It’s time to wrap up this diatribe. Like I said at the end of my second post in this series, I’ve strayed a long way from the usual content of this blog. After this post I have to reconsider my work here. I’m getting into the long stretch of road in my chemotherapy treatments. I’m getting tired and you must be getting tired of reading this stuff. The end of this part of my road is at least six months away. Things are looking good according to my lab results, but who knows. Every day brings something new which may be fodder for this blog, maybe not. Whatever. I do have to tell you about a recent weird experience I’ve been having, but that will be for my next post.
In this post, the third in the series about what will happen to ‘me’ after “I” die, I want to suggest that our conception of our selves, especially our idea that we are beings composed of mind, body and soul, is socially-constructed. In a sense though, it matters not where these ideas come from if they have a real impact on my life.
By way of an example, if I have a stroke, for instance, I may attribute it to a curse put upon me by a disgruntled recently past relative for a purported wrong that I did him. However, it’s far more likely that my stroke was brought on by a busted artery in my brain. Nonetheless, the stroke and its consequences are what they are never mind their provenance. Durkheim stated that no religion is false. By that he meant that, in my example above, the stroke is real no matter where and how we think it originated. A more contemporary sociologist who wrote extensively on religion, Peter Berger, argues that much of what we call religious behaviour and even religious thinking and hypothesizing cannot be understood by deduction or reduction. He proposes that we use induction to figure out the ‘reality’ of religious experience, that we start with how we feel and experience in real terms, in our living beings, and acknowledge those feelings as real before we attempt any kind of explanation of them. This kind of fits with Unamuno’s views, although Berger is much more prosaic than Unamuno the poet-philosopher.
The provenance of the ‘soul’ is interesting and there is much speculation about it as originating in our dreams, for instance, or during hallucinogenic experiences, but once a belief in the ‘soul’ is socially established it, it has real world consequences.
Today, I intended to address the work of Emile Durkheim and Ernest Becker with maybe a little Max Weber, Karl Marx and Norbert Elias thrown in for good measure but I’ve decided not to do that in any formal sense. I have come to accept the futility of trying to summarize very complex arguments from a number of writers and how they interconnect at least in a relatively short blog post. I’m not here to convince you that I’m right anyways.
That said, all the above characters were sociologists except for Ernest Becker and he would definitely qualify as an honorary sociologist. They all conclude that religion and all ideas concerning souls, demons, angels, gods, and various other supernatural beings originate in society (i.e., in the family, school, church, law courts, governments, etcetera) defined very broadly. However, whatever their origin, religious, metaphysical ideas have real world consequences according to these guys. That’s clear.
Before getting any further into this post, I want to tell you a little story. You might be shocked to learn that I wasn’t always the model son. Sometimes I could be downright annoying and troublesome for my mom, and she didn’t deserve any bullshit from me. But she got some anyway. I remember one time (of several) when I was particularly obnoxious and teased my poor mom relentlessly.
I said to my mom: “Ma, if you had been abandoned on a desert island as a baby and were raised by monkeys, would you still be the same person you are now.”
“Yes,” she says, “of course.”
I retorted: “But what language would you talk? Would you talk monkey talk? What things would you believe? Would you believe in God?”
She replied something along these lines: “I would believe in God and I’d be the same person I am today. I don’t know any other languages besides French and English and why would I believe anything different than I do now?”
That was my mom. She wasn’t stupid by any measure, but she was ignorant in many ways mostly because she was busy raising a pack of kids and she was way too tired to be very curious and she couldn’t read metaphysics. By her answers to my questions she demonstrated a naïveté that ran deep but that allowed her to live her life in relative contentment. If my mom was ignorant in some ways, she was very knowledgeable in others. She raised tons of children, made bread like a pro and was a dedicated member of her church (although she didn’t know much about Catholic theology beyond what was in the Sunday missal). Later in her life she took up woodworking and was good at it, that is until my dad decided to sell the house and the shop from under her. After that, she fell into dementia and never recovered. I think she lost her appetite for life at that point. I loved my mom, I really did, and I regret teasing her. That’s one of my big regrets in life.
So, what was it about my mother’s responses that is significant for me here? I guess I was shocked by her very strange idea of her personhood and her unstated notion that ‘she’ was an unchanging, unchangeable being regardless of her surroundings and upbringing. It’s plain to me and I expect to most people that everything we know we’ve learned from others, either directly from other people in our homes, schools, churches, and from books or from any number of other sources. Of course, that includes any kind of ‘spiritual’ ideas we may have as well as our sense of immortality. Elias argues that we are not the individualists we think we are. He says humans are really interdependencies and interweavings. No human ever stands alone given the richness of the sources of our ‘selves’. The language(s) we speak, our gender, our cognitive skills, intelligences, values, religious/spiritual beliefs, etcetera are all learned, that is, socially derived.
It’s clear to me that my mother denied the influence of any possible ‘foreign’ source of her personhood. Obviously, there is no way my mother could know of her Catholic God if she was raised by monkeys on a desert island. The concept of God, like of language, and table manners is learned. How would my mom learn about the Catholic God? Many societies have concepts of God or gods or some such supernatural beings. There are hundreds (and there have been thousands) of religions on the planet, each with its own unique conception of immortality and supernatural beings (if they conceive of any). Babies born into those societies learn the rules and values of their specific communities. Why would my mother not realize that her position was untenable? I would suggest that her commitment to her beliefs outweighed any sense she might have had about the logical inconsistency of her position. She was like a Trump supporter in that sense. She may have been yanking my chain, but I doubt it.
