This is a revised version of a paper I presented at the Association for the Sociology of Religion conference, August 20, 2016, Seattle, Washington.
An Interactionist Perspective of Reality Structures and Religiosity
As Berger and Luckman (1966) tell us, the social construction of reality is one of the most basic activities engaged in by human beings. Indeed, it could be argued that the attribution of meaning on to the world “out there” is a distinguishing characteristic of the species. The activities of the religious are based on beliefs that fall outside the realm of empirical investigation. Behaviors within religious settings, then, are perfect for observing the social construction of meaning. Interactions within religiously defined situations are dramatic examples of a basic social process (Glaser & Strauss 1967). In this paper I use data collected from observations of religious performances in Washington County, Utah, to discuss ways the religiously inclined create reality structures that verify their perceptions of themselves as morally righteous people.
When one thinks of religion in Utah generally, and Southwest Utah specifically, one thinks of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. And since roughly two-thirds of the state’s population is LDS, this is a legitimate assumption. However, St. George and its surrounding communities host a plethora of weekly worship services in addition to the Sacrament Meetings of the LDS Church. For the past 14 months I’ve engaged in fieldwork among religious congregations in Washington County, Utah.
I attended a different religious service each week for one year beginning in June, 2015. In that year I attended services with two different Episcopal churches, a Bible church, two different Assemblies of God churches, three Baptist churches, a Methodist church, a Calvary Chapel, two different LDS wards (in the same building), a Presbyterian church, a Foursquare fellowship, two Catholic churches, a meeting of Quakers, a Reformed Jewish congregation, five different Lutheran Churches representing three different synods, a Center of Spiritual Living, a Muslim congregation, a Church of Christ Scientist, a Unity congregation, three non-denominational Evangelical churches, a Church of Christ, a Unitarian gathering, a Buddhist gathering, and a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall service.
The sizes of the congregations I visited varied from 700 or more at the St. George Catholic Church on Easter Sunday, to 200 or so attendees at the Washington City 7th Ward of the LDS Church (keep in mind that there are 236 Wards in Washington County) (“Temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints”), to 3 at the meeting of the Southern Utah Friends. Most services lasted about an hour, with some as short as 40 minutes and others as long as 2 hours. Some services followed a strict liturgy with no improvisational activities at all while others seemed to be more extemporaneous.
Some of the services I attended were in buildings owned and operated by the religious organization performing the service. For instance the Grace Episcopal Church, the St. George Catholic Church, and the Christian Science Society all owned their buildings. A few congregations met in rented buildings: the New Beginnings Christian Fellowship and the South Mountain Community Church fall in this category. Some were granted space in the extra rooms of already existing churches: Beit Chaverim Jewish Congregation meets in the back classrooms of the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church while the Unity Center of Positive Living meets in the small chapel of Grace Episcopal Church. The Muslims of St. George meet in a classroom at Dixie State University, the Southern Utah Friends “rent” a room from a private arts center. A number of groups have “storefront” residences: the Center for Spiritual Living and Desert Ridge Baptist Church are two. Finally, the Dixie Drive District SGI Buddhists met in the house of one of their members.
I also interviewed nine religious “leaders” as part of my research; “leader” being whoever was directing the service of a particular congregation that I attended. My interviews included preachers/pastors from Grace Episcopal Church, South Mountain Community Church, Grace Baptist Church, New Beginnings Christian Fellowship, the Southland Bible church, the Center for Spiritual Living, Solomon’s Porch Four Square Church, a reader from the Church of Christ Science, and the Rabbi at Beit Chaverim. The Christian Science reader later asked that I not use material from our interview in my writing and presentations, so I deleted that one from my data base. Eight interviews is not a lot, I understand, but it does add a layer to my understanding of what it means to be religious in Washington County, Utah.
The next stage of my research started in June, 2016, when I began a research residency with Redemption Lutheran Church. A member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Redemption Lutheran is a relatively new member of the Washington County religious community. The church was planted by Pastor Michael in 2015, it rents a second floor space in an upscale business office building, and has a regular attendance of 15-20 people. I have attended Sunday services, Thursday Bible lessons, and Morning Refreshments at Redemption for the duration of this past summer.
In my year of “church hopping” I gained a solid understanding of what religious services in Washington County look like. I’ve found that, yes, there are a lot of LDS wards with many members who meet regularly, but underneath this veneer of a dominant religion is an active and diverse religious community. Importantly, I’ve gained an understanding of some interactional activities that are common in typical religious services and the meanings these activities hold for congregants.
In this paper I focus on a few theoretical concepts found in the data that cluster around symbolic interactionist ideas about self, identity, and the maintenance of social structure. I’ll first discuss some general theoretical ideas and then support them with empirical data from my fieldwork.
