable and valid, interpretative possibilities to be used when deemed suitable.  Not only are they all interconnected, but one of these functions or any combination of them might be more relevant than the other possibilities, at any given time. Again, the roles vary and so do their interpretations.

Along with some corrections or qualifications to the list of interpretations we have provided, other views could also be added since no interpreter monopolizes the truth or characterizes it flawlessly.   As we accept this invitation, keep in mind that all of us, as individuals, also play specific roles as members of our respective religious communities, which could well reinforce, diversify, or even challenge the ideas I have summarized in the present post.  We all play a part too.


[1]The following quotes illustrate this function:  “Religion is the opiate of the people” (Karl Marx) and  “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet” (Napoleon Bonaparte).

About amartinez

Dr. Aquiles E. Martinez is Professor of Religion (Biblical Studies) and Coordinator of the Religion and Philosophy Programs at Reinhardt University. Ordained in the United Methodist Church, Dr. Martinez has dedicated a good part of his life to equip pastors and church leaders in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, with the appropriate skills, knowledge, and experiences so they can serve their communities effectively. In addition to his many books, articles, and essays published in English and Spanish, Dr. Martinez has served several churches and the global community as an effort to help people develop significant relationships with God and their neighbors, especially with marginalized communities.
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