Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

Official Religion and Popular Religion in Pre-Exilic Ancient Israel

Presented at the twenty-third annual
Rabbi Louis Feinberg Memorial Lecture in Jewish Studies, Department of Judaic Studies,
University of Cincinnati, May 11, 2000
(Continued from page 3)

    But let me immediately qualify my definition of official religion. Not everything is achieved by violence. Coercive power, in and of itself, is not sufficient to achieve what Max Weber called “legitimate domination.” Indeed as Benedetto Fontana observed "violence qua violence is highly unstable, unpredictable, and costly" (Fontana 1993:144; also see Boggs 1984:159; Maduro 1982:72).

    An identical realization led Weber to observe that physical force is often "the last resort" and that every system of legitimate domination "attempts to establish and to cultivate the belief in its legitimacy" (1978:54, 213). Put differently, a dominant apparatus cannot rule by coercion and brute force alone. Its rule is rendered ever more efficacious if it convinces the masses to acknowledge its legitimacy and thus its worldview. This makes things much easier for an official religion insofar as the majority of the people are now allies, as opposed to enemies. Let it be noted that in the case of Menocchio many local laypersons who came into daily contact with him were puzzled or scandalized by his heretical (and hence illegitimate) religious banter. It was these outraged townspeople who functioned as allies of the Church for they were instrumental in identifying the deviant in their midst and bringing him to the attention of the religious authorities.

    These considerations have led me to point to another component of official religious power. Following the Italian political philosopher and political prisoner Antonio Gramsci, I have suggested (1999) that an official religion rarely rules by force alone. Gramsci believed that any hegemonic or dominant apparatus rules by achieving consensus as well. In other words, an effective “official religion” is one that persuades others of the truth of its religious beliefs through non-violence.6 If necessary, it is capable of exerting force; but since force is a tremendously unstable and expensive form of domination (also see Gramsci 1975: 57; also see Fontana 1993:144), it attempts to cultivate a non-coercive relationship with other social groups.7

    Both Gramsci and Weber recognize that a ruling political apparatus (what I am referring to as an official religion) achieves its supremacy through two distinct modes of action: force and consent (Levy 1987: 394-396). Consent is attained by convincing the masses, or perhaps by conning the masses, that “our beliefs are the right beliefs and should be your beliefs too.” The process of persuading the people was a task that Gramsci assigned to the intellectuals. This is extremely labor-intensive work, but ultimately it is a more stable and durable form of rule than rule by violence. After all, what is better than to make potentially antagonistic others “wear their chains willingly” as Joseph Femia once said (1981:31).

    To this point we have seen that an official religion is that religion within a society that, through the combination of force and consent, establishes itself as the “natural,” “god-ordained,” “legitimate” system of belief and practice. Having said this we are better prepared to confront the question of popular religion. If we are committed to seeing popular and official religion as relational entities, then we are able to define popular religion as any form of religious belief or practice that official religion finds fault with. It must be recalled that there is an asymmetrical relation of power between popular and official religion. As Enzo Pace observes: “popular religion can be seen as referring to “the symbolic universes of those social classes . . . that traditionally do not hold power” (1979: 74). Popular religion, then, is something that an official religion can define and manage. Thus Menocchio, protest as he might, was identified by the Church as a problem, and managed accordingly.

    Throughout sociological time and space the relation between official and popular religion has assumed many guises.8 The former might go easy, and try to re-educate or compromise with popular religious groups (Kselman 1986: 27-28). In some cases, the official religion might ignore the popular religion altogether. This often happens when the popular religious group in question is geographically remote, perched up in the inaccessible mountains and relatively harmless. Or, an official religion might take the type of inquisitorial brass knuckles approach witnessed with Menocchio.

    Insofar as the relation between these two entities is one of power, it is not surprising that throughout history those groups that can be managed by the official religion are often–but not always–in subordinate sociological positions. Not surprisingly, much popular religion research is concentrated on women, peasants, impoverished immigrants, minorities, politically voiceless groups, and so on. Popular religious groups often occupy marginalized social spaces and this, of course, makes them vulnerable to the whims of an official religion.9

|Page 1|Page 2|Page 3|Page 4|Page 5|Page 6|
|Page 7|Page 8|Page 9|Page 10|Page 11|
|Works Cited |Endnotes|