Monday, July 18, 2011

8. Religion and Society:

8. Religion and Society:


Broadly, the following four characteristics of religion(s) have been identified in order to construct a sociological definition.

1. Religion is a Group Phenomenon

Religion involves a group of people. Religion is a shared system of beliefs and practices. Every religion emphasises the need for collective worship. Festivals and rituals are occasions which bring people together. M.N. Srinivas (1978:202) in his study of a Coorg village observes that the festivals of village deities include a village-dance, collective hunt and a dinner for the entire village. The collective dinner, in which the entire village participates, is called 'urome' (village-harmony).

Durkheim (1912), equates god with society, so much so thdt, when you worship God you are worshipping your own society. According to Durkheim God is a human creation and a social creation at that. .God is, in fact, born in the collective experience ("effervescence") of coming together, leading to rituals.

2.The 'Supernatural' and the 'Sacred'

At the centre of almost every religion lies the idea of the supernatural. The supernatural is something beyond physical understanding. It is 'omnipotent', 'infinite', or 'extraordinary'. 'Belief in supernatural beings' was the definition for religion, offered by Tylor (1 87 l), a famous anthropologist. Belief in the supernatural beings might also include belief in other kind of beings like magic forces, angels or souls of dead ancestors. Believers might arrange the supernatural beings in a hierarchy according to their power or they may differentiate the supernatural beings in terms of their functions. It should be interesting to note that Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, three Hindu Gods, are said to perform the functions of creation of the cosmic order, its maintenance and destruction, respectively.

All supernatural beings are not 'sacred'. There are categories of sdperanatural beings, like devils, evil spirit, etc. which are considered as 'evil', are also powerful. For example, it can be pointed out from the Bible that Satan (devil) was powerful enough to tempt even Jesus, when he was doing penance in the desert. Certain other categories of supernatural beings are considered to be neutral-neither good nor evil. All categories of supernatural being create, in the minds of human being, a sense of 'fear' and"respect'.

3. Beliefs and Practices

Religious belief is a system of knowledge about the divine and its relationship with the human. It is simply not enough to believe in the existence of a supernatural I force. The knowledge of its existence must be explained to people and to generations I to come. Beliefs serves this purpose of revealing the existence of the supernatural or divine or the sacred. Belief explains the nature of the divine, the deeds, actions l or words of the divine and prescribes ways in which human beings can communicate with the divine.

4. Moral Prescriptions

Human beings define their relationship with the 'sacred', they also define their relationship with fellow human being. Some behavioral patterns' are prescribed as compulsory before one can related to god. This is how morals are born out of religion. As an example, it must be pointed out - that the 'Ten Commandments' form an essential component of Jewish-Christian religion. Commandments are moral prescriptions for human beings to relate to god. Religion is the source of moral values, and religion without moral prescriptions is virtually not possible. Religion can distinguish between the right and the wrong, more powerfully than other social institutions.

There are many sources of moral prescriptions in a society, such a family, education

and law. People who believe in a particular religion are also expected to adhere to

its moral prescriptions. The more prescriptions come to be shared by all the Members of the group. Religion and certain of its moral prescriptions are more Relevant today than ever before, because some people hold that science is increasingly Becoming inhuman. Billions o f dollars are poured into arms and weapon manufacture, military science and technology, when millions of human beings die of starvation in Africa, Latin America and many other parts of the globe. In this context, military defenceexpenditure becomes a moral issue. For example, in order to follow the religious principle of non-violence, prevention of the increasing militarisation of science can become a moral commitment.

(a) Sociological theories of religion.


Ideas' about the origin and development of religion were initially based on the reports of missionaries a d adventures about the nature of religion among the primitives. For example, Dle Brosses (1760), advanced a theory that religion had its I origin in fetishism (belief ih magical fetishes or objects) : The Portugese sailors had I reported that the coastal Negro tribes of West Africa worshipped inanimate things and animals. Comte (1908) took up this theory and wrote that in due courses Fetishism was replaced by Polytheism. This theory was superseded by the ghost theory and the soul theory. These latter theories are known as intellectualist theories of religion, because both assume that the primitives are rational being, although their efforts to explain natural phenomena are somewhat crude.

