Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sociology of Religion - Understanding the Dominant Religious Situation in Fiji (2012)

 In terms of population, Christianity is the dominant religion in Fiji, with 65 percent of the population classified as Christians in the last census. Approximately 95 percent of the indigenous population (the majority ethnic group), are Christians. To understand Christianity as the dominant religious situation of Fiji, a perspective from the classical theories of Marx, Durkheim and Webber is helpful.[1]
Religious Theory of Karl Marx
 Marx’s theory of religion was approached from the point of materialism, in which matter is the source of existence and determines everything. Marx’s materialism was critical of Hegel’s idealism in that he argued that the infrastructure (matter) determined the superstructure (ideas). He carried this view forward to the class structure which he described as a class conflict of the oppression and exploitation by the ruling bourgeoisie, who had the means of production; of the proletariat, who could only contribute labour force. Marx’s theory of religion was shaped by this inequality of economics.
Marx viewed the function of religion negatively as used by the oppressive bourgeoisie to provide the proletariat with a form of psychological compensation for their social, economic and political deprivation by providing comfort, encouragement and hope. Religion, according to Marx was an “opiate of the people” which was used to manipulate them and maintain the status quo. Marx’s alternative to this “oppressive social ideology” was the abolition of religion as part of a social revolution.
Religious Theory of Emile Durkheim
 Durkheim, unlike Marx, had a more positive view of religion. He approached religion from a macro sociological perspective, looking at society as a whole. In particular Durkheim focused on the role of religion in providing solidarity, integration and a sense of community within society. For Durkheim, the attributes of religion – the sacred, ritual and belief played an important role in the collective consciousness of a community. He examined the role of religion as a mechanism of social integration and control.
Durkheim understood this integrative function in terms of the universal and general function of religion. From this perspective he saw religion as eternal and had an expectation that a new God would be accepted in the future, in order for religion to maintain its functionality. While Durkheim was initially criticized for basing his theories on a primitive tribal society and thus not applicable to a modern society, the work of Robert Bellah, particularly in his development of the concept of “civil” or “civic religion” was an important reevaluation of Durkheim’s social theory.

Religious Theory of Max Webber
Like Durkheim, Webber also differed from Marx. Webber did agree with Marx that materialism can impact ideology and religion. However, Webber looked to held that there was reciprocity between matter and ideology. Thus, according to Webber, religion provided meaning to existential questions and was an independent variable of social change – not determining social action but significant in shaping perceptions and interpretations of material interests.  He sought to make connection between religion and social life and economic behavior, especially among different religious groups.
For Weber, religion is best understood as it responds to the human need for theodicy and soteriology. Human beings are troubled, he says, with the question of theodicy – the question of how the extraordinary power of a divine god may be reconciled with the imperfection of the world that he has created and rules over. People need to know, for example, why there is undeserved good fortune and suffering in the world. Religion offers people soteriological answers, or answers that provide opportunities for salvation – relief from suffering, and reassuring meaning. The pursuit of salvation, like the pursuit of wealth, becomes a part of human motivation.
Webber’s Protestant Ethic thesis argued that the spirit of modern capitalism – economic rationalism, worldly asceticism and vocation/calling – were protestant ethics emerging primarily from Calvinism, but also Pietism, Lutheranism and Methodism. For Webber, this ethic based on ascetic Protestantism that was compatible with modern rational capitalist business and practices, meant that capitalism could be seen as carrying out God’s purpose in life. For Webber this meant that religious affiliations could also be associated with success in business and with ownership of capital resources. For economic development in Europe, this was a positive thing. Webber also made comparisons with China and India in which religion had negative functions for social change or economic development.

Application to the Fijian Context
            The above theories of religion all share a perspective that originates within a dominant religious situation. Thus one is able to draw both positives and negative understanding from a dominant religion, in the case of Fiji, Christianity. Protestant Christianity, in particular Methodism (54% of Christians are Methodist) is the dominant religion and is understood to be one of the “legs” of the “three-legged stool” of traditional Fijian society. The three-legged stool refers to the balance of the church, government and indigenous leadership, land and culture. The church is the first leg of the stool; the state is the second leg; while the third leg refers to the traditional chiefly leadership, land and indigenous culture. The three-legged stool has been entwined over the years as dividing lines have been blurred. Some believe that this structure is prevalent in the Fijian Methodist Church today as we see the hierarchical way it sets up its structure within its leadership right down to the congregation. While this image is an example of the dominance of Christianity, in particular Methodism in Fijian traditional society, it has carried over into modern Fijian society.
            From Marx’s point of view, Christianity has been used as a way of entrenching the status quo among traditional Fijian society. Chiefs are understood to rule over their indigenous subjects from a theology that supports divine right to rule. Their focus on “noqu kalou, noqu vanua” which means “my God, my land,’ is both conservative and ethnocentric, and has legitimized  a structure in which Fijian commoners, in spite of economic and political developments, must still defer to the decision of their chiefs. Thus although the indigenous Fijians have most of the available land in Fiji (83 percent of land is communally owned by indigenous Fijians) decision-making lies in the hands of the chiefs, supported, for the most, by the church. The church focuses on the afterlife to compensate for the deprivation of the indigenous population.
            While Durkheim’s contribution to the concept of civil religion is important, his focus on social integration faces difficulties when the context is pluralistic society where the Christianity is used as a social control. There is an “us and them” mentality as the majority of indigenous Fijians are Christians and the majority of Indo-Fijians are Hindu. Religion here is integrative at a community level but divisive on the wider social level. An understanding of the function of religion as social control in this context may call into question the underlying motives of evangelism, especially when a dominant culture is attached to a dominant religion. However Durkheim’s expectation of a new God in the future may lead to something else, such as national spirit – especially through sports. The sport of rugby is often described as a religion in Fiji because of its popularity among every group of society. Perhaps this has a larger role to play in social integration than religion.
Webber’s social theory of religion also sheds light on how Christianity in Fiji can be understood as an independent variable. Christianity, particularly of the conservative /fundamentalist coupled with ethnocentric nationalism, has led to a militant resistance to challenges to social control. Christians, with both the implicit and explicit support of the Methodist Church have been the instigators and perpetrators of three military and one civilian coup d’√©tats over the last 25 years, Fiji being a “Christian state” between the years 1990-97, discriminatory practices, emotional and physical abuse of non-Christians and non-indigenous Fijians. When a change in Methodist leadership tried to shift the church’s function from a negative to a positive role in society, Fiji became perhaps the only Methodist conference in the world to have a violent removal of leadership. In these instances, rather than a “protestant ethic”, a conservative theology motivated the dominant religion to exert social control in order to maintain its power. More of the Fiji Christian context will be discussed in line with the next question on the psychological and social functions of religion.
One major criticism of the classical theories of religion of Marx, Durkheim and Webber was they all only focused on a society with one major ethnic group and one dominant religion. This, while providing important theories on the nature and function of religion in society in general does not take into account modern/post modern societies – not in terms of the need and demise/abolition of religion – but more so in terms of the rise of globalization and the movement of people, in that societies are becoming pluralistic. Durkheim’s theory as revitalized by Bellah, may however, show how these theories can be adapted or reevaluated to speak to new contexts.

[1] References used in this paper are notes, handouts and presentation material from “Sociology of Religion” class. 

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