My Weird Views on “Religion,” Part 4: Institution

(Religion in Bruce Lincoln:

  • Discourse
  • Practice
  • Community
  • Institution)

4. Institution

Bruce Lincoln
Bruce Lincoln

According to Bruce Lincoln, religion as institution indicates regulation of communities, practices, and discourses. It reproduces these three elements over time, and manipulates them as needs arise but presents them as eternal and transcendent.

In sociological terms, religious institutions are churches. Emile Durkheim collapses (or rather, Lincoln expands on Durkheim) what Lincoln calls “community” and “institution” into “Church,” a group that has unified beliefs and practices. While the Catholic Church has official documents, regulation, and governmental structure that is ostensibly the same everywhere, it doesn’t take a social scientist to understand that Polish Catholics differ from Bolivian Catholics who differ from Ugandan Catholics. So we don’t get mixed up, the “Catholic Church” would be the institution, and Polish Catholicism (and breaking down into smaller divisions) would be a community. It’s like the difference between federal and state government in the United States: they both set norms, but one is more specific (community=state) and one extends further (institution=federal). But church understood as a sociological term is not the sole domain of Christianity. There would be the Muslim church, the Buddhist church, etc.

Emile Durkheim
Emile Durkheim

Institutions differ from communities in that they are larger and broader in scope. They are larger in that they contain communities. They are broader in scope because they regulate communities. The relationship between communities and institutions (and persons?) might seem more stable than it is. As Lincoln discusses in Discourse and the Construction of Society, the ties that bind communities and institutions together are not natural; they can be made, reformed, renegotiated, or dissolved.

Pierre Bourdieu offers some insight into institutions in his concepts of doxa, heresy, orthodoxy, and habitus. Doxa, according to Bourdieu, represents what is held by a society but at an unconscious level. These are norms that are actually arbitrary, but seem natural or <abbr title=”this word is funny; I think one of my favorite quotes is ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident…’ since it wasn’t self-evident until they articulated it; it definitely hadn’t been self-evident for centuries”>self-evident.

Pierre Bourdieu (Getty/BBC)
Pierre Bourdieu (Getty/BBC)

When someone articulates doxa, and then challenges it, Bourdieu calls this heresy. The process attempting (and at times succeeding) to reinstate the doxa he calls orthodoxy. Orthodoxy and heresy have a reciprocal relationship. There is not one without the other. Once doxa has been questioned, thereafter there is only orthodoxy and heresy; societies can never go back to “the way things were before.” (Some of this seems a rehash of how Emile Durkheim explained religion but in reverse. For him, societies would arbitrarily separate certain beliefs and practices from everyday life, understand those separated elements as ‘sacred,’ leaving the leftover things in life as ‘profane’)

Before this (at least in his Outline of a Theory of Practice), Bourdieu speaks of habitus. From this, I take Bourdieu to mean that every social marker contains certain normalizing structures that enable them to exhibit heavy influence on personal and social lenses of reality. These structures are both regulative and generative, meaning they inspire new behavior in the future: compliance or dissent. The structures also operate largely in the background of society though not always. Similar to Foucault, no one person pulls all the strings, but in a web, multiple actors are defining, forcing, negotiating, or negating social markers. Habitus is a web of actors contributing constantly to the structure, both changing it and being changed by it. So while rulers are influential actors in a web of actors, they are not the only thing exerting power.

Why do I employ Bourdieu’s concept of habitus—something largely unconscious and not the under the sole control of any one group or person—when I also present religious institutions as quite conscious of what they are doing? I’m not sure yet. I’m still mulling that one over. It may be that habitus includes institutions under its umbrella much the same as institutions include communities under its umbrella.

Chief Justice John Roberts
Chief Justice John Roberts

Recently, Chief Justice John Roberts seemed to wonder (“Just who do we think we are?”) that the Court could change what had ostensibly been an unchanged institution throughout time and across cultures. Take a class on history or anthropology and you might wonder at his wonderment. Yes, institutions are relatively stable; that’s what makes them institutions and not movements. But they do not remain the same over time or across cultures. The variety of actors entering and exiting the institution leave their mark.

