Let's now talk a bit about the functional aspects of religion in the larger social picture. If you remember from our chapter on the Sociological Imagination, religion is one of the 7 social institutions in society (media, technology, government, family, economy, and education are the others). For decades sociologists have studied the functional aspects of religion as a social institution. It is safe to conclude that religions are functional (and sometimes dysfunctional) at both the personal and larger social level. Table 1 below shows eight functional aspects of religion.
Table 1. Eight Functions of Religion
1. Religion answers the deepest questions of existence
2. Religion provides emotional comfort
3. Religion facilitates social solidarity
4. Religion provides guidelines for everyday life
5. Religion facilitates social control
6. Religion provides for continuity and adaptation
7. Religion provides support for governments
8. Religion are often part of social change
Let me share a personal experience with you that will illustrate these functions of religion at my own personal level. In 1986 I worked during the summer at a small and remote 2-year college called Ricks College. I ran summer youth camps and conferences for high school students. A co-worker of mine did the same job and we soon became good friends and his wife and my wife became BFFs. When the summer ended we went to different universities but kept in touch and spent time together regularly. A few years had passed and on the eve of my major Ph.D. comprehensive exams, he called me with tragic news. He had backed out of his driveway just when their 18 month old ran behind the vehicle. She was killed instantly.
He and his wife grieved deeply, but also had a strong sense of peace about their loss. After the funeral I asked him to share with me why he felt so much peace during such a difficult time. I still remember his response, "Ron, either you believe what you've been taught your entire life or you don't. We believe our daughter is at peace and is where she needs to be." I was touched by his sincerity.
I want back to campus and tried to get some studying done. My friend from India stopped in to ask how my comprehensive exam went. Eventually she asked me why I looked so troubled and I told her the story. She reached over and placed her hand gently on my knee and said, "Ron, at least you can have the peace in knowing that her life is not forfeit. I believe that she will be reincarnated and born into another form so that she will have a chance to live the life she lost here." Again, I was touched by her sincerity.
There you have it. Both my friends comforted me from their deepest beliefs about our existence here on this earth and about how to define this tragedy in such a way that I could live with it. Both lived their beliefs and never showed hypocrisy in their actions and values. Both used their beliefs to guide their daily lives and both adapted to the death of this child through their religious filters. Because of this, I never felt threatened by either of their differing value systems. I felt joy in having good friends and in being in relationships where comfort is shared and received. Sociology and the study of religion can help to inform your outlook, tolerance, and appreciation for all types of diversity in the human experience.
Sociologists also study the nature of religion. You see, religions are universal in cultures around the world-that is, almost all cultures have religions present even though many simultaneously have different religions present. Durkheim studied the presence of religion in societies, the nature and meaning of rituals and rites of passage, the way in which religion supports or undermines political authority, and how religions satisfy personal needs (see Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life; New York, Collier Books, 1961).
Max Weber also studied religion and focused on how religion gave the individual a context for understanding their life and the purpose of it. He claimed that Protestant ideals of self-discipline, self-control, and hard work lead to the financial success of many who felt "righteous in God's eyes" as they lived Protestant work ethics and simultaneously built the collective foundation for capitalism's success in Western Civilization (See The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism; translated by Talcott Parsons; Scribner Pub. NY).
In fact, religion does shape the attitudes and values of individuals. Gallup polling corporation collected US religiosity data during 2008. Religiosity is the measurable importance of religion to a person's life. Religiosity can be measured by considering: how active someone feels in their religion; how often someone attends formal services; how much money they donate; how often they privately worship in their home; and other factors.
Gallup in January 28, 2009 reported that after interviewing 350,000 US individuals, there were some collective religiosity patterns which emerged. The top 10 most religious states were all in the South Eastern US. The bottom 10 least religious states were: North Eastern (7), North Western (2), and Nevada in the West. They also reported that 65 percent of people in the US said "Yes' religion is an important part of their daily life (taken form Internet 26 March 2009 from http://www.gallup.com/poll/114022/State-States-Importance-Religion.aspx ).