The Transcendental as Integral when Discussing Religion
In the last few decades, political science and sociology have expanded their discussion and study of religion rather significantly. There have been many fascinating topics discussed, such as the role of religion in nationalism, the role of religion in developing as a religious bloc, and a plethora of other fruitful veins of discussion.
However, there is one thing almost always seems to be lacking in these discussions – the role of the transcendental. When discussing religion, one of the key factors (particularly when looking outside the Durkheimian sense of the word) that permeates all religions is the role of the transcendent – that “force” “God” “deity” or “otherworldly” aspect that gives religion it’s unique power over human affairs. The role of religion in voting blocs and in the development of distinct flavors of nationalism are important topics, just as are the other goals in the study of religion. The argument that will be made here is that, when discussing these, to develop a full and meaningful picture of these topics, the role of the transcendental must be discussed.
First, it is necessary to develop a working definition of “transcendental” for the purposes of this paper. When used within this paper, the term transcendent will be referring to the inherent impossibility of human understanding that is incumbent when discussing faith – again, the transcendent is that piece of religion that is beyond human understanding or explanation. (It is not lost on this author how difficult it is to involve something that is, by definition, beyond human understanding in a scientific and concrete manner). Here, it is also important to delineate why the term “faith” is being used in a discussion of religion. While it is possible to have one without the other, in either direction, it is the opinion of this author that the strongest instantiation of each, and certainly the most (politically, socially, economically) impactful of each is when they are tied together. When religion lacks faith, it lacks the transcendent quality that lends the true power that it can have over the life of an individual, rendering the religion to be a ritual and not much more. When faith lacks religion, it lacks the power that the ritual can give it – the power that is necessary to give religion the ability to make measurable and meaningful impacts in the more secularized worlds/discussions of politics, society at large, economics and all the other ways that religions have inserted themselves into a nominally secular U.S. society.
Moving forward, it will first be discussed how, even though it is this author’s belief that the transcendent is a concept that can enrich our understanding of how religion plays an important societal role, it is not always necessary to include in the conversation. In some of the conversations where it is not included, even though it would be fruitful to add that dimension to the conversation, it is still possible (even likely) to have a useful discussion. That is to say, while the transcendent is something that can significantly enrich a conversation about the power and impact of religion on U.S. society/politics/etc., this author is not claiming that the inclusion of this concept is necessary to every conversation. I make it a point to highlight this fact, as I do not want readers to believe that I am making an end-all be-all argument about this topic; this is far from the truth.
To sum up the argument that I am making here; when discussing the role that religion has on modern day culture/politics/etc., the Transcendent should be the context in which these arguments are couched. Without this context, the points being made are reduced only to their component parts. By contextualizing these arguments within the religious contexts that they are necessarily incorporated within, the readers may begin to see a more accurate picture of what the effects being discussed truly are – one may begin to see a fuller picture of the why instead of the oft heavily emphasized what.
It should also be noted that, for the purposes of this article, we will be discussing mainly the concept of Christianity. The transcendent is just as foundational to other world religions, but it makes the conversation so much larger, and thus impossible to adequately discuss in this paper (which, ironically enough, may likely be the argument that many authors would offer for not including a conversation of the transcendent in their own writings on religion).
The Study of Religion and Politics with the Transcendental Removed
As touched on above, there are scenarios where incorporating the transcendent into an argument or a paper may not be as necessary as in others. One of the more prevalent areas of this is within the economics of religion (both the economics internal to religion and those that have external effects on society at large), particularly when we are to focus on the more temporal and materialistic things that religion can offer to its adherents.
When looking at the role that religion has had on democratization, such as in Woodberry (2012), there is a significant aspect of the article that is focused on how Protestant’s had a much larger effect on democratization as opposed to Catholics from 1950-1990. In this description, there are small allusions made to the differences in beliefs, such as the statement “distinct theologies and organizational forms lead to distinct outcomes” (p. 269), but no real discussion of what it is about the beliefs that may have been important in the different effects that adherents of these two branches of Christianity had on the development of democracy. There are important discussions of the institutional nature (or lack of that institutionalization) and how this may have had a role in the necessity to focus on democratic structures as opposed to more entrenched power structures, as well as points made about location, historical factors, and others. However, there are no conversations given to what separates the conversionary Protestants from Catholics, or other religious orders. While there are plenty of arguments to be made about the structural differences between Catholics and Protestants that may have had a significant role in the differences of democratization rates, that is not the purpose here. What is it about the religious beliefs of certain religious groups that give them a proclivity towards democratic proliferation? What was the theological, the transcendent reason behind the Catholic Church being so emphatic about the particular form of democracy (Pope Leo XIII, GRAVES DE COMMUNI RE, January 1901)? Was it simply an organizational idiosyncrasy that led these two different expressions of Christianity to profess such different forms of government, or can we more accurately trace these differences to the different understandings and interpretations of God and Jesus Christ? I do not have the answer, but I do have a strong suspicion that it is these reasons, more so than any organizational or cultural reason, that precipitated these differences in government preference.
