Religious models of society

Where they overlap and differ from social science

Re-Assembling Reality #27, by David A. Palmer and Mike Brownnutt

Just as social scientists build models of society (See Re-Assembling Reality #26), religious cosmologies also include models of society, even though they are often not consciously elaborated as such.

One model that exists with variations in different religious traditions is based on the idea that moral actions have social consequences.

A society in which people can count on each other to be honest and trustworthy is different from a society in which people are expected to be dishonest and corrupt. A community in which people care for each other is different from a community in which people are suspicious and indifferent to each other.

If people in a society consistently and repeatedly are honest with each other, we can hypothesize that such a society will evolve in a different direction from a society in which being truthful is not valued and people consistently and repeatedly lie or make up and spread false information.

It’s surprising, however, that moral relations do not figure prominently in the dominant models of social science. In fact, sociologists often explain moral relations by means of the models of rational choice, domination, or cultural conformity (see the previous essay). In rational choice models, people make moral choices because it is advantageous to do so. They won’t make moral choices when such choices won’t benefit them. And when they do make moral choices, it is not because they are morally good, but because they are beneficial to self-interest. In domination models, moral values support the interests of the ruling class, and peoples’ attachment to moral values is one means by which they accept being dominated. In cultural models, people comply to moral norms out of habit and enforce them to preserve collective cultural cohesion. In all of these explanations, there is nothing substantive about moral values or principles: they are merely instruments for maximizing utility, reinforcing domination, or reinforcing cultural cohesion; or they are merely passive habits.

Religious models of moral relations

Religious models of moral relations, while they vary enormously between and within traditions, are based on specific assumptions about human nature. Many religions assume that people have inside of themselves an inner tendency or drive to do good, to be honest and helpful to others. They also consider that inside each person are other tendencies that go against these good tendencies and draw people towards immoral acts.

These conflicting tendencies are parts of what they often call the “soul” or some equivalent term. Some religious traditions consider that we have one soul, which combines all of the conflicting tendencies. Other religious theories postulate that we are made of two or more soul-like entities, each of which expresses itself through one of the different tendencies — similar to those comic book illustrations of an angel over one of our shoulder telling us to to good, and a devil on the other shoulder tempting us to do evil. Religious theories on these issues can be very complex and subtle. For the sake of simplicity, we will here limit our discussion to a concept of the soul that includes contradictory moral tendencies and inclinations.

Let’s take the soul as a postulated noumenon, whose effects can be observed in the moral quality of behaviour. As a postulated noumenon, the word “soul” can be compared to other invisible postulated noumena such as “mind,” that we use to talk about mental activity and its expressions, or “self,” that we use to talk about a sense of inner identity and coherence. “Mind”, “self” and “soul” are terms to designate postulated noumena whose essence is inaccessible to us but that we use to connect and understand specific sets of observable phenomena. In this essay, we won’t get into debates on the ontological nature of “soul”, “mind” or “self”, and focus only on the phenomenonological expression of the soul through moral intentions and behaviour in society.

When people, in their behaviour, demonstrate moral concerns, worries, judgements, inclinations and tendencies, we can call these expressions of the soul.

In real life, people are constantly making observations and judgements about peoples’ moral quality and inclinations. The more important the relationship, the more we are attentive to the person’s moral character. If the person is dishonest to you once, you make a note of it in your mind. If the person is dishonest again, you start asking yourself questions. If it happens repeatedly, you might say there’s a pattern, and you might decide to distance yourself from that person, or take measures to protect yourself. You have made a judgement on the “moral character” or “soul” of the person. People tend to make such observations and inferences based on observations, because they don’t want to be abused by liars, swindlers, con artists, and psychopaths. Or, conversely, they might seek to build relations with those who are corrupt: either because they seek companions in corruption, or because, following religious principles, they seek to redeem them: you might hang out with dishonest people because dishonest people — more than most — need friends. Social relationships are based on the observation of moral behaviour. Society could not exist without such observation taking place.

Under this model, society consists of souls who, as they interact with other souls and the world, are constantly making moral choices and following different moral inclinations in their lives. Social phenomena and social change are the result of the accumulation of these moral choices, inclinations and interactions.

