Religious functionalism and homophobia

A while ago, in a discussion over on A Corner of Tenth Century Europe on the anthropologist Mary Douglas, I mentioned that some of the ideas in her more recent books looked useful for discussing religion. I am now trying to get to grips with her 1986 book ‘How institutions think’, which she claims is the book she should have written after writing on African fieldwork (instead of Purity and Danger etc). As usual with her books, it contains both sections of great directness and clarity along with really obscure bits, and I’m not yet really sure how all her ideas fit together. But her basic approach seems to be to try and rehabilitate functionalist explanations for the practices of religious groups (a key idea of Durkheim’s). One of the things she stresses the need for is a better class of functional explanation, and she supplies a template for this (p 33):

A behavioural pattern X, is explained by its function Y for a group Z if and only if:

1) Y is an effect of X
2) Y is beneficial for Z
3) Y is unintended by actions producing X
4) Y or the causal relation between X and Y is unrecognized by actors in Z
5) Y maintains X by a causal feedback loop passing through Z.

This seems to me to be a useful tool to analyse something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently: religious homophobia. The normal explanations for this (repressed sexual desires, scapegoating, a wish to maintain patriarchal family relations) don’t really seem adequate to me as explanations. They explain some homophobia, but not enough of it. What I’m coming to wonder is whether homophobic campaigning in religious sects is functional for its promotion of group solidarity within the sect.

How would this functional argument work?

1) Group solidarity is promoted by working on any campaign together: it gives a group a purpose
2) Such solidarity benefits a religious sect
3) and 4) Group solidarity isn’t (normally) intended or recognized by religious campaigners against gay people. (This is more true of the UK than the US, where the use by politicians of the religious right is more conscious).
5) Group solidarity then maintains homophobia by stressing the boundary between us as ‘normal’ and them as ‘abnormal’.

This is a very similar argument structurally to ones which explain complex pollution taboos (such as in Old Testament Judaism) as functional, which is perhaps not surprising. But what I want to add here is the significance of the type of group I’ve mentioned: a religious sect.

I’m thinking here about the distinction made (in various forms) since Max Weber between church and sect as ideal types, which contrasts universalizing, world-accepting churches which one enters by birth with world-rejecting and ‘exclusive’ sects which one enters by an act of commitment. Controversial moral campaigning doesn’t tend to benefit a church: it alienates members of its own congregation and such views may lead to it becoming out of step with the rest of society to which it is trying to minister. (A lot of campaigns by churches therefore tend to be on issues where they can find support from non-religious groups, such as anti-poverty and anti-racism campaigns).

In contrast, the ideal moral campaign (or boundary marker) for a sect is precisely one which divides believers from non-believers as clearly as possible. People have to choose what side they are on, and they have to commit to that choice. Anti-gay action is one of the few remaining issues in the UK that can produce that kind of clear-cut split. Former boundary lines like temperance, Sunday observance, anti-gambling or opposition to divorce and remarriage have all crumbled: start a campaign on those and you’ll watch half your congregation squirm. How long homophobia can be maintained isn’t clear, but there isn’t an obvious alternative dividing shhep from goats issue for Christian sects to take up (unless they’re brave enough to revive prohibitions on usury).


4 thoughts on “Religious functionalism and homophobia

  1. Dear Magistra –

    I happened across your blog a number of months ago, along with those of a few other medievalists such as Jonathan Jarrett. Thank you so much for your engaging and thoughtful writing. As a computer scientist, I had never even heard of the difference between church and sect, so it is a delight to come away from my Sunday morning reading feeling a little more educated. Religious functionalism is also a newish one to me, though I appreciate your clear description of the phenomenon.

    Many thanks!


  2. Respect must also be paid because David d’Avray, as I said in my post, didn’t think Weberians and Durckheimians could talk to each other and here you are drawing on both! Duly impressed.


  3. I suspect this example falls down at point 4. If you look at rhetoric amongst evangelical groups in the States, at least, they’re very well aware that opposing homosexuality contributes to group cohesion, even though that’s not the intended point of their campaigns.


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