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the importance of religion as a form of social control

Abstract Sociologists for many years have identified the family, the school, the peer group, the mass media and political movements as agents of socialization. Majority of sociologists do not consider religion as a potent agent of socialization. The conservative roles of religion in perpetuating social and cultural values are often ignored. This paper seeks to correct such mistake and to present religion as a veritable platform for socialization and social control. The study reveals that religion exercises a pervasive influence on all other social institutions thereby moderating the activities of the abovementioned agents of socialization. Keywords: Religion and socialization, Religion and social control, Religion and culture Introduction Socialization is defined in the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology (2005), as “the process by which we learn to become members of society, both by internalizing the norms and values of society, and also by learning to perform our social roles” (1621). Elkin and Handel (1972), defines socialization as “the process which someone learns the ways of a given society or social group so that he can function within it” (4). Peter Berger in his Invitation to Sociology (1974), defined socialization as the “process by which a child learns to be a participant member of society” (116). Ian Robertson (1987), defines socialization as the “process of social interaction through which people acquire personality and learn the way of life of their society” (115). It is through socialization that the individual learns the normative values, beliefs, skills, languages and other essential patterns of thought and action that is relevant for social life. Socialization is a process by which cultural and behavior pattern of a particular society is transmitted from one generation to another for social perpetuation. As a process of internalization, individuals are inducted and absorbed into one's social and physical environment. All human societies have well-defined strategies for social control which includes system of values, beliefs, norms and sanctions.

Keerthisiri Fernando

A sociological analysis with theological implications and repercussions

Change is an ever-present sociological reality within society. The sociological force called change takes many faces in society with the existing phenomenon in context. Change can come about within a particular community, due to outside factors impinging on a particular community, or as a result of contextual realities within society. Regarding change Paul B. Horton and Chester L. Hunt have noted,

“All societies change continuously. New traits appear either through Discovery and invention, or through diffusion from other societies.”

The findings of the history of Christianity in Sri Lanka can be understood in the light of the many faces of this sociological reality called change. Explaining this reality of change in the society and religion Weber has observed,

For every religion we shall find that a change in the socially decisive strata has usually been of profound influence.

Primarily, Christianity was introduced to Sri Lanka as a colonial reality. When a country is being colonised it is a time of great change. The colonial power initially had a number of intentions towards the countries that it was colonising. These included social, political and economic intentions . Within the category of the social intentions of these colonialists, culture became a very important factor. Especially in Asian countries such as Sri Lanka traditional religions became an integral part of the culture, and these religions played a vital role in forming the culture of that society. For instance, in Sri Lanka from the 3rd century BC onwards, Buddhist monks were considered as the mentors of society . This background of Buddhism within the culture of the Sri Lankan Sinhala people did not create a supportive atmosphere for the colonial powers to achieve their social, political and economic ends, and so the Western colonialists often used Christianity to deculturise local people to the Western ways in order to realise their social, political and economic goals in the colonies. In this manner Christianity became a force of change in changing the culture of the people of Sri Lanka and helped to promote the Western cultural patterns in this country. A good example of the above is the way in which Christian missionary education produced local people who were able to run this colony according to the values and attitudes of the colonial government, especially the British.

In a colony when a new religion is introduced it is not introduced into a vacuum. Already there are beliefs and practices that perform certain social functions within the society. Regarding these social functions performed by various religions, Durkheim has said,

“….religion is something eminently social. Religious representations are collective representations which expresses collective realities; the rites are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of the assembled groups and which are destined to excite, maintain or recreate certain mental states in these groups. So if the categories are of religious origin, they ought to participate in this nature common to all religious facts; they too should be social affairs and the product of collective thought.”

There are many sociologists who have elaborated on the ideas presented by Durkheim. The following are some observations on Buddhism in Sri Lanka, regarding the social functions of religion, presented by I. Robertson.

Social solidarity-

“Religion functions as a form of social cement. It unites the believers by regularly bringing them together to enact various rituals, and by providing them with the shared values and beliefs that binds them into a community.” 