1.The Nature-Myth School

It' was a German School, dealing with Indo-European religions. It established that ancient gods were universally personifications of natural phenomena. Its main propounder was Max Miller who was a German linguist. Most of his life he lived at Oxford as Professor and a Fellow of All Souls. He was a great scholar of r Sanskrit and was very interested in ancient Indian gods. He held that grand natural I objects gave people a feeling of the infinite. At the same time these objects acted as symbols of the infinite. The celestial bodies, such as, moon, stars, dawn and their attributes were thought of by the people in terms of metaphor and symbol:

Max Muller (1 878) argued that with the passage of time the symbolic representations came to gain an independent identity of their own and became separated from that which they represented. The attributes or the symbols became personified as deities. According to Muller human beings and nature stand in a relationship of awe, wonderment, terror, etc. Early human beings could not understand or explain the world of nature. They ended up worshipping it out of fear and awe. Muller held that we could study the religion of early man by looking into linguistic etymological meaning of the name of gods and legends associated with them. Sometimes Max Muller and his followers reduced their theories to a farce. For example, he considered the siege of Troy (an ancient city in north-west Asia Minor) to be only a solar myth.

2.The Ghost Theory

Unlike Max Muller, who was concerned with Indo-European religions, both Herbert Spencer and Edward Tylor focused on religious behaviour of the primitives. They believed that primitives societies offered an evidence of the earliest forms of religion. In a large part of his book, The Principles f Sociology, Spencer (1 876-96) discusses primitive beliefs. He shows the primitives to be rational though with a limited quantum of knowledge. They make reasonable, though weak, inferences with regard to natural phenomena. By observing sun, moon, clouds and stars come and go, the primitives get the notion of visible and invisible conditions. Similarly they get the idea of a person's duality from dreams, which are considered as real life-experiences by the primitives. For them, the dream-self moves about at night while the shadow-self acts by the day. This notion of duality is reinforced by peoples' experiences of temporary loss of sensibilities. The event of death is also considered by the primitives as a longer period of insensibility. This idea of duality is extended by them to animals, plants and material object. Such representations as that of spirit child, are

quite common among the aborigines.

According to Spencer, the appearance of dead persons in dreams is taken by the primitives to be the evidence of temporary after life. This leads to the conception of a supernatural being in the form of a ghost. According to Spencer, the idea of ghosts grows into the idea gods and the ghosts of ancestors become divine beings. Spencer's (1876-96:440) conclusion is that 'ancestor worship is the root of every religion'.

Because the idea of gbsts of ancestors or other superior beings becoming divinities I is commonly found-among the primitives 'in many parts of the world, Spencer's theory may appear to have some plausibility. It is however quite obvious that Spencer is himself a victim of the false reasoning which he attributes to the primitives. Without ever going near the primitives, he builds his ideas about their way of reasoning. He is simply trying to think on behalf of the primitives.

3.The Soul Theory or Animism

As the word anima (a Latin meaning soul) shows, Sir Edward Tylor's theory of animism emphasis the notion of soul. This theory considers both the origin and 'development of religion. We can say that the ghost theory explains the origin of the religion in the idea of ghosts while the soul theory says the same thing in terms of the idea of soul. Experiences of death, disease, visions and dreams, according to Tylot, lead the primitives to think about the existence of immaterial power, i.e., the I ' soul. This idea of soul is then projected on to creatures other than human and even to inanimate objects. The soul exists independent of its physical home the body, and therefore arises the idea of belief in spiritual beings. This is exactly what is contained in Tylor's minimum definition of religion : that religion originated from a belief in spiritual beings.

4. Dependence on Magic

It is argued by some scholar that magic rather than religion is the more primitive way of dealing with crises. The basis diffkrence between religion and magic is that in the former, me deals with a supernatural force by submitting to it through prayer, worship and rituals, while in the latter one tries to overpower or coerce the supernatural force through certain 'magical' activities. Sir James Frazer (1922) in his work, The Golden Bough, which developed ideas similar to Tylor's, wrote about magic and primitive superstition. He argued that from a dependence on magic, one would turn to religion and then eventually to scientific thinking. Frazer also stressed the role of religious specialists such as magicians and priests in dealing

with the world of the supernatural. But most important of all was Frazer's emphasis on magic and its types and functions.

