Religion and structural coupling

More thoughts on religion as a social system . . .

The religion system is an operationally closed function system; it reproduces itself through the production of religious communication, which is communication founded on the distinction between this world and the transcendent, or the known world and the mysterious beyond. Religion’s basic assumption is that this world we live in is not the only reality or even the primary reality; this known and knowable world is temporal–it came into being at some point, has as history, and will end at some future date–while the transcendent has always existed and always will exist.

But as autopoietic systems emerge, they structurally couple with already existing systems. New kinds of differentiation, like functional differentiation, also structurally couple with historically older kinds of social differentiation. Social stratification already existed when religion came into being as a system. There were kings, queens, and various hierarchies of social leadership and privilege. Thus, calling Jesus the King of kings and Lord or lords fit into the familiar model of social stratification. The King of kings title was applied once to God the Father (1 Timothy 6:15) and twice to Jesus Christ (Revelation 17:1419:16).

This kind of structural coupling brings together expectations, or expectational schemata. Whatever we expect of a king on earth we should also expect from God the Father or Jesus. This is also a kind of metaphor, as traits gets transferred from the familiar (earthly king) to the less familiar or abstract (transcendent King).

Furthermore, with the development of religious organizations, stratification came more directly into play. The priests and laypeople reflected the social elite and the commoners. In Christianity, popes as well as cardinals typically came from very rich, powerful families, such as the Borgias or the Medici. The ancient center/periphery distinction also came into play as religious centers arose at places like Jerusalem, Rome, and Constantinople, and Mecca.

So this leads us to a big question: what happens to religion when functional differentiation overrules stratification and center/periphery differentiations? Clearly, religion as a function system has survived into the modern day; however, it is now only one among several function systems–economy, law, politics, science, education, art, mass media, medicine, sport. Religion has come to tolerate and be tolerated (or even respected) by the other function systems. There is a sort of agreed upon division or labor, with each system doing what it does best; each system has its own function. Mainstream religion now accepts that medicine founded on science (rather than faith) does the best job of healing sick bodies, but it reserves the soul for itself. Hospitals might have chaplains and chapels to support the work of the healthcare system, but they are ancillary.  Also, religion no longer has it own separate system of law (canon law) that could overrule society’s legal system. Canon law has no binding force in the wider society. The separation of church and state has been very important in allowing religion to flourish in the United States, but a lot of conservative Christians don’t understand this–or don’t want to understand it.

And in terms of structural coupling, religion has been able to couple with education and medicine, as well as other function systems. Religious organizations have founded and/or run schools and colleges and hospitals for millennia. Indeed, religion and medicine have been linked from the start, but fortunately the priests no longer try to practice medicine. Instead, religion offers institutional support.

Of course, religion often resists being treated as just one of several function systems. For instance, the people behind Christian economics still seem to want religion to have some kind of universal authority.


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