Tag Archives: Sociology of Religion

Kahan, “Tocqueville, Democracy, and Religion: Checks and Balances for Democratic Souls”

In August, Oxford University Press will release “Tocqueville, Democracy, and Religion: Checks and Balances for Democratic Souls” by Alan S. Kahan (University of Versailles/St. Quentin-en-Yvelines). The publisher’s description follows:

The relationship between democracy and religion is as important today as it was in Alexis de Tocqueville’s time. Tocqueville, Democracy, and Religion is a ground-breaking study of the views of the greatest theorist of democracy writing about one of today’s most crucial problems. Alan S. Kahan, one of today’s foremost Tocqueville scholars, shows how Tocqueville’s analysis of religion is simultaneously deeply rooted in his thoughts on nineteenth-century France and America and pertinent to us today.

Tocqueville thought that the role of religion was to provide checks and balances for democracy in the spiritual realm, just as secular forces should provide them in the political realm. He believed that in the long run secular checks and balances were dependent on the success of spiritual ones. Kahan examines how Tocqueville thought religion had succeeded in checking and balancing democracy in America, and failed in France, as well as observing Tocqueville’s less well-known analyses of religion in Ireland and England, and his perspective on Islam and Hinduism. He shows how Tocqueville’s ‘post-secular’ account of religion can help us come to terms with religion today.

More than a study of Tocqueville on religion in democratic society, this volume offers us a re-interpretation of Tocqueville as a moralist and a student of human nature in democratic society; a thinker whose new political science was in the service of a new moral science aimed at encouraging democratic people to attain greatness as human beings. Tocqueville, Democracy, and Religion gives us a new Tocqueville for the twenty-first century.

Ramírez, “Migrating Faith”

In October, the University of North Carolina Press releases: “Migrating Faith: Pentecostalism in the United States and Mexico in the Twentieth Century,” by Daniel Ramírez (University of Michigan). The publisher’s description follows:

Daniel Ramírez’s history of twentieth-century Pentecostalism in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands begins in Los Angeles in 1906 with the eruption of the Azusa Street Revival. The Pentecostal phenomenon–characterized by ecstatic spiritual practices that included speaking in tongues, perceptions of miracles, interracial mingling, and new popular musical worship traditions from both sides of the border–was criticized by Christian theologians, secular media, and even governmental authorities for behaviors considered to be unorthodox and outrageous. Today, many scholars view the revival as having catalyzed the spread of Pentecostalism and consider the U.S.-Mexico borderlands as one of the most important fountainheads of a religious movement that has thrived not only in North America but worldwide.

Ramírez argues that, because of the distance separating the transnational migratory circuits from domineering arbiters of religious and aesthetic orthodoxy in both the United States and Mexico, the region was fertile ground for the religious innovation by which working-class Pentecostals expanded and changed traditional options for practicing the faith. Giving special attention to individuals’ and families’ firsthand accounts and tracing how a vibrant religious music culture tied transnational communities together, Ramírez illuminates the interplay of migration, mobility, and musicality in Pentecostalism’s global boom.

Terpstra, “Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World”

In August, the Cambridge University Press releases “Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation,” by Nicholas Terpstra (University of Toronto). The publisher’s description follows: 

The religious refugee first emerged as a mass phenomenon in the late fifteenth century. Over the following two and a half centuries, millions  of Jews, Muslims, and Christians were forced from their homes and into temporary or permanent exile. Their migrations across Europe and around the globe shaped the early modern world and profoundly affected literature, art, and culture. Economic and political factors drove many expulsions, but religion was the factor most commonly used to justify them. This was also the period of religious revival known as the Reformation. This book explores how reformers’ ambitions to purify individuals and society fueled movements to purge ideas, objects, and people considered religiously alien or spiritually contagious. * Aims to explain religious ideas and movements of the Reformation in non-technical and comparative language. * Moves Jews and Muslims to the centre of the traditional Reformation narrative, and considers how the exile experience shaped early modern culture, art, politics, and cities. * Traces the historical patterns that still account for the growing numbers of modern religious refugees.

About Those Religion Surveys …

hc9ut

Image from Patheos

The latest edition of First Things magazine, currently available only in print, contains an important piece by Princeton sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow, “In Polls We Trust.” Actually, it’s one of the most important pieces on American religion I’ve read in quite a while. Not for what it says about American religion, necessarily. Wuthnow’s piece is important because of what it says about the polls on which everyone, academics included, rely for insights on American religion.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of these surveys. Scholars pore over the results to ascertain trends, and, on the basis of those trends, to evaluate the state of American institutions: churches, government, courts. For example, the much touted rise of the “Nones,” the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation, has implications for our First Amendment jurisprudence. The fewer Americans who identify with institutional religion, the weaker we can expect First Amendment protections to get.  Or so some scholars, myself included, have argued.

Of course, everything turns on the accuracy of the surveys. Most of us, not being statisticians, more or less take them on faith. If Wuthnow is right, though, our faith is misguided. He points out that many surveys of American religion have serious methodological flaws. For example, religion does not always lend itself to straightforward yes/no questions of the sort surveyors ask. In addition, pollsters sometimes fail to account for regional and racial variations.

