Religion: A Study of Society
by Nicole Comforto
Many people believe that religion occurs only in the church, temple, or other spiritual places of gathering. They see religion and society as complete, separate entities. While this view may appear correct on the surface, a closer look at religion and society reveals that the two are not separate at all, but intricately interconnected and codependent. In reality, religion is inherent within many aspects of society, and religious beliefs inevitably affect areas such as politics, economics, and cultural values. This relationship between religion and society can be seen in Islamic religion and Muslim social culture, Christianity and economics, and Buddhism and politics. In each of these religions we can find insight for understanding the society in which it exists, as well as in the comparison of these religions and their relationships with society.
Islamic religion is more than just a belief in the Qurían and Mohammed as the prophet: it is also a blueprint for Muslim culture. Members of Islamic communities embrace their faith as a way of life. The Qurían, Islamís major text, consists of, in addition to spiritual instructions, specific directions for cultural life: "The Qurían constitutes the Muslimís main reference not only for matters spiritual but also for the mundane requirements of day to day living...serving as his manual of prayer, code of religious ethical well-being, his guide to social behavior and daily living..." The Qur'an gives instructions for many areas of society, including public law and customs such as marriage laws and sacrifices, economics (with the custom of almsgiving), and daily life, which includes prayer five times each day. Therefore, due to its explicitness regarding many cultural issues, the religion cannot exist merely in private life, for to be practiced fully it must be adopted by the society and culture.
In creating this new and unique Muslim culture, Islam caused a significant social change. Before the religionís conception the Arab people worshipped a number of gods, and lived together (not always peacefully) with a variety of beliefs. In general, women were oppressed and disrespected: they were not allowed to own or inherit property, and abuse of women was common. Mohammedís message, once accepted, caused a major social change along with the new religion:
"The message of the Qurían was reformist, if not revolutionary. Quranic prescriptions would provide the basis for the later development of Islamic law to chart this new social order...It includes rules concerning modesty, marriage, divorce, inheritance, feuding, intoxicants, gambling, diet, theft, murder, fornication, and adultery...Exploitation of the poor, weak, widows, women, orphans, and slaves is vividly condemned: -Those who live off orphansí property without having any right to do so will only suck up fire into their bellies, and they will roast in the fires (of hell)." (4:10)
This social reform was a direct result of the adoption of the Qurían and the Islamic doctrine. The Arab people changed from a relatively disunited group of people to a united Muslim community striving for social ideals: "You are the best community evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong" This change in morals caused a major change in the cultural values of the time, and Islam is still inherently connected with Muslim culture as the people continue to strive for a moral and social ideal.
In addition to influencing culture, religion can also have a profound effect on economic changes. In Christianity, the Catholic church provides an example of a religion that has been institutionalized and become a powerful economic force. Early on, the Catholic church in Rome had a great deal of wealth, which it used to assist other Christian communities during times of hardship. The Catholic church became even more influential later on, around the time of the Reformation. After its excommunication with the Eastern Orthodox church in the Middle Ages, it began to develop independently from the state. According to the reformists, the institution became increasingly corrupt at that time. An imbalance of power existed within the church hierarchy: the popes and bishops had a great deal of power, and the higher clergy lived like princes off the wealth of the church. Church positions could be bought at the time as well. The sale of indulgences, from which only the church benefited, created a moral problem for many reformists who believed that the church had too much power and wealth. The reformists thought that the Catholic church had strayed from the original message of Jesus, who lived an economically modest life. They believed that the church had become a capitalist institution, along with the rising capitalist European culture of the time. In addition, they believed that the church was abusing its wealth and power by allowing the Pope to crown certain Kings, therefore demonstrating its economic and political power over the state. Although it remains unclear which change occurred first, societyís economic shift or the Catholic churchís own change to capitalism, the fact that they both made the shift to capitalism at the same time suggests a significant relationship between Christianity and the economics of the time frame through the institution of the Catholic church.
Much like the examples of Islam and Christianity, the connection between religion and society is exemplified in the relationship between Buddhism and politics. In many cases throughout Buddhist history, the political rulers have also been religious leaders. Such is the case with the Dalai Lamas of Tibet. Each Dalai Lama is believed to be a reincarnation of a bodhisattva as well as of the previous Dalai Lama, and therefore divinely chosen as the head of the Gelugpa Buddhist order. He is also the political ruler of Tibet, where Vajrayanan Buddhism reigns. In this case, the Dalai Lamas connect religion and politics by ruling both a religious sect and a political entity through their Buddhist beliefs.
King Ashoka provides another example of a joint political and religious leader. By adopting Buddhism as his faith, he was able to conquer and successfully rule a large area. Since Buddhism appealed to people of all social and economic classes, and the religion validated his kingship through the tradition of the cakravartin, he was able to gain popularity and support from a large population. Ashoka was an important figure both politically and religiously, because he is given credit for uniting India for the first time, as well as for the spread of Buddhism. Ashokaís commitment to Buddhism is evident in his statement: "real satisfaction in ruling over people comes from inducing them to follow dharma." The Mahayanan traditional story, "The Gift of Dirt," which tells the story of King Ashokaís life, emphasizes this relationship between Buddhism and the political world. As the story goes, he is rewarded as a boy by Buddha for his gift of dirt by receiving the esteemed position as a ruler in his next lifetime. This boy is reincarnated as King Ashoka, who rules by two different methods throughout his lifetime: first by violence, a lesser method, and later by charisma, the greater method. This Buddhist story influenced the political world by turning a real political figure into an example illustrating the superior method of ruling and by setting the standard for "lesser" and "greater" methods of ruling.
By examining these three examples: Islamic culture, Christian economics, and Buddhist politics, we can see how intricately connected religion is with society and social change. Upon taking a closer look, it becomes apparent that these relationships are all very similar. While these three traditions have distinctly different doctrines, and the manifestations of these doctrines in their respective societies vary, the process in each case
is the same. The espousal of a religious doctrine influences the way a person views the world, and when an entire society of people adopt the same religious beliefs, cultural, political, and economic changes are inevitable. In return, elements of society such as geography, resources, and outside pressure also influence religious doctrines. In Islam, for example, the importance of making a pilgrimage to Mecca during oneís lifetime was most likely adopted because of the large expanse over which the Islamic people were spread out. Some Buddhists most likely value and worship mountains because of the regional geography around which the tradition was built, which includes the Himalayan mountains. Again, although the effects on religious beliefs differ from one tradition to the next, when examined closely, they each go through a similar process of adopting aspects of the society or culture into the religious doctrine. Although societies and religions differ a great deal from one to the next, the connections between the two are inherently evident and similar in all religions. Because of this intimate relationship between religions and social change, we can conclude that to truly understand one, we must also study the other.
Hajduk, Class lecture, December 1999