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Unformatted text preview: 7 The Social Construction of ’ Religion Religious beliefs and institutions Were an important concern of the nineteenth-century social thinkers who fashioned the sociological per— spective. However, because of the central functions of religion as a tool of state power and a source of individual and community solidarity, the most profound results and implications of their work on the social construction of gods, religious beliefs and institutions, and faith have been basically ignored. This chapter is an introduction to the sociolo- gical way of looking at and talking about religion. TYPES OF SOCIETIES AND TYPES OF RELIGIONS One of the most important tools we have for gaining an explanatory perspective on our ways of living and thinking is the comparative method. Examining a significant number of societies across time and space is the basis for the observation that different types of societies generate different types of gods and religions. The nature and extent of the division of labor, the degree of social differentiation, the type of stratification system, and social changes (within and across societies) are some of the factors that determine whether religion will or will not be present in a society, and what form it will take and how it will change over time in societies where it is present. All religions reflect the cultural concerns of the societies they develop in. Other things being equal, gods of war are products of warlike societies; agricultural peoples worship fertility gods; and the gods of 150 Knowledge and Belief patriarchal societies are male. Monotheism is found in societies with three or more levels of hierarchical sovereignty (e.g., clan, city, em- pire); polytheism is found in societies dominated by classes; ancestor worship is a product of societies in which the extended family is a core institution; and reincarnation is associated with small village communities in which individuals experience intense face-to—face interaction.1 Most hunting and gathering peoples have no conception of a Sup~ reme Creator. The belief in a Supreme Creator who is involved in and supportive of human morality is rare in hunting and gathering, simple horticultural (no plow), advanced horticultural (metal weapons and tools), and fishing societies, but common in agrarian and herding societies. In general, then, the sacred realm is a sort of map of the social geomorphology, and the correlations between types of societies and types of religions illustrate the relationship between technological and economic development on the one hand, and religious beliefs and institutions on the other.2 THE FUNCTIONS OF RELIGION The common feature in all religious systems is a division of the world into sacred and profane realms. The profane world is that part of the world that can be dealt with in a practical, matter of fact way. The sacred realm, by contrast, has to be approached seriously, respectfully, and with careful preparations. Behavior in the sacred realm must be strictly controlled. Rituals accomplish this by stressing appropriate forms of behavior. One of the major functions of rituals and worship is to help ground and sustain the feelings and orientations necessary for group solidarity and for preserving the prevailing social structure. This idea is a key to the origins of religion. It was first discussed in sociolo- gical detail by Emile Durkheim in his study of the Australian aborigines.3 Among the Australian aborigines, clans are organized around and take their names from totems. A totem is generally a commonplace animal or plant. The symbol used to represent the totem is considered sacred. On the basis of his study of aborigine totemism, Durkheim concluded that, when people worship a totem or a more highly de- veloped sacred object, they are really worshipping “society,” their own group or community. Thus, there are referents for religious and spir- itual beliefs, and they are real. Only they are not in some supernatural i g i 2' i The Social Construction of Religion 151 or transcendental realm but rather right here on earth in our own collective lives. The earliest forms of religion have their roots in the periodic group activities of the earliest human societies. During these activities, indi- viduals experienced a certain kind of excitement, not unlike the excite- ment we feel when we enter into the spiritof a rock concert crowd, or an intimate get-together with a small group of friends. The source of this feeling in early human societies was eventually 10cated outside of the individual and outside the group. Some readily available object was chosen to symbolize or represent the activity or gathering (society) and the associated emotional response (religious feeling). Rituals were then developed which regularized and enhanced the solidarity gener- ated by the gatherings. Rites are group activities oriented toward ob— jects that symbolize the feelings or emotions generated by raw group activities. A cult is a collection of rites and associated myths and beliefs clustered around a group of sacred objects. A religion emerges when a set of cults becomes interrelated and rationalized.4 The process of developing the complex religious systems already evident in the mate- rial remains of the earliest human societies we know about began in an unknown prehistory. And it took tens of thousands of years for the . primordial generation of affect in group activities to develop into reli- gious systems. One factor in this process was the human capacity for abstraction. This, combined with limited experience, helped to gener- ate mistaken beliefs about referents for certain feelings and thoughts, and led to hypotheses about a supernatural realm. Personal emotional experiences during collective rituals cannot by themselves explain the origin of beliefs about the supernatural and religion. Other important factors include the human capacity for gener- alization and abstraction, and the potential for reification that is charac— teristic of language use, especially in the process of naming experiences and objects. Imagination is another factor that should not be ignored. An example of how such factors operate is the development of ideas about the gods in the Hindu tradition. In the ancient Hindu texts known as the Vedas, fire is considered a god, or at least a concrete god’s body. Later on, the view develops that there is an eternal god who possesses and controls, or somehow incorporates, all individual fires. This idea is secured over time through the activities of a cult which identifies itself with the god.5 The next stage, the development of a religion, is reached through the intellectual efforts of specialists who systematically organize ideas about the gods. Generalization, ab- straction, symbolization, and reification are all at work throughout this development, side by side with organizational activities. 