by Craig Martin
* This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.
Some would have it that the work of scholars such as Don Wiebe in The Politics of Religious Studies, Tim Fitzgerald in The Ideology of Religious Studies, and Russell McCutcheon in Manufacturing Religion is both passé and off the mark. They are tilting at windmills, it seems: religious studies has long since incorporated and moved past their criticisms. It’s silly to be paranoid about crypto-theology and ontological assumptions about “the Sacred” these days.
Are we tilting at windmills? Consider the content of this co-authored piece titled ”Roundtable on the Sociology of Religion: Twenty-Three Theses on the Status of Religion in American Sociology—A Mellon Working-Group Reflection,” authored by a number of big names in the field (including Christian Smith and José Casanova), and forthcoming in our discipline’s “top” journal, the Journal for the American Academy of Religion. According to the abstract,
American sociology has not taken and does not take religion as seriously as it needs to in order to do the best sociology possible. Despite religion being an important and distinctive kind of practice in human social life, both historically and in the world today, American sociologists often neglect religion or treat it reductionistically. We explore several reasons for this negligence, focusing on key historical, conceptual, methodological, and institutional factors. We then turn to offer a number of proposals to help remedy American sociology’s negligence of religion, advance the study of religion in particular, and enhance sociology’s broader disciplinary capacity to improve our understanding and explanation of human social life. Our purpose in this analysis is to stimulate critical and constructive discussion about the significance of religion in human life and scholarly research on it.
In this piece, here is what we learn:
- Sociology of religion has been too reductionistic. “Religion” is not reducible to power relations. “To the extent that the theoretical worldviews of sociologists today still revolve primarily around matters of material interests, economic forces, political interests, social dominance, relational power, and so on, religion remains largely reducible and ignorable. By theoretical presupposition, the former are taken to be ‘real’ while religion is believed to be peripheral or epiphenomenal. But, we believe, religious commitments in the end cannot be completely reduced to interests, power, and material resources, so an interest- and resource-based general sociological model cannot account for religion well.”
- What we call “religion” is not just another form of culture or ideology. Too little has been “done on the theoretical front of the new cultural sociology to take on religion as a particular social object and to significantly improve our sociological understanding of it. If anything, religion became viewed as simply another ‘ideology’—ontologically and conceptually indistinct from any other belief system. Indeed, dominant sociological views of culture secularize religion, treating it as a subcomponent of culture, when, we think, a plausible historical and sociological argument can be made that culture is actually a subcomponent of religion.”
- By contrast, perhaps religion should be viewed as a “distinctive” object. “[M]any cultural sociologists saw little reason to theorize religion as a particular kind of social entity—even though cultural sociology should be well-equipped theoretically to study religion as a distinctive kind of social object.” We need “a theory that treats the religious dimensions of human experience as real in their own right,” and this will involve defining the distinctly “religious” part of experience as somehow connecting to the “transcendent.” (In addition, sociologists are insufficiently familiar with “the ontology of unobservable entities.”)
- Because so many people report experiences of the “transcendent” or “sacred,” they should be taken seriously. “[M]any people, by all their accounts, actually experience ‘religion’ as something transcendent, sacred, and important. They experience it as making a difference in their lives. For at least those kinds of reasons, religion deserves its own field of study.” Despite the hegemony of reductionist scholars, there is a “very-real religious world that [imposes] itself upon their crumbling academic verities.”
- At present, cultural sociology cannot adequately make sense of the subjective experiences of religious practitioners. “[C]ultural sociology has constrained its own ability to make adequate sense of the subjective aspect of human existence, which we think is important.”
- Too little research is written by insiders, who have a “more personal, substantive knowledge” of their subject matter. “[T]he relative lack of personal religious commitment, identity, and knowledge among mainstream American sociologists arguably provides an obstacle to taking religion seriously in scholarship.”
- Consequently, we should develop “a two-way stream between religion and sociology,” as theology “might be able to offer [something to] our conversations and debates.” We must integrate “both knowledge about religion and religious knowledge into the discipline of sociology.” “[D]isciplines such as theology or traditions of spiritual disciplines may contain valuable insights for sociologists of religion.”
- Last, if we are going to let in implicitly normative approaches—like Marxism—then there’s no reason to exclude religious views. “[S]chools of thought in our discipline unapologetically begin with particular intellectual and moral locations, commitments, presuppositions, and interests; some even argue that these particular positions privilege their sociological understandings. Examples include feminist theory, Marxism, queer theory, some forms of critical theory, and projects of ‘real utopias.’ One might ask why or how such value-committed scholarly approaches that start with particularistic intellectual and moral presuppositions are legitimate in sociology, while religious perspectives on human persons and social life are a priori excluded. The uneven privileging of certain intellectual and moral positions deserves ongoing questioning and consideration.”
When this sort of work appears in our “top” journals, I’m not sure we’re titling at windmills.
Craig Martin is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College and Executive Secretary of the North American Association for the Study of Religion. His books include Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere (Equinox 2010) A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox 2012).