A very Concise Introduction




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Chapter Four:

Religion as a Meaning System


Culture

For many social scientists, many quantitative social scientists, culture is at the heart of the social scientific enterprise. But what is culture? The problem, in part, with defining culture is that the term culture itself has a history, a complex and convoluted history. Cultural analysis, to a great extent, is the product of the European expedition, colonization, and imperialism. An interest in culture originated during the period when Europeans were conquering and colonizing the world. As Europeans came into contact with “other” cultures, with groups who were very different from them in terms of beliefs, values, norms, and practises, they began to reflect on the nature of these cultural differences and the nature of culture itself.


So what is culture? Anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn in their 1952 book Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions reviewed the definitions of culture that had been offered, mostly, of course, by Europeans and Westerners, over the last several hundred years and categorized them into several broad families. According to Kroeber and Kuckhohn there have, over time, been 164 definitions of “culture”. For the most part these definitions boil down, as Kroeber and Kluckhohn note, to three broad conceptions of culture. In one conception culture refers to excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, high culture. In another culture is seen as the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning. In the last culture is regarded as the shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group. The last two definitions of culture have been particularly prominent among social and cultural anthropologists and sociologists.


The origin and function of culture, continues, of course to be debated by social scientists today. For some social scientists culture is a projection of society itself. For these commentators culture, be it a film, a TV programme, or a piece of popular music, is violent because society is violent. For others, many of them Marxist in theoretical orientation, culture is the product of “real” material factors like technology and the relations of production. Culture, in other words, consists of the ideas of the ruling class. For still others culture is the medium through which the world is mediated to us and is the message that tells us what we should think about that world and see in that world. It is through language, some social scientist claim, that we experience, understand, and express our experience and understanding of the world. For still others like sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson genes influence not only the physical appearance of humans but also human behaviour and hence human culture though not exclusively. For still others nature (the natural world, genetics) and nurture (culture) interact but it is nurture, learned through interactions with family, friends, schools, and the media, to choose a few, which make human behaviour go round.


Perhaps the most famous and influential recent attempt to define culture has been that of prominent interpretive cultural anthropologist and social theorist Clifford Geertz. For Geertz culture is a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which people can communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge and attitudes about life. Geertz, like many other cultural anthropologists assumes that culture varies, that culture is relative, and that any analysis of culture must explore cultural variations without making value judgements about their rightness or wrongness, goodness or badness. For Geertz culture is inherited. Humans internalize society’s beliefs, values, and norms. It is transmitted from generation to generation through socialization via parents, peers, educational institutions, religious institutions, nation-states, and so on. This transmitted culture, he claims, encourages conformity. For Geertz culture is symbolic. It consists of values, beliefs, behaviours, social norms, ideology, an integrated and coherent system of symbols, values, and beliefs, and language. For Geertz culture organizes our experience. It shapes our values and our moral beliefs. It perpetuates our notions of race, class, inequality, and gender across generations.


Geertz is not, of course, the be all or end all when it comes to defining culture. The authors of one prominent sociology textbook define culture as the values the members of a group hold, the language in which it speaks, the symbols it reveres, and the material goods it creates. While this definition parallels Geertz’s interpretive or meaning centred definition of culture it also moves beyond it by arguing that culture is not only symbolic or immaterial. Culture in this definition is also “material”. It consists not only of immaterial abstract ideas (values) and immaterial principles or rules of social life that people are expected to observe (norms) that shape human behaviour but is also everything that is part of our physical environment which humans create and which in turn impact human behaviour such as technology, consumer goods like furniture, books, movies, television, cars, clothes, computers, the internet, and foodways, material culture. Culture is the way people dress, the marriage traditions they have, the ways they organize family life, the ways they work, the ways they worship, the ways they plough, the ways they use their computers, the ways they move, the ways they gesture, and the way they express themselves. Culture is a design for living, a tool kit of practises and cultural scripts.


