Tilting at Windmills?

DQWindmillSome would have it that the work of scholars such as Don Wiebe in The Politics of Religious Studies, Tim Fitzgerald in The Ideology of Religious Studies, and Russell McCutcheon in Manufacturing Religion is both passé and off the mark. They are tilting at windmills, it seems: religious studies has long since incorporated and moved past their criticisms. It’s silly to be paranoid about crypto-theology and ontological assumptions about “the Sacred” these days.

Are we tilting at windmills? Consider the content of this co-authored piece titled “Roundtable on the Sociology of Religion: Twenty-Three Theses on the Status of Religion in American Sociology—A Mellon Working-Group Reflection,” authored by a number of big names in the field (including Christian Smith and José Casanova), and forthcoming in our discipline’s “top” journal, the Journal for the American Academy of Religion. According to the abstract,

American sociology has not taken and does not take religion as seriously as it needs to in order to do the best sociology possible. Despite religion being an important and distinctive kind of practice in human social life, both historically and in the world today, American sociologists often neglect religion or treat it reductionistically. We explore several reasons for this negligence, focusing on key historical, conceptual, methodological, and institutional factors. We then turn to offer a number of proposals to help remedy American sociology’s negligence of religion, advance the study of religion in particular, and enhance sociology’s broader disciplinary capacity to improve our understanding and explanation of human social life. Our purpose in this analysis is to stimulate critical and constructive discussion about the significance of religion in human life and scholarly research on it.

In this piece, here is what we learn:

  1. Sociology of religion has been too reductionistic.

    “Religion” is not reducible to power relations. “To the extent that the theoretical worldviews of sociologists today still revolve primarily around matters of material interests, economic forces, political interests, social dominance, relational power, and so on, religion remains largely reducible and ignorable. By theoretical presupposition, the former are taken to be ‘real’ while religion is believed to be peripheral or epiphenomenal. But, we believe, religious commitments in the end cannot be completely reduced to interests, power, and material resources, so an interest- and resource-based general sociological model cannot account for religion well.”

  2. What we call “religion” is not just another form of culture or ideology.  Too little has been “done on the theoretical front of the new cultural sociology to take on religion as a particular social object and to significantly improve our sociological understanding of it. If anything, religion became viewed as simply another ‘ideology’—ontologically and conceptually indistinct from any other belief system. Indeed, dominant sociological views of culture secularize religion, treating it as a subcomponent of culture, when, we think, a plausible historical and sociological argument can be made that culture is actually a subcomponent of religion.”
  3. By contrast, perhaps religion should be viewed as a “distinctive” object. “[M]any cultural sociologists saw little reason to theorize religion as a particular kind of social entity—even though cultural sociology should be well-equipped theoretically to study religion as a distinctive kind of social object.” We need “a theory that treats the religious dimensions of human experience as real in their own right,” and this will involve defining the distinctly “religious” part of experience as somehow connecting to the “transcendent.” (In addition, sociologists are insufficiently familiar with “the ontology of unobservable entities.”)
  4. Because so many people report experiences of the “transcendent” or “sacred,” they should be taken seriously. “[M]any people, by all their accounts, actually experience “religion” as something transcendent, sacred, and important. They experience it as making a difference in their lives. For at least those kinds of reasons, religion deserves its own field of study.” Despite the hegemony of reductionist scholars, there is a “very-real religious world that [imposes] itself upon their crumbling academic verities.”
  5. At present, cultural sociology cannot adequately make sense of the subjective experiences of religious practitioners. “[C]ultural sociology has constrained its own ability to make adequate sense of the subjective aspect of human existence, which we think is important.”
  6. Too little research is written by insiders, who have a “more personal, substantive knowledge” of their subject matter. “[T]he relative lack of personal religious commitment, identity, and knowledge among mainstream American sociologists arguably provides an obstacle to taking religion seriously in scholarship.”
  7. Consequently, we should develop “a two-way stream between religion and sociology,” as theology “might be able to offer [something to] our conversations and debates.” We must integrate “both knowledge about religion and religious knowledge into the discipline of sociology.” “[D]isciplines such as theology or traditions of spiritual disciplines may contain valuable insights for sociologists of religion.”
  8. Last, if we are going to let in implicitly normative approaches—like Marxism—then there’s no reason to exclude religious views. “[S]chools of thought in our discipline unapologetically begin with particular intellectual and moral locations, commitments, presuppositions, and interests; some even argue that these particular positions privilege their sociological understandings. Examples include feminist theory, Marxism, queer theory, some forms of critical theory, and projects of ‘real utopias.’ One might ask why or how such value-committed scholarly approaches that start with particularistic intellectual and moral presuppositions are legitimate in sociology, while religious perspectives on human person and social life are a priori excluded. The uneven privileging of certain intellectual and moral positions

    deserves ongoing questioning and consideration.”

When this sort of work appears in our “top” journals, I’m not sure we’re titling at windmills.


About Craig Martin

I am an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College.
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27 Responses to Tilting at Windmills?

