Studying Religion, Making It Sociological
Not long ago, a student stopped by with a problem. “I have this great topic on religion, ” she began, “but I don't know how to make it sociological.” We chatted briefly about her topic (why siblings often have such different views about religion), and after I suggested some readings, she went away. But her question stayed with me. She was interested in studying religion, but puzzled about how to do it sociologically.
This student's quandary speaks volumes about religion as a field of sociological inquiry and the intellectual challenges facing it at the start of the twenty-first century. Her question stayed with me because it had been asked so often before. In my experience, the question often surfaces most forcefully when students contemplate topics for their senior thesis. They typically select a topic after weeks of anguishing to find something that will engage their attention longer than any project they have ever worked on before. They want it to be meaningful, perhaps helping them to sort out their own beliefs and values, or addressing some issue in the wider society. For one or both of these reasons, they settle on something having to do with religion (interfaith marriage, gender and religion, the religious experiences of a particular ethnic or immigrant community, how religion motivates altruism, why some people believe in God and others don't, whether religion influences how people vote, why people join cults, or religion and the family, to name a few). They are not untutored in sociology, either. By this time, they have generally taken one or two theory courses, one or two methods courses, and four or five other sociology courses. Yet they are puzzled how to approach their topic sociologically. Indeed, sociology and religion somehow strike them as strange bedfellows. And if seniors are plagued with this perception, students who encounter the discipline for the first time in a course on sociology of religion generally are, too. How a sociological perspective on religion differs from, say, a survey of American religion course in a religion department or American studies program will probably not be immediately apparent.
Undergraduates are not the only ones with such questions. Serving on editorial boards, one frequently hears comments such as, “It's an interesting book, but it isn't very sociological, ” or “This would be a good article for a religion journal, but not for a journal in sociology.” And participating in tenure review committees, one hears questions being raised about the importance of work in sociology of religion to the discipline as a whole.