It is a testament to the power of the “strong program” image that most commentators on our working paper read Matt May and me to be optimistically praising its emergence in the sociology of religion, despite our statements to the contrary. Of course, a writer criticizing readers is bad form, and truth be told, we deeply appreciate the commentators’ willingness to discuss a working paper whose positions and prose are not yet entirely solidified. Our original title had “a critical engagement” as its subtitle; leaving it out probably didn’t help communicate our intent. If we add to this the positive connotations of the term “emerging,” we can certainly understand how commentators saw us as identifying a wave we were preparing to surf.
sociology of religion
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.
Recently, Levitt, Bender, Cadge and Smilde have argued that scholarship in the sociology of religion might become less “parochial” and less “Christo-centric.” I am skeptical of both of these assertions. In fact, I recently published (with Colin Campbell) an article in the March issue of The American Sociologist, “Isomorphism, Institutional Parochialism and the Sociology of Religion,” which asserts that the sociology of religion is marked by a considerable amount of institutional parochialism.
I consider institutional parochialism as a tendency for scholars to study people in their own societies, or to study people with whom they share a cultural affinity. To be clear, I do not think that institutional parochialism is a condition specific to the sociology of religion. Institutional parochialism is a normative condition that is evident in many academic fields. In fact, it is likely that the sociology of religion is actually “more worldly” when compared to other sociological sub-disciplines. So, while many in the sociology of religion likely study Christianity because they have an affinity with the faith, I assume that similar trends (e.g., people studying people like themselves) exist in many other sub-disciplines.
Like many of the other participants in this discussion on the current state of the sociological study of religion, we have spent much of our early careers engaging in broader conversations regarding culture and politics. As scholars who bring deep interests in religion to these conversations, we have found that the default position in these sub-disciplines is often either to ignore religion or to see it as a dangerous force in society. In this regard, we greet the “strong program” that Smilde and May see emerging in the sociology of religion with a modicum of relief, as it seems to show clearly that 1) more researchers are taking religion seriously, and 2) they are finding that religion’s influence is not always negative—rather, its effects are varied. But while a small part of us is relieved by the emergence of a strong program, a larger part shares Smilde and May’s concerns about the increasing focus on religion as an autonomous, independent variable. This emphasis seems to rest on the assumption that religion consists primarily of a set of fixed beliefs, preferences, and dispositions that exist deep inside of individuals, which they will reveal to us if only we ask the right questions.
Appearing at the same time as a manifesto for expanding American sociologists’ approaches to religion, Smilde and May’s report is a call for a big conversation. How shall we speak, and with what conceptual tools shall we think, about religion at present and in the future?
The report assesses religion research with models of disciplinary growth. It implies that one sign of vitality in the field of sociological research on religion is the increasing proportion of studies that take religion as an independent variable. Borrowing language from the sociology of science, the report finds that religion research is developing a “strong program,” according to which religion is figured as the causal mover in a variety of social processes, rather than the effect of some other, more important factor(s). This too is good news for readers who have invested intellectual energies in the field, as it is likely to invite more sociological respect for religion as a research topic.
But how happy should we be?
I would like to suggest that sociology, and particularly sociology of religion, can benefit greatly from a thorough examination of its epistemological bases. I say that sociology of religion would particularly benefit from this kind of revision because, just as Western modernity stabilized itself as a relatively unified and hegemonic “subject” against an exoticized, genderized, and racialized Oriental other through a denial of coevalness, so did sociology posit religion as its primitive, traditional, supernatural, enchanted, and sentimental other. This foundational process of otherization explains why the fathers of the discipline—Durkheim, Marx, Weber, and Simmel—were not only deeply interested in religion, but made the sociology of religion the epistemological point of departure for their theories of society. For them, religion was the “womb of civilization,” the source of our elementary collective representations, ideologies, and this-worldly or other-worldly dispositions.
Whenever there is talk about an ‘emerging strong program’ and ‘a new sociology of religion,’ we need to keep in mind not only where we might be going, but where we have come from. Given the apparent centrality of religion to much of the modern world, and what now appear to be the limitations of the secularization thesis, we should welcome any sign of a revival of the fortunes of the sociology of religion. However, I have serious doubts about its annunciation. We will need more than research into which religions are figured as independent variables, or which receive some positive evaluation from social scientists, in order to herald the birth of a strong program.
We need to be clear about what is happening in the field before advocating for any specific changes. To that end, I would like to look at Smilde and May’s findings through a thicker interpretive lens. The sociology of religion has actually changed very little in the past thirty years. For example, the number of religion articles in top journals and the percentage of those articles focused specifically on Christianity, Protestantism, and the US, have remained constant. While some of the changes reported in the paper are shown to be statistically significant, they are often so small as to be substantively insignificant. So, rather than reacting to a supposed change in the sub-discipline, we should instead be debating whether we want to change what is, by all appearances, a relatively stable field.
In these comments I want to point to another angle on the tendency to emphasize the positive aspects of religion—one which is not explored directly in the working paper, but which nonetheless concerns me—namely, the issues of which substantive subject areas get explored and how ‘religion’s effects’ are conceptualized. … Even within the study of U.S. Christianity, there is a lot of concern as to whether religion ‘protects’ one from substance abuse, mental depression, divorce, alcoholism, premarital sex, etc.—in other words, a bit of the scholarly version of ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.’ But there is much less research as to whether religion contributes to inequality, whether it fosters discrimination, or whether it facilitates homophobia, racism, and the like. Particularly in the world of youth and religion, what people need protection from has a certain conceptual affinity with traditionally pietistic notions of ‘sin.’
Regardless of their stance on secularization, both classical and market-based positions take modernity for granted as the starting point for meaningful theorizing about religion. Both perspectives largely agree on modernity’s core features, and both are dominated by a substantive, neo-Weberian approach to religion as an object of study, focusing on self-identified religious groups and institutions. In this approach, religion provides coherent and bounded belief systems to which individuals commit through a process of rational assent, and which they find appealing for reasons of elective affinity with a religion’s capacity to make sense of the contemporary social environment and to orient behavior in effective ways to achieve desired ends.
From this perspective, the religion that thrives in the modern world, to borrow (and perhaps misuse) a metaphor from Mary Douglas, is a pig that has learned to chew its cud, an ill-fitting social form transformed into something that fits, albeit precariously, in the modern order.