In Sociology Looks at Religion, J. Milton Yinger has collected various essays and combined them to form his book, which he hopes can contribute to the analysis of religion in society. He believes that the scientific study of religion has gained strong support, with the easy generalizations about religious institutions being replaced by careful observations. But variations in class, education, and other social facts must be taken into consideration before generalizing about the influence of religion. He says that to study the sociology of religion is to work along side the major areas of interest in the analysis of society and culture. In the study of social stratification, social change, political sociology, bureaucracy, and various community studies, without serious attention to religious groups and their behavior, would be to leave major gaps and weaknesses.
Yinger states that it is plain to see the universality of religion, though it has a wide variety in forms of expression. While societies were in relatively infrequent contact with each other the facts of universality and variety were insignificant, but when contact became extensive, with mobility and change creating situations of religious diversity within societies, these facts became more important. Though religions share many things in common, their values and effects can be differentiated, and informed value choices are still needed. The sociologist and the scientific study of religion makes certain assumptions that the methods of objective science can be applied to religious phenomenon and that religion, when it is being examined within the framework of science, is dealt with as a part of the natural world, subject to the laws of cause and effect and the rules of logic. Yinger believes his tentative efforts to state how religion and society interact under certain conditions are valuable not only to other sciences, but to the religious quest itself. The intricate ways in which religion is involved in the life of society are revealed by exploring religious movements in their social settings. Yinger’s interpretive essays explore some of the religious consequences of the growth of cities, of minority status, of the decline of ethnic groups, of prosperity, and of rapid social change. He looks at religion from the perspectives of sociology, anthropology, and social psychology seeing it as one of the processes of social life while recognizing the limitations of these views.
The sociologist begins with the basic proposition that religion cannot be understood in isolation from the rest of society. Religion is part of a system, interacting with the economic and political aspects of society, the family patterns, the technology, and the nature of the communities. If one part of a system changes, the other parts are influenced in various ways. Yinger proposes that if literacy, mobility, and science develop in a community, its religions will undergo important changes, not just superficially, but fundamentally. If a new religion moves into a society, the whole social structure feels the impact, while at the same time modifying the religion it absorbs.
Every society has some pattern of belief and action by means of which it performs certain vital functions; in essence every society has a religion, even if it is an anti-religion. The ultimate question of many religions is how man spends eternal life, but Yinger claims that most people today are more likely to ask of their religion that it helps them to understand the suffering, loneliness, and meaninglessness of life. He says that religion can be defined as a group-supported road to salvation, but asks salvation from what?
Yinger claims the major religions of the world developed in rural settings, and says even today religion is tied to rural societies. The growth of cities with the development of urbanization has posed new problems for religious institutions as well as for political, economic, and familial institutions. Urban societies create a situation for the first time in human history where individuals interact daily with strangers whose values and goals are different from their own. Literacy and mobility expand horizons of contact, and with contact, disenchantment and secularization come into play. In the urban setting, kinship units lose some solidarity and functions, but despite this loss, the family remains a vital part of urban life. These urban societies are characterized by increased normlessness, witnessing a reduction in the value consensus of the majority of people who have been influenced by mass media and mass production. Although agreement on norms and values decrease, functional interdependence and tolerance tend to increase. The profound changes in the nature of life in urban societies, Yinger says, has enormous consequences for religion. Most of the religious movements in cities reflect the efforts of various groups to come to terms with urban life, while searching for some stability in this ever-changing setting. The revival of interest in religion is a manifestation of these conflicts and anxieties of contemporary life.
