More than any other Functionalist, Parsons developed Functionalism as a ‘systems theory’: he understands the role of one institution in terms of how it maintains the whole system. You might find it useful to review his general systems approach to social theory here before reading the rest of this post.
For Talcott Parsons, religion is one sub-system among many, and it performs vital but limited functions in the maintenance of social order.
Religion and Value Consensus
Parsons sees religion as part of the cultural sub-system of society and religious beliefs provide a guideline for human action which give rise to a more specific set of norms according to which people should act.
For example, in many Christian societies, the 10 commandments form the basis of laws which govern human behaviour, such as:
- ‘Thou shalt not kill’ forms the basis of laws against murder
- ‘Thou shalt not steal’ forms the basis of laws against property theft.
So for Parsons, religious belief provides a set of values, or general principles which form the basis of value consensus, which other institutions then reinforce in more concrete ways.
Religion and Social Order
Much like Malinowski, Parsons sees one of religion’s primary functions as being to help people deal with problems which disrupt social life. There are two categories of problem, which basically mirror Malinowski’s thinking on the matter:
- Firstly, there are those occasions when people are hit by events which are totally unexpected and have a negative impact, the main example being premature death. In such situations, religion can help people make sense of these events and restore normal patterns of life. A religious belief in the afterlife, for example, offers the bereaved a way of imagining that their dead son/ wife/ friend is ‘waiting for them on the other side’, and so not really ‘gone’ forever.
- Secondly, there are those routine aspects of life in which people invest considerable time and effort in order to achieve a particular outcome, but are still characterized by uncertainty of outcome. Agriculture is a good example of this: several weeks or even months of the year might be spent sowing and tending crops, only for the whole harvest to be laid waste by droughts or disease. In such situation, religious belief offers an explanation for the disastrous outcome, helps people cope with the hardships with may follow, and helps to restore faith in the initial effort made despite said disastrous outcome.
As with Malinowski, Parsons argues that religion serves to maintain social stability by relieving the tensions and frustrations that arise following such unpredictable problems.
Religion and Meaning
A third function of religion according to Parsons is that it helps individuals to make sense of experiences which are contradictory.
Probably the best example of this is the way religion helps people to make sense of the injustice of people who profit through immoral behaviour – Christianity, for example, says that these people will reap their punishment in the afterlife, by going to purgatory or hell, while those who ‘suffer virtuously in poverty’ in this life, will reap the reward of heaven.
Thus religion helps people to adjust to the various worldly experiences of inequality and injustice, again maintaining harmony.
Evaluations to follow
- Haralamabos and Holborn: Sociology: Themes and Perspective, eighth edition.
- Social Theory Rewired – Sacred and Profane, Emile Durkheim