We are born into worlds that are populated by people who have ideas about reality. They are more or less convinced that their ideas about reality are correct. We, being newly born, have no ideas about reality at first. The people who inhabit our new world have vested interests in convincing us that their versions of reality are the correct ones.
Our parents, for instance, have a vested interest in convincing us that their form of parenting – their rules, their arrangement of furniture in the house, their dinner time – is correct. They’ve invested a lot of time and energy into accepting this way of doing things as the right way and to suggest otherwise is to challenge their moral compasses. Adherence to the norms and values of a situation is adherence to a moral order. Our parents do things a certain way because they believe it to be the right way.
The same notion holds true for other segments of “society.” We believe that our ways of educating our children are the right ways and, therefore, other ways of educating children are wrong because morally righteous people educate their kids our way. We believe our economic system is the best not just practically, but morally, and that other systems are morally wrong. We believe that our ways of choosing political leaders are right and other ways are wrong.
Our understandings of our selves are wrapped up in our understandings about reality. As Peter Berger suggests in The Sacred Canopy (1967) we project our internal/psychological beliefs onto the world out there. Included in these projected beliefs is a place for ourselves. In attaching moral beliefs upon one’s vision of reality one attaches the same beliefs upon one’s own existence. Thus we have vested interests in actively maintaining our visions of reality because we have vested interests in maintaining our visions of our selves.
The vested interests we have in maintaining our perceptions of reality work at many interactional levels. This is what sociologists mean when they say that culture is shared. We align our perspectives with others in order to maintain a reality and a moral order. Social order is always maintained at an individual level. I maintain my view of reality in my individual acts. Others help me maintain this reality because they want to maintain their place within what they perceive to be a moral order.
Importantly for our perceptions of this moral order reality structure are our perceptions of the interconnectedness of everything. We like to think that not only do we as individuals have a place within the order, we think that everyone else does too. We believe there is a “purpose” to it all and that “proper” behaviors are self-evident in accordance with this purpose and “improper” behaviors are self-evidently not in accordance with it. To this end we construct ideas like “nature” and “science” and “religion” to legitimate our perceived moral order reality structures.
The discussion thus far is too simplistic for real life. My job as a sociologist is to document the myriad ways by which we interactionally construct and maintain this order. It’s also my job to document the order that people say they perceive, because this perception is what they’re trying to maintain. In this way, as Howard Becker (2014) suggests, I want to describe complexity, not theorize simplicity.
Some the questions I seek to answer in this research include: In what ways does religion serve as a moral order reality structure? More accurately, in what ways do people use their perceptions of religion to legitimate their own moral order reality structures? More precisely, how do people see their religions as moral order reality structures and how do they perceive these orders as legitimating their worlds and their places within them? To answer these questions I’ve observed people interacting with each other in situations they define as religious: church, prayer services, meditations, and bible studies.
From an interactionist perspective of religion, to call oneself a member of a particular religion is to declare oneself a believer in a set of cultural norms and values. One is expressing one’s interest in adhering to a set of shared rules of conduct guided by a shared set of ideals. Such allegiance is a presentation of oneself as holding a certain worldview and, concurrently, acting as if this world view is true.
To declare oneself a member of one religion or another is self- and other-labeling that comes with assumptions. To call oneself a “Mormon,” for example, calls out in oneself and in others a set of belief and action assumptions: no coffee drinking, no cussing, getting married in a temple, no ‘R’ rated movies, garment wearing, going on a mission, and believing that the Book of Mormon is really another testament of Jesus Christ. To say that a self-labeled member of the LDS Church calls out the same behaviors in herself as she calls out in others is to say that she has internalized the cultural assumptions of the label. A woman who labels herself a Mormon expects herself to act like a Mormon and believes her actions to be morally correct. She also believes the interactional structure of her church to be morally correct.
Georg Simmel (1997) uses the term “religiosity” to refer to a state of being in which individuals internalize certain cultural ideas about religion. The first step toward internalizing religion – being religious - is that this religiousness must be individually and culturally recognized. That is, no one knows that it is possible for one to be religious unless there is a cultural label, a word, pointing it out. People must talk to each other about the idea that “being religious” exists. Once this label is created, then people can start pointing out (to self and to others) that some people are religious and others aren’t. Some people are seen as being of one type of religion and others of another. Some people are considered members of one congregation, others of another. Some people are understood to profess to be religious with their lips but not with their hearts.
A couple stories from my conversations with Pastor Mike of Redemption Lutheran can help with understanding this act of interaction identity. In one Sunday service Pastor Mike made a special point to emphasize how God has revealed His entire plan in the Bible. The whole story is there. Nothing else needs to be told. He then said that “here in Utah” some people don’t get that; the “here in Utah” being a thinly veiled reference to the LDS Church. That LDS theology suggests the story of God’s plan is not fully revealed is not Christian from Pastor Mike’s Lutheran perspective.
