A Chinese sage wrote to an elderly scholar retired from official duties with two suggestions—to acquire a young concubine, or to learn how to paint dragons on red silk. I am an elderly scholar and I have now retired from most of my official duties. I have given serious thought to the two suggestions and have concluded that they are impractical in my case. Just then the nice people at The American Interest came with a very different suggestion—that I should write a blog under their auspices (if that is the right term in cyberspace language), dealing mainly with current developments in religion, but allowing for occasional excursions into other areas. My relationship to computers is roughly comparable to that of a caveman trying to fly a jet airliner. Still, the prospect of writing a blog with this description intrigued me. It definitely seemed more practical than the two Chinese suggestions. So, here we go:
Religion and Other Curiosities
Why should anyone be interested in what I have to say on religion? So far, a lot of people have been interested in my off-line (so to speak, caveman-era) utterances on the subject—reading my books, attending my lectures, coming to talk with me. Will this translate to on-line interest? I have no idea. We shall see. But let me say a few things about my particular angle on the subject of religion, both professionally and personally.
Much of my professional career has been as a sociologist of religion. Ever since my graduate studies, my approach to sociology in general and to the sociology of religion in particular has been very much influenced by Max Weber. This is an approach which takes history seriously, which is broadly comparative, and which tries to be objective. I think that this is commendable for any branch of sociology, but it is very commendable indeed if the topic of inquiry is religion.
Quantitative methods of research can be very useful if one is dealing with large-scale social phenomena, including religious ones. Very often, however, the survey data can be distortive if the questions posed were formulated in ignorance of the cultural context of the respondents—a context invariably shaped by history. Two examples from research into religion: Survey data have suggested that Japan is very secularized because, among other things, many Japanese say that they do not believe in God—of course not, if their religious beliefs have been shaped by Buddhism and Shinto. Survey data have also suggested that Orthodox Christianity is in bad shape in Russia because few Russians go to church with any regularity—a fact that will not impress anyone familiar with Orthodox piety, in which church-going is much less important than it is in Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. (Foreign visitors to the Hermitage Museum in St.Petersburg have noticed how many people pray in front of the icons displayed there.) It goes without saying that knowledge of religious history will have to include knowledge of the relevant theology. Thus Max Weber felt obliged to delve into the intricacies of Calvinist theology in order to understand the motivations of Puritan entrepreneurs, which were rooted in a worldview that, in a greatly mutated form, continues to reverberate in American economic culture centuries later.
(Virtually no Americans today believe in “double predestination”, if they ever heard of it, but economic success still gives the assurance that one is among the “elect”.)
In an age of globalization sociology benefits by being comparative. Even if one is only interested in one country, one will understand that country better if one can compare it with other countries. Take the so-called “culture war” in America. Much of it revolving around church-state issues. I think it is helpful in understanding these if one sees the parallels with what goes on in other countries—for example, in Turkey. In both countries a secularist elite relies on non-elected institutions to counter the democratic pressures from a vocal religious populace—on the federal courts in America, on the military in Turkey. (It is more than a joke if one says that the American Civil Liberties Union, in its view of the proper relation between church and state, has a Kemalist ideology.)
All of sociology, but the sociology of religion above all, should be an enterprise of objective (Weber would say “value-free”) empirical inquiry. In the course of my career I have explored religious groups with whose beliefs I identified, some to whose beliefs I was indifferent, and some which I disliked. I have tried very hard to use the same approach to all of them, both in my research and in my teaching. I really don’t think that this is all too difficult—not any more difficult than giving a fair grade to a student one likes and a student one finds positively irritating. Research: In the example I just gave, I would approach the issue no differently if I were an Evangelical Christian in America, a pious Muslim in Turkey, or an agnostic in either country. (There is no “Christian sociology” any more than there is a “Christian chemistry”.) Teaching: When I first taught undergraduates, it came to my attention that most of them were convinced that I was an atheist—they were not able to tell from my teaching that I was (in the words of a friend of mine), an “inveterate Godder”.
This is the right place to disclose my personal angle. My friend was right. I am indeed a “Godder”. Specifically, I am a Christian believer—more specifically, a theologically very liberal Lutheran. Let me say once more: This should have nothing to do with anything I might say as a sociologist. (If it ever does—we all stray sometimes—please report me to the Weberian central committee). To complicate matters somewhat, I have also written and lectured as a lay (that is, thoroughly unaccredited) theologian. There is nothing wrong with this. We all wear different hats. In this instance it is very important to be clear under which hat one is speaking at any given time. I have always been careful to do that, and I will be careful in the same way if I should be moved to put on my theological hat in this blog.
The treatment of religion in academia and the media leaves something to be desired, so the approach I have outlined above can make a useful contribution. The problem comes at least in part from the fact that these are two institutions which, in their elite echelons, are staffed by what is the most secularized group in American society. Unlike many of their colleagues in Europe, these people are not particularly hostile to religion. But they don’t know too much about it, and its more passionate expressions make them uncomfortable. As a result they are tempted to explain religious phenomena as being “really” about something else—ethnicity, class, politics. Sometimes, of course, this is indeed the case. Thus there are processes of “religionization”, in which a conflict about political power (as in Northern Ireland) or about territory (as between Israelis and Palestinians) morphs into a religiously defined conflict (though even then many people may sincerely believe in and be motivated by the religious definitions of the situation). In any case, it is important to realize that religion is a phenomenon sui generis, which must be understood in its own terms and not right away be interpreted as being “really” something else.
Secularist bias can produce blinders. Evangelical Protestantism is the most explosively growing religion worldwide. Media coverage is generally very poor, subsuming it under a vague category of “fundamentalism”, with peaceful missionaries being put in the same box with suicide bombers. Much academic treatment is equally prejudiced. The media coverage of the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic church very often has an undertone of gleeful Schadenfreude, with little skepticism about events going back thirty years, alleged by individuals with hard vested interests in their version of the events. Academics and journalists have every right to be secularists, but they should bracket their personal beliefs when they try to understand reality—as should “Godders” like me.
Am I putting myself forward immodestly as owning the only sure answers to all questions about religion in the contemporary world? Certainly not. I suppose I should conclude these introductory observations with some truly humble disclaimers. I am held back by the memory of something that Golda Meir is reported as having said to one of her ministers: “Don’t be so humble. You are not that important”.