A cousin recently sent me a message via Facebook. I’m guessing it was related to his sister giving birth to a badly deformed child that died within about four hours, but he didn’t mention that. Anyway, here’s his message and the questions it contained:
Hi [ProfXM]. I hope you are well. I’ve had the chance to read some of your writings. Very interesting. Given your education and background, I have a question for you. (There is no underlying motive here. ) Do you feel that “religion” (if that word can be defined adequately) has been created by man as a coping mechanism?
Some of my professional work was recently in the press in Utah and was spotted by several family members. I’m guessing that is how he is familiar with the work I do. Regardless, I thought I should answer his question since this is a question I answer in my classes where I teach. Here’s my response:
I’m happy to don my “Sociologist of Religion” cap and answer that question.
Within the sociology of religion there is no question that religion is human-made. We call it a “social construction.” What that means is that religion only exists because humans collectively agree to pretend that it exists.
It may be helpful to compare it with something like “government.” We all agree that “government” exists, but when we are forced to think about it, government only exists as an idea. You can’t touch government. Buildings (e.g., courthouses, state capitols, etc.) are not government. People (e.g., judges, lawyers, lawmakers, etc.) are not government. Government is an idea that humans share. It only exists because you and I and everyone else agree that it exists. And it has obviously been called into question at times when people have revolted and overthrown governments.
Religion is the same. Religion is not the buildings (e.g., churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, etc.). Religion is not the people (e.g., prophets, pastors, priests, bishops, etc.). Religion is an idea. If we stopped believing in religion, religion would cease to exist. It is just an idea.
That is the standard way of thinking about religion in the sociology of religion. That doesn’t mean that sociologists also reject any notion of a deity or other supernatural influence on religion; that is a question that has no evidence and is therefore not a scientific question. But every religion shows substantial evidence of being constructed by humans for humans.
Maybe some specific examples would help illustrate this. I’ll use Mormonism since we are both familiar with it.
First example. In 1830, Hiram Page, one of the Eight Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, began receiving revelations through a “peepstone” or “seer stone,” like what Joseph Smith Jr. used to translate the Book of Mormon (and for various other activities). Because Joseph Smith was in the process of consolidating his authority and power as the leader of his new religion, he immediately received a “revelation” saying that Hiram Page’s revelations were from the devil. This is detailed in Section 28:11-16 of the Doctrine and Covenants. As a sociologist, I see this as an obvious attempt by Joseph Smith to consolidate his power and remove a threat to his authority. In other words, whether or not there was an actual revelation, this event can be interpreted from a “social constructionist” perspective to suggest that Joseph Smith was doing something pragmatic – defending his authority by “receiving a revelation” that defended his authority.
Another good example also comes from the Doctrine & Covenants. Section 132 is dated from 1843, less than a year before Joseph Smith’s death. He had been practicing polygamy for somewhere around 7 years at this point. His wife, Emma, found out about it and was furious (part of the reason she didn’t follow Brigham Young after the split in 1844). In Section 132, Joseph Smith uses his ability to receive “revelations” to reprimand her (see verses 51-57). He basically tells her, through revelation, to shut up about the polygamy and accept that he is having affairs with multiple women. And, if she doesn’t, she will “be destroyed.” You and I have been married and had wives. It’s not hard at all to see through such a “revelation” and realize what is happening here: Joseph Smith is using his “authority” to cover his philandering.
Again, in neither of the above examples can we say definitively that God was not speaking with Joseph Smith and telling him to say or do these things. But a social constructionist looks at these and sees someone clearly abusing his authority to get what he wants: consolidated power and an obedient wife who accepts his adultery. Maybe that is what God wanted. But the sociologist doesn’t see it that way. The sociologist puts these events into their context and looks for alternative explanations. The simplest explanation here is that Joseph Smith was pretending to receive revelation to get what he wanted, not that god wanted him to do these things.
I could give more examples, but hopefully those help illustrate the sociological perspective on religion.
As far as whether religion was created just to help people as a coping mechanism, there is some question about that. Certainly it functions as a coping mechanism for many people, but there is a lot of current debate as to why religion sprang into “existence” among humans that goes beyond just a coping mechanism. I could go into some of the details of that debate if you’d like me to.
I hope this helps.
Anyone have other good or perhaps better examples from Mormonism to illustrate that it is socially constructed or human-made?