Aristotle provided one of the earliest analyses of religion. He argued that a hierarchical society with a powerful leader would likely have in its religion a commanding authority figure whereas egalitarian societies believe in a spiritual society of gods with egalitarian relationships with one another and also with human beings. He suggested that the gods we worship are a mirror reflecting our own social structures and cultural beliefs, values, and ideals. We see this pattern in the context of the colonization of First Nations peoples in Canada. For example, the French Jesuits had a king, and spoke of an omnipotent “God,” both viewed as masters whose commands their servants were to obey. In contrast, the Huron (Wendat) nation viewed their political leaders as role models and their spiritual figures who inspired them through visions or plagued them with curses. Hence, the Huron had a much more egalitarian relationship with those who inhabited the spirit world.
By the late nineteenth century, social Darwinism linked religion to society more explicitly. According to this Eurocentric view, “primitive” peoples worship dark but powerless gods. The fact that Europeans had a single supreme ruler was evidence that they had evolved beyond the “primitive barbarians.” This approach to religion was then invoked by colonizers to convert perceived pagans to Christianity.
Max Weber attempted to explain the rise of modern capitalism with his theory of the Protestant work ethic, which linked religion with social class. This theory was based on the Protestant belief that only some people—a predestined elect—would be saved during the second coming of Christ. Protestants believed that a person’s ability to work hard and achieve material success was a sign that he or she was favoured by God. Thus, religious and cultural influences as spelled out in Weber’s the Protestant work ethic spurred people to accumulate wealth as a religious act, thereby giving rise to capitalism.
Weber’s German contemporary Karl Marx had a more critical view of religious doctrine. He theorized that religion was an instrument of hegemony and mainly served the interests of members of the ruling class who used religion to dissuade workers to pursue their own class interests and challenge inequality. Marx used the term false consciousness to describe the belief among the working classes that the class-based hierarchy was a God-given; therefore just order that God had already determined each individual’s appropriate position in the class hierarchy, and that oppressed workers would be rewarded in the afterlife.
Émile Durkheim’s work on religion highlighted the moral community and religion’s social functions. Durkheim posited that social phenomena such as suicide and religion were rooted in the group or society, not the individual—in other words, religion is deeply social. According to Durkheim, there are three central elements of religion. The first is the equation god=society. Using the Aborigines of Australia as a model, Durkheim suggested that different groups’ totems symbolize both the god and the society that reveres it. The second element of religion, according to Durkheim, is collective consciousness, or a shared understanding among followers of a particular religion brought about by shared experiences and rituals. An example of collective consciousness is the call to prayer by the Muezzin (religious herald) in Islam, which is followed by the mass payer by those in attendance. The third element of religion that Durkheim distinguished was the difference between acts and objects that are sacred (set apart as being positively regarded, holy, and deserving of respect, sometimes forbidden or taboo) and those that are profane (more ordinary and secular). Sacred objects include prayer beads or flags, and sacred acts include prayer and keeping kosher and halal. Durkheim argued that no objects or acts are inherently sacred. Rather they are defined as such by social groups.
Religion in Canada can be examined by looking at changes in demographic trends. In Canada, growing or declining immigration from certain regions has contributed to the expansion of certain religious groups and a shrinking of others respectively. In 2001, the census showed growth for Pagan, Muslim, Christian (not reported elsewhere), Serbian Orthodox, Hindu, Sikh, or Buddhist religious affiliations. Other religions reported decreases, such as Presbyterian and Anglican, in large part because immigration to Canada from Scotland and Britain has decreased. However, these long-established Protestant denominations continue to have the highest numbers of adherents. It is also important to note that an increasing number of Canadians claim not to have any religious affiliation at all.
Studies show that young people are consistently less interested in religion than older people; however, it would be a mistake to assume that these same young people today will not (re)turn to religion later in life. In other words, age group differences do not indicate cohort differences. Religious groups whose members are the oldest are the ones fastest declining, while those with the youngest members are the fastest growing.
Religion has been used either to create and nurture strong family ties or to disrupt or break them. An example of the former is found within Hutterite communities across Canada which remain agricultural and set apart from mainstream society by choice. Examples of the latter can be found in the removal of Irish and British children from their unwed mothers, many of whom were believed to be sex workers; as well as the removal and forced transport to Australia of poor children from their parents in Britain; and the institution of residential schools for Indigenous children in Canada.
Most organized world religions are characterized by androcentrism and patriarchal power structures which tend to subordinate and marginalize women. For that reason, feminists in the 1960s and 1970s became critical of Christianity and its practices which they viewed as an influential cultural factor in the reproduction of gender inequality. Among the Hutterites, for example, all community decisions are made by men, particularly by the Head Minister, and the community is structured around a strict gendered division of labour where the women care for children and elders, and the men care for crops and livestock and make decisions.
For the past half-century, the Anglican Church has been opposing the ordination of women into church leadership roles. In November 1976, the first six women were ordained as Anglican priests in Canada, but it was not until 1994 that the first Canadian woman was ordained as a Bishop. As of 2013, only 15 of the 38 Anglican provinces have allowed the ordination of women bishops, and only five, including Canada, actually have one. The Roman Catholic Church as well as a number of fundamentalist Christian groups remain opposed to women holding leadership roles. Most of this resistance appears to stem from the negative and patriarchal attitude toward women expressed in early Christian teachings.
Although religion is often thought to have traditional and conservative views toward social change, it has also been the primary agent of social change. Nonetheless, religion has been used in detrimental and oppressive ways. For example, religion has been used to submit populations to the will and authority in the context of colonialism and convert Indigenous peoples to Christianity. The primary goal of missionaries is to convert people, and they often practice aid evangelism, which means that missionaries tend to focus on developing countries that need financial help. Often financial aid comes with strings attached, also known as tied aid or phantom aid which means that the aid provided is not real, but rather a form of investment. At the same time, religion, particularly liberation theology, has also been the driving force behind anti-colonial liberation movements, anti-racism and anti-discrimination movements, anti-poverty struggles, and democratic reform. Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X, and Tommy Douglass in Canada all have used their faith to advocate for social change and distributive justice.
After reading chapter eleven, you will be able to:
- Describe the social Darwinist approach to analysing religion.
- Outline Émile Durkheim’s sociological approach to understanding religion.
- Explain the relationship between religion and capitalism as outlined by Max Weber.
- Discuss Karl Marx’s critical stance on religion.
- Summarize central trends pertaining to religion in Canadian society.
- Illustrate the relationship between religion, family life and gender roles using specific examples.
- Critically discuss the role of religion in colonialism and the forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
- Distinguish the positive role of religion as an agent of distributive justice and empowerment of the poor.
- Understand the abuse of religion through aid in Third World nations.