Another important sociological argument regarding religion and politics that does not necessarily give much credence to the importance of the transcendent is the debate of Berger’s Sacred Canopies argument as opposed to the religions market argument. In the classic 1967 book by Berger (The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion), he makes the argument that religious diversity leads to a general decline in religious participation, while proponents of the religious market theory, such as Olson et al (2020) make the argument in the opposite direction. Here, in these mode modern discussions of why religious adherence has flourished in places like the USA in relative contrast to European countries, the argument of diverse religious markets, an argument resting upon economic theory, has found itself in a prominent place. Again, I think it is important to highlight that even without the addition of anything inherently transcendent, these arguments can still hold water on their own. Continuing this metaphor centered on water, while the argument can hold water, it is more like a boat that has two oars attached to it; it requires significant manpower, particularly in rough waters, but it can and will get to the destination. However, if the transcendent was brought into the conversation, it would be like adding an outboard motor – much more power, but also significantly more complex, and more prone to issues, particularly if one does not have the requisite knowledge to utilize it properly (or at all).
One last example that I would like to present as a counterpoint to my own argument is a chapter that does focus on the role of the transcendent. One of the main arguments that this chapter offers (Smidt et al, 2009) is “…the core of religion-the realm of the transcendent, supreme beings, and direct communications with the divine-is beyond the realm of social science…” (as cited in Wald and Smidt, 1993, p’s 31-32) and that “research can show how the beliefs, behaviors and organizations associated with religion shape individual political attitudes and behavior, as well as institutional structures and processes.” This argument, that the transcendent is beyond the scope of sociology, or political science, or even science in general, is one that I believe is deeply flawed. While the transcendent does not need to be a part of the conversation (as I have said multiple times and will invariably say many more), to give up on it and leave it to a different realm of scholarship altogether is, I believe, a woeful abdication of what could be a very fruitful area of scholarship. As Smidt et al stated, they believe that their goal is to “show how the beliefs, behaviors and organizations associated with religion shape individual political attitudes and behavior, as well as institutional structures and processes.” I believe that this aim can be bolstered significantly by including more than passing allusions to the role of the transcendent, and instead delve into this topic in a rigorous, methodological and (likely) qualitative manner.
The above articles, and the points that they make are presented to show that a conversation on religion and politics can absolutely be had without the inclusion of the transcendental. These papers do not necessarily focus on the transcendent, and while that is ostensibly acceptable, it would be odd for me to leave it at this, however, given the stated purpose of this paper. While there can be a conversation, it is much akin to talking about the game of football without ever addressing the role of the quarterback – it can certainly be done, but there is going to be quite a bit of missing context and meaning. I make the point later in this paper, about the need to reduce the generalizability of the research if the research is to be poignant and meaningful within its own sphere. This presents a bit of a catch-22, in that to have a more complete conversation about the role of religion we need to shrink the scope of applicability and audience, yet at the same time we need to increase the scope of knowledge. However, unlike a true catch-22, one can do both at the same time – the question does not lie in the possibility, but whether one believes that it is the right course of action in the first place.
All this is said to bring us to the argument that one cannot truly understand the role that religion plays externally within our world and society, without also understanding the role that it plays internally for believers. Let us take for example Iyer’s 2016 article on “The New Economics of Religion.” In this article, there is a discussion on the economics of charitable giving, and the goods that religious groups offer to their members. While the conversation here gives a useful picture of how religion affects many of the economic institutions in an area, such as financial institutions, social services and others, it does not touch on the reasons why an individual involved in a religious organization would be so involved in charitable giving; according to the Hoover institution, those who are religious are 25% more likely to give to a charitable organization than those who identify as solely secular (91% as compared to 66%, respectively). Again, there are many reasons as to why this might be the case, such as the organizational structure of the religion they are a part of encouraging donations or institutional norms that act as a social pressure to donate. What is rarely discussed in these academic fields of sociology and religion, however, is the faith systems, the imperatives that these individuals feel from a higher power to give, as the motive force behind their actions. This is not to say that these organizational and institutional impetus’ are not active or even powerful – it is to say, however, that their power would evaporate without the transcendental as the bedrock upon which they are built.
What the Transcendental Adds to the Conversation
As discussed above, there are a wide array of topics within the field of “religion and.” Whether this is the case of religion and politics, the sociology of religion, or the collection of smaller subfields in which religion has a presence, there are many examples of where the transcendent aspect of religion is perhaps not outright ignored, but certainly relegated to a place in the corner that has been deemed appropriately obscure. While it is not my opinion that discussing the role of the transcendent in all these conversations is necessary, I do certainly believe that it adds something important to the context and offers a more complete understanding of the topics.
