Sunday, July 3, 2011


A fellow sociologist (and friend!) reading my last two entries has suggested that I’m wrong to assume religion is a single monolithic phenomenon. He thinks that any given religious group’s material interests (say, the Church’s need to maintain power in the Middle Ages) are what we really need to analyze, and therefore it's material interests and not beliefs that make a religion “bad or good.” It’s a line of reasoning I’ve heard quite a few times before- and it shows an admirable flexibility of mind and willingness to take apart social objects and categories and see them as more complex than they look on the surface. Still, that dog won’t hunt. He won’t even come when called or refrain from wiping his butt on the carpet. Religion’s bad and good behavior stem from the same source, and that's what I’m really after here. Religion has a bad mechanism: the need to protect evidence-less beliefs and the social aims that follow from those unsupportable beliefs.

Restrictive and punitive sexual laws and standards, persecution and execution of agnostics/atheists/freethinkers, incitements to and justifications for wars and oppression, and stuffing science into the occasional straitjacket- even the most sympathetic person would grant that that the ol’ good time worship has played some role in these things. However, even when there's talk about the bad social policy that comes about as a result of a religion, it’s pretty rare for religion itself to ever be indicted for these painful wrong turns and obstacles to progress.

Many academics see religion as such a broad and differentiated thing that fundamentalist and liberal religions, or European and Asian religions, or past and current religions aren’t really thought to be the same type of entity at all. Now perhaps this is an understandable reaction to 19th century secularists who, in attacking Christian woo-woo, tended to equate Christian woo with all the world’s woo. But it’s just as silly as wanting to ditch the term “society” because patterns of human social interaction have turned out to be much more variable than most 19th century scholars assumed. There is an underlying commonality across all religions, whether we’re talking the “Fetch the stakes and kindling!” or “Jesus-supported-modern-human-rights!” varieties. All posit some set of entities not backed up by evidence- God, or Jesus and angels, or tree-living spirits, magical energy that can make one area “cursed” and another “holy,” or a fanciful story of creation. These beliefs are the core of the religion and, being so vulnerable to rational inquiry, have to be protected from critical examination. This is the source of all the sweet ecstatic praise of “faith.”

As a result of the kind of argument suggested by my colleague, social scientists have a recurring habit of divorcing a religion's practices from the cosmic myths that are put forward as justification for those practices. Yes, the practices of any religion might very well have become widespread and institutionalized because they were useful for powerholders in society- any look at the discriminatory treatment of women supports that. But when the Waldensians pushed for the end of the Holy Roman tradition of the single village priest as sole interpreter and leader of village religious life, they were advocating a difference in social policy for spiritual reasons. For both parties the social structural change was the assumed aftereffect of getting the correct religious doctrine, and that is the field in which conscious debate took place- wrangling over interpretations of scripture, advancing reasons why God's nature is one way as opposed to another.

Neither the heretical sects themselves nor the Church argued at all on the grounds of what kind of social, material results would occur under one policy versus another. After all, that would be debating using potentially real and checkable facts, versus the simulated facts of religious argumentation. And that's why I speculated that these sorts of debates tend to degenerate from open debate to violence: if both parties are opposed to each other on the grounds of equally unsupportable beliefs there's no way to adjudicate between them within the debate itself.

For religious groups, protecting their material interests is bound up directly with protecting their core ontological claims. There’s countless examples of religious individuals and groups choosing to save the latter over the former (martyrdom), but any religion that completely goes in the reverse direction and gives up all of its unsupportable claims is no longer a religion at all.


  1. Hi YamaZaru! Saw your comment on my blog and read your profile. A sociologist? You might like to read this post about a sociologist, author, and blogger whose book was published last year on what polls show us about Christianity in the U.S. (the author is an Evangelical, but makes some admissions that were published in Christianity Today):

    Notice also what Mark Noll wrote at the end of the post.

  2. Hi Ed! Thanks for stopping by- I was really enjoying your blog, nice work. I love the extracts you've been posting- especially since my reading load in grad school leaves me with less time to read books about religious history than I would like(luckily religion isn't my formal area of concentration, otherwise I might be driven crazy by all the apologetics being published as "sociology of religion" these days...).

    I'll take a look at that post, looks interesting!