Frazer made a bold attempt to understand religion or magic and his work has inspired sociologists in the field of religion.

Frazer saw the operation of magic as a semiscientific activity-there was some kind of a rationale behind it. As a result he referred to it as the 'bastard sister of science'. He distinguished between two types magic practised by primitive people.

These were as follows

a) Homeopathic or imitative magic

This was a situation where magic was based on the principle that 'like produces like' or a law of similarity. For example, in some tribal groups of the Chotanagpur region in India, it is believed that thunder and its rumbling noise are direct cause of rain. Therefore, when the tribals want rain they go to hill top and sacrifice a small animal. Then, they throw down rocks and stones from the mountainside. As As these will make a loud rumbling sound, the tribals believe since it is like the sound of thunder, rain will follow.'

b) Contagious magic

The second kind of magic according to Frazer was based on the notion that things that came into contact would remain in contact always or the law of contagion operated here. The basic notion operative here is the belief among tribal people that any belonging of an individual, be it an article or clothing, somehow represents a part of the person. Even hair and nail clippings are believed to represents the person they once belonged to. Often these objects are used by the magician to influence the life of a particular person, by performing a ritual act on a piece of clothing or hair or nails. Usually this is-used for negative purposes.


What is Functionalism?

Let me ask you a question : How does a steam engine function? You might describe the functioning of steam engine as follows: Water is heated intensely to generate steam at a high pressure. The high pressure of steam in the tank moves the piston back and forth. Consequently, the wheel attached to the piston moves at a greater speed. Now, this is roughly, the way in which a steam engine functions or this is how the steam engine works. Now within this functionalist system, i.e., steam engine, there are various parts. These are all interconnected. In relation to the system these parts have specific functions to perform. If any of these parts gets damaged, the system, i.e. the steam engine, may not function at all or may function irregularly. The same story can be applied to society. As a functionalist would do, let us consider society as a system, within which there are various interconnected

parts, i.e. institutions. For example, as an institution functions to 'produce' members for the society. The function of the school, which is another institution, is to train the members for future roles. Industry's function on the other hand is to produce goods necessary for the maintenance of society. If one of these institutions breaks down, the society will be in trouble. Isn't it?

Religion in terms of its functions.

i) Cognitiye Functions

Religion can mould people's thinking and so help them to live ana adapt to their conditions of existence. One who participates in religious practices, emerges as a superior 'person with strength and vitality of face the world. This perception of religion has to be understood in the context of Durkheim argument that religious has continued to survive ail along, because it has fulfilled certain needs. Religion generates a particular mental state within the individual, which raises one above oneself and ,helps us to lead a superior life. Theories with science evoked a sharp criticism from Durkheim. He argued that the fundamental categories of science like time, space, number and cause, came out of one's religious quest. Said Durkheim (1964:9), "Philosophy and sciences were born of religion, it is because religion began by taking the place of the sciences and philosophy". Time, space and numbers in fact reveal the "rhythm of collective activity" towards the sacred. The categories like time, space, number, class, through which we understand the world, came out of the collective activities of the primitives towards the sacred. If that is so, these categories are collective representations. At the level of cognition, these emerge from collective response towards the sacred. -.

ii) Social Functions

According to Durkheim (1964: 16) the collective representation are the result of 'an immense cooperation'. They emerge, when the whole community comes together, to enact certain rites in response to'the sacred. The rituals are to two types: positive and negative. Negative rituals include a whole set of prohibitions to be observed to recreate the collective sentiment and worship the sacred. The positive rituals, on the other hand, indicate the meticulous 'preparations' to be undergone by the individual before approaching the sacred and participating in the community. For example, the initiation rites undergone by an individual, at the attainment of adulthood, denote a "total transformation" of the young person. Some of the initiation rites are painful but it is through the pain, one 'transforms' oneself and profane passes over to the sacred.

