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The Social Soul

Thomas Whitley

On Wednesday, I am giving my first presentation as a PhD student. I am presenting on Émile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (I regard this to be by far Durkheim's greatest work, so I'm excited to be presenting on this and not one of the other 14 books we are reading for this class). Durkheim was a noted French sociologist, even being called by some the architect of modern social science and the father of sociology. Very early in Elementary Forms Durkheim speaks of the social nature of religion, the clear theme of the entire work:

...religion is something eminently social.

Religion is, by its very nature, social. In an almost throw-away comment over 150 pages later, Durkheim speaks of "the social soul." That phrase struck me so that I have titled this post with it and have even tentatively titled my presentation Wednesday with the phrase.

Even as an introvert I recognize the role of society and all things social in my life and especially in my faith. As such, when someone or some group attempts to undermine the social nature of religion I view the move as suspect. And while Durkheim was certainly not writing with social media in mind (he wrote Elementary Forms in 1912), I see a direct correlation.

Those of us that are heavily involved in religious communities and social media communities saw the fruitful possibilities almost immediately. Far from detracting from our faith or worship services, social media instead enhances our faith and our worship by bringing us back to the heart of religion - an endeavor which is eminently social

To be sure, many will argue, after the reasoning of William James, that religion/faith is in its most pure form on the individual level and that whatever is expressed on the social level is merely a copy of or degradation of what a special few have experienced authentically on the personal level. But, since religion is, as Durkheim points out, eminently social and was born on the social level, individual expressions are really just "aspects of the religion common to the church to which the individual belongs."

Let's think about it another way. Durkheim followed up his statement that religions are eminently social with this statement:

Religious representations are collective representations that express collective realities.

Religion transcends each of us and helps us conceive of collective realities. These realities, though, must be realized in and through individuals; thus the individual needs the social and the social needs the individual.

Now there is no shortage of focus on the individual in our Western society and especially in Western religious expressions. Protestants since the Reformation have worked to push the focus away from the corporate toward the individual. This is not altogether bad, but a balanced approach is needed and the current imbalance is evidence that we need to be reminded of the social nature of religion and of our own social souls.

While gathering together for a service is certainly "social," churches seem to have been systematically working to take out as many of the social aspects as possible. Congregants are expected to sit quietly and merely observe as worship takes place on stage in front of them. To be sure, many services include singing and some include unison or responsive readings, but the truly social nature of these activities is almost completely lost by virtue of the strict rules that govern what can happen before, during, and after these "corporate" acts of worship.

If we are going to truly recapture the social in our religious expressions we need to loosen the reins and stop promoting the idea that the idealized form of faith expression is found only on the individual level. We need to open up our services by encouraging social communion during worship. Social media is a quiet means by which we can do this.

By this I simply mean that it would not provide anywhere near the same level of distraction that one talking to her/his neighbor during a service would. It is, nevertheless, purely social.

Encouraging utilizing social media as a means of social communion during our worship servies would draw us back to the eminently social nature of religion and help us to fully realize collective realities, all the while strengthening our individual faith.