The second entry in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (2011) defines religion as “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” While this is certainly a concise, applicable, and usable definition of religion, and though it is seemingly conducive to how the text has sought surmise the basic description and functionality of the religious framework, there are, indeed, subtle and nuanced differences that are cause for a greater divergence.
R.L. Johnstone (2007), in the book Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion, defines religion as “a set of beliefs and rituals by which a group of people seeks to understand, explain, and deal with a world of complexity, uncertainty, and mystery, by identifying a sacred canopy of explanation and reassurance under which to live” (p. 14). Though this defining statement is much more unpacked, drawn out, and detailed, the two working definitions as presented by that of Johnstone and Merriam-Webster do bear many intrinsic commonalities and one could conclude that they are each explicitly similar. However, upon a closer examination, one will have revealed and realized what this observer believes to be at least one dramatic difference that seems to be ripe with implications.
Merriam-Webster begins by asserting the “personal” orientation of this “institutionalized system.” This emphasizes what is believed to be or what is seen as a highly individualized set of “attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” This definition has the person as center and as its starting point. The individual and personal nature of religion is at the heart of this proposal, highlighting only the individual activities. Also, this definition then seems to simultaneously contain a contradiction, in that how can an institution and or a system be ultimately defines as personal. While participation of the individual religious observant is an integral component to the operation of the institute, it seems antithetical to postulate that religion as a whole and at its most basic of levels is altogether personal.
Johnstone is then quick to retort by underlining the communal base as primary for the religious systemization. This is decidedly a group effort and a shared experience. This does seem to be the more logical of the two arguments, as a collective comprisal would present a substantiated progression towards and an inundation of the institutionalization of a religious ordering of belief and practice. Yet, while this view does explain and give light to the standardization of the group, the definition seems to be asocial in the greater surrounding context of the religion. This definitive phrasing, taken on its own, does seem to suggest that although it may recognize the religious event as a social system, it alludes to a detachment from society. Although religious sects can and have withdrawn from the greater society, this does not free them from its effects.
This is what I find to be so intriguing in regards to the theories of Georg Simmel. Simmel underscored the influence that society has upon religious institutions. Johnstone (2007) writes of Simmel’s thoughts, “Many feelings and patterns of expression commonly termed ‘religious’ are also…basic ingredients of social interaction in general” (p. 30). He goes on to say that “the models for many, if not all, religious sentiments, expressions, and beliefs, reside originally in society at large” (p. 30). This theory supposes that rather than society forming around a religion, religion, contrarily, forms around society. Just as Jean-Paul Sartre once suggested that existence precedes essence, likewise Simmel proposed that “society precedes religion” (Johnstone, 2007, p. 30). Thus, making clear that “Before religion can develop, there must first exist general patterns of social interaction – that is, a society – that can serve as a model” (p. 30). If this is true then all the efforts of religious communities to revitalize the faith, to renew its fervor, or to make it more relevant is itself, a misguided and ineffectual endeavor as it still does not address the root of the problem but only a manifestation. This treats only the symptoms while never actually attacking the virus. If we are asking why our religious institutions are failing it is surely because we have ignored the depravity lurking beyond the doors or our churches, choosing only to concentrate on internal conductions. Thus, until the religious communities abandon their temples and evacuate their houses of worship and take up active residence in the world of this earth, seeking to dismantle and deconstruct the sociological fabrications of Western culture, socially, politically, economically, and philosophically. We must serve the “least of these.” We must clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit those in need, not in an effort increase numbers, or as an implicit humanitarian marketing campaign, and not even as the fulfillment of some arbitrary moral imperative delivered from the pulpit or from the misinterpreted pages of a book that we have stripped of its political subversiveness, but, because the face of the other is the face of God. Until we can replace and rebuild the dilapidated frames of our culture and our society our religious institutions will forever be found in ruin.