David Smilde, Matthew May, Peggy Levitt, Courtney Bender, and Wendy Cadge should be applauded for beginning an important and long overdue conversation about the state of the sociology of religion. According to their assessments, sociology of religion is not in crisis, but is rather undergoing a very promising transformation—from a sociological sub-discipline that, in prophesying the decline of its subject, in fact marginalized itself, to an area of inquiry that posits religion as an independent variable with an important social role in our late modern age.
This trajectory seems to suggest that, after many decades of the progressive marginalization of religion in sociology, we are, in effect, back to where we started—with Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim, for whom religion was central to understanding modernity. Smilde and his colleagues, however, are quick to point out the differences: while Marx, Weber, and Durkheim were confident about the decline, or at least the radical transformation, of religion with the progression of modernity, we know today that their predictions did not come true, as religions have proven themselves to be adaptable and to possess a great capacity for revitalization. Even more importantly, Smilde and the others maintain that precisely now, when sociologists are rediscovering the importance and causal power of religion, much can be gained by resisting some of the trends that have characterized their endeavors in the past: the parochial focus on religion (especially Christianity) within the United States, the Christo-centric understanding of ‘religion,’ and the emphasis in much recent scholarship on the positive social role of religion. Instead, sociologists of religion should affirm “nuanced, measured,” and comparative work, rethink the independence of ‘religion’ (with an appreciation of postcolonial, postmodern, and feminist critiques), and sustain reflection on ‘religion’ and the ‘religious’ in relation to the ‘secular.’ Put differently, Smilde, May, Levitt, Bender, and Cadge not only describe the state of the sociology of religion; they also offer a useful platform for its programmatic development. I agree with many of their statements and suggestions, especially with the notion that the sociology of religion can become more robust and (once again) relevant if it moves beyond the simple rejection of its predecessors’ failed prophecies and leaves behind some of their sociological practices as well.
I am, however, less persuaded by the optimism that allows the authors to declare that the sociology of religion is once again “healthy and vibrant,” that it is arising as a sub-discipline with a “strong program,” and that sociologists now “get” religion (as the title of Scott Jaschik’s article in Inside Higher Education would have it). In this moment of “paradigmatic reflection,” to use Smilde and May’s words—that is, at a moment when we still remember that sociologists do not have a very good track record in their predictions about, and, I would dare to say, in their understanding of, religion—one ought to be more inclined toward caution than optimism regarding the present and the future of the sociology of religion. For this reason, I want to highlight the more cautious side of the programmatic statements made by Smilde and May and Levitt et al., and I want to interpret this caution as a call for a more methodologically and theoretically modest version of the sociology of religion.
In my view, if a strong program in the sociology of religions is to emerge, its practitioners ought to develop reflexivity, not only about their intellectual (theoretical and methodological) legacies and tendencies, but also about the inherent limitations of their discipline. They need to, in other words, become much more open to the insights of other disciplines, particularly those of the humanities. Most concretely, if they are to begin to “get” religion, sociologists of religion must seriously engage ‘religion.’ And just as sociologists exploring questions of ‘gender’ would not neglect theories of gender, sociologists cannot afford to disregard the vibrant and fruitful area of the theories of religion that have emerged in the field of religious studies.
Smilde and his colleagues, to be sure, mention some recent work by scholars of religion (Bender, Cadge, Orsi, Carroll), as well as the ideas of some postcolonial thinkers (such as Talal Asad), which all emphasize the Christian—especially Protestant Christian—provenance of approaches to ‘religion.’ But when Smilde and his colleagues, following the insights of these scholars, call “on sociologists to continue to face up to the ways [in which they tacitly equate] religion with Christianity,” and when they argue, furthermore, that other sociologists need to pay more attention to “the social processes that shape Christian notions of religion into ‘universal’ ones,” they seem not to recognize that the rich history of engagements with such questions did not begin with Asad, but has been developing in the field of religious studies for over three decades.
The fact that the scientific study of ‘religion’ is freighted with a particularistic—in many cases, a specifically Protestant Christian—view of religion, and is inclined toward an idealist, individualist, and voluntarist reading of ‘religion,’ may be rather new for sociologists of religion. Similarly, sociologists may find it a novel notion that the line between what religion is and what religion ought to be has been blurry since the earliest scholarly imaginings of religion. Yet, these ideas, and the debates about them, have been shaping religious studies since at least the early 1980s, when Jonathan Z. Smith famously declared that religion does not exist independently of the academy, and is an analytic—not an a priori—category, created for the scholar’s purposes. What is more, Smith’s place in the history of the study of ‘religion’ is not just complementary to Asad’s; rather, Smith’s project is especially illuminating for sociologists. Unlike the postcolonial and postmodern attempts to deconstruct ‘religion,’ Smith’s argument does not focus on the nexus of power and religion, but employs a historical perspective in an attempt to construct the parameters of comparison through explanation, interpretation, and analogy. While critical of the normative assumptions of the Western study of religions, Smith also takes a position on the theoretical and methodological approaches to ‘religion,’ knowing that taking a stance always “entails costs and consequences.”
The critical, yet affirmative character of Smith’s project should be of interest to any sociologist of religion interested in comparative work. But it is also relevant for sociologists of religion in general, since Smith’s ideas allow space for an old sociological distinction between “authority” and “power,” which (in the words of sociologist David Franz) suggests that we obey authority because we ought to, while we obey power because we are afraid not to. The difference between “authority” and “power” is dismissed by postcolonial scholars like Asad, but it remains crucial for understanding how and why religious traditions and religious institutions may serve to both justify some social order and effect radical social change. The appreciation of precisely such complexities, it seems to me, is one of the more important goals of the “new” sociology of religion that Smilde and his colleagues are advocating.
It is very encouraging to see increasing intellectual liveliness and productivity in contemporary sociology of religion. But, that does not change the fact that sociologists of religion are—with a few notable exceptions—among the last to join the debates about the theoretical and methodological, historical and comparative, approaches to the problem of ‘religion.’ Put differently, sociologists are only beginning to learn about and from the insights of those who have been involved in conversations about ‘religion’ for quite some time. In this process, understanding and admitting the limitations of one’s own discipline would not be taken as an indication of its crisis, but rather as a sign of its maturity.