  1. Warren S. Goldstein says:

    So, elaborate… what does this say about the state of North American sociology of religion and its relationship to religious studies?

    • Craig Martin says:

      I suppose I’ll leave that to others to decide; I for one am not sanguine about the future of the AAR and JAAR.

    • If my reading of the article is correct, the only necessary and long over due relationship between Sociology of Religion and Religious Studies is to make up for the neglect of theology. There are other points, but the relationship they think ought to be cultivated is with theologians.

      • I do not agree that theology is neglected, nor that a relationship between it and RS or the Sociology of Religion is either necessary nor overdue. Try working in the UK for what the alternative is like. But the real issue is, how can universities employ people who describe themselves as “social SCIENTISTS” but who advocate “the ontology of unobservable entities”?

  2. J.D.F. Tuckett says:

    I’m not a fan of sociology in general but unless I’ve missed something I see no problem with points 1-5. 6-8, however, smack of Burawoy’s Public Sociology which is certainly something we can all do without.
    And from what I have read of McCutcheon and Wiebe there is very definite threat of crypto-theology within Religious Studies. Theirs mostly.

    • Craig Martin says:

      McCutcheon and Wiebe are crypto-theological? You’ve lost me—you’ll have to explain …

      • J.D.F. Tuckett says:

        As far as I see it, naturalism is no less theological in nature than Christianity, etc. Especially if we take “theological” in Wiebe’s own sense of a confessional orientation. In their case this confessional orientation is the metaphysical reduction (as McCutcheon likes to call it) they engage in when they deny that nonfalsifiable/non-obvious beings/entities (however, they call them) can be the real causes of events. McCutcheon is actually worse because he endorses points 6-8 from his own naturalist position – my favourite moment being when he warns we should not be allowing religions to be engaged in public policy decisions.
        I should qualify this as their naturalism. I’m open to the possibility of naturalism that doesn’t involve a metaphysical position. (yet to find one though).

  3. Stewart Guthrie says:

    Either their theology’s so crypto you can’t see it, or we can call any confidently-held ontology or argumentation theology.

    • J.D.F. Tuckett says:

      Unfortunately Stewart I would put your work in the same category as theirs. Though I will admit that this is through secondary reading of what other people say about you so I could be completely wrong!
      I do take your point though. I don’t like calling it “theology”, I was just carrying through Craig’s words and then picking up on Wiebe’s own. “Theology” is a pretty derogatory term to use in Religious Studies, I was pretty galled when I was once referred to as a theologian. But as far as I see there it, is no difference between their claim that “God is not a real cause” and a Christian’s claim (for example) that “God is a real cause”. It’s a metaphysical argument and as far as I am concerned that’s not the point of social science. I more interested in analysising what claims like these entail for the people who make them.

      • I agree with Jonathan here – any argument which takes a particular epistemological position as unquestionably true should be considered theological (in this sense). Any Rangers supporter will avow their “confidently-held ontology”.

        It all comes down to the question, should RS be “the other religions”, or does it have a legitimate analytic position? I would argue that it does, to quote (or possibly misquote) Suzanne Owen, “to analyse truth-making discourses”, in which case Jonathan is correct, even if the terminology is troublesome.

  4. Craig Martin says:

    @J.D.F. Tuckett, as Stewart says, perhaps that makes sense if we hold any ontology to be theological in the narrow sense. I suppose using such a blunt classification grid makes sense if one wants to advance a certain social agenda, but it’s not one I wish to deploy. It seems clear to me that it’s quite useful—pragmatically—to make more subtle distinctions. Not all ontologies are created the same …

  5. Craig Martin says:

    Also, I’ve read just about everything McCutcheon has published, and the position you attribute to him is completely unfamiliar to me. Got a citation or any evidence in support of your claim about him?

    • J.D.F. Tuckett says:

      My “favourite moment” refers to his arguments in Critics Not Caretakers, specifically pg.131-135 (I’ll admit that CnC is my main source). As I read him McCutcheon is quite overtly denouncing that we should be allowing religion a voice in deciding public school curriculum, welfare agencies, and war policies on the grounds that they rely on “ahistorical authority” and “wisdom”.
      More generally I find his whole position of scholars of religion being “public intellectuals” deeply problematic. McCutcheon’s argument is just another variation of Burawoy’s Public Sociology, although the two of them seem to have come to their positions independently of one another. I suspect McCutcheon would disagree with the sort of pronouncements that Burawoy makes. Certainly he tries to be more “timid” in making pronouncements than Chomsky and Said (pg.135) but he is still quite happy to make normative claims (point 8). And as far as I see it, whether timid or bold normative claims of any kind fundamentally undermine science. Normative investigations are pursued for practical purposes which runs counter to the very basis of science as “disinterestedness”. It’s this shared purpose that allows scientists to work in a community that is able to validate and verify its own work. Normative claims, serving different purposes, appeal to different communities and so deny the unity of “science”. “Public intellectuals” aren’t scientists, they’re humanists and I have nothing against that so long as their honest about it. So perhaps my argument is flawed if McCutcheon does not claim to be a social scientist – his final agreement with Eliade possibly confirms this (pg.142). And if he doesn’t claim to be a social scientist then I have no reason to criticise him, I have every reason to study him as data.

