Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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 Viewed cross-culturally, religion is second only to kinship in providing a foundation for social solidarity based on ties of interpersonal and collective obligation. Pointing up this close affinity between religion and morality was a central premise of …mile Durkheim's sociology:

Howsoever complex the outward manifestations of the religious life may be, at bottom it is one and simple. It responds everywhere to one and the same need, and is everywhere derived from one and the same mental state. In all its forms, its object is to raise man above himself and to make him lead a life superior to that which he would lead, if he followed his own individual whims: beliefs express this life in representations; rites organize it and regulate its working. (1965 [1912]: 461)

Underlying this and similar discussions was a persistently recurring note, namely, Durkheim's insistence on the separateness of the moral sphere from the appetitive, and the association of the former with the sacred charter of religion and the latter with the profane activities of daily existence. For Durkheim, religion did not simply serve a function of promoting morality; morality was its essential nature. Defining religion in this way caused him to equate religion with the existence of a moral community .

Durkheim's essentialist and reductionist position has provoked frequent criticism. Nevertheless, the social sciences have benefitted immensely by following Durkheim's lead and investigating religious beliefs and practices as embodiments of social values and moral precepts that are internalized by individuals through religious socialization. By specifying what the gods want people to do or to avoid doing, religions can be seen to support directly norms of social behavior. Further, religions explain why these norms exist and why they must be obeyed. Murder and theft are not simply violations of human law, they violate commandments laid down by the gods and will be punished by supernatural sanctions, whether or not the culprit is brought to justice by human authorities. As a consequence, religious beliefs and their associated practices can be a major force in legitimating and sanctioning norms.

Research suggests that religious socialization received early in life has a moderate, continuing ability to influence the individual's conformity with moral values and precepts, but it is far more effective when there exists a community of believers to reinforce the morality so that the individual need not stand up to temptation alone. This capacity of religious community to sustain morality has been demonstrated in the United States by studies that show that cities with high church membership rates have lower rates of crime, suicide, venereal disease, and alcoholism than cities with low church membership rates (Stark et al. 1980, Stark et al. 1982, Stark et al. 1983).

Cross-national survey data also support a close relationship between religion and morality. There are significant correlations of individuals' religious beliefs and practices with their attitudes toward a wide variety of moral issues, including sympathy for AIDS victims, opposition to capital punishment, support for government intervention in favor of the unemployed and the poor, support for environmental preservation, and opposition to cheating on taxes (Greeley 1995).

One implication of the linkage between religion and morality is that moral compassion ends at the boundary of the religious community. In tribal societies and primitive states, religious conceptions of communal belonging and morality are typically ethnocentric; the religion of outsiders is harmful to the interests of one's own community (Clendinnen 1991; Redfield 1953). In agrarian states, different religious systems supporting different moral communities often have coexisted (if somewhat uneasily) under a central political authority. A striking example of this was the millet system of indirect rule adopted during the Ottoman Empire. Religio-ethnic communities of Jews and Christians were permitted to be largely self-governing as long as they paid taxes to the Sultanate and maintained internal order according to the moral code of their respective religious traditions. In contemporary urban-industrial societies, overt conflicts between religious communities are effectively suppressed for the most part, although Protestant-Catholic clashes in Northern Ireland and Christian-Muslim warfare in Bosnia-Herzegovina provide stark evidence to the contrary. And even when overt conflict is suppressed, the prevalence of religious prejudice (Glock and Stark 1966) is testimony to the fact that the moral obligations owed one's coreligionists do not extend to outsiders.

One of the reigning theoretical ideas in the social sciences is that religiously informed morality undergoes change as societies themselves grow more differentiated and complex. Two illustrations of this idea will be cited. First, it was Durkheim's thesis that the extreme division of labor and individualism characteristic of modern industrial societies would result in a broad desacralization of everything except the individual. The prevalence of "cult of man" groups as an increasingly prominent feature of present-day advanced industrial societies has been put forward as evidence that supports Durkheim's thesis (Westley 1983). A related development is the advent of religious fundamentalisms with their vehemently antisecular, antimodernist beliefs and morality. Interviews with American fundamentalists, for instance, suggest strongly that their faith is centered on the restoration of a moral community to stand as a bulwark against the tide of individualism, amorality, and immorality that in the view of fundamentalists is flooding modern secular life (Bellah et al. 1985).

See also …mile Durkheim, Moral Community

Edward B. Reeves


R. N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart (New York: Harper, 1985)

I. Clendinnen, Aztecs (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991)

…. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York: Free Press, 1965 [1912])

C. Y. Glock and R. Stark, American Piety and Anti-Semitism (New York: Harper, 1966)

A. M. Greeley, Religion as Poetry (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1995)

R. Redfield, The Primitive World and Its Transformations (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1953)

R. Stark et al., "Rediscovering Moral Communities," in Understanding Crime , ed. T. Hirschi and M. Gottfredson (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1980): 43-52

R. Stark et al., "Religion and Delinquency," Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 19(1982):2-24

R. Stark et al., "Beyond Durkheim," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 22(1983):120-131

F. Westley, The Complex Forms of the Religious Life (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983).

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