Religion and Religious Organizations: Making Civilization Possible

The idea that religion makes civilization possible may appear counterintuitive to our Western mind today.  We have witnessed a barrage of argument from people like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens that religion is destructive and irrational.  Yet, not that long ago, certainly no more than three generations back, our communities instinctively understood that religion was a positive force.  I will briefly introduce what it is about religion that our forefathers and mothers thought that religion was not only important but essential.

Religion Gives a Common Story That Answers the Big Questions

Religion is the metanarrative that allows us as individuals to come together as a community because we believe in the same story.  It is a story that answers the big questions in life[1] such as Where did I come from?  Why am I here?  Where am I going?  How do I come to terms with death?  How do I make sense of suffering?  How can I possibly believe in justice?  What can I know?  What should I believe? What must I do?

Our religious stories provide examples of those who have struggled with the same questions before us.  Learned stories give us knowledge of how we ought to live and thereby strengthen our will to do what is right despite our personal passion to do otherwise.  Controlled and directed passion makes civilization possible.  Uncontrolled passion, on the other hand, results in anarchy.

The story of Jesus Christ healing the sick, for example, has motivated Christians for two millennia to establish hospitals and homes for the infirmed.  The Apostle Peter’s denial that he knew Christ at the time of the Crucifixion stands out as an example of what not to do – we learn courage and boldness from that story of failure.  Christ’s teaching to love our neighbour was exhibited in his parable of the Good Samaritan and has inspired many Christians to offer assistance to those who are otherwise one’s enemies.

The religious narrative therefore is foundational to any civilized culture.  It allows us to distinguish between justice and injustice; love and hatred; truth and falsehood; honour and dishonour; freedom and slavery.  If there is no narrative, no story that unites a people’s understanding of the meaning and purpose of life, the result will be no organized system of living together in peaceful co-existence.

Religion Gives Understanding

American philosopher, Allan Bloom makes reference to his grandparents as being “ignorant people by our standards” but “their home was spiritually rich because all the things done in it, not only what was specifically ritual, found their origin in the Bible’s commandments, and their explanation in the Bible’s stories and the commentaries on them, and had their imaginative counterparts in the deeds of the myriad of exemplary heroes.”  Reasons for their family’s existence, fulfillment of their duties, were found in serious writings, and they interpreted their sufferings “with respect to a great and ennobling past.” “This is what a community and a history mean,” notes Bloom, “a common experience inviting high and low into a single body of belief.”

Bloom compared the faith of his “ignorant” grandparents to those of his educated cousins who are M.D.s or Ph.D.s and found their comprehension of life’s meaning in want.  “When they talk about heaven and earth, the relations between men and women, parents and children, the human condition, I hear nothing but clichés, superficialities, the material of satire,” says Bloom.  He continues, “…that a life based on the Book is closer to the truth, that it provides the material for deeper research in and access to the real nature of things.  Without the great revelations, epics and philosophies as part of our natural vision, there is nothing to see out there, and eventually little left inside.”[2]

Emile Durkheim, the “father” of sociology, would agree with Bloom.  Durkheim wrote in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  “For that which makes a man,” Durkheim said, “is the totality of the intellectual property which constitutes civilization, and civilization is the work of society.  Thus is explained the prepondering role of the cult in all religions, whichever they may be.”[3]  The “cult” Durkheim refers to are the actions motivated by religion – the religious rites and the religiously inspired virtues.  The persuasive influence of society comes about from the united actions of individuals that make up society.   “It is by common action that it takes consciousness of itself and realizes its position; it is before all else an active co-operation.”

Durkheim observes that to understand the world we must first understand religion.  “In summing up, then,” he says, “it may be said that nearly all the great social institutions have been born in religion.  Now in order that these principal aspects of the collective life may have commenced by being only varied aspects of the religious life, it is obviously necessary that the religious life be the eminent form and, as it were, the concentrated expression of the whole collective life. If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion.”

Religion is Both Individual and Communal

Durkheim notes that people are Homo duplex, that is, we exist at two levels: as an individual and as part of the larger society.[4]  On one level, we relate one to one in our day to day relationships – family members, co-workers – where we keep our autonomy and personality intact.  On the second level, we bond to a larger social entity (e.g., a religious community) as a whole and lose our individuality in favour of the actions and influence of that entity.

