Science in Christian Perspective



Christianity, Sociology, and the Moral Order
Department of Sociology
Miami University
Oxford, Ohio

From: JASA 35 September 1983): 152-155.

Sociology is often regarded as anti-Christian. This paper argues that the new moral order that the founders of sociology sought to base on science was and is congruent with the teachings of Christ. The old moral and social order uprooted by the Enlightenment, though falsely labelled as Christian, was actually based more on pre-Christian, particularly Greek, worldviews. Specifically, the Great Chain of Being, the predominant cosmic legitimation of the old hierarchic social and political order, was essentially Greek and hence pagan. Thus, sociology, rather than denying the Christian message, can serve as an invaluable vehicle for helping to build a social, moral, and political order more congruent with genuine Christian teachings.

Sociology has often been regarded by Christians and others as being in conflict with basic Christian teachings. This impression of the anti-Christian nature of the discipline is based on several assumptions. First, sociology explicitly rejects supernaturalistic explanations of human behavior. Regarding social life as a natural phenomenon essentially similar to physical objects and events, sociology seeks to understand the characteristics and dynamics of social existence in ways that do not rely upon traditional religious modes of explanation. Auguste Comte, the founder of the discipline and coiner of the term "sociology," saw sociology as the culmination of an upward movement from theological to metaphysical-philosophical and finally to positivistic modes of understanding human behavior, the latter based on empirical observation rather than theological speculation or philosophical rumination.

Second, sociology has frequently arrived at types of explanations and implicit value orientations that seem at odds with traditional Christian moral teachings. The sociological study of deviant behavior, a prominent part of sociological endeavor, for example, generally tends to focus on causes of such behavior that are external to deviant people themselves. Thus, criminals are seen largely as acting on the basis of norms and values of particular subcultures, and/or as responding to lack of opportunity for success, and in other ways that either ignore, or implicitly or explicitly contradict, the prevalent traditional Judaeo-Christian view that criminal behavior is a manifestation of the sinfulness of individual offenders.

With respect to such forms of deviant behavior as homosexuality, the sociological perspective stresses that different societies and cultures label different kinds of behavior deviant; hence, deviance is not a reflection of the abnormality and/or depravity of certain individuals, but rather the consequence of the fact that their behavior patterns happen to be regarded as deviant by the sociocultural system in which they live.

The relativistic approach toward deviancy conflicts with the prevailing Judaeo-Christian view of homosexuality and other kinds of deviancy as sin: the abnormal individual is fully responsible and must try to change so as to obey God's injunctions against various kinds of sinful action.

While such conflicts between sociology and Christianity undoubtedly reflect genuine divergencies of view regarding ontological and moral issues, there is a deeper level seldom if ever explored that affords the possibility of sociology serving as one means of actualizing and affirming genuinely Christian teachings. in this paper I explore and discuss a number of such possibilities.

Sociology and the New Moral Order: Toward True Christianity

The old moral, social, and political order that was overthrown by the French Revolution has generally been regarded as "Christian." Looked at more closely, however, the hierarchic system that elevated a small elite to the top of a universal pyramid and relegated the vast majority to poverty and degradation, was a socioeconomic and political order that was based much more on pagan Greco-Roman than on Judaeo-Christian conceptions of the nature and order of the universe and humanity's relation to it.

The worldview upon which most of Western social and moral order has rested has been the Great Chain of Being, a view of the natural order in which God is seen at the "highest" point of the universe, having created multitudes of beings superior and inferior to one another, each according to their "degrees of perfection" and proximity and similarity to their Creator. This view of the natural order stemmed, as Arthur Lovejoy in his classic work has shown, from Plato's division of the world into the Realms of the Real and the Ideal. This led to Aristotle's resolution of the question of the relation of these two realms by asserting that they were related in terms of their "degrees of perfection." Aristotle's hierarchic way of regarding the natural order that stemmed from this resolution had tremendous, still-existing impact not only on the way we still tend to view people in terms of how "high" and "low" they are on the social ladder, but also upon the natural sciences that have developed on the foundations of Aristotelian conceptions of the hierarchic character of the natural order. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the Aristotelian elaboration of the Chain of Being in such works as De Anima was the first systematic scientific effort to understand and clarify "the manifold words of God in nature" and hence the foundation of all modern natural science.

