Science in Christian Perspective



Christianity and Functionalism: The Paradox
Department of Criminal Justice
Albany State College
Albany, Georgia 31

From: JASA 35 (March 1983):

Durkheim, Malinowski, and Smith were among the first to use functionalism as applied to society and religion. This perspective is maintained in contemporary sociology by Martin and Nisbet. This study presents a brief review of functional theory and religion. A critique follows on the paradoxical nature of the functional approach as applied to Christian religion and society that explores the following questions: Is it possible for an individual to be a proponent Of functionalism and Christianity simultaneously? Can linear models, deterministic evolutionary progress, and the search for functional ideal-types be held to concur with basic Christian doctrine? Has secularization altered basic Christian doctrine? Has secularization altered basic Christian beliefs to conform to functional positivism under the guise of morality? This paper offers a perspective of conflict theory and its basic assumptions as a more appropriate explanation scheme of selected basic Christian doctrine.

Functional Theory and Religion

According to Durkheim, every society distinguishes between the sacred and profane, which are highly crucial elements for the definition of social and nonsocial behavior. Guy Swanson, in studying religion and society, carried Durkheim's argument further, asserting that religion organized around the concept of a single god evolved out of societies with particular organizational difficulties that developed as a society becomes more complex. That is, monotheistic or high~God religions appear when complexities in society exist and there becomes a need for a higher authority to resolve the various conflicts (Cuzzort & King, 1980).

In the Functionalist tradition an individual's religious beliefs, types of doctrine, and specific moral codes are based on a functional-dysfunctional relationship to the society, with society being a valued entity above the wants and needs of the individual, Thus follows the expression that "society is more than its constituent parts." According to Durkheim, what we are trying to find out is not why religion and science are different, but why we continue to separate the world of matter and sense on one hand, and the world of pure and impersonal reason on the other. Science, religion, and society are held to be manifestations of the same collective thought.

As the hidden worship of society, religion provides its members with a common set of ideas that commits them to society. Thus, it serves integrative functions or meets the needs of social solidarity.

Functional analysis examines social phenomena or ideal types in terms of their consequences for the broader society.

This perspective has at its basis the idea that society is like an organism that can be studied utilizing the same approach as the physical sciences do when they study the human body, its organs, and functions.

Auguste Comte, with his idea of a positive or scientific analysis, asserted that knowledge of the social world must be based on empirical observations, experimentation and comparison. Turner and Maryanski (1979), in summarizing Comte's position, stated: "We must use our understanding of social laws to assess the contribution of social structures for the social whole-eliminating those that are 'harmful'and creating those that are 'good."

Comte's notion of using science to create order, stability, and a homeostasis characterizes functionalism's concern with social integration and equilibrium. Because of the focus on empiricism, functionalism reeks heavily of social engineering based on objective methods and, paradoxically, subjective ideal types that are aimed at control and then prediction under the guise of scientific absolutism.

The Paradoxical Nature of Functionalism

In the spirit of functionalism, system analysis and structural regularities are often purported to be lodged in empirical theory. Are functional theories empirical or do they only pass as such, masking value-laden normative theories?

Functionalism follows from basic underlying assumptions which, upon close examination, reveal anti-Christian values as pertains to man's existence (see Figure 1).


Figure 1.  Order Perspective

(1) Underlying Social Perspective and
Value Positions (Ideal)

(a) Image of Man and Society Society as a natural boundary-maintaining system of action. Transcendent nature of society, an entity sui generis, greater than and different from the sum of its parts; lack of transcendence as lack of social control means anomiePositive attitude toward the maintenance of social institutions

(b) Human nature 
Homo duplex,
man half egoistic (self -nature), half altruistic (socialized nature), ever in need of restraints for the collective good, or 

Tabula rasa,
man equated with the socialization process, or Homo damnatus, the division into morally superior and morally inferior men

(e) Values
The social good: balance, stability, order, quantitative growth ("moving equilibrium")

(2) Modes of "Scientific" Analysis

Natural science model: quest for general and universal laws and repeated patterns gleaned through empirical research
Structural-functional analysis
Multiple causality; theory characterized by high level of abstraction, but empirical studies marked by low level of generalization (separation of theory from application)
Conditions of objectivity: accurate correspondence of concepts to facts; rigid separation of observer and facts observed-passive, receptive theory of knowledge
Analysis begins with culture as major determinant of order and structure and proceeds to personality and social organization
Dominant concepts: ahistorical; high level of generality; holistic; supra-individual concepts; ultimate referent for concepts-system needs considered universally (i.e., the functional prerequisites of any social system) or relativistically (i.e., present maintenance requirements of a particular social system)