Most important, response rates are very low. The typical response rate nowadays is about nine or 10%, and rarely exceeds 15%. “In other words,” Wuthnow writes, “upwards of 90% of the people who should have been included in a poll for it to be nationally representative are missing. They were either unreachable or refused to participate.” With such poor response rates, it’s hard to know what the polls reveal about religion in America. This problem is compounded by the fact that the media present the results as accurate representations of what Americans believe – a misimpression that the polling industry, now worth a billion dollars a year, is understandably reluctant to correct – and by the fact that most of us “are unlikely to wade through obscure methodological appendices to learn if the response rate was respectable or not.”

Consider the rise of the Nones, for example. Maybe we really are seeing an explosion in the number of Americans without a religious affiliation, as these surveys suggest. But maybe we aren’t. Maybe the number of Nones is actually much lower. Maybe the number is much higher. Wuthnow’s point is, it’s hard to know on the basis of flawed polls. Now, to be sure, there are other indications that organized religion is declining. Some churches keep membership records; these are harder numbers, and they show that some churches are experiencing declining memberships. Still, one has to be a little careful about declaring trends on the basis of limited information.

The inaccuracy of the polls is more than just an academic matter, because polls may actually help drive social change. It’s human nature to want to follow the crowd. If you think that Nones are the wave of the future, you’re more likely to call yourself one; if you think that church is a dying institution, you’re more likely to leave. On the basis of these polls, pundits will write stories about the new religious movement; advertisers and other cultural influencers will take note of the polls and factor them into their work. Before you know it, the decline of religion and the rise of the Nones will be matters of conventional wisdom people take for granted. In other words, polls can have a disproportionate social impact, even if they are unreliable.

None of this is to say that organized religion isn’t in fact experiencing a decline; as I say, there are plenty of indications, other than these polls. But I wonder how major polling firms will respond to Wuthnow’s criticisms. At the very least, his essay suggests we should treat surveys on American religion with more caution than we do.

Gholami, “Secularism and Identity”

In April, Ashgate released “Secularism and Identity: Non-Islamiosity in the Iranian Diaspora,” by Reza Gholami (Middlesex University). The publisher’s description follows:

Within western political, media and academic discourses, Muslimcommunities are predominantly seen through the prism of their
Islamic religiosities, yet there exist within diasporic communities unique and complex secularisms. Drawing on detailed interview and ethnographic material gathered in the UK, this book examines the ways in which a form of secularism – ‘non-Islamiosity’ – amongst members of the Iranian diaspora shapes ideas and practices of diasporic community and identity, as well as wider social relations.

In addition to developing a novel theoretical paradigm to make sense of the manner in which diasporic communities construct and live diasporic identity and consciousness in a way that marginalises, stigmatises or eradicates only ‘Islam’, Secularism and Identity shows how this approach is used to overcome religiously inculcated ideas and fashion a desirable self, thus creating a new space in which to live and thereby attaining ‘freedom.’

Calling into question notions of anti-Islamism and Islamophobia, whilst examining secularism as a means or mechanism rather than an end, this volume offers a new understanding of religion as a marker of migrant identity. As such it will appeal to scholars of sociology, anthropology and political science with interests in migration and ethnicity, diasporic communities, the sociology of religion and emerging forms of secularism.

“Writing Religion” (Ramey, ed.)

In August, the University of Alabama Press will release “Writing Religion: The Case for the Critical Study of Religion,” edited by Steven W. Ramey (University of Alabama). The publisher’s description follows:

In 2002, the University of Alabama’s Department of Religious Studies established the annual Aronov Lecture Series to showcase the works of nationally recognized scholars of religion capable of reflecting on issues of wide relevance to scholars from across the humanities and social sciences. Writing Religion: The Case for the Critical Study of Religions is an edited collection of essays that highlights critical contributions from the first ten Aronov lecturers.

Section one of the volume, “Writing Discourses,” features essays by Jonathan Z. Smith, Bruce Lincoln, and Ann Pellegrini that illustrate how critical study enables the analysis of discourses in society and history. Section two, “Riting Social Formations,” includes pieces by Arjun Appadurai, Judith Plaskow, and Nathan Katz that reference both the power of rites to construct society and the act of riting as a form of disciplining that both prescribes and proscribes. The writings of Tomoko Masuzawa, Amy-Jill Levine, Aaron W. Hughes, and Martin S. Jaffee appear in section three, “Righting the Discipline.” They emphasize the correction of movements within the academic study of religion.

Steven W. Ramey frames the collection with a thoughtful introduction that explores the genesis, development, and diversity of critical analysis in the study of religion. An afterword by Russell McCutcheon reflects on the critical study of religion at the University of Alabama and rounds out this superb collection.

The mission of the Department of Religious Studies is to “avoid every tendency toward confusing the study of religion with the practice of religion.” Instruction about—rather than in—religion is foundational to the department’s larger goal of producing knowledge of the world and its many practices and systems of beliefs. Infused with this spirit, these fascinating essays, which read like good conversations with learned friends, offer significant examples of each scholar’s work. Writing Religion will be of value to graduate students, advanced undergraduates, and scholars interested in the study of religion from a critical perspective.