The traditional moral, social, and political order that was overthrown by the French Revolution thus was based on Aristotelian conceptions. Beginning very early in Christian history, some believe as early as the Apostle Paul's efforts to explain the meaning of Christ to the Corinthians and other Greeks he was attempting to evangelize, Christianity has been interpreted in ways that have frequently allowed Greek conceptions of natural order to prevail over genuinely Judaco-Christian conceptions. Much later, the Scholastics' effort to reconcile Christianity with Aristotelian philosophy was a continuation of such efforts at melding the Greek and Christian woridviews represented by St. Augustine's City Of God, in which the Judaeo-Christian Kingdom of God and its relation to earthly existence is seen as a manifestation of Plato's vision of the relation between the Real and the ideal realms.

The traditional socioeconomic and political order that the French Revolution sought to overthrow was norninally "Christian." All evidence suggests, however, that the actual day-to-day behavior of people, from the "lowest" to the "highest," as well as most of the values that informed the directions of their existences, were far from conforming to Christ's teachings. The cruelty and arrogance of those who believed that their privileges were decreed by God led to practices and systems in which the idea that all people are children of God and should be treated with respect and compassion was flagrantly contradicted and scorned. The evils of the traditional hierarchic order extended throughout the system and are too well known to need recounting here. The supposedly "Christian" world of pre-modern times more often was contrary to the teachings of Christ than in conformity with them. Cruelty and brutality took definite precedence over the compassion preached by the Lord.

In viewing the origins of sociology, it is therefore incorrect to view the discipline as arising primarily as part of an effort to replace a genuinely Christian socioeconomic and political order. Incensed by the injustices of the old regime but horrified by the excesses and disorders of the new, Comte, like many of his fellow philosophes, sought a new basis of moral order, one based on observation of human behavior and hopefully resulting scientific knowledge. Comte's efforts evolved into attempts to establish a Religion of Humanity, which was not seriously regarded by his fellow philosophers. His attempt led him to be ridiculed by the apparent contradictions between his evident earlier rejection of religiosity and the fervent character of his efforts to establish himself as the founder of a religion late in his life.

Perhaps the most significant sociological pioneer who took up Comte's quest for the creation of a new, more just, more scientifically based moral order was Emile Durkheim.

Building on the thwarted foundation of Comte's efforts, and enjoying an academic status and respectability that had eluded Comte, Durkheim undertook a systematic effort to comprehend and establish a moral system based on scientific understanding. While the specific nature of these efforts are too substantial a subject for the scope of this paper, Durkheim emphasized that morality stemmed from a human need to exist together and interact under the umbrella of a shared moral order that enables people to cohere peacefully and pursue common values and goals. While Durkheim's view tended to implicitly glorify the collectivity as the source of moral consciousness, and was in many ways contrary to Christian views of the origin and purposes of morality, it

Charles P. Flynn is Associate Professor of Sociology, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. He studied with Ernest Becker at the University of California, Berkeley (B.A. 1966, M.A., 1968) and received his doctorate under the direction of Peter L. Berger at Rutgers University, 1972. He co-founded the Associatoin for Humanistic Sociology in 1975 and was its 1981-82 President; founded and edited its journal Humanity and Society; and currently is editor of Vital Signs, the newsletter of the International Association for Near-Death Studies and a member of that organization's Board of Directors. He has recently completed a book on the implications of the Near-Death Experience (Love and Death: Transformation and the Near-Death Experience) as well as an edited book on the same topic, and has published books and articles in the areas of the sociology of religion, social conflict, and the applications of Christian teachings to society.

nonetheless constituted, one could argue, an advance over the nominally "Christian" but actually Graeco-Roman view that God had placed people in a hierarchic order superior and inferior, and hence in inevitable discord, with one another.

