A Handbook of the Sociology of Religion

By Michele Dillon | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
The Sociology of Religion in Late Modernity
Michele Dillon

If there had been any doubt about the sociological importance of religion, the terrorist events of Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, and their aftermath renewed our awareness that religion matters in contemporary times. The terrorist actions crystallized how adherence to a religious fundamentalism can destroy lives and forever change the lives of many others. The public's response to the terrorist attacks pointed to a different side of religion: the positive cultural power of ritual to recall ties to those who have died and to reaffirm communal unity and solidarity in a time of trial. Who would have thought that at the beginning of the twenty-first century improvised public memorials mixing flowers, photographs, steel and styorofoam crosses, and candlelight vigils would illuminate downtown Manhattan, that most modern and urbane of metropolises?

Clearly, the dawning of a new century has not been accompanied by the eclipse of religion in individual lives and in public culture. Despite, and perhaps because of, disenchantment with our increasingly rationalized society, religion continues to provide meaning and to intertwine daily social, economic, and political activity. That the continuing significance of religion in late modern society was not anticipated by classical social theorists and is at odds with much of contemporary theory is due to many factors. From an intellectual perspective it largely reflects both the overemphasis on reason and the tendency to relegate religion to the realm of the nonrational that are characteristic of modern social thought. Starkly phrased, the former places a calculating, instrumental rationality as the overarching determinant of all forms of social action while the latter sees religion and reason as inherently incompatible.

The dominance of instrumental reason envisaged by Max Weber (1904–5/1958) has certainly come to pass. Few would challenge the view that an economic-technological rationality is the primary engine of our globalizing society. The logic of free trade, for example, gives legitimacy to companies to relocate to cities, regions, and countries where production costs are comparatively lower. Technological development allows corporations to have more cost-effective communication with their customers via the Internet, and consequently many companies have chosen to bypass the human distributors whom until very recently were a key component of their corporate relational network; travel agents and car dealers are two such visible groups of “techno-victims.” When Boeing relocated from Seattle to Chicago and when Guinness relocated from Ireland to Brazil the means-end calculations did not quantify the costs of community

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