Tilting at Windmills?

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.”)
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.”
  6. 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.”
  7. 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.”
  8. 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).

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3 Responses to Tilting at Windmills?

  1. Randi Warne says:

    Two points: 1) In my view, sociology should indeed be less lead-footed about its understanding of “religion.” A good place to start would be to cease conflating “religion” and various forms of Christianity. Another good thing to do would be to become aware of the history and practice of the term “religion” in other systems, including other social sciences. What might result is a more insightful analysis of the dynamics of, and politics of, naming – both generally, and specifically historically as regards the modern west.

    2) Saying the same thing(s) over again is not amiss when the phenomenon being pointed to still exists. I do not for one minute think that being gender-critical is “old hat” and beside the point, because some scholars can utter now the term without their tongues shrivelling up.

    There is certainly room for improvement in sociologists being aware of what they are saying when they use the term “religion.” I’m fairly sure reinscribing the foundational error of conflating “religion” with Christian faith is not the way to accomplish that end.

  2. etseq says:

    Isn’t this just barely disguised christian apologetics that Christian Smith, Regnerus, Wilcox, Starke, etc. are famous/infamous for depending on who you ask. It sounds like Smith is tilting at his own windmill of methodological naturalism in social science – something he shares in common with the Discovery Institute’s Intelligent Design Creationism, who also deplores the “reductionism” of modern science and seeks to introduce supernatural explanations into science. Smith has been proposing a variation of Baskhar’s “Critical Realism” for years with no success – outside of the right wing Christian ghetto of Sociology of Religion there is no movement in hard or social science to replace the current paradigm of empiricism and methodological naturalism with a “God of the Gaps” approach to causation.

    Not sure how this relates to Religious Studies – you guys don’t pretend to be doing science so you aren’t necessarily constrained by our methodology. Not to offend anyone but I have always viewed critical theory as the Left’s version of religious magical thinking so it would not surprise me to see an agreement between the postmodern Left and religious right.

    Even in sociology proper, some of the extreme STS and Sociology of Science crowd have been trying for years to undermine the preeminence of scientific discourse. If one were to be uncharitable, one might call this “science envy” and just a continuation of Snow’s two cultures inter-disciplinary academic turf war that has raged for years. This was demonstrated dramatically when Steve Fuller testified on behalf of the creationists (excuse me – “Intelligent Design”) at the Kitzmiller trial. I think that was the death knell for this style of extreme left wing critique of science, which in all honesty never recovered from its loss in the Science Wars of the 1990s. Alan Sokal, love him or hate him, drove the first nail in that coffin.

    PS – I found your blog by googling “Roundtable on the Sociology of Religion: Twenty-Three Theses on the Status of Religion in American Sociology” – you are the second entry after the original article on google so congrats!

  3. etseq says:

    I promise I’m not trying to be a crank but this is the same Christian Smith who claimed that Christianity “works” because it’s God’s one true religion, that christians are a persecuted minority in american society in general and academia in particular, and that Mark Regnerus is the paragon of an objective, proper empirical scientist when he declares that gays and lesbians produce bad outcomes when raising children because they lack the a biological “kin altruism” based on a debunked study, unlike prior scientific studies that were not objective because those scientists were either liberal ideologues or gay themselves (right wing Catholic christians are objective when it comes to homosexuality but anyone LGBT is of course biased) and that any criticism of his infamous study, either its methodology or the politics of its funders, is an “auto-da-fe” (yes, as if we are burning catholics at the stake in the US just like they did to the protestants during the counter-reformation)….

    I could go on but you get my point….This cabal of right wing Christian sociologists has been working to defeat gender equality, gay rights, and gay marriage in particular, for years. So forgive me if we in the gay community aren’t just a bit skeptical of their barely disguised apologetics. I could care less if they want to ruin their own sub-discipline but when they try to claim the mantle of science in our political struggle for civil rights, they should expect some blowback….

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