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The Significance of Religion

The Significance of Religion
Conventional wisdom suggests that religion, along with other “sensitive” subjects, is best left out of polite dinner conversation. To be sure, one’s religious convictions often cause great contention in the web of human relationships. And yet, religious beliefs and practices also bring great social cohesion as Emile Durkheim (see front page of this chapter) suggests. However true the claims in a religious system may be, or the possibility that religion came about as a collective fantasy of humans (as the materialist perspective claims), Durkheim and other sociologists argue that religion functions primarily as a means of social cohesion. This “functionalist perspective” understands that religion helps societies to organize — creating a sense of unity and purpose around shared belief and practice. As Durkheim notes, “It is by uttering the same cry, performing the same gesture, that they become in unison” (137). Religion gives a paradigm for life. It answers the questions where we come from, where we are going, and what our purpose is. It gives a sense of identity to the individual, family, and community. Religion provides acceptable norms for social behavior, giving us a model for morality. It thwarts and moderates social upheaval, giving an established frame of reference to communities. Religion may also encourage social change and reform. In the end, religion can bring social cohesion, providing communities roots, security, meaning and order, even in an ever-changing world. Though religion serves a common purpose, it is often understood and practiced in different ways, depending on location. Each locale is unique. In simple terms, note the difference between the role of religion in the Eastern cultures of Asia and the Western cultures of Europe and North America. Western Religion In general, the West understands itself as an individual-oriented civilization, with the concept of the self one of its principal categories of reality. In the West, reality revolves around or relates to the individual self. Society is seen as a composite of distinct selves. Furthermore, the Western world recognizes the process of cognition as the premier activity of the self. To know oneself is one of the highest virtues (cf. Socrates). To think is to be (cf. Descartes). In 1637, Descartes wrote: ((Accordingly, seeing that our senses sometimes deceive us, I was willing to suppose that there existed nothing really such as they presented to us; and because some men err in reasoning, and fall into paralogisms, even on the simplest matters of geometry, I, convinced that I was as open to error as any other, rejected as false all the reasonings I had hitherto taken for demonstrations; and finally, when I considered that the very same thoughts (presentations) which we experience when awake may also be experienced when we are asleep, while there is at that time not one of them true, I supposed that all the objects (presentations) that had ever entered into my mind when awake, had in them no more truth than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately upon this I observed that, whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am (COGITO ERGO SUM), was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the sceptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the philosophy of which I was in search. (Descartes part IV, par. 1) ))
Thus, in the West, the self participates in and apprehends the world primarily through individual cognition. Individual cognition might be called a dominant “axis of ideology ” on humanity’s grid of existence. As a result, the mind has primary importance; the body is secondary. Therefore, the West’s principal concern is not acting with the body, but believing with the mind. In religious terms, dogma gets precedence over ritual.
Western culture understands religion as an organized ideology or belief system. Membership is usually thought of as “shared belief” or mutual assent to ideology. Groups are basically an amalgamation of individuals giving mutual assent of their selves, connecting with one another through shared belief. In this model, the world is a place of interactive, often competing, ideologies — to all of which the self can directly relate. With this Western emphasis on “mind” and “reason,” high priority is placed upon thought systems and ideologies possessing “logical coherence.” This insistence upon logical coherence results in ideological particularism — the refusal to adhere to a blending of two conflicting thought systems. The outcome is a religious marketplace where belief systems compete.
In the West, religious people have a “belief” in a set of ideas or dogma that emphasize intellectual assent over ritual. Further, each religion sees its dogma as exclusive from competing religious systems. One is Protestant or Catholic, Jewish or Muslim, but certainly not both. The West recognizes these mutually exclusive religions as competing sets of dogma and ideology. Finally, religion is a matter of personal, and often extremely private, preference. It might well be said that religion in the West stands at a crossroads in the twenty-first century. The cathedrals of Europe are empty shells, except for the occasional tourist or the culturally curious at Easter and Christmas. As religious ideology fails to connect with new generations, greatly diminished religions will no longer be a compelling force in Western society.
