all times even descriptions of degrees of probability rely heavily on a vuteris paribus' clause. There is always the possibility other variables can intervene and change the situation. Quite apart from the complexity of the subject matter, it can also Ik- argued that the nature of the subject matter (man) is such that he can change the situation through knowledge of the situation becoming a new variable. This last point can lx- elaborated into arguments concerning man's 'reflexive* capacities which lead us into the free will/determinism debate.

An even less reliable {methodologically speaking) but possibly more challenging set oi" correlations are indicated by social scientists at a macro-level. An example of this can be found in the work of Mary Douglas1 where she suggests that such phenomena as the religious beliefs of a society reflect (and perhaps are reflected by) the kind of social organization which the society has. For example, the greater the degree ol* control the society has over its members the more ritualistic will be its religious practices; dietary rules may be related to kinship rules through classificatory rules. Such correlations as those elalxmited by Professor Douglas can undoubtedly be seen as presenting a challenge of relativism (see below) to religious faith, but just as ethical relativism is only one possible answer to the problem of moral diversity, it can certainly lx- argued that the fact (and it should be remembered it is not a very 'hard' fact) that religious faiths can be correlated with social variables does not in itself prove religion is ontologically nothing but a social epiphenomenon. It can still be argued that God 'gets in' as an independent variable in various ways according to the faith. He may, for example, lx- a First Cause; he may be a subjectively received 'force' or experience, the source of an Invisible Religion; he may be an immanent social relationship himself, 01 the qualitative aspect of the whole. Furthermore, the descriptive 'how' does not necessarily imply an ultimately explanatory Svhy\

{b) Functionalist Explanations

This covers a group of explanations which are associated with Emile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of the Religious Ufe2 in which {to put it with unfair crudeness) he explains religious phenomena as mirror images whereby societies worship themselves, and by which they

1 Douglas. M. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (London, 1970).

2 Dorkhcim, E. The Elmoxltuy Forms 0/ the Religious Life (London, 1915).

acquire an additional quality which gives them power over the individual. Religious rites impose the self-discipline necessary for social life; ceremonies, by bringing believers together, affirm group membership and reinforce group solidarity; religious observance maintains and revitalizes the social heritage of the group and helps in the transmission of values from one generation to another. As a social institution religion gives meaning to man's existential predicaments by tying the individual to that supra-individual sphere of transcendent values which is ultimately rooted in his own society.

The concept of function is used in a variety of ways in the literature. and this has led to considerable confusion. It is perhaps helpful to separate out three of the meanings: consequence, contribution and {most ideologically) purpose.

To say y is a consequence of x (for example, soc ial cohesion is a consequence of religion) may give some sort of a limited explanation for the persistence of religion but not for its origin. It can be seen as a 'negative-causal' explanation in the sense that natural selection is a negative-causal explanation - that is, if x did not Vork' or 'fit' in some way then x would not survive. This is an argument that can Ix- circular but need not lx- vacuous if the temporal dimension is observed.

To say the purpose of religion is to produce cohesion does indeed provide a kind of explanation of religion but it is surprisingly often forgotten that (1) purpose implies a mind {human or superhuman} that has the purpose (and, of course, knowledge of the connection between x and y) and (2) it is the purpose-to-bring-about-cohesion which is the cause of the religion, not the cohesion itself, which is a consequence.

{c) Vmtehen

Another kind of explanation in social science {which is associated with the work of Max Weber)4 is to make people's behaviour seem more rational and understandable, in the empathic sense, than it might otherwise have been. From such knowledge as that of the assumptions with which people view the world and the situations in which they see themselves as being, the socrial scientist tries to make sense of their

5 Coscr, L. Matins oj Sociological Thought: Ideas w Historical and Social Context {New York, 11)71) p. 139.

1 Weber, M. lhe Me/ftoMjgv of the Social Sciences, <*<1. E. Shils and 11. Finch (New York, 19*9).

actions. For example, at the time of writing this chapter I am engaged in research on the Reverend Moon's Unification Church. If one reads about the 'Moonies' in the press it would appear inconceivable that any intelligent person who was not suffering from a psychotic illness would possibly want to join, far less stay inside, the movement. No rational reason can be offered, and so it is assumed Moonies must be brainwashed.5 By going through the 'brainwashing process' myself, by staying in their communities and talking to members for hours on end I hope to 'explain' their actions in terms of rational behaviour. For the study, the religious faith is datum - it is something which is given and social science has no competence to judge its truth or falsity, only its correlates and its effects. However, even with avowed methodological agnosticism, the fact that one hopes empathically to understand why there will be a differential receptivity to acceptance {for example, why are the young more receptive than the middle-aged) lias been seen as some kind of challenge. Still, it might be argued that the challenge is to the efficacy of God's means of revelation the fault being either his or ours if his message does not get through with sufficient universality. It could also, of course, lx- argued that only certain types of peoples are meant to be among the elect.

For some kinds of theology (including that of some ol" the leaders of the Unification Church} the social explanation is not just insufficient but is actually wrong. They offer an alternative rather than additional reason or redescription of something. For example, if I ask why the Church has had such a success the answer will be 'because (Jod is helping us', and this explanation is seen competing with that offered by the social scientist. Similarly, explanations in terms of'He was filled with the Holy Ghost* or 'He felt a vocation' can have different claims made on them for completeness by adherents of various religious faiths and thus can give rise to social science being seen as presenting a challenge.

