Types of Religious Values and Family Cultures

Horst J. Helle

Horst J. Helle, “Types of Religious Values and Family Cultures,” in The Religion and Family Connection: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Darwin L. Thomas (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 343–54.

Horst J. Helle was a professor of Sociology at Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich, West Germany, when this was published. Previous professorships include RWTH Aachen, Germany, and University of Vienna, Austria. He was visiting professor in Leuven, Belgium; in Calgary, Alberta, Canada; and in Zurich, Switzerland. His research focuses on Georg Simmel, sociology of religion, and family sociology.

The Problem

One of the basic premises of this paper is that the number of different family cultures is limited. While on the micro level of social psychology individual preferences tend to lead to an infinitely large variety of family styles, I shall assume only four stable family cultures to exist on the macro level. Those four culture types are theoretically constructed according to Max Weber’s methodology of ideal types. For the sake of brevity I will call them, H, M, F, and P culture respectively. In our typology H stands for HUNTER, M for MOTHER, F for FATHER, P for PARENT. Table 1 presents the basic typology.

Table 1. Typology of Family Cultures

Religious value system defining the
origin and sustaining source of life
animal deityfemale deity:
fertility goddess
male deity:
fertility god
Christian dogma:
trinity plus
virgin mother
Sexual norms and mating rules,
forms of marriage
male bands
exchange each
other's 'sisters'
males 'borrow'
each other's
female chastity
as basis for
merging two
clans into one
Organization of kinship solidarity:
what makes us relatives?
to eat from
one animal
body: local
group and
to descend
from one com-
mon mother
to descend
from one com-
mon father
to descend
from one mar-
ried couple:
nuclear family!

After dealing first with the four types of religious value systems, we will look at sexual norms (including different forms of the incest taboo and varied mating rules and forms of marriage among the four different cultures), and, finally, comparative types of kinship organization.

This paper shows how these three levels of analysis interlink, and what this theoretical scheme, if applied in empirical research on the family in modern industrial society can explain as a heuristic tool.

Religious Value Systems

Methodology. Orienting family and sexual behavior toward collectively held values causes a large proportion of modern confusion and anxiety; the confusion can be attributed to the difficulty people have in recognizing which separate values match into one consistent set and which ones are incompatible. Therefore, I present different types of values as coherent sets in a developmental perspective, assuming that older forms were superseded by and integrated into more recent forms. According to Bakan, “there is at least heuristic value in thinking about development as taking place in stages. Each stage in a developmental sequence is the aim of earlier stages and the precondition of subsequent stages. Moreover, earlier stages in a developmental sequence never disappear entirely but continue to exist, at least in some form.” (D. Bakan, 1979: 25.)

Each stage that can be shown to embody other, presumably earlier, stages is comparatively complex. Thus the various types of value orientation can be described and evaluated according to their respective levels of complexity. To better understand the stability of such sets of values and their relationship to innerworldly experiences, future empirical research can be designed.

H Religion: The Animal-Deity. The least complex level of human religion focuses on the animals man needed to hunt and kill for his own survival. There is reason to assume that humans developed their “role-taking” skills enough to include the animal species they needed as meat. If the animal (as an alter ego) would not let itself be hunted and eaten, human beings would die from starvation. Man therefore correctly viewed the animal as the source of life, and his earliest concept of a deity took the image of an animal. This deity was either the animal that served as food or the predator that was admired and often feared for its superior hunting ability. Thus hunters like the lion and the eagle could become deities as well as the mammoth, the bear, and the buffalo whose flesh became food. Walter Burkert in his remarkable contribution to the history of religion, has shown that relics from hunting culture can be traced as far as the sacrificial rites of early ancient Greece (W. Burkert, 1972).

M Religion: The Female Deity. Embedded in the most recent layers of the paleolithicum, archeologists have found figurines that are apparently indications of religious attention focused on female fertility. These prehistoric Venus statues have been discovered in Eastern Europe “only inside of residential structures From that we gain the insight, that, consequently, only those tribes of the recent paleolithicum, who had become sedentary to a high degree, had figurines of women. Throughout the vast territory of the Venus figurines the stationary hunting culture can be ascertained.” (F. Hancar, 1939: 40–148, translation mine.)

