Like many of the other participants in this discussion on the current state of the sociological study of religion, we have spent much of our early careers engaging in broader conversations regarding culture and politics. As scholars who bring deep interests in religion to these conversations, we have found that the default position in these sub-disciplines is often either to ignore religion or to see it as a dangerous force in society. In this regard, we greet the “strong program” that Smilde and May see emerging in the sociology of religion with a modicum of relief, as it seems to show clearly that 1) more researchers are taking religion seriously, and 2) they are finding that religion’s influence is not always negative—rather, its effects are varied.
But while a small part of us is relieved by the emergence of a strong program, a larger part shares Smilde and May’s concerns about the increasing focus on religion as an autonomous, independent variable. This emphasis seems to rest on the assumption that religion consists primarily of a set of fixed beliefs, preferences, and dispositions that exist deep inside of individuals, which they will reveal to us if only we ask the right questions. In this essay, we will offer two critiques of this general approach, pieces of which have been raised by other participants in this discussion. First, insights from cultural theory call into question an image of belief as stable and coherent. To be clear, we are not saying that belief is always fragmented and changing, or that it never operates autonomously. Instead, we are arguing that the extent to which belief is stable and coherent ought to be considered an open empirical question. In line with this, our second critique concerns the limited ability of common sociological methods—such as ethnographic observation, in-depth interviews, and surveys—to answer these empirical questions about the nature of belief. This is not to say that we do not support efforts by sociologists and others to develop innovative methodologies that better answer these questions. Rather, we argue that the current sociological toolkit best equips us to focus on questions about how religion operates socially.
Cultural theory suggests that religion is, among many other things, a lens through which actors themselves understand the world, and a vocabulary through which they explain that world and justify their actions within it. Much of the sociology of religion contributing to the development of a strong program does not engage with these insights from cultural theory, focusing instead on individuals’ beliefs and practices apart from the social context in which they are manifested. While this research often shows that these beliefs and practices are shaped by participation in the social (e.g., organized religion) or affect individuals’ social behaviors, much of religion itself is conceptualized in an individual-centric way. We find these questions less compelling than ones that, drawing on cultural theory, are attuned to the social and relational quality of religion. What we have come to call a “sociology of social religion” shifts the focus from an individual’s supposedly coherent set of deeply held beliefs that motivate action to an emphasis on religion’s social manifestations, such as how people draw on religion to make sense of their lives in varied and context-specific ways. It asks what this variation says about the contexts as much as what it says about the religion.
Our research on religious activists in the New Sanctuary immigrant rights, intelligent design, and healthcare reform movements suggests that the ways people talk about religion and activism often change according to the social context, as does the coherence of the beliefs they express. According to a strong program that understands religion as an autonomous independent variable, this might indicate that the people we studied did not hold genuine beliefs or that our research instruments were improperly calibrated to capture them. Rather, our training as sociologists directs us to study people’s responses to survey, interview, and informal questions about their religion as context-specific forms of talk that are interesting to study as social facts in themselves, whether they approximate more deeply held beliefs or not. For instance, participants in movements often express an understanding of activism as lived religious practice when they are participating in activist causes with other people from their faith communities, while they talk about the religion-activism relationship in a more nuanced, fragmented way with their close friends. Similarly, lobbyists working for progressive religious advocacy organizations tend to justify and articulate their motivations for particular policy positions in very different ways depending on the context. When addressing their own faith communities, they point to specifically religious reasons for their policy positions. When mobilizing support for their positions in public, however (often collectively as members of broad-based interfaith coalitions), they will articulate the common moral principles upon which they all agree. Finally, in negotiations with legislators and fellow policy experts, they will stick to more technical and legalistic arguments. While some may seek to pin down what these professionals actually “believe,” a study of social religion would turn instead to questions of how and why these individuals pivot between different discourses in different contexts. By citing these examples from our research, we are not trying to suggest that people’s beliefs are not genuine or do not “really” exist. Rather, our findings suggest that people’s religious beliefs and practices are not necessarily standardized across social time and space; instead, social context shapes religion’s social manifestations. Different contexts appear to draw individuals and groups to articulate their beliefs in different ways, so that various (or no) aspects of their religious repertoires are highlighted through their interactions with different groups.
What added purchase might a sociology of social religion give us? By examining religion’s social manifestations, we will inevitably uncover multiple interactions between religion and other cultural and political objects—empirical realities that will better enable us to speak to broader theoretical issues in sociology. Rather than proving that religion matters by demonstrating its autonomous power, this approach shows that religion matters because it interacts with other elements of culture in shaping how people communicate and live with others in countless social settings. Our call for a sociology of social religion is not a call, however, to privilege collective religious spaces like congregations as the primary sites for religious production. Indeed, a sociology of social religion need not focus on organized religion at all—another benefit of this approach. Researchers can focus on how people talk about religion with each other inside and outside of “religious” spaces, how they draw on religious and spiritual beliefs together to make sense of their common situations, or how they mobilize religious and moral rhetoric in different social contexts. In this way, the approach we are outlining answers the call by Levitt et al. to push beyond congregationalism.
Another important advantage of this approach is in its move away from individualized religion, which is associated with some religious traditions more than others. This might encourage sociologists to study more diverse traditions and modes of spirituality, facilitating more nuanced analyses. Religion does not necessarily live in the individual, as some forms of doctrine suggest: it is produced and enacted socially. More attention should be paid to the ways in which these social productions and enactments happen. How do different groups of actors articulate their understandings of religion’s role in their lives? How does this shift in different settings? How do they draw boundaries around what is and is not religion? Do they carry religious symbols, stories, and rhetoric into spheres of their everyday lives that social scientists might not consider “religious”? And do they attribute varied beliefs and actions to religious motivations or structures? How do they account for changes in their religious or spiritual engagements? These questions are intended to show that a program for the sociology of social religion is not necessarily in opposition to the strong program. It merely calls us to focus our energies elsewhere, urging a rediscovery of the ways in which religion itself is a social phenomenon.