Religion is believed to be good for society in that it softens some of the harsher consequences of the pursuit of secular values and that it makes it easier for diverse groups to live with one another without sharp conflict, emphasizing a common humanity. In the search for some ultimate meaning to existence, some system of beliefs that lends dignity to life and makes suffering less severe, few are likely to be persuaded by a religion that disregards the conflicts and the institutions that make life harsh and meaningless to many. With the central areas of most of our metropolitan districts deteriorating, the consequences are well recognized. Physical decay is followed by disease, delinquency, crime, racial conflict, political corruption, and value confusion, while gangs, narcotics, or alcohol might be used in a desperate effort to find a sense of well-being in the midst of a society that crushes the sense of self-worth. These religious substitutes derive from the botched efforts of conquered individuals to find a road to salvation. If established churches pass them by, moving out to the suburbs and resisting those lower in status, and often different in race or ethnic group, then they will inevitably accept these substitutions. Just when the stabilizing efforts of the churches are needed, its members tend to look for more comfortable circumstances, turning their back on the harshness of the inner-city and its inhabitants. .
In functional analysis, emphasis is placed on both the possible contribution of religion to society and its contribution to individuals, in lending dignity and significance to their lives, even in the face of crushing difficulties. It is not enough today for religion to give vitality and support to a shared system of values, but it must also negotiate among groups who have different values in an effort to maintain in them a sense of common humanity. Modern societies are held together by political and functional interdependence despite the lack of kinship identity and in the face of cultural differences. Urban man has responded by inventing religious tolerance, though it is safe to say we are never tolerant about our basic values. Yinger believes that if there is a return to religion, it is to an organization that makes few creedal demands and rouses in us few fundamental values, but many people continue to use religion as the final judge of life’s values, and are likely to be intolerant when basic issues arise. Some kind of religious conflict is likely in a complex society consisting of a variety of religious traditions. We tend to minimize these problems by counting them as the inevitable fruits of religious freedom. In a period of such repeated crises as we have known, renewed attention to man’s capacity for evil comes into the Theologian’s mind, while sociologists try to relate their work to the whole series of forces that influence man in modern society. Theological approaches are highly abstract, seeking to reduce religion to a few fundamental propositions, free from the distortions of particular times and places, but the people flock to popular interpreters, largely unaware of the work of intellectual leaders. If these religious leaders continue to insist that only their own tradition contains fundamental truths, Yinger says we will find folk religion and religious substitutes performing the integrating function of the churches. The universalism of world religions is ready to declare that all men are brothers; but man’s salvation depends on his acceptance of the particular religions own temporally and culturally bound revelations and traditions.
Social change begins with technology, with a population increase or decrease, with economic improvement or decline, with an increase of interaction with other societies, with the pronouncements of a prophet, or in other ways. Institutional arrangements that are taken for granted or thought of as independent are brought forcibly to attention, by rapid change as parts of a system. Religion is part of this complex system, with its developments best understood as responses to fundamental changes in their social environment which feed back into the system from which it came. The influences set in motion become, in turn, conditioning and constraining forces that affect the religion that released them. The development of religious sects and cults have appeared among groups caught in severe disprivilege, frequently being racial or cultural minorities who have been overrun by a more advanced or more powerful society. With their traditional way of life destroyed, belief in the old ways declines, values and desires are taken over from the invading force, yet full acceptance of the new way and its religion is neither possible nor permissible. The resulting religions that arise out of this context are alien from the perspectives of both the invading and the invaded cultures and often involve a strong emphasis on group conflict. These religious cults and sects have the potential to carry their members over into a new life, drastically readapting their personalities. The likelihood of these functions are not certainties, depending on the responses of the surrounding society. The phenomenon found in these cults are the product of attitudes of a culture torn between hatred of the people who had destroyed the old way of life and now dominated them by force, and the desire to obtain for themselves the possessions of their conquerors. But such malice toward the dominant society is not limited to conquered peoples. If, within a society, a group lacks an independent and successful past which can serve as the focus for its future, they can affirm that they are the true defenders of a tradition shared with their oppressors who have fallen into sinful ways. They are scarcely less critical of the existing institutions than a conquered people, attacking that society by downgrading its institutions and refusing to give it final loyalty. Even in a society where freedom of religion is the rule, there is little tolerance for those efforts to win salvation that involve direct attack on the social order and its dominant religious organizations. Almost universally, the response of those in power is suppression and curtailment of activities, making the movements relatively short-lived. But if the movement is suppressed while the basic forces that produced it remain in operation, the group will reappear in new guises time after time. Two kinds of religious groups may evolve from a revolutionary movement. If hope for restoration and independence fades, a more accommodative group will form, but if there is growth in hope, along with status improvement, the group that forms will orient toward that of the dominant members of society, with the sect to church transition likely taking place. Depending on the variables of hope and discipline, groups will differentiate into several types of religious activity, from gang membership to strictly disciplined militant and religious groups, representing the range of endeavor among disprivileged persons to wrest some dignity and meaning from life.
