On One Hand

July 13, 2007

Religion as a Social Construction

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 6:33 pm
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Most people see a clear boundary between what is religion and what is not. They say religion is your view towards God and the afterlife, and different religions vary based on what God looks like and what the afterlife looks like. For Christians, then, God is the Trinity, and the afterlife is heaven or hell. For Hindus, then, there are many gods, and afterlife is reincarnation.

But there are fundamental differences in the kind of questions each religion answers. In Buddhism, the question is not the nature of God; there is no supreme God at all, just a bunch of lesser beings who used to be human but got good enough Karma to gain supernatural powers. Yet Buddhism is still very much a religion. If you are a Unitarian Universalist, Jewish, or one of myriad indigenous religions around the world, the question is not what happens after death; there is no clear depiction of an afterlife, or even assurance that one exists. The emphasis here is instead on community – but these groups are all still classified as religions.

As any student of Religion would tell you, religion is better seen as a set of ideas that many people share than as any kind of specific question-and-answer about existence. There are “six ways of being religious,” to borrow a famous concept from Dale Cannon, a prominent American religious studies scholar. Cannon’s six religious behaviors begin with “right action,” meaning performing any religion’s concept of “good deeds” and avoiding “sin.” There is “reasoned inquiry,” which is done by philosophers and clerics, and there is a “mystical quest,” which includes rights-of-passages most famous in the story of the American Indian boy’s journey through the woods at puberty. There is “shamanic mediation,” which involves a person speaking to spirits of gods or the dead, and “devotion,” such as a fast or pilgrimage. Finally, Cannon classified the “sacred rite,” which involves other coming-of-age ceremonies, weddings and sacraments. Different religions focus on different aspects of the six kinds of behavior, and most religions contain elements of each.

So we see that a person can be religious by performing a ritual, like a dance or circumcision; by praying alone or in groups; by offering food and gifts to the dead or to God in sacrifice; by studying scripture; by meditating; or by consulting a spiritual leader like a psychic medium, priest or shaman for advice. Many people do these things without believing in a god, without going to a church or temple, without having scripture or without having clergy. There is at least one undisputed world religion that lacks each one of these things that are commonly thought of as fundamentals of faith. Perhaps common superstitious activities, like crossing fingers or knocking on wood, are just as much religious acts as Last Rights or a pilgrimage to Mecca.

And we know how religions alter perception, bending the world to fit in a certain community worldview. A common Buddhist woman may look at scientific knowledge of the Big Bang and be in awe of how well it fits her religion’s ideas about the mysteries of the universe, becoming certain that it is evidence that her faith is true and bring her comfort that her dead loved ones have been reincarnated on a path to enlightenment. Meanwhile, an intellectually-brilliant Fundementalist Christian may see gaping holes in the theory of Evolution, reiterating his beleif that a old bearded man built a boat that carried two pairs of every species as a much more plausible history of the world. A Mexican woman might feel that God is reaching out to her when the silhouette of the Virgin Mary appears in burn marks on her tortilla, while an American Protestant man watches a human-interest story about that woman on the news and scoffs at what he calls a runaway imagination.

Here are some elements that many religions do share: first, there is some sort of cohesive moral system that governs right vs. wrong, good behavior vs. bad behavior. Second, there is often a single trusted source or system of acquiring knowledge. Third, there is a sense of community. Fourth, there is often some sort of prophecy or promise. Fifth, there are rituals. Sixth, there are symbolic objects or artifacts, which, for no rational reason, are held in higher esteem than other objects.

It’s easy to see how Christianity is a religion. The moral system is based on the guidance of scripture, and scripture or the wisdom of the Church is the trusted source of knowledge. The community is the congregation. The promise is salvation after death for all Christians, and the prophecy is the second coming of Christ and renewal of the world. Rituals are baptisms, funerals, and weddings. The revered artifacts are holywater, the cross, the church building, a crucifix, communion bread, or anything Christians call “holy.”

Thus, being an American is, in no small way, like a religion too. A moral system is based on the idea of individual rights and majority rule, and the trusted sources of knowledge are educated “experts” like doctors, lawyers, professors, psychologists, scientists or anyone with an advanced degree. The community is the neighborhood, school, office, city, town, state or nation. The promise is that any person can change or better himself at any time, and that hard work, skill and intelligence will lead to worldly success. The prophecy is the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world; that by whatever means, peaceful or violent, someday the rest of the world will share our deepest values. The rituals are fireworks on the Fourth of July, blowing out candles during birthday parties, marching down the isle during graduations, and tipping the waitress. Exalted objects are flags, wedding rings, antiques, diplomas, photographs, and anything we say to have “sentimental value.”