From Geertz’s and this definition it is clear that for many sociological and anthropological theorists language is at the heart of culture. Language, these commentators claim, is universal and is involved in virtually everything we do whether hunting, gathering, migrating, going to the store, going to class, using a computer, going to a mosque, telling jokes, or writing poetry. It allows us to extend the scope of our thought and experience. It allows us to convey information across time and space. It allows us to pass on our culture to future generations. But for some students of language, language is more than this. For anthropological linguist Edward Sapir and linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf the language we speak influences the way we think about and experience the world and language mediates our experience of the world, natural, social, and cultural. Language is not thus an embodiment of reality. It is a representation of reality.


Historically language has been spoken (I mean this in the broad sense that includes not only the words that come out of our mouths but also the body movements we make) and it has been written. For much of human existence oral cultures dominated human existence. As urban areas with kings and courtiers or priests arose, however, writing developed (in Ancient Israel it developed in the time of David and Solomon) allowing for information to be stored and archived allowing information, ideas, and experiences to be passed on in a way other than through word of mouth. Computers and cell phones are simply the latest technological means of sharing culture.


Language, of course, is universal but it is not the only part of culture that is universal or cross-cultural. Semiotic systems or meaning systems are also universal. Semiotic systems, like language, meanings and the symbols that carry them are representations of reality. Human behaviour is oriented toward the symbols we use to represent reality than to reality itself. Meanings are involved in the ways we dress, the ways we eat, what we think is beautiful, our rules for sexual behaviour, our rules for raising children, and the way we symbolize the differences between males and females.


Culture can, of course, change over time. It is not static. Culture thus not only varies across space—Americans, it is claimed, are less conformist and more individualistic than the Japanese who are more conformist or cooperative. It varies across time—Japanese culture is, it is claimed, becoming more individualistic thanks to modernisaation, Americanisaation, and globalisation. Culture can vary in its homogeneity and heterogeneity. Some cultures are more homogeneous, small societies like that of the !Kung Bushmen of Africa, for instance, or they can be more complex as are industrialized societies like the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand. In industrialized countries multiple cultures including cliques, countercultures, and subcultures can and do exist allowing for a degree of cultural diversity (language diversity, diversity of cultural patterns, a diversity of values and norms). Despite cultural diversity, however, virtually all members of complex cultures share, thanks to socialization and assimilation, larger cultural values and norms (civil religion, civic culture).


Culture and human evolution and human history are, of course, linked. Culture enables humans to adapt to and change their physical environments. Stone tools, hunting, gathering, and cooperation enabled early humans, hunter-gatherer humans, to compensate for their lack of claws, lack of sharp teeth, and slowness of movement relative to other animals. Fire and the sewing of clothes allowed early humans to adapt to cold environments. For some biological anthropologists it was the development of culture that began the cycle in which cultural adaptations leads to larger brains, increased learning, increased cooperation, increased transformation of the environment through technology and so on and so forth ever since.


Culture can punish. When some question ingrained norms of acting and thinking social control mechanisms can come into play. Social control mechanisms include informal punishments such as rebukes for breaches of etiquette, gossiping about someone, or ostracism, and formal punishments like parking tickets, “shunning” in Amish culture, and even imprisonment and death (think of the Crusades and the Christian inquisitions).


Culture can be and often is ethnocentric. Culture is generally grounded in assumptions of superiority and inferiority, in beliefs that “our” culture is superior to “their culture” since “us”, our group, is superior to “them”, their group. Ethnocentrism is at play in the culture shock that can result when we travel to and experience other very different cultures from our own. The aversion of those from one culture to the cuisine of another is one example of culture shock. Culture wars between different cultural groups between and even within cultures, have resulted in clashes between modernists and traditionalists, atheists and believers, (thin modernists and fundamentalists.


Culture, Meaning, and Religion

So what does all this talk about culture have to do with religion? Remember in the first weeks of this class we talked about various definitions of religion? We noted at the time that two broad notions of religion dominated contemporary sociological thought: the substantive definition of religion and the functionalist definition of religion. I now want to talk more about each of these broad approaches to the social science of religion and particularly about the functionalist approach to meaning systems like religion.


