Monday, November 16, 2009

Durkheim and Religious Belief

Sociology, as a discipline, is not particularly friendly to religious faith. The framework of 'methodological atheism' makes it impossible to address the question of whether the things people believe in are actually true. In keeping with the desire to be a "science," sociologists admit that the reality of the objects of belief are beyond what we can measure and analyze. Or, it should be that we merely admit that and move one, whereas many are those who take the exclusion of the supernatural from the debate as a fitting opening to cut it out of our universe of possible realities. As students of the social, we look to root everything in the social.

Please remember that. It is a crucial fact. It is not that sociology is an unbiased discipline; it is a particularly biased one. Similar to how historians must conceive of the world leaving the role of God to the side, sociologist only bring in the supernatural to the extent that they are silent about it, omit it, or confuse it.

Take, for example, Durkheim's theories on the origins and functions of religion. Theorizing with the role of society in the place of supremacy, Durkheim doesn't try to overturn the ideas that notions of "the something greater than the individual" and divisions between the sacred/holy and the profane are not common to nearly all people; rather he re-roots them. The concept of God/the divine, he notes, is certainly rooted in a belief that there is something outside of the individual that is more powerful, more imposing, than he is, but that something is not the grandeur of nature, the stars, universe, or creation in general. Those views were common to evolutionary concepts of religion -man observes the "greater than himself" and conceives of the idea of deity. Durkheim changes the foundation point. The origin of that feeling is actually something greater than the individual: it is the social. As society wields some intangible power over the individual and his actions, often in ways imperceptible even to the most astute of observers, the individual absorbs the sensation of that power and thus is led to project the idea of deity. This is a clever little theoretical coup.

Durkheim's vision of the sacred is similarly intriguing. He again notes that there is a universal presence of concepts of the sacred - that all cultures and societies make separations between what is mundane and what is set apart as special, other, and revered. The otherness of the thing revered is reflected in the actions of separation and otherness that become ritualized parts of community religious life (and of social life in general).

On the surface, these are both quite intelligent arguments that make a lot of sense. But remember that, when approaching such arguments from a theistic, and in my case Christian, perspective, you don't accept the conclusions because you know you are playing with more cards than the scholar you are reading. What does that mean, practically? It means that, though Durkheim's mechanism may be quite useful, his premise makes this argument unconvincing. I can believe that the ritual action is crucial in the expression of sacredness in society or that society is the primary means through which divinity is expressed, but i am not bound to believe that sacredness and divinity are the products of society. For, if the first premise is that sacredness and divinity exist independent of either society or the individual, then both mechanisms become and expression of a built in compulsion. All cultures have concepts of the divine and sacredness not because they all have societies, but because they are common to all societies (which also helps explain why we sacrilize the things that aren't even sacred).

That is a little flip, but it does to things: (1) it maintains, or might even improve, the argument for the origins and function of religious belief, and (2) it brings sociological theory into a place where it is not directly contesting with faith. It works with, and not against, the faith structures that are valuable to those being theorized about. And that certainly makes me happier.

What this doesn't do is also two-fold: (1) it doesn't adhere to methodological atheism (which is why you will never see something like this in a work of sociology or an academic journal), and (2) it doesn't violate the bound of the data. There is nothing in Durkheim that proves he is right (which is why, at the end of the day, this is all just theory).

So, dear readers, read critically. Use what is useful; discard what is not.

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At 1:29 AM, Blogger Grand Master - 108 Tongues, Bustout! Family said...

I like it.

I've been doing a lot of reading recently on atheism, skepticism, and science (the first two of which are often and sadly conflated), and I've been noticing that a lot of people on both sides of the issue have problems properly defining boundaries and admitting certain beliefs as properly basic.

I think there exists a widespread sense, especially among the higher tiers of academic intelligentsia, that knowledge in a field conveys knowledge of a field. While the former can definitely inform and support the latter, they are by no means firmly correlated. If only we could learn to be humble (I say this with myself, and communities of faith in general, in mind)... but often we assume that because we are skilled in some pursuit, it qualifies us to describe the bounds and presumptions of that pursuit. And so, common ground remains elusive.

Saddening, when I see it at work.

At 2:39 AM, Blogger Michael Bowen said...

Just want a clarification. What do you mean when you say that as a Christian you are playing with more cards than the scholar you are reading?

At 11:20 AM, Blogger Carol Yu said...

you sound phd-y

At 9:58 AM, Blogger suburban_dissident said...

Mike, what i meant is that I don't have any reservations using a "God card" whereas an non-Christian scholar cannot incorporate that into their work.


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