Sociology of Religion

Emile Durkheim had many ideas about society and religion, how they supported each other and how they are linked together. This paper takes two church services of different faiths and examines them prima facie, then draws parallels to Durkheim’s work. The two services are compared and contrasted and then a discussion will follow that explains how the services each fit into Durkheim’s paradigm.

Durkheim argues that in either a mechanical or organic society when there is any separation of the profane and the sacred, religion arises. Durkheim’s view is that no object was intrinsically profane or sacred. A mere objects value would depend on what value humans placed on it, i.e. sacred or profane. An objects value falls into the sacred category depending upon whether humans choose to separate it into its use value or a value that has nothing to do with its use but rather to do with its built in symbolic meanings. These regularities between sacred and profane objects are identified within groups or bands of people with a common belief; they are of the same religion.

Durkheim argued that Gods or deities that are worshiped by a society really reflect the power that is shared by the collective of that society. Durkheim points out how religion is always in a social context. When church goers meet, it is in large groups or gatherings. When these groups assemble for their religions they are actually displaying the power that their society possesses. They do so in order to give something without any physical characteristics a context in which it does, so they can then proceed to comprehend it.

According to Durkheim religion in society has four key components. They have a definite set of like beliefs, a distinction between that which is profane and sacred, a set of practices or rituals that are common amongst their group and an institutional form. The rituals can be negative and positive. The function of negative rituals is to limit the contact between that which is profane and sacred, to stress sacrifice and submission and for the worshipper to be purified. The positive functions of rituals allow members to have contact with Gods or deities who they consider sacred and to renew commitments and ideals to their group. The functions of these rituals in a more broad sense play a disciplinary and preparatory function, solidify social cohesion, encourage revitalization within the community and allow euphoria amongst the members. Durkheim points out that moral beliefs have a sacred component even if they are not outwardly religious. When one breaks the law they feel as though they have done something morally wrong. He also noted that the durability and long lasting power of different religious groups are due to the fact that most of these groups stand in solidarity with the large social group. An example is that most religions believe and actively promote their members to follow the laws of the land. In the post modern society we find religion declining and the conscience collective following suit. Religion and morality become detached from one another, and emerging religious movements come about that seek to repair or enhance the conscience collective in the society.

The Mormon service includes 3 blocks of time, each 1 hour in length. I will focus on the main block that is called “Sacrament Meeting” or would be the same as other religions mass. There is an opening hymn and then an opening prayer. Then there is a “business” section of the meeting where business in the ward is discussed in an open format. After this and a few words from a member of the bishopric, sacrament is served. You have to be a practicing Mormon in good standing in order to partake of the sacrament. A prayer is said for the bread that likens it to the flesh of Jesus. Younger members of the congregation about 14 years old, pass around the bread and then water in the same fashion after blessing it and likening it to the blood of Jesus. The whole sacrament process is conducted in a very ceremonial manner. After the sacrament there is a younger adult who speaks and then two older people, these people are regular church goers who are selected to speak on a given topic. The first talk is about 5 minutes long, and then the second two are about 15 minutes each. After these talks there is a closing hymn then a closing prayer. You are then released to the class that you are required to go to next. Newcomers or people interested are sent to a special class that are taught by local missionaries and give lessons that are geared more towards recruitment to the church.

The Pentecostal service at the East Valley church begins with an opening song played over loud speakers. There is then an opening prayer. After the opening prayer there is a mixed media section that includes a power point projection with the subject of various religious topics, such as “failing forward”. This section is mixed with solo performances by Christian musicians and intermittent scriptures that were related to the theme of the power point presentation. There is a lot of audience participation. There are people standing up, saying “praise the lord”, “hallelujah”, and “amen”. There are people speaking in tongues. It is a very active, involved and informal experience. After this main sermon there is a closing prayer and song. People are then released and the service is over.