There are important differences, as I noted earlier, between the subtantive and functionalist definitions of religion, differences that impact what social scientists regard as religion and what they don’t. Substantive definitions usually assert that religions have some notion of supernatural or god. Primitive Buddhism and Confucianism would not qualify as religions under the substantive definition because they either have no conception of the supernatural or they don’t regard the existence of the supernatural as either important or critical to the central teaching of the “philosophy”. Functionalist definitions of religion, of course, don’t have this problem. Both Primitive Buddhism and Confucianism would qualify as religions under the functionalist definition. Under functionalist definitions of religion—which emphasise meaning—communism, socialism, conservativism, high school cliques, and so on would also qualify as religions because they give meaning to the world around them and give meaning to their place within that unverse.


At the centre of functionalist definitions of religion is the assertion that religion is a meaning system. And meanings, of course, are cultural. They exist beyond individual human beings, a point Durkheim made, of course, when he claimed that religion was society worshipping itself. Meaning systems like religion, thus, can be regarded as the link between macrosociology and microsociology, between social and cultural forms and the individual, between institutions and the individual.


A number of theorists have made important contributions to the study of religion as a meaning system. Karl Marx, of course, saw religion as an epiphenomenon, as a product, of class relations. Religion, for Marx, was a product of the ruling ideas, the ruling meanings, of the ruling class. Religion, claimed Marx, functioned to legitimize social inequalities and the differential rewards people received as a result of the inequalities that were inherent within most societies and cultures. As such, Marx claimed, religion functioned, at least in part, to socialise the exploited to accept their position in this life by socialising them to believe that while they may receive no rewards in this life they will in the next life, the afterlife.


It was really Weber and especially Emile Durkheim, however, who are the real fathers of the religion as a meaning system approach. For Weber and Durkheim culture and hence cultural meanings had a degree of autonomy from economic and class relations they didn’t have in Marx. For Weber religion was, in the language of statistics, an independent variable. Weber argued famously in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that Protestantism had an “elective affinity” for capitalism and played an important role in giving rise to and providing coherence to capitalism, specifically rational bureaucratic capitalism. For Weber there were many forms of capitalism that had existed over time.


More than anyone else, as I noted, the person who has done more to promulgate and propagate the religion as a meaning system point of view is Emile Durkheim. In his Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1917) Durkheim argued that religion had to be treated as if it was real in order to ascertain whether all religions shared something in common. What Durkheim concluded as a result of treating religion as real was that religion was a “collective representation” that religion, in other words, expresses “collective realities”. Things like rites of passage, rituals, religious representations, and even flags, claimed Durkheim, symbolized human perceptions of reality and created, among the group of the faithful, a “collective conscience”, a sense of oneness, a sense of community. As a collective representation religion strengthens group bonds. Religion in the end, claimed Durkheim, was a representation of society, society worshipping itself.


But religion and meaning systems weren’t only collective representations of society for Durkheim. Religion also, he claimed, served a socialisation function. Religion ingrains “feelings” within the faithful. The faithful experience these “feelings” not as coercive forces but as part of themselves.


Finally Durkheim claimed that religion played an important role in the creation or manufacture of ideas themselves. Durkheim argued that notions of time, space, causality, and effect were the product of religious thought.


Many social scientists have, of course, picked up on what Durkheim said. For many social scientists meaning systems like religion, create, manufacture, and recreate human identities and create and recreate human groups and communities including families, cliques, enclaves, regions, nations, and a sense of global community through shared meanings, shared cultural interactions, and shared perspectives. Religious meaning systems explain to religious groups and communities why things are the way that they are. They tell us the way things should be and thus have a normative dimension. They help us make sense of the world in all its forms around us. They justify and legitimize, through oral tales, sacred scriptures, folktales, myths, legends, or even scientific discourse things like why our society is unequal, why our society has a private property system, how god relates to human beings, how one should live one’s life, what things that happen to us mean, what the purpose of the roles we perform in life are, why our society has a capitalist system, why there is evil in the world (theodicies), why disasters happen in the world and in our lives (theodicies), who is doing these nasty things to us be it Satan, communism, selfishness, perceptual misapprehension, why humans die, what will happen to us after death, how we can gain nirvana, how good will triumph over evil in a cataclysmic war (millennialism) and so on. They create a sense of usness and themness and, because we usually look down in some way, shape, or form or the them, reinforce group identity and the sense of group superiority (ethnocentrism). Meaning systems can even strengthen group identity via tales that us, our group, is fighting evil in the world and, as a result, being persecuted for it (the sense of persecution found among many Christian groups and, in secular culture, among many leftist and right wing groups). They create “reality”.


