Those of us with material, identity, and intellectual interests in the health of the sociology of religion as a sub-discipline owe a debt to David Smilde and Matthew May. Through a careful examination of data drawn from major journals, they have given us a somewhat surprising view of the state of our art, and through a useful conceptual argument, have provided a persuasive interpretation of what this means.

Some things are not so surprising—e.g., the increased attention to religion in major journals, or the general tendency toward positive socio-evaluative findings. As editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2003-08), I saw numerous article submissions from scholars not often thought of as sociologists of religion, as well as a pronounced tendency toward positive assessments. I made this observation in one of my last editor’s columns, albeit without the systematic over-time data Smilde and May have given us. I am pleased (a bit self-servingly) to be supported in these assertions.

However, another assertion I made in that column, that funding was driving both these tendencies, receives some rebuttal, or at least a surprising twist in Smilde and May’s analysis. The number of negative socio-evaluative findings is actually increasing, even as funding does; and it is public funding, not support from private foundations, which is more likely to produce positive findings. While some of this might be related to the more overt pro-religiousness of the Bush administration and a resulting impact on NIH (and perhaps NSF) funding streams, that argument would be difficult to substantiate. But the relationship between funding and scholarly findings is important to keep at the center of our concerns, as scholars at every institution of higher education—from research universities to teaching colleges—are increasingly pushed to generate external resources for research. The role of funding will only get larger in the coming years and these connections bear watching.

But in these comments I want to point to another angle on the tendency to emphasize the positive aspects of religion—one which is not explored directly in the working paper, but which nonetheless concerns me—namely, the issues of which substantive subject areas get explored and how ‘religion’s effects’ are conceptualized. Certainly, it is clear that funding has increased the focus on Christianity and North America—and perhaps on religious organizations, rather than on less institutionalized forms of religion and spirituality. But even within the study of U.S. Christianity, there is a lot of concern as to whether religion ‘protects’ one from substance abuse, mental depression, divorce, alcoholism, premarital sex, etc.—in other words, a bit of the scholarly version of ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.’ But there is much less research as to whether religion contributes to inequality, whether it fosters discrimination, or whether it facilitates homophobia, racism, and the like. Particularly in the world of youth and religion, what people need protection from has a certain conceptual affinity with traditionally pietistic notions of ‘sin.’

Part of this results, I am sure, from the public health focus that is the source of a great deal of NIH-sponsored research streams. Public health scholarship has batteries of items on these issues that are certainly valuable and lead to a lot of comparative analytic opportunities. It is useful research. But the dependent variables regarding religion’s effects on people’s health and well-being are too often individualized, institutionally acceptable, non-political, and non-challenging to dominant power arrangements. I think that this is a tendency that we in the field should be worried about. In my view, this is one of the ways in which the contemporary sociology of religion has really strayed from its classical roots—it has left behind some of the core institutional, dynamic processes of industrial capitalist society as effectively irrelevant to religion’s “functioning,” and has instead focused heavily on individual well-being (or individual voting, or church attendance, etc.). For all the charges of “tenured radicals” in the university, much of our scholarship does not have a very critical edge.

However, funding is only part of the story when it comes to this tendency to individualize our perspectives and to downgrade (or remove altogether) power and inequality within our theoretical frameworks. A focus on “agency” has been a dominant theoretical move, and too often has had just this effect. And, tellingly, too often “agency” has been conflated with Rational Choice Theoretical (RCT) approaches. Power and inequality are just not major grounding assumptions in RCT. And just as RCT was gaining a significant foothold in the sociology of religion, it was being left behind in several other sub-disciplines, such as social movements and political sociology. Even economic sociology was beginning to take seriously the idea that markets are socially and culturally constructed, just as sociologists of religion were embracing the idea that markets are ontologically ‘real’ and causally efficacious.

It was at about this time that Steve Warner’s “new paradigm” article appeared (published in 1993, but having made the rounds as a paper a year earlier). That American Journal of Sociology article is frequently, but inaccurately, conflated with rational choice theory and/or ‘religious economies’ (RE) approaches to religion. Warner cites approvingly the work by Larry Iannaccone, Roger Finke, and Rodney Stark in that article, but also cites scholars, such as Mary Jo Neitz, who have different approaches. What they share is an emphasis on agency in the construction of religious identities, beliefs, and behaviors. But an emphasis on agency and cultural autonomy need not write power out of the picture, nor be too narrowly rationalist.

The framing of a body of research as a “new paradigm,” and the debates, both theoretical and empirical, that have accompanied applications of RCT to religion have, in my view, excited a lot of research in the sociology of religion. This converged with other factors to prompt the resurgence of interest in religion in sociology. Those factors included: the new public visibility of religion in world, national, and public affairs; the emergence of new generations of sociologists who come from backgrounds where religion is important (e.g., Latinos, Asian immigrants, Evangelicals), and who then brought that interest into their sociology; and the general pendulum–like trends in sociological scholarship. All this has been, generally speaking, good for the sub-discipline.

In the late 1990s, historian Harry Stout co-edited a book with D.G. Hart called New Directions in American Religious History. Stout made the claim that the field of American religious history used to study society and changes in society in order to understand religion and changes in religion. Today, historians of American religious history tend to study religion in order to better understand society. That is not exactly parallel to Smilde and May’s description of the ‘strong program,’ but the theme resonates similarly. Historians and other ‘religious studies’-type scholars have been at the forefront of bringing a new reflexivity to scholarship on religion, particularly problematizing our conceptions of what counts as “religion” and who and what should count as a subject of study. I am pleased that a similar move is afoot in the sociology of religion. We stand to benefit collectively from Smilde and May’s considerations of our field and from the commentary that I hope it engenders.