sociology of religion:

New answers to old questions

posted by John Torpey

David Smilde and Matthew May’s finding that there is an “emerging strong program” in the sociology of religion is a matter for some celebration. One has to wonder how religion could have fallen into such a state of inattention in a field that regards Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life as among its foundational texts. Until recently, it has been as if biologists agreed that Darwin had gotten right the central idea of their field and then proceeded to ignore that idea in everything else they did. With the return of religion as a crucial matter of public concern, such an outlook will no longer do. We, as scholars, must take other people’s religious lives more seriously, whether we take our own seriously or not.

The fruitfulness of the emerging sociology of religion will hinge on the extent to which it re-connects us with the questions that those foundational texts address. For present purposes, these are chiefly two. Durkheim found a religious dimension in all social life, and advanced a sociology that took the fate of the social and of the norms governing social life as its central preoccupation. He was less interested in local variation and more interested in the prospects humans had for living a decent life as the social beings that they unavoidably are. In contrast, Weber was always concerned about the local and the conjunctural, even if he saw them in an arc that bent, in the long run, toward rationalization. Weber’s project was fundamentally to understand how religious ideas governed the life-conduct of different social groups and how this led to the breakthrough of modern capitalism in Europe in the early modern period. Between the two of them, Weber and Durkheim lay out the essential guideposts of a “strong program” in the sociology of religion that re-connects the field both to its original guiding concerns and to the most critical aspects of social life today.

We have been experiencing for the past thirty years an ongoing evisceration of “the social” and its supplantation by the conception of markets as the chief mechanism for organizing social life. There are strong parallels here with the original triumph of liberalism in the nineteenth century, which was described by Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation in terms of the commodification of land, labor, and money. We have now learned, to our very great regret, that the economic theories developed in Chicago and elsewhere worked better as hypothetical models than as analyses of what was really going on. States have been forced to intervene extensively in order to clean up the messes left behind after bankers and CEOs walked away with large bonuses as their firms deteriorated. Yet we have done a poor job of articulating the nature of the social and why it is essential to human thriving. How could so desiccated a conception of human life have become so predominant when it now seems obvious that it is inimical to human welfare? Some part of the answer surely has to do with the collapse of communism as a viable alternative to capitalism. The resurgence of the religious in some parts of the world appears to be a response to the demise of that secular faith. In the Arab world, meanwhile, the Islamic revival comprises in some considerable part a reaction to the perceived failures of Arab nationalism and socialism, pan-Arabism and other secular modernizing paradigms, and to the oppressiveness of many secular regimes. The character of this relationship—the demise of earlier secular eschatologies and the return of religion—brings us to the question of the deep parameters shaping contemporary life. It is essential that the emerging sociology of religion take up this question of the varied relations between sacred and secular approaches to the defense of “the social” in human life.

With Weber, we need to explore the specific nature of resurgent religiosity. What forms of sociality does it cultivate, and what are the consequences for social change? One of Weber’s chief analytical concerns had to do with the nature of discipline and its consequences for social life. Fundamentally, he regarded discipline—the capacity to deal with matters in a dispassionate, distanced manner—as necessary to the development of “rational” social institutions. “Rational” in this case is equivalent to “impersonal”; it was what he took to be the inexorable spread of “rationality” in this sense that made him so worried about the fate of Western civilization. Weber generally regarded the inculcation of such discipline as at variance with normal human propensities to help “one’s own,” and hence difficult to achieve. But discipline could bring great benefits with regard to human beings’ ability to defer gratification and enhance their well-being. Is contemporary religiosity of this kind the same as that which Weber attributed especially to Calvinism (despite all of its negative aspects)? Analysts such as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Fogel and the British sociologist of religion David Martin have argued that we are living through a period in which populations across the globe are adopting forms of religiosity that may significantly enhance their economic and social well-being, without need or benefit of the organizations (the trade union, the labor party) that have traditionally been associated with working-class uplift. In general, they see a trend toward voluntary and enthusiastic forms of religiosity (outside the Muslim world and western Europe) that could have consequences on the scale of the Protestant Reformation of 500 years ago.

The basic prognosis here is that American ways of “doing religion” are flowing, like hot lava, across the global South and through much of East Asia in a manner that will, in due course, unsettle traditional ways of doing things and give rise to important changes in outlook and behavior. All this is abetted by the DIY characteristics of the Internet. Are they right about this prognosis? And will the consequences be as profound as they suggest? Part of what is intriguing about these questions is that they posit a different long-term future for the United States than that envisaged by those who see steady decline resulting from “imperial overstretch.”  In the scenario laid out by Martin, Fogel, and others, the American way of doing things may decline in the heartland, but it may ultimately succeed in unexpected, unlikely locales—just as Methodism itself ultimately flowered fully in the US rather than in Wesley’s immediate British backyard. These questions link up with the old problem of “American exceptionalism” that concerned Marx and many later Marxists: How, to what extent, and why is the United States different from the societies from which it is by and large descended? This was especially a matter of “how much state” Americans were prepared to accept—a matter on conspicuous display in many of the recent arguments about health care reform. But will these ways of doing things come to grip large numbers of those in the “Third World” as well, with large historical consequences?

In short, the emerging strong program in the sociology of religion must reconnect the field to the questions that animated the founders of sociology and that, while perennial, confront us especially in the aftermath of the neoliberal crack-up. Religion is too important to be left only to specialists. In order to really succeed, the strong program must—like the spirit of the monks during the Reformation—leave the confines of the monastery and become part of the consciousness of all social scientists interested in the big questions about social change.

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One Response to “New answers to old questions”

  1. avatar Matthew May says:

    Thanks to John Torpey for presenting some interesting ideas that David Smilde and I can work with using the 30 years of data we’ve collected and continue to collect. I agree that the collapse of communism impacted (and will continue to impact) the role religion plays in those specific nations. I also agree that we need further examination of the consequences of religion (good or bad) in contexts beyond the U.S. where religion may take divergent trajectories. In our analysis, David Smilde and I (Figure 3, pg 12) note an increase in both positive and negative socio-evaluative findings over the most recent 5 years worth of data. Table 7 (pg 16) also shows the percentage of positive socio-evaluative findings across different geographic regions. Our analysis suggests that positive socio-evaluative findings are most prevalent in studies focused on Latin America and /or the least developed countries. This fits precisely with John Torpey’s suggestion that “the American way of doing things may decline in the heartland, but it may ultimately succeed in unexpected, unlikely locales.” We might pursue this by doing a similar 5-year breakdown of the change in positive and negative socio-evaluative findings specifically comparing the United States with Latin America and/or less developed nations (as an addition to the full-sample analysis in Figure 3).

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