Most sociologists of religion seem to agree on two things. First, that the growth of interest in religion—in academia, the media, and society at large—has been accompanied by an increasingly vigorous research agenda in the sub-discipline. And second, that the sociology of religion is currently in a period of paradigmatic reflection. While the “new paradigm” put forward by Stephan Warner in 1993 helped awaken the field from the “dogmatic slumber” into which it was lulled by secularization theory, scholars continue to reflect on the basic conceptualization of religion and religious practice, as well as on the nature of the relationship between religious practice, institutions, and the sociology of religion itself.

Given this existing discussion, when the SSRC asked us to write a working paper on the state of the sociology of religion, Matthew May and I decided to do so through an empirical study. We saw this as the most productive way to analyze where the sub-discipline has come from, and thereby to facilitate discussion of where it should go. To carry out our study, we gathered a sample of 587 sociology journal articles on religion, published between 1978 and 2007, and coded them for religious tradition, national context, causal model, socio-evaluative findings, and funding.

We find clear evidence of the emergence of a “strong program” in the sociology of religion. By this we mean a steady increase of research that portrays religion as an independent variable having causal impact, accompanied by a steady decrease of research portraying religion as a dependent variable caused by something else. We also find that this trend is associated with the increasing prevalence of the idea that religious practice facilitates human well-being—what we call sociological “pro-religiousness.”

But rather than heralding the good news, we see this as an opportunity to critically engage these trends in the sub-discipline. While we welcome a more robust concept of culture, we are concerned that the critiques of the concept of cultural autonomy put forth by feminist, deconstructionist, and postcolonial scholars have barely been heard in sociology. More concretely, we worry that an emphasis on autonomy could lead to a selective focus on those geographic contexts and religious traditions that appear to validate this approach. We also seek to understand whether growing pro-religiousness will marginalize critical perspectives, as well as ignore or understate the existence of uncomfortable religious phenomena. Here, again, while these are issues worthy of philosophical and methodological debate, we treat them empirically, in order to identify trends and determine whether they are related.

Some of our findings provide cause for concern. We indeed find evidence of continued thematic concentration on the topics traditionally given privileged treatment by American sociologists of religion: the religious history of the United States, Protestantism, and Christianity more broadly. Over the same thirty-year period that has seen an exponential surge of interest in globalization, the sociology of religion has seen virtually no diversification in its subject matter. We also find that articles on the United States and all forms of Christianity, except Catholicism, are significantly more likely to portray religion as an independent variable—precisely what postcolonial theory would predict.

Other findings are unexpected and stimulating. We examine pro-religiousness by coding articles for positive or negative “socio-evaulative findings.” Socio-evaluative findings are “positive” when they show religion to contribute to human agency, autonomy, or concrete social outcomes generally thought to be positive. They are “negative” when they clearly show religious practice to diminish human agency or autonomy, or to have concrete social outcomes generally considered negative (a more extensive discussion of this coding can be found in the methodological appendix to our essay).

For the first twenty-five years of our study (through 2002), there was a clear increase in pro-religiousness, with positive socio-evaluative findings on religion steadily proliferating and negative socio-evaluative findings diminishing. But in the last five-year period we show there has been a surge of both positive and negative socio-evaluative findings. We consider this a positive trend, revealing increasing critical engagement and diversity in the sub-discipline.

We also look at how funding might be related to these trends. To put it bluntly, we wondered if the growth of funding from private and religious foundations facilitated the trend towards the strong program, pro-religiousness, and thematic concentration. We found no relationship with the strong program, but an interesting and not entirely intuitive relation to pro-religiousness. All funding types were positively related to the increase in positive findings on religion.

However, the real story is the overwhelming relationship between public funding and pro-religiousness. Articles with public funding are twice as likely as articles with no funding to report positive findings on religion. This correlation is stronger than any we find to be associated with private funding, a result that clearly contradicts the common image of government knowledge elites as motors of secularization, and appears instead to reinforce Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s description of a new religious universalism in the US federal government.

This is very much a working paper, as we are still collecting and analyzing data. Thus we hope for a vigorous discussion and welcome your criticism, as we ourselves continue to think.

Read the full SSRC Working Paper on “The Emerging Strong Program in the Sociology of Religion” (pdf).