Became God (and took whiteness upon himself soon afterwards) in 325 CE
Became God (and took whiteness upon himself soon afterwards) in 325 CE

Jesus wasn’t officially (=institutionally) God until actors defined him as such at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Let’s return to doxa, heresy, and orthodoxy. Probably the majority of Christian communities up until that council believed that Jesus was God until Arius of Alexandria proposed that “There was a time when the Son was not.” Since it ruffled enough feathers (and it helped that an emperor had taken special interest in Christianity), church leaders met, and simultaneously defined Arius a heretic and the doctrine of the trinity as orthodoxy. This is a ridiculous simplification of those events, but many church institutions that derive from those events don’t stop and consider Jesus’ divinity or lack thereof. For the vast majority of Christian communities, Jesus is God and it’s not up for debate. That is the power of institutions.

Institutions also have material concerns in addition to their prescriptive work on belief and behavior. Issues of education, employment, and state and community relations come to mind. Institutions of religion can differ markedly from individuals in a religion. Institutions provide accreditation to their imams/priests/ministers/etc., come up with architectural and sartorial expression, parlay with governments, and define what the believers are to believe to belong to their group. If you want to see a difference between institutions and individual believers, compare some Christian institutions’ worries that their tax-exempt status might be lost due to the SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage with a single dad baking a pie for his sick neighbor out of love duty to him. Institutions and individuals differ in that they belong to the same group, but have different concerns.


Russell McCutcheon
Russell McCutcheon

I feel like this last post in my series on religion is kind of weak. I’m am still in the process of working out my thoughts on religion. Maybe I shouldn’t feel bad. There are authors who write in prefaces to their books that that book is the product of ten years of reflection; I have only been thinking about theories of religion for around a year. I also admit that my theory of religion is heavily tied to Christianity. Russell McCutcheon brings up that point in his intro to religion book, Studying Religion: An Introduction, in his chapter on resemblances between

Talal Asad
Talal Asad

religions. If a religion besides Christianity doesn’t fit my template for religion, is it then a religion? He cites Talal Asad in saying that a definition of religion that privileges certain aspects while ignoring (overlooks even?) others stigmatizes what it ignores (61-63). But I think it’s a good starting place for me. The little I’ve delved into Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism seems to bear the mark of Lincoln’s categories.

My Weird Thoughts on “Religion”

Here I would like to share my views on “religion.” It got pretty long, so I am breaking it into parts. This first part will cover classic definitions of religion, the instability in terms, and the concept of “discourse.”

1. Classic Definitions of Religion and Instability in Terms

Religion has classically been defined as:

  • The feeling of absolute dependence (Friedrich Schleiermacher)
  • Belief in spiritual things (E. B. Tylor)
  • A systematic belief and practice system that unites a community (Emile Durkheim)
  • A way of placating higher beings which control the universe (James G. Frazer)
  • A feeling of awe in the presence of the holy (Rudolf Otto)
  • An illusion or neurosis (Sigmund Freud)
  • An agent (“opiate”) that deadens peoples’ minds to accept their station rather than improve it (Karl Marx)
  • A state of being grasped by an Ultimate Concern (Paul Tillich)
Bruce Lincoln Source: University of Chicago
Bruce Lincoln
Source: University of Chicago

Let’s test some of those definitions. I consider myself religious, but don’t feel particularly dependent on God during data entry (contra Schleiermacher); I’m not really aware of material things, much less spiritual things, before my coffee has kicked in (contra Tylor); my mind doesn’t feel particularly numb when I’m thinking about religion (Marx could be brilliant at times and at other times preposterous); Buddhists who rely on self-power (some rely on beings to help them, such as Amitabha) aren’t placating higher powers.

Furthermore, I strongly insist that religion is colored by your time, place, and other identity markers. If you learn about the Five Pillars of Islam, or the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism, or the Shema Yisrael of Judaism, do you think you have really encountered those religions in all their varied splendor? Is Christianity reducible merely to the Sinner’s Prayer? Do the previous general beliefs account for the subdivisions within each tradition which sometimes go to war with each other (literally), even when outsiders see each party as part of the same tradition?

