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According to this perspective, religion exists because it serves an integrating function for society as a whole. Durkheim suggested this when he argued that God represents the society, and in worshiping God, society really reveres itself. The elements of the culture that are essential to the society’s survival are labeled sacred, in this theory. Unlike theories of the rise and fall of civilizations, functionalists do not consider the survival of a religious culture to be problematic. While flavors of this theory are common in older writings on religion, among the best texts to consult are Durkheim 1915, Parsons 1937, and Parsons 1964.

Some readers of these works would draw the inference that religious individuals are more likely to follow society’s norms than non-religious individuals. However, pure functionalist theory does not rise or fall on whether this hypothesis is true, because it concerns the society as a whole, rather than individuals. In his 1964 journal article, Parsons suggests that the proof of functionalist theories of religion can be found in the fact that all societies have possessed religion – that it is an evolutionary universal necessary for the survival of society. He also considers religion to be a precondition for the development of many of the apparently non-religious features of modern society.


Durkheim, Emile. 1915. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: Allen and Unwin.

Merton, Robert K. 1968. Social Theory and Social Structure. New York, NY: Free Press.

Parsons, Talcott 1949. The Structure of Social Action (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Parsons, Talcott. 1964. “Evolutionary Universals in Society.” American Sociological Review. 29: 339-357.

The following Concepts can potentially capture some of the ideas of this theory.

Civil religion represents a diverse tradition of scholarship, but generally refers to public dimensions of religion, and especially to connections between religion and ethno-nationalism.  Robert Bellah, who is credited with coining and popularizing the concept, defines it as “a public religious dimension that is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals” (1967: 100).  This is typically conceptualized with regard to the sanctification of political institutions such as the veneration of the U.S. constitution or flag. 

See Gorski, who posits that civil religion exists as a middle ground between fundamentalisms seeking to merge religion and the public sphere and secularists who seek a full separation between public life and religion.  Research on civil religion is typically conducted in a comparative historical fashion, due to its imprecise conceptual boundaries.

