sociology of religion:

Toward a new sociology of religion

posted by Peggy Levitt, Courtney Bender, David Smilde, and Wendy Cadge

Many sociologists of religion have voiced the concern that the sub-discipline is “in crisis.” Others bemoan what they view as the increasing irrelevance of internecine squabbles with respect to broader sociological conversations, much less the increasing prominence of interdisciplinary social science conversations about religion’s place in the modern world. We argue, instead, that the sociological study of religion is in fact not in crisis, but in the midst of recentering itself in new and exciting ways. Much of the new scholarship that contributes to this recentering is only tangentially taking shape within the sub-discipline, however; rather, it is equally at home in the sociology of culture and political or social movements, comparative-historical sociology, and among scholars of transnationalism. Sociologists interested in religion are marking out “new” disciplinary spaces and, in turn, drawing renewed attention to religion’s importance for a range of social institutions and processes.

While this “new” sociology of religion is currently dispersed, we believe it is nonetheless held together by several broad questions and approaches. It has been galvanized as much by the apparent ‘resurgence’ of religion in matters of international, domestic, and local affairs as by paradigm-changes within the social sciences that have taken place over a longer period. On the whole, this new sociology of religion is not invested in arguments about secularization, and not wedded to projects that defend, explain, or trumpet the “surprising” continuation of religious activity in modern life. Instead, it moves in different directions. This post marks four trends—both prospective and emerging—within sociological studies that we argue can set the stage for vigorous new disciplinary engagement.

FOUR PROSPECTIVE AND EMERGING TRENDS

Provincializing the United States. The most evident shift among American sociologists studying religion is the renewed interest and remarkable growth in studies dealing with religious groups and processes outside the United States. The list of recent sociological work dealing with either non-US or transnational contexts includes historical, ethnographic, and comparative studies. Together they make clear how much there is to gain by studying religion globally. In addition to shaping a new sociological discourse that thinks both within and beyond the “national” containers of religion, they also call closer attention to the historically developed, structural specificities of American religions, and likewise to the ongoing power of transnational processes in shaping religious and secular resources and regimes.

To understand the importance of these recent trends, we note that over the last thirty years, over seventy percent of all sociological articles on religion focused on the United States. While this is understandable at some level, it is also the case that the parochial emphasis of this work reasserts the specificities of religious forms within the United States as the norm against which other religious, political, and institutional frames are measured. Postcolonial scholars have called for historians and others to “provincialize Europe” as a way of understanding non-Western religious practices on their own terms. We make a similar call to US sociologists of religion by asking them to continue considering how US-centric approaches to ethnic and religious diversity management shape scholarly understandings of what religion is and where we expect to find it.

The Limits of Christo-centrism. In many past and present sociological studies, “religion” refers primarily to “Christianity” and, more specifically, to a narrow range of Christian forms practiced in the United States over the last few centuries. As sociologists turn to religious phenomena in other parts of the world, and as their work becomes more historically grounded, the limits of this Christo-centrism become increasingly clear.

Christian templates continue to strongly influence sociology in general and the sociology of religion in particular. Because so much work in the field focuses on US-based Christian groups, the disciplinary conceptual apparatus is permeated by Christian assumptions. For example, there is a paradigmatic pattern of individual Christian conversion at adolescence that is a-contextual—that is, there is almost no reference made to family, time, or place. Such a-contextual concepts are heavily theologically laden. While they might provide a particularly portable system of codes that travel well across societies, times, and spaces, our interest in these concepts should include the processes and mechanisms through which some religious concepts (but not others) travel through space and time, and likewise to the social and political contexts, and real and sacred geographies where specific religious concepts take on “universal” qualities.