For many contemporary social scientists religious meaning systems can take several forms. Some are more intellectual and systematic than others. The meanings systems of the world’s so-called great religions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Shintoism—have comprehensive and systematic meaning systems. Many so-called New Age religions, which are quite pluralistic in ideology, have meaning systems which are much less comprehensive and systematic. They also have little sense of “heresy” and little history of “excommunication”, ostracism, and exile. Meaning systems can be more or less totalistic. Religious meaning systems can be more or less authoritarian and totalitarian. Meaning systems can have more or less rituals and some of these rituals can be linked to the life cycle of members, for example bar and bat mitzvah. Meaning systems can contain more or fewer symbols. Meaning systems can have more or less contradictions.


New religions, and this is one of the reasons they are so important to social scientists, can give us a glimpse into the creation of meaning systems. Old religions can provide us with a window to explore how meaning systems work or function. Because religion has played such an important role in providing the cultural forms for civil or civic religions, the nationalist meaning systems of nations, the study of religious meaning systems can provide us with a glimpse into the creation of nationalist meaning systems and their functioning. It is to nationalism as a meaning system and the meaning system of a new nation that I now want to turn.


Vignette: Nationalism as a Meaning System: The Myths Americans Live Their Civil Religion By

The United States was, sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset argues, the first new nation. It would be followed by others including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brasil, Peru, and Argentina among them.


When the US revolted against Great Britain the new American nation was created out of the old English and British American colonies. The new American nation that was created did away with monarchy. No longer were Americans subject of the Crown they were citizens of the new United States. As a new nation the US developed political and economic cultures of its own though, of course, American political culture was heavily indebted to the republicanism, liberalism, and capitalism that developed in Western Europe during the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment. The US also remained a Christian country in practise if not constitutionally. This Christian dominance was a legacy of the colonization of America by Europeans states and particularly by Great Britain. So the economic, political, and religious culture that developed in the US shared much with Western Europe and eventually with other English settler societies like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand who shard the same cultural, political, and economic background.


As a new nation the US needed, in order to become a community, a cultural community, a political community, an economic community, a nation, to develop a collective sense of self (nationalism), a civil religion, a civic ideology, a set of beliefs through which a society interprets its own history in the light of some conception of ultimate reality, and in the process manufacture Americans. The nationalism America manufactured was more soil than blood, though many Americans for a long time saw Whiteness as synonymous with American. So how did the United States do this?


Drawing on a host of sources (including work on American culture and its civil religion or civil faith by scholars like Robert Bellah, Ernest Lee Tuveson, and Anders Stephenson) Richard T. Hughes (Myths America Lives By, University of Illinois Press, 2003) explores the cultural myths (stories of meaning and purpose, stories we have faith in, stories that create our realities) that have been at the heart of American stories about America, stories which explain to Americans what their country stands for, why they should love their country, which affirm the meaning of the US to Americans, that help create Americans, and which create American “realities” and Americans. According to Hughes these American stories or myths that have created the American reality are the myth of America as the chosen nation and of Americans as the chosen people, the myth America as nature’s nation, the myth of America as the Christian nation, the myth of America as a millennial nation, the myth of America as the capitalist nation, and the myth of America as an innocent and pure nation.


As Hughes notes these six myths originated at different times, were influenced by different factors, and became prominent at different times in American history. The myth of the chosen nation arose out of the Hebraic and Jewish notion that Israel and later the Jews were God’s chosen people. This myth, in turn, was transformed in England and Britain, as the English became God’s chosen people. It became central to the ideology of English Puritans, came with the them as they traveled to the New World and settled in what is today today Massachusetts, a journey they saw as a journey from oppression to freedom. In the New World the Puritans covenanted with God to build their “city on a hill” in the “new Canaan” set aside for them by God in the “new world”.


The myth of nature’s nation comes right out of Enlightenment Deism with its talk of natural rights.


The myth of the Christian nation comes from the Catholic and Protestant notions that Europe was and should be Christian and became prominent in the United States after the American Revolution and the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century. The Second Great Awakening was a response to the separation of church and state in the new United States, a response which saw “Christians” try to “Chrsitianise” (i.e., Protestantise) the “unchristian” frontiers of the new United States.


