Religion as an instrument to reshape reality

In the past months we have assisted, by all means, a historical moment. Covid-19 cleared streets and filled up houses, it emptied schools and crowded the Web. The virus has twisted our habits and has limited our liberties by imposing its own timing and its own spaces and rewriting our relationships relative to them.

In doing so, it determined the fall of the structures of sense that made up our everyday lives.  

Closing offices and schools and forcing people to stay home does not just redefine the time and space of people’s lives but it eliminates them to a certain extent. Work schedules, movement, professional and academic goals help establish a structure and, in this way, gives meaning to life. To transfer these dimensions inside the domestic environment and entrust them to the discretion of each individual means delegitimizing them because an external force and reality disappears: one that is independent, that stabilizes them, makes them substantial and gives them a sense of consistency.

The quarantine has thus questioned society’s ability to offer the symbolic resources that confer a meaning to individuals’ everyday lives. 

The first fall, which was symbolic, reveals a second one, deeper, structural. Particularly, it exposes how values, identity and meanings become more precarious and volatile in an era of globalization, where everything is connected and interdependent. Thus it becomes more and more difficult to find efficient tools that allow us to coordinate, decodify and make sense of reality’s growing complexity. The plurality of mechanisms that society is built on today, their common points and conflicts, might now risk getting out of hand. 

The pandemic has thus brought an important question to the surface, the most important one this era will have to face: how can we rediscover Meaning in this global society?

Historically, the main source – par excellence – of this “sense” of life has been religion. In fact, for thousands of years it has been considered the criteria of the legitimacy of collective action.

In traditional society, religion put down the base of an eternal and unchangeable social order, with its roots directly in the absolute authority – God – who is indisputable by definition. The teachings of the past, of our ancestors, of passed-down tradition were sacred and were enough to satisfy society’s need for meaning.

In this regard, Durkheim (one of the founding fathers of sociology) argued that society was originates precisely when men lay the basis of sacred values and collective norms.

Now we must ask ourselves: what role does religion play in modern society and what level of effectiveness does in have in terms of giving meaning?

According to Parsons, a renowned sociologist in the contemporary functionalism movement, religion definitely continues to play an important role in society. It can be seen as the only possible and stable foundation of a social system.

Parson claims that in order for the infinity of potential varieties of human behavior to be reduced and fitted into a finite array, compatible with the existence of a unitary social system, it is necessary for individuals to interiorize symbolic regulations that can standardize behavior. This should be done through social institutions.

However, these regulations must find their justification in a dimension that goes beyond the social system itself. It is necessary for them to be transcendental, overdetermined. In the American sociologist school of thought, the only reality which is able to lay a foundation of such a system and ultimately legitimize the standardization of one’s actions is religion. Therefore, religion will never cease to exist inasmuch it is structurally essential to maintain the balance of the social system.   

In global society, however, this type of vision appears too monolithic and linear. In the face of this explosion of contingency it no longer makes sense to speak of social system and rather refer to it as a systemic integration.

Luhmann, German sociologist and philosopher, perfectly captures this change in perspective by elaborating the distinction between environment and system. He distinguishes between environment, which is external and can be defined as the infinite multiplicity and variability of things; whereas system is the attempt to elaborate answers of sense for said variability. In other words, system is the set of mechanisms through which we attempt to interpret and reorganize the environment, linking it to a certain level of coherence and uniqueness.

Modern society, secularized and differentiated, can no longer be defined a “social system”, more a system of sub-systems, each of which attempts to interpret a fraction of the external environment, reducing its complexity.

Today, there is no longer a “propulsion system”, that has the capacity to integrate all the sub-system. Each follows its own principles, uses its own language and produces its own meaning.

There was a time, in the world of tradition, that the propulsion system was religion, but in current times, under the influence of secularization, religion has become a sub-system like many others.

This doesn’t mean, however, that it is disappearing. On the contrary, it has become specialized by developing its own language and space, different from those of other sub-systems. Its peculiarity is that it makes it possible to continue a discussion in a unified way; based on the idea of God in which the ideas of contingencies and the infinite variability of reality coincide.

The relation with spirituality then remains as the only dimension in which man can look for the answers to questions that are deeply connected to the mystery of existence, as well as the wish the complete, unconditional and absolute love that resides in every individual.

In this optic, religion is the only instrument that attempts to unveil the ineffable and biggest meanings in life. To experience sacredness, to believe in a rapport with a transcendental entity allows man to satisfy his deep need for knowledge and understanding of the soul within him.

Therefore, religion preserves its own space and role in society, in terms of source of meaning. It is, however, undeniable that this space is considerably more restricted that the one religion used to take up in a world of tradition. What derives is an ulterior question: what took its place?  

In the context of the current epidemic we can certainly appreciate a strong protaganism of the State and above all of science, so much that Marco Politi announced on “Il Fatto”, on the 26th March: “On the stage of present times Religion disappears from sight and Science becomes the undisputed main character”.

However, if we try to gain a deeper analysis of the situation we can observe a clear co-existence of a plurality of sources that give meaning. They are different based on accessibility and resonance, none of which has the ability to overshadow the others and coordinate or unite them (as an example think of the speed at which the hope that the scientific community held the truth vanished).

There is no dimension, therefore, that is able to take religion’s place. The consequence is what is mentioned above: the increasing of some gaps of meanings and of contradictions, the increasing difficulty to preserve identity and shared values and the ripening of a climaxing sensation of individual and collective loss. These gaps produce the fertile land on which nationalist sentiments we witness today, grow. Regarding Italy, this explains the unlikely attempts of rebuilding a national identity by parading rosaries and reviving old myths of the motherland. However, this is a complex reflection that deserves a separate analysis and its own space.

Francesco Ballarin

Translated by Khadija Taufiq