Now, let us try to understand what this 'sacred' means. 'Sacred' is something which is noble respected venerated and worshipped. Who creates this 'sacredness'? It is society which creates the 'sacredness' and sets the 'sacred' apart from the 'profane'. In other words, gods are derived from certain rites performed by human beings. Not only that, what is considered to be 'sacred' today may not be so tomorrow. Also it is a fact that when 'profane' approaches the sacred without due I precautions, 'sacred' itself loses its value.

From the above, we understand that, the 'sacred' is the creation of society. If that be so, when society worships the sacred, it actually means that the society is worshipping itself. Isn't it? When a community comes together and performs certain I rituals collectively, the collective sentiments are aroused. These collective sentiments are symbolised by the sacred object; set apart and venerated by the society. The set of rules and regulations, characteristics of the ritual, direct and transform the society into a 'moral' community.

(b) Types of religious practices: animism, monism, pluralism, sects, cults.


Monism is any philosophical view which holds that there is unity in a given field of inquiry. Thus, some philosophers may hold that the universe is one, as opposed to dualism or pluralism. This can be theologically syncretic, supporting the view that there is one God, with many manifestations in different religions.

Hinduism is a primary proponent of Monism. In the Hindu religion, Brahman (Devanāgarī: ब्रह्मन् bráhman) is the eternal, unchanging, infinite, immanent, and transcendent reality which is the Divine Ground of all matter, energy, time, space, being, and everything beyond in this Universe. The nature of Brahman is described as transpersonal, personal and impersonal by different philosophical schools and the Brahman religious belief is just seen as different paths to the one God.


As a religious group the sect stands for those who dissent from the interpretation of the doctrine from an established church and as a communion of religious brotherhood and a well defined creed. Its ideal type is in contrast with that of the Church though it may share some traits with the later. Unlike the Church, the membership of the sect is not compulsory. It is voluntary, relatively exclusive Religious organisations: and often qualified ritually. The fact is that the sect arises from people's dissent Sects, Cults and with the Church over many differences of dogma and perception of the social Denominations situation. These make the sect have a clear dogma and values of it's own. The Sect does not stand for unqualified universal conversion. God's grace is not for all, nor is it bestowed automatically. It is won by the individual's personal faith and ethical behaviour. Therefore, the Sect has a disdain for 'the refined verbal spinnings of ecclesiastical theologians' (Johnson: ibid: 427). The sect is often intolerant toward other religious groups. It may or may not proselytise. Obliteration of distinction between the clergy and the laity is its chief characteristic. In its organisation, the Sect is usually democratic. It may be this worldly as well as other wordly. The Sect takes birth in protest and rebellion. Its relation with the political authority may or may not be smooth. If rebellious, the Sect may be prosecuted. Sectarianism has been quite pronounced in Christianity. Its cause is said to be partly in the Christian tradition itself. Christianity grew in protest, so does the Sect. The Christian Sects arose mostly to uphold 'the value of radical individualism, the ideal of love and brotherhood and a conscious concern for the poor'.

Protest against the Church' view that 'religious authority inheres in the office and set of ritual ordination and not in the individual soul' has been another cause of sectarianism in Christianity. A third cause is resentment against the social institutions the Church supports. The sect is an expression of social justice. The question relating to the neglect of the poor and purity of the Gospel often precipitated a sense of injustice, discontent and dissatisfaction.

A sect encompasses not the whole but a part of a society. Attaining identity easily, it tends to provide a sense of greater self-esteem to its members and, thus, it derives its relevance. The greater the rebellion, the greater the criticism, the more is the sect's self-esteem and inner unity. Persecution of a rebellious sect all the more enhances its self-esteem and inner unity.


The social reality of the Cult is essentially rooted in the 'cultic act' (ibid : 39-44). This act is a system of worship - a complex of feelings and attitudes, symbols (gestures, words, ritcs and rituals) and primarily a relationship with sacred object and the world beyond. It involves co-activity and a social boundary. In it the relationship between the laity and clergy is not negligible but secondary.