Even Americans who loathe their nation’s foreign policy or offer scathing critiques on its culture can admit to holding some, if not most, of these values; we all trust scientists and professors, we all celebrate birthdays, we all believe we can better ourselves and we all quietly think that someday every Third-world country will be rich and democratic.

The most interesting groups to view as religions are people who do not realize how much their value system resembles a religion. They range from atheists and agnostics who say they loathe religion and will have nothing to do with faith, to those who are indifferent to faith, to those who appreciate faith but do not say they have one, or do not realize how much their value system resembles a religion.

There is the religion of capitalism, of enthusiasts of Ayn Rand, where Free Market Capitalism and Individualism is exalted. The moral system is self-interest; acting to one’s own benefit is good, and anything that is “collectivist” is evil. The promise is that natural market forces will solve humanity’s problems and cheque all folly, that the market always punishes foolishness and always rewards prudence and ingenuity. The prophesy is that the market will perpetually increase humanity’s power over the natural environment, that capitalism and wealth will spread across the world, and that capitalist societies will always outperform non-capitalist societies to achieve a brilliant, beautiful future for the humanity. The trusted source of knowledge are capitalism’s philosophers, Ayn Rand, Henry Ford, Robert McNamara, and adherence to the principle of self-interest. Exalted objects are imperialistic-esque symbols of humanism, corporatism and democracy; symbols such as skyscrapers, public monuments, logos and corporate trademarks. Go to Capitalism.org or Capitalism.org/FAQ to see what I am talking about; compare that page to the Jehovah’s Witnesses homepage or this page from their site.

There is the religion of futurism, full of science fiction fans. Its promise is that the pursuit of technology will conquer Earth and space, extend our life spans indefinitely, and change the world as we know it. The community is of like-minded people communicating through novels and science books, movies, television shows, conventions, and the Internet. Its prophesy is that life as we know it will be perpetually transformed by technology; we will colonize alien planets, build great societies with sentient alien beings, have every physical need met by robots and that humanity as we know it will survive as long as the Universe does by expanding and spreading. Its prophesy is that Homo sapiens are done evolving and will look the same a billion years from now as they do today. The trusted source of knowledge is science, and exalted objects are living beings, who will someday be indistinguishable from machines but will still have some intrinsically superior value to artificial humans.

There is the religion of environmentalism, and the moral system is nonharm to living things that are not human – that individual organisms like plants and animals, that separate species, and that whole ecosystems have an independent right to exist. Its community is bonded by environmental magazines, the National Geographic channel, Natural History Museum fans and anyone under the age of 35 who went to a public school. Its promise is that human health and happiness is better served by natural things than by man-made things. Its prophecy is of danger to the well-being of humanity and society if human beings destroy the environment that sustains them. It’s trusted source of knowledge is the scientific process, ecology and evolutionary biology, evidence in the natural world, and an intuitive sense of harmony with nature. The rituals are hikes, planting trees, gardening, keeping pets and traveling to natural landmarks. Exalted objects or symbols are trees, animals, landscapes, ecosystems, Native American artifacts, other indigenous symbols or representations of natural things.

There is the religion of consumerism, and the moral system is conspicuity, and that social status is acquired through attractiveness and status-marking objects or wealth. It’s promise is that health, beauty and that a kind of personal betterment can be achieved through social couth or material goods. Its trusted source of knowledge is magazines and pamphlets, self-help books and the “fit” section of the local paper, designers, decorators, models, actors, authors, Oprah Winfrey and anyone on TV. Its prophecy is that novelty will not end or become tiresome. Rituals are trips to beauty salons, high school dances and pageants, getting a car on the 16th birthday, going to an elite college, and shopping in malls. Revered symbols and objects are brand names, prestigious college diplomas, Book Club books, cars, homes, “all natural” body wash with “avocado and essence of apple” in it, coffee table books, or any object or thing bought that is made to appear expensive or to be seen by others.

