What kind of thing is a religion?

The idea of a religion is apparently a very familiar one. It is a set of beliefs about the sacred shared by a group of people. It embodies some fundamental norms that guide and constrain believers’ conduct. It is a potent social force that can determine the outcomes of presidential elections.

But notice the many complexities that these statements conceal. There is the question of the individual’s psychology and mental life; how are religious beliefs and values embodied and acquired, and how do they function in the person’s deliberative and affective schemes?

Second is the question of the group’s religious characteristics. An individualist would say that the group’s religious identity is simply the sum of the religious characteristics of the individuals who compose it, and that there is normally a distribution of variants around each dimension or element of the religious identity. (In other words, the members of thexgroup are not homogeneous in their beliefs and behavior.)

Third, we could dwell quite a while on the problem of formulating a theory of the core content of the religion, including beliefs, norms, and practices. The differences mentioned above imply that formulation of “core” beliefs is likely to be deeply controversial–witness the violence connected with schisms within religious traditions.

Finally, we need to consider the concrete social institutions and organizations through which religious groups and movements do their work: promulgate their religious commitments and knowledge to the young and converts, mobilize the followers to collective action, and function as a community of belief and action.

Notice the variety of disciplines that are invoked here in this still-brief account of the social efficacy of religion: personality psychology, social psychology, interpretative anthropology, political science, social movements theory, sociology, and the humanistic disciplines of philosophy, criticism, and hermeneutics.

We find, then, that religion is not one single thing, and it exercises causal powers in very diverse ways. “It” is many psychological, semiotic, organizational things, loosely held together by the idea of a group of co-believers. And causal-sociological stories pass through this station in many directions and on many levels. The causal efficacy of religion refers sometimes to the power that ideas and values have over individual believers. Sometimes it refers to the power a group of believers wields over other members of the group. And sometimes it refers to the power that religious organizations have over other persons through their sources of influence and threat — a very secular exercise of power.

This comes down to several forms of efficacy — the ability to influence behavior through the grip of ideas, the ability to mobilize supporters, and the ability to marshall other more secular forms of power and influence.

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