Another story comes from a Morning Refreshments conversation I had with Pastor Mike. I asked him if he knows much about Rastafarianism, he said “not much.” So I told him what I know, including the bit about how Rastafarians believe that God was manifest in both Jesus and Haile Selassie, the late emperor of Ethiopia. Pastor Mike stopped me and said, “Then they aren’t Christian.” Christianity, according to Pastor Mike, is tightly defined by the accounts of the Bible. God may be Father, Son, and Spirit, but not the emperor of Ethiopia.
Significantly, Pastor Mike insisted upon reading this manuscript that it isn’t his place to judge either LDS or Rastafarian people. He simply feels his understanding of theology is in line with truth, while others are misguided. But it is up to God to judge, not mere mortals.
The point of these two stories is to highlight the importance of distinction in defining one’s religious reality structure. One way of knowing one’s culture and, therefore, knowing who one is, is to point out to self and others who one isn’t. In refuting the accuracy of LDS and Rastafarian theology, Pastor Mike is affirming the perceived accuracy of Christian Lutheran theology.
Once a religious label is constructed and accepted among some group of people then some in that group will feel that they, themselves, are religious. Some within the group will internalize the idea that they are religious; religious becomes a perceived quality of their being. But how does anyone know that any particular person is more or less religious? By the way they act. Religious people must act as if they are or no one believes them.
This sets-up Simmel’s distinction between need and fulfillment. Those who internalize the idea that they are religious develop a need to be religious because even they don’t know they are unless they act as if they are. One only learns one is religious once one acts religious according to cultural labels of being religious. So, those who are labeled (especially by self, but probably by others) as religious develop a need to act religious so that they and others can accurately apply the religious label to them.
Need fulfillment happens in numerous ways. One obvious way is through participation in recognized religious services. Going to church every Sunday (or some semblance of) shows to self and others that one is of some sort of religious nature. Knowing the hymns and prayers at church by heart, for instance, also shows to others and self that one is of some type of religious nature. Having a well-worn Bible and being able to actively engage the pastor in knowledgeable conversation at Bible Study serves the same purpose. Born again stories provide need fulfillment as well. When someone recounts the day, time, and exact circumstances when the spirit moved her to become Christian, she is fulfilling a need to present herself as a type of person who believes in a kind of reality structure.
Cultures provide ways for the religiously labeled to fulfill the action requirements of being so. That is, there are, in Robert Merton’s (1968) terms, appropriate and available means for attaining one’s needs within a culture. Communities provide meeting spaces for religious services, access to religious literature, pews, prayer rugs, advertising space in local publications, and political opportunities. In these ways those that seek a religiously active life and, thus, a religious culture and sense of self, have the resources to do so.
To summarize, through social interaction people construct reality structures that justify their perceived moral orders. They negotiate present definitions of situations with self and others based on the beliefs they bring to their interactions. Others believe the situation to be something, self believes the situation to be something, too. The negotiations are based on the individuals in the situation trying to convince each other of their beliefs about what is going on.
Peoples’ beliefs about definitions of situations are their realities. Their beliefs about definitions of situations are claims to self importance. Therefore peoples’ beliefs about definitions of situations, about reality, are beliefs about morality. Perceived realities validate individuals’ claims to legitimate existences, therefore individuals’ have vested interests in convincing others to accept a given reality.
Reality confirming events create cohesion or, rather, the desire for membership in cohesive groups is a driving force behind reality confirming events. Religious services are reality confirming. The rituals contained within them, and the participation of the congregants in doing the rituals, create a sense of cohesion, or attractedness to the group. This attraction comes from the belief that others acting like one acts within the service believe the same things that one does and thus confirm one’s sense of reality, purpose and dignity as a moral being.
Religious activities are a form of reality construction. Religiously active people create versions of reality among themselves that maintain perceptions of what is true. Such reality maintenance necessarily supports individual’s ideas concerning what is true about their selves. Namely, their versions of religious reality support their own perceived existences as morally righteous individuals.
Becker, Howard S. 2014. What about Mozart? What about Murder?: Reasoning from Cases. Chicago: University of Chicago.
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Glaser, Barney G. and Anselm L. Strauss. 1967. The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction.
LDSChurchTemples.Com. “Statistics: United States: Utah: Washington County.” Retrieved August 30, 2016. (http://www.ldschurchtemples.com/statistics/units/united-states/utah/washington/)
Merton, Robert. 1968. Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.
Simmel, Georg. 1997. Essays on Religion. New Haven: Yale University.