(3) Order Theory of Social Problems and Deviation

(a) Standards for the definition of health and pathology Health equated with existing values of a postulated society (or a dominant group in the society), ideological definition
(b) Evaluation of deviant behavior Pathological to the functioning of the social system
(c)Explanation of deviation or a social problem A problem of anomie in adequate control over competing groups in the social system; disequilibrium in the existing society
(d) Implied ameliorative action Extension of social control (further and more efficient institutionalization of social system values); adjustment of individuals to system needs; working within the system; the administrative solution

(4) Order Theory as Socially Situated Vocabulary
Dominant groups: the establishment and administrators of the establishment
Contemporary representatives: Parsonian and Mertonian approach to social problems as a liberal variant of order models; politically conservative approaches

Source: John Horton, "Order and Conflict Theories of Social Problems as competing Ideologies," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 71 (May, 1966), pp. 701-713.

in terms of a functionalist view of man and society, society transcends the individual and is greater than its constituent parts. Man as individual is negated by Homo Damnatus the division into morally superior and morally inferior persons.That being the case, functionalism values the social good, legal-rational authority and order, lending itself to a system's maintenance position of elitism.

Functionalism's modes of scientific analysis are ahistorian
context following a natural science model that supposes a rigid separation between observer and facts observed. This analysis begins with culture as a major determinant of order and structure and proceeds to personality and social organization. The more efficient institutionalization of the social system and the adjustment of individuals to system needs as defined by administrators are for functionalism the means of improving society (Horton, 1966).

In view of the foregoing assumptions of functionalism,
assuming man as having rational abilities, can basic Christian beliefs be held to concur with these premises?

According to the record presented in the New Testament, Christ himself was an activist regularly denouncing the Pharisees, Saducees, and government for their position of moral superiority towards others (Acts 4:1-3, Mark 12:18-27, Matt.:23, Mark;7, Lukell, New Testament, King James Version; see also the Concise Bible Dictionary). The Pharisees sought to reduce religion to the observance of a multiplicity of ceremonial rules. The Saducees consisted of old high priestly families, They were the Jewish aristocracy maintaining religion to be only the letter of the written law. These groups assumed, as functionalists, that man was ever in need of restraints for the collective good, bestowing on themselves a morally superior position. Christian religion focuses on the idea of a "Christ-like life;- that is, it uses the historical accounts of Christ as an example for persons to follow. Christianity is anything but ahistorical in content, as it emphasizes adherence to ancient texts even now, It seems a rational contradiction to maintain order perspective assumptions and Christian assumptions simultaneously. Christianity emphasizes the individuality of each person in relation to a metaphysical being; functionalism emphasizes empiricism, through natural science models.

Linear models, deterministic evolutionary progress, and the search for functional ideal types promote supposed objectified causality. If individuals are subjective as well as objective by nature, then such models negate spiritual-metaphysical, self-will characteristics, leaving man in a robotic existence.

Secularization of religion according to various theorists has altered basic Christian beliefs into alignment with bureaucracies, political states, maintaining the role once again of modern day Pharisees and Saducees (Lane, 1974; Martin, 1978; Spann, 1950). For example, there is a continuum of pluralism leading to nonpluralism, running from Protestant to Catholicism to Orthodoxy. The following is a representation of this continuum:

Pluralism---------------> Nonpluralism

Orthodox religions of today are often found to be the mouthpiece of their governments, exhibiting strict hierarchies and bureaucratic control. Catholicism, because of its size, is on the one hand opposing political rule but on the other hand insuring the control of its own. Protestantism at least exhibits some aspects of pluralism, It is the view of many secular theorists (Barry, 1969; Johnson, 1964; Lane, 1974; Martin, 1978; Spann, 1950) that as all religion shifts to secularity, the once fought-for plurality will show no pluralism at all but, in fact, reciprocate with the political states for functional systems maintenance, Thus, the guise of Christian pluralism exists while orthodoxy actually increases. Finally, Christianity alters its basic concepts and assumptions, forming a new alignment with the domineering scientific-empirical system's maintenance model negating the active role of man.

As society progressed away from a joint effort and state, it took on certain characteristics from the resultant secularity. None of the basic concerns of man's spirit (subjective reality) carried more than an attenuated relation to religion. Indeed, a unified religious spirit had lost its' The objective habits of science, the routine character of industry, the mechanistic influence of the machine increasingly encouraged the secularization of the West. Stemming from both the Hebraic realism of the Old Testament and the Greek development of science, present day culture resulted from certain determining attitudes initiated centuries before (Miller, 1963). Nature is no longer religious but is classified and dissected. Work is no longer surrounded by ritualism with religious connotations. The dance, song, and community spirit of work have been deleted, leaving only drudgery in sight.

