Week 7 – Starting Points Ch. 13

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Starting Points

Chapter 13: Churches and Religion

For the pious, religion reveals truths — truths as solid and unequivocal as trees, but infinitely more important. Truths of unassailable significance and validity.

Sociologists view religion as just beliefs — beliefs not unassailably true. Sociologists are interested in how certain beliefs are legitimized, and who controls this process. How do religions rise and fall? And why have some existed for so long, while others dwindled?

For a sociologist, religion is a (merely) social phenomenon (don’t get offended). Marx viewed religion as a form of socially organized self-deception (in response to whose theories Nietzsche envisioned Übermensch — Superman — that shall rule over the meek, made weak by Judeo-Christian beliefs of sacrifice). Durkheim viewed it as an opportunity for group celebration. Weber viewed it as a set of beliefs that gives life meaning and purpose.

A standard account of modernity:
Past few centuries saw much rationalization of society and accumulation of scientific knowledge. Religion lost much of its social relevance in the West, in fact many comes to deny the sacred texts and teachings (As Nietzsche would say, we murdered God with our modernization).

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

F. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

Is this account accurate? Ask yourself. 60% of Canadians still consider themselves to be moderately or highly religious. There are new religious movements (NRM) which people view as better serving their needs. People may have given up on traditional worship but they have not given up on religion.

For multicultural Canada we have a problem: should religions be presented in the public sphere? Some serious devouts would think that only their religion deserves public attention, etc. 80% of Canadians identify themselves as “more or less” Christian, so it is still tied to our lives.

Another issue: some religions have been traditionally patriarchal. But modern women are equals of men! How do we reconcile with this? Of course we can’t just send all the clergies to jail?

Would society be better or worse off if religion disappeared? (If we manage to, as Weber suggests, thoroughly “disenchant” the world through rationalization?)


Durkheim is a functionalist: interested in religion’s role to promote solidarity. Why are religions universal? He asks. Conclusion is that religion has the power to bring people together. (Isn’t that the same as the premise?!)
Religion perpetuates social solidarity by reaffirming shared values. But of course modernization will eventually lead to decline of religion. What will be in its stead? Durkheim wonders.

Marx established critical theory. He thinks religion is a form of social control and therefore cause of conflict (complete antithesis to Durkheim’s argument). Religion forms part of the dominant ideology — opiate of the masses, making them subdued, uncritical, easily manipulated. It numbs the pains of oppression and diverts working class’s attention.

Marx predicts that after a proletarian revolution, there would be no need for religion. Class concerns alone should occupy worker’s concerns. But experimentally Marx is wrong.

Weber focused on subjective meaning and personal experience of religion. He believed that people have an inner need to understand the world as “meaningful” (rationalization). Else how can we deal with our existential angsts? In a universe where nothing is certain except death, we’ve devised religion as a sweet nepenthe that makes us oblivious of how utterly insignificant and meaningless we are. He wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (See Week 3; Chapter 4).

Classic Studies: The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

Written by DURKHEIM. His final work. Durkheim wants to understand the universality of religion–preferably at its birth. But neolithic communities don’t keep records too much. So instead Durkheim asks: how might religion come to be? What might it have been devised to solve?

Totemism – the use of natural objects and animals to symbolize spirituality.
Preliterate societies use this emblems to symbolize their faith in a higher power. An emblem is meaningless but it unites a tribe. It evokes collective loyalty.

Rituals and ceremonies further reinforce these totemic objects. These experiences lift people from mundane, “profane” life to a higher, “sacred” plane of being. Often most significant life occurrences (birth, adulthood, marriage, death) are given religious significance.

In Durkheim’s analysis, the totemic objects or rituals are not meaningful in themselves but derive meaning from the social cohesion they create. So we might as well have celebrated National Cucumber Day than Christmas.

People get excited for religion because of its out-of-the-ordinary, emotionally moving rituals. People link to each other as social beings. When people worship a totemic animal they are in effect worshiping their own society.
So for Durkheim, religion is a collective consciousness.
Keywords are “shared” and “symbol”.

