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From Secularisation to Religious Diversity: Understanding Religion in Europe

In her interview with the RSP, Grace Davie provides a survey of the history of the discipline of sociology in the study of religion, and considers the manner in which it has developed in British universities, in contrast to European models. Religion, we are told, is located in societies, and is ‘not an abstract thing’, but very concrete. Sociology, as the study of society, is thus an appropriate methodology for the study of religion. In her definition of the sociological approach to religion, Davie provides the following aspects to its methodology – discovering data, the role of explanation and description, and, finally, policy applications. Davie sees sociologists as having a necessary social and legal function in advising governments, with sociological research having wider implications for the forming of policy at state level. Indeed it may be added here that sociological methods of quantitative and qualitative analysis dominate both public and private sector investigation into social trends. Social sciences are often able to represent their immediate relevance to policy-making more effectively than other disciplines, such as those of the humanities.

Davie points out that the founders of sociology emerged at a time of profound change and even crisis in Western society, with the industrialisation and urbanisation of pre-modern society. For Davie, the late 19th and early 20th century scholars who made the major contributions to understanding these changes were: Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Simmel. Indeed these figures represent the ‘founding fathers’ of the discipline of sociology, but it remains to be considered how this discipline relates to the study of religion. Davie makes a clear distinction between the later development of the study of religion, which she associates with contemporary figures such as Ninian Smart, and the foundations of the sociology of religion.

Since the 1950s, Davie suggests that the sociology of religion has moved away from sociology departments and into departments for religious studies and theology. There has thus been a change in where the sociology of religion is located in the university, finding itself within departments of religious studies alongside other approaches to the study of religion. This shift is, she argues, indicative of how sociology has been reluctant to take religion seriously. It might be suggested that this is also indicative of the dominance that sociological approaches have come to have for faculties of religion in UK universities, superseding other classical approaches to the study of religion, such as comparative religion and the phenomenology of religion. For Davie, there has been a ‘relocation’ of the sub-discipline of the social study of religion, from sociology to the study of religion. She highlights that the traditional departments of theology, such as Durham, have broadened into religious studies and the social study of religion. Sociology departments on the other hand like that of LSE, are Davie claims, shifting more towards anthropology and away from the sociology of religion. This comes in contrast to Europe, where in the Nordic case, sociology of religion has always been found in Lutheran theology faculties, whilst in France, theology faculties are proscribed by law in public universities and thus the sociology of religion has developed there in quite a different manner.

Finally, Davie considers the future direction of the sociology of religion and suggests there are many possibilities, but these should focus on two main themes – how European societies manage the trend towards religious diversity along with the trend towards secularisation. She also suggests that the relation of the sociology of religion to politics and history should remain of utmost importance, so that the sociology of religion can maintain its influential role in policy-making and governance. Sociologists must, she says, be ‘politically literate’ and seek to overcome the ‘religious illiteracy’ that has become prevalent in modern society. It could be argued that this religious illiteracy relates precisely to the disjunction between the two main trends that Davie believes are important for the study of religion – the move towards religious diversity and the move towards secularisation. A deeply secular society and system of governance such as France, becomes less able to tolerate the beliefs and practices of different religious groups that do not conform to its Republican values of liberté, égalité, fraternité and la laïcité. The French model of secularity is discussed by Charles Cameron in his article for Lapido Media – a media charity that seeks to promote religious literacy in policy-making and governance. While French secularity, la laïcité, goes much further than the British form, Cameron argues, in prohibiting any influence of religion on the state, this secularism excludes those whose participation in society is guided by their religious background – particularly the French Muslim population.

