Religion: Moving Beyond Emile Durkheim


For Emile Durkheim, God and religion were nothing more than the idols of the tribe and the tribe's own self-worship; why do so many Western intellectuals take this as the last word on the subject? The second in a two-part series.

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Jonathan Haidt is clearly a breath of fresh air in an academic discipline that, by his own reckoning, is almost devoid of conservative or religious voices and is often hostile to both religious belief and political conservatism. An informal survey Haidt conducted at a recent professional convention found only three out of the approximately one thousand social psychologists in attendance who were willing to describe their political orientation as "conservative"—in contrast to 40 percent of the American public. While Haidt didn't survey the religious beliefs of the convention-goers, the results almost certainly would have been far different from the 85 to 95 percent of Americans who answer "yes" to the perennial Gallup question of whether they believe in "God or a higher power."

While those of us with a more positive view of both religion and conservatism surely welcome Haidt's courageous and often illuminating scholarship, his work is greatly limited, in terms of understanding such a multifaceted phenomenon as religion, by the narrowness and distortion inherent in the Durkheimian perspective. Religion, says Haidt, is a "team sport"—one whose function and reality, he believes, can be well understood by a combination of Durkheimian sociology, contemporary evolutionary psychology, and the group-selection theory of David Sloan Wilson. For anyone who has studied in any depth and with any understanding the rich, multidimensional reality of the world's religions, such a stance is narrow at best, and in many applications simply ludicrous. It is the product of what Haidt has begun to move away from but is not entirely free of, namely, a very narrow, Western, secularized, and dogmatic materialist reductionism that often distorts what is most interesting and most distinctive about the religious faith and religious experience of mankind.

In the narrative of both Durkheim and Haidt, there is little if any difference between religion and nationalism, between the team loyalty of a New England Patriots fan and the communal worshipping presence among the members of a pious Quaker meeting house, between the inspiration of Jesus' twelve disciples and the enthusiasm of the members of a local Amway sales group. Not only is it absurd to consider all communal bonds as equally the result of a single "hive instinct," but much of what is most profound and interesting about the world's religions is not a product of communal bonding at all but of highly individualized "revelations" usually involving some variant of what Plotinus famously described as "a flight of the alone to the Alone." At the inception of most of the world's religions lies not a communal bond—this comes much later—but overpowering theophanies, mystic revelations, seizures by the ruach of Yahweh, meditational Enlightenments, revelatory callings, Shamanistic Dark Nights and ecstasies, visions of the Resurrected, raptures to the Third Heaven, etc. Religions are usually built around very special types of personages—Moses, Jeremiah, Jesus, the Desert Fathers, George Fox, Ramakrishna, the Buddha, Mohammed, the Hindu holy men, Sufi saints, Mahavira, Bahaullah—who very often, when they want to receive or clarify their messages from "on high," deliberately absent themselves from human contact to seek more intimate communion with the divine in the silent interiority of their own receptive souls. The desert or uninhabited forests are typically the places to which they retreat to seek more intimate converse with their God.

Not surprisingly, most of the higher religions of the world have produced rich traditions of monastic life—from the Greek monachos, "solitary hermit," and monos, "alone"—which are not infrequently seen by their co-religionists as the highest and purest form of religious worship and the religious life. Some of these monastic traditions are eremitic, where the monks live alone and in solitude; others are cenobitic, where there is an emphasis on both solitary and communal religious exercises. But even in the cenobitic monasteries, the very purpose of the monastic order is to cultivate not a team-playing group consciousness, but the sensitive interiority of each of their members and their more intimate communion with a Reality understood as reaching beyond the social and political realm.