There is the religion of diversity, and the moral system is tolerance. Its community is of anyone who is a juxtaposition of things that are normally opposites; gay activist Muslims, Caucasian Buddhists, interracial children; as well as Democrats, Liberals, public high and middle school teachers and subscribers to National Geographic. Its promise is that if one society is increasingly tolerant, other societies will become increasingly tolerant toward it and follow its example. Its prophecy is that, one day, wars and racism will be implausible. Its trusted source of knowledge is sociology, anthropology, kindness, and any remnant of any culture that is very old or has been robbed of power. Its rituals are samplings from the rituals of other cultures. Its artifacts are colorful.

There is the religion of neoconservatism, and the moral system is that the ends justify the means. Its promise is that invasion can spread democracy, and its prophesy is that someday all nations will resemble the United States. Its trusted knowledge is intuition. Its revered artifacts are patriotic American symbols, military paraphanelia, corporate symbols, open highways and cars.

There is the religion of communism, and the moral system is that accumulated wealth is evil and all human beings are intrinsically equal, even if apparently unequal. Its promise is that social stratification and conflict will end with the abolition of corporations, and its prophesy is that corruption and capitalism will someday whither away in an enlightend society. Its trusted source of knowledge is science, the beleifs of the people who do manual labor and its philosphers. Its symbols of humanism are exactly the same humanistic monuments as the symbols of staunch capitalists, except this time they are publicly-funded, and minus the corporate logos.

These religions are not morally right or morally wrong; I adhere to several of these groups, and loathe others, and as much as I hate to admit it, I think everyone in the Western world is a consumerist no matter to what extent he or she hopes otherwise. There are as many different religious paradigms as there are people in the world, as each person puts the pieces together differently. Some of their prophesies that will be proven true, some will be proven false, and some come as warnings of things that may or may not be avoided. The important thing to realize is that no one, no matter how clever or intelligent, escapes the subjectivity and inherent fallability brought on by such worldviews; that’s why it took humanity thousands of years to develop scientific processes that take knowledge out of the mind and instead acquire it through objective, material experiments – and even then, we know that cultural factors lead different groups of scientists in different directions.

And no one need be completely of one religion, either; that’s another thing about religion that many people often miss. There is no definitive difference between a Buddhist and a Hindu, or a Hindu and a Sikh; each overlaps the views of the others, and though claiming separate identities, can have views more like each other than like some adherents of their own religion. One Christian may insist that a Mormon is not a Christian while a Mormon insists that he or she is, and a Jehovah’s Witness may say that Jehovah’s Witnesses are the only Christians but Catholics and Protestants obviously disagree.

Each of these worldviews acts as a lens, and all new bits of information will be processed through them and altered by them. That is why we can see a CATO think-tank member study the journals and still insist that Global Warming is a myth, a hippie become certain that the poisonous mushrooms he is eating are actually good for his digestive tract, a futurist think he can predict what robots will look like thirty years from now, or a businessman beleive that the family that lost their home to bankruptcy must have done something foolish or lazy while his own investment risks were commendable. They are every bit as gripping as faith, sometimes to the extent that they become invisible to us as anything but the most rational, logical, perfect way to look at things.

And everyone adheres to such worldviews, even the staunchest athiest or most educated intellectual. There is no way to escape religion; it encompasses everything we know.

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2 Comments »

  1. This is another fine example of your outstanding writing that keeps me coming back here. 🙂 It is well thought-out and thought-provoking, as usual.

    Your basic premise, that everybody — whether atheist, Christian, Buddhist, neo-con-ist, whatever — subscribes to some kind of worldview, and derives his/her moral compass from that worldview, is right on. I would disagree with one statement you made here, though, which is the suggestion that religions are not morally right or morally wrong.

    I maintain that religions (or interpretations thereof) which exhort their followers toward extreme self-gratification at others’ expense, or pissing contests, or fomenting unnecessary strife and division within the human race, are morally wrong. There is so much more that binds us together as a human race than there is that divides us, and I can’t see how any worldview that ignores this fundamental truth and tells us otherwise can be considered to be anything but wrong.

    I suppose when you think about it, though, the preceding is really nothing more than my worldview or “religion,” isn’t it? Like you said, 6.7 billion people on this planet are going to come to 6.7 billion different interpretations of the world around them.

    Comment by larrysphatpage — July 14, 2007 @ 6:52 am | Reply

    • I think pretty much anyone in the world would agree that “religions (or interpretations thereof) which exhort their followers toward extreme self-gratification at others’ expense, or pissing contests, or fomenting unnecessary strife and division within the human race, are morally wrong.”

      Is it 6.7 billion already? Shit.

      Comment by ononehand — July 15, 2007 @ 2:01 am | Reply


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