Science in Christian Perspective



Frank E. Houser

From: JASA 5 (September 1953): 15-16.

It was suggested in this column in its first appearance that there were some empirical data relevant to the question of whether or not religion integrates the personality. Interestingly enough, just as there are social scientists who believe religion integrates the personality, so there are those who contend religion integrates society. It is with this recent development of social theory that this column deals.

Religion has not always been accepted by sociologists, Together with some anthropologists there have been times when outstanding sociologists regarded religion as both erroneous and impractical. Herbert Spencer and E. B. Tylor were concerned with "explaining away" religion by disclosing its origin. That origin was found in man's simple error of deducing the soul from the fact that while his body remained in one place, his self wandered about when he dreamed. And, early man's observation indicated that upon death the body disintegrated. This left the disembodied spirits of men to roam rather freely-with disconcerting effects. In this fluid state of affairs a tooth ache became the work of an evil spirit, a sweet old grandmother becomes a carping mother-in-law (science is still working on this), white cows become sacred,. and stepping on a flower could be tantamount to murder. At this point Spencer broke with Tylor's animism-suggesting that men couldn't be so ignorant as not to distinguish between the animate and inanimate.

Then Max Miller embellished the explanation of man's preoccupation with the soul by suggesting the influence of external nature upon man. He said early man deified the most striking aspects of nature.

Modern sociologists interested in religion regard these theories as post hoc efforts which reflected the biases of evolutionary and rationalistic assumptions. The quest for origins is indeed a will-'o-the-wisp adventure. And Why, the contemporaries ask, has religion persisted if founded on error? Surely it is not subject only to man's .rationality, but also, to his emotional and social needs. Even more of interest to the modem sociologist is the way in which religion serves the group's needs or ends. As one of them puts it: "Religion, then, does four things that help to maintain the dominance of sentiment over organic desire, of group ends over private interest. First it offers, through its system of supernatural belief, an explanation of the group ends and a justification of their primacy. Second it provides, through its collective ritual a means for the constant renewal of the common sentiments. Third it furnishes, through its sacred objects, a concrete reference for the values and a rallying point for all persons who share the same values. Fourth it provides an unlimited and insuperable source of rewards and punishments-rewards for good conduct, punishments for bad. In these ways religion makes a unique and indispensable contribution to social integration."1

Such an analysis is called the functional theory of religion. Kinsley Davis, W. Kolb, W. Goode, Talcott Parsons, and Robert Merton are building on the functional-structural type of sociological analysis developed by William Robertson Smith, Emile Durkheim, A. R. Radcliffe Brown, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Max Weber. "The mode of analysis toward which all these men are driving . . . assumes that society is an emergent whole determined by the organization of its parts and that, being something different from the mere sum of its parts, it cannot be understood in purely individualistic and utilitarian terms. Also the parts of society cannot be understood apart from but only with reference to the whole."2 The interests of the functionalists are not, of course, confined to religion.

One of the first books to be published on the functional theory of religion is W. J. Goode's Religion Among the Primitives (Free Press, 1951). Goode uses the comparative method in examining several primitive societies about which there is much extant literature. Obviously the functional approach is not easily amenable to quantitative interpretation. The subject matter is as broad as society-and, as significant as society. If society is a unitary process then the sociologist is forced, to expand his horizons for %understanding's sake. In doing so he must resort to logic and fragmentary induction.

A fascinating footnote to the functionalists has been raised by W. Kolb who claims that cultural relativism and philosophical positivism are common assumptions among contemporary sociologists--even among "functionalists". To them values have no ontic status, for that is beyond scientific determination. Their positivism precludes the validity of the non-empirical. Kolb then concludes that the "functional theory of religion, if sound, forces these men into a position where they can no longer adhere to a purely subjective theory of value validity and still believe in the possibility of human freedom and a democratic social structure. They may, perhaps, continue to be men of good will but they cannot continue to believe that it is possible for all men to have equal access to knowledge and truth. The reason is simple. Sociologists have believed for some time that in order for a society to exist the members of that society must share a system of values. If the ultimate significance of the functional theory of religion is to indicate that at least most men in a society must not only share values but must also believe that these value-ideas are connected with a realm of values which has ontic status, the positivistic sociologist who prefers a free society is placed in an intolerable dilemma. It is a  prime postulate of the theory of freedom that knowledge of the truth will make men free and that in a democratic society all men must have access to the truth. Yet if the idea that values have ontic status is false but necessary for the existence of society, the sociologist cannot spread such truth. To give all men access to this truth would be to destroy society, for men cannot know to be false what they must believe to be true. To refrain from spreading the truth is to deny men their freedom and dignity, for the sociologist would then be placing a lie at the center of their social existence and would be making himself a member of an elite who know the truth but must conceal it from the mass."3

1. Ringsley Davis, Human Society, MacMillan Co., N. Y., 1949. P. 521).
2. lbid, p. 518.
3. William Kolb, "Values, Positivism, and the Functional Theory of Religion," social Forces, May, 1953, Vol. 31, No. 4, p. 307.