Wednesday, March 01, 2006

On the Dangers of Functionalism

Discussing Eliade v. Functionalism in the comments section of my last post reminded me of a paper that I wrote last summer, after I got mad at Durkheim while taking a shower. I shopped the paper for publication that fall, only to find out that, isolated as I am from the academic community, that dragon had already been slain.

E.O. Wilson makes a cameo appearance in the paper because he represents a kind of resurgence in functionalist approaches to religion. Scholars of religion have now long distained functionalism, but evolutionary biologists like Wilson, having not yet had their functionalist views challenged as rigorously as the functionalist scholars of religion, are trying to reduce "religion" to its evolutionary function.

Anyway, here is the paper I wrote last summer. If you're more interested in funny stories about my family, try back later. I'm working on one, I hope.

There are a number of religious theories which attempt to identify the function of religion, and then understand religion as a whole in terms of that function. This approach to subjects is, of course, not limited to religion, but the dangers of this approach are most apparent when it is applied to religion.

Examples of a functionalist approach to religion include the theories of Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx, among many others (a recent example would be someone like E.O. Wilson, who tried to understand religion in terms of evolutionary biology, but we will not consider his theory here). No person or idea can be accurately reduced to a simple summary; that is the danger in writing about what a person wrote or said or thought. However, to understand what I mean by the dangers of functionalism we do have to have some sort of working knowledge of the kinds of functionalist theories of religion that I have in mind. So here are some brief and admittedly limited treatments of functionalist theories of religion of Freud, Durkheim and Marx.

Freud attempted to understand religion in the terms of his theories on personality and psychoanalysis. Its function, then, was understood in the way that it contributed to the development of personality. To Freud, religion served as a kind no longer necessary paternalism, keeping humanity (in general) in a state of infancy. Religion is then reducible a psychological device in which, according to Daniel L. Pals, “we attach our own hopes, virtues and ideals to an imaginary supernatural being we call ‘God’ and in the process only diminish ourselves.” Religion’s function, then, is to serve, much like a neurosis, as an unnecessary and unhelpful coping mechanism. Whatever positive purpose religion may have played in the development of humanity (again seen in general terms) has long since passed. Religion now has an almost entirely negative function, and is reducible to that function.

Not all functionalist religious theories hold that religion is such a bad thing. Emile Durkheim tried to understand religion in terms of sociology, and developed a theory of religion which was certainly not as negative as Freud’s. Durkheim, in an attempt to arrive at the most “primitive” form of religion, and so understand the most basic, fundamental nature of religion, did a great deal of work with Australia’s aboriginal population and their religion. He then took his observations on the “primitive” religion that he encountered among that indigenous population and applied it to all religions and religion in general. Durkhein observed that religion (as a whole and each religion in particular) is social, and serves a social function. The sign and symbols of any religion, as well as the rituals, indicate and communicate the values of the culture represented by that religion. So religion has a social value, as the holder and sharer of the social values of a society.

Karl Marx understood religion through the lens of his theory of dialectical materialism. For him religion was just one of many means by which the upper classes oppressed and exploited the working masses. Religion’s function in the context of this oppressive exploitation was to serve as an opiate, a mind and pain numbing drug to take the focus of the oppressed masses off their situation in the here and now. Religion promised future reward for present suffering, and offered a kind of comfort which would not disturb the economic order. Religion, to Marx, was a major obstacle in the way of the coming revolution, keeping the workers from seeing how dire their situation was and rising up against their oppressors.

Each of these theories, along with the many other functionalist theories of religion, is compelling in part because they contain some truth. A good functionalist theory of religion correctly identifies a function that at least some expressions of religion play or have played in some cultural context.

Freud, for instance, reminds us that some religious people use their religion as a way to escape from taking responsibility for their own moral actions and development. For these people religion does play a paternalistic role, keeping them from having to think for themselves, keeping them from having to grow up morally and emotionally, and keeping them from having to become authentically human.

Durkheim reminds us that religions have an important social role in their societal context. The values of the dominant religion in any culture tell us a great deal about that culture. Durkheim also reminds us that the role of a religion in a culture is not just to reflect that culture, but also to dictate to that culture. Religion can be instrumental in informing and reforming the values of a culture. Their social role, then, is twofold: to reflect and to affect. The relationship between faith and culture, then, can be accurately described by Durkheim’s theory.

Marx offers us a searing but often accurate depiction of the influence of religion on simple minded people. Any religion, such as the Christianity in the Europe of Marx’s day, which focuses primarily on the afterlife to the exclusion of the here and now, can be used as a means of exploiting the oppressed. If one’s faith constantly points one to heaven instead of earth, then one can be blinded to the injustices on earth.

