Sociologists Get Religion

In significant shift over time, issues related to faith get more play in top journals, more scholars make religious issues central to their work, and more are getting outside funds.
February 9, 2010

When Darren Sherkat published a paper in a major sociology journal in the 1990s, focused on Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he said that the reaction from many senior scholars was "dismissive." He remembers one telling him "this is garbage" for citing Weber's views on the significance of religious values. "It can't be religion" driving human behavior, the scholar told the then un-tenured Sherkat. "It's got to be something else that caused the religion."

Sherkat, a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, no longer has to worry about arguing for the key role of religion as a social force. As a new study has found, there has been a significant increase over the last 25 or so years not only in the quantity of work done by sociologists on religion, but also in how religion is treated in those studies. No longer is it assumed to be only a reflection of some other socioeconomic trend, but increasingly it is treated as the factor that may be central to understanding a given group of people.

Religion is hardly a new topic for sociologists, of course, given the work of Weber, Durkheim and other giants of the discipline's early history. But the shifts that have taken place more recently end decades in which religion was not a key topic of exploration. To cite but one example, it was only in the relatively recent history of the field -- 1994 -- that the American Sociological Association created a section on the sociology of religion.

The revival comes at a time when other fields -- which once were seen as giving inadequate attention to religion -- are also focusing on it. In December, the American Historical Association released data showing that religion had become the most popular theme studied by historians, with interest particularly high among those entering the profession.

The new study on sociology arrives as a working paper of the Social Science Research Council, based on analysis of 587 sociology journal articles on religion, published between 1978 and 2007. The paper -- by David Smilde, a professor of sociology, and Matthew May, a graduate student, both at the University of Georgia -- finds much that would encourage scholars who want to see more research on religion. But the paper also raises questions about whether American sociologists may be too narrowly focused on some religious groups over others, and over the impact of outside funding, which is growing.

Among the key findings:

  • The most important general sociological journals have been publishing a modestly growing number of articles about religion over the period studied.
  • The articles show "a strong program" emerging on the role of religion in society. At the beginning of the period studied, religion was rarely the independent variable in the research, but by the end of the period, more than half of the articles had religion as the independent variable.
  • For most of the period studied, there was an upward trend in positive findings about the role of religion and a downward trend in negative findings. The last five years have seen an increase in negative findings.
  • American sociology's study of religion is dominated by religion in the United States and Christianity, with relatively little work on non-Christian religions or the Christian faith of non-Americans.
  • Private funding has increased significantly for sociological research on religion, notably from several foundations.
  • A positive correlation was found between receiving outside funding and positive findings about religion, although to the surprise of the authors, the strongest correlation was not from private sources of funds but from public sources. (The authors do not have a definitive theory on the source of this correlation and suggest it as a topic for further research.)

The changes outlined in the report "are pretty significant" and show "a realization on the part of sociologists and other academics, too, of the enduring significance of religion in the modern world," said Neil Gross, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. Gross studies the sociology of academic life, and while he noted "the stereotype that most professors don't pay attention to religion," he added that it has "never really been true."

Still, he said that a dominant belief in sociology for much of the mid-20th century was that as societies became more and more advanced, the role of religion would decline. Gross said that he sees much of the renewed interest in religious issues coming from the failure of that theory. "Lots of sociologists have started to explain why societies that were very advanced weren't as secular as previous scholars thought they would become," he said.

More broadly, Gross said, the growing interest in religion reflects a shift away from a view that, with knowledge of a person's socioeconomic status, "you understood what you need to know to explain lots of behavior." Now, sociologists are much more likely to look at culture (religion and more) to explain behaviors and to see that socioeconomic status isn't everything.

Sociologists of religion have very different takes on the meanings behind the findings in the new study -- particularly on the role of outside funding.

David Yamane, a sociologist at Wake Forest University who is editor of the journal Sociology of Religion, questions the idea that more sociologists are studying religion. He said that he receives very few submissions from sociologists who don't specialize in religion, which suggests to him that the new findings don't reflect more sociologists doing religion, but that those who do study religion "have gotten better and have more resources at their disposal to get their work out into the marketplace of ideas."

He noted a "huge influx of money" -- from groups like the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Lilly Endowment and the John Templeton Foundation -- that have led these sociologists to "have greater resources to pursue their studies than in the past." He also said that data sets created in part with support from such sources have yielded much high-impact research that sociologists could publish in top journals. Yamane views these trends positively.

Sherkat, of Southern Illinois, views this funding with much more concern. He said that one reason sociology as a field long dismissed religion was because of an assumption that it was studied by those who wanted to advance a faith, not scholarship. "When the motivation for study is no longer what religion does or how religion works, but a view of religion being normatively appropriate or superior, then secular sociological interest will decline," he said.

Because he views many of the current funders of the sociology religion as sympathetic to religion, he is worried that they will "kill off" the interest that has been created. Further, he said that the funding sources explain what he considers a weakness of the religion of sociology (as does the new paper): its focus.

"We're doing too much navel-gazing," he said. "We're talking about the superiority of white, conservative, Protestant Christianity."

When he talks about his current research, which he said argues that conservative Christianity isolates believers from the rest of the public and is correlated with low scientific literacy, funders and publishers aren't excited.

Others, however, see a more positive role coming from outside funding (and one typical they say of outside funding in many disciplines). Fred Kniss, provost of Eastern Mennonite University and chair of the American Sociological Association's religion section, said he sees that the field is no longer "seen as a backwater." Some of the vitality in the field comes from foundations supporting research, he said, and these foundations "have an interest in promoting the health of religious institutions, but I would not characterize their funding as depending on a pro-religious view."

Kniss said that, as is the case with other foundations and agencies, those putting up money "have influence on what kinds of questions get asked" by framing their grant programs in certain ways.

The Pew Charitable Trusts supported some of the research for his 2007 book, Sacred Assemblies and Civic Engagement: How Religion Matters for America's Newest Immigrants (Rutgers University Press), Kniss said. "There was never any sort of hands-on involvement in the research or an assumption that I was going to say that religion is good," Kniss said. Pew was "very hands-off in how the research was carried out."

Christopher Stawski, program officer in human sciences at the Templeton Foundation, explained that group's goals this way: "The foundation supports a variety of research projects in the social sciences in order to better understand concepts that Sir John Templeton understood to be spiritual, such as forgiveness, generosity, love, purpose, and wisdom. In sponsoring this research, we are committed to rigorous standards of peer review and to asking questions that transcend any particular religious tradition."


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