There has probably never been a society where religion is altogether absent. From this, sociologists have inferred that religion is a crucial part of social life. Why is religion so critical and so pervasive? What purposes does religion serve for societies and individuals? Functionalist sociologists provide some answers.

  1. Promoting social solidarity and social control. Religion promotes social solidarity in the community by acting as a kind of social cement. It provides a context in which relationships develop, establishes norms for “proper” behaviour, imposes sanctions against antisocial conduct, and offers ways of atoning for mistakes through prayers, fasting, or penance. The Ten Commandments provides a moral code strongly held by the Christian community.
  2. Legitimation. Religion helps to legitimate the established and dominant groups within a society. There is a close relationship between people’s religious practices and the kind of social arrangements that prevail in their society. Religion often serves to reinforce and justify existing social values and arrangements.
  3. Social adaptation. Religious groups have helped millions of immigrants adapt to a new land and life. Religions provide a cushion against the rough edges of a different and perhaps suspicious culture. It provides ethnic cohesion and discipline that help immigrants become upwardly mobile.
  4. Consecrating life’s events. Birth, maturity, marriage, and death – universal features of the human life cycle – are celebrated and explained by practically all religions.
  5. Emotional security. Religion provides explanations of the unknown and therefore promotes emotional security. It helps to overcome fear and anxiety. It gives one “peace of mind.” In times of crises, frustrations and misery, one derives comfort from religion since it gives one the whys and wherefore of these problems and the means to cope with them. Prayer and meditation can put one at peace with the world.
  6. Social functions. Religion performs welfare, educational and recreational functions. Aside from ministering to spiritual needs, some religions attend to the temporal and bodily needs of their members.
  7. Latent or unintended functions:
  1. It provides setting for sociability as well as worship
  2. It promotes passivity and subservience to the existing system for the unquestioning attitude is developed.
  3. It may also be a disintegrating factor in society. Examples: age-old conflict between Jew and Muslims in Israel, bitter wars between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and between Christians and Muslims in Mindanao (Philippines).
  4. It may create guilt feelings which may eventually lead to Personal disorganization for non-conformists who are denounced by their church. Unable to withstand the pain of remorse, those who are excommunicated by their church may resort to suicide.
  5. It may serve as a convenient tool rationalizing social inequality and to divert the minds of impoverished and exploited masses from their present miseries by assuaging their physical hunger with the “ecstasies of heaven”.
  6. It can be a potent force for challenging unjust social systems by recapturing the democratic and revolutionary spirit of their faith, the non-owning class, in solidarity with the dispossessed, can feel justified in questioning, and if necessary, in overthrowing social systems which breed inequality, poverty and misery. The so-called “Liberation Theology” is a bold attempt to redefine religion, specially the Christian faith, so that it may no longer be “an opium” to benumb the fighting vigor of the exploited, but a powerful motivation to overthrow unjust and inhuman systems.