The Sociology of Religion: A Substantive and Transdisciplinary Approach

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George Lundskow

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  • Dedication

    To the faculty at St. Xavier High School, Cincinnati, Ohio, who intensified my interest in religion and inspired my sojourn on the meaning of life. My education at St. Xavier set the foundation of my personal and professional perspective that builds on science, humanities, and religious studies. This book is a waypoint, and I thank St. X for the embarkation.

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    Preface

    Religion has always intrigued me, and although my personal beliefs have at times been uncertain and inconsistent, I have always accepted two basic sociological principles: that people require community, and that they require meaning. Historically, religion has been the mediator between the individual and a sense of transcendence. The existential crisis of modern times—the loss of meaning—defies history, and perhaps the essence of human existence. Modernity's bargain, as Adam Seligman calls it, trades individuality for everything else, but is such an absolute notion of individual potential we witness today actually viable without the solidarity of social life? Anomie, alienation, ennui, and other characteristic feelings of modernity are not just concepts, but disruptions of human existence that not only threaten fulfillment, but also increase the possibility of radical and desperate attempts to reclaim the transcendent. Terrorism and war both require a population willing to carry out the orders of outside authority, and people who feel lost and alone all too easily become willing fodder for aspirations of destruction.

    Yet this book concerns itself significantly with the everyday, the way in which religion plays out in the daily lives of regular people. Although the events of grand achievement and tragic cataclysm stand out powerfully, we should remember as sociologists that most people most of the time live in the mundane world, where routine commitment to family, school, and work defines our lives. In our routines, we often find the small degrees of satisfaction that cumulatively enable us to rise and face or even to cherish a new day. Yet isolation and purposelessness reside in the routine as well, and here, in daily life, we seek the solace of religion as earnestly as we seek a paycheck or the loving embrace of family. People without religion in some form (deistic or not) succumb to existential decrepitude through unrequited emotions and forlorn dreams no less often than people without home, friends, and productive purpose.

    This textbook addresses religion on multiple levels as a guide to the sociology of religion, but also to render religion as something worth studying, and as something that holds wondrous and provocative interest independently of college courses and formal education. The study of religion need not be sterile. After all, aren't we studying, among other things, how people in different times and places have sought the meaning of life, and sought to comprehend the only universal and absolute fact of life, which is death? The study of religion also includes the study of ironic opposition, that people in pursuit of what's right often commit the greatest good, and sometimes the greatest evil. Religious feeling animates both the ideals of emancipation and the depravity of conquest. As Zoroastrians believe, good and evil often stand in balance; human action decides the outcome.

    In this spirit, let us broaden sociology to include insight from other disciplines Let us also maintain an objective perspective and at the same time sensitivity to the subtleties of being and becoming. In short, let us be clear, factual, insightful, and worthwhile. Let's not waste our time in trivialities, and instead seek nothing less than enlightenment.

    George N.LundskowGrandRapids Michigan

    Introduction

    The great sociologist Edward Shils (1980) once said that “the hard fact of existence is that any serious truth is terribly difficult to discover.” Not for the nonchalant intellect or the casual observer, “it requires an exceptional curiosity, capacious memory, powerful intelligence, and great imagination as well as stamina and self-discipline beyond the ordinary allotment to human beings.” As if this weren't enough, the search for truth also requires “the discipline of a tradition; it requires the acceptance of an inheritance of knowledge; the reception and assimilation require strenuous exertion” (p. 414). With this in mind, this book is not the end of debate, but the beginning. Far from providing a final word or an all-inclusive and definitive treatise, I hope to inspire the reader to look further, to think more deeply, and to offer up all the Shilsian effort that is required of those who seek enlightenment.

    In the study of religion, the knowledge, the intellectual traditions, and the substantive content of religions around the world are vast and nearly timeless. Those who would study religion as Shils calls us must possess greater and deeper knowledge, and greater stamina, discipline, curiosity, intellect, and imagination, than other fields require. Ancient in history, religion seems at once like a grand monument to humanity's greatest aspirations and an edifice to our profoundest horrors. From religion rises hope, liberation, and purpose, but also cruelty, war, and destruction. What is sociology to something so vast and vital?

    Sociology is the scientific study of society, which includes individuals, groups, and especially the relationship between them. Groups can be as large as nations, or even today, the global world, or they can be of a smaller scale such as work groups, schools, and the family, or smaller still in the form of friendship networks or even a few individuals, or the relationship of one individual to the surrounding world. Groups can be anonymous and formal entities, such as large institutions like a major research university, less anonymous and more casual such as a small liberal arts college, or personal and intimate such as the dyad of a romantic couple.

    In all cases, though, a sociologist uses a scientific approach. In essence, this is conceptually quite simple: logic (theory) + evidence (observation) yields insight. Theory is a systematic application of logic, a conceptual explanation in combination with systematic observation of the real world. This combination yields insight—knowledge of the word that also reveals why things are the way they are. The scientific approach offers both great potential and certain limitations.