By transforming the image of the life-giving deity from an animal to a female human being, mankind shifted toward a stable new feature of its culture. This change of religious worldview reflects a change in life-maintenance: In migratory hunting the central source of survival is the animal; life depends on whether it permits itself to be killed by the hunters. In late sedentary hunting, and certainly in the agrarian cultures, survival of the tribe depends on the fertility of its mothers. These dramatic changes cannot possibly be explained only in terms of material living conditions. Rather, they result as well from the evolution of both new forms of religious values and new forms of family life. The concept of the mother-goddess gives divine authority to child-care as well as to fertility. And since these early cultures have no notion of fatherhood it is left entirely to the women to be fertile in the sense of having offspring.

The continuity of the mother-goddess religion reaches as far as Old Testament times. About Abraham, who later was to become a symbol of fatherhood, the Bible tells us: “When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai: ‘I know well how beautiful a woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say: She is his wife! Then they will kill me, but let you live. Please say, therefore, that you are my sister, so that it may go well with me on your account and my life will be spared for your sake.’ When Abraham came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw how beautiful a woman she was; and when Pharaoh’s courtiers saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. So she was taken into Pharaoh’s palace. On her account it went well with Abram, and he received flocks and herds, male and female slaves, male and female asses, and camels.” (Genesis 12:11–16.)

This remarkable quotation could be dismissed with the comment that in an extreme emergency it would certainly be acceptable for a wife to pose as a sister. But the end of the report shows the shortcoming of such an interpretation, because Sarai was in fact taken to Pharaoh’s palace, and Abram was generously rewarded for her being there. This report is more plausible if read in the tradition of one prince sharing his sister with another prince. After, in connection with their special calling the two have their names changed from Abram to Abraham and from Sarai to Sarah, respectively; they travel in the land of Gerar, where, for the same reasons as in Egypt, Abraham “said of his wife Sarah, ‘She is my sister.’ So Abimelech, king of Gerar, sent and took Sarah. . . . ‘I was afraid,’ answered Abraham, ‘ . . . besides she is in truth my sister, but only my father’s daughter, not my mother’s; and so she became my wife.’ . . . Then Abimelech took flocks and herds and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham; and after he restored his wife Sarah to him, he said, . . . to Sarah . . . : ‘See I have given your brother a thousand shekels of silver’” (Genesis 20:2–16.)

Our thesis is that these documents contain collective memories of the mother-goddess religion. Authors belonging to a more complex culture-context would have been too preoccupied with the possibility that Abraham might be misunderstood as a pimp and Sarah as a prostitute. Therefore, they would have shied away from recording such events as Sarah’s stay with Pharaoh or her visit to Abimelech’s palace.

F Religion: The Male Deity. The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament are the charter of the patrilineal family. The father’s fear of disloyal or even rebellious offspring is answered by the words: “Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life” (Exodus 20:12.) This commandment is repeated elsewhere more explicitly: “Whoever strikes his father or mother shall be put to death—Whoever curses his father or mother shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:15, 17.) The authority of the mother, apart from having firm foundations in less complex family types, could rest on the small child’s physical dependence. The father’s authority depends more on religious and legal support. Therefore these threatening verses help stabilize the institution of fatherhood. The source of these commands, Israel’s God, himself appears as a father. He also forbids adultery, because it is an attack against the basis for the institution of fatherhood: female chastity.

Abraham then becomes the pioneer of a father-culture by recognizing in god the fertility-deity El Shaddai, and by receiving from that deity, whom he makes his personal god, the promise of fertility for himself, a man. Male fertility, which among pastoralists had been known merely as a physical reality, is thus defined as a sacred gift. This development of a religiously founded concept of fatherhood out of and yet in the continuity of the mother-deity was later forgotten and repressed in Israel’s long periods of strife with heathenish cults. In consequence, one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of religion remains obscure and unresearched.