So, each of these theories, and functionalism in general, offers us some insight into the role which expressions of religion play in their context. But each of these theories is also limited to the perspective of the person creating the theories. This is the sad truth of any theory, which demonstrates the danger of over-arching theories.

Functionalist theories of religion, like all theories of religion, tend to see religion through the lens of whatever happens to most interest the person creating the theory. Freud, whose main interest was psychoanalysis, saw religion through the lens of his theories on human psychology. Durkheim, whose main interest was sociology, saw religion through the lens of sociology. And Marx, who brought us communism, saw religion through the lens of economic exploitation. That Freud, Durkheim and Marx each crafted theories of religion which were colored by the lens of their interests and respective areas of expertise is not surprising, and does not discredit their work. But it does remind us that any theory of anything created by anyone is limited to a single perspective, no matter how broad that theory pretends to be. This is why every functionalist theory of religion identifies a different function as the means by which to best understand religion.

Additionally, functionalist theories of religion provide us with a view of religion which is often unrecognizable to religious people. They fail to take into account the experience of religion, and fail to account for the perspective of those who experience religion from the inside. In this way their perspective is particularly limited. It is certainly worth asking whether any description of a religion which does not account for the experience of that religion is, in fact, too limited to be an accurate description. In other words, do scholars miss the point when they look at religion entirely from the outside? I suspect that they often do.

The real problem with functionalist theories of religion, however, is ultimately not found in the conclusion of the theory, whichever one you are looking at. Rather, the real problem is found in the often unstated assumptions of functionalism in general. This is particularly apparent in functionalist theories of religion, whose success rest on these assumptions:

1. There is such a thing as “religion” as a whole, which is distinguishable from individual religions.
2. Religion (as a single thing) has an identifiable function (and presumably only one).
3. Religion is reducible to that function.


The first assumption, that there is such a thing as religion, almost requires a kind of Platonic form of religion, in which all individual expressions of religion somehow participate. Any description of this “form” religion must be sufficiently broad to cover all of the things which we identify as religions, or else it runs the risk of using the term “religion” in such a way that no one would recognize it. But how could such a broad term be narrow enough to exclude many objects of devotion or sources of meaning which are certainly not considered religious?

I grew up going to University of Kentucky basketball games. These games, in the minds of many Kentuckians, have an almost religious significance. A friend of mine even observed that they have a kind of liturgy, with everyone rising and sitting in unison in response to prompts. The entire crowd would chant in unison, and would even lift up heartfelt cries of joy or pain to some unseen deity in the hopes that it would affect the events on the court. Could any theory of religion be sufficiently broad enough to cover every single instance of what we would call a religion and yet leave out the experience of die hard Kentucky basketball fans? Could any theory of religion which included rooting for a basketball team as a religion be taken seriously as a religious theory?

Mircea Eliade argues that there is no such thing as religion, or, at least it makes no sense to speak of it. But, there are religions, which are best understood on their own terms rather than as a part of some overarching theory of religion. This view is, at the very least, a great deal more respectful of individual religions than the broad functionalist theories, even if it does not allow for us to make as many connections from religion to religion.

The second assumption, that religion has an identifiable function, rests on the first assumption. If we cannot identify this thing, religion, then we cannot say that it has any function, since we cannot say that it exists at all. But, as problematic as this is, there are other equally problematic assumptions. The first is that all religions serve the same function. This is, at the very least, not obvious. Do indigenous religious traditions, which are often tied to a particular land and associate the sacred with that land, serve the same function for indigenous peoples as Christianity, which often undermines any attempt to connect the sacred with anything earthly?

Another problematic assumption contained within the assumption that this thing religion has a function is the assumption that different expressions within the same religious tradition serve the same function. Can fundamentalist Islam, with its connection to terrorism, possibly serve the same role as the more Westernized, liberal Islam that it does not even recognize as Islam? It is certainly not obvious that a religious expression which tends toward a violent exclusivism has the same function as a tolerant, peaceful and almost pluralist religious expression. There is a complex variety of religious expression within any religious tradition which undermines this assumption.