There is a reinforcing element that flows between the individual and her religious association.  The individual consciousness is given direction and discipline from that association.  “All religions, even the crudest, are in a sense spiritualistic: for the powers they put in play are before all spiritual, and also their principal object is to act upon the moral life. Thus it is seen that whatever has been done in the name of religion cannot have been done in vain: for it is necessarily the society that did it, and it is humanity that has reaped the fruits.”[5]

Religious Transcendence Gives People Hope

Durkheim keenly observed that the value of religion is found in its ability to transfer to the individual a cause that is beyond reach of the one person – in fact, it is beyond reach of society as a whole – but all are united in seeking to obtain it.  It is our collective source of hope.  All religions point to a better day, the Promised Land or heaven, where evil no longer exists in society.  Such a society is not an empirical fact.  “[I]t is a fancy, a dream with which men have lightened their sufferings, but in which they have never really lived. It is merely an idea which comes to express our more or less obscure aspirations towards the good, the beautiful and the ideal. Now these aspirations have their roots in us; they come from the very depths of our being; then there is nothing outside of us which can account for them. Moreover, they are already religious in themselves; thus it would seem that the ideal society presupposes religion, far from being able to explain it.”[6]

The concept of the ideal society, to which religion strives, has a very important role to play.  It is not outside of our real society as forming two separate polar opposites.  Instead, the ideal and the “real” society are part of the one society.  The religious ideal allows our current society to strive for all things better.  “A society can neither create itself nor recreate itself without at the same time creating an ideal.”

As Durkheim so eloquently puts it, “It is in assimilating the ideals elaborated by society that he has become capable of conceiving the ideal. It is society which, by leading him within its sphere of action, has made him acquire the need of raising himself above the world of experience and has at the same time furnished him with the means of conceiving another. For society has constructed this new world in constructing itself, since it is society which this expresses. Thus both with the individual and in the group, the faculty of idealizing has nothing mysterious about it. It is not a sort of luxury which a man could get along without, but a condition of his very existence.”

Durkheim’s one hundred-year-old observations have become the discussion of recent scholarship.  The results are conclusive – he was right – we are homo duplex[7].  While we live most of our life in the “ordinary world” we achieve our greatest joys when we move into the sacred world as formed by our religious identity.[8]  The religious beliefs and practises create a community giving hope for a better future.

The role of the “sacred” beliefs and practises that people like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have shrilled against for the last number of years as being irrational, inefficient and costly, are now seen as the very glue that binds people together.  “There is now a great deal of evidence,” says Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “that religions do in fact help groups to cohere, solve free rider problems, and win the competition for group-level survival.”[9]  As D.S. Wilson says, “Religions exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.”[10]

Religion, therefore, is the means through which we view the world – it gives us the ability to discern what is true, what is just, what is love, what is honourable, what is free.  The ideal allows for people like Ghandi to hope for a better India; a Martin Luther King, Jr. to hope for a better America; and a William Wilberforce to hope for a better Britain.  Its civilizing force makes society possible.


[1] See John Patrick, “Nine Questions Everyone Must Face,” found at www.johnpatrick.ca/papers/jp_9q.htm

[2] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 60.

[3] Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1915, 5th Edition 1964) found at www.Gutenberg.org at 1302.

[4] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York:  Pantheon Books, 2012), p. 225.

[5] Emile Durkheim, at 1305.

[6] Durkheim, at 1306.

[7] Haidt, p. 257.

[8] Haidt, p. 244.

[9] Haidt, p. 256.

[10] David Sloan Wilson, Darwins Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 159.

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Thoughts on Religion and Religious Organizations: Making Civilization Possible

  1. James Peters

    Two thoughts: Firstly man needs relationships to survive and thrive – a reflection of the divine, secondly knowledge and wisdom are two very different aspects of a rational person and they complement each other, but as pointed out one doesn’t need to have a lot of knowledge to be wise.

    Reply
    1. Barry W. BusseyBarry W. Bussey Post author

      Indeed James – Emile Durkheim pointed out over 100 years ago the same thoughts. In discussing Durkheim, Jonathan Haidt stated, “When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide….”

      Reply
  2. Michael Peabody

    Thanks for such a thought provoking article. The very fact that people like Christopher Hitchens (who was one of my favorite writers even though I disagreed with his theology) and Richard Dawkins spend so much time railing against religion – and the fact that entire nations have targeted faith as an enemy – proves how fundamental it truly is.

    We don’t all have to share the same faith, or even have a faith at all – but we can’t ignore how faith is the prism through which billions of people see the world – to ignore it doesn’t make religion play any less of a role. Isn’t it strange that the more secular the world becomes, the more focus is placed on religion?

    Thanks again!

    Michael Peabody

    Reply
    1. Barry W. BusseyBarry W. Bussey Post author

      Michael, I agree. I note that a number of observers point out that the secular worldview is itself a belief system. Thus, as the West has become secular, secularism seeks to get rid of (or at least diminish) its “competitors” a.k.a. religion. We simply cannot ignore the religious nature of mankind – it is a fact of our existence. By studying to understand we are then able to gain the knowledge of how we ought to live that will bring about the greatest amount of human flourishing. I like this definition of “flourishing”: ““to live within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience.” [Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive affect and complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60, 678-686].

