April 28, 2006


So I’ve been doing a little reading about those things social and cultural. This is most certainly the result of the ongoing critique I hear out the American Dream, or as I like to call it contemporary American culture. I started, unwittingly, to read up on Patterns of Cultural Goals and Institutional Norms (Merton 1957) and was led inevitably to my old French buddy Emile Durkheim and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (English 1915). Durkheim is one in a line of many thinkers who pondered the problem of the loss of faith. One of his motives for studying the functions of religion was the concern regarding mechanisms that might serve to shore up a threatened social order. In this respect he was in quest of functional equivalents for religion in a fundamentally a-religious age. And this brings us full circle. Or at least it brings me full circle.

So let the babble begin…

Two elements of social and cultural structures are of immediate importance. The first consists of culturally defined goals, purposes and interests, held out as legitimate objectives for all or for diversely located members of society, the things 'worth striving for'. The second regulates and controls the acceptable modes of reaching out for these goals. Every social group invariably couples its cultural objectives with regulations, rooted in the mores or institutions, of allowable procedures for moving toward these objectives. Though no society lacks norms governing conduct, they do differ in the degree to which controls are effectively integrated with the goals which stand high in the hierarchy of cultural values.

The process whereby exaltation of the end generates a literal demoralization of the means occurs in many groups where the two components of the social structure are not highly integrated. Contemporary American culture appears to approximate the polar type in which great emphasis upon certain success-goals occurs without equivalent emphasis upon institutional means. In the American Dream there is no final stopping point. The measure of 'monetary success' is conveniently indefinite and relative. At each income level Americans want just about twenty-five per cent more (but of course this 'just a bit more' continues to operate once it is obtained). Contemporary American culture continues to be characterized by a heavy emphasis on wealth as a basic symbol of success, without a corresponding emphasis upon the legitimate avenues on which to march toward this goal.

So…What is the American Dream?

The term was first used by James Truslow Adams in The Epic of America (1931), "The American Dream is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."

Presently, the American Dream is the faith held by many in America that through hard work, courage, and determination one can achieve a better life for oneself, usually through financial prosperity. Some say, that the American Dream has become the pursuit of material prosperity - that people work more hours to get bigger cars, fancier homes, the fruits of prosperity for their families - but have less time to enjoy their prosperity. Others say that the American Dream is beyond the grasp of the working poor who must work two jobs to insure their family’s survival. Yet others look toward a new American Dream with less focus on financial gain and more emphasis on living a simple, fulfilling life.

Thomas Wolfe said, "…to every man, regardless of his birth, his shining, golden opportunity ….the right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him."

A society whose members are united by the fact that they think in the same way in regard to the sacred world and its relations with the profane world, and by the fact that they translate these common ideas to common practices, is what is called a Church. In all history, we do not find a single religion without a Church.

Thus we arrive at the following definition: A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden - beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them. The second element which thus finds a place in our definition is no less essential than the first; for by showing that the idea of religion is inseparable from that of the Church, it makes it clear that religion should be an eminently collective thing.

Durkheim shows how an institution (a religious cult or church - the regular collective practice of rituals) is the basis or substratum of our energy and shapes our thought. We may think that the institution is just an expression of our ideas, but in reality our ideas get their energy and shape from our participation in the institution. What Durkheim argues about the church applies, in different ways, to other institutions. The family is the obvious example, but it applies to our participation in the whole of society, and its part (institutions). Mind is generated and shaped within institutions, and the mind of any place and time needs to be related to the institutions of that time and place.

Church attendance data in the U.S. has been checked against actual values using two different techniques (religioustolerance.org). The true figures show that only about 20% of Americans and 10% of Canadians actually go to church one or more times a week. Many Americans and Canadians tell pollsters that they have gone to church even though they have not. Whether this happens in other countries, with different cultures, is difficult to predict.

"There does not seem to be revival taking place in America. Whether that is measured by church attendance, born again status, or theological purity, the statistics simply do not reflect a surge of any noticeable proportions." George Barna

The circle part…Conform your mind to those things that are the Lord’s…know where you are, and act accordingly. I am a silly man, and Jesus loves all of us. Of this I can be sure.

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