Paper written Fall 2008 for the Women's Spirituality Master's Program class Women, Religion, & Social Change; with professors D. Grenn & M. Rigoglioso. Bibliography (with links included) at paper's end.


My final paper for the "Women, Religion, and Social Change" class is based on the question: "What are the social, ecological, spiritual, political, economic implications of your religious beliefs?" In order to effectively answer that question, I feel I must first carefully examine and comprehend my own religious beliefs, then trace back their repercussions through my life. While doing so, however, I've come to a few interesting conclusions.

In the process of researching my religious beliefs, I found a rough but effective metaphor could be made to the de Saussureian premise of langue vs. parole. Langue is a rather abstract, structuralist view of language; the language needs not be spoken to study it, but rather can be examined through study of the rules and structures upon which the language is based. Parole, on the other hand, is the study of speech in context; one studies the individual actions, including how the language is spoken, accents used, emotion shown, etc.

Since I come from a research oriented university background, my initial approach was rather langue-based. I felt quite the intellectual, carefully mentally separating my analytical anthropologist Self from these interesting beliefs which were the passive subject I was so abstractly and scientifically studying. They would, of course, be a thought-provoking structure I'd carefully dissect and rationally assess, laying out the logically derived results in an excellent and well-researched paper.

Unsurprisingly, that belief didn't last long. ;)

I've since come to the conclusion that studying my religious beliefs is of necessity going to be more like de Saussure's parole. I need to examine more how the beliefs are lived, what emotions they provoke — indeed, the entire concept of "religious beliefs" seems to me a sort of synchronic mental chimera. It implies (at least to me, when I first read the phrase) a permanent and essentialist structure around which one builds one's life.

In the process of composing this paper, however, I've realized my spiritual beliefs cannot really be examined synchronically; they are considered at best a fluid, alchemical ideological construct, changing and growing simultaneously with me as I expand my own social and intellectual borders. As I've just realized while writing the above paragraphs, in fact, there has been change in both myself and my beliefs just through the last few months of class!

I therefore write this paper with the strong caveat: at this moment in time, in this place, I am stating what I think I currently believe. However, just as change (and, hopefully, growth) is an inherent part of the universe, this planet, my home culture, and the religions I see about me, so too is it an integral part of myself — and thus by extension, my spiritual beliefs as well. I shall not be surprised, therefore, to discover change in my beliefs by the end of this Master's program — perhaps even by the end of this paper.

What is Religion?

Emile Durkheim's definition of religion has stood me in excellent stead through my spiritual explorations. In his book The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, he states that religion in its most basic form consists of three necessary elements: a set of religious beliefs, which explain what is sacred or profane; a set of religious rites, which explain how to handle both types of phenomena in daily life; and a church, which is made up of a morally united community.

Religion stabilizes a culture, aiding the society's members to come together as a unified community. Through implementation of the society's religiously validated rules for proper conduct and moral discipline, this created belief system helps a society define itself — that which is sacred must be set aside and revered, while the profane becomes that which is merely everyday or mundane.

Occasionally, in some cultures, these are merged: the quotidian is also sacred. The religion's rituals help create intense emotions and bonding between its participants, binding individuals into a collective by means of shared, validating experience. In its simplest form, religion is a manifestation of society attempting to validate itself by offering unifying emotional catharsis. Thus, unsurprisingly, the evolution of a religion is dependent on, and intrinsically linked to, the basic cultural structures of the society of which it is an integral part (Durkheim 99-101).

Acts of worship serve the manifest purpose of strengthening the ties between the faithful and their deity, and since the deity is a figurative representation of the best of that society, worship at the same time strengthens the ties between the individual and the society. Through these highly charged, shared rituals the audience reaches its expected and desired emotional catharsis, symbolically placing their belief or energy into totemic symbols of what they define as sacred. These holy totems can be physical (such as a crucifix or the sacraments) or emotional (such as the belief that only men should be priests).

Most holy texts generalize recurrent cultural motifs, and most modern holy texts also define as sacred the hypostatized cultural norm 'Man.' This religious totemization of Man allows the community (ruled and defined primarily by men) to create and worship itself, and justifies a collective effervescence that somehow always seems to place women into the category of every-day, common, profane. Man becomes the sacred object which commands respect and obligation; thus the society's totemic objects and symbols (including both Man and the religion itself) end up containing the society's sacred energy, invested via the society's religious rituals.

It is through this ritually unchanging paradigm that the audience reaches its expected emotional catharsis. The religious service is a societal allegory; as one of society's totemic objects it allows the audience (and through it, society) to justify and worship itself — it is structured according to its deity's desires; it is sacred (Durkheim 103-6).

By this point the structure of the religious tradition itself has become iconic; it denotes identity representation for the society's members. It cannot occur in any other fashion, for to do so would be to derail the collective effervescence, dissipating the mutual social energy and sentiment it inspires, and call into question the hegemonic assurances of the sacrality of Man which the religious service's totemic nature implies.

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