Functionalists contend that society is a system of interconnected units all of which perform a specific function. Together all these functions achieve harmony. For them religion is also a unit which performs specific functions. One of the most critical functions of religion is to provide emotional comfort during testing times. Another important function of religion is it provides a basis for social interaction (religious festivals). Moreover, it provides a system through which social control can be exercised.
The symbolic interactionists take a micro-level view of society. Therefore, they study the symbols and interactions of everyday life. According to them, it is the people who define what is sacred and what is not. Similarly, religion is important or holds a certain value because of the meanings people attach to religion. Instead of studying the function of religion, a symbolic interactionist would study the meaning which people give to symbols that hold religious value.
Lastly, the conflict perspectives hold that society is in a state of conflict. The proletariat and the bourgeoisie compete with each other over limited resources. The society will remain in conflict unless the proletariat revolt against the bourgeoisie and establish a classless society. The conflict perspective regards religion as an institution which promotes economic and social inequality. Karl Marx famously said, “Religion is the opium of the people”. Marx believed that religion is used as an institution by the bourgeoisie to oppress the proletariat. Religion stopped the proletariat from realizing the effects of capitalism by offering them pleasant illusions.
There are fundamental differences between the functionalist, symbolic interactionist, and conflict perspectives regarding religion. These differences are due to the different lenses each perspective offers to study and understand social phenomenon and society. While the functionalist perspective sees religion as fulfilling key functions, conflict perspective sees it as a tool of oppression. The interactionists, on the other hand, simply focus on the meanings which people attach to religious symbols.