The myth of the millennial nation comes from Judaic and Christian apocalypticism with their end of the world scenarios (premillennialism and postmillennialism) and their messianism (the notion that God would send an emissary to Israel to help restore his kingdom and his people) and become prominent in the Colonies during the French and Indian war, the Revolution, and particularly in the early national period during the Second Great Awakening.


The myth of capitalism the good became prominent during the Gilded Age with its “captains of industry”, gospel of wealth, and social Darwinism.


The myth of the innocent nation became prominent during the World War I and World War II eras when many the US came to see their wars with Germany and Japan as wars between good (the US) and evil (Germany and Japan).


Though these myths originated from different places and became prominent at different times they eventually interwove with one another to create, claims Hughes, the American myth.


So what unquestioned “truths” do these myths tell Americans about the America? The myth of America the chosen nation and of Americans as the chosen people tells Americans that they, and they alone, were chosen by God and as a result the American nation and the American people are specially blessed by God and have a special role in redeeming the world. The myth of America as nature’s nations tells Americans that their nation is grounded in natural rights, rights God placed in nature, rights that are as old as the created world. The myth of America as Christian nation tells Americans that their nation is a Christian nation and hence superior to any other nation since Christianity is the one true religion on earth. As a result of its special place in God’s plan the US has a special mission to the world. The myth of America as millennial nation tells Americans that the US, a new nation, has a special mission to usher in the millennial age of “peace”, “justice”, “democratic self-government”, “freedom”, “liberty”, and the “pursuit of happiness” across the American continent and around the world. The myth of America as a capitalist nation tells Americans that capitalism with its acquisitiveness, its self-interest and greed, is natural and particularly American. The myth of America as innocent nation combines all of the other myths into one and tells Americans that they are the “innocent”, “pure”, “ethical”, “moral”, and “righteous” ones chosen by god or nature to face evil in the world and who, god willing, will transform the world into a “democratic” and “capitalist” world of “freedom” and “liberty” which allows everyone to “pursue happiness”, a world, in other words, like America.


These myths have had numerous impacts on American history. By the 1840s the US had developed a full blown civil faith grounded in the notions that the US was the chosen nation, nature’s nation, the Christian nation, the capitalist nation, and a nation with a millennial purpose. All of these myths fed into one of the dominant motifs of the US ever since, manifest destiny, the notion that the US had been given the rich and plentiful area between the 49th parallel and Canada in the North, the Rio Grande River and Mexico in the south, and the Atlantic Ocean in the east and the Pacific Ocean in the West and that American values should be spread first across the continent and then around the world. Those who were already in the America that Americans were convinced was theirs were seen as “savage”, “demonic”, “unproductive”, and “backward’ and the land they “inhabited” was really uninhabited and thus there for the taking. The myths of America the chosen nation, America as nature’s nation, America the millennial nation, and America the capitalist nation allowed the Union, the North, to see its triumph during the Civil War as a product of its choseness, a choseness reflected in its industrial economic system, its urbanization, and its pursuit of liberty and freedom for Blacks. The myths of America the capitalist nation, America the chosen nation, America as nature’s nation, and America the millennial nation allowed Americans to believe that America’s pursuit of open markets was not imperialism but was instead part of America’s mission to make the world a better place. The myths of America the capitalist nation, America the chosen, and America as nature’s nation allowed the American “captains of industry” of the Gilded Age to see their wealth as a sign of God’s or nature’s blessing and themselves as the agents of God or nature to better the less well off part of humankind. All of these myths, of course, fed into the Cold War between the US and USSR and created a mental world in which Americans saw the Cold War as a struggle between God’s chosen land of liberty and the “evil”, “Godless”, “unfree”, “totalitarian” (“tyrannical”) Soviet Union.


As Hughes notes these American myths are seen by many if not most Americans as “universal truths”, “universal truths” which transcend time and space. Hughes, however, argues that it is important for us to see these cultural and ideological myths as national stories, as products of historical time and space, for if we do we might be able to understand that they are cultural constructs and as a result we might be able to reflect on US actions abroad and as a result see these actions though others eyes.


