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Society and the Sacred: The Social Formations and Transformations of Religion

While it may be stating the obvious, religion is both influenced by society and influences society. As we have seen, some sociologist such as Emile Durkheim, suggest that religion reflects the power structure and values of a society.  On the other hand, Max Weber has set forth the idea that religion can and does shape the values and power structure of society.  In many cases, it is impossible to isolate "religion" as a separate, independent component in contrast to "society."  In almost all cases, there is a reciprocal relationship between religion and society.  Each influences and is shaped by the other.

This unit focuses less on the impact of religion on society as a whole; rather its real focus is how religious traditions are embodied in communities. In this unit we will explore the various type of religious societies, and how they develop and change.

 Types of religious societies

A.  Natural community:  In natural religious communities, there is little or no distinction between the religious and "non religious" life of the community.  Indeed, every aspect of the natural community including its attitude toward family, its economic system and its power structure, is a manifestation of religious belief and practice. In short, there is no distinction between culture and religion.  The main characteristics of the natural community are:

  • The natural community is based on kinship ties, race, nationality, language or geography.  One is usually born into the community and does not make a conscious choice to "join" the community. Moreover, there is often little or no emphasis on evangelizing to increase the size of the community.  For example, the Amish represent a natural community.  One is born into the community and there is no effort to reach outsiders.  Indeed, the Amish separate themselves from the outside world.

  • The natural community emphasizes activities that strengthen ties of kinship. Consequently,  one is likely to find an emphasis on rites of passage or ancestor worship as a way of maintaining family bonds across the generations

  • The natural community can be as small as a family or clan or as large as a race or  nation. Shintoism is a good example of a national natural religion.  Shintoism is the indigenous religious of Japan.  Until the coming of Buddhist missionaries, the Japanese did not even have a name for their religion.  Rather, it was simply their way of life. Religion was totally integrated with all aspects of life and was identical to Japanese culture.  

 B. Voluntary religious Communities

A voluntary religious community is  built on common beliefs, special functions, or sacred powers that extend beyond natural ties of kinship and geography.  One must make a conscious decision to join a voluntary religious community. Often, one is admitted to such a community only after instruction and a public announcement of one's decision.  Voluntary religious communities often arise out of a dissatisfaction with the traditional, natural religious community. Unlike the natural community, rites of passage and ancestor worship play almost no role. On the other hand, rites of initiation into the community (such as baptism) are emphasized. Examples of voluntary religious communities are Christianity and Buddhism.

Founded religionare a type of voluntary religious community.  As its name suggests, a founded religion is one that is  established by a charismatic (gifted) leader who is a witness or bearer of new spiritual insight or revelation.  Founded religions such as Christianity usually demand a sharper break with the natural community.  For example, Jesus demanded that his followers leave behind all loyalties to family in order to participate in the new community.

Founded religions always face a crisis when the founder dies or, in the eyes of the community, is no longer physically present. This crisis is usually met by collecting teachings of founder, establishing a canon, creating a rule of faith or creed, and creating an organization to carry on the work of the founder. .