The assumption that religion has an identifiable function implies, at least within any particular functionalist theory, that religion has a single function. Yet it is not obvious to me that even a single expression of religion has only one function. The experience of religion does many things for many different people, even within the context of a single faith tradition. A friend of mine used a religious experience to break the chains of chemical addiction. This was, for this person at that time, one function of religion. Not all religious people need deliverance from that kind of addiction, and not all who turn to religion for help with addiction find any comfort. Another person I know used a religious experience to help overcome the grief of divorce, which is a very different thing that overcoming chemical addiction. Each religious person has a different experience of religion, and each person uses that experience in different ways. Coming up with a theory of religion which takes all of these kinds of functions into account would require that the identified function of religion be so broad that it is trivial. This is one of the reasons why each functionalist theory of religion, despite its internal definitive claims, identifies a different function for religion.

The most problematic assumption found in functionalist theories of religion is the third one, that religion is ultimately reducible to its function. This assumption is problematic in part because it rests on the first two assumptions, neither of which is safe. But, more importantly, even if the other two assumptions were true, this assumption would still not follow from them.

It is safe to assume that there is a thing, coffee, in which all blends of coffee somehow participate. Or, at least, we can safely come up with a working theory of coffee which accounts for each individual instance of coffee. It is also safe to say, at the very least, that coffee has some sort of a function in the lives of coffee drinkers, and that, by and large this function is describable. We might say that drinking coffee, in the lives of coffee drinkers, is a kind of functional “pick-me-up.” We might even say, somewhat less safely, that while coffee might have other functions such as a pleasing taste and a social role in bringing coffee drinkers together in places like Starbucks, this “pick-me-up” function is the primary function of coffee, so it can be understood best in terms of this function.

Does it follow from all of this that coffee is reducible to its function? Of course not. To describe coffee in terms of its function is to reduce it to merely a chemical stimulant ingested in liquid form through the mouth of a tired person for the purpose of getting through the day. But this does not describe the experience of coffee. It doesn’t describe the infectious smell of coffee, which even appeals to me despite the fact that I don’t like to drink coffee. It certainly does not account for the phenomenon of decaf. The experience of drinking coffee, or even smelling coffee, or sitting in a coffee shop with people who are drinking coffee while you try not to smell it lest you buy a cup only to remember that you still don’t like the flavor; this experience is so much more rich and complex than any functionalist account.

Drinking coffee cannot be reduced to merely its function, even if a single function for drinking coffee can be established. How then can the experience of religion, in any of its many manifestations, be reduced merely to a product of its function, even and especially since no single function can be found for such a complex experience?

The real danger of functionalism, then, is that in its method it oversimplifies complex experiences, and fails to give an accurate account of those experiences. In providing a one-size-fits-all model for understanding religion it fails to account for the diversity of religious expressions and experiences. Of course, in refuting all functionalist theories with this single argument, I am at risk of doing the same thing.

6 comments:

Tyler Simons said...

Could any theory of religion which included rooting for a basketball team as a religion be taken seriously as a religious theory?

One of these days, I'm gonna find out. I'm a Red Sox fan and a wannabe theologian, so this is an important question for me. Interestingly, yours is the second interesting mention of Wildcats basketball I've come upon in the last two days. Here's the
other one
. It's rated at least PG-13, by the way.

Do indigenous religious traditions, which are often tied to a particular land and associate the sacred with that land, serve the same function for indigenous peoples as Christianity, which often undermines any attempt to connect the sacred with anything earthly?

Doesn't sports fandom sort of pick up the role of indigenous religious traditions in this sense? Isn't that interesting? Maybe I could argue that Christianity's attempt to excorcize 'pagan' religions has been a failure; and, to borrow your language, there is a popular function for religious feelings tied to you home area that, when geographically-specific sacred rituals are eliminated, the sacred sneaks off into secular regional tradition. Or something.

Does your rejection of functionalism lead you to deny the possibility of a function that all religions share? I don't want to reduce religion to a single function, but can you show me a religion that is silent on moral issues? Tillich gave religion, or at least theology, the task of describing the meaning, rather than the structure, of being and the job of speaking symbolically of being-itself and the ontological courage we derive from it. Are these kinds of claims untenable, or just ones ones that exclude the possibility of other important functions?

Sandalstraps said...

I can't say that any religion is silent on moral issues, but neither can I see any religious tradition speaking to moral issues with a single voice. If the function of religion involved morality (one might say, in that case, that religion informs our morality and prescribes moral behavior) then it might fail, because there is (as best I can tell) no uniform agreement within any religion as to what exactly constitutes moral behavior.

I don't think that religion as such has any single function, but I do think that each person's experience of religion has many functions in their life. And I also think that we can see some common ground between those religious experiences and the functions which they perform. But I don't think that we can say with any degree of certainty that religion as such always performs any particular function.

