Sociology Of Religion Research Paper

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Though central to the concerns of the founding fathers and to such major mid-twentieth century figures as Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton, religion has, for some time, been regarded as of marginal interest within the discipline of sociology. However, the recent resurgence of ethno-religion and of militant variants of major world religions has incited mainstream reconsideration of the salience of the topic thereby directing attention toward the sociology of religion as a specialized area of research. Meanwhile, the subdiscipline has acquired a significant role in the generation of insights and perspectives among theologians, historians of religion and exponents of Religionswissenschaft.

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1. The Role Of The Classics

With roots in the earliest versions of sociological thought, the sociology of religion remains strongly influenced by the classics and Durkheim and Weber still supply the main axes of intellectual tension within subdisciplinary theoretical discourse (O’Toole 1984). The former’s concern with religion’s role in social cohesion, group stability, and the reproduction of sociocultural forms is complemented by the latter’s preoccupation with its part in radical, large-scale social and cultural transformations. Their writings are constantly ransacked for insights while their ideas, often elaborated or even creatively misinterpreted, continue to permeate contemporary discussion of such topics as secularization, sectarianism, civil religion, new religious movements, ecclesiastical organizations, ritual, and religious transformations.

Through the scope of their theories and the depth of their insights, the classics inevitably breed rival readings and multiple interpretations, e.g., while Durkheim and Weber are often viewed as exponents of the secularization thesis, both offer ammunition for its adversaries. The ambiguity of Durkheim’s legacy is evident in attempts to explain his fundamental theory of religion. Here, metaphorical parallelism battles symbolic realism as defenders of a materialist Durkheim confront those who proclaim him an idealist thinker.

Though Durkheim and Weber constitute the twin pillars of the subdiscipline’s classical legacy, other figures have played significant, though more circumscribed roles. When articulation and development of the Weberian church–sect distinction was a central subdisciplinary obsession, Troeltsch’s The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (1923) universally was accorded classic status as the charter document of the study of religious organization. Today, Troeltsch’s volumes attract attention, less for insights into church establishment and sectarian voluntarism than for their exploration of ‘the secret religion of the educated classes.’ With its cultic and mystical components, Troeltsch’s treatment of this topic presciently anticipates a contemporary concern with religious individualization and privatization and thus deserves continuing scrutiny.

Rarely granted subdisciplinary recognition until the 1970s, the writings of Marx and Engels may now be said to have achieved minor classical standing. They have influenced theoretical discussion as well as inspiring a minority scholarship whose neo-Marxism is characterized by a sense of the ‘relative autonomy’ of religion and a belief in continuity rather than conflict between the views of Marx and Weber (O’Toole 1984).

Alexis de Tocqueville has long lurked in the back-ground of sociological discussions of American religion but, until recently, his Democracy in America (1835) never achieved the subdisciplinary classic status of Niebuhr’s The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1957). Whereas Niebuhr is now largely neglected, however, Tocqueville increasingly is commissioned in the service of a current fascination with the ‘vitality’ of US religion and the sources of a supposed ‘American Exceptionalism’ in the religious realm. In its assertion of the significance of religious disestablishment and voluntarism, his work is esteemed as the fountainhead of a perceived ‘New Paradigm’ in the study of American religion (Warner 1993).

Long invoked without ever approaching the subdisciplinary standing of Durkheim or Weber, Simmel, too, is the subject of revived interest attributable to the uncanny timeliness of his writings (Simmel 1997). Reflecting his resistance to that domination of the objective spirit over the subjective which characterizes modernity, his focus on a diffused religious attitude in preference to institutionalized religious forms has a decidedly contemporary resonance. Careful to distinguish between formal creeds and the subjective experience of pious individuals, Simmel explores religiosity as well as religion, portraying the latter as a co-creation of acting believers which bridges the private and the public. In a subdiscipline currently grappling with issues of religious individualization, autonomy, fragmentation, and bricolage, Simmel’s potential contribution has perhaps never been greater.

While many sociologists of religion are content to continue a conversation with the classics, others are impatient to break the intellectual spell of what they perceive as the increasingly irrelevant products of a passing industrial era. Those intent on subdisciplinary transcendence of the classics are acutely aware, however, that scholars accustomed to invoking this legacy as new problems arise will not relinquish it lightly.

