Philip S. Gorski is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies and Co-Director of the Center for Comparative Research at Yale University. His work as a comparative historical sociologist has been influential in recovering Max Weber and asserting the strong influence of Calvinism on state formation in early modern Europe. In his recent book, The Protestant Ethic Revisited (Temple, 2011), he challenges Charles Tilly’s thesis that the technologies of war drove the creation of stable nation-states and argues that post-Reformation religious conflicts were the primary impetus of European state formation. In addition to co-editing The Post-Secular in Question earlier this year as part the SSRC’s series with NYU Press, Gorski is editor of another volume coming out early next year entitled Bourdieu and Historical Analysis (Duke, 2012). He and I sat down in Theodore Roosevelt Park in New York City, where we discussed the book he’s writing on civil religion, joked about Obama’s messianic burden, and considered what present-day America might learn from Émile Durkheim.
Posts Tagged ‘Max Weber’
Four guided missiles packed with explosive material hurtled into the morning sky. Though the day was brilliant blue and cloudless, no one saw them coming. They were aimed at a nation that did not see itself at war. Moreover, it was a nation convinced that missiles fired in anger no longer posed a serious threat to its security. The weapons were conventional in the strict sense: they did not carry nuclear warheads.
To be asked to contribute a commentary on Professor Robert Bellah’s magnum opus is a great honor and a privilege that, in the virtual company of intellectuals of the highest caliber, manages to concentrate the mind and at the same time to fill you with despair; not least because Religion in Human Evolution stands as a measure of the distance that lies between routine, or ordinary, intellectual activity, and genuine, indeed extraordinary, intellectual achievement.
Future histories may report that the public discourse on religion was dominated by reductive naturalism until Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution appeared in 2011. One of the most distinctive features of Bellah’s book is his extensive use of the latest developments in the natural sciences, such as biology, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and developmental and child psychology. One of his purposes is, as he puts it, “to show how deeply we are shaped by a very long biological history.” This might give the wrong impression that Bellah’s approach is similar to the New Naturalist approach. However, Bellah’s is better characterized as a non-reductive humanistic naturalism, which is a synthesis of the humanistic (interpretative, social, and historical) understanding of religion and the naturalist approach.
Religion in Human Evolution is an immensely ambitious book on a topic only a scholar of Robert Bellah’s stature could dare to tackle. It attempts no less than to explain human biological as well as cultural evolution in one sweep, beginning with early hominids and ending with the “axial age.” Bellah engages evolutionary biology as well as cognitive psychology for the framing of his argument. This is a courageous move of transcending conventional disciplinary boundaries, for which he should be applauded. At the same time, it draws Bellah into positions he might actually not always be comfortable with.
For almost one hundred years, all sociologists of religion have taken Max Weber’s great work on comparative religions as a primary point of departure. Whole libraries of scholarship have been produced to explicate Weber, expand on Weber, disagree with Weber, revise Weber. In the next hundred years, I think, the point of departure will be Robert Bellah rather than Weber. Bellah’s new masterpiece, Religion in Human Evolution is comparable in scope, breadth of scholarship, and depth of erudition to Weber’s study of world religions, but it is grounded in all of the advances of historical, linguistic, and archeological scholarship that have taken place since Weber, as well as theoretical advances in evolutionary biology and cognitive science.
Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell’s American Grace follows up on these Tocquevillean themes, exploring the contemporary American religious landscape to understand, in the words of the subtitle, “how religion divides and unites us.” As in Putnam’s earlier work, the book mobilizes the full array of methods available to the social scientist—survey research, interviews, participant observation in relevant settings, historical comparisons. Vignettes drawn from qualitative research are interspersed with discussions of the quantitative data accessible to the uninitiated. The authors draw frequently on other pertinent studies to buttress their own findings, helping reassure us that the results of their research are reliable.
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.