I think you're on to something with the attachment to location moving from the sacred realm to the secular realm. Sports can often be seen as a kind of sacralizing the secular, or as a kind of secular religion. And, of course, it is much deeper than sports. Barth had a great deal to say on that subject as he was rejecting the religion of German nationalism.

I follow your link to the other reference to Wildcats basketball tomorrow. The game is about to start, and God forbid I miss any of it just because its Ash Wednesday.

Tyler Simons said...

Better to drink a lot of beer, take off one's shirt and paint oneself with the team colors than to join the Nazi youth, methinks. I like how the sacred keeps erupting all outside the Christian barriers. I think that's cool.

I'm reminded of Langdon Gilkey's story (In Blue Twilight -- Less than $8 used!) of Paul Tillich discussing Barth:

I left Germany for the right reason: to protest the persecution of the Jews, and not to defend the Lutheran pulpit!

Sandalstraps said...

Bonhoeffer stayed (or at least came back), and look where that got him. Better protest of the treatment of Jews (and some good done for them), better (at least symbolic) defense of the freedom of the pulpit, and much better martyrdom.

Two out of three ain't bad.

Oh, yeah... on the seculkarly religious front, Kentucky played their best game of the season and came out of Knoxville with a much needed win!

Brian Cubbage said...

And the University of Louisville posted a much-needed, hard-won 'W' in OT against Marquette. I believe that this secures them a spot in the Big East tournament. Go Cards!

I would agree that religions (at least the ones with which I am familiar) make moral prescriptions. (Even civic religions like basketball fandom; I remember one time in college when a fellow student unwittingly wore a University of Tennessee sweatshirt to class the day after the University of Kentucky lost a game to UT; more than one Wildcat fan censured him with a fury only the Spanish Inquisition could match. If that's not an attempt to make a moral prescription, then I don't know what is.) Religions might disagree among themselves over what moral conduct consists in; members of the same tradition might disagree among themselves; and the relevant elements of the tradition itself might be conflicted. But none of this deprives these traditions of a moral function.

One way we might cash this out is by saying that religions tend to reinforce moral realism-- the claim that there are some facts of the matter when it comes to morality. Moral realism isn't the same thing as a normative moral theory, which would seek to specify just what those moral facts of the matter are. People with different normative theories (or with no theory, but different moral beliefs) can agree on moral realism, and moral realists can hold different normative theories. Indeed, if moral realism were false, it would be hard to say exactly what the point of moral debate (over moral beliefs or moral theories) would be; it would almost certainly not be about what it seems to be about, since if there are no facts of the matter, there would be no such thing as being right or wrong, it seems.

Religions tend to converge on the notion that the way things are, in the broadest possible sense of the word, has something to do with what it is right or wrong for people to do. They do more, though, than simply determine which things in the world have value, because we could do that without religion with the help of a normative theory. It seems that they also tend to claim that the world is valuable, and that the order of things is a moral order. Of course, I am generalizing wildly here, something I got on poor dead Eliade's back about on an earlier thread, so let me stop so that others can point out whether my generalizations hold water.

Sandalstraps said...

I can't come up with a single religion with no moral or ethical component, so I won't say that religion (as such) as no moral or ethical function, but... (once again, there's always a "but")

Of course no one is arguing that religion can be reduced to its single function (as though there were such a thing as religion which has just one function). And its a good thing that no one is arguing that, since it appears that many polytheistic religions in the ancient near East were not principally concerned with ethics or morality.

In a book I've quoted often lately, Bart Ehrman writes this:

These religions [the polytheistic religions which stand in contrast to Judaism and its offspring, Christianity and Islam] were almost exclusively concerned with honoring the gods through ritual acts of sacrifice. There were no doctrines to be learned, as explained in books [Ehrman is writing this to explain why Judaism was unique in its emphasis on "the Book"] and almost no ethical principles to be followed, as laid out in books. This is not to say that adherants of the various polytheistic religions had no beliefs about their gods or that they had no ethics, but beliefs and ethics - strange as this sounds to modern ears - played almost no role in religion per se.

I would argue, with Ehrman, but also with Bonhoeffer, that religion, while it has an ethical component, is not principally about ethics. This is particularly true of older, polytheistic religions. But it is also true of even modern Christianity.

Faith without works may be dead, and certainly our faith should inform our actions, but faith does not always translate itself into consistent moral action, and that may not always be a critque of faith. Faith, and the meaning to provides to life by bringing one into the presense of the sacred, is (per my view, and Eliade's) the ultimate concern of religion (to the extent that one can say there is such a thing as religion, and that said religion can be said to have an ultimate concern).

This does not totally disconnect faith from ethics, but neither does it equate the two with each other.