I completed my doctoral thesis on the sociology of Methodism in 1969, towards the end of the heyday of British sociology of religion, which had included Bryan Wilson, David Martin, Alasdair MacIntyre, Ninian Smart, and Roland Robertson. The following generation boasted Jim Beckford, Steve Bruce, Grace Davie and Paul Heelas, but the decades of the 1980s and 1990s appeared to be fallow years. Paradoxically, British sociology became less interesting as it became more professional. Looking at American academic life from the outside, American sociology may have had a similar fate. The creative generation of sociologists of religion—Talcott Parsons, Robert Bellah, Peter Berger, Will Herberg, and Charles Glock—who pioneered work on the expressive revolution, civil religion, the sacred canopy, and revivalism did not appear to give way to an equally prominent generation. In addition, we are all aware of the centrality of religion to classical sociology—in Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, and Ernst Troeltsch. Whenever there is talk about an ‘emerging strong program’ and ‘a new sociology of religion,’ we need to keep in mind not only where we might be going, but where we have come from.
Given the apparent centrality of religion to much of the modern world, and what now appear to be the limitations of the secularization thesis, we should welcome any sign of a revival of the fortunes of the sociology of religion. However, I have serious doubts about its annunciation. We will need more than research into which religions are figured as independent variables, or which receive some positive evaluation from social scientists, in order to herald the birth of a strong program. Jeffrey Alexander’s development of a cultural sociology at Yale is held out as a model of how the sociology of religion might develop—and rightly so. But Alexander’s program (along with the work of his colleagues, such as Phil Smith and Phil Gorski) is important because it puts culture at the center of sociological analysis of major contemporary issues around politics, social movements, and the civil sphere (Alexander’s The Civil Sphere being the obvious example). What areas of public concern might a revival in the sociology of religion embrace? These would appear to include, minimally: the crisis in multicultural (and therefore multi-faith) societies, the relationship between religious and secular identities in the framework of national citizenship, religious courts and legal pluralism, and the political role of religion in shaping the globalization of the economy in India and China.
A strong program also needs a robust and relevant theoretical framework. This theoretical component would need to concern itself with some basic issues: how does the religious relate to the social in modernity? So, what specifically might the research agenda of a strong program entail, other than tracking the fortunes of religion as an independent variable? The major task facing contemporary sociology of religion is how to engage significantly and successfully with globalization, and yet the issues around globalization have hardly surfaced explicitly in recent sociological work, apart from contributions from Roland Robertson, Peter Clarke, and Peter Beyer. One can recognize significant contributions to the study of religious radicalism and terrorism as aspects of globalization from Mark Juergensmeyer, and clearly the sociology of Islam continues to flourish (with Saïd Arjomand, Olivier Roy, and Christian Joppke). But a strong program has to hang on more than a fashionable (and therefore possibly fleeting) focus on Islam or, even more narrowly, on the veil. We have no real answers to the question: how does religion relate to globalization?
A preliminary set of answers points to the need “to provincialize the United States,” to look at post-institutional religion, and to engage with the post-secular debate. These objectives are certainly important, but let us unpack them somewhat. I have never understood the apparently total separation, at least at a professional level, between anthropology and sociology—and surely the former has been busy provincializing the ethnocentric assumptions of the sociology of religion all along. One can think of a significant assembly of anthropological contributions from Mary Douglas, Clifford Geertz, Melford Spiro, Talal Asad, and Peter van der Veer. How can one do sociology of religion without a comparative and historical framework? And how would that be possible without engaging with social anthropology? One truly amazing feature of American sociology of religion is the almost total neglect of native American religions in any discussion of either the history of religion in America or its current revival. Why? Only, I assume, because indigenous religions are arbitrarily given over to anthropology; but in a global and urban world, such disciplinary boundaries look increasingly bizarre. If we are going to provincialize, let us at least do it in the company of our colleagues in anthropology, archaeology, history, and religious studies.