Which god do you worship (if any)? Well, if you do still worship a god, probably the one your parents do (or did). These days, however, there is a movement towards more individualistic, personal forms of spirituality, a trend which fits in nicely with capitalist morality, individualism and consumerism while allowing people to retain a belief in the immortality of the ‘soul.’ It’s also true that significant numbers of people are now defaulting to atheism or agnosticism in greater numbers than ever before, a movement also compatible with capitalist morality. There is still a great deal of intergenerational retention going on today even if there are obvious exceptions. So the frontier mentality of rugged individualism and fending for yourself is still a thing in the Twenty-first Century. Of course, as individuals, we can be creative, and come up with new ideas and ways of doing things but we always do so using materials, processes and relationships that already exist. How else could it happen?
The truth is, we, none of us, can conceive of anything absolutely new under the sun. Everything we invent, think about, or imagine has roots in our interactions and interdependencies with other people via our social relations, past and present. The present is always built on the past. Inventions are generally new conceptions of how to use and combine already existing technologies or ideas. That means that new religious denominations or churches are invariably modifications on past ones. How many variations on Christianity are there? Lots…I haven’t counted them. Which one is the ‘true’ variant?
As I note above, one perspective all the writers and thinkers I mention above have in common is that they all agree that religion and our ideas of personhood originate in society as does the belief in immortality. Durkheim, for example, argues that the concept of God is actually a personification of society, a personification that can then be used to judge the behaviour of adherents still living. Elias in his book What is Sociology? builds a conception of individual/societal interaction by using a metaphor of a card game. In his metaphor, a card game is happening with four or five players. The game has rules, of course, to which all players must adhere. Then, one person decides to leave the game and another person joins in. That change of players does not affect the game, nor the rules. The new player must adhere to the rules like the drop-out did. The game is a metaphor for society. We are born into society, learn all the rules, then leave (die). Society goes on. The game goes on. Society, seen from this perspective, is supra-human. It exists above and independently of any individual yet has control over all individuals and circumscribes the parameters of possible ideas and decisions individuals can make. No wonder we come to think of it as divine.
Because society is supra-human and veritably invisible to most people, it’s not a stretch to understand why people ascribe to it a supernatural existence disconnected from their individual lives. Because it IS disconnected to their individual lives in a real sense. As Elias would say, the game goes on no matter what individuals do as players. To which Durkheim would add: the individual ‘soul’ is in the game but is actually a piece of the collective, social SOUL. Therein lies our idea of its immortality. Society exists before us and after us. It’s virtually immortal. Our souls are immortal because they are a piece of the greater social SOUL.
Durkheim defines religion as: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (from Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912) For Durkheim, sacred things are by definition social things and the sacredness of things can change with changing social conditions.
Ernest Becker goes much further than Durkheim when he argues that culture as a whole is sacred. For Becker there is no distinction between profane and sacred. It’s culture as a whole that promises people immortality. In fact, he argues that “Each society is a hero system that promises victory over evil and death.” (from Escape From Evil, 1975, page 124)* Of course, no society can promise such a thing. Becker writes:
But no mortal, nor even a group of as many as 700 million clean, revolutionary mortals, [in reference to China] can keep such a promise, no matter how loudly or how artfully he protests or they protest, it is not within man’s means to triumph over evil and death. For secular societies the thing is ridiculous: what can “victory” mean secularly? And for religious societies victory is part of a blind and trusting belief in another dimension of reality. Each historical society, then, is a hopeful mystification or a determined lie. (EFE, page 124)
Marx would have agreed with Becker here but he concluded that religion was the opium of the people, a salve to soothe the savage treatment that most people received under capitalism (as one might find depicted by Charles Dickens.) He found that religious beliefs were instrumental in mollifying the masses and having them accept class inequality under capitalism. Weber also recognized the class basis of religion although his definition of class was not the same as Marx’s. Weber, in his Sociology of Religion, addresses the early rise of religious behaviour in human interaction with drastic natural events like floods, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, etcetera, the ‘soul’ in its various iterations and manifestations, and ritual. He argues that the forms of gods varies depending on natural and social conditions.
In conclusion, I just want to re-emphasize the notion that according to the sociologists I mention here as well as countless other sociologists and social scientists I don’t mention, ‘society’ is the source of our beliefs about the immortality of our person by way of our ‘souls.’ There is no ‘supernatural’ teacher that teaches us our values around immortality, and any ideas we have around these notions come from notions already just laying about out there waiting to be picked up and incorporated into our world view. In other words, our ideas around the immortality of the ‘soul’ do not result from perceived connection to an immortal God or gods, but from the immortality of society.
*There is no substitute for reading Becker because his argument forms a cohesive whole. Pulling a quote out of his book, although provocative, is probably not helpful although I do it. I can’t help myself. If it spurs people to go read Escape From Evil so be it. Many of my early posts on this blog constitute a review of EFE. That would be a place for you to start in trying to understand his work. Just type Becker in the search box in my blog and you’ll find the relevant posts all numbered and everything or you can start here: https://rogerjgalbert.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php?post_type=post&jetpack-copy=874. You can then work your way through the archives on my blog site.
Durkheim (Elementary Forms of Religious Life) and Weber (The Sociology of Religion) both have sections of their books on the soul. Do a bit of research if you’re curious. Dr. Google is full of stuff on these guys and I’ve got all the books for local people to borrow if you’re interested. Elias is great. His book The Civilizing Process is well worth the read.