The Cult is a voluntary organisation, open to all who wish to join or participate in it. But, where secretive, it tends to be highly exclusive. Says Johnson (ibid : 438). "In general cults are not strict except in financial matters". Yet, it tends to regulate its members as per its doctrine and system of rituals which are well-defined. A cult empilasizes one doctrine (above all others) or it focuses upon a God or Goddess with certain definite characteristics.

Cults seem to flourish in metropolitan centres where culturally heterogeneous populations are thrown together and they widely feel the impact of most rapid and impinging social change. It creates situations of contingency and powerlessness and, thus, the problems of adjustment. The cults help to meet that situation (for details and illustrations see Johnson : ibid : p. 438).



Indian society is composed of diverse cultures, and peoples, languages and religions. To examine the nature of diversity of the religious faiths in our country we must look at the historical antecedents of various religious groups found in our society. Diversity of religious faiths has existed over a very long period of time as India has been a country of not only very ancient history but also a place where communities from outside continually kept on coming and settling down. Together with diverse cultural groups in various religions in India pursuing their faiths, these immigrant communities also brought their own religious faiths, customs and cultures. This resulted in bringing together people following different religions and gradually laid the basis of religious pluralism in India. Religions pluralism means diversity among people based on their varied kinds of religious beliefs. Pluralism of religion has thus two connotations:

i) it refers to the fact that India has been a land of not one but many religions since ancient times; and

ii) that each religion contains, besides its primary features which define its essence

many cultural, social and ritualistic elements which cut across boundaries of different religions faiths. These cultural and social similarities are a product of interaction and accommodation established over a long period of time by regional, linguistic, ritual and social proximity of various religious groups. Religious pluralism in India is, thus not only a fact but it also permeates through beliefs, values and social character of individual religions in India.

1.Geographical Spread

Yet another important feature of religious pluralism can be seen in the geographical

spread of religions in India. The Hindus, who constitute the majority religion, are i spread all over, but have large concentration in the central and southern states of India with high , density pocket in a few northern states and far eastern Assam,

The Muslims, the second largest religious group have relatively greater concentration

in South-western states such as Kerala, Karnataka, the northern and eastern states in U.P., Bihar, Assam and pockets of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, They are also spread throughout the country like the Hindus.

The Christians have density concentration in the southern states of Kerala, parts of

Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and the north-eastern states of Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya. They are also spread across Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and some parts of other northern states in small pockets. One important feature of geographical settlement of Christians is that they may be found in larger numbers in states with higher tribal papulation due to the impact of conversion.

2. Religion and Sect

An important element of pluralism among religions in India is their sub-division into sects. Max Weber has given a technical measuring to a sect and distinguishes it from church, especially in the context of Christianity. He says that membership of Church (the main religion) is compulsory. It is governed by collective norms or rules and is run by religious functionaries. But the membership to a sect is voluntary. It is individualistic and lends freedom to the followers of the sects from the compulsory obedience to the functionaries of the Church.

Weber has used the term sect in a relatively definitive sense which may not apply to all religions. Sects are however, common to all religions, such as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Sub-divisions and Sects in a more general sense refer to internal diversities of interpretation of sacred principles, ritual practices and religious practices in a religion. Sects may also evoke historical cleavages within a religion either due to new interpretation of the religious canons or due to fictionalisation of the religious leadership. Sects, however, operate within the boundary of the specific religion to which they belong. Yet, the process of differentiation makes it possible that inter-religious proximities of customs, rituals and practices of religion and proximity or religious beliefs across religions is made possible due to this process.

Religion and Caste

You cannot fully understand the nature of religion in India without analysing the pervasive role of the caste institution among various religious groups. Caste is based on the Hindu religious view of birth-rebirth and Karma. In Hinduism caste groups ‘are placed into a hierarchical order of pure and impure ritual status within the four Varna wherein the Brahman are at the top, followed by the Kshatriya, the Vaisya and the Sudra and the out-caste. In actual life, caste exists in society as Jatis. There are thousands of Jatis among the Hindus each contributing to vertical differentiation and horizontal solidarity among the castes.

