As someone who has long been leery of the persistent overuse of the “crisis” frame in any context—whether personal, cultural, economic, or scientific and theoretical—I was pleased to see an upbeat evaluation of the current state of, and prospects for, the sociology of religion. Smilde and May’s data and preliminary analysis indicate a certain empirical and theoretical vibrancy in the field (a modest increase in the number of religion articles in top-tier sociology journals and a notable increase in articles in which religion is the independent variable in explanations of social processes). Their analysis also helps to quantify the frequently made claim (echoed by Levitt et al.) that the field is dominated by studies centered on the US and Protestantism. I don’t think any sociologist would disagree with Levitt et al.’s exhortation to sociologists to be far more attentive to rethinking what religion “is,” as well as to global religions and the meaning and relevance of religion in globalizing political, social, and cultural processes. It’s good that a new generation of sociologists is beginning to tackle such questions.
As this discussion moves forward, I would like to raise a couple of points. Although the sociology of religion is in a relatively good state, it still seems that there is continuing intellectual insecurity and uncertainty among sociologists who study religion. I find it interesting, for example, that in discussing the historical dominance of positive socio-evaluative findings in sociological studies of religion, Smilde and May note that we are now likely in a new social context, where “the publication of negative socio-evaluative findings is a reasonable and acceptable professional undertaking.” Bender et al. similarly welcome the tendency of new studies to balance “positive portraits of religion as agency with more nuanced analyses of religion as a source of social power that simultaneously enables and dis-empowers.” I don’t want to over-interpret these statements. I think, however, that they raise larger and more complex questions about the nature of sociological inquiry in general as a scientific enterprise and reflect a lingering ambivalence among sociologists (including, maybe even especially, sociologists who study religion) toward the scientific validity of the study of religion.
American sociologists embrace, to varying degrees, the scientific status of sociology, and our professional training, associations (e.g., ASA, SSSR), and allegiances (with NSF, NIMH, NIJ, etc.) reinforce commitment to a scientific methodology. Yet, within this framework, the prevalence of positive socio-evaluative findings in sociological studies of religion is seen as suggestive of a pro-religion bias in the research program, rather than a “true” finding. Does any other sociological sub-field produce meta-narratives about their area’s findings, or engage in the crisis-assessment conversations that sociologists of religion seem compelled to have? I wonder whether, for instance, stratification sociologists worry that too many (all?) of their studies of inequality demonstrate a positive relationship between a family’s socioeconomic status and its children’s educational attainment and socioeconomic status; or whether some exhort their peers to embark on studies showing more nuanced consequences of socioeconomic disadvantage? By the same token, I wonder whether sociologists of culture, for example, might ever think that their sub-field is too provincial (i.e., US-centric), or overly focused on cultural agency at the expense of unearthing disempowerment?
It was also interesting to read Smilde and May’s discussion of the impact of increased funding on religion research, and particularly to see that the strongest relation between funding and positive socio-evaluative findings is with the public sector rather than private sources. Smilde and May suggest that the receptivity of public institutions and administrators to research documenting religion’s positive role “complicates the view that government institutions and bureaucrats are the main motors of secularization.” I understand their point, but it could also be argued that by (rightly) funding meritorious studies investigating religion’s impact on social processes, the state and other institutions (public and private) are treating religion like any other social phenomenon—i.e., a normal social fact, worthy of rigorous scientific investigation, rather than some epiphenomenal entity that defies understanding—and in so doing are perhaps contributing to the demystification of both religion and society. In any case, would we be surprised to discover that federal and other public agencies are receptive to studies showing a positive role for school achievement or healthful behavior? Probably not. Again it seems that sociological studies of religion—their findings and funding and institutional contexts—evoke different expectations and responses among sociologists than do studies in other sub-fields. This is the continuing thorn in the side of any effort to develop a strong intellectual and research program in the sociology of religion.
On balance, it may be a good thing that the sociology of religion is (and is forced to be) more reflexive than other sub-fields about its problems and its promise. Any insights that emerge from our deliberations may help transform sociology more generally, compelling sociologists to confront their discipline’s relative provincialism and the content and sources of its generally unexamined normative assumptions. I hope that as we continue these conversations we do not lose sight, however, of historical consciousness. There are good reasons today to study religion’s relevance in geopolitical processes, but there are also good reasons why congregations, for example, have been and continue to be so extensively studied; for many Americans, congregations are still the primary spaces in which they engage in religious practices, and independent of religion, they are also significant sites of local community and civic action.
I also hope that we can keep in mind Alvin Gouldner’s admonition that a reflexive sociology should not lull us into “an illusion of self-confrontation that serves to disguise a new form of self-celebration.” He wrote during a very different intellectual and political era, a time when Functionalism was the primary framework anchoring American sociology and geopolitical issues were simplified by Cold War alliances. Our era is very different; we entertain several competing and fragmentary theories of society, and multi-directional transnational processes impose on even the most local of consciousnesses. Following Gouldner’s advice, we can welcome new developments in the sociology of religion, but as we go forward we must also remain open to scrutinizing the emerging strong program and its assumptions and research topics with the same cold eye we readily cast on its predecessors. Given that knowledge rarely proceeds in a linear manner, we would do well to pay attention to transnational issues and other edgy questions, but also to keep at hand the insights already gleaned from “old” debates about secularization and religious economies, without necessarily adopting any of these frameworks wholesale.