Modernization turns a society from mechanical to organic. It means we must appeal to common humanity to connect to others, and not rely as heavily on religion in a diverse organic society. Durkheim concludes, then, that eventually the influence of traditional religion will decline.

Definitional Problems

It is difficult to define “religion”. Spirituality and faith may mean different things to different people. McGuire (2005) suggests that we can distinguish between substantive and functional definitions of religion.
Substantive: examines a religion’s core elements, including the belief in a higher being and supernatural forces.
Functional: describes how religion provides a sense of connectedness between people, while also creating strife.

Sociological theories of religion can contain both types of definition.
e.g. Durkheim believes that social life have sacred and profane parts. We spend most of our time in the profane part but once in a while dress up and behave differently. This is a substantive definition of core features of religion.

Drugs and alcohol have an ambiguous role in social life – on the one hand, well, don’t do drugs. On the other, drugs shift people’s consciousness to other-worldly concerns–ecstasy, reflection, connection with deeper selves.
– In a Catholic mass, why do priests drink wine, but not cranberry juice? It’s because of this “sacred” effect.

Some religions can’t be categorized into “sacred” and “profane” to easily. If the higher being is manifested in all aspects of life, then it’s not so easy to separate yourself to have a completely profane life. Western sociologists tend to be biased towards Judeo-Christianity, but there are lots of other religions in the world too.

Distinction: organized religion and spirituality.
Organized religion: set of social institutions. Groups, buildings, etc.
Spirituality: set of beliefs that, though shared, may not be enacted with other people.
This duality is characteristic of, say, Christianity. But it isn’t really so if you examine Buddhism. It’s kind of implying that organized hierarchies of priests, etc, are more important than spirituality itself.
(And many a philosopher would critique that this is indeed the problem with modern Western civilization).

Sociologists, aware of this, ask: why do people seek religions?

Religion in Canada Today

Report in The Globe and Mail. Canadians rank highly in the world on charitable giving. Research shows that people who give more to charity tend to be happier than people who do not.
(Not to be a cynic, but people who give more also tend to be the ones with more to give, you know?)

This raises questions:

  1. What makes some societies more charitable than others?
  2. Why should charitable giving make people happy? Post hoc ergo proper hoc?
  3. Is charitable giving a religious act or a secular one?

Most charitable societies tend to be most affluent, best educated, and most socially progressive. It seems that commitment to social equality and social altruism makes people happy when they give. But what makes people more committed?

More giving people tend to be happier.
Incidentally, highly religious people also tend to be happier.
Maybe happiness comes from a sense of meaning and fulfillment. Maybe happiness comes from a sense of belonging. Or maybe those people are just lying, saying they’re happy when they’re not.

Science is interested in finding laws of nature. But religion is concerned with promoting ethical and charitable behaviour, with transcendent goals.
So does widespread charity in Canada indicate a deep religiosity? Maybe. Canada’s very multicultural.

Are people getting less religious? Maybe. One-third of Canadians go to church but more than half have their own private forms of worship. Church attendance says as much about religiosity as divorce rates says about marital satisfaction.

Statistics Canada uses a “religiosity index”: a combination of affiliation, attendance, personal practice, and (stated) importance of religion. This index corrects the limitations of just using church attendance.
(Consider role distancing of reluctant churchgoers, for example).
Religiosity Index:
40% low, 31% medium, 29% high. Highest among older people and women and people raised in religious families.

But exercise caution because Canada is so multicultural. 41% of immigrants have high religiosity though. Highest level of religiosity from South Asia (Pakistan) and lowest level from East Asia (China).

Religion vs. Science: The Debate of the Modern Era

Our society is secular – i.e. we are less religious. Most people say it’s logical, scientific, or (in Weber’s terms) a rational-legal society. People are “disenchanted” with the natural world, and rely on science instead of supernaturalism.

