For social scientists, this usually means treating religion as a social or cultural phenomenon, a form of human organization whose dynamics can be analyzed.
I don't think there's anything wrong with this--as long as the academic doesn't jump to the conclusion that religion is reducible to what falls within the academic's sphere of study. "Religion is just a distinctive kind of brain activity," or "Religion is just a social structure of a certain kind, organized to achieve a particular purpose in the human world."
Because social scientists have a higher level of academic interest in religion than one finds in the natural sciences, the latter mistake strikes me as more common. For Emile Durkheim, religion just is a particular way of organizing human beings for social purposes. If it has effects that aren't strictly related to these social purposes, they're epiphenomena.
It's been said that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Were it up to me I'd change the saying to this: To a person with a gun, everyone looks like an intractable threat. Of course, in neither case is the saying strictly true. People with hammers don't always start smashing away at their own kneecaps, mistaking them for nails. And gun owners haven't universally shot their sleeping children and then claimed self defense.
But the exaggeration highlights a point: We like to use the tools we have. And so we look for ways to make things fit those tools. Enough people start doing this and effects can ripple. In a world with lots of guns, even those without guns are more inclined to see the world as a place full of bad guys who won't respond to anything but a gun.
Let's call this the "hammer effect," in honor of the usual adage. When it comes to religion, I see the hammer effect most clearly in a pervasive tendency--especially among those who aren't themselves religious--to view religion as essentially a social phenomenon, to the exclusion of other things.
Let me be clear. I think the social dimension of religion is real, and it's important. But to reduce religion to its social dimension makes it difficult, to say the least, to know what to do about someone like Simone Weil, the early 20th Century French philosopher, political activist, social critic, and mystical theologian.
It would be hard to speak of Weil without seeing her as deeply religious. Leslie Fiedler has called her "a special exemplar of sanctity for our time--the Outsider as Saint in an age of alienation, our kind of saint." This description captures, in a single breath, the fascinating paradox that Weil embodies. She was raised by secular Jews, became a religious mystic fascinated with the crucified Christ, whom she claimed to have encountered in transcendent religious experience. She rigorously--I would say religiously--recited the Lord's Prayer with "absolute attention"--starting again from the beginning if her thoughts strayed even once.
And she consistently rebuffed the efforts of her Catholic friend and confessor, Father Perrin, to convince her to be baptized. She held herself forever the outsider, self-consciously so. When pressed by Father Perrin, she explained her reasons in many ways. Here is a notable excerpt from her correspondence with him:
What frightens me is the Church as a social structure. Not only on account of its blemishes, but from the very fact that it is something social. It is not that I am of a very individualistic temperament. I am afraid for the opposite reason. I am aware of very strong gregarious tendencies in myself. My natural disposition is to be very easily influenced, too much influenced, and above all by anything collective. I know that if at this moment I had before me a group of twenty young Germans singing Nazi songs in chorus, a part of my soul would instantly become Nazi...
There were some saints who approved of the Crusades or the Inquisition. I cannot help thinking that they were in the wrong. I cannot go against the light of conscience. If I think that on this point I see more clearly than they did, I who am so far below them, I must admit that in this matter they were blinded by something very powerful. This something was the Church seen as a social structure. If this social structure did them harm, what harm would it not do me, who am particularly susceptible to social influences and who am almost infinitely more feeble than they were?Weil, here, seems to be trying to stake out a way of being in the world that deliberately resists any participation in religion as a social phenomenon. But her way of being in the world is so powerfully religious in so many ways that it seems absurd, at least to me, to say that in separating herself from religion as a social structure she was separating herself from religion.
That's not it at all. For her, religion and the Church were much more than a social structure. And what she sought to stand apart from was only this social aspect of something with roots far deeper and wider than can be encompassed by the social. Her success in doing so is a measure of the extent to which the religious transcends the social.
In sharing her example here, I do not mean to advocate her trenchant resistance to participation in the social aspect of religion. My point is to offer Simone Weil as an example of someone who found faith outside the boundaries of religious communities, who staked out her religion in the space between faith communities--or, perhaps, in the space where all such divisions break down.
My own instinct would be to advocate, not her self-conscious resistance to belonging, but a way of belonging that is informed and transformed by a self-conscious allegiance to what is universal, what unites, what spills over or dissolves social boundaries, what cannot be subject to social control and cannot be locked within a social structure. Any social organization that isn't defined by such a higher allegiance--that isn't transformed by it--isn't ultimately religious at all.
As I see it, what Weil was resisting was that within real human religious life that has the power to eclipse what is most essential to religious life. And she resisted it not because she hated community and social organization but because she loved that essence more.
Is it possible that when religion is defined as nothing but a social structure, and when it is described and characterized with that assumption in place, that what is being described is precisely what is left when Weil's fears are realized, when religion has been stripped away and all that remains are its social trappings?