Religion as a Social Construct

I think we’re ready to get into the philosophical arguments about religion now. This is my first philosophical post about the nature of religion, but it won’t be my last. I would appreciate any feedback you may have. With that, let’s get to work, shall we?

What I’m presenting here is the case Emile Durkheim makes. As a sociologist he removes all metaphysics and spirituality, and evaluates religion as merely a result of social context. Religions are found at the heart of societies and evolve within those societies. The system of beliefs which arise from religion are interdependent on the nature of that society. Tribal religions tend to be more focused on oral tradition and ancestor worship, whereas institutionalized Western religions tend to be more focused on written Law and the worship of God or other deities. The treatment of religions is a direct result of its evolution within a social construct.

There are two resolutions which Durkheim points to with the idea that religion is a creation of societies. The first implies that individuals develop their religious identity while being involved in society in such a way that they both maintain interdependence and maintain their individuality with relation to the deity. The other places the individual within society as a whole, whereby society itself is what is held responsible to a deity, and not so much the individual. While I would like to think the first is more true than the second, my intuition tells me the reality is that the second is more true. But there is a duality here. A person is both an individual and a member of society. Because of this, any personal relationship a person makes with his deity (namely God), it is a result of the relationship the greater society in which he belongs has with that deity. Our understanding is that religious belief originates in the mind of the individual, when it is actually a product of collective thought. The individual and the society become interlocked by this shared religious belief.

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  • Diana Bigler

    In my study of Durkheim, one criticism I have is the way that “tribal” cultures and their religions are treated in his theologies. The tribal cultures are seen as less evolved, even though anthropological studies have illustrated the complexities of many of these cultures. He does also state that all religions are true religions and that they simply function in different ways to accomplish the same purpose. However, I do think an application of the reductionalistic approach of treating religion as a social construct is interesting. Another thing to keep in mind is that through this social concept theorem, Durkheim points out that once religion is reduced to its basic motivation, one finds that religion is the worship of the society itself.

  • Baobao Wang (PS-02)

    It is really novel for me to know religion as a social construct. Religion is closely related to the society and serve as a social construct. In the meantime it is also the product of the development of the society. Interesting blog!