Kyoto Cosmos Club: Sub-Page Five
IN HEALTHY SOCIETIES RELIGION INTERACTS WITH OTHER SOCIAL SYSTEMS FOR THE GOOD OF THE WHOLE
1) Collaboration and Interaction between Religious and Other Social Systems: Many religions were born through a revolutionary severing from a previous parent religion; so they were born in strife. Such was the case with Buddhism as it broke away from the Hinduism. Likewise Christianity had the same struggle as it broke away from its Jewish parentage. So did Islam, when Mohammed first began to preach his revelations.
More importantly perhaps, in each of these cases, the governmental and the military systems were working in collaboration with the parent religion at the time of the break, and so there was various forms of persecution of the new “heretical sect”. Jesus’ crucifixion, and the subsequent persecutions by both the Jews and the Romans is a prime example. In modern free societies, however, many religious systems can and do live in peace with one another—ideally more as friends and co-workers than as rivals.
In each of the above cases the initial turmoil and strife was eventually followed by long and relatively peaceful cooperation and collaboration between what became the predominant religion and the various civil, financial and familial systems. The great civilizations of China, Pre-Christian Greece and Rome, the Islamic world, the Christian world, Hinduism and Buddhism all include in their histories long centuries, even millennia, of such relatively peaceful collaboration. This of course is not to ignore or deny horrible periods of brutal repression, persecution and/or periods of unrest and rivalry among religions in each case.
In other—more sociological and anthropological—terms, religions have usually worked in an interactive fashion with the other “action systems,” in practically all human societies of history. More often than not religion worked in relative harmony with governmental systems, with financial systems, as well as with philosophic, literary, familial systems. Nowadays they often collaborate, even while they compete, with one another. So, in every historical social grouping—tribe, principality, kingdom, nation-state—all of these systems have influenced one another in a significant fashion. What effect religion may have on government, finance or political systems will depend on many factors; certainly one important factor is the level of honesty and general moral probity on both sides.
It is important to note that different notions of authority in different ages (tribal chieftain, absolutist king, and constitutional democracies) generally pervaded each of the social systems. From the ancient Egyptian pharos to the pre-Christian Roman Emperors the civil monarch was often also the divine ruler. “Church’ and “state” were combined at the top. In China the Emperor was the Sun of Heaven, in Japan he was the divine descendent of the Sun Goddess, and Roman Caesars of course were also gods.
However, as Bellah pointed out above, societies and religions are continually changing and evolving. In the age of absolutist kings of medieval times kings no longer claimed divinity, but they believed their civil authority came from God, and they shared their absolute civil power with the popes’ absolutist religious power.
In every age the religious authority often vied for supreme power with the civil power, but usually some sort of working compromise was found. In ages of absolutist government religions always tended also to be absolutist. But when the age of democracy arrived religious systems too began to become more democratic. As the present Roman Catholic papacy shows, however, the transition is often long and difficult. Even after its own Ecumenical Council declared the principle of “collegiality” as the proper mode of church governance, the Vatican continues to hurl down condemnations and edict moral positions (such as the evil of birth control and the impossibility of married or female clergy) even though the majority of both clergy and laity often disagree.
The central point here is that religious systems and other important social systems tend, in every age and in every geographic location, to influence one another and to collaborate with one another for the common good. Below we see how religion and societies interact in democracies.
2) In Democratic—and All Other—Societies Many Religions Can and Do Co-exist—and Interact—with Many Social Systems: Robert Bellah, in collaboration with four other social scientists, published two influential books between, 1985 and 1991, that broke new ground in understanding of how religion functions in the United States, and by extension in other modern democratic societies as well. Habits of the Heart builds upon a favorite idea of Bellah’s: “civil religion”. The author argues that even secular democratic society is bound together by a fabric of civil “virtues”. Borrowing a phrase from Alexis de Toqueville, he terms these qualities, “Habits of the Heart,” and argues that in addition to the minimum of honesty, justice, compassion and the like that every healthy society must possess, modern democracies like America must also have reasonably strong institutions of marriage, family life, religion and healthy participation in local and national politics to survive and thrive. His collaborators each contributed important parts by their detailed empirical research into many aspects of these and other components of a modern healthy society.
Religion was researched as one of the major “habits of the heart” that make up the public sphere of American life, just as marriage and the family is the most important private “social system” that sustains society’s fabric. Though the authors granted that religion was more central to public life in the U.S. than in Europe, when one looks at the contemporary global scene it is safe to say that religion still ranks high among the forces that mold the various societies of the world, in spite of widespread secularization.
Six years later the same group of scholars collaborated in a further study that took up where the last left off, as it were. The Good Society, as the title implies, does not limit itself to the American society, but broadens out to look, in a historical as well as an empirical manner, at what is required today for a society to be healthy. This web-page is not the place to treat such a momentous topic, however the authors treat education and organized religion as two of the major forces on which democratic societies depend to furnish a strong bond of morality and meaning within which governmental and economic systems can function well. The book ends with an appeal for “faith” which characterizes the tone of the whole work:
Yet if we are fortunate enough to have the gift of faith through which we see ourselves as members of the universal community of all being and we bear a special responsibility to bring whatever insights we have to the common discussion of new problems, not because we have any superior wisdom but because we can be, as Vaclav Havel defines his role, ambassadors of trust in a fearful world. When enough of us have sufficient trust to act responsibly, there is a chance to achieve, at least in part a good society. In the meantime, even in the world as it is, there are grounds for thankfulness and celebration. Meaning is the living fabric that holds us together with all things. To participate in it is to know something of what human happiness really is.
1. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1985). The same authors collaborated to publish The Good Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).