However, within the social sciences none of the three types of explanation that have been mentioned needs to be incompatible with the other two. It can indeed be argued that it is only by combining them together that we can begin to build up a full picture, each type being complementary, contributing something the others do not

' Barker, E. 'living the Divine Principle: Inside the Reverend Sun Myung Moons Unification Church in Britain' Archives dt Sciences sociaks d<$ rdtgums Vol. 45, No. 1, l!)78.

to our understanding of a social phenomenon. But even with all the correlations, Verstehtn and knowledge of functions we can muster we can never hope to have a complete picture. Our psychological and social satisfaction with an explanation must always depend on the particular questions that are being asked and the assumptions that have to be made in order to ask those questions. In any scientific explanation certain ontologically relevant variables are held constant. For that explanation they are considered non-problematic, but this does not mean they cannot be problematic for another inquiry into exactly the same phenomenon {always assuming one can define the phenomenon independently of the question being asked of it). The method must be reductionist, but methodological reductionism does not imply ontological reductionism. This is something social science has been long proclaiming in its attempts to establish itself as a discipline sui generis. While bearing in mind that it would be dishonest for social science to claim any absolute power of explanation, it might be helpful to stress the kind of phenomena social science can legitimately claim to study and w hic h are frequently ignored by both lower-level (suc h as psychological) and higher-level (theological) inquiries into religious faith.

Reductionim and Emergence

Reductionism takes many forms, but for the present purpose it is only necessary to say that w hile some social phenomena can be partially explained in terms of psychological, biological, chemical or even physical phenomena, such explanations will never be suflicient, as there emerge at the social level both constraints and possibilities which are not present at the level of individual action. The emergent properties can lx- roughly divided into (1) those of structure relationships between two people have different properties (potentialities or constraints) from those between three people; communication through a bureaucratic structure has different possibilities and constraints from communication through a despotic structure and (2} those of meaning - the language of a community provides a shared perspective which both constrains its members and offers them potentialities unobtainable to the individual.6 Similarly one can perhaps argue that

Barker, E. 'Apes and Angels: Reductionism, Selection and Emergence in the Study of Man Inquiry Vol. 19, 1976, pp. 367-99.

higher level explanations (such as those in which God is seen as an independent variable) cannot in themselves l>c complete if they do not include awareness of the social context and lower levels. Just as knowledge of the structure of DNA helps a particular explanation of how inheritance works, so knowledge of the role of structures and socially mediated meanings helps an understanding of the process of religion. Whether or not one believes there is a higher level is a theological question. Some will deny its existence altogether, some will believe it exists but depends on a relationship with a lower level to some degree, others may see it as completely independent. The various permutations and combinations involved in the mind/body debate have their equivalents here. Social science, however, can go little beyond the pragmatic statement that belief in a higher level has an effect - it is a reality that exists and 'works' in that sense.

In talking about different levels one is of course oversimplifying, and it is sometimes assumed a simple additive process can produce a grand total explanation. This is to forget the feedback which occurs between the levels and the fact that the relationships Ixtween the levels can themselves have properties independent of the levels themselves. The complexity of the inter-relationships may be covered by some overall meta-theory which may itself be secular or religious and will be more or less informed - but not dictated - by science.

All this must be borne in mind as we turn to consider more fully what some think to be the most serious challenge to belief.


One of the basic tenets of the sociology of knowledge is that what is known is related to the social context in which it is known. In its extreme form relativism denies any ontological reality independent of the knowing subject {which can be extended to a more or less well defined group). Such absolute relativism is of caurse endangering its ow n validity like a snake eating its own tail, but even relative relativism has its problems of infinite regress. To try to separate out epistemological and ontological statements is frequently considered analytical mauvaisefoi, but not to do so is to take us back to a position where knowledge of the concept of relativism itself becomes imjxissible.

There can be no doubt that comparative studies have since at least the time of Durkheim and Mauss shown that the degree to which knowledge of an object depends on the socially conditioned subjective knower, rather than on the object itself, Ls far greater than most subjective knowers would accept. Mary Douglas for example has suggested that there is no natural way of viewing the human body, and much recent work by ethnomethodologists has ]>ointed to similar, socio-centric' world views.

Frequently a sharp division is drawn between the kinds of thought to be found in primitive societies where relatively few options are available and advanced societies where there is what Berger and Luckmann have described as a veritable supermarket of beliefs from which to choose/' Sometimes it is assumed that because religion is related to mythopoeic modes of thought in primitive societies, this means there is a sharp division between subjective and non-rational thought and modern rational, scientific thought/' For several years I have been looking at the role of science relation to modern religion, and the study suggests that while science as a theology or religious faith is possibly on the wane, modern religious faith has turned to science for justifications that arc considered unnecessary in more primitive societies. Science is the new myth which has taken on the role of a priesthood of expertise and scientists can be found "prov ing practically any theological position one cares to imagine.1"

Again, whether this is seen as presenting the negative challenge to a legitimation of a religious faith, or the positive challenge to an understanding of the ways in which, in different contexts, different 'resonances' spark off or mediate the faith, will depend on the theology. That social science can illuminate the ways in which knowledge is known, the process whereby practices 'work', need not lx-seen as constraining knowledge but as enlarging it.

But is it the cause of uniquely acute problems in the area of morality? This is a subject that cannot be left out of any survey of the challenges of social science to religious faith, however brief, although much of what is relevant to it I have touched on already.

14 Berber, P. and Luckmann, T. The Social ConsOuetiott of Reality: Eiwyihing that Passa Jo; Anouiedge in Society (London, 1967).

Needham, R. Belief, language and Experience (Oxford, 1972}. 10 Barker, E. 'Science and Theology: Diverse Resolutions of an Interdisciplinary Gap bv the New Priesthood of Science' lnterdu√Ęplmeay Science Reviews Vol. 4, No. 1, March li)7!>.

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