Note that in this model of moral relations, people’s moral choices are not predetermined. The theory of human nature in each model implies different forces that drive humans to act in the way they do. In the rational choice model, all choices are based on the same impulse to maximize utility. Implicit is a single underlying force pushing people to maximize their interests. Domination theories assume two types of underlying forces: forces that push people to dominate others and counterforces that, in response to domination, push people to resist. Cultural theories assume that cultural meanings have the power to unite people into communities and also to divide or fragment people. Religious models of moral relations assume two types of forces: forces that draw people toward more ethical, moral and virtuous behaviour, and forces that draw people in the opposite direction.

These religious models propose numerous theories explaining the different forces and factors that come into play in people’s moral motives, inclinations and interactions. These include conflicting tendencies or motives within the soul or self; the commands, power of attraction, or influence of nephesh or spiritual forces; and the fruits or consequences of past acts or motives.

Many religious ontologies posit that humans have dual inner tendencies, one of which draws them to follow divine virtues and moral principles, and another that draws them to selfishness, sin, attachment to earthly passions, and so on. The soul has complex and contradictory inner tendencies.

External factors can enhance or restrict these inner drives. Positive external factors for strengthening the drive to be a moral person can include education in moral principles and virtues, positive role models, a social environment that is conducive to moral and ethical behavior, and prayers, rituals, meditation and religious practices that aim to strengthen moral orientations. Negative external factors might include an education that emphasizes self-interest and downplays moral considerations, role models who value unethical behavior and principles, and a social environment that restricts or impedes one’s ability to make moral choices or to reflect on moral issues.

The nature of invisible forces in religious and social scientific models

Social scientists rarely think about the ontological nature of the invisible “forces” that they invoke in their models. They are even likely to deny that their models posit invisible forces acting on people. However, their theories logically assume the existence of such forces, even if these assumptions are implicit or denied; and they frequently employ language of “forces” or “power.” If we reject the existence of external forces affecting behaviour, then implicit is a certain inner tendency in each individual that pushes them to maximize self-interest, to dominate, or to seek or create meaning.

These questions are interesting to philosophers, but social scientists hardly pay attention to their debates, because, in their work, they don’t need to know the ontological nature of the things their concepts describe. They use postulated noumena as tools to model and explain observable phenomena. It is enough to know that the degree of social integration affects the suicide rate, without needing to consider the ontological nature of the actual power than produces this effect.

We might think that religionists, on the other hand, are deeply interested in the nature of invisible forces. That may well be the case of theologians — but theologians are to religionists as philosophers are to scientists. Religionists, when they are in the act of doing religion by trying to live their lives according to religious teachings, rarely spend time debating the ontology of the spiritual forces they are engaging with. When, pondering a decision or a path to choose, they consider the moral consequences of their actions and how a host of factors could be forces that influence their decision and its consequences: their faith, their prayers, the condition of their soul and the soul of other people, their understanding of moral principles, and the will and agency of nephesh. They don’t need to know how these things operate on an ontological level: they just act.

How religious and social scientific models are different

One of the four models of society we have presented is based on religious assumptions. Is there anything different about it, by nature of its being a religious model? All four models are based on invisible forces, and all of them, as they are put in practice, do not require understanding the exact ontological nature of the forces at play.

But there are two differences. First, social scientific models objectify humans by design and as such must propose more simple theories of human nature than religions in order to be tractable. Second, religious models require existential commitment in action, while this is optional for social scientific models.

Each of the four models of society that we have presented relies on a theory of human nature, but the level of complexity differs. The rational choice model has the simplest theory of human nature. The domination model relies on a slightly more complicated theory, but it still makes a relatively simplistic assumption about what humans want: they want power. The cultural and religious models, however, present more complicated pictures of human nature.

The simpler the theory of human nature, the more predictable human behaviour appears to be. The more complex the theory of human nature, the less predictable people seem to be. Thus, it’s no surprise that the rational choice model is the preferred model for researchers in disciplines that want to be the most “scientific”, such as economists and political scientists. Domination theories are preferred in sociology, while cultural models are preferred by those social scientists whose work overlaps with the “humanities”. And religion, to the extent that it has a place within Academia, is also placed within the humanities.