Sociology and the Morality of Compassion

Since the French founders, sociology has no longer been based on a search for a scientifically based moral order, at least not as deliberate an effort as evidenced by Comte and Durkheim. Nonethelew, it is my view that a good deal of sociological theory, research, and perspective of this century, while often not apparently Judaeo-Christian and frequently deliberately rejective of any religiosity of any sort, is nonetheless more congruent with genuine Christian teachings than many views customarily regarded as Christian.

Despite its claims and desire to be regarded as scientific, sociology is moralistic at its core. One of the prominent

  There is a deeper level seldom if ever explored that affords the possibility of sociology serving as one means of actualizing and affirming genuinely Christian teachings.

elements of the sociological outlook is its "debunking" character. Sociologists seek to look behind the facades of social life, particularly the justifications and legitimations the powerful and privileged use to rationalize their positions and perpetuate various kinds of injustices.

Viewing Christ's actions on earth, it is apparent that in many ways, Christ was Himself a debunker of the social facades of his time. His strongest anger was directed not at the sexual transgressors whom modern day fundamentalist Christians see as the greatest sinners, but at the wealthy and powerful, who oppress and otherwise callously disregard the needs of the poor and make a pretentious display of piousness while failing to act compassionately toward their fellow children of God who are in need. By providing a basis for understanding and unmasking the pretenses of the rich and powerful who are insensitive to the needs of the less fortunate, sociology can serve as a means of implementing Christ's compassionate teachings.

Relativism, Ethnocentrism, and Christian Teaching

Sociology stresses that values and norms are products of given societies, and that therefore peoples' actions should be viewed not from the perspective of absolute moral rules, but in relation to their particular cultures.

At first, this emphasis may seem to undermine and directly contradict the claims of the Bible to absolute moral authority. Although the relativistic approach may contradict claims that stress the infallibility of the Bible's moral teachings, at a One of the foundations of Christ's moral laws is the statement that they can be summed up by doing to what one would have wish to have done to oneself. Golden Rule, according to Jesus as stated in Matthew 7  "sums up the Law and the Prophets. "

Many ostensibly Christian moralists have throughout modern history persecuted those whom they have an
failing to live up to Christian moral standards
. "Heathens
" and others have been subjected to all sorts of cruelty, and have been slaughtered by the millions often in barbarous ways, all supposedly in the name of Christ. This tragic dimension of much of Christian history has caused many to reject Christianity itself, assuming that Christianity is largely a hypocritical rationale for sadism and oppression. 

Implicit in the relativistic approach of sociology is something deeper than the idea that "all values and moral standards are relative. " That deeper essence is the assumption that people are not to be relegated to a "higher" or "lowerlevel of humanity simply on the basis of their culturally instilled beliefs and values. The self-righteous moralist frequently uses such cultural criteria as a basis for separating people into those worthy of being acted toward in a moral manner, and those "outside the pale" of humanity who, as "heathens," deserve only contempt and, in the extreme, to be subjugated and even exterminated. Such use of the category of "Christianity" as a means of legitimating exclusion and consequent inhumane action towards "outsiders" is directly contrary to Jesus' teaching that all people are children of God and all, without exception, should be treated as one would treat oneself, Christ's compassionate treatment of such sexual sinners as the woman at the well and the adulteress about to be stoned contrasts with his strong anger toward self-righteous hypocrites and such money-related sinners as the moneychangers in the Temple and the rich man who failed to help Lazarus. His deliberate use of the Samaritan in his Good Samaritan parable was meant to emphasize that even those who are customarily regarded as outsiders and enemies are to be considered as neighbors to be treated with compassion and mercy in the new moral order He has initiated.

