James Spickard’s new book is a contribution to the round of reflection that has been happening in the sociology of religion over the past decade. He starts by looking at the “default paradigm” that regards religion as a matter of belief embodied in religious institutions which cohere into a separate sphere, and which work with a historical narrative of secularization. Spickard then looks at other recent efforts to challenge this paradigm, including the effort of my colleagues and I in Religion on the Edge (Bender et al. 2013), Meridith McGuire and Nancy Ammerman’s work on lived religion, and Mary Jo Nietz’s development of a feminist sociology of religion. The latter’s emphasis on using a gender and queer perspective to change theory itself inspires him most. He suggests that, in contrast to McGuire, Ammerman, and our Religion on the Edge volume, he is going to take other cultural and civilizational contexts seriously and seek their insights. The subtitle, back of the book, and first two chapters ratchet this claim up, suggesting that Spickard is going to imagine what sociology of religion would have looked like if it had arisen in other historical-cultural contexts. This question from the beginning struck me as misconceived. The sociology of religion is a particular cultural activity that arose embedded in a particular cultural context. It developed in the 19th century as a project of Western self-understanding that formed part of a quest for a secular ethic (Levine 1995) and took on multiple purposes through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Other cultural and civilizational contexts have had their own ways of reflecting on and creating knowledge about religion. Thus, asking what the sociology of religion would look like if it arose elsewhere sounds a bit like asking what “they” would be like if they were actually “us.” Alternatively, the question felt to me like asking, “what would a Navajo Blessingway look like if it had arisen in England?” Of course, the English have their own ways of seeking blessings and avoiding misfortune, and if the Navajo understood English rituals, this understanding could potentially contribute to Blessingway rituals. But, asking what would happen if Blessingway had arisen in England would lead Navajo intellectuals away from attention to, say, Anglican prayer and how it connects to the surrounding culture. Fortunately, when you dig into the empirical chapters, this formulation of the question is set aside. Rather, Spickard works through existing literature on Chinese, North African, and Navajo societies, looks at how scholars suggest they conceived of religion and discusses what kind of insights can be gleaned for the sociology of religion. In his first two empirical chapters, Spickard suggests an examination of Chinese religious thought and behavior would lead us to emphasize relationality as well as women’s roles in religious practice. In the second two chapters, Spickard looks at Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun and suggests his ideas of a contextually defined “group feeling” that runs through both ethnicity and religion can help understand multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies. In the third set of chapters, he looks at Navajo rituals and uses what he learns to understand Catholic rituals. Examination of Navajo rituals leads one to emphasize their experiential dimension over their cognitive dimension. Also, Navajo rituals seek to recreate the perfection of the world, which can help us understand some of the rituals of Catholic Workers. Only in the case of North Africa is Spickard looking at non-Western etic portrayals. In the case of China and the Navajo, he is actually relying on the largely Anglophone literature on religious practices in these historical cultural regions. One can certainly question just how innovative a focus on relationality, women’s roles, group feeling, and rituals as emotional, restorative experiences really is in contemporary sociology of religion. However, I think Spickard’s methodological impetus is correct. We need to examine non-Western contexts and religious traditions not just to understand those contexts and traditions, but to circle back and complicate our analyses of the traditional empirical subject matter of the sociology of religion (i.e., Christianity in the United States). Spickard ends with a chapter asking if attempts to use non-Western sources to improve the sociology of religion are not simply a new form of colonialism. This is precisely the direction that some postcolonial thought would lead. Social sciences are themselves seen as part of Western societies’ techniques of world dominance. This section fades primarily into self-examination of the author’s own motives and position. Yet he ends up at a place I fundamentally agree with. “Learning about other ways of seeing the world, then using them to enhance our own visions, is neither cultural appropriation nor Orientalism. Nor does it involve forgetting the inequities that still haunt our world. It is not the equivalent of stealing the Elgin marbles. It is trying to create a better world” (249). While I have some issues with how Spickard frames what he is doing, I strongly sympathize with his efforts to use comparative research to enrich the sociology of religion. What is more, his push to look at what intellectuals in other contexts have said about religion is a useful addition to our emphasis on expansion of the scope of empirical study in Religion on the Edge. It is also consistent with some other recent movements in the discipline at large. Go (2016) recently published a fascinating book suggesting a reconciliation of social theory with postcolonial thought. Go argues that social theory needs to move beyond the orientalist impulse of looking at non-Western societies as “spaces of lack” whose inhabitants “must be saved.” Social theory also needs to move beyond the tendency of hiding “empire.” In other words, it must take into account the persistence and legacy of colonialism that was constitutive of modernity, not just an effect of it. The point here is to include analyses or at least assumptions of the interconnectedness and mutual dependency of global spaces, as well as the power and inequality that characterize these relationships. A related point is what Go calls “metrocentrism,” the tendency to project cultural categories from the Western world on to the rest of the globe as if they were universal. All of this coincides with a tendency to erase the agency of the colonized on the assumption that the West is the unmoved mover of human history and colonized regions are static until made dynamic by their colonizers. Go’s solutions here are compatible with Spickard’s suggestions. He argues that one fundamental change is a focus on relationality. But for him, this means not just a focus on social relations instead of individuals or “substances” but a focus on global interconnections. Put differently, we need to look not just at multiple modernities, but at interconnected, overlapping, global modernities. We also need to seriously engage “subaltern standpoints.” Like Spickard, Go suggests that “indigenous sociologies” and “Southern Theory” are promising but engage in a series of untenable reifications—reinscribing bifurcation and essentializing non-Western cultures. He takes off from feminist standpoint theory to suggest the subaltern is a relational identity. The goal then is “to recover and work from the standpoint of subordinated positions in the imperially forged global hierarchy” (Go 2016:161). Finally, Go suggests that a form of “perspectival realism” is necessary in this project. Knowledge can be created from particular perspectives but still be considered “objective.” This is essential for avoiding the epistemological relativism that characterizes some postcolonial thought. Building off Spickard and Go, we can say that the sociology of religion needs to not only expand the scope of its empirical research to include non-Western regions and traditions. It also needs to include global inter-relatedness in the formulation of its projects and analysis of its findings. What is more, it needs to engage indigenous or Southern sociologies of religion, which will enrich the sub-discipline and make it truly global. Western sociology of religion is already globally present to the degree that its publications are distributed worldwide, and people come from around the globe to do graduate degrees in Western universities, and then take their skills back to their home countries or elsewhere. But to move from being globally present to being actually global will require much more effort at truly engaging intellectuals from non-Western places and religious traditions. None of this requires the sociology of religion to become religious studies. As Go suggests, there is no compelling reason that taking postcolonial thought seriously would require doing away with causal argument, description of social structures and social regularities, and some version of realist ontology. There is a lot that the sociology of religion needs to absorb from postcolonial thought and from greater global engagement. However, there is also a lot that the theories and methods of existing sociology of religion can bring to global understanding. REFERENCES Bender, Courtney, Wendy Cadge, Peggy Levitt, and David Smilde, eds. 2013. Religion on the Edge: De-Centering and Re-Centering the Sociology of Religion . New York: Oxford University Press. Go, Julian. 2016. Postcolonial Thought and Social Theory . New York: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Levine, Donald N. 1995. Visions of the Sociological Tradition . Chicago: University of Chicago Press. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Sociology of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 16, 2018
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