“Religion, Politics and Nation-Building in Post-Communist Countries” (Simons & Westerlund, eds.)

In March, Ashgate released “Religion, Politics and Nation-Building in Post-Communist Countries,” edited by Greg Simons (Uppsala University) and David Westerlund (Södertörn University). The publisher’s description follows:

The increasing significance and visibility of relationships between religion and public arenas and institutions following the fall of communism in Europe provide the core focus of this fascinating book. Leading international scholars consider the religious and political role of Christian Orthodoxy in the Russian Federation, Romania, Georgia and Ukraine alongside the revival of old, indigenous religions, often referred to as ‘shamanistic’ and look at how, despite Islam’s long history and many adherents in the south, Islamophobic attitudes have increasingly been added to traditional anti-Semitic, anti-Western or anti-liberal elements of Russian nationalism. Contrasts between the church’s position in the post-communist nation building process of secular Estonia with its role in predominantly Catholic Poland are also explored.

Religion, Politics and Nation-Building in Post-Communist Countries gives a broad overview of the political importance of religion in the Post-Soviet space but its interest and relevance extends far beyond the geographical focus, providing examples of the challenges in the spheres of public, religious and social policy for all transitional countries.

Baker and Smith, “American Secularism”

In September, the New York University Press will release “American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems,” by Joseph O. Baker (East Tennessee State University) and Buster G. Smith (Catawba College). The publisher’s description follows:

A rapidly growing number of Americans are embracing life outside the bounds of organized religion. Although America has long been viewed as a fervently religious Christian nation, survey data shows that more and more Americans are identifying as “not religious.” There are more non-religious Americans than ever before, yet social scientists have not adequately studied or typologized secularities, and the lived reality of secular individuals in America has not been astutely analyzed. American Secularism documents how changes to American society have fueled these shifts in the non-religious landscape and examines the diverse and dynamic world of secular Americans.

This volume offers a theoretical framework for understanding secularisms. It explores secular Americans’ thought and practice to understand secularisms as worldviews in their own right, not just as negations of religion. Drawing on empirical data, the authors examine how people live secular lives and make meaning outside of organized religion. Joseph O. Baker and Buster G. Smith link secularities to broader issues of social power and organization, providing an empirical and cultural perspective on the secular landscape. In so doing, they demonstrate that shifts in American secularism are reflective of changes in the political meanings of “religion” in American culture.

American Secularism addresses the contemporary lived reality of secular individuals, outlining forms of secular identity and showing their connection to patterns of family formation, sexuality, and politics, providing scholars of religion with a more comprehensive understanding of worldviews that do not include traditional religion.

White, “Reforming Sodom”

In August, the University of North Carolina Press will release “Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights,” by Heather R. White (University of Puget Sound). The publisher’s description follows:

With a focus on mainline Protestants and gay rights activists in the twentieth century, Heather R. White challenges the usual picture of perennial adversaries with a new narrative about America’s religious and sexual past. White argues that today’s antigay Christian traditions originated in the 1920s when a group of liberal Protestants began to incorporate psychiatry and psychotherapy into Christian teaching. A new therapeutic orthodoxy, influenced by modern medicine, celebrated heterosexuality as God-given and advocated a compassionate “cure” for homosexuality.

White traces the unanticipated consequences as the therapeutic model, gaining popularity after World War II, spurred mainline church leaders to take a critical stance toward rampant antihomosexual discrimination. By the 1960s, a vanguard of clergy began to advocate for homosexual rights. White highlights the continued importance of this religious support to the consolidating gay and lesbian movement. However, the ultimate irony of the therapeutic orthodoxy’s legacy was its adoption, beginning in the 1970s, by the Christian Right, which embraced it as an age-old tradition to which Americans should return. On a broader level, White challenges the assumed secularization narrative in LGBT progress by recovering the forgotten history of liberal Protestants’ role on both sides of the debates over orthodoxy and sexual identity.

“Young Sikhs in a Global World: Negotiating Traditions, Identities and Authorities” (Jacobsen & Myrvold, eds.)

In August, Ashgate Publishing will release “Young Sikhs in a Global World: Negotiating Traditions, Identities and Authorities” edited by Knut A. Jacobsen (University of Bergen, Norway) and Kristina Myrvold (Linnaeus University, Sweden). The publisher’s description follows:

In attempting to carve out a place for themselves in local and global contexts, young Sikhs mobilize efforts to construct, choose, and emphasize different aspects of religious and cultural identification depending on their social setting and context. Young Sikhs in a Global World presents current research on young Sikhs with multicultural and transnational life-styles and considers how they interpret, shape and negotiate religious identities, traditions, and authority on an individual and collective level.

With a particular focus on the experiences of second generation Sikhs as they interact with various people in different social fields and cultural contexts, the book is constructed around three parts: ‘family and home’, ‘public display and gender’, and ‘reflexivity and translations’. New scholarly voices and established academics present qualitative research and ethnographic fieldwork and analyse how young Sikhs try to solve social, intellectual and psychological tensions between the family and the expectations of the majority society, between Punjabi culture and religious values.