152 Knowledge and Belief In societies where people have not yet been alienated from the basic rites that generate gods and religions, there may be some individuals who are aware at some level that the gods are created, sustained, nourished, and rejuvenated by the rites, that people literally manufac- ture the gods. But the concepts for consolidating that sort of awareness are unavailable at this stage of cultural development. By the time the concepts become available, their control has passed to classes of politic- al, religious, and intellectual leaders. Some of them, especially in the intellectual classes, will develop and pass on the idea that religions and gods are social creations. For most people, however, religion will be so complicated and removed from any immediate relationship to social solidarity, and alienation will be so strong, that consciousness of pro- jection will not have much of a chance to develop in any direct, experiential way. Consciousness about the social meaning of religion may be greatest when a society or its political constitution is new, when people — even in complex societies — can recall that they designed the social order, and they created their gods as symbols of and in celebration of their new society. The fact that religions are active instruments in the creation of societies helps explain why creation is so central to religions. Religion is literally about creation; but it is not about the creation of the universe by gods; it is about the creation of social orders by men and women. Once the celebratory period has passed, religions become prescriptive frameworks for future generations. An example of the creative, celebratory function of religion is pro- vided by the history of the ancient Jews and Midianites. The Yahweh of the Old Testament was a god of the political organization they created, a celebratory symbol of federation, association, and alliance. The covenant represented a real contract binding the partners in a new social order. Since societies, especially the more complex ones, are never totally unified, religion must ultimately construct rival gods, heretics, evil spirits, and devils. The symbolism of religion mirrors the simplicity or complexity of social worlds. Heaven, then, generally symbolizes the moral righteousness that makes you a member in good standing of the society or group. The security of knowing you belong is a reward for adhering to the moral standards of your group. Hell, by contrast, symbolizes the banishment of the deviant or heretic from the group. That is the social meaning of hell as a punishment for sinning against god ~ that is, deviating from the morality of your group. Notions about right and wrong are intrinsically social; they regulate The Social Construction of Religion 153 relationships among people. The very idea of morality implies a force beyond any individual. People adhere to moral precepts because the group demands it. People are taught — and most people learn — to want to belong. Some, of course, follow the moral guidelines of their society or group because they do not want to be punished or killed by the guardians of morality. In simpler societies, morality expresses the rules of behavior believed to be necessary (based on experience) for group survival. In more complex societies, morality is designed to sustain the reigning pattens of domination. If a person has multiple group memberships, if groups are in conflict, or if there is a pattern of join- ing and leaving groups then there will be multiple and often conflicting moralities. THE TRANSCENDENTAL RELIGIONS Transcendental religions emerged when the fashioning of early states into civilizations through urban and commercial revolutions gave rise to the social role of the priest and priestly organizations. These religions (including Christianitay, Islam, Judaism, Confucianism, and Buddhism), sometimes referre to as llworld religions,” developed in cosmopolitan centers. Priests and their organizations emerged in close alliance with milit- ary and political institutions, but with a certain degree of autonomy. This made possible the separation of "this worldly” and "other world- 1y” realms, transcendentalism, and new opportunities for salvation. In traditional societies, people were considered to be in the good graces of the spirits if they were “prosperous, healthy, and victorious in war.”6 Bad luck was viewed as the result of “spiritual transgres- sions.” In the transcendental religions, good and evil were Separated from success in this world, and the possibility of salvation was sepa— rated from one’s worldly fortunes. Two basic pathways to salvation became possible with the emerg— ence of the transcendental religions. Mystical salvation put the indi- vidual in direct contact with the “other” world. “This” world became more illusory or less important. For Christians and Moslems, the imba— lances of this world were redressed in an after-life. The good who have suffered on earth are rewarded with everlasting life in heaven, and the evil who have prospered are punished at last and forever. The ”ethic~ a1” religions such as Confucianism offered an alternative to salvation in 154 Knowledge and Belief a “real” heaven; the Confucians stressed "right behavior,” behavior in tune with the basic principles of the everyday social