On the issue of post-institutional religion, or spirituality, it is true that this development is certainly characteristic of modern societies—and not only in the West, of course. Once more we have to ask ourselves how new such a phenomenon actually is. There is a battery of extant concepts from the sociology of religion that show an earlier recognition of this development. One can think of Thomas Luckmann’s “invisible religion” in the 1960s, or Edward Bailey’s ‘implicit religion’ in the 1980s. The study of post-congregational religion has been around a long time. The real issue, however, is whether spirituality (in some broad sense) can exert significant influence on modern society—if you like, act as an independent variable and a positive force. In my view, such a social development is unlikely for at least two reasons: its extreme subjectivity and individualism, on the one hand, and its compatibility with a commercial, secular lifestyle, on the other. The Great Awakenings in America, or the Protestant Reformation in Europe, or the Islamic revival of the twentieth century were collective religious manifestations that changed society as a whole and gave rise to new and powerful institutions. It is extremely unlikely that modern spirituality could ever play a transformative, let alone revolutionary, role in society.
With regard to post-secularism, this development has more to do with political theory and philosophy of religion than with sociology as such. The debate has been driven by Richard Rorty, Gianni Vattimo, and Jürgen Habermas. It is directed primarily at the issue that, according to Habermas in Between Naturalism and Religion, in complex multicultural societies we will need to go beyond John Locke’s notion of tolerance, and one step in that direction is to take religion seriously in the public sphere, where both secular and religious citizens can be obliged to give public reasons (and not private excuses) for their beliefs. Sociologists have caught onto this debate and transformed it into the assumption that secularization is a thing of the past. However, it is important to make a distinction between political, or institutional, secularization (the separation of church and state) and social, or everyday, secularization (the transformation of belief and practice). José Casanova made a brilliant contribution to the study of this institutional differentiation in his Public Religions in the Modern World. However, these two dimensions do not develop at the same rate or in tandem. There is plenty of evidence that everyday religion is not an independent variable, but is subject to secular—mainly commercial—pressures. The global growth of the mega-church is, according to this definition, a secular development, because it transforms religious belief and practice according to the strategies of the modern corporation.
In my view, the real issue in the secularization debate is not whether religion is treated as an independent variable, or whether it can be studied in a post-secular and post-institutional form. The underlying problem was captured by Thomas Luckmann in the observation: “shrinking transcendence, expanding religion.” Is the sacred eroded in modern societies through urbanization, the collapse of community, and globalization along with the erosion of the social? This question—the religious roots of the social—can be regarded as the starting point of the sociology of religion in Durkheim. Perhaps the new sociology of religion will still develop as a variation on a classical theme, as illustrated by the current revival of Durkheimian sociology. One can observe a flood of recent publications around Durkheim and religion, such as Massimo Rosati’s Ritual and the Sacred and Edward Tiryakian’s For Durkheim. This issue—namely, the relationship between the sacred, the religious, and the social—constitutes the basis of the strong program.
It is recognized, at least implicitly, that the phrase ‘strong program’ is a code for the rejection of the ‘weak program,’ where the latter typically refers to the legacy of European sociology, with its acceptance of the secularization thesis, its implicit critique of religion, and its emphasis on the crisis of meaning in modern life. It is alleged that the European tradition assumed that the crisis of meaning (with the disenchantment of reality by science) would translate into the decline of religion. The strong (or American) program directs scientific attention to the supply side of religion, claiming that the demand side can be regarded as constant. I have never really understood these strong/weak, supply/demand, and American/European dichotomies. On the first page of The Sociology of Religion, Weber said that the most “elementary forms of behavior motivated by religious or magical factors are oriented to this world,” and such behavior is predominantly rational where the ends of religious action are “predominantly economic.” There isn’t a lot here about the problem of meaning, only the satisfaction of secular needs. Of course, the pious rise above this secular everyday world, but the mass, in the context of scarcity, are motivated by the quest for health and wealth. It turns out that Weber was, all along, part of the (really) strong problem in his post-provincial comparative sociology.