    The limitation most relevant to the study of religion is that science cannot answer perhaps the most important question of all, as the noted sociologist Max Weber ([1919] 1958) argued: “What should we do and how should we live? That science cannot answer this question is indisputable” (p. 129). However, what we can answer are questions such as these: Why do religions rise and fall in popularity? Why does the same set of beliefs inspire peace and love, as well as violence and terrorism? Why does the same set of beliefs inspire service to others and self-sacrifice, but also condemnation of others and self-centeredness? Why do people need religion in the first place? What needs does religion satisfy? Science in general, and the sociological approach in particular, can speak to these and many more important questions, even if alone it cannot tell us the meaning of life.

    Sociology studies the interaction of people and groups, the interaction of belief and practice. Through a variety of methods and perspectives, we will see sociology applied to all manner of belief and practice, from the mundane to the extreme, the everyday to the bizarre. Religion is an ancient institution, and to understand it, we must become ancient as well.

    Yet religion thrives today and, like society, changes with the times. Thus, we must also be contemporary; we must know the new facts early; we must be in the real world as it emerges. Perhaps a sociologist must even be “cool.” In any event, this book calls upon students to think creatively, critically, and realistically, to get in the world rather than stand on the sidelines.

    Colleges and universities teach numerous courses about religion, as the study of religion is inherently interdisciplinary. Spread out across diverse disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, political science, psychology, history, literature, religious studies, theology, and divinity, some are introductory courses, and many are upper level. Most departments offer only one or two courses. Yet religion has been a central, substantive area in sociology since its founding in the nineteenth century.

    Thus, any sociological textbook of religion must also move beyond disciplinary boundaries, but I contend it must furthermore transcend even interdisciplinary conceptions. So, how does one offer a textbook that draws from a wide variety of disciplines, without favoring one and offending the others, and still retain a specifically sociological perspective?

    The answer is that the text must be more than simply a collection of ideas and theories from various disciplines, or a sociological literature review, and instead build a substantive approach that informs students about the real world. In a word, this text presents a transdisciplinary approach, which incorporates existing disciplinary knowledge and perspective into a new, substantive, and issue-centered perspective. Yet far from losing sociology in the mix, it places sociology as the universal social science—in this case, focused on religion. Why exclude interesting, timely, and relevant material from other disciplines? It does not. This text merely incorporates all relevant material into the sociological perspective.

    Moreover, the text emphasizes factual knowledge that various disciplines have acquired, with sociology as the interpretive framework. More than just a factual reference, the text narrative attempts to discuss how analytical concepts may be applied. With concepts thus placed in a real-life context, students can critically develop their own analysis.

    The substantive approach examines religion as it actually exists in all its forms, including belief, ritual, daily living, identity, institutions, social movements, social control, and social change. Within these broad categories, the book devotes particular chapters to important historical moments and movements, leaders, and various individual religions that have shaped the contemporary form and effect of religion in the world today. Most texts use real-life examples only superficially to illustrate concepts. My approach is the opposite—students will learn the facts of religion in its great diversity, all the most interesting and compelling beliefs and practices, and then learn relevant concepts that can be used to explain empirical observations. The book thus follows the logic of actual research—investigate and then analyze—rather than an abstract classroom approach.

    Let me also introduce a more radical concept into the sociological study of religion. Following sociologist Douglas Porpora in his revolutionary Landscapes of the Soul (2001), I want students of this text to connect sociology, religion, social issues, and the meaning of life. In The Sociological Imagination ([1959] 2000), C. Wright Mills attacked sociology for betraying its potential. For Mills, sociology offered a vision, based in science and intellect on one side in combination with morality and justice on the other. Mills indicted sociology for betraying this vision. Its crimes? See the listing in the sidebar.

    In place of what he sees as misguided and cowardly conformist failings, Mills calls upon us to embrace the sociological imagination—a type of vision that unites science with social justice—boldly and morally. We must establish the conviction, through science and humanity, that we are right in our understanding of human relations, and that the world can be made better through this understanding. For Mills, compassion and objective science must work together so that each improves and tempers the other. I write this book in the same spirit. As we study religion, we should certainly call upon sociology as a science in order to clearly and accurately learn about and analyze what people think and do as they practice religion. Yet at the same time, we must be able to sociologically imagine beyond the empirical and the theoretical, and remember that religion, from whatever intellectual perspective, pertains to matters of ultimate importance—the meaning of life.

    We face all manner of distractions in the contemporary world, among which are education, career, and consumption. Do we learn in class today, exchange knowledge and ideas in order to become more enlightened and thus a better person and a more conscientious citizen? Or do we pay money and consume our degree? The Eastern religions call such distractions Avidya, a state of preoccupation over small and ultimately meaningless things. Instead, let us approach sociology as something more noble than a set of theoretical frameworks and technical methodological precision, and religion as more than just another intellectual curiosity or worse, an “object of study.” Instead, let us inquire into the past, present, and future ways that people have, do, and may yet approach the existential issues of life. As we proceed, we may yet fulfill the promise of sociology that Mills envisioned, and someday contribute to a better society.