The science-religion debated started back in the Enlightenment. Darwin for example made religious leaders angry by proposing evolution. Science is the (empirical) search for knowledge, which Robert Merton (1976) summarized as CUDO: communalism, universalism, disinterest, and organized skepticism.
i.e. Science is non-religious.

Science advances by peer review and independent, disinterested (unbiased) research, public debate, etc. Science demands skepticism — all scientific claims are critically evaluated and all conclusions are “tentative”, awaiting disproof.

Religion, on the other hand, isn’t expected to advance. It is timeless. Religious scholarship is rarely disinterested. Take a step too far and you get burned on a cross.
Religious debates rarely public; carried out internally, so that church may present a united front toward the outside world. Religion does not encourage organized skepticism.
But of course religion can adapt too. e.g. Hadiths in Islam.

Institutional inflexibility is a problem for religion. e.g. Catholicism is still inflexible about birth control, abortion, and premarital sex. But eventually it does give in. E.g. the 1992 apology to Galileo for his trial.
Religion can’t ever be as flexible as science though. Science requires no commitment to traditional beliefs. e.g. “Phlogiston” theory of heat transfer.

Science looks forward, while religion looks backward.
(And the engineer looks at the present. Coughcough let’s go on.)
Religion is rigid and unyielding, compared to science. Religions are convinced that they have found eternal and everlasting truth, and everyone else are misguided. Such exclusion created bloodshed. But religion also brings people together, which science fails to do.

Religions are committed to creating and preserving order. Science on the other hand creates and foments skepticism and disorder.
(Lawful vs. chaotic)
Maybe this is why people are still religious. Religion gives a sense of purpose. Science is disinterested in this topic.

Is science really chaos though? Drawing from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), scholars examined paradigms which define what constitutes acceptable theories and experimental behaviour in sciences.
Even science is rigid and hidebound. Fields of research go through periods of unchallenged authority followed by a paradigm shift (e.g. Einstein replacing Newton).

Weber notes that paradigm shifts are set off by charismatic leadership. Then order is recreated through routinization of charisma.

Classic Studies: Civilization and Its Discontents

Oh hey, it’s Freud!

Why do people keep coming back to religion even when scientific thinking has taken over? Freud says religion is nothing more than a symptom of neurosis (and God is an illusion).

Freud says that we are all driven by buried desires–the id. We often need to repress these desires (most notably sex; unfortunate I know), which makes us neurotic. Humanity, repressed by civilized rules, experiences a constant sense of frustration and bitterness. Our repressed sexuality promotes anxiety, hate, fear, and guilt.


Freud sees the Judeo-Christian tradition as an atonement of guilt. Here we have an (imagined) slaying of the primal father, a psychologization of wished-for death of one’s actual father. So Christianity is more or less of an Oedipus complex.
But what about Buddhism? Also we can’t really disprove Freud since no one can see the unconscious.
On the other hand maybe the unconscious is like gravity. Invisible but ever present. How else do you explain neurosis?

Criticism: narrow view of religion, ignoring cultural and social meanings. (Give the poor man a break; he’s a psychologist).
But it’s coherent. e.g. Freud predicts that as sex becomes more available, people will be less devout. Which is true.

The Idea of Secularization

Durkheim and Freud both saw secularization as a positive development. Durkheim because it denotes a growth in tolerance and diversity; Freud because it denoted a drop in repression.

But religion is still an important presence in modern societies. Its importance may not be fully represented in statistics like church attendance, etc.

Secularization theory argues that many formerly powerful religious institutions have lost their influence in society.
e.g. Napoleon reduced power of the Catholic church through his conquest.
Institutions still close at Christian holidays (and not other holidays), so religion still is embedded in our society.
On the other hand people may consider themselves Christian but do not follow strictly on its teachings (thou shalt not lie; thou shalt not steal; etc.)

