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 with 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 as 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 evolve, they structurally couple with already existing systems, and new kinds of differentiation, like functional differentiation, structurally couple with historically older kinds of systems differentiation. Social stratification already existed when religion came into being as a system. There were kings 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 king title was applied once to God the Father (1 Timothy 6:15) and twice to Jesus Christ (Revelation 17:14; 19:16). 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. Furthermore, with the development of religious organizations, stratification came 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 Medici. The ancient center/periphery distinction also came into play as religious centers arose at places like Jerusalem, Rome, and Constantinople, and Mecca developed.
So this leads us to ask what happens to religion when functional differentiation overrules stratification and center/periphery differentiations. Clearly, religion as 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. 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. Also, religion 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.
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 force.