by Adam J. Powell
Over the past five years, a number of academic organisations have expressed growing concern for the state of sociology of religion in the 21st century. Whether from the American Academy of Religion, the British Sociological Association, or the Sociology of Religion research committee within the ISA, the reflections have been univocal: the field of sociology and the sub-field of sociology of religion need to take each other seriously. Furthermore, both need to reclaim theory and explanation as central to the sociological enterprise. In pursuing theory/explanation, of course, it might be tempting to ‘reinvent the wheel’ – especially as we attempt to counter the criticism that our discipline has been too reluctant to move beyond the founding theorists. However, useful analytical tools and theoretical frameworks – building on the classics whilst avoiding the fragmentation of postmodern theory – do exist. One example, of potentially very incisive relevance for contemporary analyses of religion and society, is the theory of identity outlined by sociologist Hans Mol in his 1976 book Identity and the Sacred.
For Mol, religion is not a static cultural object but a social process by which individual and group identities are ‘sacralised’. This ‘sacralisation of identity’ entails four mechanisms whereby identity is buoyed in the face of life’s vicissitudes: objectification, ritual, commitment, and myth. Essentially, Mol believes that both the natural and the social sciences point to a dialectic between stability and change, or identity and forces of differentiation. Religion is, therefore, understood as an interminable balancing act in which systems of meaning that offer stable identities implement the sacralising mechanisms to incorporate forced changes and uncertainties. In this way, Mol connects personal and group identity with a ‘stable niche’ that is cloaked with sacrality in the process of neutralising potential threats to the collective and to the self.
Now, decades later, Mol’s identity theory seems rather insightful. Not only did his concept of religion as any meaning-system capable of conferring and sustaining an identity with associated emotions, rituals, and narratives presciently suggest an alternative to the secularisation thesis back in the 1970s, but it also underscored the indissoluble links between identity, meaning, and transcendence. As religiously-inflected passions and political volatilities collide across the globe (viz., Trump, Brexit, and sundry forms of Islamism), and as social commentators and experts betray their own inadequate understandings of social conflict, it may be of some use to reflect on Mol’s theoretical contributions. Indeed, Mol equates identity not simply with stability but with ‘the stable niche that man occupies in a potentially chaotic environment which he is therefore prepared vigorously to defend’ (my emphasis) (1976: 65). What is more, he emphasises the fragility of identity, hence the beneficial role of religion as it reinforces identity through sacralisation.
Of course, that identity-reinforcing endeavour follows, and implies, a previous transition from an old mode of being, thinking, and feeling to a new mode of being, thinking, and feeling. Mol likens this to the religious conversion and states unequivocally, ‘Detachment from any established identity pattern is painful…’ (1976: 50). If Mol is on to something about the relationship between identity and stability – about the spirited defence of an identity by a group or individual who intuits the potential agony of conversion – perhaps current events should cause less surprise. Indeed, identity may very well be a zero-sum game. When a political ideology or religious worldview impinges on an already sacred identity, we may be witnessing what social anthropologist Douglas Davies has called ‘identity-depletion’, which includes ‘life circumstances…where otherness becomes malevolent and reciprocity constricted’ (2011: 68). For example, the American political scene has witnessed a significant trend toward identity politics (i.e., gender, sexuality, race, and religion) over the past few decades, a pattern that has challenged all three branches of government (judicial, legislative, and executive) to legislate a sort of morality based on liberal values of human rights. In doing so the state seems to have entered the fray of private religious attitudes, challenging (inadvertently?) the supposed private/public bifurcation at the heart of the modern West. More importantly, however, this means that many Americans perceive a pressure to convert to an unfamiliar (but state-sanctioned) identity, or at least feel the anguish of their once-stable identity being depleted. Will individuals and groups not defend against this anticipated pain? Is there a replacement to fill the void? Mol suggests that in such circumstances charismatic leaders emerge ‘as the catalysts for the kind of change that…is already in the air’ (1976: 46). Such leaders may ease the conversion process or help reintegrate the old disrupted identity and, just maybe, such leaders sometimes look like a Trump or a Farage.
Davies, D. (2011) Emotion, Identity, and Religion: Hope, Reciprocity, and Otherness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mol, H. (1976) Identity and the Sacred. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Adam J. Powell is a Junior Research Fellow in Durham University’s Department of Theology & Religion. He is co-editor of Sacred Selves, Sacred Settings: Reflecting Hans Mol (Ashgate, 2015) and author of Hans Mol and the Sociology of Religion (Routledge, 2017). The latter serves as an introduction to Mol’s theory of religious identity for a new generation of social scientists, including both a reappraisal of the original theory and previously-unpublished essays by Mol himself.