    In my view, the most successful scholars who study religion—from founders like Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, to present-day scholars like Douglas Porpora, Elaine Pagels, Stephen Prothero, and Sarah Pike—all have the ability to understand religious belief, feeling, and devotion alongside critical scientific insight. In other words, they have a sense of the profound and the uncanny, yet they can also critically evaluate religion, and in their work they move back and forth between the uncanny ecstasy of religion, and the critical precision of science.

    To achieve excellence in this field, you must develop this skill as well. The ability to analyze data, by itself, is insufficient to understand religion, because religion is not primarily about objective (observable and measurable) truth but rather about ontological truth. That is, it is about the truth that derives from experience and emotion—the truth of the nature of existence. As a science, sociology has long stared suspiciously at religion, perhaps not as strongly as the natural sciences, but throughout its history, sociology and religion have been discordant. This textbook follows sociologist Douglas Porpora's (2001) lead, in that it is both a book about the sociology of religion as well as a kind of religious sociology—a bold move, to be sure. Yet if the Catholic Church can accept the theory of evolution without caveats or conditions, as Pope John Paul II did in 1997, then perhaps sociology can learn something from religion as well. If you feel that I am trying to convert you to Catholicism (or indeed any version of Christianity or other religion), please read my short biography that accompanies this book. Let me close with an anecdote from a movie, based on a book by physicist and philosopher Carl Sagan.

    In the book Contact, by Sagan ([1985] 1997), as well as the movie based on it, which stars Jodie Foster as Ellie Arroway, a scientist, and Matthew McConaughey as Palmer Joss, a theologian, the two characters discuss major issues, including the meaning of life. Palmer Joss represents a religious perspective, and Arroway a scientific one. The story centers on an alien intelligence that sends plans for how to build a ship that will travel vast distances in space by creating a dimensional portal. Arroway is eventually chosen to be the rider. When the mission seems to fail, Arroway testifies before an investigation committee that in fact she did travel to a far-off planet, even though the ship appeared to simply drop through the portal in a matter of seconds. What appears to be only seconds to an outside observer was in fact about 16 hours for the person inside the craft, because of the dimensional shift. Needless to say, the court and the public find it difficult to believe Arroway for want of concrete evidence. They have only her testimony. As Joss and Arroway are leaving the courthouse, a reporter asks Joss if he believes her. He responds that “although she and I are bound by different covenants, we do share something in common—we both seek the truth. Yes, I do believe her.”

    This book seeks the truth, cognizant that different types of truth exist and from different perspectives. It calls students to develop a mature, serious, and sensitive intellect, but also a perception of knowledge and insight as something greater than themselves. To understand religion, to really understand what it means to the devout, one must imagine a much greater and more important world and expanse of being than mundane facts can convey. I do not for a moment suggest we discard rational observation, but facts and methods without perspective are empty motions and pointless shards. We must imagine a greater sociology. Let's not dwell on the minute nor the vast abstractions of society; the petty and meaningless concerns of busy pointlessness. As the poet e. e. cummings ([1926] 1994) wrote, “pity this busy monster, manunkind, not/ … [L]isten, there's a hell/of a good universe next door; let's go.”

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    About the Author

    George N. Lundskow's long-standing interest in religion and social theory began academically at his Jesuit high school. Since then, Professor Lundskow has examined religion in the context of social change, both reactionary and progressive. Professor Lundskow also maintains that theory must always develop in conjunction with empirical observation. In this way, C. Wright Mills's The Sociological Imagination informs his general approach to sociology—that sociology should contribute to vital issues of the day.

    In his own theoretical perspective, Lundskow draws mostly from Erich Fromm and Pierre Bourdieu. First-generation critical theorists with an empirical focus such as Paul Massing in Rehearsal for Destruction, contemporary scholars such as Daniel Bell in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, and Peter Berger in The Sacred Canopy also inform his perspective. Like his predecessors, Lundskow rejects attempts to return to the past, but rather, like Mills, maintains that the sociological imagination requires passion and intellect, imagination and critical observation. In this direction, sociology offers much to help us understand the necessary social, psychological, and spiritual coherence that the human condition requires. Lundskow asks, How do we maintain individual initiative, insight, and passion and at the same time maintain a viable social character and civil society?

    Presently, his research interests pertain to social change, and include alternative religious groups of the present, medieval demonology, and ancient class-cultural conflict. In particular, he is working on a sociological understanding of class and religion in the Greco-Roman and Byzantine world.

    Marianne Weber's work, Wife and Mother in the Development of Rights, also inspires his interest in the possibility of Neolithic goddess-oriented civilizations that predated the arrival of patriarchal invaders. As this work has been available only in German, Professor Lundskow has started a translation of this 600-page volume with a colleague. Marija Gimbutas and others documented extensive archaeological evidence in the 1970s and 1980s beyond what was available in Marianne Weber's time, and Professor Lundskow would like to continue Marianne's sociological project.

    Professor Lundskow is also currently working on a multimethod analysis of labor in the U.S. automobile industry, with several colleagues. This project also examines popular perceptions of the auto industry and attitudes about cars.


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