Strict and frequent performance of the public rites of religious observance, even in the absence of fervent belief.  This would be measured by combining high scores on religious behavior with relatively low scores on belief.
The state of being without effective rules for living. A breakdown at the level of the entire society, which Emile Durkheim measured in terms of economic instability. Strain between the norms and values of a society (Robert K. Merton), as experienced by the individual, which could be measured by items about frustration in achieving conventional life goals.
A breakdown of society marked by high rates of migration and by sparse or fragmented networks of social relations.  This concept is more often used in the literature on criminology.  Accordingly that is the best place to look for precedent regarding measurement and application.  Common indicators used for social disorganization include: population turnover, density, and heterogeneity (racial and/or economic), as well as crime rates, unemployment, and single-parent households.  Social disorganization is also notable for its introduction of spatial elements into criminological theory and research.
Ritual is one of the key concepts in the sociology of religion.  Emile Durkheim (1965) posited a relationship between ritual behavior and the adherence to social order, putting collective veneration of the sacred at the heart of his theory of social solidarity.   Ritual, organized around sacred objects as its focal point and organized into cultic practice, was for Durkheim the fundamental source of the “collective conscience” that provides individuals with meaning and binds them into a community.  Participation in rites integrates the individual into a social order both in one’s “day-to-day relationships of life” and in those celebrations of the collective “which bind [one] to the social entity as a whole.”  Veneration of an object held to be sacred by a community is a powerful affirmation of collective conscience and a call to obey communally defined morality. Durkheim argued that every religious group had three features: a system of beliefs that express the sacred and define the sacred and profane; a moral community (or “cult”), such as a clan, tribe, sect, synagogue, masjid, church, etc. that develops in concert with these beliefs and enforces the norms and rules of the believing society; and a set of collective behaviors, rituals.  Rituals provide a focal point for emotional processes and generate symbols of group membership. They help people to experience a shared sense of exaltation and group transcendence.  This feeling, which is only experienced through ritual veneration, is collective effervescence. The unique condition of ritual participation is that people systematically misunderstand the emotional energy they experience in the ritual process as having a supernatural origin.  This misunderstanding thus confirms their religious beliefs and the exhilaration they experience leads them to return to their community to re-experience it through sacred rites. Durkheim’s theory implies that (a) any object could become socially defined as sacred and (b) repeated veneration of sacred objects creates stable social relations.  His theory of rituals provides a powerful social mechanism that reinforces group coherence and produces social solidarity, but he does not explain how social groups originate or how they change, dissolve, fracture, and so on.  Innovations in social life – including the formation of new solidary groups – seem to occur only because of exogenous events, since, in Durkheim’s sense, rituals are merely forces for reproduction.  From a functionalist perspective, social and cultural innovations, however rare, are quickly normalized and institutionalized through ritual practices. Stark and Finke (2000) jettison the functionalism of Durkheim and focus exclusively on religious rituals, rather than all repeated social interactions, arguing that confidence in religious explanations increases with ritual participation.  Rituals generally follow customs or traditions, but they are deliberate ceremonies in which the object is exchanged with a god or gods and the outcome is reinforcement of the “central ideas and ideals of the group.”  Rituals are thus intentional features of religious life and can shift with alterations in either the demand or the supply of religious goods. Rational-choice accounts argue that rituals are ubiquitous features of social life because they provide the common focal points and common cultural knowledge that provide actors with information about how others will act.  This makes mutual assurance possible and helps actors solve the coordination problems that usually bedevil and obstruct effective collective action.  Armed with common knowledge, actors can more credibly make commitments to one another and mutually orient their actions to one another, often without the need for organization (Chwe 2001).   Cultural practices – such as rituals – that facilitate coordination develop and persist because they are, ultimately, efficient and enhance the productivity of social action.  Not surprisingly, rituals are foundational to voluntary collective action, as is especially evident in religious groups. According to Durkheim, “[A religious group] is not a simple group of ritual precautions which a man is held to take in certain circumstances; it is a system of diverse rites, festivals, and ceremonies which all have the characteristic that they reappear periodically. They fulfill the need which the believer feels of strengthening and affirming, at regular intervals of time, the bond which unites him to the sacred beings upon which he depends.”  Rituals often venerate heroic forebears and bringers of salvation. “The hero is the symbol of a given society, the society’s progenitor in many cases and a sort of ideal summing up in one mythic individual of the chief characteristics of the various empirical members of the group” (Maus, Hubert, and Hertz 2009).  Neo-Durkheimians contend that ritual participation tends to “open up the space for community or for collective identity in its most elementary form” and link present to past in rituals understood as “iterations of events” going forward into history (Giessen 2006).  The cult helps to constitute moral boundaries, exclude strangers, provide access to goods and privileges, and define a sacred citizenship that operates across social distinctions status (Maus, Hubert, and Hertz 2009).  Yet this need not imply that integration occurs without conflict, as struggles frequently occur among the adherents of the cult for their position in it, their rival interpretations of the core beliefs and myths, and its relevance and importance to the challenges they face. Neo-Durkheimian theorists of the ritual process insist that the theory of rituals must endogenize change (e.g., through the study of failed rituals and creation of new sacred objects) and specify circumstances under which rituals fail to produce collective emotions or the focus of rituals gets redirected to a new object. Randall Collins has proposed a bold theoretical synthesis that builds upon Durkheim’s theory of moral integration through ritual and Goffman’s situational analysis.  In Interaction Ritual Chains (2004), Collins contends that rituals are powerful because they instigate social interaction based on bodily co-presence and mutual emotional attunement.  When engaged in rituals, individuals feel solidarity with one another and imagine themselves to be members of a common undertaking; they become infused with emotional energy and exhilaration; they establish and reinforce collective symbols, moral representations of the group that ought to be defended and reinforced; and they react angrily to insults toward or the profanation of these symbols.  Yet this is not a functional account of social order; drawing on Goffman, Collins shows how actors are obliged to perform in chains of ritual encounters which they can attempt to manipulate but which may also fail to produce emotional energy and attachment. In analyzing a diverse range of social behaviors from the veneration of the 9-11 “ground zero” site, to the enactment of social status differences, to drug consumption, to sexual intercourse, Collins observes similar features of common emotional entrainment, the production of symbolic focal objects that become invested with the emotional energy of ritual participants, and the continuation or transformation of social relations as rituals either link performances into chains of interaction into the future or produce dissonant emotions that lead social relations to decay. Ritual participation does not always perpetuate social order.  For instance, growing self-consciousness is deadly to ritual participation and its fundamentally spontaneous, emotional character (Giessen 2006).   Collins observes that formal rituals sometimes fail, or decay over time, such that they produce “little or no feeling of group solidarity; no sense of one’s identity affirmed or changed; no respect for the group’s symbols; no heightened emotional energy”.  The decay of rituals provokes a sense of stale ceremonialism, inappropriateness, or even “strong abhorrence.”  When rituals feel imposed, rather than spontaneously joined, they usually provoke resentment and disgust.  The rejection of imposed rituals and the destruction of symbols associated with them seem to be typical elements in the collapse of social orders, a violent reaction to “a kind of formality that one wishes never to go through again.” Ritual remains one of the most important concepts not just in the sociology of religion but in sociology more broadly.   Varying theoretical formulations focus on solidarity and integration, on the confidence in beliefs, and the generation of common knowledge that facilitates collective action.  Each is the foundation of a contemporary research program in the sociology of religion. References: Collins, Randall. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton University Press. Chwe, M. 2001. Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge.  Princeton: Princeton University Press. Durkheim, Emile. [1915] 1965. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Translated by J. W. Swain. New York: The Free Press. Giesen, Bernhard. 2006. “Performing the Sacred: A Durkheimian Perspective on the Performative Turn in the Social Sciences.” Pp. 325-367 in Social Performance: Symbolic Action, Cultural Pragmatics, and Ritual, edited by J. Alexander, B. Giesen, and J. Mast.  New York: Cambridge University Press. Mauss, Marcel, Henri Hubert, and Robert Hertz. Saints, Heroes, Myths, and Rites: Classsical Durkheimian Studies of Religion and Society. Translated and edited by A. Riley, S. Dynes, and C. Isnach. Boulder: Paradigm. Stark, Rodney and Roger Finke. 2000. Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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