Eastern Religion
In Asia in general and Japan in particular, the concept of the “group” holds supreme—unlike the West’s autonomous “self” holding primary importance. Not that the concept of self does not exist in the East, but it is secondary to the group, and exists only in relation to the group. For example, Eastern people generally introduce themselves by surname (the clan/group/family name) and then (if at all) by given name. The deceased are buried in a family grave, not an individual plot. The group is at the center of the Eastern world. All reality revolves around or relates to the corporate group. Further, the principal activity of the self in relation to the group is “doing” instead of “thinking” (as in the West). The ancient Eastern philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE) advises followers to “return to holy ritual” in order to be virtuous:
1.    Yen Yuan asked about perfect virtue. The Master said, ‘To subdue one’s self and return to [holy ritual], is perfect virtue. If a man can for one day subdue himself and return to [holy ritual], all under heaven will ascribe perfect virtue to him. Is the practice of perfect virtue from a man himself, or is it from others?’
2.      Yen Yuan said, ‘I beg to ask the steps of that process.’ The Master replied, ‘Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to [holy ritual]; speak not what is contrary to [holy ritual]; make no movement which is contrary to [holy ritual].’ Yen Yuan then said, ‘Though I am deficient in intelligence and vigour, I will make it my business to practise this lesson.’ ?(Confucius Book XII par. 1-2)
It is ritual, not dogma, holding primacy in the practice and role of religion. Ritual activity is the means for identification with and belonging to the group. It serves as a way of including or excluding members. The Eastern world is primarily conceived of and experienced through corporate ritual — a dominant “ritual axis” on the grid of human existence.
The essential means of group identification and patronage is established and maintained through corporate ritual. Fundamental sacred ritual in the Eastern system creates and maintains the solidarity and identification of the group. It also gives the group a way of understanding the world. The group requires obligatory participation in ritual from all its members, if they truly intend to be part of the whole. It is not as important that the ritual is understood (or an ideology adhered to or believed in), as it is that participants perform the sacred ritual. Engagement in ritual does not require uniform belief, but rather uniform action. This is why Eastern religion, from the Western perspective, looks eclectic.
The reason for this is simply the fact that uniform belief is not required for the formation of group cohesion; uniform ritual is. This is why there is an implicit toleration of multiplicities of ideology in the East. The toleration exists because of the understanding that it is the ritual action that gives the group its identity, rather than adherence to a uniform belief system. Therefore, what is ultimately of importance in the East is that the ritual is actually performed and actively participated in, for this is how the group receives its identity and unity.
What does religious practice look like in Asia? In Japan’s profound tradition and decorum, one is said to be born a Shinto, married a Christian, and buried a Buddhist. In a recent census taken, 90% of the population claimed Shinto as their religious affiliation, 83% claimed Buddhism, 10% had an affinity with Christianity, and others claimed to be Taoist and Confucian (“Religion in Japan”). The Western way of thinking may find simultaneous adherence to competing religious systems incredulous, but for the Asian practitioner this makes complete sense. Ritual over dogma, Eastern religion’s social fabric holds a people together, defines the group and establishes social order.
In short, membership requires assent to the requisite and group-constitutive ritual, not having “faith” in the dogma or “believing” the teachings. As Confucius taught, if “Li” (Holy Ritual) is properly in place, then all of society will be well-ordered and properly in place. In Asia one is Shinto, Buddhist, and Christian all at once, affirming the social fabric of society.
Western and Eastern religions differ in many fundamental ways. For example, they can be distinguished in the value of dogma (a set of beliefs) or practice (a set of rituals). Therefore, in Western religions it is important to believe in a distinct set of ideas, and it is difficult to imagine a person considering himself both Protestant and Catholic at the same time. Western religions also value the self, knowledge, and the mind. Eastern religions, by contrast, are not necessarily mutually exclusive, value the community, the body, and sacred ritual.

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