Secularization, according to Martin (1978), had a corrosive impact on religion, consisting of two phases:

The first phase left all kinds of human-scale structures standing: family firm, self-employment, the small farm, the small office, time, intimate college, and pockets of community, either rural organized around the church or industrial organized around the kinship network. All these were congruent with a family model of society where individuals mattered in relation to a constraining structure which could offer meaning.

With this phase came voluntary associations, life organized by national boundaries, and a continuance of homogeneous feelings of brotherhood. The second phase of secularization had at its basis a breakdown of traditional authority movement into legal rational structures (Weber, 1922, pp 1-12). As a result of this second phase:

An attack was precisely made on human scale structures: the small home. the medium-sized school, the bounded town, the family firm, and replaced them by the structures of large-scale bureaucratic rationality. It cut down the urge to limited, varied, voluntary association and replaced it by a generalized empathy through mass communication, which easily degenerated into apathy. And the state itself again summed and reflected all these successive, overlapping fragmentations by exhibiting a corrosion of the sense of national identity (Martin, 1978, p. 92).

The second phase of secularization as described in the foregoing statement has three overall aspects that tend to be exhibited by society. They are the lack of unity (decreased emphasis on generalism and a move toward specialization. no superstition (the negation of unseen subjectivity), and alienation (existential definition loss).

According to Miller (1963), the lack of unity resulted in the consciousness of man undergoing a radical differentiation by which the various component parts of his psyche "broke loose" and moved into an independent freedom. The aesthetic and political sense was no longer dominated by religious themes, and reason developed science and repudiated any authority but truth considered objectively. Each area stood in diametric opposition to the religious unity that had traditionally held them in its bounds. Church and state were set apart. Due to the development of such trends, presently there is a great difficulty in identifying religious factors in government and science. Even religion itself is being studied from an objectified position. The stress of objectification away from subjectification does not allow for a synthesis of the bipolar nature of man. Secularization has developed so as to break down holistic persons, specializing them away from a total person synthesis.

The lack of superstition and mystery is increasingly being augmented by further developments in science and technology. We have learned a degree of honesty, how to observe objectively, how to describe more accurately. This acts as a check on fears, exaggerations, and projections, Indeed, this is a positive aspect of secular progress. However, there is negative repercussion from a swing too far in this area. We settle for epistemological constructs that are dependable and repetitive, and let go of everything that cannot be measured, analyzed, and predicted. Science pushes the unmeasurable away as unknown, and the sacred-religious is affected by reductions in worship as being trite. The negativism of a metaphysics thus is a dimension of secularity.

The third element of secularity is found in the alienation of man. It was Hegel who was the first to use the word alienation to describe an abnormal condition induced by cultural changes and assuming the proportions of a collective neurosis.

Secularization, then, assuredly has altered basic Christian beliefs to conform to functional positivism under the guise of morality.

Underlying Assumptions of the Conflict Perspective

Conflict theory views the order perspective as a strategy of a ruling group to insure social control. Society is a struggle between groups with differing goals. Conflict theory holds that men are society and society is the extension of man. Unlike the functionalist perspective, man as individual is given an important place in the concept of society, not put into a cybernetic hierarchy of control (Turner and Maryanski, 1979). The conflict perspective holds man's nature as Homo laborans, existential, being the active creator of himself and society through pragmatic and individual social action.

The values equated with the position of man as active include qualitative growth, action, change. This perspective views man as basically good, Dever differentiating men into morally superior and morally inferior beings.

Because conflict theory has at its basis a historical model of scientific investigation, it allows for understanding (verstehen) through changing events. Change is desirable and is accounted for by the historical model inclusive of man as active creator. Objectivity of epistemological structures is discussed in the context of the observer's subjectivity. Alienation occurs not from the social system as defined by dominant groups, but the splitting of man from his universal nature or desired state of affairs (see Figure 2) (Horton, 1966).

Society to be improved must decrease social control, changing existing patterns of interaction, institutions, and domination by legal-rational administration in view of a conflict perspective.

The conflict theorist invariably asks of the legitimacy of existing structures, practices, and values maintaining an active role, instead of accepting the social systems as a standard of health.

What then of the conflict perspective and Christianity in view of the underlying assumptions associated with both?

Because the assumptions of the conflict perspective view man as active creator of himself and society, individuals remain attached to their subjectivity, allowing for a positive attitude towards change. Indeed, Christian religion sees persons as important to themselves as well as to others, Does not Christian religion focus on the personal development of each person?

Unlike functionalism, the conflict perspective does not assume morally superior and morally inferior men. Christian religion also denounces such notions, but as we looked at secularization, we saw that much of the religion has been altered for elitist goals (Matt. 5, 6, 7, and Luke 13:15, New Testament, King James Version).

