Social gatherings consist of people coming together for a purpose. These scenarios often contain symbolic markers that streamline human action and behaviour while channeling attendees towards common goals. In Durkheim’s seminal book, “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life”, he draws parallels between religion and society, theorising that the former unifies people through ritualistic behaviours just as similar actions are found in the latter with the goal of moral remaking as a continual process (as cited in Appelrouth & Edles, 2015, pp. 122-124; Durkheim, 2008). This paper will examine the traits and functions of religion and social gatherings through the lens of Durkheim’s theories on social beliefs and rituals. In doing so, I hope to identify communal characteristics between religious and social settings, uncover the degree of success in the different scenarios, and analyse whether some settings are more effective than others in the moral remaking process.
I will first operationalise the definition and functions of religion to establish the context. According to Durkheim (as cited in Appelrouth & Edles, 2015, p. 128), religion comprises a unification of elements: beliefs, practices, and sacred things that culminate into a “moral community called a Church”. The “sacred things” are essentially items, living or not, typically profane, and insignificant on their own. Yet, they are infused with meaning and treated as sacred objects. Durkheim likens them to a totem, used as symbols, and as “a material expression of something else” (as cited in Appelrouth & Edles, 2015, p. 128). The expressions act as an outward projection of religious values while totems also function as a symbolic representation of gods and deities. Importantly, symbolic creation need not be relegated to totems; A place, such as a church, functions sufficiently well. Durkheim (2008) contends that society birthed religion and often involves the creation of and subsequent acknowledgement of an external force that commands moral authority. Crucially, human beings must accord respect to that force to maintain religious fervour. Ultimately, Durkheim erases the distinction between religion and society, asserting that they play in concert, behaving as two sides of the same coin.
With a clearer context established, I scoped the analysis around three scenarios: A Buddhist ritual conducted in a dwelling, soccer as played in a stadium, and corporate meetings held in an office. As Durkheim stated, there is no difference between religious celebrations and commemorative events of ordinary citizen life (as cited in Appelrouth & Edles, 2015, p. 137). In detailing my observations, I will try to prove that a form of moral remaking exists with varying degrees of success even if they comprise similar elements between the three apparently distinct events.
As a child, I grew up and identified as a Buddhist. Over several years, my mother and I made our way to the home of a Buddhist nun for an annual ritual (“Buddhist Rituals”, 2018). The nun would don a grey robe and chant words I did not understand nor paid heed to. Then, I had joss sticks handed to me and had to clasp them between my palms. I joined a line of children who must have been around my age, led by the nun as we paced in circles in a spacious hall. Despite my resentment towards the sessions, I complied with my mother’s instructions to attend them. Surely she must have done this out of love for her son and not from some mysterious, invisible imperative? How about the nun? Did she confer benefits on congregants? Otherwise, why would we turn up? One day, my mother explained that I did not need to receive Guan Yin’s blessing anymore after a final trip to the nun’s home. I had apparently reached the age limit. Still, I did not think to question the arbitrary number then but find it amusing now that a deity could possibly be ageist.
But, I must admit that in my years of growing up as a Buddhist, I have always felt that deities and gods were watching over me; Durkheim (2008) would term them as sacred beings. I was told that Guan Yin watched over me with the yearly rituals promising me safety. I even wore a pendant of her around my neck. Yet, these were still intangible beliefs. The nun would change into her Buddhist robe before any rites began. Did she turn into a symbol of authority, able to channel the invisible powers of sacred beings onto us? The young congregants certainly fell in line and participated in the rituals without resistance. Could it be said that the nun acted as the authoritative figure to reinforce Buddhist beliefs and values onto us? We might be indoctrinated, as children, into adopting such beliefs and behaving in accordance with Buddhist values. That is a fair statement to make. With that, I say that there is a good degree of moral remaking from having participated in the ritual. Those morals, Buddhist values in essence, should hopefully be instilled and cemented in the generations of children who ever graced the nun’s home.
