Religion, Family, and Civil Society

Some people seem to have a surprising amount of difficulty distinguishing between coercive, government-imposed restrictions and the kinds of voluntary social and religious institutions that, after we consent to participate in them, limit our social and behavioral choices. Among the best examples are religion and family: they both nurture good character, inculcate moral thinking, teach tolerance, promote sharing, caring, self- restraint, and respect for each other as human beings. Any institutions that nurture good character and promote human values are, in my opinion, vital to any civil society.

Religion is not only intricately linked to family, it has been part of our psyche and experience since the earliest recorded human history, and has exerted its influence on civilization in various forms and shapes, guiding the ideological formulations of human thought on social behavior within the socio-cultural and historical context. At the same time, it has also shaped the collective human personality and influenced the human condition both socially and politically. In sum, religion has been the main driving force in shaping human society from its primitive to post- modern form.

No other ideology has influenced the social and political human condition, and the course of human history more than religious thought. It predates any scientific knowledge, contemporary psychology, sociology, and secular ideology. It is through religion that human beings have learned to establish, regulate and guide their marital, family and societal relationships. Religion, therefore, is intimately related with the human family; each has exerted influence on the other and neither religion nor the family can be fully understood apart from one another. There continues to exist an inextricable link between family and religion, even in so-called secular democracies, through the religious rituals and functions surrounding birth, marriage, and death.

The family, like religion, has also been part of the human experience. It has influenced political, social, economic and legal systems, and has shaped and guided social policies, political considerations, and laws for governing and regulating family relationships, as well as civic, social, political and economic institutions. Therefore, religion and family play a crucial role in constructing civil societies and in creating human conditions that are interrelated to the psychological and social well- being of individuals, within family, society, community and the world. If a society does not value either its religion or its families, it will eventually lose social stability and civility itself.

Since the moral revolution of the 1960s in North America, both religion and family values have gone through intense societal scrutiny and revision. Religion has been criticized for its role in subjugating women to the lowest social and legal status in society, and the traditional patriarchal family for its role in denying women many basic human rights. This has eroded both their influence and their functions as balancing and moderating forces in a society because both are being rejected through media, government policies, and fluctuating social values. The result has been a marked rise in psycho-social problems, including drug abuse, high divorce rates, societal violence, narcissism, and the deterioration of civil society. There are numerous examples that demonstrate how civil society has been gradually eroding.

Freud was a staunch opponent not only of religion but of family, and even civilization itself. According to his theories of psycho dynamics and human personality, family and religion were the antithesis of individual freedom because both exerted control over human desires and wants. In his view, religion was merely a "collective neurosis of humanity" and God was a substitute for a vengeful and authoritarian father, always ready to castrate his son out of jealousy and lust. Family, for Freud, was a cesspool of incest; physical, psychological and emotional abuse; and the cause of guilt and shame leading to neurosis and disintegration of personality. The only purpose he assigned to the family was that of procreation for self-preservation. Any other emotions such as care, affection, kindness, and bonding between parent and child — especially between mothers and sons — carried negative sexual connotations and was a cause of pathology.

This has had a profound effect on human behavior and thinking. It has given rise to narcissism, aggression, anger, lying, cheating, and an environment in which individualism is viewed as the absolute — where the interests of the individual take precedence over those of the state or social group, including family. In other words, it is a belief in the primary importance of self-centered independence at the expense of all other relationships and connections. It is all about "doing my own thing."

In a true civil society, individuals are free to act in accordance with their rights and to exercise individuality, but choice and actions undertaken usually involve cooperation with others — with family, schools, businesses, churches, mosques, associations, charities — to achieve purposes that no individual could achieve alone. In other words, there are shared values, interests, and cooperation among different segments of society who, like healthy family members, work towards the common good instead of individual self-interest.

These shared values of cooperation are a by-product of the socialization process that takes place within the family itself between its members and the larger environment. Families are the primary social systems in which complex interaction and association between individuals — joined by marriage, birth, adoption, and emotions — inculcate values of sharing, individual moral responsibility, compassion, and caring. "Family" is thus a complex association of individuals, joined together by biological and emotional bonds and shaped by intimate relationships, cultural and religious values, personal interest and economic interdependence. More importantly still, it is the family that transmits values of justice, compassion, care, nurturing, individual moral responsibility and equality that give rise to civil societies and civilizations.

This last point also reveals another important feature of civil society — that people are not isolated or separate individuals, but by association are part of the larger fabric of society and its communities. This includes not only business relationships, but even more importantly, those associations in which people’s attachments are rooted less in their economic concerns than in their personal identities. Religious groups are most influential here, for it is through religion that people seek a true understanding of what has value in life and how one should pursue it.

It is through these broader associations that people seek understanding of their place in the world and identify goals that give meaning to their lives. Indeed, it is through associations with family, schools, business, work, clubs, churches, mosques etc., that individuals are able to exercise their humanity and not feel alienated or isolated.

The irony is that our obsession with individuality and modernity is creating an isolated and alienated citizenry, and a society that negates these particular attachments that traditionally made people human, or what we call "civilized." The task ahead for all those who care for humanity is to roll back the negative influences of our self- centered capitalist society that favour a mechanized human entity to give more scope to restoring true civil society, in which both individualism and cooperation flourish.