One example is Quebec: traditionally the Roman Catholic Church is significant — protecting Quebec from cultural assimilation. For three centuries prior to 1950, Catholicism is significant. In the 1960s though church attendance fell significantly — marking Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution”. It removed Church from education and politics.
Reason? Quebecers view Church as backward and oppressive.

Though secularization is usually case-by-case, some generalization is possible:

  • Social Differentiation: process by which a society becomes increasingly complex and diverse. In the past the Church took care of education, health care, social mediator; now we have schools, hospitals and other social institutions for these functions.
  • Societalization: the way people increasingly connect to and abstract “society”, and not to a concrete community in which every person knows everyone else. People started to look to “society” — a faceless amalgam — to provide for their needs.
  • Rationalization: effort to explain the world through the logical interpretation of empirical evidence. In fact Judeo-Christianity encouraged rationalization — they encouraged theology (systems of doctrines) over mythology (unsystematic leaps of faith). Even today Christian church leadership still stresses philosophical inquiry into people’s link to the divine.

Civil Religion

Civil religion is a mid point between secular and sacred approaches to life. It challenges the claim that human society will eventually be fully rational-legal with no place for religion. It celebrates the state, replacing many of the traditional functions of religion.

Nationalism is the most important and widespread version. It provides people with meaning and purpose. It may be linked to religion itself — e.g. American exceptionalism and the sense that America was God’s beacon to humanity.
On the other hand consider the Super Bowl.
Rober Bellah et al. (1985) say that this kind of event provides cohesion apart from any specific religion. Christians and Muslims alike can enjoy a fine Super Bowl Sunday.

New Religious Movements

New Religious movements (NRMs) exist all over the world and is gaining popularity. e.g. Wiccans (neo-pagan modern-day witchcraft). Aboriginal groups are working to re-establish their spiritual exercises.

Many of these groups suffer ridicule — labelled as “cults”. But these movements are mainly groups of people who share similar views about the world!
(It is us against the world you and me against them all…)

e.g. Raelians – UFO worship. Does not brainwash, contrary to stereotypes. As Durkheim would say, it’s simply a substitution of totemic objects.

Religion in the Schools?

Should religion be taught in public schools? Should faith schools receive tax money? In Canada education varies from one province to another. In 19th century schools were denominational; providing students with moral grounding through religion. But this becomes a problem as Canada becomes diverse.

Some say, though, that exposure to religion is important even to non-religious people. Current some people in Canada can “opt-in” to a religious education.
Anyway, Robert Bellah is an important person.


Robert Pattinson + Bella Swan = Robert Bellah.

Robert Bellah’s two most influential articles are “Religious Evolution” (1964) and “Civil Religion in America” (1967). He sees social science as a moral inquiry.
(Which I agree. All science should have a moral element to it.)
Van Gerwen (1998) finds the following questions to Bellah’s work: “How can our society become and remain independent? How can it be just and fair to all its members? How can it remaiin innovative and democratic?, etc. etc.”

Best known book: Habits of the Heart (1985).
There are three founding cultural traditions of America: republicanism, biblical religion, and individualism.
Individualism prevents Americans from giving proper attention to the first two. Individuals pay too little attention to public lives–justice, equality, social responsibility, or spiritual matters. Indeed as Durkheim taught: individuals can only flourish under conditions of social cohesion (game theory: prisoner’s dilemma).

“We are not simply ends in ourselves, either as individuals or as a society. We are parts of a larger whole that we can neither forget nor imagine in our own image without paying a high price.” – Robert Bellah

Roof (2009) draws on Bellah’s “American civil religion” to examine how American use myths to form their national identity and how these myths are influential on American society. The “public faiths” of the US approximate the civil religion to varying degrees.

Proe (1992) identifies Super Bowl as a “religious festival”. Buttersworth (2008) takes up this them to examine Super Bowl in 2008, where several displays of national and military symbolism were featured.

Riley (2008) cites Bellah’s “civil religion” in exploring the narratives, symbolism, and commemoration surrounding the site in Pennsylvania. (Like Ground Zero). It’s invoked as a holy place.

