Secular Religions Research Paper

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The term ‘secular religions’ can be used to describe certain apparently secular enterprises that appear to share common features with enterprises usually thought of as ‘religious.’ ‘Secular religion’ is one of several terms—including ‘civil religion,’ ‘invisible religion,’ para-religion, and ‘quasi-religion’—which draw attention to religious and religious-like beliefs and activities which do not fit easily into the Western folk conception of religion as a distinct institutional structure focused on a transcendent being or beings.

1. Examples Of ‘Secular Religions’

At first blush, the very notion of ‘secular religion’ would appear to be an oxymoron. In both popular and sociological usage, the term ‘religion’ is typically associated with the realm of the ‘sacred’ and contrasted with that of the ‘secular.’ However, a number of scholars have pointed out striking similarities between ostensibly religious and ostensibly secular undertakings. Secular ideologies it is argued may, like religions, unite followers into a community of shared beliefs. They may provide adherents with a sense of meaning and ultimate purpose. They may inspire in believers a sense of transcendence usually associated with religion. Attempts to find parallels between the sacred and the secular have been especially common in studies of the political realm and in studies of therapeutic organizations and activities.

1.1 Political ‘Religions’

Numerous scholars have highlighted the religious aspects of political movements and ideologies. Communism, for example, has often been regarded as a secular religion. Zuo (1991) has recently described the veneration of Chairman Mao during the Chinese Cultural Revolution as a political religion replete with sacred beings (Mao himself), sacred texts (the Little Red Book), and ritual (political denunciations). The term ‘political religion’ has also been employed to describe attempts made in developing societies to rally support for the concept of the nation. Crippin (1988) has gone so far as to argue the nationalism is the religion par excellence in modern society and that it is displacing more traditional forms of religion.

O’Toole (1977) has used the term ‘sect’ to describe certain political groups operating in Canada, including the Socialist Labor Party, followers of De Leon who wait for a Communist millennium which they regard as imminent. Such social movements as environmentalism, the animal rights movement, and the health food movement have been described as quasireligions insofar as they provide adherents with a coherent worldview and sense of purpose at the same time that they command a great deal of loyalty.

1.2 Therapeutic ‘Religions’

Many scholars have drawn attention to ritual aspects of western medical practice. Others have pointed out that psychiatrists have much in common with shamans and other religious healers. A number of researchers have pointed out the similarities that exist between self-help groups and religious organizations (Galanter 1989, Rudy and Greil 1988). One family within the self-help movement that is perhaps more obviously ‘religious’ in character than most of the others includes Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-step or codependency groups. A few among many of the religious characteristics of AA are a conception of the sacred, ceremonies and rituals, creedal statements, experiences of transcendence, and the presence of an AA philosophy of life.

1.3 Other Examples

Other examples of attempts to point out analogies between apparently secular enterprises and religious ones abound in the social scientific literature. Within the realm of sport, attention has been paid to ritual elements and experiences of transcendence to be found in cricket, baseball, football, and the Olympic games. In the sphere of business, some writers have drawn attention to the sectarian characteristics of certain types of business, such as home-party sales organizations and direct sales organizations. It has now become commonplace among students of corporate culture to regard such ordinary activities as meetings, presentations and retirement dinners as rituals. Among the voluntary organizations that have been interpreted as quasi-religions are the Boy Scouts, groups of hobbyists and collectors, and ‘fan clubs.’ Jindra (1994) has described the phenomenon of Star Trek ‘fandom’ as religious in that it provides participants with a common worldview and inspires high levels of commitment. Several writers have attempted to characterize atheism itself as a religious enterprise, characterizing Ethical Culture and other humanist groups as analogous to religions. Still others have viewed faith in science as the dominant religious perspective of the contemporary era.

2. ‘Secular Religions’ And The Problem Of Defining Religion

It may be argued that an interest in secular religion is a natural outgrowth of the functionalist perspective in classical sociology, which tended to view religion as serving a necessary function for the maintenance of society by uniting members of a society into a common moral universe. If, as many early sociologists thought, supernaturalistic conceptions of the universe were destined to recede in the face of industrialization and the increasing influence of science, the question arose as to what phenomena might serve as the ‘social cement’ of future societies. Comte’s call for a ‘religion of humanity’ qualifies as an early sociological mention of the notion of a ‘secular religion.’ Durkheim’s expectation that a ‘cult of the individual’ might play a similar role in the maintenance of society as that traditionally played by religions represents another early effort to provide intellectual justification for the idea that apparently secular ideologies may have religious characteristics.

As appealing and intuitive as the idea that secular enterprises may share important features with religions might be, the notion of a ‘secular religion’ must confront theoretical problems concerning the appropriate sociological definition of ‘religion’ and of ‘the sacred.’ Functional definitions of religion emphasize that the essential element in religion is the provision of an encompassing system of meaning or the ability to connect people to the ultimate conditions of their existence. Substantive definitions of religion argue that what distinguishes religion from other types of human activity is its reference to the sacred, the supernatural, or the superempirical.

The advantage of functional definitions is a breadth and inclusiveness that allows one to look at beliefs and practices not commonly referred to as religious but which may nonetheless resemble religious phenomena in important ways. One major disadvantage is that they may have the effect of so broadening the concept of religion that it becomes meaningless. While substantive definitions avoid this problem, they may result in allowing traditional Western conceptions of the nature of religion to determine what is to be included in the ‘religious’ category. Viewed from the perspective of the debate over the definition of religion, the theoretical problem with the concept of ‘secular religion’ is that it seems to rely simultaneously on both a broad functional approach to religion and on a narrower substantive approach. The idea that environmentalism or nationalism could be properly called a religion relies on a functional definition, while the idea that such religions are ‘secular’ rather than ‘sacred’ necessarily depends on a substantive definition.

