The Sociological Approach: Defining Religion, Part 5

(For part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4)

Since sociology studies human social relationships and institutions, most atheists will, at some point have conceded that human beings are essentially “social animals”. Going back as far as Aristotle, there has been a realization that human beings need one another, not merely for

procreation, but for mental development. The number of documented cases of isolated children who, because of their isolation, were never able to become meaningful or contributing members of society is disheartening. But it’s not merely the proximity that enables this, rather it is an atmosphere of relatable concepts. Indeed, as Smart outlined, there are eight aspects that are adopted in order to make socialization not only possible, but productive.

In fact, even within the sociological study of religion, there are varying—some might say conflicting—definitions. One of the earliest, somewhat scientific approaches focused on a substantive definition of religion: what the “substance” or “essence” of a particular element, such as E.B. Tylor did when he defined it as, “belief in spiritual beings.”(8) If, indeed, this were all that a religion was about, then atheists might have a valid argument.

But others have looked at what religion does in society, and have composed a functional definition; that religion is not merely bound by a specific, limited belief, but helps, “individuals cope with [the] perplexities [of life] by offering explanation[s] and by providing a strategy to overcome despair, hopelessness, and futility.”(9) The writer of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes seems to come to the conclusion that a life lived apart from a certain substantive belief ends in futility and despair, as he writes his thesis statement:

“I HAVE SEEN EVERYTHING THAT IS DONE UNDER THE SUN, AND BEHOLD ALL IS VANITY AND STRIVING AFTER WIND. (10)

Damon Linker, writing in 2013 at The Week, pulls no punches when he writes in his review of atheist philosopher A.C. Greyling’s book, The God Argument,

“IF ATHEISM IS TRUE, IT IS FAR FROM BEING GOOD NEWS. LEARNING THAT WE ARE ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE, THAT NO ONE HEARS OR ANSWERS OUR PRAYERS, THAT HUMANITY IS ENTIRELY THE PRODUCT OF RANDOM EVENTS, THAT WE HAVE NO MORE INTRINSIC DIGNITY THAN NON-HUMAN AND EVEN NON-ANIMATE CLUMPS OF MATTER, THAT WE FACE CERTAIN ANNIHILATION IN DEATH, THAT OUR SUFFERINGS ARE ULTIMATELY POINTLESS, THAT OUR LIVES AND LOVES DO NOT MATTER IN A LARGER SENSE, THAT THOSE WHO COMMIT HORRIBLE EVILS AND ELUDE HUMAN PUNISHMENT GET AWAY WITH THEIR CRIMES SCOT FREE—ALL OF THIS (AND MUCH MORE) IS UTTERLY TRAGIC.

Jason Rosenhouse, a mathematics professor at James Madison University, calls Linker’s comments strange,” because he goes to men like Friedrich Nietzche and Albert Camus, who grasped the reality of a life devoid of certain substantive beliefs. Linker realizes that there is a function to beliefs, and that atheism—in order to address them— is not equipped to do this. Rosenhouse says something worth considering later, but his response to Linker is that atheism can do this, it can answer the questions and thus serve functionally as a religion.

Lastly, religion can be defined symbolically. Going back to a previous section, religion does something in the greater sociological sphere; namely it coveys meaning through, “objects, behaviors, or stories that represent or remind one of something else…”(11) This definition was developed by anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who made a distinction between two sets of symbols macro and micro: the former set of symbols are meant to inform about the greater meaning of life, and can be called “cosmological”; the latter set of symbols are for everyday interactions, a wink, a smile, a handshake.(12) While different religions may use different symbols, that doesn’t matter as much as the fact that symbols are used and that those symbols carry meaning, but this fact can also make the use of such a definition ultimately unhelpful in doing specific research.(13)

When it comes to strict matters of what a religion is, sociologically speaking, is that there are several factors that overlap, factors that can be detected and analyzed as a social phenomena, which means that the definition will be capable of encapsulating what is both traditionally understood as religion as well as what is non-traditional. This recognizes the fact that religion is a system of interdependent factors by which people relate through a shared system of meaning, beliefs, ethics and values, routine social expectations that gives a sense of referential belonging to its members.(14)

Notice that this intersects on several points either directly or indirectly with Smart’s features of religion. This goes back to why Smart’s work in this area is so compelling and worthy of consideration. So much so that any alleged overreach in regard to its application appears to be only incidental in making application of the principles in making the analysis.

Stay tuned for part 6.

Notes

8. Keith A. Roberts and David Yamane. Religion in Sociological Perspective, Fifth Edition.

Sage Publications LTD. Thousand Oaks, CA. 2012. p.4

9. Ibid. p.7

10. Ecclesiastes 1:14, ESV

11. Roberts and Yamane. p.8

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid. p.11

14. Ibid. p 12