In Sri Lanka, in Sinhala areas the social solidarity was cemented around the tank (Weva), Buddhist shrine (Dagabe), village (Gama) and the Buddhist temple (Pansala) in the village (Wevai Dagabai Gamai Pansali). In the agricultural system the tank supplied the necessary water. It is said that often the soil that had been dug up to make the tank was used to build the Buddhist shrines, or Dageba, in which relics of Lord Buddha or his Holy Disciples were deposited. These shrines are visible above the paddy fields as a sign of hope for the local people. The village temple is situated close to the shrine, often on a hill, and has a community of monks who act as a model community for the village. These monks share everything in common; this is called “ sangika” in Sinhala. Most of the rituals which bring the village-folk together are performed in the temple around a statue of Lord Buddha and the Bo tree (ficus religiosa), the tree under which the Lord Buddha was enlightened . The temple was the place where people experienced solidarity through their Buddhist beliefs, got advise and counselling from the monks, and felt that they belonged to each other as a part of their existence in the village. Thus Buddhism in the Sinhala village became the unifying factor of the village community that was centred around the temple, shrine and the community of monks who lived in a simple dwelling place in the temple grounds.

Provision of meaning

“Religion provides a theodicy that gives meaningful answers to ultimate and eternal questions about existence. It offers explanations to human predicaments and gives purpose to a universe that might otherwise seem meaningless. “ 

Where the ultimate and eternal questions are concerned Buddhism was able to give a profound philosophy based on Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path. These emphasise the impermanence and changing nature of all things that exist. Being a detheistic religion, which is neither eternalist nor nihilist, it presented a path for salvation or nibbana in its own way . This gave a sound and meaningful understanding to Buddhists in Sri Lanka concerning their questions about existence.

Social control

“The more important values and norms of a society - for example, those relating to human life, sexual behavior, and property - tend to be incorporated not only in law but also in religious doctrine. The teachings found in such sacred scriptures as the Bible and the Koran would have far less force if they were regarded as the work of ordinary mortals. By powerfully reinforcing crucial values and norms, religion helps to maintain social control over individual behavior.” 

The main teachings of Buddhism are written in a holy book called the tripitakas. The literal meaning of tripitakas is ‘ three baskets ‘. These baskets or sections are namely the Vinaya (Discipline), Sutra (sermons of the Lord Buddha) and Abidharma (higher doctrines). Of these three sections, a particular part of the Sutra (or sermons of the Lord Buddha), called the Dhamma pada, is very commonly and widely read by people to get instruction for their everyday life. For example, the duties of parents and children are given in the Sigalovada Sutta . Even instruction on matters like the causes for downfall are given in the Parabhava Sutta of the Sutta pitaka in the Tripitaka . Although these are not laws they control society by making a harmonious atmosphere in which the people of the Sri Lankan Buddhist community can exist.

Social change

“Religion can sometimes inspire or facilitate social change. Religious values provide moral standards against which existing social arrangements can be measured, and perhaps found wanting. The civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, for example, derived much of their impetus from religious teachings about brotherhood and peace. New religious movements are particularly likely to be critical of the social order and to encourage their adherents to criticize or challenge it. “

From the 3rd century BC Buddhism was at various times a force of change in Sri Lankan society. The introduction of Buddhism by Arahat Mahinda in the 3rd century BC changed the lives of the people in this country. The concept of Avimsa, that is, of not harming any living being including animals influenced and changed the lives of people by encouraging them to be less aggressive. Where social change was concerned, a classic example would be how people became agricultural under the influence of Buddhism, even without having had a clear pastoral era after the Stone Age.

Psychological support

Religion provides individuals with emotional support in the uncertainties of this world. For example, it helps people during the major events of their life cycle. Although puberty rites are no longer practised in the United States (the nearest equivalent is the Jewish bar mitzvah), birth, marriage and death are almost always marked by religious rituals such as baptism, wedding, and funerals” .

In Sri Lanka Buddhism plays an important role in society during these major events of the life cycle. The ritual called matakavastra pujava at the funeral can be given in this regard. Concerning matakavastra pujava L. de Silva has observed,

“The ritual called the matakavastra pujava is by far the most important funeral ritual. It is a sort of an act of grace by which merit is transferred to the departed before the body is buried or cremated. It is done after the preliminaries, such as the administration of pansil , preaching of a short sermon and speeches are over. The ritual consists in offering a piece of cloth as the case may be, to the monk or monks, while the nearest relatives pour water from a vessel into a plate or cup till the water overflows….” 

When a new religion is introduced to a society, a new set of values and attitudes also enters the society. This challenges the stability of the existing religions. The above five functions of religion, namely social solidarity, provision of meaning, social control, social change and psychological support, established by the already-existing religions, go through a process of drastic change with the introduction of a new and alternative religion. This alternative religion gradually begins to take over some of the aspects of the social functions performed by the already-existing religion, thereby creating uncertainty for the existing religions as they face losing or changing the power and control that they have already established in that society. The following are some examples within Sri Lanka society.