  6. Pingback: Tilting at Windmills? | Bulletin for the Study of Religion

  7. Russell McCutcheon says:

    Jonathan–your reading of my essay (you seem to cite but one essay in one book, correct?) is deeply problematic. Case in point: please re-read p. 142 and tell me if “his final agreement with Eliade” is an accurate description of what I wrote there and what I’m doing at that point in the essay. While you’re free to disagree with me you’re not free to fail to describe accurately what I write there as the set up to your disagreement. I find that far too many scholars of religion are surprisingly sloppy scholars, reading far too quickly, generalizing, and assuming that just because–for example–Wiebe and I use the same vowels and consonants that we are birds of a feather. So disagree with me if you want but do the people you disagree with the courtesy of reading their material in depth before you dismiss their work in public.

    • J.D.F. Tuckett says:

      I understand your angst Russell. Certainly if I saw those comments in an academic journal, I’d be horrified myself. What I wrote up there was a condensed version of a 4,000 word section. Although whether those 4,000 words can pretend to be good scholarship is another matter. But this is the problem with blogging and commenting on them who wants to read 4,000 words in one great big lump on their screen? It seems more appropriate to make shorter, albeit “dumber” comments. We are in awkward space in which this isn’t quite shooting the breeze and not quite an academic journal either. If I have committed a faux pas then I do apologise for not engaging at the right level. But this is the problem with blogs in general for academics, we are currently in that postmodernist wet dream of a forum in which we can say what we want, how we want without the bothersome need to have what we say moderated by a community of peers.

      I do thank you for comment that I seem to be focusing on one essay. I will review the section I refer to and see if that is true of the entire text. I have a synchronic attitude to my argumentation according to one of my supervisors. It will be worth investigating if that is true in this case. Also, I take on board your comment about Wiebe. Defining naturalism is such a messy business and I certainly do not think you and Wiebe use terms in an identical fashion. I am fully aware that you both make different sorts of arguments but you do both claim to be naturalists. Which actually now has me intrigued, how do you place yourself in relation to Wiebe’s work and/or his naturalism?

  8. Craig Martin says:

    Jonathan and David: just to be clear, you’re asserting that any scholarly position which makes an ontological assumption is, on your use of the term, “theological”? So when, e.g., Foucault assumes that humans are plastic and malleable (capable of being disciplined) in his analysis of how they are shaped by discourses, he’s doing theology?

  9. Craig Martin says:

    Or, to use another example, when Galileo said the earth revolves around the sun (an ontological claim) and the Catholic church said that the sun revolved around the earth (also an ontological claim), you’d want to flatten these out to be the same type of claim (they’re both theological), and therefore there’s no reason to confer authority to one over another? Because as an American pragmatist (see Dewey and, more recently, Putnam), it seems clear to me that these two (ontological) claims are not on equal footing—unless, that is, we choose to use a really blunt grid of classification (and what purpose would that serve?).

    • J.D.F. Tuckett says:

      Could you explain what you mean by “conferring authority to one over another”? I’d liked to be clear what you mean by that before I answer.

      • J.D.F. Tuckett says:

        Oh, and what is the purpose we should be serving? I know you might be using it as a colloquialism but a lot of what I do is about the purpose of social science so I’m curious to know if you meant anything particular by it.

  10. Craig Martin says:

    I would confer authority to Galileo over the church, in the sense that his claim should be seen as more authoritative, etc.

    What purposes? There could be many purposes (what motivates our research is always overdetermined), but being accountable to rigorous academic standards is part of the tradition of scholarship I would not want to change—and rigor involves the application of concepts subtle enough to the tasks to which we put them.

    The purpose of social science? I’m not aware that there is an intrinsic purpose to the sciences, of whatever sort. Sciences can be put to many different uses, right?

  11. Craig Martin says:

    It also might be worth mentioning that the claim that science has an intrinsic purpose—were you to make such a claim—would sound awfully ontological …

    • J.D.F. Tuckett says:

      True, and your right Science can have many purposes. I should I explain then that I use “purpose” in a technical sense based on Schutz’s discussions of cognitive style. Insofar as science can be treated as a cognitive style this entails that it has a purpose, i.e. the thing to which that style is aimed at. Of course what that thing “is” is a matter of debate and contestation

  12. Craig Martin says:

    Well, in his day his claim WASN’T more authoritative. But in my classroom, where I carry authority, I would suggest that his claims are more persuasive given the standards of argumentation within the academy …

  13. Craig Martin says:

    It seems like you’re trying to draw something out of me so you can say “gotcha,” although I’m not sure what it is you’re trying to get me to say. If you want to state your position, go for it. I think I’m done for now …

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