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Religion and the Family

Religion and the Family

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson will discuss the inter-relationship between religion and the family, including the ways in which religion influences family structure, on the one hand, and the family may either support or undermine religion.

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Hello. Welcome. Today, when looking at religion and the family, we're going to try to identify the source and the structure of values and morality and ethics which served to bring them into closer relationship. We'll see that the roles within families, society, and religion often mirror each other, and can therefore be mutually supportive to varying degrees. The character and strength of this relationship depends on how these values are perceived and applied in the broader realm of society and culture.

There are several roots of our modern notions of family. Surely there's the biological family unit, the natural structure of relations. But Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, saw this natural condition as the ground for many other human structures and human endeavors and projects.

The first commitment that stems from this state of nature is the "philia," the affection and love between husband and wife-- spousal friendship, in fact. And the deep moral, ethical, and loving foundation of this relationship allows this unit to hold together and prosper. The key part of this however, is what he called "philautia," self-love. And this is the principle of being able to experience the pleasure of one's own virtuous life, and by so doing, be able to discover true virtue, present and active, in another person's life.

And there are some interpretations of Aristotle that understand the natural inequality of the genders to be overcome by the filial force, along with certain rational virtues, which are shared and held in common. For Aristotle, this forms the basic support of the family unit, which then reveals a structure of authority that can be confidently moved and extended into other foundational parts of society-- towns, cities, larger political systems, et cetera.

So from that foundation, other things are built. And this understanding of family and society, in relation to virtues ethics, was also an important element of Confucianism around 500 BCE. Confucius believed that filial piety, or respect and love for parents and their authority, was a key virtue and therefore the strongest model to be followed for the structure of civil, political, and social life. And an orderly structure for society depended on this parallelism between family order and political hierarchy.

In this sense, society and spiritual life enjoy a sort of symbiosis. You can see a symbiotic relationship between them. And this applies to our Aristotelian model, as well. Both Confucianism and ancient Greek philosophy, as ethical, political, and in a certain sense, spiritual ordering systems depended upon individual commitments to these values.

So looking at the individual in the context of family and religion is the family and the reference system of values that supports a child's movement into society and the available structures for growth and learning, education, all the scales of political life, and religious involvement, as well. And often a particular religion is part of a family ethic, and a family practice, as well-- mutually supporting the other, religion reinforcing the family values, and the family itself reinforcing the religious structure by virtue of its being able to provide members and practitioners of the religion. And here we can see our key term at work, a symbiotic relationship.

Ancient Greek philosophy, Aristotle Plato and Aristotle in particular, have historically had a big influence on many religions of the world and Confucian thought, as well. Both of these philosophies have impacted how we envision the structure of our family roles in society. For example, the traditional normative structure of marriage in these philosophies generally promotes monogamy and specific gender roles within a family, and the associated roles of power and authority, as we mentioned earlier. And different religious traditions have historically supported other family structures of marriage, such as polygamy or the inter-familial marriages among cousins, for example, among certain tribes of Africa. And religion maintains family stability by espousing these values and norms, and by laying out roles and duties with respect to husband, wife, children, and elders that are represented in a family.

So now we can review and summarize a bit. The process of love that virtue extending out into society to the village and city, et cetera, all of this for Aristotle begins with the "oikos," the family, the household unit, and the exchange of love and virtue which is modeled on the idea and the reality of spousal love and friendship. And Confucianism also saw the structure of family as a building block for society, because it embodied the fundamental virtues of love, respect, order, and authority.

Spiritual and religious institution support these family values by offering roles and functions that give life to these values. Among our examples were marriage and respect for parental authority. And finally, political structures, and social values, and family virtues and values all work together in a symbiotic relationship that give life to certain religious principles. And finally, we pointed out that individual and shared commitments to these principles or virtues-- love, respect, rational development, among others we mentioned-- these, therefore, ensure the survival and the growth of the society and its healthy institutions.

Terms to Know
Symbiotic Relationship

In Biology, a relationship in which two organisms simultaneously serve each other’s physical needs; any relationship in which two parties benefit from their interactions over a period of time.