The Evolution of the Sociology of Religion
Theme and Variations
The beginnings of the sociology of religion are barely distinguishable from the beginnings of sociology per se. This is hardly surprising, given that its earliest practitioners were the founding fathers of sociology itself, all of whom were committed to the serious study of religion as a crucial variable in the understanding of human societies. Of course, they did this from different perspectives – the outlining of which will form an important part of the paragraphs that follow – but in the early days of the discipline, the paramount significance of religion for human living was taken for granted, if not universally approved. In later decades this significance was seriously questioned, not least by sociologists of religion themselves – a fact exemplified in their prolonged preoccupation with the secularization thesis. In the last two decades, however, the tide of opinion has begun to turn in a different direction, driven – very largely – by the overwhelming (and at times somewhat frightening) presence of religion in the modern world. Given the undeniable relevance of the religious factor to the geopolitical configurations of the new century, the sociological study of religion has gained a new urgency. New tools of analysis and new conceptual understandings are becoming increasingly necessary if sociologists are to understand (a) what is going on and (b) how they might contribute to an evidently important debate.
This trajectory – from taken-for-granted significance, through assumed decline, to a reestablished place in the canon – forms the theme of this chapter. It will be exemplified in various ways, referring in turn to theoretical debate, methodological endeavor, and substantive issues. It will, however, be overlaid, by a number of significant variations. In the main, these relate to the different contexts in which sociologists work, contrasts that take into account both national or regional differences and the pressures that derive from professional obligations (research does not take place in a vacuum). It is unlikely, for example, that a European sociologist employed by a Catholic organization in the immediate postwar period would be preoccupied by the same questions as an American working for a secular organization in the same decade. The fact that these two parts of the world were, then as now, experiencing entirely different patterns of growth and/or decline simply reinforces the point already made.
With this double aim in mind – that is, to establish and exemplify the theme, but at the same time to take into account at least some of the major variations – this chapter is structured as follows. It begins with an account of the founding fathers