Tuesday, June 3, 2003

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Why Gods should Matter in Social Science

If it is hard to believe that conceptions of the Gods are ignored in most recently written histories, it is harder yet to understand why Gods were long ago banished from the social-scientific study of religion. But that is precisely why I have devoted two volumes to demonstrating the crucial role of the Gods in shaping history and civilization, and to resurrecting and reformulating a sociology of Gods.

If asked what the word "religion" means, most religious people will say it's about God or the Gods. Yet, for a century, most social-scientific studies of religion have examined nearly every aspect of faith except what people believe about Gods. When and why did we get it so wrong?

Émile Durkheim and the other early functionalists, who emphasized the uses of religion, dismissed Gods as unimportant window dressing, stressing instead that rites and rituals are the fundamental stuff of religion. Seen from the perspective of "true" sociology, the concept of God "is now no more than a minor accident. It is a psychological phenomenon which has got mixed up with a whole sociological process whose importance is of quite a different order," Durkheim wrote. "Thus the sociologist will pay scant attention to the different ways in which men and peoples have conceived the unknown cause and mysterious depth of things. He will set aside all such metaphysical speculations and will see in religion only a social discipline."

Fifteen years later Durkheim had not wavered in his conviction that Gods are peripheral to religion, noting that, although the apparent purpose of rituals is "strengthening the ties between the faithful and their god," what they really do is strengthen the "ties between the individual and society ... the god being only a figurative representation of the society." Thus began a new social-science orthodoxy: Religion consists of participation in rites and rituals -- and only rites and rituals.

I have long suspected that the underlying "insight" that directed our attention away from God and toward ritual had to do with the fact that Durkheim and his circle were militantly secular Jews who, nevertheless, sometimes attended synagogue. In their personal experience, the phenomenology of religion would not have included belief in supernatural beings, but only the solidarity of group rituals. Those personal perceptions were then reinforced by their voluminous reading of anthropological accounts of the impassioned ritual life of "primitives" by observers who lacked any sympathy for the objects of those worship services.

Lengthy, interesting piece refuting these assumptions by Rodney Stark, author of a new book called For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery