Social Constructionism & Religion: Do We Live in a Matrix of Our Own Design?
The sociological theory social constructionism was perhaps best explicated by Peter Berger in his books The Social Construction of Reality and The Sacred Canopy. Social constructionism seeks to examine the elements of our world which are produced by the interaction of social beings. Berger once stated that “the subjective reality of the world hangs on the thin thread of conversation.” He meant that through the delicate and often tenuous use of shared language and symbols we create economically and ethically ordered societies (though we clearly don’t always succeed).
Imagine for a moment that the entirety of human history was removed from planet Earth, including everything humans have ever contributed to it. Then pose the question: what would Earth look like given the absence of human presence? Lakes, rivers, forests, mountains, weather patterns, and volcanoes would exist whether human beings existed on the planet or not, but pyramids, bridges, skyscrapers, houses, banks, churches and cars (among myriad other things) would be nonexistent. Why? The latter are human creations, produced by generations of culture, imagination, hard work, and ingenuity. It follows that there would also be no visible system of ethics, religion, gods, politics, or human rights, because just like roads and bridges, these are features of the world contingent upon human existence for their presence to be possible. Humans are responsible for creating everything unrelated to the natural order of the world. We socially engineer the civilizations we live in and fashion cultures and religions according to our needs and desires.
Because the average human experience typically lasts less than eighty years or so, no single person has enough lifetime to observe the slow evolution of ideas that evolve into monolithic, complex structures, such as religion. Unfortunately, such a short life-experience often leads us to buy in to our surroundings, instead of understanding their origin and questioning them. Because of our myopia, we are sometimes inclined to falsely assume that moral standards or gods are unchanging or absolute.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
A few thousand years ago a significant portion of the Greek civilization believed that their gods were real beings, but today it is widely accepted that the Greek gods were and are a product of the imagination, kept alive in literature such as Homer’s Odyssey. You and I waste no time wondering if the Greek gods actually exist, we simply accept that those stories are myths. In other words, you and I are atheists in regard to Greek gods. What the rise and fall of these gods teaches us is that we humans have a remarkably difficult time distinguishing between what is actually real and what is real only in our imaginations.
In Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, he uses the term imagined realities to refer to what Berger would call social constructs. Like Berger, Harari says that these subjective realities exist only in the minds of human beings and not as physical elements in the external world (although as social architects we transmute what we imagine into forms of literature and architecture in the material world). Harari sites examples such as: capitalism, democracy, law, money, and nationalism, which he says are all wedded to the subjective human consciousness for their survival.
You and I we were born into a society where the concept of money was already established; we had to do no more than accept this social construct and live within it. We did not propose the idea of money, nor did we have a hand in its development. At one time or another the idea that a flat surface would be easier to travel on than a muddy path was conceived, and through myriad processes the idea of roads evolved into the system of highways we enjoy today. In other words, many of today’s constructs were fashioned long before we were born.
Likewise, many people today live with the notion that human rights are God-given principles that exist independently of our belief in them. But any attempt to trace the roots of human rights inevitably ends with them evolving from moral philosophy and conversation about what is ethical and fair, typically, and ironically, from Greek and Roman-era philosophers.
Human rights have perhaps found their strongest advocate in the United States’ Constitution. In this document, one of the most important social agreements in modern history, the founding fathers, who held mostly enlightenment-era views on the nature of rights and individualism, wrote that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were “inalienable rights.” But the question remains; where do rights exist? Do they exist on the paper they’re written on? Are they laser-etched into the fabric of the cosmos? No, they exist in the human mind and in the human imagination.
Consider who gets to define what it means to be a patriot in modern American society. Is there one definition that we can unanimously agree on? At what point, and by who, was it decided that to be patriot in the United States means that you’re proud to fly the star-spangled flag and put your hand on your heart and sing the national anthem? While this definition is commonplace in much of the United States, it is clearly grounded in a socially constructed definition on what it means to identify as an American. But not every American believes these rituals should define what a patriot is. Are they wrong? Or is it a matter of having different cultural rituals to express how you feel about your country?