P Religion: The Christian Synthesis. New and more complex value-systems have no stability and enduring force if they simply negate all previous forms. They may just provoke a powerful swing of the pendulum of history toward the less complex faith that seemed to have been defeated. Only what has been integrated has in fact been overcome. In our hypothetical reconstruction of the metamorphosis of religious value-systems we assumed an animal-deity, that gave food as the basis of life to the male band, a mother-goddess that granted fertility to the human woman, and finally a father-god, who made his covenant with a human male Abraham, granting him countless offspring.

We started our typology of religious values with the animal-deity of a pre-family stage. The males formed a band of hunters, asked the deity to help them supply food for their women and children and to protect them from any harm. They felt united not by ties of kinship, but by eating from the same body of the animal they had killed. Even at their much more complex level of culture evolution the Israelites met in groups large enough to eat one lamb.

At the stage of the mother-goddess a female deity bestowed fertility on the human woman, made conception, pregnancy, birth, and motherhood manifestations of her divine powers, and laid the foundations of family values. This form of religion, however, left human males outside the family context. They prayed to the lord of hosts to lead them in their military expeditions; he was the god of war and victory, strong and powerful, but not yet a father. The fatherly god who bestows fertility on a man and makes him responsible for his personal wife and children, is a sensational form of revelation, only about four thousand years old. The form had its beginnings with Abraham, but was later to be resumed and intensified in the words of Jesus: “He who sees me, sees the father.”

The Christian religious value system consists of statements on family values and relations which are integrated into a typical complex of beliefs. The creator-god, originally one person, is differentiated into the Trinity. He embodies the loving relationship between father and son, thereby having a patrilineal principle built into the deity itself. In Catholic and Orthodox Christianity the Virgin Mary continues the sanctification of motherhood given by the mother-goddess.

“The idea of Christ being the second person in the Trinity and the Son of God the Father, whose Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, divides the Godhead into three separate roles and thus saves Christianity from worshiping, what is in effect an incestuous god” (W. Lloyd Warner, 1961:304, 305).

The concept of the creator-god contains all the qualities of previous stages. He incorporates both the “tremendum,” or unlimited power, and the love of a father. The final synthesis is in his being the Son of God and at the same time the son of Mary. Thus he represents the solution to any imaginable tension or contradiction inside the Christian synthesis of less complex value systems.

Sexual Norms and Mating Rules

H Sexuality: Exchange of “Sisters” Among Bands. Hunting such large animals as the mammoth or the buffalo required lasting and highly efficient cooperation. Intimate solidarity among the men in the local group became possible by eliminating sexual rivalry. Thus the least complex variety of the incest taboo may have been tabooing the women in the local group for the men in that group. Consequently, sexuality was banned from inside that group whose members had grown up together and regularly shared their meals.

However, this form of the incest taboo caused the problem of fertility and of channeling sexual drives. Therefore, relationships of cooperation and solidarity must have been established also with at least one other neighboring group, in order to give the hunters peaceful access to sexual mates. This mutual interest in forming alliances was supported in the area of food supply: When a band had killed a mammoth, they had more meat available than they and their own people could eat. They would then invite the neighboring group to eat from the same animal body. Thus the participants would have the sacred experience of transcending the boundaries of their local group of everyday life: they would eat the meat of their deity together. At another occasion the guest band would kill a mammoth and thus host their allies. This elementary potlach would also be the elementary form of a “marriage” feast, in the course of which the men of one band would impregnate the women of the other. Later, in more complex hunting cultures, the women would stay with their mates, but even with the adoption of a virilocal “marriage” each “spouse” retained his or her totem: “marriage” did not affect clan membership (as it often does not in modern industrial societies).