2. Definitions

In most definitional surveys, discussion hinges upon the merits of functional vs. substantive definitions. Within these frameworks, the relative advantages of inclusive or exclusive conceptualizations are assessed while specific formulations are examined for theoretical coherence and empirical integrity. Since its inception, the sociology of religion has been the scene of such a prolonged battle between the proponents of these strategies for defining religion that, in a sense, the debate between Durkheim and Tylor has been interminable. Contemporary substantivist formulations focus on such elusive phenomena as the sacred, the transcendent, the supernatural or the superempirical. Functional definitions portray religion as an indispensable source of social consensus and cohesion which aids human adaptation to the environment and ensures societal survival by explaining the meaning of existence and providing answers to questions of ultimate concern.

The question of how inclusive a definition may be while still retaining analytical utility is one that may be directed against both functional and substantive formulations. On the substantivist side, the categories of the supernatural and superempirical are notoriously open-ended while, in the most inclusive functional definitions, society itself assumes a religious character. Debate over the relative merits of definitional strategies often hinges on the issue of how closely sociological usage should adhere to societal understandings. On one side, scholars express frustration that sociological usage of the term ‘religion’ is often remote from and counter-intuitive to anything which ordinary people would recognize as ‘religious.’ On the other, it is argued that ‘religion’ is a culturally specific term with no resonance in many societal contexts and that, in any case, no definition of general utility can be expected to conform to the specific demands of ordinary language usage.

Although subdisciplinary practitioners are accustomed to pursuing their research in a continuing context of definitional disagreement, it is an error to believe that lack of consensus in this area has no practical effect. The degree of social and cultural significance which sociologists of religion currently attribute to religion is influenced, to a great extent, by their definitional predilections.

3. Major Themes

In the period of its greatest growth, since the 1960s, the sociology of religion has exhibited both continuity and change. The classics remain a continuous presence although their range of application has expanded. A Judaeo–Christian emphasis is still clearly discernible but it has become self-consciously circumscribed within more globally comparative ambitions. The functionalist tone of earlier theoretical discussions has given way to a polycentric approach that critically assesses the merits and defects of rival perspectives claiming a hearing. Most notably, the variety of topics examined under the subdisciplinary rubric has widened significantly. Whereas the sociology of religion was previously directed largely toward familiar subject matter, it now increasingly ventures into mysterious territory and assumes novel theoretical and methodological challenges. It cannot be said that the sociology of religion has been unresponsive to the unfolding religious processes and transformations of the latter half of the twentieth century. On the contrary, its evolution has been largely propelled by such reactions. The present generation of subdisciplinary specialists is engaged in research on many fronts. While continuing to investigate such phenomena as mainline religion, civil religion, millenarianism, conversion, and the changing role of clergy, its representatives also are exploring energetically a wide array of new topics generated by the turmoil of the last quarter of the twentieth century. E.g., events in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union since 1989 have underlined religion’s potency in the forging of ethnonationalism, thereby provoking numerous studies of the contemporary fate of religion in specific former Iron Curtain countries.

Although, in its strict American Protestant sense, it has claimed a longstanding subdisciplinary interest, ‘fundamentalism’ has also captured scholarly attention in its contemporary comparative meaning, particularly since the Iranian revolution. Adopting a blanket term coined by the mass media, sociologists of religion have participated in a number of subdisciplinary and interdisciplinary projects which examine the currently politically-charged topic of religious extremism (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc.) under this heading. The effort to discern its underlying characteristics has raised the crucial question of whether the fundamentalist impulse toward dedifferentiation and totality represents an assault on modernity, a manifestation of modernism or an intriguing combination of both.

Subdisciplinary practitioners exhibit an enhanced capacity for scrutiny of specific religious developments within a large-scale comparative context and in terms of more general theoretical debate. The study of Pentecostalism, e.g., is no longer confined to the margins and backwoods of Western societies. In the works of contemporary specialists, it emerges as a movement which offers a serious challenge to mainline religions in the West, is rapidly transforming the religious maps of Latin America and Africa and is making a serious spiritual, social and economic impact on parts of Asia. Sociologists of religion have been forced by world events to situate their subject matter in an increasingly international, comparative, and global framework whether their interest is in fundamentalism, charismatic Christianity, New Religious Movements, or any other major topic of research. It is unsurprising, therefore, that they have led the way in promoting globalization as a concept of central theoretical importance, not just for their subdiscipline but for sociology as a whole.