The introduction of Christianity disturbed the life that centred around the Buddhist temple (Pansala) in the village. It changed the social solidarity of the village, as those who became Christians found new meaning for their life as they began to live for Almighty God. Teachings of the Bible, such as the Ten Commandments, began to shape the life of the society, acting as a social control. Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, facilitated the rise of capitalism by providing values that are favourable to capitalism such as hard work and the reinvestment of money. Christianity introduced colourful birth, marriage and funeral rites which were more attractive than the earlier rites of traditional Buddhism.

In a context of this nature the already-existing religions within a community make some kind of response, usually one of three general responses. The easiest response is to ignore the challenge that the community is facing and to pretend that nothing has taken place. By this approach the established religion strives to keep secure the place that they had in the society. The second response might be to resist the change that has taken place, and, with this resistance, to try to return to the old order that that religion had in the society. The third option is to comply with the new situation and to cope with the challenges that come out of it .

Resistance to change takes place due to various reasons in society . The lack of new inventions creates an unfavourable atmosphere for change. If people in the society are craving for new thought forms, attitudes and values, this creates a fertile ground for change. In a context like this change takes place without much opposition in society . In this regard, the Sri Lankan fisher community, that was of the Karava caste, was ready for change as, for various reasons, they wanted new thought forms, attitudes and values. In this regard M. D. Raghavan has observed,

“The readiness to embrace Christianity arose from many causes. Being comparative newcomers, the Karava were less enmeshed in the intricacies of the Sinhalese social structure. Lesser involvement in the feudalism of the time gave them greater freedom of action.” 

As the Sinhala agricultural people in Sri Lanka the Karava entirely did not reject or resist this new religion called Christianity. Some Karava people embraced Christianity in order to settle in the new set-up, as they did not have so much tradition and reverence for the past. On the other hand, where the agricultural people in Sri Lanka are concerned, at the time that Christianity was introduced they were emotionally and sentimentally bound to the practices, ideas and customs of the agricultural lifestyle that had emerged under the influence of Buddhism. Thus the traditional attitudes of people meant that new things would not be allowed or accepted, and many agricultural people resisted and rejected this new thing called Christianity. As observed by Shankar Rao this happened not only because of love for the past but also because of fear of the new.

It was even due to ignorance that at times people rejected the new elements. For example, at the beginning many people in society rejected the germ theory of disease. It took a long time for people to accept this theory. At its introduction Christianity also faced a similar challenge as a new element in society. To begin with Sri Lankan people were reluctant to send their girls to schools started by the Christian missionaries, and it took some time for people in Sri Lanka to accept this change, that of women studying in schools in the same way as boys. Habits can be viewed as another obstacle to social change. Often people get scared of new practices and habits . The observations made by Sinhala people on the arrival of Don Lourenco De Almeida on 15th November 1505 prove that people have a fear of new practices. They observed this group of people and, sharing their understanding of their eating and drinking habits, said,

“ They eat hunks of stone and drink blood ” .

This statement shows how these Sinhala people disliked and rejected the eating and drinking habits of the Portuguese.

Since the main emphasis of this research is on an inquiry into the Christian community in Sri Lanka, the most important task is to analyse the social impact of this community in Sri Lanka. For the entry point into this task different faces of this sociological reality called change can be employed .

The first face of change that we have considered is demand. The impact of this face is analysed in the context of the diverse cultures and religions of Sri Lanka. At this point the fact is being taken into consideration that “ All social changes are cultural changes “. Sociologically therefore, we are interested in cultural change only to the extent that it arises from or has an effect on social organisation .

Religion is associated with culture, and neither is it independent of other similar phenomena such as politics and economics. Therefore it is vital to examine the demand for Christianity in the context of various religions and beliefs in order to examine the social impact of Christianity in Sri Lanka. According to C.N. Shanker Rao of India any religion has a basic structure which includes theologies and creeds, ceremony and ritual, symbolism, religious codes, sects, festivals, sacred literature, myths and mysticism . For instance, in the Buddhist structure in Sri Lanka the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path exist as religious codes . Festivals such as Vesak full moon day (the feast of the birth, enlightenment and death of Lord Buddha) and Poson full moon day (the day on which Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka) are an integral part of Buddhism in Sri Lanka . Buddhists venerate the sacred literature called the Tripitaka which consists of Vinaya (discipline), Sutra (the sermons of Lord Buddha) and Abhidarma (doctrines). Therefore when a new religion is introduced into a particular context the above basic structure of the already-existing religions overlaps and creates demands on the new religion. In this regard, with the introduction of Christianity, the Christian sacred book called the Bible, festivals such as Christmas (the nativity of Christ) and Easter (the resurrection of Christ),

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