M Sexuality: Exchange of Sisters Among Males. When the religious value system is dominated by the fertility goddess, it is the women’s responsibility to be fertile and have offspring. A close male, to whom she is taboo because both come from the same group, may assist her in finding an appropriate mate. It is against this background that such events as Sarah’s stay with Pharaoh or her visit to Abimelech’s palace become meaningful. But still this is a striking remark: Abraham himself says that Sarah was only of the same father and therefore a possible spouse to him. This shows a strictly matrilineal version of the incest taboo; the physical fact of fatherhood is known but not considered culturally relevant. Before it could become a central religious concept, applicable in defining father-son, father-daughter or sibling relationships, it was necessary to introduce yet another institution, without which fatherhood could not exist, marriage as the exclusive right of one man to have sexual relations with his spouse.

F Sexuality: Female Chastity. The oldest passages of the Bible show traces of marriage institutionalized originally in the matrilineal context. “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and the two of them become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Here, being of one flesh means belonging to the same family, being blood-relations. This well-known decree from Genesis assigns the husband membership in his wife’s clan, thereby introducing marriage and fatherhood as institutions into the matrilineal context.

But for men even to want to be fathers in the patrilineal sense, they had to overcome this fear: Had their wife been true to them, and was the child they were raising really their own? This issue concerned the male band as a whole. It was thinkable that some of them raised their own children as fathers with the assistance of their wives, while others continued the simpler custom of having offspring the matrilineal way through their sisters and without marriage. Any tolerance of matrilineal values would have meant the collapse of the patrilineal culture. Those who had no ambition to be fathers but preferred to continue being uncles, would probably have had affairs with other men’s wives. The resultant jealousy would have weakened the band to the point at which enemies could have easily overpowered the whole people. This is precisely what the book of Judges describes as happening to the chosen people again and again.

The God of the people of Israel appears as a father who forbids adultery, because it attacks the basis of fatherhood. His indictment of adultery can also be read as the men’s pact not to take each other’s wives away. Thus on a more complex level we see the reduction of sexual rivalry achieved at the band level. Besides, if a man has intercourse with another man’s wife, it will be uncertain whose child she is to give birth to. However, the patrilineal family depends on that very certainty. Therefore the future husband must also insist on the virginity of his bride. How else could he be sure that she had not previously conceived of someone else? It becomes clear then, that a population seeking to establish a firm basis for fatherhood must accept a rather complex system not only of religious values but also of norms to restrict sexual spontaneity.

P Sexuality: Monogamy. Parenthood as shared fertility of mother and father is the basis for the bilateral kinship system. The P-type family culture forms a synthesis of the M and the F types. Since, however, the fundamental interest in establishing fatherhood is carried over practically unchanged from the F-level system, sexual norms and mating rules remain just as strict and repressive. It appears, then, that the increasing liberalization of sexual behavior in modern societies makes neither the F- nor the P-type family viable.

Whereas H- and M-type cultures ban sexuality inside the family, F- and P-type sexualities take the form of erotic married life inside the nuclear family. The increasing difficulty of leading sexual lives in an F or P culture context makes it more and more unlikely that sexual behavior will be limited to intrafamilial married activities.

Types of Kinship Organization

H Solidarity: “We All Eat from the Same Canteen.” We have used a colorful array of materials from pre-historic speculation, from cultural anthropology, and from the history of religion mainly to inspire and guide our theoretical endeavor: the construction of ideal types of family cultures. At the end of this article I sketch a few possibilities for their application to family research.

In modern industrial societies it seems questionable whether kinship and the family are relevant concepts to the individuals involved. This is true particularly in the occupational world. The more work tends to be the center of existence rather than just a means to an end, the more family ties fade in significance. To adolescents their relatives may seem far less important than their peers. For some this orientation would be simply a phase in their maturation, but it might become a stable and lasting attitude with others.

Such a person’s answer to the question, “Who are your relatives?” would not tell us much about the persons closest to him or her. Empirical research on the family should first of all investigate the problem of modern man’s increasing or decreasing inclination to organize meaningful interaction around concepts of kinship. We cannot simply deny the ability to form close associations of solidarity to those segments of our populations to whom family orientations are remote. Rather, their most meaningful social ties may be organized around nonfamilial forms of creativity such as in the work world or in intellectual life in general. They are geared toward making a living rather than toward having a family. To them, solidarity is sharing the economic source of sustenance, of eating from the same canteen.