Born in the political alienation, generational conflict, and crisis of values which characterized the era of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, the study of New Religious Movements (NRMs) revitalized a subdiscipline which appeared to have exhausted the possibilities of the church–sect approach to religious organization. Over the last quarter of the twentieth century, sociologists of religion have continued to study Unificationists, Scientologists, Rajneeshis, Transcendental-Meditationists, Hare Krishnas, and many other movements of religious innovation and experimentation. In the process, they have accumulated a mass of ethnographic material documenting their inner dynamics, recruitment practices, resource mobilization, and ideological development while simultaneously struggling to discern the broader theoretical import of this information. Originating amidst heady notions of an emerging ‘new religious consciousness,’ another ‘Great Awakening’ and an imminent ‘Return of the Sacred,’ NRM research has long subscribed to more sober assessments of its subject matter. Nonetheless, scholars in this field reject suggestions that they are engaged in a mere pursuit of the trivial and exotic. The significance of NRMs is believed to lie in their role as indicators of broader sociocultural trends but, unfortunately, there is wide disagreement concerning their overall significance for contemporary and future religion. For some commentators, they represent a decisive blow to the secularization thesis, their very existence contradicting any notion of a ‘disenchantment of the world.’ For others, they constitute strong evidence in support of the secularization thesis, confirming by their tiny membership, syncretic ideology, and cultural marginality the inability of religion to restore its fortunes in any significant way.

What might be considered a ‘second wave’ of NRM research has focused, more recently, on such topics as Satanism, Witchcraft, neo-Paganism, and various manifestations of ‘New Age’ spirituality. Such studies provide intriguing comparisons and contrasts with first-generation NRMs as well as with occultic movements formed at the end of the nineteenth century. They also examine phenomena such as Wicca and neo-Paganism as indicators of such broad religious trends as individualization, privatization, and bricolage, thereby suggesting their essentially postindustrial or postmodern character. A growing fascination with New Age spirituality as a highly individualistic and experiential enterprise has perhaps played a part in the encouragement or revival of subdisciplinary interest in such topics as healing, the natural environment, the human body, and collective memory as they relate to religious issues. As sociologists of religion increasingly have shifted their attention in these directions, the possibility of fruitful interchange between students of NRMs and analysts of so-called ‘New Social Movements’ from other subdisciplines has been raised. Though the response to this challenge has been rather muted, such cooperation might facilitate a greater infusion of general theoretical ideas into the sociology of religion.

4. Methods And Theories

Within the sociology of religion, methodology and theory typically have been implicit rather than explicit. Perhaps partly due to a certain insulation and isolation, the kinds of self-consciously theoretical disputes which occur in other subdisciplines rarely have been witnessed. Nonetheless, since the unraveling of functionalist orthodoxy in the 1970s, the subdiscipline has experienced significant, if civil, discord which stubbornly resists efforts at securing synthesis.

The subdiscipline employs a wide range of quantitative and qualitative methodological techniques including large-scale social surveys, participant-observation, and textual analysis of contemporary and historical materials. Here, as in sociology generally, one investigator’s sophisticated device is another’s blunt instrument, although open debates on this theme are rare. For the most part, a wall of indifference segregates quantitative from qualitative methodologists although it has been breached occasionally. In the broadest methodological sense, the reciprocal relationship between sociological research and religious activity merits attention though it is often ignored on the basis of a glib distinction between religious sociology and sociology of religion formulated in a religious context less bewildering than the current one. To what extent sociologists of religion see their own reflection in the religious realm on which they report is a sensitive issue which surfaces in a number of ways. Thus, in asserting the impact of societal reality upon sociological method, some observers suggest that a purported contemporary transition from institutionalized to individually autonomous forms of religion necessitates a shift from qualitative fieldwork directed at groups to quantitative surveys aimed at individuals. In contrast to this, other commentators ponder the possibility that perception of a rise in privatized religion may itself be partly a product of specific, widely disseminated research techniques directed toward discernment of the dimensions of individual religiosity.

While the complexities and subtleties of the reciprocal relationship between observers and those they observe have come to the fore most notably in discussions of scholarship and partisanship in the NRM field, they are equally evident in other religious settings. Students of Liberation Theology and Base Communities, e.g., are often confronted by sociological ideas in explicit use by those under observation. More generally, widespread use of the term ‘secularization’ by mainline churches seems to offer an excellent example of social science rebounding upon society. It also provides a cautionary tale of the manner in which societal embrace of a sociological notion may possibly inspire a self-fulfilling prophecy. In any general assessment of the theoretical situation within the sociology of religion, it is difficult to overcome the impression that scholars are traveling in all directions at once and that every assertion eventually evokes its exact opposite. Empirical–analytic, historical–hermenentic, and critical conceptions of science are all in evidence and the major tendencies in contemporary sociological theorizing are represented in varying degrees (e.g., functionalism, conflict theory, Marxism, critical theory, symbolic-interactionism, phenomenology, rational-utilitarianism). In such a situation, it is difficult to ascertain the main drift of theoretical innovation but recent important developments may be noted.

