Change in the Social Glue and the Weakening of Religion

Theoretical Perspective of Emile Durkheim

The transition of modern society from mechanical to organic solidarity results in a profusion of moral communities with semi-permeable membranes. The movement of individuals in and out of competing moral frameworks results in a culture of moral tolerance and civility. In the culture of such tolerance, normative organizations have an increasingly difficult time enforcing their distinctive normative standards. Not only is the individual increasingly unwilling to submit to only a single set of norms, but also the individual is unwilling to acknowledge any single authority structure within any normative organizations as wielding absolute moral authority. No single authoritative structure has the legitimacy of absolute moral enforcement.

Churches are examples of normative organizations who have members complying to a distinctive set of normative standards. It is hypothesized that churches have an increasingly more difficult time enforcing normative standards as the number of organizational commitments among members multiplies. The following section accounts for the social environment in which churches today find themselves.

Decline of mechanical solidarity and the weakening of religion

During Durkheim’s entire theoretical career, he was fascinated with morality. He (1993:15) confessed that "of all the aspects of sociology, morality is the one to which I am attracted by my own preference and which holds my attention before all else." We find themes of morality underlying all of his major works. Bouglé (1953:xxxv-xxxvi) remarks that "from the Division of Social Labour to the Elementary Forms of Religious Life, and including his Suicide, his chief preoccupation remained that of explaining the essence of morality, the role that it plays in societies, and the way it grows and envelops there in expressing the ideals (aspirations) of those societies." His first major work consisting of his doctoral dissertation attempted to document the change in morality arising from the ideas of the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution in modern society. The shift in morality is not one of more morals versus less morals, but a qualitative change in the nature of moral constraint over time. For Durkheim, individuals are never free agents but instead always constrained by the sentiments and ideas of their group membership. Yet individuals have been accorded a more special, a more "sacred" quality in the modern world. This shift in morality is explained by Durkheim by the shift in the societal pattern of solidarity.

Durkheim wrote that modern society is characterized by a transition from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity. The movement of solidarity is a function of the volume and density of the population. The more people, the more contacts; the more contacts, the more competition for scarce resources. The competition forces individuals to increasingly specialize. The result is that instead of society being held together by a common set of ideas (common consciousness), society is weaved together by a set of interconnecting needs and obligations (division of labor). Societal members must interact for survival.

In this new form of solidarity, economic necessity draws members of society together rather than a collective awe elicited through common religious ritual. Durkheim (1984:119) observes that as history proceeds, "religion extends over an ever diminishing area of social life." Again, he states:

God, if we may express it in such a way, from being at first present in every human relationship, has progressively withdrawn. He leaves the world to men and their quarrels. At least, if He continues to rule it, it is from on high and afar off, and the effect that He exercises, becoming more general and indeterminate, leaves freer reign for human forces.

And later, he (1984:232) again writes:

The more general the common consciousness becomes, the more scope it leaves for individual variations. When God is remote from things and men, His action does not extend to every moment of time and to every thing. Only abstract rules are fixed, and these can be freely applied in very different ways.

Religion as a force is weakened to such an extent that Durkheim (1984:119) observes in modern society that "there is a constantly decreasing number of beliefs and collective sentiments that are both sufficiently collective and strong enough to assume a religious character. This means that the average intensity of the common consciousness is itself weakening."

That weakening begins when specific actions lose their offensive character. Every drop of an offense weakens the entire normative structure. Durkheim (1984:242) writes, "if one action loses its serious character, the corresponding graduation in seriousness of the others is upset at the same time. They diminish in gravity by one or several degrees and appear less abhorrent. If one is no longer sensitive to small failings, one is even less so to major ones."

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