Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sociology of Religion - Psychological and Social Functions of the Christian Religion and the Fiji Context (2012)

Emile Durkheim believed that religion had functionality in terms of integration, balance, stability, order, consensus and solidarity. These were both psychological/personal and social functions. Christianity performs these functions both positively and negatively. According to the functional theory of religion, religion addresses: the limitation of scarcity by providing compensation for deprivation of money, power and status by providing a value in personal and social life; the uncertainty of future by compensating for anxiety and insecurity; and the sense of impossibility and powerlessness by empowering.

Psychological Functions of Religion
 The psychological functions of religion refer to the role of religion in addressing the situation a person encounters in life. Based on the above three limitations on a personal level, religion serves in both a positive and negative way.
One function of religion is to give meaning and purpose to life. Many things in life are difficult to understand. Even in today’s highly technological world, much of life and death remains a mystery, and religious faith and belief help many people make sense of the things science cannot tell us. Religion performs this psychological function which leads to greater psychological and physical well-being. Religious faith and practice can enhance psychological well-being by being a source of comfort to people in times of distress and by enhancing their social interaction with others in places of worship. Many studies find that people of all ages, not just the elderly, are happier and more satisfied with their lives if they are religious. Religiosity also apparently promotes better physical health, and some studies even find that religious people tend to live longer than those who are not religious. Christianity, from this perspective, through the assurance of salvation in Jesus, God’s positive purpose for humankind and the promise of eternal life and a future equitable kingdom,
Religion also functions to compensation for deprivation. As people experience economic hardships, forced migration and physical trauma, mental health issues and loss of morality, religions can help to alleviate poverty, advocate cause of the least, provide shelter and provide counseling. Certainly Christianity, as a missional religion, actively engages in this manner. From providing education, food packages, healthcare, social advocacy and developing low housing, as well as pastoral counseling, many churches work hard to materially manifest the kingdom of God among the poor and disadvantaged.
Religion also functions to provide a sense of identity and belongingness. Within the Christian context, adherents are part of community of faith within their society, as well as part of the worldwide “Body of Christ” and also citizens of the present and future kingdom of God.
One of the negative psychological functions of religion is strengthening strains and adding to the depravation of the individual. Christianity as an alternative community within a pluralistic society or a minority religion can have negative implications if members are persecuted or oppressed because of their choice of religion. Some churches also place financial burdens on members in terms of tithes or collections.
From a Marxist perspective, religion can also function as an opiate of the poor and oppressed, keeping them satisfied with present conditions. Christianity’s emphasis on enduring suffering and the future kingdom can be manipulated to maintain the status quo.
Religion also functions to foster exaggerated self-consciousness or exclusiveness. An understanding of being God’s chosen people can lead to a feeling of superiority. As a result a “me/they” attitude can develop within members towards non-Christians. When Christianity is a dominant religion this can also produce a narrow world view and hostility, passivity, lack of responsibility towards non-Christians. This has the potential for social conflict.

Sociological Functions of Religion
Religion reinforces social unity and stability. As discussed above, this was one of Durkheim’s most important insights. Religion strengthens social stability in at least two ways. First, it gives people a common set of beliefs and thus is an important agent of social cohesion. Second, the communal practice of religion, as in houses of worship, brings people together physically, facilitates their communication and other social interaction, and thus strengthens their social bonds.  Religion is an agent of social control and thus strengthens social order. Religion teaches people moral behavior and thus helps them learn how to be good members of society. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Ten Commandments are perhaps the most famous set of rules for moral behaviour, while Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” can also be understood as a “manifesto” for social cohesion and control.
Religion can also motivate people to work for positive social change. Christianity has played a central role in the development of the civil rights and social justice movements, liberation theology and opposition to economic globalisation.
Religion also serves to support social dysfunctions. With an emphasis on social integration, a religion that holds to conservative values can actually maintain the status quo and support a problematic present situation. Not only did Roman Catholicism do this but also Luther’s conservative views on social status highlights how a church (either Catholic or Protestant) can resist social change or reform and be a barrier to social change.
Religion can also support aggressive attitudes and criminal behaviour. Forced conversion and persecution of non-Christians, desecration of non-Christian places of worship are result of a negative function of religion as social control.
Religion can also function to foster social conflict. Whether in response to a radical secular ideology which is perceived as a threat to the social cohesion and control or as a result fundamentalist religious attitude, religion has contributed to some of the world’s greatest atrocities and human rights abuses. Since Christianity became a dominant religion there have been many instances of this, from the Crusades, Reformation and Counter reformation  (including the Inquisition). Even within Christianity, differences over doctrine have led to major social conflicts both in the pre-modern, modern and postmodern eras.

Application to the Fijian Context
Positive Psychological and Social Functions
Apart from the positive message of the Gospel, Christianity’s positive functions in Fijian life (individual and personal) include the ending of the practice of cannibalism and to a large extent tribal warfare in the early stages of missionary endeavour. Mission work has lead to the establishment of schools and orphanages, provision of healthcare, and other positive compensation to the deprivation of not only Christians but non-Christians as well, especially the marginalized.
Christianity has maintained the social cohesion of the indigenous Fijians as well as social control as pastors/ministers hold a position of influence in the villages. This extends into the urban areas where traditional social structures are maintained. In most villages, the church hall is the focal point for social gatherings and events. Outside Fiji, Christian Fijians regularly gather together for church services which become opportunities to reconnect and maintain social unity. Christian morality remains the foundation for moral and legal standards in Fiji.
In terms of social change, Christianity has played an important role in the abolition of the oppressive indenture system through which the British brought bonded labourers from India. Christian organizations such as the Young Women’s Christian Association, Ecumenical Centre for Research, Education and Advocacy and the Fiji Council of Churches have played a prophetic role in critiquing the status quo and leading positive social change movements.

Negative Psychological and Social Functions

 However, Christianity has also had a dysfunctional role both for individuals and Fijian society. Excessive financial demands by mainline churches and Pentecostal “gospel of prosperity” have been highlighted as one of the key causes of poverty in Fiji. Denominationalism has led to fracturing of family and social cohesion. As mentioned above, Fundamentalist and ethnocentric elements within churches have actively persecuted non-Christian minority groups and sought to entrench their control of society through political means and criminal activities. Conservative attitudes of some churches have also led to major social and political conflicts, some of which have been violent. The resistance to social reform has by these churches has also negatively affected the social development of Fiji. At the same time many churches inability to address the issue of increasing functional equivalents is leading to a growing schism within society. 

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