It follows from our scheme that the three levels of (a) religious value systems, (b) sexual norms, and (c) organization of solidarity are mutually dependent. Accordingly, we would be able to formulate hypotheses (to be tested in empirical research) that would take such interdependence into consideration. For members of the H-type culture we would predict a high flexibility in their sexual norms, however, with a tendency to attach a sexual taboo on members of their own closely knit in-group. They would not consider marriage a desirable state. Children are socialized in the mother-child dyad which is often but loosely integrated into the peer group. Moreover, we would predict little affinity to any personal deity regardless of whether it be conceived as male or female.

M Solidarity as Absence of Fathers. A member of the M-type culture would name as relatives those who descend from the same mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother. The striking increase of births out of wedlock in the United States is reason to predict an increase in the membership of the M-type: In the USA

between 1970 and 1982, the number of one-parent families headed by never-married women rose by a startling 367 percent. The highest rate of out-of-wedlock births was among women between the ages of 20 and 24. But the number of illegitimate births among teenagers jumped from 199,900 in 1970 to 271,801 in 1980—even as the number and rate of births among teenagers declined. The racial differences are striking: among white teenagers, 33 percent of all births were illegitimate, while among black teens, 86 percent were out of wedlock. Experts attribute the increase to greater sexual activity among teenagers. (Newsweek Special Report: A Portrait of America, January 17, 1983:27.)

Obviously, then, the number of persons who grow up with relatives from their mother’s side only will steadily increase. Following our three-level scheme, we should predict among the M-type population strict observance of an incest taboo between mother and son and among siblings from the same mother, but an increased likelihood of sexual activities among siblings from the same father but different mothers, and among father and daughter. All these forms of incest can be attributed to the decreased significance of fatherhood as a culture concept. Sexual norms in general will be flexible or—to use a widespread terminology in our field—“liberal.” Already the position of the husband is comparatively weak, and in divorce the children stay with the mother, while the father is simply dismissed. We would also have to predict a decreasing inclination to accept a male deity.

F Solidarity: The Model of Japan. Among Protestants and Jews, acceptance of a religious value system dominated by a male god will be relatively high. Among these groups we can expect a large percentage of members of the F-type culture. However, the absence of female figures within the religious value system suggests that these groups will produce the highest percentage of feminists. The question “who are your closest relatives?” will evoke a list of cousins and in-laws from the father’s side and also attribute more significance to the father’s parents and siblings than to those of the mother. The patrilineal kinship system is characteristic of modern Japan. Its followers favor female chastity: virginity of at least the woman prior to marriage, and fidelity during it. It is far more acceptable for one man to have more than one woman, than for one woman to have more than one man. In a marriage the husband tends to dominate, and in divorce the children will stay with their father.

P Solidarity: The Dream of Little Children. While a matrilineal lineage as well as a patrilineal lineage can be kept alive and be the basis for kinship solidarity across many generations, the principle of descending from one parent couple emphasizes the nuclear family. Lines of descent can be traced back only either in the male or in the female line. Any attempt to consider both with equal attention must lead to a family tree with four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on, with the number of ancestors doubling from generation to generation. The resulting confusion focuses attention to the nuclear family.

In the P-type culture people feel as close to relatives from their mother’s side as to those from their father’s side. Marriage means that the families of both spouses unite into one clan. The P-type culture generates more resistance to divorce than any of the other types. Sexual norms are even more restrictive than in the F-type culture, because under P-type conditions absolute monogamy is a prerequisite for the maintenance of the kinship system. Due to its high level of complexity this culture type does not have a good chance of acceptance. It has never been an empirical reality on a large scale, but it probably produces ideal conditions for the socialization of small children. (Berger and Berger, 1983.)


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