Thus, rather than contradicting and undermining genuinely Christian moral values, the relativistic approach can help fulfill Christ's teaching by providing a basis for the recognition and affirmation that all people, despite outward cultural differences, are inherently valuable as children of God and must be treated as such. The relativistic perspective implies, as Jesus mandates, that none are to be excluded from the compassionate imperative of God's love.

Empathy, Consequences, and the Golden Rule

Implicit in the Golden Rule is a need for two closely related kinds of capacities: the ability to empathize with others, and the knowledge of what the consequences of one's own actions are likely to be in the lives of others.

Empathy is not merely the ability to understand what others f eel, but the capacity to actually experience what others experience. To be able to act toward others as we would have them act toward us requires that we, in sociological terms, "take the role of the other."

Sociological research and theory dealing with modes of interaction and the relation of the self to others, can provide an important foundation for the development of the empathic capacity necessary for carrying out Christ's Golden Rule mandate. Sociologists have long recognized that putting oneself in the place of others is a foundation of most social interaction. We continually adjust our actions on the basis of what we think and feel others think and feel about us. Cooley referred to this as "the looking glass self," and George Herbert Mead later referred to it as the process of symbolic interaction, in which the "self is an object unto itself."

Sociologists also find that the capacity to empathize with others is heavily conditioned by the position of those others in the social hierarchy. People lower than ourselves are subconsciously assumed to exist at a lower level of human feeling; hence, their sufferings cannot be comparable to our own. In the extreme, this can lead to a process of what I have termed in other studies "empathy failure," the tendency to relegate people to a subhuman level of existence as a prelude to absolving ourselves of guilt for acting callously toward them. We cease to care how they feel because we assume that they are on a lower level than ourselves, hence we do not need to empathize with them, as if the Golden Rule were not applicable to relations between ourselves and them. This attitude was quite basic in the Vietnam conflict, where American soldiers avoided guilt and were able to "live with themselves," in spite of the sufferings they inflicted on the Vietnamese, because the latter were seen to be, in the words of one soldier, "just gooks, you know, dinks. Subhuman. Killing them was like killing a cockroach."

By providing an understanding of the interactional process, sociology can provide a basis for understanding how, and in what ways and circumstances, the empathy failure phenomenon can be understood. Armed with such knowledge, Christians will be better able to overcome those obstacles toward treating all others as children of God, equally worthy of the empathic concern implicit in the Golden Rule.

Finally, the new moral order set forth by Christ and summarized by the Golden Rule as the fulfillment of "the Law and the Prophets" implies a capacity to understand the consequences of our actions in the lives of others. One of the most important aspects of sociological inquiry is its recognition that intended consequences do not always correspond to actual consequences. Robert Merton's concept of manifest and latent functions distinguishes between the stated, overt purposes of action, and the unintended consequences that often are the reverse of what was supposedly intended.

Latent function analysis can provide an important basis for implementing the Golden Rule. Sociological inquiry has shown the true, often negative, consequences of social actions and social behavior patterns. This is particularly relevant to actions that are manifestly in the service of God and Christ, but which, as we have seen earlier in this paper, frequently have distinctly un-Christlike consequences. Applying the mode of analysis inherent in the latent function concept to a prayerful planning of our actions and programs can be invaluable in helping us to avoid unintended negative consequences of actions that may stem from genuine Christian zeal but may have effects on others that are contrary to Christ's teachings.


Sociology need not constitute an undermining of Christ's teachings; indeed, it may be an important, even indispensible, foundation for building and achieving the moral order inherent in the New Testament. By providing a basis for understanding and controlling for the distinction between behavior and actions that are genuinely in conformity with Jesus' teaching as opposed to those that are only labelled as such, sociology can serve as an invaluable means of actualizing God's will as manifest in the teachings of the Lord.


Although this paper lacks direct references, the arguments are based on an interpretation of the writings of a variety of scholars in different fields. The most prominent among these, and the books most relevant to the argument, include: Arthur 0. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936); Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1937); Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe (London: Hutchinson, 1959); and various works by Peter L. Berger, Ernest Becker, and Robert Bellah.