Analyzing Religious Public Discourses: Categories of Thought and Value Differences

Analyzing Religious Public Discourses: Categories of Thought and Value Differences
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Tinos, Greece by Efstathios Kessareas

The religious field, as defined by Pierre Bourdieu (1991a), is not uniform, static or monolithic. Although there are common dogmatic doctrines and ritual practices, their perception and interpretation may differ even within the same community during the same period, especially when religious and lay people occupying different positions in this field engage in a struggle to implement their own. their visions about the place and role of the church in the world.

This cannot be done without legitimizing their own meanings and values ​​while at the same time devaluing the hostile ones. This results in many contrasting discourses. However, this certainly does not mean that all discourses have an equal chance of being recognized as valid by believers for many reasons, some of which include the power relations of the discourse creators, the shared approach to tradition and the past (such as sacralization or critical reflection), the adoption of new values, and, of course, the wider social and historical context with secular ideologies.

Can we find some stable criteria for comparing discourses that allow us to identify subtle differences that are obscured by common religious vocabulary (eg, church, god, salvation)? I want to argue that the so-called fundamental categories of thought (eg, time, space, personality), which the French school of sociology studied as a product of social factors, provide a solid basis for systematic comparison and cognition. Because these basic categories are the “skeleton of thought,” to use Émile Durkheim’s (1995, p. 9) phrase, they can be found in every coherent discourse, belief system, and ideology in general. We should keep in mind that the content of these categories may vary in different social and historical contexts. Intellectuals play a crucial role here, as they are experts in reformulating the content of categories to suit the needs, aspirations and interests of the groups to which they also belong or at least are associated. Thus, sociological analysis should also take into account the characteristics of the different contingents of the religious field to which these discourses are addressed.

In my recent article with Religions (see Kessareas 2022), I have shown how different interpretations and evaluations of the main category of person support opposing visions of the place and role of the Orthodox Church in Greek society and in the modern world in general. In a quasi-Weberian ideal, the dominant ecclesiastical groups, and certainly those who confuse religious and national identity, highly value the charismatic figures of the “neo-moths” (ie Ottomans executed for their faith) and “ethno-martyrs”. ” (that is, martyrs for the nation), promoting them as examples of sacrifice for faith and homeland, which are perceived as an organic unity. It goes without saying that the supporters of what Karpov, Lisovskaja and Barry (2012) call “ethnodoxy” understand the Church as the “treasure of the nation” and for this reason support its privileged position both in the state and in society.

In contrast, religious and secular figures, mostly of the younger generation who have studied abroad and support the main principles of modern Western society (eg pluralism, institutional differentiation), shift the emphasis away from the charismatic qualities of the saint and national hero. ordinary people, especially those in need (eg refugees, immigrants). For this purpose, they use the (post)modernist concept of the “other”, which they associate with the traditional religious value of the neighbor. It should not be surprising that these actors want to weaken the national orientation of the Church, transferring it to the space of civil society. Taking the epistemological position of critical reflection on the past, they loudly condemn idealized perceptions of Byzantium, nationalism and ethnocentrism.

Although representatives of both currents share a basic theological (Trinitarian) understanding of deity and humans as persons, namely as relational entities rather than as persons, they nevertheless choose to emphasize the charismatic or ordinary aspects of this category in their public discourses. of the human person. In this way, they create and promote different conceptual images (“Ethnomartyr”, “Other”), which in turn create contrasting orientations towards the modern world, for example, an open attitude towards the latter or a call to return to traditional values. Although further sociological research is needed, it seems reasonable to assume that those who share the same ideological preferences and share a common social background with the creators of the above discourses are the main recipients of them.

In order to avoid misunderstandings, except for religious fundamentalists, who understand the categories of “ethnomartyr” and “other” dualistically, namely as two completely heterogeneous attitudes that are opposed to each other, to other actors these two characters. individual understandings do not stand in Manichean fashion, but in hierarchical opposition to each other, as Louis Dumont (1980) defines hierarchy. Let me be more specific about what I mean: for the proponents of the “Other” discourse, an attitude of love, acceptance, and respect for all people regardless of their differences (eg, national origin, gender, sexual preference, religion, culture). , political ideology) is a component of the divine essence. Since the latter refers to the category of totality, it also includes the category of “ethnomartyr”, that is, attitudes motivated by a sense of national identity, provided that they do not overturn the hierarchy of values, for example by confusing nationality and culture with religion. This is because such an inversion would create an entirely different hierarchical relationship between these categories, a relationship in which the Greek Orthodox nation is clearly prioritized: the nation and Orthodoxy as an organic, sacred whole to which God assigns a salvific role in human history. . In this case, the extroverted attitude of acceptance and love is replaced by the feelings of superiority that usually go hand in hand with the practice of enemy-making and exclusion.

In sum, my argument is that categories of thought provide a solid basis for fruitful comparative discourse analysis and that they can reveal value differences that, obscured by the use of conventional religious vocabulary, would otherwise have been overlooked. We should always remember that these categories do not emerge from a vacuum and are not politically neutral. They have a long history and are constantly reinterpreted by different actors, using them as “weapons” in their symbolic struggles, to use Bourdieu’s (1991b, p. 225) phrase.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991 “Genesis and structure of the field of religion.” Comparative social research 13: 1–44.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991 b. Language and symbolic power. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Dumont, Louis. 1980. “Postface: Toward a Theory of Hierarchy.” To Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Consequences. Chicago: University of Chicago, p. 239-245.

Durkheim, Emil. in 1995 Elementary forms of religious life. New York: The Free Press.

Karpov, Vyacheslav, Elena Lisovskaja, and David Barry. 2012. “Ethnodoxy: How Popular Ideologies Confuse Religious and Ethnic Identities.” Journal of Religious Studies 51: 638–55.

Kessareas, Efstathios. 2022. Saints, Heroes and ‘Others’: Value Orientations of Contemporary Greek Orthodoxy. Religions, 13 (4): no. 360 (bl 1-17).

Efstathios Kessareas is a research associate at the Department of Religious Studies (Department of Orthodox Christianity) at the University of Erfurt (Germany). He is working on a research project: “The Challenge of Secularism to Contemporary Christianity: Orthodox Christian Perspectives in Dialogue with Western Christianity”. He previously did postdoctoral studies at the Center for Social Theory, Department of Sociology, Ghent University, Belgium. He holds a PhD in Sociology and an MA in Religious Studies. He is the author of the book Church, Ideology and Politics in Post-dictatorial Greece: A Sociological Approach (Athens: Papazisi, 2022, Greek). His articles on the sociology of religion, Orthodox Christianity and modern Greek ideology have appeared in peer-reviewed journals such as Sociological review, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Religionsas well as on international blogs such as LSE Religion and World Society, Public orthodoxyand Political Theology Network.

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