We have argued that the primary concern of science is knowledge through and for instrumental objectification. When we objectify, we create objects. Objects can be manipulated for an instrumental end. Predictable objects are more fit for purpose. The more “scientific” models of society thus seek to model humans as predictable within an objectifying framework, such as maximizing utility or acquiring power. Religion, on the other hand, is more concerned with relationships between persons — relations that have an inherent moral quality. This includes the relationships between humans and nephesh, relationships between humans, and the exemplification or guidance of such relationships by figures seen as enlightened, prophetic, saintly, or divine. A person, by definition, cannot be reduced to a single dimension and is of infinite complexity; even more so the relationships between persons.

We thus see a contrast between simple doctrines of human nature (in the more “scientific” models) and complex doctrines of human nature (in the humanities and in religion).

This contrast is unsurprising because a simple doctrine of human nature, that is reduced to a single dimension, is tractable. In the model, there is a particular thing that each agent is attempting to optimise, and we let the agents interact in the model. Even when there are nominally multiple things to optimise, these are commensurate and can be reduced to a single scale: a single measure of utility. If I want to get a handle on something — if I want to do science — I like tractable models.

In physics I may have multiple kinds of forces acting — electrostatic, magnetic, gravitational — but I work out what the particle does by adding them all up to make one resultant force, and that is what matters. Other models might consider the energy of the system, or the action involved. But each model considers one type of thing at each stage.

On the other hand, a complex doctrine of human nature is less tractable, if it is tractable at all. Multiple incommensurable considerations cannot be optimised. We cannot get a handle on human persons. This is no way to do science.

The main models of society in the social sciences focus on relations of objectification in which people become objects of instrumental calculation, objects of domination, or objects of inculturation. It is true that social relations to a great degree consist in such relationships of objectification. It may be the case that relations of objectification are not necessarily bad, and that there are conditions in which they may be necessary, preferable, or at least unavoidable. Personal relations can also be unjust and abusive.

The relationships that society is made of include a mixture of objects and persons; social life includes a mixture of objectifying and personifying processes. To the extent that models of society focus exclusively or primarily on objectifying relations, social science will miss out on fundamental dimensions of social life.

In religion, moral relations between persons are a central concern. Religion is concerned with understanding how we can establish, maintain and nurture morally grounded relationships. Religion seeks means to strengthen our internal dispositions toward moral concern, and to enhance the factors enhancing and protecting moral dispositions in the relationships between persons. An essential aspect of religious practice is establishing moral communities in which the moral quality of social relations is affirmed, enacted, structured and rhythmically renewed. And when a religion fails to do so, this failure becomes a subject of angst and controversy within and outside the religious community — precisely because this represents a failure to accomplish a core purpose of religion, similar to a school that would fail to properly educate its pupils, or a hospital that would fail to offer effective treatments.

Another difference between social scientific and religious models of social life is that, in social science, research does not necessarily lead to action, and there is not necessarily a moral imperative to carry out proposals for action derived from research. Some researchers prefer descriptive or analytical studies, others prefer policy or action oriented ones. Some researchers stick to a single model throughout their career, other switch models at will according to the needs of the moment. Some researchers merely offer recommendations without a strong personal commitment to them, while others are driven by strong ideological or political commitments to promote specific policies through their research. Researchers committed to the cultural model tend to adopt a posture of relativist critique, which undermines any moral commitment to action beyond the act of cultural critique.

In religion, however, a model of society based on moral relations is not a mere intellectual object that does not require a commitment to action: religion is an existential commitment to act out the core relationships in life. A religious model of moral relations is one that, for its proponents, must be lived in action.

This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forumand the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.




A dialogue between physicist Mike Brownnutt and anthropologist David A. Palmer. Insights from the natural and social sciences, Asian and Western philosophy, and theology.

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David A. Palmer

David A. Palmer

I’m an anthropologist who’s passionate about exploring different realities. I write about spirituality, religion, and worldmaking.

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