One might argue that both functional and substantive definitions of religion share the weakness that they privilege social scientists’ conceptions of religion over folk conceptions of religion, that is to say the ways that people use the term ‘religion’ in everyday life. Some social scientists would therefore argue that the search for a scientifically valid definition of religion is futile and that the best that can be done is to define religion ethnographically, treating it as a ‘category of discourse’ with meanings that are changeable over time. The position that scholars take with regard to these definitional issues will necessarily influence the way in which they approach the study of ‘secular religions.’ This is perhaps one reason why there is at present no consensus within the social sciences with regard to the most appropriate method for studying phenomena residing on the border between the sacred and the secular.

3. Approaches To The Study Of ‘Secular Religions’

Within contemporary sociology and anthropology, there exist several different research traditions that focus on the boundary between the religious and the non-religious.

3.1 The Notion Of Civil Religion

While Rousseau coined the term ‘civil religion,’ its development as a social scientific concept is attributed to Robert Bellah (1967). Working within the functionalist tradition, which sees religion as integrative for society, Bellah argued for the existence of a US civil religion, an ‘institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation,’ which binds US citizens together in spite of denominational pluralism. A key tenet of US civil religion is the conception of the USA as a nation with a divinely ordained mission. Although the civil religion concept was developed in the US context, it has been applied to the analysis of many states including Canada, Israel, and Malaysia.

3.2 The Implicit Religion Tradition

Although the term ‘implicit religion’ was coined and popularized by Edward Bailey (1983), the concept owes much to the work of Thomas Luckmann (1967). Working with a broad functional definition of religion as the transcending of biological nature and the formation of a self, Luckmann argues that religion is a human universal. Luckmann maintains that traditional religions have become irrelevant in the modern world but that religion, rather than disappearing, has become personalized, privatized, and ‘invisible.’ Following Luckmann’s lead, Bailey’s implicit religion approach looks for the experience of the sacred within events of everyday life ordinarily dismissed as profane. Thus, in a study of interaction in an English public house, Bailey interprets the ethos of ‘being a man,’ mastering alcohol and respecting the selves of others as implicitly religious.

3.3 The Study Of ‘Religious’ Forms

There also exist a relatively large number of studies of general social ‘forms’ which are deemed to be relevant in both sacred and secular contexts. General discussions of ‘secular ritual,’ for example, fall into this category. Goffman’s (1967) work on the functional significance of such rituals of everyday life as ‘saving face’ and showing ‘deference’ is particularly well known. Collins (1981) treats ‘interaction ritual chains’ as a key element in his attempt to lay a microsociological foundation for macro-sociology. Once conversations, social greetings, and athletic contests are allowed to count as ritual, ritual becomes virtually coterminous with social life. For this reason, some scholars reject ‘ritual’ as a meaningless category, while others argue that the ubiquity of ritual simply means that ritualizing is a fundamental human activity.

Many sociological studies of the commitment process either explicitly or implicitly present the commitment process as operating in much the same way in both sacred and secular contexts (Kanter 1972). A number of writers have developed models of the identity change process which highlight the similarity between religious conversion and other forms of identity change (Galanter 1989, Greil and Rudy 1983). Studies that employ the term ‘sect’ in the analysis of apparently secular organizations have already been discussed.

3.4 The ‘Quasi-Religion’ Approach

The quasi-religion approach popularized by Greil (1993) and his colleagues relies on an ethnographic approach to the term ‘religion,’ regarding it, not as an objective category susceptible to social scientific definition, but as a claim negotiated in the course of social interaction. Greil distinguishes between parareligions and quasi-religions. Para-religions, which are ostensibly nonreligious entities that nonetheless deal with matters of ultimate concern, resemble the enterprises referred to in this research paper as ‘secular religions.’ The term ‘quasi-religion,’ on the other hand, refers to groups, like AA or certain occult groups, which deal with matters of transcendence or ultimate concern, but which do not see themselves or present themselves unambiguously as religious. The concern here is not to determine whether a particular group is or is not a quasi-religion but to examine the process by which particular groups attempt to claim or repudiate the religious label and by which other groups and individuals respond to these claims.

4. The Theoretical Significance Of Secular Religions

Pursuing the analogy between ostensibly secular enterprises and ‘religion’ as it is usually conceived raises important questions concerning the proper definition of religion, the process of secularization and the nature of religion in contemporary societies. The study of secular religions puts into bold relief the problematic nature of social scientific attempts to define religion. How one defines religion has important consequences for how one thinks about secular religions and for whether or not one regards the concept as useful. Attention to religious border phenomena presses one to consider the value of an ethnographic approach to definition that conceptualizes religion as a category of discourse whose precise meaning and implications are continually being negotiated in the course of social interaction. The study of secular religions also directs attention to difficulties in specifying and evaluating the secularization thesis, which claims that the influence of religion is declining in contemporary societies. It should be clear that one’s approach to the question of secularization (including whether one even conceives of secularization as a theoretical possibility) depends on one’s definition of religion and on one’s treatment of religious border phenomena.

Several of the approaches to secular religion discussed here imply that traditional Western conceptions of religion as an institutionalized set of beliefs and practices focusing on a transcendent deity is beginning to lose its hold over many people. Likewise, many people seem to be tending to give expression to their experiences of transcendence in institutional contexts that have not typically been thought of as religious. If this is, in fact, the case, the line between religion and nonreligion may be expected to become even more blurred and the study of religious border phenomena even more central to the social scientific enterprise.


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