Meizel (2006) looks at American popular music. Esp. two songs: “God Bless America” in WWII and “God Bless the USA” in Iraq War. Such songs provide people with anthems through which they can celebrate.

In any religion there are saints and sinners, gods and devils. Wender (2007) analyzed religious imagery of American “War on Terror”. US is cast as the divinely anointed deliverer of the world from the “evil of terrorism”. The war is a holy “civil” crusade.

Swatos (2006) imagines that, in theory, the US could have reacted in many different ways to the 9/11 attacks. Why has the American government reacted to harshly? Why attack Iraq, who has no connect to al Qaeda? Besides spoiling for a war, US government and citizenry

Bertin (2009) notes that Bellah originally viewed religions as unifying and stabilizing. Bertin sees a crisis in American civil religion both in its inherent contradictions and in the politically charged conflict caused by the growing power of evangelical fundamentalism and the religious Right. Religion is separating progressive and conservative Americans.

Hecht (2007) draws on both Bellah’s “civil religion” and the work of Will Herberg to develop the concepts of “passive pluralism” and “active pluralism” by looking at the eruv.
“Passive pluralism” was historically the norm in US — mainline religions dominated public space. This is giving way to “active pluralism” with more immigrants coming in.

Copen and Silverstein (2007) explores how religious values and beliefs are communicated from parent to their children. Three mechanisms:

  1. Socialization: teaching beliefs and values.
  2. Social training: living out their religion as a role model.
  3. Status inheritance: placing children in socioeconomic situations that reinforce their world view.

Ferdinand Tönnies investigated connection between religion and social cohesion. Religion vs. individualism?! Tönnies wrote about this in his analysis of community and society.

Turner (2005) points out that Kant distinguished between cult (seeking favours from God) and religion as moral action (changing one’s behaviour). Kantian approach is important to Weber’s view of asceticism and capitalism. Talcott Parsons built on Weber and Kant. In his later works Talcott turned to Durkheim. Robert Bellah was a student of Parsons.

Bellah belongs to the fusion approach.

New Insights

Vido, not Video
Vido (2008) notes that continued importance of religion to society seems to refute the “secularization thesis”. Religion ain’t disappearing.

What Are We Even Doing Here?
Smith (2008) says that sociological study of religion is going through a transition in which major issues and future goals are ambiguous.
The notion of “multiple modernities” — that society can modernize in different ways — needs further development in the study of religion. We are at a turning point.

The Triumvirate
Goldstein (2009) says that in the old paradigm of sociology, secularization is linear. In the new paradigm, secularization is “revival and routinization”. Kind of like the standoff between Marx & Durkheim (linear theorist) and Weber (cyclical/non-linear theorist). Goldstein points out that even Durkheimian model allows for spiral/dialectical/paradoxical/etc patterns.

Not So Black and White
Hornbacher and Gortowik (2008) dispute Eurocentric version of the inevitable march of secularization. In Asia religious practices are clearly flourishing even though they are developing.

Post-Modern Orthodox
Mulders (2008) says the revival in Russian Orthodox is seen not only in increased membership but also increased public discourse. It’s a sign of “postmodern ideological diversity”.

Religion as a Developing Force
Lunn (2009) says that religion, spirituality, and faith need to be re-examined in connection with the theory, policy, and practice of socioeconomic development. Religion can help development be sustainable. Savagnone (2009) examines the role of Italian Roman Catholic Church in advocating for the Italian South.

A Horseman in Thailand
Horstmann (2009) considers reivial of traditional art and ancestor worship in souther Thailand. In a postmodern context traditional practices have been adapted to treat modern illnesses.

Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks
Amineh and Eisenstadt (2007) note that Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 produced the only modern regime founded on religious fundamentalism. They supported presidential-parliamentary system and equality and political participation not found in traditional Islamic thought.

Kabbalah is famous because Madonna publicly declared that she follows it.

Creative Commons License
SOC103 Notes by digitalhardhat is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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