In terms of social problems and deviation, the conflict perspective sees a problem of illegitimate social control and exploitation. Was this not also the case in the biblical history of conf uting the Saducees, Pharisees, scribes, and government (Matt. 22:23--33, 41-46, 23:1-39; Mark 12; Luke 20, New Testament)?

It seems, then, upon careful examination of the conflict perspectives, assumptions are more aligned with basic Christian doctrine, particularly as it pertains to society, individuals, ruling elites, and the validity of a historical perspective.

Barry W. Hancock was a guest in Stockholm, Sweden during 1973-75 where he lectured on American studies, religion, philosophy and social issues. He returned to finish work at Oklahoma State University, earning a BS in Psychology, an MS in Criminal Corrections, and a PhD in Sociology. Presently, he is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal justice at Albany State College, Albany, Georgia.

Conflict Perspective

(1) Underlying Social Perspective and Value Positions (Ideal)
Society as a contested struggle between groups with opposed aims and perspectives
Immanent conception of society and the social relationship; men are society; society is the extension of man, the indwelling of man; the transcendence of society is tantamount to the alienation of man from his own social nature
Positive attitude toward change
Homo laborans existential man, the active creator of himself and society through practical and autonomous social action
Freedom as autonomy, change, action, qualitative growth

(2) Modes of "Scientific" Analysis
Historical model: quest for understanding (Verstehen) through historical analysis of unique and changing events; possible use of ideal type of generalization based on historically specific patterns
Unicausality; high or low level of theoretical generalization; union of theory and practice in social research and social action
Utility in terms of observer's interests; objectivity discussed in the context of subjectivity-activistic theory of knowledge
Analysis begins with organization of social activities or with growth and maintenance needs of man and proceeds to culture
Historical, dynamic; low level of generality and high level of historical specificity; ultimate referent for concepts-human needs considered universally (i.e., man's species nature) or relativistically (demands of particular contenders for power); referent often the future or an unrealized state of affairs

(3) Conflict Theory of Social Problems
and Deviation

(a) Standards for the definition of health and pathology Health equated with unrealized standards (the aspirations of subordinate but rising groups), utopian definition
(b) Evaluation of deviant behavior Possibly progressive to the necessary transformation of existing relationships
(c) Explanation of deviation or a Social Problem A problem of self -alienation, being thwarted in the realization of individual and group goals; a problem of illegitimate social control and exploitation
Rupture of social control; radical transformation of existing patterns of interaction; revolutionary change of the social system

(4) Conflict Theory as Socially Situated Vocabulary

Subordinate groups aspiring for greater power. 
C. W. Mills, new left (SNCC, SDS, etc.) approaches and old left (socialistic and Communistic)

Source: John Horton, "Order and Conflict Theories of Social Problems as Competing Ideologies," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 17 (May, 1966), pp. 701-713.

Figure 2


It must be acknowledged that the order assumptions and conflict assumptions, while they remain in a polemic position, carry with them deficiencies. They both maintain ideal-typic positions that are immediately suspect. Probably the most reasonable position to take is to join both views as a synthesis. However, functionalism negates man as a Christian, except to maintain that religion is functional according to the imputed reality of the scientist.

Assuming that man has rational abilities, the author finds it difficult for persons to profess functionalism and Christianity simultaneously, unless the basic Christian religion has been so altered by secularization that religious institutions have themselves accepted the functional perspective. If so, what remains is a pseudo-Christianity and a re-evaluation of religious pluralism is in order, thereby retaining man as an individual, spiritual, subjective, and the very essence of society.


Barry, F.R, 1969 Secular and Supernatural. London: Billing and Sons, Ltd.

Cazzort, R.P. & E.W. King 1980 20th Century Social Thought. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, pp. 54-73.

Horton, J. 1966 "Order and Conflict Theories of Social Problem as Competing Ideologies." American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 71 (May), pp. 701-713.

Johnson, B. 1964 "Ascetic Protestantism and Political Preference in the Deep South." American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 69 (January),

Lane, C. 1974 "Some Explanations of the Persistence of Christian Religion in Soviet Society." Sociology, Vol. 8, No. 2 (May).

Spann, J.R. 1950 The Christian Faith and Secularism. Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, p. 32.

Martin, D. 1978 A General Theory of Secularization. New York: Harper and Row Publishers.

Miller, S. 1963 The Dilemma of Modern Belief. New York: Harper and Row, P. 6.

Turner, J.H. & A. MaryaDski 1979 Functionalism. New York: Benjamin/ Cummings Publishing Co., pp. 3-7.

Weber, M. 1922 "The Three Types of Legitimate Rule." Translated from Hans Gerth. Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 1953.