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Religion as a Total Institution (2019)

Michael Moore

According to sociologist Nicki Lisa Cole, "A total institution is a closed social system in which life is organized by strict norms, rules, and schedules, and what happens within it is determined by a single authority whose will is carried out by staff who enforce the rules" (Cole, 2019). For an organization to become a total institution, it must have control over its subjects. The more control that it has, the closer the organization approaches totality. Erving Goffman's original types (Goffman 1957; 1961), consisting of institutions such as prisons, nursing homes, boarding schools, and convents, have been extended to include the elementary school (Wiggins & Langenbach, 1975), the home (Avni, 1991), the mass media (Altheide, 1991), tourism (Ritzer & Liska, 2004), universities (Wright, 2017), and many more institutions. In what follows I will claim that religion should also take its rightful place in the list of total institutions.

The extent to which a religion controls a person's every move is best shown in Judaism. The 613 commandments[1] that an observant Jew is expected to obey[2] do not exhaust orthodox Judaism's list of do's and don'ts. First, there are halachic treatises (different ones according to different ethnic groupings), which delineate one's expected behavior from waking up to falling asleep. Second, every rabbi can issue a responsum, which is not binding, but which may have tremendous influence on his congregation. Strict observance of the dietary (kashrut) laws alone places a heavy burden on believers. These laws not only dictate what may be eaten, but also decide the manner of animal slaughter, the time between the consumption of meat vs. milk and milk products, the origin of one's milk and wine, the time and manner of harvest, and the proper handling of cooking and serving utensils. Dietary laws also instruct orthodox followers where to buy food and where to eat out.[3]

While the extent of control over an orthodox Jew's life is enormous, other religions also dominate various aspects of their followers' lives. In addition to the Koran, which demands 5 daily prayers, Muslims are also subject to following the teachings found in the Sunnah and the Hadith. Some of these will tell believers when to go to bed and when to rise, on which side to sleep, which shoe one should put on first, or how much to eat. The website teaches its readers to emulate the prophet's behavior by observing 7 Sunnahs concerning eating, 4 about drinking, 8 about sleeping, 2 about waking up, and 7 about toilet use. Though Muslim food taboos are less strict than those found in orthodox Judaism, the laws of halal prescribe methods of slaughter and proscribe some birds and other animals, as well as the consumption of blood. Muslims are also forbidden to drink alcohol. This stricture is widespread: "Some religions—including Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, Rastafari movement, Bahá'í Faith, and various branches of Christianity such as the Baptists, the Church of God in Christ, Methodists, the Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists and the Iglesia ni Cristo—forbid or discourage the consumption of alcoholic beverages" (Wikipedia, 2019a).

Buddhism also dictates a style of life, which includes the observance or practice of the 3 Jewels, the 4 Noble Truths, the 4 Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, the 5 Precepts or 5 Vows, the 6 Perfections, the 8-Fold Noble Path, and the renouncing of the 8 Worldly Dharmas (4 Hopes and 4 corresponding Fears). Along with the encouraged engagement in meditation and vegetarianism, the daily life of the true Buddhist is no less constricted than that of the followers of several other religions.

As for Hinduism, its absolute control over every aspect of life is well documented by the following quotations from

Hinduism is not considered a religion but a way of life, because religion guides every step of a devout Hindu who is drawn to it and deeply influences his thinking, behavior and attitude towards himself, others and the world. It is difficult to separate the faith of a devout Hindu from his lifestyle or way of living.

The Hindu man drinks religiously, sleeps religiously, walks religiously, marries religiously, robs religiously. (Attributed to Swami Vivekananda)

[E]ach individual has to honor certain duties and obligations towards himself, his family, his ancestors, gods, other humans and living beings. He has a primary duty to serve gods and nourish them because they keep a protective watch over him and help him to secure name, fame, wealth, progeny and other material comforts.

According to Hinduism every human being, who is an aspect of God, has to live, practice and protect his Dharma or moral and religious laws.

In Hinduism, an individual must revere and respect the Vedas, because they are revealed by God for the welfare and the guidance of the world and contain nothing but truth... it is expected that every devout Hindu should have respect for these sacred books, engage in their proper study and understanding called svadhyaya (self-study) and practice the truths and laws that are prescribed by them.

