Religion, Sociology and the Lived Experience
Back in 2009, for the first time in my life, I had the aweful experience of having to put a dog to sleep. Her name was Nilla. She was my dog through marriage. I never thought I would have a fluffy white dog, let alone a little dog as sassy as she was, but it didn’t take long for her to win me over. After she passed, I wrote a quick piece on the subject of religion, spiritual thinking and the life of a sociologist dedicated to reason. I have, since then, put two more dogs to sleep, but the overall experience never changes. To this day, Fluffy White Dog Sociology is the most viewed post at the Mad Sociologist Blog. I decided to move it over to this site.
This last week my family had to put down our loving companion, Nilla. She was old and blind. A couple of years ago she lost her eyes to hypertension. In the last couple of months we watched her health decline. She started losing control of her rear legs and having seizures. The vet told us that she was undergoing liver failure and had no more than a few days to live, and that those last days would be painful. So we made the difficult, and as far as we are concerned merciful, decision to put her to sleep.
Since we had very little time to make a decision the vet suggested taking twenty-four hours to say good-bye. We did so. My wife and I had a “Love on Nilla” day (which must have been confusing for Nilla for, under normal circumstances, she most often in trouble). That night we broke the news to our kids. They took it very hard.
We are not a particularly religious family. We are not avid church goers. My wife and daughter do prayers every night, but that’s about the extent of our devotional life.
However, when we framed the “final journey” of our beloved pet to our kids we did so in religious terms. We told the kids that Nilla was very sick and very unhappy and that I would be taking her to Heaven. My children, Tekoa aged 7 and Ainsley aged 3, new what that meant. They would not see Nilla again. We explained that Nilla would be healthy and happy when she got to Heaven. She would get her eyes back and she would be able to watch us from the clouds, but that we would not be able to see her (later I added the possibility that Nilla might visit us in our dreams).
It was all pretty typical imagery designed for the understanding of children.
But that wasn’t all. Though my wife and I are not religious, much of what we were telling our kids we also believed, albeit not in the terms described. Without the benefit of evidence we’d like to think that there is a cosmic level of justice for a little, blind, fluffy-white dog. It makes the seemingly capricious nature of life, especially life as described by Richard Dawkins and his ilk, a little more sensible.
Though I doubt the validity of the fairy tale imagery that we shared with our children, I do have spiritual beliefs that go beyond my life as a sociologist. I believe, without data to prove, that there is a higher nature. Perhaps higher nature isn’t the right term. I believe it’s just nature, but a part of nature that we living beings have no (or perhaps little) sensitivity to. I don’t believe in the “super” natural, in other words.
Either way, I believe, or perhaps it is more accurate to say, “I hope,” that Nilla’s existence did not end on a carpeted, stainless steal table in the vet’s office. I hope that the difference between life and death isn’t…a breath.
As a father, the framing of a Heaven and clouds and a return to health are useful symbols to convey this hope to my children. My children don’t quite have the vocabulary to examine this most mysterious phenomenon. As a sociologist I’m interested in these symbols as a means of conveying imagery and meaning through story telling to help my children cope with profound hurt. I’m also interested in these things as modes of knowledge, as discursive formations.
Heaven, clouds, dream visitations, peace and good health. These are all pretty common themes. Almost all parents console their children, and perhaps even themselves, with such ethereal imagery, whether the loss is that of a relative, parent, or a fluffy-white companion. Could this be an archetype of innate understanding of the Great Beyond, or just a tradiational, cultural expression of hope in something eternal in a world where nothing lasts forever. Regardless, they are useful symbols to express these ideas.
When these symbols and stories are adopted by institutions, however, they become more than just hopeful and helpful stories, they become instruments of power. We all hope in our hearts that there’s an Eternal Beyond. Religion as an institution, regardless of sect or denomination, uses these symbols and the hope they represent for more Machiavellian purposes. They are used to control and motivate populations.
The primary function of an institution is the perpetuation of that institution. The ideologies and expressed goals of all institutions are secondary to this (what I call the Law of Institutions). The acquisition and distribution of power is the mechanism by which the institution perpetuates itself. So religion takes the archetypal drive and imagery of a collective hope for eternity, and incorporates it into its own power structures.
Beautiful and consoling stories that we tell our children, or even ourselves to make life a little more bearable, a little more livable, a little more…wonderful…are twisted into Great Truths. Eventually they become “the only Great Truth,” and the only way to access this truth is to take the faith you have in your heart and place it in the auspice of an institution, a church, a religion.
This is a powerful tool and, as we’ve seen from a long history of religious strife and intolerance, is also a dangerous tool.
My children are now playing in the back. The sun is setting scarlet beyond the fence that bounds our yard. It’s some days since Nilla’s passing. We all miss her, but life goes on. Though my children, and their parents for that matter, benefited from the beautiful imagery of Heaven, we didn’t need an institution to cope with our grief. Maybe some day humanity can find comfort in the tapestry of hopeful Eternal Stories that are components of our global culture as well as solace in the fact that we all have such stories to tell our children…that fluffy white dogs will frolic in Heaven and visit us in our dreams.