Haidt says again and again that man is homo duplex, being mostly an egocentric chimpanzee, but also partly a hive-like bee willing at times to offer self-sacrifice for the good of the group. It would be more accurate to speak of man as homo triplex—a being who combines in the same nature an egocentric chimp ("looking out for number one"), a sociocentric bee ("all for one, one for all"), and a theocentric seraph ("not as I will, but as Thou wilt"). The chimpanzee and the bee coexist in a complex relationship with the seraph, and just as the "hive-switch" that Haidt speaks about can be turned on at times to override the egocentric promptings of the chimp, so a "prophetic-switch"—one with deep other-worldly connections—can sometimes be turned on to override both the chimp's egocentrism and the bee's parochial sociocentrism. It is to many of the great mystic-religious figures of the past—to those to whom the German philosopher Karl Jaspers and the American religious scholar Robert Bellah attribute the creation of an Axial Age in world history—that we owe our understanding of a universal God—a God who transcends tribal parochialisms and opens our hearts to an appreciation of a universal humanity.

For an evolutionary Durkheimian such as Haidt, solitary religious experience has to be understood as a misdirecting of an evolved tribal consciousness so that it is projected into an imaginary realm over, above, and apart from the group. The universal religion of a Jesus, a Second Isaiah, a Ramakrishna, a Buddha, a Bahaullah has to be reinterpreted as a manifestation of man's evolved group-consciousness that for some strange reason has become detached from any earthly group yet finds deep and lasting resonance among masses of an otherwise group-oriented humanity. For those more attuned to actual religious consciousness and religious experience, it is not the spiritual universalism of mankind's greatest religious thinkers that is a distortion or a fiction, but the machinations of those who would deify the inner-worldly tribe and endow it with the attributes of sacrality or divinity.

From the perspective of those with a less-restricted understanding of reality than that provided by reductionist materialism, it is the quasi-theological claims of someone like William McNeill that are a projection of religious feelings onto objects wholly unsuited to their attachment. No fighting platoon, no intimate human group—no matter how much beloved or cared for—is immortal or God-like. Platoons, like armies and tribes, are subject to all of the vicissitudes of the world including outright devastation and extinction. Regardless of their existential importance to our personal lives and our willingness to sacrifice for their welfare, no human group is sacred, everlasting, or divine. Like the young man madly in love with a woman, who proceeds to elevate the object of his affection to the level of a goddess and worships at her feet, the behavior displayed by chauvinists and group-worshipers contains elements at once pathetic, unseemly, and absurd.

As one contemporary writer puts it, “when we worship ourselves, eventually we become the God that failed.” And as the experience of the last century with chauvinistic nationalism, militaristic fascism, and class-hatred-spewing Marxism should have taught us, whenever narrow, parochial groups are elevated to the level of a summon bonum, inter-group conflict and warfare are usually not far behind. Collective hubris is even more dangerous than the individual kind, humility its only antidote. Confusing God and one's people is not the way toward collective humility.

Idolatry in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religious traditions is defined as treating that which is less-than-God in a manner befitting only God. While this teaching has sometimes led to tragic and unfortunate misunderstandings, there is nevertheless an important practical and theological truth contained in it. Compared to the tribe and all other human aggregations, God, when experienced not as an idol but as an overpowering Presence of awe-inspiring mystery and fascination, is something "Wholly Other" (German: ganz andere), as the religious phenomenologist Rudolf Otto used to remind us. It is surely a commentary on the spiritual obtuseness and religious decline of modern Europe that so truncated an understanding of religion as that of Emile Durkheim—for whom God and religion were nothing more than the idols of the tribe and the tribe's own self-worship—can be taken seriously by so many Western intellectuals as the last word on the subject.

One can only say of Jonathan Haidt that he is still a relatively young man—a very open-minded, thoughtful, and decent young man, who, one suspects, is still very much a work in progress. If I may be permitted a prediction, I think that over the next several years he will come to see that there is more—precious more—to religion and God-consciousness than is dreamt of in the writings of people such as Durkheim and contemporary group selectionists. I think he will come to see the value in the non-reductionist interpreters of the world's religions—in people such as William James, Rudolf Otto, Evelyn Underhill, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, Thomas Merton, D.T. Suzuki, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and Huston Smith. Unlike Durkheim, these thinkers really understand the inner experiences of the world's great religious figures, the resonance they find in the inner depths of more ordinary souls, and the Source from which both developments flow.

Russell Nieli is a lecturer in politics at Princeton University.

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