As Hughes notes American myths, the American sense of self, American nationalism could have different meanings for different Americans. American myths, just like the ideologies of the Enlightenment, could be and were fought over by Americans. Today we call these battles over the civic nationalism, the civic religion, the civil religion, culture wars.


Vignette Atheism and Science as Meaning Systems?

If one defines religion as a belief in the supernatural and as the organizations that those who believe in supernatural powers have established then atheism is not a religion for atheists do not believe in supernatural powers. If, on the other hand, one defines religion in functional terms seeing religion as one form or type of meaning system that gives meaning to people’s lives then atheism can be viewed as a religion or better a meaning system.


The same theoretical logic, by the way, would apply to science. If one defines science substantively then science is not a religion. If one defines science functionally, however, then it can be a religious like meaning system. So is science a meaning system?


The contemporary social scientific study of science and the study of science as a meaning system begins with the historian of science, Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962). For Kuhn the standard claim, so standard it has become a cliché, of many scientists claim that science is the application of the scientific method to the stuff of the universe and that science uncovers scientific truths about the universe progressively or bit-by bit over time, really isn’t the way science works.


Scientific knowledge, claims Kuhn, doesn’t, when one looks at the historical record, accumulate little by little. Science rather, writes Kuhn, works or functions by constructing paradigms, frameworks within which science and scientists operate and which scientists accept as real, as objective (meaning systems manufacturing reality?). Within the framework of these paradigms, which most scientists accept as gospel truth (pun intended), scientists conduct experiments and obtain results from these experiments all the while fitting them within the framework of paradigms which, as I noted, most scientists assume are true, real, factual. Kuhn calls this normal science.


Science is not static as Kuhn recognised, however. It changes. The rhetoric of science itself, at least today, whether it was in the past can be questioned, is that science is different from religion because science is about discovering truths bit-by-bit through the empirical scientific method while religion is about unchanging universal truths. But what Kuhn is talking about when he talks about scientific change is not the progressive bit-by-bit emergence of scientific truths over time ideology that dominates scientific thinking. What Kuhn is saying is that periodically in the history of science there have been scientific revolutions, paradigm changes in science, changes in which the “truths” associated with one paradigm become the “falsities” of another.


Anomalies, the presence of things that a dominant paradigm cannot explain, play important roles in bringing about a change in dominant paradigms, claims Kuhn. An example: For years evidence that the earth revolved around the sun was dismissed by those working within the Ptolemaic paradigm because in their “reality” the sun revolved around the earth. Then Nicholas Copernicus of Torun (1473-1543), Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), the mathematician Johann Kepler (1571-1630), an assistant to Brahe, and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) came along and “proved” that the Ptolemaic paradigm that the sun revolved around the earth was wrong and that the earth actually revolved around the sun. Eventually the Ptolemaic version of the universe—the Ptolemaic paradigm was, by the way, grounded in a humanocentric and earth centric reading derived from the Bible—would triumph giving birth to a new paradigm that came to dominate science and scientific ways of perceiving the word, the idea that the earth revolved around the sun.


In the wake of Kuhn other social scientists have explored a variety of social and cultural aspects of science and the scientific enterprise. Some point out that science is hardly the hermetic discipline of scientific lore and that science and scientists have and continue to be influenced by social and political factors. The US government, for instance, played a major role in the development of the atomic bomb and on “discoveries” in atomic science and many scientists who contributed to the building of the Bomb appear to have been content with dropping it on Japanese civilians and justifying it by claiming that it was necessary to win the war. Others like Thomas Gieryn have explored the changing rhetoric of scientists about the scientific enterprise, particularly relative to religion, arguing that notions of what science is and how it works has changed from one in which science, thanks to the theory of evolution, has absolute truth (the Scopes trial) while religion, locked into its doctrine that the earth and human life were created over six days, doesn’t to one in which science is distinct from religion because it is open to the new discovery of new truths while religion, with its absolute and unchanging truth claims, is not (the Arkansas evolution trial). Still others explored the process of scientific “discovery” in that holy of holies, the scientific laboratory, “discovering”, in the process, that there exists a unique process of scientific discovery in those scientific labs. Scientific facts, claim Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar, the authors of this study, are “constructed” rather than “discovered”. They arise not from experiments but from debates, discussions, and disagreements and are all impacted by the status systems, hierarchies, and power struggles within the labs.


