Religions as Social Contracts

Last night, as I was falling asleep, I had an interesting thought: what if religions are a type of social contract, like monarchy, democracy, or socialism? Thinking about religion in this way requires us to temporarily ignore theological issues and divine powers, and focus on the interactions of people following a particular religion. This doesn’t mean that the supernatural or divine isn’t important to religion; it does mean that there is more than one meaningful way to think about religion. Religions do more for people than simply show us God, Liberation, or The Way. Religions offer us ways of relating to people, as well as the world around us, and that’s what I want to explore in this post.

Thinking about religions as social contracts helps explain many of the metaphysical and supernatural aspects of religion in a sociological context. When viewed in this light, religions use a similar organizing principle as the concept of Rule by Divine Right does, which many ancient and medieval monarchies have leveraged to hold power over their subjects. The Renaissance and Enlightenment in Europe critically examined these types of government, concluding that the subjects gave their assent to the rulers, rather than the rulers deriving their power from a divine source. Religious followers work under a similar system, giving authority to a person who represents the religion’s power or right to lead these people. The type of social organization that a particular religious group forms can change: for example, a community meditation group behaves differently than a Hindu monastery or a Catholic cathedral.

As with any other form of leadership, organization, or governance, it’s possible for abuse or manipulation to occur. However, if religious followers are members of social contract, they are empowered to change their situation, rather than simply accept the abuse of power. It may not be easy to break with a religious tradition and change one’s ways in a situation like this, but it’s a justifiable option. This is why it’s important to look at religions as social organizations: for example, it’s possible for someone to maintain their faith or beliefs and deny that church representatives have the authority to act in certain ways. In fact, this sociological model of religion explains most sectarian splits that occur in the histories of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, etc. There’s an entire branch of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School dedicated to the sociology of religion.

I think it’s important that we think about religion in this way, because we don’t have to abandon a religion to make a change in our religious beliefs. In other words, the ways that we practice our religious beliefs are malleable. The movement for allowing female priests in the Catholic church is an example of this. Not all of our religious tenets are theological: some are social contracts, and we should renegotiate these contracts if we don’t like the terms of the agreement.

Integrating theological issues into this social contract model of religion complicates the picture, but it can be done. Entire careers have been spent on this project, and I think it’s outside the scope of a single blog post. But what do you think? Is this idea useful in thinking about religions?


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