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"Sociologists have defined religion in two ways: in terms of what religion does, and in terms of what religion is." What are the main advantages and disadvantages of functional and substantive definitions of religion?

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Introduction

"Sociologists have defined religion in two ways: in terms of what religion does, and in terms of what religion is." What are the main advantages and disadvantages of functional and substantive definitions of religion? Most sociologists attempt to define religion by features of what religion is or what it does. Religion is too complex to define because not all religions can fit into one rigid definition. Therefore it also becomes difficult to distinguish what is and what is not a religion. Key thinkers such as Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Freud, Simmel, Gertz , Yinger and Berger have all attempt to define religion. Their definitions usually fall into two categories, Functional definitions of religion and Substantive definitions of religion. The functional definition sees religion in terms of the functions it performs for society or individuals. It tries to explain what religion does. Sociologists have argued that religion has the function of maintaining society. Other approaches are based upon substantive definitions. They are concerned with the content of religion. Substantive definitions try to identify the key features of religion; that it involves a belief in God for example. ...read more.

Middle

An example of this is the division between Protestants and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland. Also using functional definitions of religion how do we explain social change? If everything , maintains the existing social structure within society it is difficult to identify how structures change. This idea also brings up the issue of how do we deal with things that do not appear to, maintain social order? Crime for example is dysfunctional and puts a huge threat over society. Some functional sociologists claim that crime can be functional. Does this mean any social behaviour is functional? There are also difficulties with Durkhiem's approach when attempting to define religion. His ideas could be interpreted in such a way that all beliefs and practices that maintain social solidarity are religious ones. Voting in an election for example indicates peoples commitment to democracy, hence maintains social solidarity but voting is not a form of religion. If we use a functionalist definition we are more likely to see things as religious even if they are not religious. ...read more.

Conclusion

This clearly is not a form or religion though. Although it is far easier to pick out the advantages and disadvantages of the functional definition of religion there are advantages and disadvantages of substantive definitions of religion. Using the functional definition of religion states what religion does. This allows us to look at the benefits it performs for wider society. In particular the formation of communities which results in social solidarity. This, some believe decreases the chances of social unrest greatly. But as I have already mentioned there are several problems with this type of definition. Mainly by using it how do we explain social change? Generally I found it slightly harder to analyse the positives and negatives of the substantive definition of religion. I think that by saying what religion is results in it benefiting the individual more than it does society. The sacred plays a large part in this type of definition and refers to everything outside our normal daily lives. I believe that this gives the individual, and in some sense society a way of looking beyond the norm and finding comfort in the super natural. The disadvantage here though is that things can be sacred but not necessarily religious. LAUREN MOUNCHER 13JN. ...read more.

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