There is an academic consensus that the sociology of religion has been enjoying a vigorous revival in this century. The secularization thesis has been put to rest, and research on de-institutionalized religion, spirituality, TV evangelism, online religion, and social activism is flourishing. James Spickard, while welcoming these developments, believes that we need alternative approaches that break out of the legacy of what he calls “the default position”: namely, “the idea that religion is largely constituted by formal organizations, is focused on beliefs, and promulgates moral rules” (15). Although the default position has been shaken, it has not been replaced. Spickard is critical of the legacy of classical sociology of religion (primarily that of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber), because the influence of the Enlightenment placed an undue emphasis on the primacy of rational thought over experience, emotion, practice, and community. The lingering concentration on belief and religious institutions can best be shaken, Spickard says, by a comparative understanding of “non-Western” religious traditions such as Confucianism and Navajo ritual and the insights of Ibn Khaldun, which are then applied to Western situations and experiences. Exposure to these alternatives will finally erode the default position. Spickard’s program therefore has a pedagogic, intellectual, and activist agenda that is designed not only to improve teaching strategies and research, but also to challenge the continuing legacy of Orientalism. The principal theories of the default position—secularization (by Bryan Wilson) and rational choice theory (by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark)—privilege beliefs and churches (or denominations) as constitutive of religious life. Both fail to recognize the vitality of religious life outside formal institutions and in particular the crucial role played by women in creating a vibrant religious reality within the community. While rational choice theory “fits American Protestantism rather well” (29), market theory, according to Spickard, says nothing about religious demand and it has a “very shallow notion of organizational failure” (30). In my terms, rational choice theory might tell us something about the “quantity” of religion through the competitive struggle for members but nothing about its “quality.” The latter judgment would have to involve some normative reflection on institutions. Spickard believes there are important alternatives to the default position and considers various contributions from feminist sociologists such as Mary Jo Neitz, from postcolonial theory as inspired by Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism, and the Southern Theory of Raewyn Connell. To take one example from this critical genre, if conventional sociology of religion takes the white heterosexual family as the social norm and as the backbone of congregational life, feminist studies of Wicca have forced sociologists to pay attention to radically different family structures and to take queer theory on board. How did the default view come into existence? Chapter 2 explores how, for instance, the distinctive separation of magic and religion in the origins of the sociology of religion was grounded in the narrow rationalist assumptions of the Enlightenment. He provides an extensive account of Durkheim and Weber, who adopted the magic-religion binary and who continue to play a major role in the discipline of sociology. Durkheim is criticized for his evolutionary framework in which “primitive” religion (the Arunta of central Australia) is replaced by modernity by a process of historical inevitability. While I do not fully disagree, one can read “elementary” in the title of Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life not within an evolutionary frame, but as describing the structure and function of any religious system. In addition, Spickard overlooks the impact of William James’s pragmatism in the Varieties of Religious Experience on Durkheim’s view of religion. James, avoiding debates about whether conversion is true or false, argued that they were psychologically beneficial if they helped young people cope with inner contradictions. There were, so to speak, no false conversions for James. Durkheim, following pragmatic consequentialism, argued there are likewise no false religions—whether primitive or modern. There are similar issues with Spickard’s interpretation of Weber. We can agree that in rejecting traditionalism, Weber believed that the modern world is rational and secular: charisma is ultimately translated into tradition or rational-legal authority. However, Spickard overlooks the deep impact of Nietzsche on Weber’s thought. The notions of resentment, pariah groups, and the revaluation of values after the death of God are all taken up into Weber’s sociology, which is not so much a celebration of rationality as a lament over its consequences. Spickard does not want to get too far bogged down in these academic disputes; his aim is rather to explore religion “through non-Western eyes.” Perhaps the most convincing alternative Spickard presents is taken from Confucianism with a discussion of contrasting notions of the self. Whereas in the West the ideal self is an individual who is separate, autonomous, and free, in Confucianism the self is nested in, and to some extent constituted by, a social network, specifically a network of relatives both living and dead. A Confucian sociology of religion, says Spickard, would start with relationships and not with the sovereign individual. He illustrates how a Confucian framework might be applied to the role of women in making food as an everyday ritual to bind social groups together. Spickard’s treatment of Chinese notions of ritual, relationships, the mandate of heaven, and virtue is without blemish, but his overall view of Confucianism is somewhat idealistic, ignoring patriarchal power in which husbands control wives, fathers control daughters, and brothers control sisters. One might argue that the long-lasting consequence of Confucianism in Asia, including Communist China and Vietnam, is that women have virtually no significant political representation, and indeed little or no recognition within the society until they have produced children, preferably male children. Chapter 5 offers a valuable account of Ibn Khaldun, who was born in Tunis in 1332 CE, and whose remarkable Muqaddimah (Introduction) is generally regarded as one of the earliest contributions to sociology. Ibn Khaldun was interested in the oscillation of urban and rural elites in North Africa and why rural elites had greater social solidarity (asabiyyah) than urban societies. Because of this advantage, rural elites frequently replaced city elites—only themselves to lose their solidarity over time. It is perhaps disappointing that Spickard did not refer to that great classic of North African anthropology—namely Ernest Gellner’s Saints of the Atlas—which adopted Khaldun’s theory of the circulation of elites to analyze the historic conflict between puritan Islam and city life, and the eventual disappearance of that tribal logic in the face of technological change: in this case, telephones and armored cars. Like Gellner, Spickard looks for an application of Khaldun in the intertwining of ethnicity, religion, and nationalism. Chapter 7 introduces us to Navaho custom, sand painting, and healing rituals, and rejects many interpretations of Navaho religion that emphasize dogma, cosmology, and belief. By contrast, Spickard asserts that “Navaho religion is particularly oriented toward ritual and prayer, because ritual and prayer are believed to have created the world in the first place” (189). In Chapter 8, “Navaho Ritual Applied: World-Healing at the Catholic Worker,” he looks at the Catholic Worker movement that was founded in New York in the 1930s by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in response to the Great Depression. Today the Workers often have little or no connection to the Catholic Church, about which they are typically very critical. However, the vibrant ritual life of the Workers, rather than dogma, provides a social cement that brings a sense of hope and renewal to the group. Chapter 9 explores the contributions of critical thinking to possibilities of modern religious activism such as feminism, postcolonial theory, and Southern Theory. While he takes these critical traditions seriously, Spickard concludes “I think we can do better” (249) because our cultural-historical situation includes not just lingering colonial power but gender oppression and second-wave feminism, the American Civil Rights movement, the American Indian Movement, and struggles against racism. Alternative Sociologies of Religion is beautifully written—clear, articulate, and frequently passionate and engaging. Spickard’s arguments all command considerable merit and attention. His alternative program for teaching and research will help to refashion more conventional sociologies of religion. Inevitably there are questions and issues that are not fully answered. I conclude therefore with several broad comments. First, given the emphasis on ritual practice and community life, is the main alternative to the sociology of religion in fact the anthropology of religion? Spickard’s emphasis on practice, ritual, and habit is to be welcomed, but this requires an underpinning: a theory of the body. The anthropology of the body has typically avoided undue emphasis on belief: ritual practices are not just rhetorical flourishes but actual embodied practices. This idea is probably taken for granted in anthropology. Second, why were these particular alternative religious traditions selected? In many ways, classical Buddhism might have provided a more telling example of a “religious” tradition in which memory is embedded in ritual rehearsal of the dharma. Finally, the book implicitly, or more explicitly in the subtitle, accepts a Western and non-Western framework, but, with globalization, in what sense are Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, or Buddhism non-Western? © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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)
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 7, 2018
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