Hard science scientists have sometimes fought back against these “relativist” sociologists of science claiming that science, in the final analysis, is about empirical facts. Even Bruno Latour has found himself in some sympathy with this argument as he has come to realise that those on the intellectual right have begun using the “relativist” sociology of science against science much like Mormon intellectuals of faith use postmodernism to argue that if all knowledge is relative and if all relative knowledges are worthy of respect than surely Mormons who believe are worthy of a hearing. In Latour’s case he has apparently been taken aback by the arguments of critics of global warming that scientists who have “discovered” global warming afoot on the planet thanks to an increase in carbon dioxide as a result of human activity are mouthing a politically correct liberal ideology cause for concern because, for Latour, it is clear that the empirical evidence does strongly suggest that human actions have led and are leading to an increase in temperatures, to global warming, and all that entails for this planet.


One final word about atheism: Atheism is not a recent cultural and social movement, a product, in other words, of what some claim is increasing secularization in Western society thanks to the Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment. There were atheists in Ancient Greece, Mediaeval Europe, Reformation Europe, Enlightenment Europe, and 19th century America, for instance. Atheism has a long history.


The Problems with Religious Functionalism?

Not everyone, by the way, finds the functionalist approach to religion compelling. For some analysts, particularly those of the substantivist persuasion, the very broad nature of functionalist definitions, definitions that include everything from Christianity to sports in the category of religion, is a fundamental problem for the functionalist approach to religion. The functionalist conception of religion, they claim, is so broad that it becomes meaningless because it is so all encompassing. For others, like Stark and Bainbridge (The Future of Religion), the notion that there are multiple meaning systems is a problem. Stark and Bainbridge argue that the only meaning system that exists today is religion. Meaning variation, the variations in ideology, they argue, are not the product of multiple meaning systems but the products of variations in the attachment of people, thanks to social bonds, to religion. Traditionalists are strongly attached to religion. Those not as attached to religion tend to explore and experiment more than those who are attached producing, in the process, variations in meaning. Moreover, humans can, claim Stark and Bainbridge, hold mutually contradictory and logically incoherent beliefs all at the same time.


Links

Civil Religion: Nationalism as a Meaning System

Talking History: American Patriotism, 17 December (Real Media)

http://talkinghistory.oah.org/arch2001.html

Merle Haggard, “Okie from Muskogee”, 1969

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfyayWe6_oY

Lee Greenwood, “Proud to be an American”, 1980

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cbim_a9k8ag

Charlie Daniels Band, “In America”, 1980

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9moTUnxkSVk

Charlie Daniels Band, “Simple Man”, 1990

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wb41-jqiyE

Toby Keith, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue”, 2002

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSWuA-RttGU


Religion and Politics

Global Voices, “For God, Tsar, and Fatherland”, PBS

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAybLqGCac8


Religion and Environmentalism

Environmentalism as a Meaning System

Talking History: The History of American Wilderness, 22 April

http://talkinghistory.oah.org/arch2002.html#Anchor-Wildernes-62343


Religion and the Counterculture

Interviews with LSD users, CBC

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_EA471I60w

Timothy Leary Interview, CBC

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAgpAfNKLrQ

Moody Blues, “Legend of a Mind”, 1968

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_TbovyVOzs


Atheism and Skepticism

Jonathan Miller, “A Rough History of Disbelief/A Brief History of Disbelief, BBC

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2250104590805018608

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vx1Vnp1IZE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFvHZFHbFJk


Mark Twain, War Prayer, 1904

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Mggu7i0jU4

L’age d’or

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lcasqBRzeeA

Luis Bunuel, 1930

Sam Harris on Atheism

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ok5Ly2WOdDQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fo4OxqbfY5Q

XTC, “Dear God”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hk41Gbjljfo

1986

Firefly, River Fixes the Bible, “Jaynestown” 1:7, Fox, 18 October 2002

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qqKlSldlSDE

Andrew Zak Williams, “Faith No More”, New Statesman, 25 July 2011

http://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2011/07/god-evidence-believe-world

interviews with those who lost their faith


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