      Reply
  3. Gary Councell

    What a helpful piece of writing for this day and age to counteract the naysayers about the positive influence of religion. One of the great CEOs of our day spoke at a prayer breakfast and related that the average profitable life of a corporation is 27 years, but Christianity has survived ups and downs for two thousand years. While there have been some abuses and misuse of religion, the problem is with some religious leaders, not the faith.

    Reply
    1. Barry W. BusseyBarry W. Bussey Post author

      Gary, I appreciate that observation. As a society we think that new is better. That today we are more capable, more wise, etc than the generations before us – the quest for the new is not always the best. When we contemplate the reality of Christianity surviving 2000 years that is truly remarkable – not even the great Marxist ideology that appeared ready to take over the world in the last century has come to naught. I also think of the Jewish religion which has been around much longer than Christianity – Dr. John Patrick, President of Augustine College in Ottawa has a talk entitled, “Why are there no Hittites in New York City?” He describes the remarkable longevity of the Jewish people on the earth – they still exist while the ancient cultures are no longer around. The key he suggests is found in Deuteronomy 6 where the Jewish people are admonished to teach their faith at all times to their children. Those religious communities who have lasted are those who take their faith seriously enough to teach it to the next generation. Thanks again!

      Reply
  4. Larry Evans

    Thank you Barry for the observations and insights! It does seem that so much is left out when we begin our search for meaning by asking first, “Who am I and where do I fit in?” If this is our first question we will likely approach life’s dilemmas from a humanistic perspective and get only subsequent answers. If we ask that “after’ “Who is God and what has He done?” not only does our life have more meaning and relevancy but how we also grasp a deeper level of how we should relate to others. As Gabe Lyons has pointed out in “The Next Christians”, we do a disservice as Christians if we leave off the bookends of God’s story: Creation and Restoration. God’s full story–Creation, the Fall, the Cross, Restoration– speaks not only of a personal religion but also to the way we relate to each other as a community. Speaking only about the Fall and the Cross is only half of the story and can easily leave out our responsibility to the larger part of God’s creation–people, the earth, animals, environment, etc. Such a perspective is made possible by hearing and putting into practice the lessons learned from God’s story.

    Reply
    1. Barry W. BusseyBarry W. Bussey Post author

      Hello Larry. Those are wonderful points you make. It is necessary to keep in mind the big picture. God’s story does not end at the cross – and by extension nor does ours – it is in the restoration of His creative work by His return to make all things new! Your comments on community remind me of The Lord’s Prayer – it is “‘Our’ Father,” not “‘My’ Father” – community is ingrained in the Gospel message.

      Reply
  5. Michael Packer

    Barry, I am glad that you are writing on this topic. We need well-researched material to refute those who would belittle our faith. I must confess, not having been to university, that most of the writers you quote are unknown to me, and probably to those people I talk to. So put in a few simple paragraphs for non-academics like me. Thanks.

    Reply
    1. Barry W. BusseyBarry W. Bussey Post author

      Thanks Michael. You make a great suggestion. Perhaps what I may try to do is write up an abstract from each blog post to highlight the key points. It is always a balance. I will work on it!

      Reply
  6. Milton Friesen

    One of the challenges that organized religion faces are the points at which it contributes to structural injustice, where the accepted cultural systems and patterns of various institutional parts of a given faith perspective do harm by excluding or suppressing. It is not easy to change systemic problems and some forms of organized religion have, in the face of challenges to get message and practice in line, adopted various kinds of strategies to keep things quiet, enforce conformity, etc.

    Your argument is important – religion is a vital source of meaning, belonging and purpose for billions of people globally. To remain vital as part of our cultural landscape, religion in its various forms must be subject to critique, correction, and public debate in order to remain vital not only at a personal level, but also at an institutional and cultural level.

    If religion isn’t contributing to flourishing at those scales, the personal gains can become self-indulgent and the injustices that all forms of organizing can wander into can become realities. Practice of debate, critique, and analysis are all critical for the ongoing vitality of religious faith, personal and institutional.

    Thanks for the post.

    Reply
  7. Kervin Raugust

    Your insight on “Religion is both individual and communal!” addresses what I see as a major problem in Canadian culture. Individualism and independance seem to be the new “virtue”. Jesus would call this a flawed virtue compared against his response to the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” where He sad, “Love God AND love others. Elsewhere He spoke of the new commandment of loving one another. True religion has to be both individual focusing upward on one’s relationship with God and communual giving expression to one’s love of God toward others. Both are vital to true religion!

    Reply
    1. Barry W. BusseyBarry W. Bussey Post author

      Hi Kervin, your comment reminds me of the concept of the “Vertical Relationship” as between the individual and God AND the “Horizontal Relationship” between the individual and his/her neighbours. (In fact when you combine both relationships you form a cross + .) The communal nature of the Christian religion also finds expression in the Lord’s Prayer – “Our” Father – not “My” Father. We would do well, it seems to me, to rediscover the communal aspect of our faith. I appreciate your comments!

      Reply

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