civil religion

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In the 1960s a number of sociologists (including Talcott Parsons, Edward Shils, and Robert Bellah) distinguished civil religion from institutional (church-based) religion, arguing that societies such as modern America were attaching sacred qualities to certain of their institutional arrangements and historical events. Thus, in the case of the United States, the extensive immigration from Europe was analogous to the Jewish Exodus, and the Civil War a rebirth through bloodshed and an expiation of old sins. The theme of American civil religion was therefore one of Americans as the new Chosen People (see, for example, Bellah's ‘Civil Religion in America’, in W. G. McLoughlin and R. N. Bellah (eds.), Religion in America, 1968). Similarly, in a famous (and much criticized) article on the monarchy in Britain, Edward Shils and Michael Young identified what they argued were religious aspects of the apparently secular rituals surrounding the coronation (‘The Meaning of the Coronation’, Sociological Review, 1953). The basic idea behind these and other variants of the ‘civil religion thesis’ is that in advanced industrial societies, which are increasingly secular in terms of institutional religions, civic religions (such as the celebration of the state or civil society) now serve the same functions of prescribing the overall values of society, providing social cohesion, and facilitating emotional expression. In other words, civil religions offer a ‘functional equivalent’ or ‘functional alternative’ to institutional religions, since they meet the same needs within the social system. Both arguments (about civil religion in particular and functional alternatives in general) were subject to the charges of evolutionism, teleology, tautology, and empirical untestability laid against normative functionalism as a whole. See also secularization.

Subjects: Sociology — Religion.

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