In discussions on public policy and the role that religion and religious adherents can have in the shaping of said policy, we often see these effects through the lens of the religious bloc – as we do in many other arenas. Rural and urban voters, low and high SES voters, cis and queer voters, and the multitude of other ‘blocs’ that we see politics and the public at large through. I argue that we cannot treat religion and religious participants in the same way (or even a similar way) that we treat secular groups and secular blocs. Whether one is to treat religion as something that one chooses or something that one is gifted with upon birth (although it is likely somewhere in between) does not matter in this context, as whichever one it is, it is fundamentally different than the cultural, racial, economic or other categories that people often get placed into when trying to anticipate and predict cultural trends and shifts. Religion, while generally a useful tool in these goals, should not be used in the same way, as using it in the same way as these other categories fails to address the complexity of religious motivations. This is not to say that religion and these other categorizations do not interact, for the surely do (and there is plenty of proof of it as well). It is to say that they cannot be treated the same, without pushing one’s understanding of a concept into inaccuracy.
A good adjacent example of how ideas can be missing from this conversation is in Wilcox et al’s (2008) discussion on the importance of moving away from an atomized and individualistic interpretation of religion, instead seeing it as a communal activity. I believe that, while this is a useful beginning, the argument needs to be taken further: religion is a communal activity and should be understood as such, but the community goes beyond that of human relationships – it is a relationship with the transcendent. Only by discussing this relationship with the transcendent can authors begin to give a full account of the relationship between religion and the “and’s” mentioned above.
By including this understanding of God and the transcendent in our discussions of the impact and role religion, we can see just how much more is involved in the precipitation of actions taken that extend beyond simple geographical culture, society and religious institutionalization and organization.
It is impossible to be an expert on too wide an array of topics – it is difficult enough to be an expert of one. However, I would like to challenge the idea that we should be experts on the topics that we write about, instead of just being passionate. We are all aware of the saying “a jack of all trades is a master of none.” What we tend to forget is the second half of this saying. “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” Instead of focusing so stringently on one aspect of the role of religion within our society, it is better to take the jack of all trades route – the understanding that is gained by passable knowledge of a wider array of reasons why religion has such a massive effect on our society (and has not declined as predicted by many writers) is far more useful, and preferable, than a laser focused perception of one of the avenues of the effect of religion.
There is a wide array of methods that could be taken to address the importance of the transcendent in the study of religion. One effective measure would be to reduce the generalizability of each individual study instead relying upon smaller and deeper conversations. To create a meaningful conversation of the transcendent, sacrifices must be made, as is the case with any shift in the scope of a study. To bring this back to the conversation on economics, there is undoubtedly an opportunity cost that is associated with a shift to a deeper understanding of the transcendent.
As a beginning, when writing about the role of religion, one should have at least a passable understanding of the religion that they are writing about. I do not believe that it is beneficial to dedicate all the associated time and energy that is necessary in creating a work of writing about the role of religion “and” without being able to at least speak to the religion itself, and what those who participate in that religion can be expected to believe. Again, this has an opportunity cost, and will take time to understand; a foundational knowledge about the religion gives credence to the rest of the writing centered around it, as well as gives justice (hopefully) to the adherents of the religion. To summarize the argument presented, the sociology and politics of religion is a fundamental and extremely important thing to understand, as the way that it affects our society is multifaceted and significant. To do justice, however, one should be able to speak to more than just the secular effects and role that religion plays, and be able to point to how the faith, the transcendent, frankly how the role of God acts as a fundamental bedrock beneath all the secular and societal effects of religion. Churches have a secular role to play, and often (for better or worse) have a very secular structure and secular understanding of the world that they are a part of, and I believe that these secular actions of the Church and the believers have pushed the discourse to be too secular itself. To truly understand and expand the knowledge that is present in how religion has shaped and will continue to shape politics, one must not just be familiar with the secular, but with the transcendent.
Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Anchor Books, 1967, (1990).
Brooks, A. C. (2003, October 1). Religious faith and charitable giving. Hoover Institution. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from https://www.hoover.org/research/religious-faith-and-charitable-giving#:~:text=The%20differences%20in%20charity%20between,67%20percent%20to%2044%20percent).
Iyer, Sriya. 2016. The New Economics of Religion. Journal of Economic Literature, 54 (2): 395-441. DOI: 10.1257/jel.54.2.395
Leo XIII: Online Copy. Encyclical Letter. GRAVES DE COMMUNI RE, January 1901. Retrieved from https://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_18011901_graves-de-communi-re.html
Olson, D. v. a., Marshall, J., Jung, J. H., & Voas, D. (2020). Sacred Canopies or Religious Markets? The Effect of County‐Level Religious Diversity on Later Changes in Religious Involvement. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. doi:10.1111/jssr.12651
Wilcox, C., Wald, K. D., & Jelen, T. G. (2008). Religious Preferences and Social Science: A Second Look. The Journal of Politics, 70(3), 874–879. doi:10.1017/s0022381608080821 Woodberry, R. D. (2012). The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy. American Political Science Review, 106(02), 244–274. doi:10.1017/s0003055412000093