Thus, sociologists might study the entrepreneurial-evangelizers who market a reformed version of their faith, purified of its superstitious cultural accretions, and substitute an ideal, universal, enlightened creed in tune with progress and the betterment of humanity and the environment. And, we might ask how this kind of evangelical stance contrasts with reformist projects like the Tablighi Dawa, which calls Muslims back to a purer faith and lays down clear boundaries between followers, on one hand, and non-pious Muslims and non-Muslims, on the other. One way to do this would be to identify paradigmatic patterns within the discursive traditions of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism and think through how they challenge the models and discourses already in place. For example, how does a contemporary Christian evangelical stance contrast with missionizing strategies in other faith traditions, or with Christian missionary efforts in previous centuries? We thus call on sociologists to continue to face up to the ways in which tacitly equating religion with Christianity not only blinds us to other socially significant religious forms but, furthermore, reasserts a Christian benchmark against which other religious expressions are measured. As the new sociology of religion would argue, sociologists should not export and transpose historically specific religious concepts into new settings without strong reflexive awareness of the histories and uses of such terms. Likewise, we argue that further attention to the social processes that shape Christian notions of religion into “universal” ones will lead to a more robust understanding of the role of social sciences in American society.

Beyond congregationalism. Most studies of religion assume that identifiable religious organizations, and in particular congregations, are the natural home for the production and transmission of religious identity and expression. Leaders, administrative structures, religious schools, various organizational connections, and the like are generally posed as the production-engines of religion. Notwithstanding their obvious importance, a review of “religion” as embedded solely in institutional contexts has many problems. As scholars of non-Christian religions in the US and abroad note, it places emphasis on particular kinds of collective forms and structures at the expense of others; likewise, it ignores the degree to which religion in many forms is actively produced in secular institutions.

As increasing numbers of sociologists highlight, religious life takes place not only inside the walls of the mosque or the church, but is also enacted in the workplace, in the schoolyard, on the bus, and in the hospital. In a number of studies, religion is not just “lived” or “enacted” but is, rather, observed as actively produced within (and sometimes by) “secular” institutions. In such instances neither the congregation nor any other religious institution emerges as the primary space where religious practice is carried out. The attention to a broader articulation of institutional religion, and its institutionalization, ultimately also brings to light some of the more hackneyed views of secularization theory, which depend on theoretical notions of “differentiation” and the privatization of religion in modern life.

Furthermore, recent attention by a few sociologists to the ways that religion is governed, regulated, and shaped by a variety of legal and regulatory structures (immigration, diplomacy, tax codes, land-use and zoning regulations, and state licensing boards) firmly challenges the rosy vision of American religion as thriving within a marketplace composed of free actors. Indeed, moving “beyond” the congregation and into a range of other institutional and structural settings makes clear just how regulated and structured American religions are. Much more work on these topics is needed.

Critical engagements with “positive religion.” A final trend is taking shape around sociologists who critically engage with religion, rather than simply assume that it positively contributes to believers’ autonomy and agency, or to general social well-being. Smilde and May show that from the late 1970s through the 1990s, positive sociological portraits of religion grew while negative portraits declined. Since 2002, however, both positive and negative portrayals have increased. The terrorist bombings of 9/11, recent civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, ethnic tensions in Southeast Asia, sex scandals in the Catholic Church, and the high profile of Evangelical Protestantism during the second Bush administration refocused scholarly interest on religion and created a context which tolerated its critique.

We see this as promising. Sociological treatments of religion as empowering or socially beneficial were an important counterpoint to the excesses of old-fashioned Marxist portraits of religion as an opiate of the masses and to the knee-jerk modernist portrayals of inevitable religious decline. But in what some have called a “post-secular” world, in which there is less doubt that religion remains a vital social force, such studies provide much less theoretical “punch” and, we argue, often do not adequately represent the complexities of religious processes and cultures in social life.

Overstating religion’s positive impact steers us away from confronting how religious practices contribute to patriarchy, racism, nationalism, militarism, and a host of other social and political ills. Recent studies have made headway in this direction by balancing positive portraits of religion as agency with more nuanced analyses of religion as a source of social power that simultaneously enables and dis-empowers. Nuanced, measured work along these lines captures religion’s role more accurately. Not only do these studies make way for more meaningful conversations about religion in modernity within and between social science disciplines, they also (not surprisingly) force sociologists to pay more careful attention to the kinds of mechanisms and social processes that they mark as “religious.”

RETHINKING RELIGION, RETHINKING THE SECULAR

These attempts to de-westernize, de-Christianize, and rethink the sites of religious production, as well as critically engage religion’s social impact, prompt us to revisit basic concepts and approaches in our field. Taken together, the four trends we have outlined challenge notions of religion as primarily about belief structures and worldviews by emphasizing practice, discourse, the interaction of religious and “secular” structures, networks, historical comparison, and the like. As such, they also challenge the unexplored yet often entrenched view that religion can be extracted from political contexts and systems of power.