Therefore, Hindu religion does not constitute a community in a solidary sense. It remained a tolerant adaptive and liberal religion in India. It recognises and is tolerant of differences.

essentially on communication principle, at least in ideal terms. By communitarian we

mean that these religions give importance to the community of its followers. None

of these religions recognise inequalities or hierarchy based on caste discrimination,

However, in real life none of these religions are free from the existence of caste

of caste-like groups which are hierarchically arranged in terms of social status and

prestige. These groups are also endogamous and observe social restrictions in

marital and social relationships outside their caste-group. The Muslims have castelike

divisions in India in all parts of the country. The main castes among them as

listed in the census of 193 1 for the northern state of United Provinces are: Shaikh,

Pathan, Saiyid, Rajpur (Muslim) and Mughal among the upper category, and Julaha,

Manihar, Dhunia, Teli, Faquir, Nai (Hajjam), Darzi, Dhobi, Qassab among the lower

caste hierarchy. The upper Muslim castes belonged to ruling or landlord families or

they were in the profession of learning. The lower castes had occupations families

or they were in the profession of learning. The lower castes had occupations

carrying lesser social prestige in the society. Each of these castes was endogamous

and also observed social and cultural distance from each other based on hierarchy.

Contemporary studies have re-confirmed these observations. There has been some

social mobility among the Muslim castes based on changes in occupation, but the

caste-like social inequality even today continues to exist. Christianity in India has not been able to get itself free from the caste system. Even after conversion most caste disabilities of the former (pre-conversion) time continue to persist. Depending upon the caste from which members converted they continue

to have the social status in the Christian community commensurate with their earlier

caste status. Similar caste recognitions exist for Muslim converts also. As Christianity

has expanded through conversion in India it has incorporated more and more castelike

groups obeying the rules of hierarchy and endogamy within each caste. The

exception in this regard are possibly the tribal communities from the north-east

which never had the caste institution in their social organisation. Caste prejudices

are reported to be all pervasive among most Indian Christian communities. Similar

caste distinctions can be found among the Sikhs also. The conversion to Buddhism,

a religion which rejects caste system and social discrimination as its basis, has not

been able to eradicate the existence of caste disabilities of the members. As in

Islam and Christianity, in Sikhism too, the caste system prevails.

We have discussed in some detail the presence of caste in most religions in India,

even among those which tend to reject its validity in their religious percepts, to

illustrate that such social divisions within each religion reinforces the processes of

religious pluralism. Caste being based on the principle of social segmentation,

strengthens the forces of differentiation within a religious group. And since most

castes are linked with hereditary occupations, they tend to share commonalities of

custom, folkways, and beliefs with members of the same occupational caste in

other religions. This led to inter-religious interactions, institutional, social and cultural

linkages. Many occupational rituals and customs are shared by members of the

caste groups commonly found in various religions despite the religious differences.

This is particularly so in respect of the caste with agricultural occupation, and

artisans. In terms of inter-religious contacts or commonalities of values and beliefs

caste differentiation in each religions in India demonstrates pluralism and has in

large measure also contributed to tolerance and brotherliness across the religious


Language and Religious Pluralism

India is a land of diverse cultural patterns which have existed within the framework

of religious, linguistic, geographical and local traditions. The census of 193 1 revealed . thirteen languages of outstanding numerical significance each having more than 9

million speakers. About 90% of the population was cpvered by these major languages.

Today the number of numerically significant languages as recognised by the

Constitution has increased. Language gives people new identities. There are several

hundred languages and thousands of dialects belonging to vaiious linguistic families.

India thus presents a formidable mosaic of linguistic distribution each with'individual

cultural overtones. Religious differentiation exists within the setting of this linguistic

divisions. As a result of this most maj%r religions in India; Hinduism, Islam and

Christianity have their members coming from different linguistic communities. Just as caste divides and also unites in some respects, the members coming from Religious Pluralism in India: different religions belonging to the linguistic communities in India perform the same As Fact and Value function. This is because people for a linguistic community share many common values, cultural style and way of life. Language not only gives identity to people but

also serves as the potent vehicle of cultural expression. Linguistic variations within the followers of the same religions r-riade it possible for most people in India to take a broader and more liberal view of the relationship between religion and social and cultural life. There was continual sharing of folkways, styles of life, dietary preferences etc. across religions. This reinforced religious tolerance leading to peaceful co-existence.