A mood of skepticism toward Grand Theories and Grand Narratives appears, in some quarters, to have intensified suspicions of deduction and prediction to a point where the initial nomothetic impulse of the subdiscipline has been supplanted by an idiographic ‘historical turn.’ This involves a strategy of methodological individualism, a stress on individual autonomy and creativity, and an overall preoccupation with agency rather than structure. In a parallel development, longstanding inductive and interpretive tendencies have experienced reinvigoration and reinforcement as theorizing has taken a decidedly ‘cultural’ direction. In their efforts to take seriously the meaning of religion in the lives of believers and practitioners, proponents of this perspective employ the insights of cognitive and phenomenological theory while simultaneously drawing upon anthropological sources and material derived from the field of Cultural Studies. Fundamental to this cultural approach is a fervent antireductionism which rejects the notion of religion’s epiphenomenal character and refuses to regard religious phenomena as really something else. Vigorously endorsing methodological individualism and deductive scientific logic, rational-choice theory has had an undeniably profound impact on the sociology of religion during the 1990s. Appointing Adam Smith to the subdisciplinary classical pantheon, its advocates employ economic metaphors to describe, explain, and predict religious behavior. Led by de Tocqueville’s identification of a causal link between voluntarism and vitality in the American religious experience, they indicate the paramount importance of choice and competition in US religious ‘exceptionalism.’ Extending their analysis in a comparative direction, they strongly oppose suggestions of the inevitability of secularization, linking dynamic religious growth to a process of ‘deregulation’ in the religious realm. While it has won many converts, rational-choice theory has left many unconvinced by either its specific market analyses of religious profit-and-loss or its fundamental assumptions concerning religious behavior. To its most severe critics, its basic propositions appear embedded in ambiguity and tautology while its claims to universal applicability reflect an unfortunate regression into a presociological mode of analysis. Nonetheless, rational-choice analysis now represents such a significant presence that it is regarded by many of its admirers, and perhaps even some of its detractors, as the central constituent of a new subdisciplinary paradigm.

The themes of secularization and the contemporary transformations of religion have permeated subdisciplinary discussion in all its aspects since the 1960s. The concept of secularization has, for many, proven itself to be a plausible, persuasive, and resilient means for interpreting the fortunes of religion in the twentieth century. From another viewpoint it has been judged a misguided myth whose influence has retarded scholarly progress and whose persistence underlines the subdisciplinary need to transcend the classics. Although its classical provenance is tinged with ambiguity, the secularization perspective has long held a privileged position within the sociology of religion, being described frequently as a dominant ‘paradigm.’ Logically dependent for its meaning on the definition of ‘religion,’ the concept has an intrinsic inclination to ambiguity which is often reinforced by vague and careless usage. Despite the best efforts of its proponents to articulate the main elements of the secularization thesis with analytical exactitude, debates over its validity frequently are characterized by argument at cross-purpose. While the validity of empirical evidence is occasionally at issue, facts are not typically in dispute and discussions tend to hinge on the interpretation of various social patterns.

What is new about the current debate is that proponents of the secularization thesis are now decidedly on the defensive. The undermining of the secularization thesis has occurred gradually through the efforts of scholars ranging theoretically from functionalists to phenomenologists but this process has accelerated in the last decade as a result of the arguments of rational-choice theorists and a new subdisciplinary awareness of the historical record. Indeed, some sociologists of religion discern, in the current convergence of these tendencies, the emergence of nothing less than a new subdisciplinary paradigm destined to displace the secularization thesis. Whether this new outlook, which combines deductive theory with social history, may accurately be described as a paradigm is in dispute. There is little doubt, however, that it captures a certain fin de siecle subdisciplinary mood of stock-taking and reassessment in which the prospects of religion appear much brighter than a few decades ago. Perhaps the ‘new paradigm’ is best understood within the context of changing attitudes to modernity. As a by-product of current postmodernist debate, the concept of modernity has experienced revival and refurbishment, a situation with significant consequences for the study of religion. The familiar conception which assumed that as a result of differentiation and relativization, secularization was an inextricable and inevitable component of modernity has given way to a revisionist version of modernity which neither precludes the persistence of religion nor constrains its vitality. Although its significance is challenged by defenders of the secularization thesis, mounting evidence of the vigor of religion on the international scene encourages subdisciplinary embrace of a more encompassing vision of modernity.

