The Relationship between Religion and
Religion as a Reflection of Society
Some have argued that religion mirrors the larger
society. In other words, religion embodies and gives authority to the
values, standards and ideals of society or the state. This was the
conclusion of Emile Durkheim. “For Durkheim the explicit content of
religious ideas was not that important; religion expressed not theological
but sociological reality.”
|One must admit that there is some truth in
this approach. In every religious tradition, there are elements that
reflect society’s values more than the essence of the religious teaching.
For example, one Islamic scholar notes the inheritance law in Islam which
seem to favor males “reflects the patriarchal context in which the Qur’an
was revealed.” Similar observations could be made regarding the laws of
the Hebrew Scriptures which clearly place a higher value on the lives of
men. Many would argue that in these cases, religion is simply reflecting
the values of society.
|One very interesting example that
seems to support Durkheim’s conclusion is what has been identified
as America’s “civil religion.” In 1966, sociologist Robert Bellah
wrote a fascinating essay that identified and characterized American
As you read this article, be sure that you
understand that Bellah’s civil religion is not to be equated with
Christianity, although it is strongly influenced by the terms and language
of the Judeo-Christian tradition. For example, the founding fathers spoke
of Europe as Egypt and America as the new Promised Land. The migration
from the old world to the new was expressed in terms of the people of
Israel crossing the Read Sea out of Egypt to freedom. George Washington
becomes a second Moses and Abraham Lincoln assumes a Christ-like role.
Nevertheless, this civil religion is never equated with Christianity. It
is quite distinct and more generic than Christianity or any religion. It
is however, something more specific than “religion in general.” It has
its own scriptures: the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the
Gettysburg address. It also has its own ritual calendar that includes
Memorial Day, Thanksgiving Day and the Fourth of July.
This 1862 allegorical print illustrates civil
religion in America. "Freedom, holding the American flag, is flanked
by Christianity and Justice, and surrounded by historical figures
including Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. Humanitas reaches
down to the manacled slave being restrained by the alligator King
Cotton, sovereign of the dark underworld of the Confederacy."
|Civil religion believes
that God is involved in history and that God has a special
concern for America. The God of America’s civil religion is characterized
in terms of law, order and justice rather than salvation and love.
Thus, Bellah sets forth a compelling claim for the
existence of a religion of the nation that is formulated more or less
consciously and that reflects the understandings and values of society.
Note that Bellah himself does not see this as necessarily a negative
force. In his conclusion, Bellah notes, “But it (civil religion) is a
heritage of moral and religious experience from which we still have much
to learn as we formulate the decisions that lie ahead.” In other words,
Bellah recognizes that this civil religion that expresses the values of
American society can play the positive role of uniting people and giving a
sense of identity.
While the so-called American civil religion is a
clear example of how a society’s values and ideals can create a type of
religion, there are other ways in which religion reflects and reinforces
the values of a society. The Sacred Quest notes that Ernest
Troeltsch demonstrated that the role of state supported Churches in
Europe (especially in the late 19th century) had the social
function of under girding the ideals and values of the state. In such
cases it is clear that religion function to help maintain the status quo:
it legitimizes the government, social institutions and prevailing values
and ideals of society.