Religion: The science of the sociology of religion

Note: Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dama recently wrote an important piece in Footnotes of the American Sociological Association on the importance of taking the sociology of religion seriously.  Essentially, Smith wonders ‘why, when it comes to religion, do so many sociologists suddenly stop being sociological and become ideological and ignorant?’  

The time has come for American sociology to stop being so ignorant and dogmatic about religion. As someone who knows something about the real history, cultures, and organizations of religious traditions, I am regularly appalled by the illiterate prejudices about religion that are routinely expressed by sociologist colleagues. It is embarrassing for our discipline and galling to those who know better.

For example, in a recent Contemporary Sociology book review, the reviewer, a senior sociologist from an Ivy League university, chides a book author for not knowing enough about religion. The reviewer then asserts that the real “net effects of religion and faith” operating “on a macro level” are “a few thousand years of horrible wars, genocide, slavery’s ideology, sexual exploitation, torture, devaluing others as not human, terrorism, and organized hatred.” That opinion is not uncommon—I frequently see and hear it expressed by sociologists.

News flash: this view of religion is so simplistic, ideological, parochial, ill-informed, and historically naïve that it can only be called ignorant or bigoted, or both. It simply parrots the polemics of 18th century skeptical Enlightenment activists and the New Atheists, like Voltaire and Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens (or the combined “Ditchkins”), as if they were historical and scientific fact. It substitutes caricature for scholarship, ideological politics for academic analysis, and understanding. If such sophomoric views were applied to any other area of social life, experts who knew better would laugh and scream.

To be clear, what is at stake here has nothing to do with scholars’ personal views about religions, whether for or against. What matters is simply being educated and intelligent about an important part of human social life. The issue is not personal belief but basic professional aptitude and integrity.

We sociologists like to think that we have the hard facts about social life, reliable empirical findings, insights and understanding that ordinary people lack. Common sense, we tell our students, is often wrong—which is true. So why, when it comes to religion, do so many sociologists suddenly stop being sociological and become ideological and ignorant? For some reason, many American sociologists feel free to avow and impart superficial views of religion, as if they were learned, sophisticated, and realistic.

Here are the facts: the social, historical, and moral realities of religions are just as complicated, scrambled, and difficult as every other social practice and institution in human life—both the ones we personally like and the ones we don’t. The truth about religions is complex and challenging. Historically and today, religion involves plenty of good and bad, light and darkness, splendor and evil to go around.

Informed, non-ideological sociologists—people like Mike Hout, Lisa Keister, and Robert Wuthnow—have published many informative, balanced works on religion. Libraries are full of fair, reliable literatures about religions for discerning readers. There is plenty to learn from. So why do so many in sociology continue with their shopworn hearsay and simplistic stereotypes?

It is time for American sociologists to stop playing good-guys-versus-bad-guys with religion and ritually shoving the black hat on religion. It is time to take religion just as seriously as everything else humanly social, and time to make the effort to learn complicated facts.

Religion is not going away anytime soon, if ever. And religion often matters immensely for understanding human social life. If we sociologists are what we claim to be, we have to replace ignorance with real knowledge, biases with genuine understanding, and comfortable myths with realistic complexity. Personal beliefs about religion aside, open and honest learning is our professional responsibility.

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