On the other end of the spectrum, many people in modern societies find themselves in relative comfort, with the changes affecting them quite different. With the reduction of illness, lengthening of life, an increase in mobility, more leisure time, increased education, and the extension of contact across cultures many people in these societies are concerned with loneliness in a sea of acquaintances, meaninglessness amidst conflicting values, self-alienation in context of contradictory role requirements, and tense interpersonal and intergroup relations. Two trends among these privileged members are a renewed interest in religion along side of secularization, and religious separatism in the context of ecumenicity. The decline of authentic religious content along with the rise of humanistic and nationalistic themes is usually a hidden process carried on underneath symbols of non-change. The churches of those who are comfortable in a society are usually well accommodated to that society, which does not necessarily denote secularism. The church works within the structure of the established social order, adjusting to dramatic changes in the world within which it works. We are in fact witnessing religious change, the development of new religious forms, which can be a sign of strength. The catastrophic wars of the last few generations, the vast cruelties of totalitarian governments, and the incredible threats of future war make it apparent that man has won no salvation from death, injustice or hostility. These developments support revival among the religious professionals, but these theologians seem less accustomed to dealing with the new crises of affluence, mobility, and anomie. The other aspect of religious separatism and ecumenicity is strongly affected by the social forces which continue to operate to preserve religious differentiation despite the reduction of some of the separating influences. While a few religious leaders engage in discussions concerned with the reduction of religious separation, many economic, political, and educational associations cut across religious lines, with interfaith marriages being the best index of the extent of separation or integration. The consequences for religion may reinforce ecumenicalism in the context of extensive growth of interfaith marriage. Because it is the marginal member who is most likely to intermarry, the ranks of the unchurched may swell, or could lead to new religious identities or conversions. Opposition to intermarriage is one way family and societal influence is widely assumed to promote ethnic–religious group continuation. Different classes, races, ethnic groups, and regions develop different religious values and structures, according to the variation in needs and experiences in a heterogeneous society. Although the ethnic lines which reinforced religious divisions may be fading, the religious lines of distinction remain clear. Future developments of ethnic–religious groups depend on the external situation in which the members find themselves. Yinger states that only after we have developed pluralistic patterns appropriate to the needs of modern societies can we create a system for the world, in which similarities are not coerced and differences do not divide.
Yinger concludes by saying that first physics and astronomy, then biology, and now sociology and psychology have brought into question some of the assumptions of a stable religious world-view. He observes that after centuries of presumed conflict, both science and religion continue to prosper. The religious forms that are developing in the context of science may not be meaningful and creative to some, with too much richness being lost or too much that has lost its significance being retained. But this much we know, claims Yinger, by the growth of knowledge, religion may be changed, but it will not be destroyed. The social sciences will modify contemporary religious expressions, but it cannot satisfy the needs from which religion springs. Yinger speculates that in a society where science has become a vital part of the world view of most people, either religious expressions in harmony with that fact will develop, or religious substitutes will prevail which would only marginally help us deal with the human condition. In dealing with the individual and group powers of the world, religion is working in a constantly more complicated situation. He proposes that in a world in which brotherhood has become an absolute necessity rather than an exciting vision, accepting forms of religious expression that had meaning a century or decade ago could be an utter failure.
His essays were quite convincing in some aspects, but I disagree with his assumption that accepting religious forms of the past can be seen as a failure. The faith that has been handed down to us by our forefathers is just as significant today as it was when it was first formed. The ways we express that faith may be different somewhat, but its inherent meaning will ultimately never change.