Soc 461/561
Lecture 6: Individual and Social Dimensions of Religion
April 9, 1999



The text on which this outline is based, and which is not in the as-signed reading, is Bronislav Malinowski, “Magic, Science and Re-ligion” in Magic, Science and Religion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984 [1948].

Personal & social uses of religion

Malinowski compared to Durkheim

Both set out functional theories of religion

Simplest way to distinguish them might be to ask, What needs does religion primarily meet?  Social?  Individual?

Malinowski starts w/ biological needs of individual human beings

Fishing & gardening as examples

How magic, science & religion are alike & unalike

Magic arises where human organism is disintegrating

Every culture—no matter how “primitive” or “simple”—has prac-tical knowledge & techniques to meet fundamental biological needs

But there are limits to technology, power & gaps in our knowledge

Such limits & gaps leave Trobriand Islanders—& by implication us too—fearful & unsure in the face of the things we must do to survive

Anxiety theory of religion in anthro. & psy. terms

Ritual appears in gaps between physical-biological needs & con-stitution & technical knowledge & power.

Ritual functions to master accident & ensnare luck

A way of coping w/ circumstances we can’t control by power & technology

Malinowski’s approach contrasted with Durkheim’s
1) more common sensical, practical & empirical
2) more oriented to individual coping in particular situations than to social structure & culture taking shape & being maintained for social order as a whole.

Malinowski agrees all people recognize sacred domain is, as a rule, set apart from profane by ritual acts & protected by special rules & by attitudes of reverence & awe

But all people order profane realm by practical craft & technique based on observation & reasoning—something like rudiments of science

Not just sacred & profane domains

Two ways of knowing, two systems of belief & practice, which exist side by side

Chief point: neither ritual practices nor supernatural beliefs can be treated simply as superstition, inadequate or primitive form of ra-tional knowledge & technique

Religion does not equal bad science or bad philosophy
Key examples: sailing & fishing

An explicitly technical reason

In lagoon they drop poison & wait for fish to rise to surface

They know fish are in lagoon in contrast to uncertainties of open sea

Difference between magic & religion

Both arise & function in situations of human crises or limits

Magical rite is a means to an end—it’s instrumental

Religious rite is an end to itself

Magical rite has definite empirical goals beyond itself, e.g., safe childbirth, good health

Religious rite has no external or empirical goal—fulfills purpose w/in itself, e.g., presenting a newborn to all concerned, expressing joy in event

Religious rite functions esp. in situations of crisis or stress but there’s no practical goal to be pursued, e.g., birth, puberty, marriage—& most of all death

Deepest functions of religious ritual for social & personal identity?

Rites of initiation & rites of passage function:

1) to express power & value of society’s tradition & vision; &,
2) to impress upon minds of each generation—to transmit—knowledge, spirit, love, & loyalty society needs to survive.

Rites of initiation & passage transmit a kind of social glue or ce-ment

Supreme & final case of all rites of passage is death

Malinowski begins (p. 48) w/ our emotional attitude to death

Emotions are extremely complex & even contradictory, e.g., love of the dead & loathing of the corpse

Rites define & give form to contradictory desires to maintain social ties & to break bond w/ dead person, to preserve body & keep its form in tact & to be done w/ it, to annihilate it

Ritual compels & enables us to overcome our fear, repugnance, & despair & to make piety & attachment triumphant & w/ it belief in a future life & survival of the spirit

If individuals give way to fear & horror they not only abandon the corpse. They abandon community
That kind of feeling—that drawing back—threatens society in face of death

By selecting & standardizing & sacralizing chaotic impulses of emotional responses of individuals to death, religious rites function to maintain emotional & psychic integrity of persons & social in-tegrity of group

Rituals select & standardize emotions

Malinowski offers a psychological theory about religion & feeling

Ritual brings us back together

Religious rites make life crises no longer private

Malinowski argues rituals derive from originally spontaneous re-sponses to dangerous situations, crises or passages but they are in-stitutionalized performances—culturally scripted

Rituals can both call up anxieties & order & allay them

Durkheim & Malinowski

While Malinowski acknowledges religion is a community concern, he argues first that very strong religious experiences come to the individual in solitude

Religion, in short, has highly individual sources & manifestations & that, conversely, society sometimes gathers together to generate nonreligious beliefs & states of mind & feeling. Even nonreligious states of collective effervescence, e.g., in a battle or a harvest or even a barroom brawl. So the social & sacred, in short, are not completely identical. That’s what Malinowski is arguing against Durkheim. They don’t completely coincide

Durkheim focuses on how religion functions in society in response to social needs—needs for objectively symbolized & reliably shared meanings to maintain social order, unify, bind & regulate. Malinowski focuses on how religion both functions for persons in-dividually & together in response to biological & social needs—needs for emotional integrity, e.g., to face life’s crises & their own limits

Durkheim is more concerned w/ social objectification of religious meaning & collective representation of culture

Malinowski is more concerned w/ grounding religious meaning in individual’s attitudes toward a practical situation in life

Looking at the social side of religion is necessary but it isn’t suffi-cient to understand religion

Without analysis of the individual mind, Malinowski says, finally, we can’t take one step in understanding religion.