There is a field of study within the discipline of sociology that fails to get the attention that it deserves. It is called the sociology of knowledge. Its students examine the reasons why people believe or disbelieve what they do. Those who are versed in the literature of this specialty often refer to a book by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, entitled The Social Construction of Reality. Because these two writers explain, in very lucid fashion, how social environments provide us with our perspectives of the world, they make the case that what we believe about what is real and what is not real in terms of our religious beliefs are convictions that have been established sociologically. None of us possesses the kind of objectivity that we would like to think we do, and as our cross-cultural understanding of the world expands, we likely realize that had we been born at a different time and in a different place, what we believe to be true or not true, especially about God, would be different.
Many sociologists argue that faith is a communal product. It is created and maintained in the context of a community of fellow believers, which sociologists like Berger and Luckmann refer to as a “plausibility structure.” What outsiders might view as unreasonable becomes readily plausible, given the ongoing and strong support of other members of the group. The more intimate the group, and the more intensely its shared beliefs are held, the more those beliefs become unquestioned by members of the group.
Not too long ago, I saw a demonstration of this on a television documentary produced by a newspaper reporter. This reporter had decided to do a series of articles on an intense Pentecostal group living in the back hills of West Virginia, whose members were into snake handling. These zealous believers take literally what is recorded in Mark 16:17-18, where Jesus told His disciples that signs of their faith would be that they would be able to “cast out demons” and “speak in new tongues.” Of special importance for them was that Jesus went on to say, “They will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.” Thus, among these unusual believers was a pervasive belief that snake handling was a way of validating their faith.
This reporter, in order to have authenticity in what he wrote, chose to live among these snake handlers and become a participatory observer in their worship services. The faith of these snake handling Christians was so intense and convincing, however, that after a period of a few weeks, he became caught up in their “plausibility structure.” In a striking conclusion to his television documentary, I watched as the reporter himself was “handling” rattle snakes. He had, if only temporarily, become enmeshed in their intensive fellowship and taken on their beliefs. What was real to them had become real to him.
When I describe this sort of thing to my atheist or agnostic friends, they usually smile and say, “See! Religious belief is nothing more than a socially constructed reality, ” and they discount it as lacking validity. What they fail to acknowledge, however, is that their own lack of belief is also socially constructed and could likewise be discounted.
Let me tell you about a young graduate student who was once a “true Christian believer, ” but who, over a period of several months separated herself from the community of fellow believers that maintained the plausibility structure that had once made believing in God a viable reality. The social consciousness of this one-time committed Christian gradually eroded. It wasn’t long before she took on the consciousness of the secularized society in which she had chosen to do her thinking. Soon she was convinced that God was irrelevant to her everyday life, and then into believing that God did not exist. In this case, it was crucial that the other members of her family join her in her skepticism and be for her a plausibility structure that supporter her unbelief.
It is so easy for intelligent, well read people, such as this young woman, to believe that they have become what Karl Mannheim, one of the leaders in the field of the Sociology of Knowledge, would have called “the detached intelligentsia.” In other words, that such unbelievers come to think of themselves as having risen above the “unsophisticated masses” and negatively judge how social forces exercised within a faith community made those seemingly naïve people into believers in religious convictions that they themselves had discarded. However, these same seemingly objective observers of the belief systems of others fail to recognize that social forces operative in the dominant secular society had become the plausibility structure that makes God irrelevant to what goes on in everyday lives. It was the plausibility structure of the dominant secular, and often sophisticated associations, that nurtured for them a kind of agnosticism or atheism. George Santayana, one-time professor of philosophy at Harvard University, once said, “They do not really reject God. They simply bid Him a fond farewell.”
I had watched the young woman to whom I referred at an earlier time in her life when she was part of an intensive church youth group when she was a “true believer, ” drift away from her church. As she disconnected from regular involvement with Christians who shared her beliefs, I watched her faith erode. She said that church didn’t do anything for her. She explained that as she listened to sermons, it was “déjà vu, ” that she had heard it all before. When asked about church, she let it be known that, when it came to church, she had “been there and done that.” This graduate student failed to see that being removed from the plausibility structure wherein her faith might have been regularly reinforced, reaffirmed, and revitalized made it almost inevitable that secular sociological forces would make her, eventually, into an unbeliever. She could not understand that, within this new state of social consciousness, she would have a hard time thinking that she ever did believe “that religious stuff” in the first place.
Again, let me say that being a believer is highly contingent upon being part of a subculture that upholds belief in God and enables the individual to stand against the onslaught of the world view being propagated by the dominant culture. It can be said that in a secular society, true believers in God are countercultural persons, while those secularized agnostics who live around them are actually the conformists.
Most of us have either read about or heard about those Pew Foundation studies which reported that Millennials are spiritual, but not religious. They seem willing to accept the postmodern tendency to believe that there are truths and realities that transcend the categories of logical empiricism. Some even may acknowledge that there are spiritual forces at work in the universe that could be called God. Those Millennials with whom I have had the most frequent encounters may even call themselves Christians, and affirm that Jesus is a living reality in the world today. Some call themselves part of the Red Letter Christians movement, and affirm the words of Jesus, highlighted in red letters in many Bibles. But then, many of these same Millennials castigate the Church for not living up to Christ’s teachings. They drop out of church, saying, “Jesus is great, but the Church sucks.” These young people fail to realize that faith in Jesus is a communal thing. Their attitude makes me unbearably sad, because I know that without the revitalization of faith commitments that comes from what the Greek New Testament called koinonia, these disengaged young people will soon be answering that question about religious affiliation asked in another Pew Foundation study with the word, “None.”
Jesus certainly had His own problems with organized religion. Nevertheless, He was a faithful attendee of services at the synagogue in whatever town He happened to be on the Sabbath (Mark 4:14-16). Certainly the writer of the book of Hebrews understood the necessity of church gatherings when he instructed Christians not to forsake gathering themselves together for worship and spiritual edification (Hebrews 10:25). The Apostle Paul clearly told the Corinthian church that no single member of Christ’s body can ever say to the rest of the body, “I have no need of you” (1 Corinthians 12:14-23).
Any reader of Emile Durkheim’s sociological classic, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, knows how important liturgy is. Durkheim makes the point that collective rituals build into the participants a strong sense of solidarity and regenerates their commitments to what they believe. Collective rituals, says Durkheim, keep alive for religious people that which must never be forgotten.
Centuries before Durkheim wrote his classic work, Jesus instituted a ritual when He gathered together with His disciples in what is referred to by Christians as an “upper room.” He broke bread with them and offered them wine. He told His disciples that regularly they should get together to eat the bread that represented His body, and drink the wine that represented His blood, in order to remember Him. Paul reminded the Corinthian church that, as often as they came together and ate the bread and drank the wine in this manner, they would remember Christ’s death until He returned (1 Corinthians 11:26). By implication, I am proposing that when persons stop regularly coming together for Holy Communion, they eventually will stop believing what is core to Christian faith, namely, the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross for our salvation.
In conclusion, what I have been trying to say is that only those who ignore the insights from the Sociology of Knowledge fail to see that belief as well as unbelief is a social construct, and that for those who want to go on believing in God and in His Son’s gift on the cross, being in regular Christian fellowship is vital. And for cultured unbelievers, I say, “be not proud and think that your unbelief is of your own making.”