The fact that there exists at least two levels of reality to human experience — one physical (the natural world) and one conceptual (the socially constructed world) — is not a common distinction people tend to make. The problem of being unaware of the different ways in which reality is constructed is that we can unknowingly give too much deference to social constructs and not enough consideration to natural, immutable ones. For example, the biological fact that some people are born gay is often discarded due to a theological notion that God is opposed to homosexuality and gay sex. Fortunately this theology is untrue, but unfortunately it remains a pernicious fantasy and a thorn in the side of moral progress and equality for those of that inclination.
The psychologist, Robert Cottone, once wrote that “people operate in a matrix of multilayered consensualities.” He meant that we are all constantly negotiating what we believe. We all exist in an interconnected web of agreements and compromises. We adapt our beliefs and view of the world so often and so subconsciously that many of us aren’t even aware of the process. In the fictional 1999 movie The Matrix, the people living in that world were unconscious that they existed in a simulated reality, but Neo sensed that there was something amiss about his experience — this is what led him, as Trinity said, to “the question that drives us all.” The question is: “what is the Matrix?” As Cottone stated, we all live in a type of matrix, albeit a matrix of consensualities — meaning a matrix we unconsciously create. Perhaps, like Neo, it’s time for us to start questioning the matrix we live within.
Religion is one of the most common “consensualities” humans adopt early on in life. God feels real and present to many people not only because humans are neurologically wired for spiritual-feeling experiences, but because those experiences are defined and given meaning by the religious symbols and interpretations of those symbols that are carefully “woven [into] the material world around us.” (Harari) In the United States we see this done with the Christian faith better than any other. One need look only as far as the money in one’s wallet or the Pledge of Allegiance or Constitution to see that the imagined order (in this case the Christian tradition) is being sustained through its ubiquity in American society and its paraphernalia.
Harari asks: “How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order?… first you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature … you constantly remind [people] of the imagined order which is incorporated into anything and everything [such as] fairy tails, dramas, paintings, songs, etiquette, political propaganda, architecture, recipes, and fashions.” (p.112–113) He continues by saying that “though the imagined order exists only in our minds, it can be woven in the material reality around us.” Through sustained and repeated exposure to what Berger calls a “plausibility structure” (structures of meaning) humans take part in both the creation of culture and being created by culture. According to Berger, culture is a two-way process.
However, just because something is socially constructed doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily bad. Are we better off with the institutions and initiatives that are doing good things in the world? Of course. If an institution or an idea is useful to society then it should be utilized. Law is a social construct, and has helped us create more peaceful and orderly civilizations; democracy has allowed us to debate ideas and give prominence to the ones that work and (sometimes) disregard the ones that don’t. A belief in and enforcement of human rights increases the general safety and well-being of people across the globe, and religion can sooth the existential angst generated by our mortal condition and thirst for meaning.
So constructs are useful and we need them, but because we create them they are not without their limitations. We must be conscious of how superimposing artificially created structures upon biologically diverse and complex humans can be harmful. We want to believe that our way of life is absolute and constructed by divine decree, or that our country or king has the mandate of heaven to impose his or her order upon the rest of the world, but we live in a matrix of social constructs that are rarely as authoritative as they may appear.
Instead of simply acquiescing to religious or political authority that demands dogmatic belief, ask yourself: where does this authority come from? And if enough people stopped believing in it would it, like Greek gods, disappear and become just another footnote in the history books of imagined realities?
So we are left with three options. Either (1) our societies, religions, and cultures were produced by us and our inherent ingenuity; (2) they are a matter of revelation, offered to us by an external source, (3) humans created societies and religions with inspiration from an external, symbiotic, and perhaps (at times) unknown relationship with divinity.
In my view, 1 & 3 are more a debate about cause than effect and the second option is an untenable position to maintain due to an overwhellming need for compelling evidence that simply does not exist. The likelihood, therefore, is that we are, in fact, inhabitants of a reality that over millennia we have constructed, forged, re-written, lived, loved, and died for.
So what do we do with this knowledge? Well as the architects of our reality we can do only one thing: keep building better worlds.