There are something like eighteen billion cells in the brain alone. There are no two brains alike; there are no two hands alike; there are no two human beings alike. You can take your guidance and instruction from others, but you must find your own path.” – Joseph Campbell – Pathways to Bliss
Social stratification is an important term in Sociology; it refers to the universal process of ranking people into categories based on a social hierarchy of traits such as economic status, age, gender and race (Macionis & Plummer 2008, p. 232). Religion is a form of stratification which doesn’t get much attention; however, it is a topic that Weber, Durkheim and Marx saw as an important theme within the sociology of culture. Social stratification centers itself on the topic of inequality and division; this essay will explore the inequalities present in modern day religion and argue the possibility that religion can overcome these inequalities and instead replace them with peace and unity; it will also determine the extent that religion influences society on a personal and collective level. This essay does not focus on any particular religion; instead it deals with modern day religion as a single philosophy which transcends social labels.
Macionis & Plummer (2008, p. 610) define religion as a social institution which is grounded in faith rather than scientific evidence. This makes it very difficult for sociologists to dissect religious beliefs and explain how billions of people across the earth can structure their lives based on profoundly different belief systems. This prompts the question of the importance in having so many religions, which William James’ attempts to answer in his book Varieties of Religious Experience. In this classic text James (1902, p. 487) argues that due to the immense differences between each individual, it makes sense that there are a variety of religions available to accommodate to these differences. He asserts that because no two people have identical difficulties, we shouldn’t be expected to work out identical solutions or beliefs. Brunelli (2001, p. 227) agrees that ‘every human being should be allowed to freely choose the system of values governing [their] life’ and therefore choose a religion that suits their personal values and cultural norms and abandon the ones that don’t. Brunelli (2001, p. 227) also holds the belief that there is only one truth which is evident in all world religions, a statement which has the power to cause either great religious conflict or create strong unity. In Aldous Huxley’s introduction to the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred text of the Hindu religion, he comments that its message is timeless and its words belong to no language, race or period of time (Huxley, in Prabhavanananda & Isherwood, p.10). With this statement Huxley is outlining the perennial philosophy, a concept which states that all of the world religions share a single universal truth, hidden beneath a narrative of symbolism and culture. This truth is the soil from which all religions have bloomed, with Hinduism being the first to emerge; Huxley asserts that different religions sprouted after Hinduism to accommodate the social and spiritual needs of each respective epoch and culture. Whether the religion is Hinduism, Islam, Tibetan Buddhism, Christianity or Taoism, all of them ‘were attempting to describe the same essentially indescribable fact’ (Huxley, in Prabhavanananda & Isherwood, p.12) thus making all the differences between religions superficial. Huxley inspires one to look beyond the differences of religion and instead notice the similarities in order to find and adopt the deeper spiritual message.
Vandenberghe (2010, p. 17) states that all the world religions offer different visions and therefore different versions of the world, because of this he believes that one should not assume that religions necessarily clash with each other and go to war. Despite this, the sociological perspective often looks at religion through the lens of conflict and inequality. Munson (2005, p. 223) begins his essay on religion and violence with the strong statement ‘Religion kills’, while the writer contends with Durkheim’s idea that religion strengthens the bond of solidarity among those who worship the same God, he also believes that this solidarity creates hostility towards those who worship other Gods or the same God differently. Munson (2005, p. 223) bases his philosophy of religion on the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality, he argues that religious people look down on others that worship different Gods and see them as ‘less than human and thus killable’. These statements are fueled by the violent history of religion; however, violence is evident in every corner of the world, and across all forms of social stratification, and it is unfair to pigeon-hole religion as being incapable of anything but conflict.
Munson (2005, p. 224) states that the Hindu’s Bhagavad Gita is the world’s most famous defense of warfare to be found in any sacred text, which is an example of how one’s interpretation of something dictates the way it is perceived. Easwaran (2007, p. 14) interprets the Bhagavad Gita as being a text which is addressed to everyone, regardless of their background or status, and which contains the truths of India’s ancient wisdom into simple, memorable poetry which reminds us of the affairs of everyday life. Easwaran (2007, p.15) states that the battlefield backdrop of the Bhagavad Gita represents the war within, ‘the struggle for self-mastery that every human being must wage if he or she is to emerge from life victorious’, he asserts that those who take the setting as a justification of war should look at the text more closely to see its clues that it means something entirely different. Gandhi suggested that if one bases their life on the Bhagavad Gita sincerely they will see that killing or even hurting others is not compatible with its teachings, which in essence is that one should see God in every creature and treat them accordingly. This message is found all throughout the Gita, one such example is found in (13:27-28) ‘Seeing the Lord everywhere, they do not harm themselves or others’. In making this connection with the Bhagavad Gita I am suggesting that the conflict associated with its meaning represents the conflict that we as a society create with our interpretations of religion, rather than religion itself. After all, as Brewer et al (2010, p. 1020) states, peace is central to all the world religions, but still the field is dominated by a focus on the connection between religion and conflict, rather than the connection between religion and peace. This suggests that it is not religion that is incapable of producing peace and harmony, but rather us as a human collective that prefers to channel our negativity into religion rather than peacefully drink from its fountain.