(c) Religion in modern society: religion and science, secularization, religious revivalism, fundamentalism.


The very mention of the word 'fundamentalism' conjures up an image which came

to characterise an especially militant brand of anti-modernism, anti-liberalism and


Fundamentalism or revivalism is an effort by religious interpreters who like to go

back to, what they believe to be, pure and original values and behaviour.

The forces of social change are important for the emergence of fundamentalism. Whenever there are drastic changes in society and change of pace which disturbs community life, very often there is a loss of identity and rootlessness among people. In such situation people clutch any support for solace. Fundamentalism promises to certitude and restution of an earlier better age. The psychological appeal of this is difficult for people to resist.

To achieve and restitute this earlier, better age the fundamenlalist evolve a comprehensive and absolutist, rigid belief system and practice. This belief and practice which promises to bring happiness is capable of motivating intense commitment among its followers. So much so, non-believers are denied their rights. That is why fundamentalism very often takes on a rather aggressive, militant form where killing and terrorism are justified, since the end--usually the establishment of homeland (Israel, Khalistan are examples) justifies the means.


The word secular is derived from the Latin word 'secular’, which means the

'present age or generation'. The word secular came to be associated with the

social process of secularisation.

Secularisation came into use in Europe, to describe the transfer of territories previously

under the control of the church to the dominion of secular authority or the state. The distinction that was already prevalent in Christian conception between the sacred and secular (sacred as all that is supernatural, and secular as all that is mundane) was brought into the fore to assert the superiority of the sacred. The term, however, was applied in a different way when the concept of secularisation acquired a more general, sociological connotation

The Sociological Connotation of Secularization

Social thinkers have used the word secularisation to indicate a process whereby the

religious institutions and religious conceptions and understanding have lost control in

wordly matters - econofny, polity, justice, health, family, and so on. Instead, there

emerged empirical and rational procedures and conceptions about the world in


Describing the process of secularisation, Bryan R. Wilson writes that in secularisation

process "the various social institutions gradually become distinct from one another

and increasingly free of the matrix of religious assumptions that had earlier

informed.. .inspired and dominated their operation. Prior to this change, social action

over a very wide field of human activity and organisation (including work, social and

interpersonal relationships, juridical procedures, socialisation, healing) is regulated in

accordance with supernaturalist pre-conceptions. The process of structure

differentiation in which social institutions (the economy, the polity, morality, justice,

education, health, and family) become recognised as distinctive concerns operating

with considerable autonomy. It is a process in which conceptions of the supernatural

lose their soveriegnty over human affairs, a pattern broadly identified as secularism.

Conceptions of the supernatural are gradually displaced from all social institutions

except those specifically devoted to this - these are increasingly circumscribed

religious institutions" (Wilson 1987 : 159). . . .

The definition of secularisation is greatly bound by the definition of religion. As long

as religion is defined in, not so abstract terms and is defined substantively as beliefs,

attitudes, activities,'institutions and structures pertaining to the supernatural, it is

possible to assess the efftent of decline of religious influence. But if we were to

define religion in h t i o n a l terms, as some sociologists have done, as any set of

beliefs, ideas and activities that perform indispensable functions to the society it is

very difficult to emply the term secularisation, because when we use the term

secularisation we are discussing the process that leads to the decline of supernaturally

oriented activities and beliefs in all aspects of life. And a distinct separation of

various institutions in the society.

We can see the separation of the supernatural belief from secular activities by the

way we approach and understand disease for instance. We don't always have a

supernatural explanation to understand disease and illness. We have scientific and

empirical explanations instead.

Religion and Science

Science is a search for knowledge as well as method for solving problems. Both

religion and science are forms of human understanding. Thus science and religion

and human ways of relating themselves to reality. Science and religion try to make

exploit the world of the unknown. Religion is more collectively oriented than science,

but science too emphasises team-spirit and co-operation of the scientific community.

Both science and religion claim access to truth. On many occasions in the past as

well as present, in many a war, science and religion have acted against humankind.

