On Anomie and the Utility of Faith

Emile Durkheim

Anomie. I was taken by the word the first time I heard it, a little before I came to understand what it meant. It was in a sociology class, that dreaded first period where being tardy meant losing attendance, that much valued life blood of every student ever since the enforcement of the new exam rules, and where one had to exercise a great deal of skill (and possess a high degree of luck) to successfully slumber through the lecture. As my classmates and I struggled to keep our heads up and eyes open, the teacher spoke about Durkheim and his theories.

Emile Durkheim was this German guy who wrote a lot of stuff, and a large portion of this has been considered valuable by sociologists, but what stuck in my mind was his concept of anomie. In his cheerfully titled treatise, Suicide, Durkheim spoke about this vague sense of aimlessness, normlessness and a sort of identity crisis arising from a lack of social regulation. Durkheim characterised the phenomenon in the context of the Industrial Revolution, a period of immense economic and political change. It was this change, Durkheim asserted, that brought about alienation and isolation. As social patterns, values and norms changed, individuals were left confused, undirected, unregulated. Durkheim also spoke about religion and anomie. Or rather, lack of religion and consequently, anomie. Religion provides individuals with a sense of collective purpose, a feeling of importance beyond one’s own material existence – to be part of some larger sense of glory, to be the chosen people of this or that deity, to be secure in the knowledge that as long as you followed the seven or ten or sixty two rules laid down by your god/prophet/godman of choice, you’d be sorted in life (and often, after it too)

This got me thinking. We’re undergoing very similar changes today. The internet and technology have changed the world immensely, and can be considered a revolution of sorts. Humanity, in terms of pure material progress, has moved ahead by leaps and bounds in mere decades, perhaps faster than ever before in human history. It took us thousands of years to go from the wheel to automobiles, but just two centuries from the first steam powered automobile in 1769 to the Apollo 11 moon mission in 1969. Another growing phenomenon in the modern world, is atheism, or at the very least, lack of religion (one being active, while the other passive)

I, myself, have been an atheist since before I could spell the word and knew what it meant. My interactions with the holy and the sacred were mechanical at best –  going to the occasional temple with my family, the odd havan or two per year, and sometimes reciting Sanskrit shlokas (the meaning of which remained unknown to me for the longest time) from memory with my grandparents. I never felt emotional or passionate about the religion I was born into, nor did any other religion attract me. I was baffled by the inconsistencies, irrationalities, and most infuriatingly, injustices that often cropped up in various religions. Nor could I bring myself to believe in some primordial, omnipotent being outside the framework of organised religion.

Growing up, I realised that this was the case with a large number of people around me, especially people my age and just a little older. In the era of rationality, where we had set foot on the moon, a heaven full of angels (or 72 virgins, take your pick) seemed an obvious fairy-tale. We live in an era where more people than ever before statedly disbelieve. Hell, we live in an era where disbelief is an option. Only a couple of hundred years ago, people were being barbequed for the medieval equivalent of sharing an Atheists Rock Facebook post on their profiles. Now, one could safely (well, in most parts of the world) scoff at this belief and that.

So yay for us. A world of rationality and freedom, governed by libertarian principles, where a self assured sixteen year old could debate against a religion two millennia old without significant danger to life or limb. Hell, it became cool to be an atheist. Everyone and their grandmothers (okay, perhaps this is one instance where this particular idiom doesn’t apply, grandmas are quite religious, mostly) was an atheist.

Sounds good right? Ah, but here’s where the anomie comes in. We live in a world where fewer people die in wars than ever before (it’s true, look it up) where fewer people die of diseases (when was the last time someone you knew had the bubonic plague?) and where life, in general, is better than ever before. At the same time, we’re depressed. We’re aimless. Suicidal. More people than ever before now deal with mental illnesses and imbalances. Identity crisis. Mid life crisis. Hell only a couple of days ago someone was complaining on Facebook about a ‘quarter life crisis’. Why all these crises?

Because in the modern world, one can, by and large, do as one pleases. Most people, even religious people, pay greater regard to rationality in the conduct of their own lives, dogmatic as they might be in their opinions and articulation. Convenience has outweighed conscience, so to speak.

And while, by and large, this is a great thing, leading to development and growth and what not, even a firm rationalist and atheist like myself sometimes wonders if perhaps there is utility (distinct from a higher purpose) in religion. The community feeling that leads one to believe they are part of a particular group, the security of social support from the people at your mosque or gurudwara or what have you, and the assurance an individual gets from their faith in a higher power who they can trust to make things right, is as empowering as it is retarding.

Rationality is a cold, heartless creature. Emotions, morality, human considerations have little or no place in an environment where they can be overcome by rationalising their breach. Religion tells us that someone bigger than us cares for us. We are important to our protector, at least as long as we play by his rules. We’re part of some sort of club with a huge party planned for all eternity with an exclusive guest list. Rationality tells us we are one amongst a million species on one amongst a billion planets in who knows how many universes. We don’t like feeling small. Perhaps we have not evolved to the point where we can exist happily without some sort of external regulation, or perhaps we just have to develop a better system of external regulation than anything we have seen before. I’m not sure. I don’t presume to have answers to such profound questions. I’m just bored, mildly anomic, and sometimes, sometimes I am envious of those who can swallow the irrationalities of their faith and draw strength from it.


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