Getting Religion

Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim

Today, the sociology of religion’s prominence within the field has dimmed to the point that it has been described as “sociology’s ghetto.”  But the role that religion has played in the field’s history is quite extensive, with Emile Durkheim’s work standing as the most famous example.  Randall Collins uses Durkheim’s distinction between the sacred and the profane in his 1982 book Sociological Insight: An Introduction to Non-Obvious Sociology.  He notes that, as societies grow more complex and diverse, that which is held to be sacred becomes more abstract.  “Religion,” he writes, “pushed to the extreme generalization and abstraction, turns into political ideals.  Thus modern political doctrines, such as conservatism, liberalism, and socialism, emerge out of the declining belief in religion.  They also continue its concerns in a new form (52-53).”

Thinking of our modern political commitments as religions isn’t unheard of – a group of disillusioned communists once wrote a book entitled The God that Failed, for instance – but it still strikes me as a refreshing and illuminating way to make sense of contemporary political and social debates.  When people battle it out over gun control or gay marriage on political talk shows or blogs, the fervor that is whipped up seems more understandable if it is viewed as an exchange of insults aimed right at what the combatants hold closest to their hearts.  A disagreement over these issues is not merely a difference of opinion; rather, for one to profess an opposing view represents an assault on that which another holds sacred.  And as Durkheim and Collins make clear, an assault on the sacred is the most contemptible act possible from the perspective of a believer.  Even “civil” debate over the sacred is illegitimate.  That which is sacred is not up for negotiation or subject to review in light of new evidence.  Its goodness and rightness is self-evident and unchanging, at least in the view of its particular faith community.

And yet, no matter how well a sociological theory of religion might apply to contemporary political debates, I can’t help but imagine that such an analysis might make the combatants in these debates squirm.  Most of us like to think of ourselves as perceptive people who are capable of examining an issue or situation and coming to an intelligent conclusion.  I, on the other hand, have implied that one’s stance on an issue has something in common with an inflexible, zealous fanaticism.  That’s not the terminology I used, of course, but when you strip away the euphemisms, “inflexible, zealous fanaticism” isn’t an entirely inappropriate description of how the sacred is defended and how desecrations of it are responded to.

The matter is particularly salient for progressives.  On many issues – most notably gay rights and abortion – the progressive side stands in opposition to people and organizations that are open about their connections to religion.  In other words, religion – and the inflexible, zealous fanaticism that comes with it – is the domain of the other side.  To suggest that any element of it also characterizes the progressive side is therefore an unwelcome association.  Ultimately, however, it seems difficult to disentangle ideas of the sacred from such progressive concepts as “social justice.”  When we progressives speak of social justice, we are traversing the terrain of the true, the good, and the beautiful.  We’re constructing a vision of the ideal society.  We might say that this society is built upon rationality, empirical evidence, and convincing, reasonable arguments.  But suppose that someone else strolls up and says “No, I believe that my opinion, which is in opposition to yours, is in fact the rational way to approach this issue.”  In response, if I still want to cling to the legitimacy granted by a claim of rationality, I must tell this challenger that my system of rationality, which led to my conclusion, is a system of rationality that is more true and more right than theirs.  In other words, in my defense of my particular perspective on rationality, I will fall back on nonrationality.  From there, it may not be long before I relapse into inflexible, zealous fanaticism.

Are we therefore left to conclude that we might as well stand up and say “Yes, my stance on (insert issue here) is sacred to me, and I hold it with a form of religious devotion”?  Is it possible for anyone to claim that their political or social attitudes are rooted in some sort of objective logic rather than a particular perspective on the true, the good, and the beautiful?  Should we open a United Church of Opposition to Food Stamp Cuts?  Durkheim and Collins really leave me wondering.

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One thought on “Getting Religion

  1. Nice insights, Matthew. I think you’re articulating a very similar view to Terry Eagleton’s (a Marxist Literary Critic) perspective on politics and ethics, who also recognized an “other-ing” of the moral and the sacred by some progressive perspectives.

    “The problem for some traditional leftish thought was that the more you tried to firm up your political agenda, making it a scientific, materialist affair rather than an idle utopian dream the more you threatened to discredit the very values it aimed to realize. It seemed impossible to establish, say, the idea of justice on a scientific basis; so what exactly did you denounce capitalism, slavery, or sexism in the name of? You cannot describe someone as oppressed unless you have some dim notion of what not being oppressed might look like, and why being oppressed is a bad idea in the first place. And this involves normative judgments, which then makes politics look uncomfortably like ethics.”

    From After Theory (2003), page 148-149. Jonathan Haidt, the former UVA psychologist, had many of the same insights: political discussion could probably be more productive if both sides could recognize the “sacred” and non-rational (or supra-rational?) of their own and the Other’s perspective.

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