[A] devout Hindu is expected to live his life strictly according to the laws as laid down in the scriptures. He must diligently perform his daily sacrifices, obligatory duties, and various samskaras (sacraments), according to his position and status in society, and live through the four stages of his life (asramas) as prescribed in the scriptures. (Vemulapalli, 2019a; 2019b)

By comparison, Christianity appears to be the least controlling of the major religions. However, given its vast array of denominations, it is difficult to make a legitimate general statement about Christianity. Wikipedia's list (2019b) contains eleven main denominational families: Evangelical, Anabaptist, Anglican, Reformed, Lutheran, Latin Catholic, Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, and Ancient Church of the East. Furthermore, this list does not exhaust Christian diversity. For example, Presbyterianism (belonging to the Reformed family) contains 82 different churches, while Pentecostalism (from the Evangelical family) has 78 of them.[4] Some of these hundreds of churches prohibit the consumption of alcohol, while still others forbid any intoxicant consumption (including that of tea and coffee). Some dictate vegetarianism, while others ban any contact with blood. They differ from each other in, among other things, the demand for obligatory tithing, in the giving of Peter's Pence (donations to the Catholic Church for church philanthropy), in adherence to the Eucharistic Fast, in the observation of Lent and its related customs of fasting and abstinence from meat, smoking, or sex, and in the timing and rituals of Christmas.

The above characterization of the five major religions leaves little doubt about the fitness of my thesis. Religions are, to various degrees, total institutions. It is clear from Goffman's original thesis that "totality" is a continuum on which institutions lie, some fulfilling more, others fewer, of the seven mortifications of the self: (1) role dispossession (deep break with past roles, no visitors or visiting); (2) programming and identity trimming (admission procedures are designed to shape and code individuals into an object); (3) dispossession of property, name, and one's 'identity kit' (giving up property that identifies one, having to wear institutional clothing); (4) imposition of degrading postures, stances, and deference patterns (such as kissing the feet of a superior, gestures of penance); (5) contaminative exposure (group living necessitates mutual contact and exposure); (6) the disruption of the usual relationship between the individual and his/her actions/behaviors (the necessity to employ deference patterns of behavior); and (7) restrictions on self-determination, autonomy, and freedom of action (loss of self-determination).[5] Goffman (1961) quotes from the handbook of a religious order: "fasts and obediences and penances and humiliations and labors that go on to make up the routine of existence in a contemplative monastery: they all serve to remind us of what we are and Who God is" (Merton, 1948, p. 372). Some religions and their affiliated churches impose more constrictions than others, yet all are guilty of mortifying or "putting to death" each follower's self.


[1] Tradition holds that these 613 commandments represent the human body's 365 organs plus its 248 sinews.

[2] Though many of them cannot be observed after the destruction of the Second Temple and the cessation of sacrifice (Jones, 1963).

[3] Thus kosher meat is considered by many as halal.

[4] Baptists comprise 68 different churches, Lutherans comprise 67, and the Eastern Orthodox comprise 46 churches.

[5] These examples have been paraphrased from Goffman (1961).


Altheide, David L. (1991). "The Mass Media as a Total Institution." Communications Vol. 16, No. 1 (January): 63-72.

Avni, Noga. (1991). "Battered Wives: The Home as a Total Institution." Violence and Victims Vol. 6, No. 2 (Summer): 137-149.

Cole, Nicki Lisa. (2019, January 16). "What is a Total Institution?" ThoughtCo. <>.

Goffman, Erving. (1957, April). "On the Characteristics of Total Institutions." Paper presented at the Walter Reed Institute's Symposium on Preventive and Social Psychiatry. Forest Glen, Maryland.

Goffman, Erving. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Guindeuil, Thomas. (2014). "What do Christians (not) Eat: Food Taboos and the Ethiopian Christian Communities (13th-18th Centuries)." Annales d'Éthiopie, Vol. 29: 59-82.

Jones, Douglas. (1963). "The Cessation of Sacrifice after the Destruction of the Temple in 586 BC." The Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1 (April): 12-31.

Merton, Thomas. (1948). The Seven Storey Mountain. Garden City, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Co.

Meyer-Rochow, Victor Benno. (2009). "Food Taboos: Their Origins and Purposes." Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, Vol. 5 (June): 18.

Quran Tutor. (2014). "Daily Sunnahs of Holy Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W)." <>.

Ritzer, George and Allan Liska. (2004). "'McDisneyization' and 'Post-Tourism': Complementary Perspectives on Contemporary Tourism" in Tourism (Vol. 4, pp. 65-82) ed. Stephen Williams. London, UK: Routledge.

Vemulapalli, J. (2019a). "The Concept of Hinduism as Way of Life." <>.

Vemulapalli, J. (2019b). "The Hindu Way of Life, Living According to Hindu Dharma for Self Realization." <>.

Wiggins, Thomas & Michael Langenbach. (1975, April). "The Elementary School as a Total Institution." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Washington, DC. <>.

Wikipedia. (2019a). "Food and Drink Prohibitions." <>.

Wikipedia. (2019b). "List of Christian Denominations," § "Christian Denominational Families." <>.

Wright, John Paul. (2017, January 2). "The University as a Total Institution." Quillette. <>.

Copyright ©2019 Michael Moore. The electronic version is copyright ©2019 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Michael Moore. All rights reserved.

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