I turn now to soccer not as a fan, but an observer. Similar to religious congregants convening at a house, soccer fans head to a stadium built specifically to contain hundreds of thousands of spectators. Soccer fans congregate to watch and appreciate teenagers and adults kicking a ball for a little over ninety minutes until the blow of a whistle seals the fate of the players and often, themselves too. Many more fans will also join the live telecast from all over the world and partake in rigourous chants, cheers, and jeers simultaneously. It is appropriate now to highlight a uniquely Singapore creation: the “Kallang Roar” that is best described as an action almost demanding a ritualistic fervour in its execution (Nair, 2017; “Kallang National Stadium, 2010).
Soccer fans also often wear the same coloured jerseys as the teams to signify support for the team and one another. Importantly, a referee roams the field and, just like the nun, behaves as the authoritative figure. The referee can also control the game through symbolic use of a whistle and coloured card held by an outstretched hand. These actions often elicit a visceral reaction from the spectators, with the crowd either cheering, jeering, or screaming in a show of support or outrage. Such uniformed solidarity can only be achieved inside the stadium; Its layout provides a conducive environment for nationalistic zeal to erupt. Indeed, soccer and the stadium contain a variety of symbols to curtail negative behaviour and encourage positive gameplay and sportsmanship. The key lies in the referee as the single sole authority, supported by assistant referees and an array of field cameras to aid decision-making. He protects and promotes fair play. He is the judge, jury, and executor. He is the nun of religious sports if there was ever one. If fairness and sportsmanship are markers of good morals, then the referee and the entire sport of soccer lends credence to Durkheim’s moral remaking to which a good degree can exist.
How about corporate life? Again, the similarities between the above settings play out. Just as the nun dons a robe and soccer players put on jerseys, typical corporate workers put on shirts, pants, dresses, suits and ties, depending on the degree of formality that their jobs require. The entire journey between home and office plays out almost ritualistic with clearly defined actions such as waking up, preparing for work, then making one’s way to the office. The office building itself functions as a symbol, with inner areas demarcated for work, rest, or interaction. Social gatherings can take place anywhere in the building. However, one place is specifically set up for close, physical contact between people: The meeting room.
A typical setup consists of either a round or long, rectangular table with limited chairs signifying and limiting the number of attendees. Windows can be shuttered, and doors locked to ensure a good degree of privacy for all involved. Where the Buddhist rites were performed by a nun, and the referee exerting some level of control over a soccer match, corporate meetings feature a different authoritative figure. I will use a “Manager” as an example. That title usually accords a person legitimate power to command others, especially through a boss and subordinate relationship, resulting in a manager often steering meetings. However, a manager is never, even if rarely, seen as sacred. It would certainly be preposterous to think of a manager as one, able to even channel divine forces. Admittedly, he could steer the group to achieve corporate goals but is never the sole arbiter of what constitutes as “good” or “bad” in the moral sense.
In closing, across the cases, social gatherings take place in specific locations. There is often a figure that commands influential power, though not necessarily divine in nature. The three settings at least shape human behaviour for a defined duration. While I believe that the different events all lend themselves to the moral remaking process, the efficacy is not universal and should not be assumed as such.
Appelrouth, S., Edles, L. D. (2016). Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory: Text and Readings (3rd ed). SAGE Publications, Inc.
Buddhist Rituals, Practices And Objects. (2018). Facts and Details. Retrieved from http://factsanddetails.com/world/cat55/sub355/item1327.html
Durkheim, E. (2008). The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. (J. W. Swain, Trans) Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. (Original work published 1915)
Kallang National Stadium. (2010, November 14). Remember Singapore. Retrieved from https://remembersingapore.org/kallang-national-stadium/
Nair, S. (2017). 10 memorable games that gave birth to the Kallang Roar at the old National Stadium. The Straits Times. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/sport/football/10-memorable-games-at-the-national-stadium