You probably haven’t encountered a tradition until you’ve experienced a living, breathing member of that tradition, and then, one person does not represent an entire tradition. In the end, I don’t find religion to be a stable category. Here are some social factors that interplay with religion, so that even within the same tradition religion is never the same: gender, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, politics, economics, culture, family, age, region, education, ability, dietary habits, athleticism, or customs. Just as with religion, I don’t see how these nodes of identity can be defined apart from these other factors.

2. Working, Constructed Definition of Religion

Russell T. McCutcheon Source: Twitter
Russell McCutcheon
Source: Twitter

But saying that religion is hard to define doesn’t really help much. So what do I mean by religion? I approach studying religion from a constructivist and social perspective. That’s not the only way to analyze religion (I analyze religion theologically, too, but that’s within another context), but that’s how I approach it academically. I will employ some help from history of religions scholar Bruce Lincoln. He has written extensively, particularly on how communities in general (not just religious ones) form and maintain their cohesion. What follows is his minimal definition on religion, riffing off of Durkheim (who I also like). While I won’t say religion is merely these four things, it is at least these four things (taken from Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11):

A. “Discourse”

By religious discourse, Lincoln means truth claims that do not appeal to experience, experimentation, or human thought but that appeal to sources outside the human political (and other) interests. Many times this goes by the name of “revelation,” “scriptures,” “holy writings,” “sacred sayings,” “prophecy,” “oracles,” etc. Elsewhere, Lincoln remarks that discourse consists at least of myth, ritual, and classification used to construct, maintain, replicate, deconstruct, and/or reconstruct society. I will discuss myth here, ritual in the section on “practice,” and classification in the next post under “community.”

In his helpful primer, Studying Religion: An Introduction, Russell McCutcheon also offers a helpful definition, building off of Michel Foucault: discourse involves “the series of material as well as intellectual conditions, practices, institutions, architecture and conventions that make specific types of thought and action possible.” In other words, discourse is all about the background noise that influences your thought and action.


While Lincoln sees discourse employing myth, ritual, and classification to achieve its ends more overtly, it can covertly (or just less overtly) achieve its ends by means of “spectacle, gesture, costume, edifice, icon, [or] musical performance.”

So what are some examples of these subtle methods of discourse? If you think of a church setting, a costume can consist anywhere from a dress suit to clerical robes. Gestures can include raising one’s hands in Christian worship or bowing down on a prayer rug facing Mecca (which would also involve the icon of the prayer rug).

A word on “myth”

Roland Barthes Source:
Roland Barthes

Myth is typically used in a disparaging way toward beliefs you consider legend, fable, or something that just isn’t historical. Lincoln first explains myth by referencing Roland Barthes’ concept of myth: it involves ideas divorced from their original contexts/settings/histories and projected into a timeless story, or given “mystificatory” (that which obscures its origins) content. However, Lincoln develops a unique model of myth, by comparing it to the concepts of fable, legend, and history before plotting them on the axes of truth claim, credibility, and authority:

Fable Makes no truth claims, holds no credibility, and commands no authority
Legend Makes truth claims, holds no credibility, and commands no authority
History Makes truth claims, has credibility, and commands no authority
Myth Makes truth claims, has credibility, and commands authority

Adapted from Lincoln, Discourse, 23.

When Lincoln speaks of credibility and authority, he doesn’t measure it on the story/narrative itself, but on how it is received by a community. This means that the history of one group can be the myth or legend of another group (compare how typical American and British histories treat the American Revolution). In his book, Authority: Construction and Corrosion, Lincoln defines authority in the following way:

When these crucial givens [“right” speaker, speech, and setting] of the discursive situation combine in such a way as to produce attitudes of trust, respect, docility, acceptance, even reverence, in the audience, or – viewing things from the opposite perspective – when the preexistent values, orientations, and expectations of an audience predispose it to respond to a given speech, speaker, and setting with these reverent and submissive attitudes, “authority” is the result

Lincoln’s work can apply to religion as traditionally conceived or to social phenomena in general.

That’s it for now on my thoughts on religion. As you can see, I owe a lot of gratitude to Lincoln. It is also painfully theoretical. I apologize, but felt I needed to establish this before I start getting concrete. If you have questions of where I fall on something concrete, email me at ilostmyprayerhanky at gmail.

I will post tomorrow or Monday on the second part. I may include how I think my initial thoughts on gender and sexuality relate to religion in that second part, or I might make a third part.