However it is a difficult task to transform society’s outlook on modern day religion, considering its fall in popularity in the West. A recent study using census data from nine nations suggests that religion is on a path heading towards extinction (BBC 2011). Since its inception, presumably during the classical period of Durkheim and Weber, sociology of religion has centered its focus on the concept of secularisation, which can be defined simply as the diminishing importance of religion in the eyes of society and the individual. Most sociologists share the view that this is the direct result of modernization of society, which favours rational thinking to that of spirituality or the supernatural (Berger 2011, p. 443). Vandenberghe (2010, p. 18) states that what remains of religion in modern times, at least in the West, is now largely individualized and that society is no longer religiously organised. Hughes et al (2008, p. 361) suggests that one way of examining the future trends of religion is to look at the patterns of belief and practice amongst a young population. Hugh et al (2008, p. 360) conducted a study consisting of eighty interviews with Thai youth and 283 interviews with Australian youth to gauge the level of spirituality evident in the young generation of the eastern and western cultures. The study reported that all the Thai young people identified with a religion and considered it an important basis of morality, while many of the Australian youth didn’t identify with religion or consider it to be important. This study supports the view of secularisation of religion in the West and also suggests that religion will remain a strong presence in the East. Judith (2004, p. 3) affirms this by comparing the East and West in terms of wealth, she states that while Eastern countries possess a spiritual wealth, there is also a predominance of material poverty in many Eastern countries, particularly India. In comparison, most Westerners live among material wealth, but also spiritual poverty.
Every individual possesses a range of values that are inherited through society, and which governs and directs individual’s choices and actions. The spiritual values of a society determine the individual’s life style and how we conduct ourselves with one another; values bring about dignity, respect and compassion in human relationships. Brunelli (2001, p. 235) states that the ethical code which is understood by every living being, is present in all world religions. Brunelli discusses the fundamental truth of all religions, which I alluded to earlier in this essay; in his words he describes this truth simply as ‘we are all one family’. Brunelli believes that when an individual experiences this truth, he naturally adheres to the ethical code of not killing, stealing from, lying to or hurting others. These values ‘have founded religions, civilisations and great ideologies’. It is my belief that while religion does share inequalities in the world, we as a society have to realise that inequalities will continue to exist unless we change our perspective and make an effort to promote change. By acknowledging that all religions share the same universal truth, and that we as a human race are all one family, we can begin to make progress towards shedding our feelings of hatred, division and hostility, and instead adopt the spiritual values of peace and kinship that are found at the root of all world religions.
- BBC 2011, ‘Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says’, BBC, 22 March, viewed 17 April 2011, <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12811197>.
- Berger, P.L 2001 ‘Reflections on the Sociology of Religion Today’, Sociology of Religion, vol. 62, no. 4, pp. 443-454, viewed 14 April 2011.
- Brewer, J.D, Higgins, G.I & Teeney, F 2010, ‘Religion and Peacemaking: A Conceptualization’, Sociology, vol. 44, pp. 1019-1037, viewed 16 April 2011.
- Brunelli, S 2001, ‘Human and spiritual values’, World Futures, vol. 56, no. 3, pp. 219-239, viewed 14 April 2011.
- Easwaran, E 2007, ‘The Bhagavad Gita’, 2nd edition, Nilgiri Press, Canada.
- Hughes, P, Suwanbubbha, P & Chaisri, J 2008, ‘The Nature of Spirituality among Young People in Australia and Thailand’, Social Compass, vol. 55, no. 3, pp. 359-372, viewed 12 April 2011.
- James, W 1902, ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’, Longmans, Green & Co, London.
- Judith, A 2004, ‘Eastern Body, Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System as a Path to the Self, 2nd edition, Celestial Arts, New York.
- Macionis, J.J. & Plummer, K 2008, ‘Sociology: A Global Introduction’, 4th edition, Prentice-Hall, New York.
- Munson, H 2005, ‘Religion and violence’, Religion, vol. 35, pp. 223-246, viewed 13 April 2011.
- Prabhavananda, S & Isherwood, C 2002, ‘Bhagavad-Gita: The Song of God’, Signet Classics, California. Introduction by Aldous Huxley.
- Vandenberghe, F 2010, ‘Immanent transcendence in Georg Simmel’s sociology of religion’, Journal of Classical Sociology, vol. 10, no. 5-32, pp. 5-32, viewed 12 April 2011.