Nathan’s post yesterday reminded me of a passage in Thomas Luckmann’s The Invisible Religion (1967), in which Luckmann excoriates middle-twentieth century sociology of religion for falling down on the job. His comments are worth consideration:
The new sociology of religion consists mainly of descriptions of the decline of ecclesiastic institutions—from a parochial viewpoint, at that. The definition of research problems and programs is, typically, determined by the institutional forms of traditional church organization. The new sociology of religion badly neglected its theoretically most significant task: to analyze the changing social—not necessarily institutional—basis of religion in modern society. (18)
The main assumption—which also has the most important consequences for research and theory in the sociology of religion—consists in the identification of church and religion. On occasion this assumption is explicitly formulated as a methodological principle: religion may be many things, but it is amenable to scientific analysis only to the extent that it becomes organized and institutionalized. (22)
Vestiges of this view have entered the understanding—or misunderstanding—of secularization that characterizes much of the recent sociology of religion. In the absence of a well-founded theory, secularization is typically regarded as a process of religious pathology to be measured by the shrinking reach of churches. Since the institutional vacuum is not begin filled by a counter-church … one readily concludes that modern society is nonreligious. It matters little that the process is evaluated negatively by those sociologists of religion who have inner or professional commitments to the churches. (23)
Yep. Rodney Stark has been arguing this and similar points for decades. Sociologists love their surveys, which need to be massively refined to take account of these issues. It is a great example of accounting GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.