Science in Christian Perspective



Russell Heddendorf, M.A.

From JASA 10 (December 1958): 19-20.

For the average Christian, there is seldom any thought given to the effect which his faith might have on any but those in his immediate reference group. Viewed as a force in society, however, Christianity or any religion may be shown to have profound social consequences. One of these results may be simply stated as the meeting of some need for the integration of society. Rituals, therefore, would have this function because individuals are drawn together and identify things which they have in common. Yet, another need which might be met would be the development of a new set of opposing attitudes and actions in the form of performing a divisive function within the total society. The Reformation is a classic example of this social consequence of religion.

Until fairly recently, the integrative function has been generally accepted. With a greater willingness to criticize classical statements on the subject, however, there has come an awareness that perhaps religion does perform more of a divisive function. Within the restrained discussion which has I developed on this point, there has come an attempt to indicate why a function of religion may never be clearly stated.* The author concerns himself only with our complex western society, for it is in this area that the debate has centered. Five main difficulties, as stated in this article, which hinder the specification of a function of religion could be isolated:

1) There is a need to state necessary conditions to be met by religion, i.e. the belief in a millennial period, thereby requiring a subjective view of God.

2) There are difficulties in stating the needs of a social system to be met by religion, i.e. those which may be effectively met only by religion and no other institution.

3) There is an opportunity to ignore religious practices, thereby limiting the social effect of religion in a society.

4) There is a need to believe religious faith as well as practice it.

5) Religion may perform diametrically opposite functions at one time in a complex society, indicating that religion may not be an essential part of a system but merely "useful" in some areas of society.

Beginning with the last problem, it could be shown that this is a difficulty which exists for any institution in a complex society. Consider the case of the military in our society. There is a need, defined by the military, to maintain an adequate military mechanism. Yet, the economic institution has a need to limit spending which requires the military limit its outlay for defense material, resulting in a contradiction of purposes to be met by the military. Since this is a problem of all institutions, therefore, it is not germane to the sociology of religion but is relevant to the field of general sociological theory.

Problems 3 and 4 are similar in that both indicate that it is not possible for religion to have a unified effect on society as long as it is not meaningful to all in the society. This is one of the most lucid facts indicating the fallacy of the theory of a singular integrative function of religion. This does not, however, prevent an understanding of what the function of religion should be within a social context which is smaller than society.

Though somewhat more unique, the problem stated in 2 is similar to 5 in that it is again a problem existing in other institutions. It is well known that the educational institution performs a socializing function for the child almost to the same extent as the family. The complicating factor for religion, however, is the fact that much depends upon one's understanding of the elements of religion. Hence it is not possible to state what social needs may be met by religion until there is a decision as to what the components of religion are.

Hence, this problem is dependent upon the solution of 1. Probably the most formidable problem in this area is the need to objectify the study of religious phenomena. While there is an opportunity to state differing religious conditions to be met by the institution, an objective study of the social functions of religion is not possible. Christians have outgrown the period of fearing an objective analysis of the bases for their beliefs. Since knowledge of God remains experiential, it is necessary that attempts be made to maximize the empirical understanding of experential religious phenomena on a lower level.

*Religious Institutions in complex societies: Difficulties in the Theoretic specification of functions, Nilan w. mster, American Sociological Review. Aug. 1952. Vol. 22, No. 4, 387-391.