Religion as a social system

As Luhmann argues in Theory of Society, volume 1 and elsewhere, religion always posits some mystery or secret, and occult societies (mystics, gnostics, priests, Masons, Templars, Illuminati, Theosophists, hermetic groups, etc. ) are said to have access to these mysteries, including secret texts. Only select members of a community are initiated or granted access to the occult.

So religion as a social system employs a distinction that we can characterize variously as manifest/latent, known/secret, open/occult, hidden/revealed, immanent/transcendent, exoteric/esoteric, clear/obscure, obvious/mysterious, etc. It is commonly believed, for example, that Jesus presented an easy-to-grasp message for the multitude and also imparted secret wisdom to his closest disciples. The parables can be understood on at least two levels, and St. Thomas Aquinas said Holy Scripture can be interpreted on four levels–only one of which is the moral level. (The others are literal, allegorical, and anagogical. )

The assumption is that there is an outside, or something beyond everyday, given reality. In other words, there is something transcendent. There is this world and something else, which is a distinction in the factual dimension. But the problem or paradox is that some observer, something immanent to reality, must make the immanent/transcendent (or known/secret) distinction. This two-sided form doesn’t simply exist. An observer or observing system must make a distinction in order to indicate anything at all. Religion, as a social system, tries to dissolve this paradox by positing an Uncreated Creator or Unmoved Mover.

Religion is not necessarily about establishing or enforcing a moral code; the association between religion and morality is actually very shaky. Consider antinomianism, the idea that salvation comes through grace alone and has nothing to do with following a moral code or law. And some ancient cultures thought of morality in terms of valor or strength, not as being kind of generous or anything like that. Luhmann speaks of morality in terms of respect–moral action is action that is accorded respect (or esteem) rather than disrespect by a community. Th term antinomian, meaning anti-law, was coined by Martin Luther, and it was called a heresy. But based on this meaning, antinomianism simply recognizes that the religious system add the legal system are different.

God, as formulated by religion, can be thought of as the observer of everything, including itself. God, in this sense, has no blind spot. But what makes the distinction that allows this observer to indicated? The social system called religion.


  1. religion in terms of the distinction of observer roles in the thought process of human beings is an interesting way to look at how parable works in paradox; the paradoxes almost a result of the metaphorical platforms allotted in the dual meanings of parables. that Cartesian duality permeates everything, but outside the theatre (Dennett) and even from any number of perspectives, most of those same parables seem to hold up, which is interesting. I wonder often if that which transcends us is us also (Stirner), or if there really is a separate field of knowledge (Changeaux, Connes).


    1. I’m afraid you’re far better read than I am in this area. I don’t know Stirner, Changeaux, or Connes, and I know very little of Dennett. But I appreciate the comment.

      “that Cartesian duality permeates everything.” I’d say that distinctions permeate everything, or that whatever is observed is observed with the aid of distinctions. I also prefer thinking of observing systems–what kind of distinctions systems make in order to observe, etc.–rather than the thought processes of human beings.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am not very familiar with anti-humanism, as a humanitarian of sorts it caught me off guard, but the idea of not wanting to cluster all events to a scale of all humanity makes sense, especially as you were saying in the distinctions of systems and observational rights or socio-cultural norm in standards of exchange. bias and distinction of observational roles in culture cannot be entirely devoid of distinction, but that distinction doesn’t need to be oppositional or polaric.


      2. To me, anti-humanism is about about removing humanity from the center of a theory of society. The human being is sort of replaced by communication. It’s a de-centering of humans. It’s also not the same as post-humanism because society has never really been human or reducible to the human. The basic element of society is meaningful communication, according to Luhmannian theory anyway. This blog used to be called “Autopoiesis,” but I changed it to make it more edgy, I guess.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. oh, so the structure itself becomes our representative communication, and everything that everyone puts toward that conglomerate becomes part of that technocratic culture of rule by the unseen multitude. hmmm, this definitely has gotten me thinking, what an interesting page!


  2. I appreciate the dialogue because I don’t get many comments on this blog.

    I’m not sure I understand exactly what you mean above, but I think of society as a communication system (rather than as the sum of human actors) in terms of the lack of control a speaker/writer has after she/he says something. After I make an utterance and that utterance is accepted as meaningful by a communication system (even if it’s misunderstood from my point of view), I have totally lost control over that utterance. My words are no longer mine once they are taken up by society. So society as a communication system reproducing itself as generations of human speakers and writers are born, live, and die. I wouldn’t say this is rule by an unseen multitude (which are still people), but rather by the operations of a social system.


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