Both religion and science prescribe qualifications for their personnel.

Science insists that all phenomena that is observed should not be accepted at face

value. Its value and meaning can be discovered through experimentation. All factors

(time, place, persons, equipment, etc.) that can affect the results of such experiments

are controlled in laboratory condition. Science differs from religion because it believes

in neutrality and objectivity. Scientific method is claimed to have annulled the

subjective biases. Science believes in precision and measurement, which is not

possible for religion. Science brings the unknown to the level of observable reality.

Religion cannot bring god to the level of observable phenomenon. Scientific knowledge

.has more concrete application in the form of technology, which might help in

manipulating nature. Religion cannot establish such concrete and immediate results.

Scientific knowledge and method are valid universally, whereas principles of religious

life differ from society to society.

Social order and Religion

'Social Ordeq as a concept may imply one or many of the following meanings: (I)

Arrangement of institutions in the society; (ii) Arrangement of roles and statuses

in the society; (iii) A smooth, well-coordinated functioning of this 'structure'. In

other words, 'structure' and 'function' are the twin dimensions of any social order.

Individual and society held together in a harmonious relationship, is the crux of a

social order. A most significant but questionable assumption behind the idea of

social order is that, social order is a 'self-regulating', 'self-balancing' order in

equilibrium almost like the natural Order.

Social Change and Stability

When religion and social order interact, two broad effects rnay result: (i) Religion

can change the social order or religion can stabilise the social order: (ii) Social

I change can lead to changes in religion itself at various levels or existing social order

I can defend and justify the religion which at times is oppressive and atrocious.

Stabilisation and change are not the only likely fall-out of interaction between

the religion and social order. Sometimes at certain specific places, even a continuity

may result. In other words some of the features of the bygone era can be retained,

changing few others. New emergent situations may necessitate the adaptation of

some of the principles of the past.

Religion stabilises the existing social order by its explanations of human misery and

social inequalities. It can stabilise the society by socialising individuals within a

specific moral framework. A particular religion explains doctrines which explain the

inequalities as natural and God-given. Some religions revolve around the concept of

personal salvation so much that, they explain human misery in terms of 'sin' or the A

'fallen state of humankind'.

Religion sometimes, begins to act as a force of social change. New interpretations,

of the old scriptures, rituals or dogmas in the light of sweeping changes in the Religion:

society at large, provide valuable inputs. Religion itself may re-emphasize hitherto Social StabiliVand Change marginalised or forgotten principles, in a changed context. This wordly misery (persecution, oppression, slavery, etc.) of the community of believers, may force

religion to downplay its other worldliness, in a specific socio-political, socio-economic context. Most often religious sentiments and symbols are invoked, new meanings are attributed to rituals and beliefs, and in the process religion becomes a vehicle of collective mobilization, for a group of believers who would like to be 'liberated'.

This group of believers may form a sect and break away from the parent religion

itself as protest. Religion also interprets what is an ideal family, best education etc.

and this may bring change or stability in these institutions. As interesting view which emerges from the above discussion is that religion is not necessarily a backward-looking or conservative force as assumed by many people. Rather religion could be a progressive, modern and revolutionary force as well, contingent upon certain factors, a few of which are explained below.

Determining Factors

Whether religion stabilizes the existing social order or changes it, depends upon a

host of factors. Some of them are:

1.New evidences/researches which cast the message of the scriptures holy books founder of the religion in a new light.

2.Social origins (social class, ethnicity etc.) of the clergy, clerics, priests and the community of believers.

3.Medium through which stabilisation or change is disseminated.

4.Reinterpretation of the Holy Books/Scriptures/Tests in the light of scholarly debates or movements.

5.Political status of the religions community-ruled by a colonial regime or themselves.

6.Nexus of the religious hierarchy with other sections of the society. In other words, position of power within and outside the religion.

7.Emergence of prophets, impact of other cultures, political subordination, economic exploitation of the believers,

8.Just as changes in religion may initiate changes in the social order, changes in the society in various realms like education, family, science, industry, stratification may compel religion to explain the social order in a new light.


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