These discussions can also renew and reframe classical theoretical conversations about religion. Max Weber, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and other founding theorists positioned religion (and often, religion-as-belief) at the center of their work on modern societies. Religion, as belief or practice, as tradition or source of cultural legitimacy, was an important site for understanding basic social processes and the operations of cultural power. Yet all classical theorists embedded religion in progressive narratives of secularization that depicted a world in which religion would inevitably weaken in response to modernity. These narratives have, for generations, allowed sociologists to separate studies of religion from studies of culture, institutions, structures, and agency. Operating within the assumption that religion has been sloughed off in modernity, our discipline has had very little capacity to engage in conversations about how religion continues to play anything but a “sideline” role. 

The new directions taking shape hold the promise of reconnecting discussions of religion and its continued, though changed powers to broader discussions of the sociological secular. Recent reconsideration of “the secular” across a wide range of social scientific disciplines (anthropology, history, and international relations, to name just three) call our attention to just how linked sociological frameworks are to specific, historically developed notions of secular society. Sociology has been late to these recent discussions, even though they were and are at the core of our discipline.

THE WAY FORWARD

Several of the trends we map out are already emerging in sociology and some have yet to take shape. To borrow a phrase from Clifford Geertz, they present both a model of and a model for a new sociology of religion. As a model “of,” they reflect the ongoing research, thinking, and reconceptualizations already taking place in the work of dozens of sociologists, many of whom are just starting their careers. This work focuses on religion in ways that are somewhat at the “edges,” or margins, of the sociology of religion as it is currently constituted; not all of the scholars involved identify actively as sociologists of religion. This, in itself, makes it difficult to see clearly what the full parameters and force of these new directions might be. Thus, we also view this essay as presenting a model “for,” insofar as it links together the shared interests of this currently dispersed group and encourages the articulation of a new sociology of religion. It is time to find common ground and to debate actively about our findings and underlying theoretical approaches.

There is more at stake than creating a community of currently dispersed sociologists who study religion.  Not only does sociology remain a highly secular discipline, but the way it conceptualizes the “sociology of religion” helps it to remain so. Religion is rarely covered in introductory sociology textbooks, and when it is, these books usually rehash well-worn (out) themes of secularization and the religious marketplace. The few textbooks written exclusively about religion within sociology are largely US focused and take for granted the genealogies and scholarly efficacy of  the terms and topics,  leaving students and faculty alike ill-equipped to discuss the religious aspects of the international conflicts, disaster relief, and political struggles reported in the daily news.

We have the opportunity to leverage what many see as the “resurgence” of religion to make broader arguments and connections that advance a whole range of questions. We have the chance to demonstrate the relevance of what has been of late a fairly insular set of debates to a wider range of interlocutors. Finally, we can model new, interdisciplinary concepts and methods that more effectively capture the global, diverse, and interconnected worlds in which we live.

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2 Responses to “Toward a new sociology of religion”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful piece but I would like to take you up on one aspect that you refer to in the ‘way forward’ section. I welcome your seeking a new engagement for the study of religion. You state that

    This, in itself, makes it difficult to see clearly what the full parameters and force of these new directions might be.

    If we are looking to see parameters on new directions then I might suggest that the ‘new directions’ will be very much like the old ones. Yes, the development of sociology is bound up with a tendency to see secularization as an inevitable step in modernisation, but there are plenty of people doing research and theorising in other disciplines that do not require parameters to see new directions. In any case, were ‘we’ to see the full parameters then I would state that any investigations would be bound by our methodology. This is partly a problem of and for sociology and partly a problem of theorising. Geographers, ethnographers, anthropologists have a good ten years on any ‘new direction’ that you are seeking. And it is occurring in Europe and in Asia and that interstitial place called The Middle East.

  2. avatar Naomi Jacobs says:

    An excellent, engaging piece. Is this going to be published in any journals? It would interest a wide audience. I will certainly be referencing these ideas in my work (on the intersections between the disability movement and religion), particularly in terms of the positive and negative portrayals of religious practice. The challenging of religious structures is at the centre of my research – as much as I’m at a very early stage of this research.

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