world. Religious specialists or virtuosos could, in the transcendental reli— gions, devote themselves full-time to the project of achieving salvation. For everyone else, however, religion continued to serve social func- tions appropriate to their social classes. For the upper Classes, it was a social activity intertwined with political ideologies and alliances, and a tool of oppression. For the lower classes, religion was a source of hope and release from the trials and uncertainties of everyday life. For the middle classes, it was the source of rules about appropriate demeanor and deference: For along with the more abstract accounts of the universe — the forces of Yin and Yang, the higher realms of Nirvana and the veils of illusion, the spiritual powers of an omnipotent and omniscient God presiding over the mundane world -— came changes in the foririis of deferential relationships and in the emotional tone of life. The demeanor emphasized in these religions reflected their ideal of eternal peace and quiet in the other world. It also represented a way of M demarcating these religions from, and underlining their superiority to, traditional religions. POLITICS AND RELIGION Smaller, technologically less developed societies are, of necessity, re- latively democratic. The centralization of power and the formation of states and ruling elites occur as societies increase in size, develop coalitions, and in particular develop surpluses of foodstuffs and other goods. The emergence of leaders under such conditions is based on the social positions and political skills of particular people. Given the appropriate material resources, the would-be ruler still has to fashion them into a basis for leadership. Relatively democratic small-scale societies do not get transformed into centralized states when access to the weapons of advanced societies makes war coalitions and “careers of conquest” possible. The leader of . . . a coalition may wish to make himself a perma— nent king, but his followers are not likely to give him much The Social Construction of Religion 155 power if they can avoid it. The same applies to the more aristo- cratic forms of decentralization; a coalition of self-equipped charioteers or mounted knights will put its weight on the side of forms of weapons, supplies and division of labor that maintain their feudal autonomies.8 A potential leader must thus create loyalty among his or her follow- ers, especially in a way that allows him or her to use those followers to enforce his or her commands upon themselves.9 And he or she must gain control. of the distribution of supplies and the tax—collecting appar- atus, preferably with the help of a non-military hierarchy of officials reporting directly to him or her. These are all problems in religious organization. There has always been a close connection between politics and reli— gion. Political and religious authority are usually vested in the same person in societies up to the advanced horticultural level. Kings are usually considered gods or the earthly ministers of gods. Organizing military coalitions such as the Greek city states inVOIVed organizing joint religio-political cults. Religion and politics began to separate (institutionally) with the emergence of agrarian, commercial, and cosmopolitan societies. But crucial connections were, and continue to be, maintained. Religion is drawn on by governments for ideological legitimation and adminis- trative organization. And priests engage in political activity in order to gain state support or theocratic (hierocratic) power. Gibbon, the histo— rian of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, noted that the people of the Roman era considered the various religions that flourished in their world equally true, the philosophers considered them equally false, and the magistrates thought of them as equally useful.10 MAGICIANS, WONDERWORKERS, AND MESSIAHS In social systems that are not characterized by a high or even moderate degree of cultural diversity, identity crises are rare. This is the case for the ancient world in which religion emerged. Boys and girls grew up to be pretty much like their fathers and mothers. But it was possible to be different. Individuals could be released from “routine succession to a recognized role in life” by an “extraordinary endowment or event.”11 Every society has labels for normal and abnormal social types or roles. Some “normal” social types occur in a Wide range of societies from 156 Knowledge and Belief antiquity to the present, reflecting common social goals, functions, and activities tied to universal human needs and lifecycle events. Butchers, bakers, and farmers are such social types. But other “normal” social types are peculiar to given societies or historical periods. Such is the case, for example, for the tribunes and lectors of ancient Rome. “Abnormal” social types are also classified in similar and different ways depending on time and place: as we recognize hysterical, paranoid, and manic—depressive types, and psychiatrists and faith healers [the ancients] recognized de— moniacs of various sorts, divine men, prophets and magicians. As we (depending on our sympathies) speak of "freedom fighters,” “brothers,” "communists," llrabble rousers,” and so on [people] of [for example] first-century Palestine (depending on their sympathies) spoke of “messiahs,” “prophets,” “deceivers,” “bri— gands,” "charlataxis."12 Jesus, for example, was variously viewed by contemporaries as a miracle worker, a messiah, a beggar, and a fugitive. The lives of magicians, wonderworkers, and messiahs from Moses on (including Apollonius, Jesus, Simon Magus, Gregory the Wonder- worker and, from our own time, Rasputin, Aleister Crowley, and Eduardo the Peruvian healer) are variations on a common theme. The stock legendary features of the magus’ career are: the divine origin and miraculous birth, the annunciation and nativity portents, the menace to the future magus during infancy, the initiation, the trial of spiritual strength (temptation resisted after a long solitary fast), miracles, the sacrificial feast, trial and death (by crucifixion, for