Interestingly, this vision is complemented by an increasingly broad conception of religion. Any attempt to portray religion’s changing face since the 1970s must stress the extremely wide range of phenomena currently accommodated under the religious rubric before tracing those trends which constitute the common currency of all analyses of the contemporary religious scene. These include the processes of disestablishment, individualization, privatization, fragmentation, and globalization as well as a number of variants and counter-themes. In the process by which a primarily institutional conception of religion has given way to a far more inclusive and elusive subdisciplinary formulation, the impact of Luckmann’s ‘invisible religion’ thesis cannot be overestimated (Luckmann 1967). Where earlier functionalist definitions had focused on such vast notions as ‘ultimate concerns’ and ‘grounds of meaning,’ Luckmann raises the stakes even higher by identifying the transcendence of biological nature by the human organism as a religious phenomenon. He thus describes a general anthropological condition that links the creation of religion inextricably with the formation of the individual and the self. In various guises, this has been a major subdisciplinary theme during the years following the promulgation of his provocative thesis.

Concerned for so long with religion’s role in the creation, preservation, and perpetuation of collectivity and community, many sociologists of religion have transferred their attention to the role of the individual and the dimensions of personal religiosity. As with other major subdisciplinary developments, this shift of attention is a product of perceived changes in societal reality as much as theoretical logic. It is not necessary to subscribe to the secularization thesis in order to be aware of the profound crisis which has beset the major institutional forms of religion in Western societies since World War II. Moreover, the vastly diminished role of religion as the ‘ideology of community’ has become increasingly evident. Thus, the new direction taken by the subdiscipline is part of its effort to cope with the rapid transformation of religion under conditions of postindustrialism and postmodernity.

One aspect of this new reality is starkly evident in the work of Bellah et al. (1985) whose insight into the success and decline of American ‘civil religion’ has expanded into a concern with the collapse of community. Viewing dwindling involvement in religious organizations within the broader picture of a general decline in participation in political parties, trade unions, voluntary associations, and community groups, Bellah and co-workers perceive religion as increasingly a matter of private concern and personal idiosyncrasy.

This theme is echoed in all current investigations of institutionalized religion, particularly in its ‘mainline’ forms. Although there is no immediate prospect of the collapse of organized religion, its future arguably depends on its ability to accommodate new attitudes to religious authority and revised forms of religious involvement. Commentary on the contemporary religious climate demonstrates considerable consistency in detecting a number of key related processes at work. Some observers describe individualization and privatization. Others refer, in a US context, to a ‘third disestablishment’ involving an expansion of personal autonomy. Fragmentation frequently is explored and a growing tendency among believers to ‘mix and match’ elements from a variety of denominational and religious traditions is emphasized. The terms bricolage, religion a la carte, and consumerism are also utilized in portraying the extent to which individuals privately construct personally meaningful syncretic systems of belief for themselves. In examining the dilemmas of organized religion, many scholars discern a disinclination toward total acceptance of any denominational or religious belief system either through inheritance or conversion. This denotes a fundamental alteration in the popular conception of religion. No longer regarded as a source of anthoritative meaning, increasingly it is considered instrumentally as a broad, pliant, cultural resource at the disposal of autonomized individuals. Moreover, the accuracy of this assessment is underlined by researchers who document an accelerating incidence of ‘belief without belonging’ as a mode of religious commitment.

The future of organized religion is precarious and unpredictable but with the waning of the secularization thesis, it is less often discussed in terms of inevitability. Though it seems certain to remain a major player on the religious scene for the forseeable future, increasingly it will share the subdisciplinary limelight with more ‘diffuse’ and ‘invisible’ forms of religion. Often under the general umbrella of ‘the sacred,’ the attention of sociologists of religion focuses increasingly on uninstitutionalized forms of religion and their involvement in the transformation of the self. In this regard, studies of popular, ‘common,’ and ‘implicit’ religion, along with investigations of diffuse versions of spiritual and mystical experience, are now a noteworthy part of the subdisciplinary agenda. They are accompanied by efforts to discern the presence of the sacred in such secular settings as ‘self-help’ and therapy groups, fitness centers, weight-loss clinics, and healthfood stores which are often depicted as instruments in the pursuit of individual self-perfection.

True to form, however, there is no subdisciplinary consensus on an overall or inevitable passage into more privatized forms of religion in the postindustrial era. On the basis of evidence drawn from Poland, Spain, Brazil, and the US, Casanova (1994) perceives an intersection of religion and politics and a revival of ‘public religion’ in the modern world. This conception is given credence by globalization theory that regards both privatization and politicization as products of the modern global condition.

Whether religion’s privatization or individualization will accelerate or whether its former capacity as a source of authoritative meaning will reassert itself and inspire novel, enduring, and significant forms of collective and public spiritual expression remains to be seen. One thing is certain: reappraisal of the past and adjustment to the present have ensured that, in the sociology of religion, the future is not what it used to be.


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