The Mormon service is much more formal and structured than that of the East Valley church. The meetings have much more of a disciplined, traditional feel to them. The Mormon attendees were dressed in much more formal clothing, almost all the males had a white collared shirt with a tie, nice slacks and polished shoes. At the East Valley church people were dressed in more of a business casual to regular street clothes manner. There was quite a bit of audience participation at East Valley.  In the Mormon service that was virtually non existent aside from the congregation singing hymns. At East Valley there were audience response, standing, clapping, speaking in tongues and guitar playing by Christian artists. On the other hand the Mormon music was strictly hymnals they recited from a book that resembled a bible with their songs in it. These were sung 3 times through out the meeting accompanied by a large authoritative sounding pipe organ. There were tithing envelopes at both locations. The Mormon service had a sacrament section whereas the East Valley church didn’t. It seemed they more loosely believed that if you have faith in Jesus and follow his word that you will be saved. Although the Mormon Church does not embrace the cross as a meaningful symbol of Christ, the Pentecostal church does. It is an important symbol for them so one can remember that Jesus died for you. The Mormon Church believes that this symbol should not be the center of attention because the focus should be placed upon Jesus’ life not his death.

The Mormon Church service had evidence of negative and positive rituals. The Mormons regularly fast once a month and also at ones own discretion when praying for another person or another group of people. They are required to tithe 10 percent of their income to the church. If they don’t do so they are not allowed to do certain things that full tithe paying members are, such as visit the temple which allows them to come into contact with God, a positive ritual. The sacrament allows one to come into contact with Jesus by partaking a piece of bread and a sip of water that symbolized his flesh and blood that he sacrificed for all humanity. Mormons strongly believe that all members should follow the “law of the land”. Durkheim would point out how this gives society the power to function outside the boundaries and in cooperation with this religious group. The church service was highly organized from beginning to end, with about 250 people in attendance. The highly structured format of this religion satisfies the institutional form aspect of the four components of religion. The Mormons have their own set of beliefs, the book of Mormon as a supplement to the Bible. They have a distinction between the profane and sacred, the word of wisdom, which is a strong moral outline one must follow. One Sunday a month members are encouraged to bare their testimonies in front of the congregation, this group situation, allows for feelings of euphoria to be displayed and shared amongst members. One very interesting thing about this church Durkheim would look at is the fact that it sprouted up in unison with movement of settlers migrating to the west. The beliefs of the church also even tie into America being the stage for their religion to play out, which is outlined in depth in The Book of Mormon. Durkheim would say that this is a perfect example of religion being formed in order to establish cohesion and a set group of rules and morals within a new and growing society.

One can’t help to speculate if churches such as East Valley with a more laid back, comforting, non formal atmosphere are the product of modern day society. They seem as though they fit better into the fabric of everyday life in current day United States. One can more freely join and drop out of the church without many repercussions. There are fewer limitations, and many of the members seem to be new converts whereas many other religions are a way of life lived by one since they were born. Some of the rituals that were observed were the verbal and physical actions of the members. The dramatic behavior that they play out in front of all their peers, the speaking in tongues, the “amen’s”, the “hallelujahs”, these allow the group to have a format in which they come together as one and perform these solidarity rituals that then work as a cohesive factor for them within society. They have a feeling of revitalization and euphoria after the church meeting, this renews their commitments to ideals and the social community in which they reside. This group, as well, believes that it is Gods word to follow the “law of the land”. It is not only encouraged but also pushed as a commandment from God. One rarely sees factions deviate from this, and if they do they are usually labeled “extremists”.

After observing two very different church services it is quite interesting how dramatically different religions can be. Both of these religions consider themselves Christian, yet they varied so widely in rituals and other aspects of the components of religion. Even though there was so much variance one can still examine them, as this paper did, and find the four components of religion within them. In our modern day society religion is declining along side the conscience collective. We find ourselves in an extremely complex organic society with many religions of vast difference. The two religions that were observed are solid examples of newer religious movements that are instrumental in enhancing and strengthening the conscience collective.

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