example), the dis— appearance of the body, and descent into hell, resurrection, and ascension.13 There are parallels between this career pattern and the career pattern for mythic heroes (see box X)“ And a similar pattern characterizes the transformation of outstanding personalities in ancient Greece into divinities. Seusippus, Plato’s nephew, began the process of transforming the famous philosopher into a divine man when he delivered Plato’s funeral oration; he referred to his dead uncle as the son of an alliance between his mother and Apollo. CONCLUSION The discovery that religion and the gods are social constructs has its origins in the works of some of the outstanding thinkers of the ancient i ;_ i The Social Construction of Religion 157 X THE CAREER OF THE MYTHIC HERO 1. The hero’s mother is a royal virgin; 2. The father is a king and often a near relative of the hertfi mother; 3. The circumstances of his birth are unusual; 4. The hero is reputed to be the son of god; 5. The life of the infant hero is threatened, usually by his father or maternal grandfather; 6. He is spirited away and raised by foster parents in a faraway country; 7. There is no information about the hero’s childhood; 8. The hero reaches adulthood and returns or goes to his future kingdom; 9. He is victorious over a king, giant, or dragon; 10. He marries a princess (who is often the daught I of his prede- cessor); ‘ 11. He becomes king (at about age 35); 12. He reigns uneventfully, and prescribes laws; 13. He eventually loses favor with the gods and/or his subjects and is driven from the throne; 14. He meets with a mysterious death, often on a hilltop; 15. His children, if any, do not succeed him; 16. He is not buried, but nonetheless has one or more holy sepulchres world. Credit for crystallizing and systematizing the discovery goes to a small number of the founders of modern sociological perspective, notably Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Michael Bukunin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Oswald Spengler.15 I have summarized some of their basic ideas on the origins, social functions, and political eco— nomy of religion, and on the social roles of the wonderworkers. The empirical evidence for this central discovery in the social sciences has been accumulating for centuries. Some efforts have been made to systematize that evidence and establish a firm empirical foundation for the theory of religion and the gods as constructions. For reasons mentioned earlier, this work has proceeded slowly, and has not been able to find its way easily into the worldviews of most contemporary social groups and classes. But as Marx pointed out, religionjis not simply invented by scoundrel priests and rulers; it is also an expression of human suffering and the quest for comfort and security in an alien 158 Knowledge and Belief universe. He looked forward not to an atheist society, a society that needs to deny God, but rather to a society so transformed that the question of God will not exist. Mathematics poses the same sort of problem for sociology that re- ligion does. How can we make sense sociologically of phenomena that seem to be outside the arenas of everyday social interaction and experience? Mathematics seems to live a life of its own, in a world somehow outside of the flow of history, biography, and culture, very much like the heavenly referents for religion. Indeed, mathematics and religion are no strangers to one another; they are intimately linked in history. That they posed related challenges for "the sociologist was recognized by Emile Durkheim when he concluded his study of the elementary forms of the religious life by speculating on the social nature of logical concepts.16 Chapter 8 is an introduction to the socio- logy of mathematics. NOTES 1 G. E. Swanson, The Birth of The Gods (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964). 2 D. L. O'Keefe, Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), pp. 177—8; and G. Lenski and J. Lenski, Human Societies, 2nd edn (New York: McGraw—Hill, 1974), p. 134. 3 E. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York: Collier Books, 1961). 4 See the detailed discussion of this process in O’Keefe, 1983, pp. 187—191. 5 M. Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964/1922), p. 10. 6 R. Collins, Conflict Sociology (New York: Academic Press, 1975), p. 180. 7 Collins, 1975, p. 181. 8 Collins, 1975, p. 65. 9 Collins, 1975, p. 365. 0 Harrington, The Politics at God’s Funeral (New York: Penguin Books, 1983), p. 65. 11 M. Smith, Jesus the Magician (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), p. 19. 12 Smith, 1978, p. 19. 13 E. M. Butler, The Myth of the Magus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979). 14 John Barth, The Friday Book (New York: Perigee Books, 1984), pp. 42—3. 15 For further reading: F. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ (New York: Penguin Books, 1968/1889, 1895), M. Bakunin, God and the State (New York: Dover, 1970/1916). On the sociology and social history of Christianity see: W. F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity, 2nd edn. (New York: The Social Construction of Religion 159 Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957); R. MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984); G. Theissen, Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978); H. C. Kee, Miracle in the Early Christian World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983); on some sociological aspects of the Eastern religions and mysticism, see S. Restivo, The Social Relations of Physics, Mysticism, and Mathematics (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1983), chapter 3. For general introductions to the social theory of religion, see]. Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Ionestown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), and B. Morris, Anthropological Studies of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). 16 E. Durkheim The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York: Collier Books, 1916), pp. 462—96. ...
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