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Does Society Need Religion? by Lloyd Geering (1998) $5 $20 2
Professor Lloyd Geering explores the relationships, sometimes helpful, sometimes destructive, between religion and society under the headings:
  • "Religion as Social Super Glue"
  • "Religion as Social Dynamite"
  • "Society Without Religion"
  • "New Religion for a New Society?"
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"Does Society Need Religion"

Lloyd Geering


An excerpt from Chapter 1

1: Religion as Social Superglue

This booklet explores the relationship between society and religion. But does society need religion? To this question there are two extreme answers, which are polar opposites. One regards religion as essential to society, to prevent it from disintegrating. The other considers religion a divisive force which endangers the health of society, so that society is better off without it. It is possible to find strong supporting evidence for each of these conclusions, simply by drawing selectively upon past history.

In the first two chapters we shall examine these opposing answers in turn. In the third chapter we shall try to understand what happens in a society which tries to live without any form of religion. In between the two extreme positions there is an intermediate position which answers the original question with a qualified "yes". The series will conclude with a discussion of that answer.

But first we must first define the two basic terms, "religion" and "society", in order to avoid a good deal of unnecessary and fruitless debate. On some definitions we cannot avoid coming to one or other of the two extreme conclusions.


Let us start with the word religion, for in today's world that is the one about which there is most confusion. Even in university departrnents of religious studies there is still real debate about the most satisfactory way of defining religion.

As I have said in Tomorrow's God, it is because we live in a time of radical religious change that the word "religion" has come to mean quite different things to different people. Those who enthusiastically embrace one of the well-known religious faiths usually use "religion" positively. Those who have rejected all traditional forms of religion often treat the word negatively and even speak of themselves as being non-religious.

In today's religious pluralism we must avoid all definitions which interpret religion by selecting one of the particular forms as the norm by which anything is to he judged religious or not. By that method, what is religion to one person is often simply superstition or non-belief to another. Derived as it is from the Latin religio, religion did not originally refer to any particular set of beliefs at all, but to the degree of commitment or devotion which people displayed towards their most important interests. Religio, and hence religion, basically meant conscientiousness, reverence and devotion. It could be spelled out to mean "a conscientious concern for what really matters".

This is what the theologian Paul Tillich was recovering for the word when he defined religion as "the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern whkh qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of life" (italics added). Carlo Della Casa, an Italian scholar of the modern study of religion, put it even more simply when he said: "Religion is a total mode of the interpreting and living of life."

Albert Einstein was not at all religious in the traditional sense of that term, yet he penetrated to its underlying signifkance when he said: "To be religious is to have found an answer to the question of what is the meaning of life." Even before Einstein, the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach had asserted in 1841: "He who has an aim in life, an aim whkh is in itself true and essential, has eo ipso a religion."

We should note that these descriptions of religion make no reference to specific beliefs and practices. Even more importantly, they do not regard the concepts of the divine and of the supernatural to be the sine qua non of religion. They do not speak of dogmas, doctrines and rituals at all, let alone any particular ones. Instead of implying that religion is a set of beliefs to be embraced or a set of rituals to be practised, they fasten on the human attitude involved in religion. They describe what it means to be religious. To be religious is primarily to show devotion, to experience a sense of the sacred, to show reverence, to regard something as holy.

One can experience a sense of the sacred in many things other than what is conceived to be supernatural, spiritual or otherworldly. Notice how these words by an economist, Richard Douthwaite, draw upon religious terrninology: "The fundamental tenet of the religion of industrial man is economic growth. Modern industrial man regards economic growth as synonymous with progress and thus sacred. It is seen as providing a panacea for all our problems, and is signalling the path we must religiously follow in order to create a material and technological paradise here on earth." This illustrates how, in the modem world, the beliefs and practices which people regard as sacred and deserving of their commitrnent are changing radically in character.


Now let us turn to the term society. There is a notion abroad today that society is nothing more than a collection of individuals. It is something which individuals form when they voluntarily join together for a common purpose.

This notion of society is quite modern. It came to the fore in the 17th and 18th centuries, at the very time when modem individualism was coming to birth. It is reflected in the social contract theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It assumes that individuals exist before society. As individualism advanced further it concluded that "there's no such thing as society", to quote the famous words of Margaret Thatcher.

It is actually the other way round. There's no such thing as a sell-made individual. Individuals do not choose to form society; it is society whkh makes us into individuals. It is only because of society that each of us becomes fully human in the way we experience the human condition. It is because we are born into and nurtured by a human society that we come to exist as individuals, each with our own identity, personal experience and capacity to think for ourselves.

So what is society if it is much more than just a voluntary assembly of individuals? Human society has been in existence for as long as humanity has existed. The evolutionary development of humanicind, including our own birth and survival, has depended upon the entity of the human social unit. Only because our species lived in a continuing cohesive society did the human condition evolve to be what it is today, when each of us can now experience reflective self-consciousness and develop an individual identity. Through thousands of generations of its continuous life, human society created us to be the individuals we now find ourselves to be. 

Human society, therefore, is not just an assorted collection of individuals. It is a community, held together in cohesion by very real though invisible bonds of relationship. Because of these bonds human society is more than simply the sum of its parts, the sum total of its members. This is why it was so natural to draw on language associated with the human body in order to describe various aspects of society. We can talk about society as a body, a body which has a heart, a mind and other organs. We individuals are members or limbs of society.