Should Social Theory Get Religion?

(The OIRG discusses Daniel Winchester’s “Religion as a Theoretical Case, Lens and Resource for Critique…” in SoR 2016, 77:3.)

Introduction: Yes And No.

For most of the twentieth century, the social sciences might have answered this question with a “yes.” But only if the verb “get” actually meant something more like “explain” or “unmask.”

Winchester quotes Charles Lemert’s 1999 article in Sociological Theory in which he argues that the study of religion “would have to reveal itself as a resource to the general concerns of the field as a whole” for social theorists to be willing to take religion seriously as anything more than a subfield to be analyzed using the lessons and tools developed by and for religion-free scholarship. Lemert was convinced that the study of religion failed this test.

Winchester uses Jeffrey Guhin’s (SoR 2014, 75:4) conception of the subfield’s “Import/Export problem” to introduce his issue.

Guhin argues that religion has mostly been analyzed using the “imported” tools of other subfields (rational choice theory, social psychology, etc.) and that the insights developed within the sociology of religion have mostly been ignored by the wider world of the social sciences.

This also connects with the tendency of social scientists to reduce religious dynamics to some economic, class, racial, or other approach. As a result, for decades much of the most lauded work on religion viewed it strictly as a dependent variable.

In order for Social Theory to Get Religion today, it might have to see religiosity as an independent variable and to begin to use the religious perspective in ways that might actually enrich the entire field of social science. How might this be done? Winchester suggests…

3 Ways to Get Religion

1. Theoretical Cases

In this approach we should use religious social interactions as paradigmatic for “non-religious” ones.

Weber’s Dutch Calvinists demonstrated that “ideas have consequences.” Or better, worldviews and faith systems can be studied as independent variables. “World images” function as switchmen that determine the “tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamics of interest.”

Winchester mentions a number of recent works by noted scholars as further examples of the importance of this approach. The idea here is that religious dynamics relate to deeper human dynamics that crop up in non-religious situations.

2. A Theoretical Lens

This “cropping up” of religious-like dynamics leads us to Winchester’s second way that social theory can learn from religion. He tells the story of a student whose own secularism was challenged by the way that Durkheim seemed to see religion in everything.

W quotes Durkheim from The Elementary Forms: “There can be no society that does not experience the need at regular intervals to maintain and strengthen the collective feelings and ideas that provide its coherence and its distinct individuality.” Durkheim then goes on to lump civil and religious ritual into one basic category of sacred sociality.

Religion as a theoretical lens can help social scientists to be more aware of the many ways that the sacred impinges on the most secular of constructs. Questions of values, significance and purpose are often religious in nature even if there is no overt mention of the transcendent. It is proper, according to W to theorize religiously.

Bellah’s concept of civil religion is W’s primary case. With each of his other scholarly examples, W supports his argument that social science can “get religion” by recognizing the “religious-like qualities of social institutions, movements, and actions.”

Many ecological movements are enflamed with attitudes that imbue the natural world with sacred significance. This could also be said about attitudes toward “family values,” “social justice,” and “free markets.” Even opera fandom can be viewed as an effort to seek transcendence. (W refers us to Claudio Benzecry’s The Opera Fanatic, 2011.)

3. A Resource for Critical Theory

Those who have carefully studied religion in its social context tend to be more aware of “competing idols.” That is, they tend to be more aware of those points in scholarly works where the “ultimate” values of secular scholars are coloring their work. And, some secular scholars may have a tendency “to sit too comfortably within the assumptions” of the dominant paradigm. They may assume that their own perspective is some “unmediated grasp on the way the world truly is and ought to be.”

This critical resource is useful in at least two ways. First, it helps to challenge a smug descriptive social science in all of those places where its analysis verges over into a naive certainty about “the way things really are.” Second, it helps in the interrogation of social policy choices and a hubris that might easily impose its viewpoint on segments of society whose divergent religious views could easily be painted as “incorrect” by a policy establishment blind to the potential fallibility of its own religious or a-religious ultimate commitments.

Among the scholars Winchester mentions to support his arguments against this sort of secular imperialism are the likes of Jose Casanova and Talal Asad. Sullivan’s The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (2005) provides an in-depth look at the failure of America’s hopes to find a constitutional solution to this very problem. As W summarizes, the secular state can only protect religious liberty “in those cases where it can define religion.” But, in order to set the boundary where true religion begins and ends, it is arrogating to itself the role of the objective, non-religious, arbiter. Something that is not possible in theory or practice. And something which becomes clearer when religion itself is used as a resource for critical theory.


Winchester argues, based on these three approaches, that:

1. Scholars should ask MORE q’s about religion
We should interrogate religion as an independent variable in other contexts. We should watch for it as a causal force and as a generator of new sorts of data.

2. Scholars should embrace the normal and the weird,
with an eye to the difference between the two that is not completely shielded or distracted by a secularist lens.

The OIRG was deeply intrigued by several aspects of W’s approach. As valuable as are the 3 Ways, W’s examples proved fertile ground for continuing thought and application. W’s comments about the “embodied practices of American Muslims” gave rise to a long discussion of the post-enlightenment “intellectualism” (see Taylor’s Secular Age for more on this) as well as the important corrective of embodied religiosity in general.

The OIRG was also troubled by the broader implications of a social science that is unwilling to ask W’s questions or simply too quick to dismiss his critiques.

Finally, the OIRG was also concerned about the naive materialism of any analysis of humans that ignores the multidimensionality of humans and human society. Scholars should reconsider the limits and implications of methodological naturalism. There is no doubt that MN is a convenient means of narrowing the objects of study. But, a narrowed scope can easily miss vital elements of reality. The phrase “ceteris paribus” should never be allowed to blind us to this fact. Root simplifications can easily lead to branching errors. This can result in a partially blinded science. And that can lead to failed policies. In public policy the results can mean injustice, governmental waste, and even poverty.

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