Davie mentions her own research into religion in Britain and the importance of gender differences, but there are other significant religious divides in British society, aside from that demarcated by gender, between communities belonging to different religious traditions who don’t appear to understand each other, and between whom there is even hostility. Davie points out the limitations of traditional social theory in the academy – that the West has a habit of imposing its own model of religion and understanding of the sociology of religion through its own history of secularisation on other non-western cultures. However, this problem of methodology is indicative of a more substantive one, that with a more religiously diverse population that may not subscribe to modern secularism, Europe finds itself faced with conflicting views about social values. It may be said that secularisation has made the West religiously illiterate, in that it struggles to accommodate those who do not espouse its secular values, particularly the separation of religion from the state (la laïcité). As secularisation no longer appears the end point in the development of a modern society, we must find alternative theories to those established by Davie’s founding fathers of sociology. Indeed it is the comparative study of other social models, not subject to the same distinctions of the religious from the secular that have emerged in the West, which will contribute to understanding the problems that have been posed by increasing religious diversity in Europe.

Whither the Sociology of Religion?

Grace Davie’s discussion of the sociology of religion provides a comprehensive overview of the field. She offers insights garnered from her own eminent career within British sociology of religion and speaks directly to the ways in which the field has been shaped as much by its social location and historical movements as it has been by theoretical innovations and scholarly developments. Her overview will serve as the foundation for the Religious Studies Project’s forthcoming series of discussions covering a broad spectrum of topics related to sociological inquiry into religion. This podcast could be easily integrated into course materials for undergraduate courses as it provides a succinct description of the field’s history and attends to questions of its public worth, which I imagine could prompt lively classroom discussion and debate. In addition, Davie’s unassuming discussion of the multiple shifts the field has taken over the course of her own career should warrant consideration on the part of junior scholars in any discipline who are thinking about the larger trajectory of their careers and the ways in which we balance our scholarly interests, pedagogical ambitions, and institutional obligations. In this context, Davie wants us to take seriously the social value of and potential contributions by the sociology of religion to both policy-making and inspiring empathy for those we (along with our students and the general public) might think of as ‘other’ or foreign.

I do not have a lot to offer by way of critical comments about Davie’s history of the discipline. I agree with her assessment that more consideration is warranted of the fluid nature of the field as it flows from the social location of its various schools of thought. I too am interested in thinking about the ways that new technologies, online religions, and artificial intelligence offer innovative frameworks for thinking about religious practices—both for adherents of religious traditions and for scholars who study them. I find Davie’s assumptions concerning the category of religion to be too concrete for my own use (both in terms of how I conceptualize it as a scholar, but also in how I see religious adherents making use of it); since this topic has been covered extensively as of late on the Religious Studies Project blog, I will set it aside and instead speak to what I see as the primary intention of this podcast: to offer a comprehensive framework for moving forward by considering the past, current, and future routes available to sociologists of religion.

In a comparable reflection on his career teaching about religion in public institutions, Jonathan Z. Smith describes a conversation he had with a senior colleague at an early juncture in his career. In that conversation, his would-be mentor remarked that the study of religion would survive as long as it continued to tether itself to theological studies. Smith imagines a Purusha-like sacrifice whereby the field is somehow partitioned up and sacrificially offered in a way that serves the almighty, eternal aims of divinity education (Smith 1995). While Davie’s description of the sociology of religion—both its origins and its future—does not prescriptively suppose that the field ought to uncritically follow the beck and call of transcendent forces, a similar logic is at work both in the way she relates the history of the field within the United Kingdom and her own illustrious career at its helm. In a tone that is slightly wistful, Davie relates that the sociology of religion has shifted its allegiances from departments of sociology to religious studies (and into anthropology departments) which she sees as an indicator that sociology does not take religion seriously. In many ways, this shift she describes resonates with the shift Smith and others observe concerning the transition from theological studies to the study of religion.

My allusion to Purusha is not intended to suggest a disagreement with Davie’s assessment of the field but rather to call for a critical inquiry into the work we do under the broad banner of sociology of religion. Purusha, of course, is the primordial man of the Rig Veda whose ceremonial sacrifice generates the caste system—one of countless instances in which we see the introduction of a religious narrative to buttress political hierarchies and social inequalities. In other words, it stands as a story recounted in such a way that makes the social system it speaks to appear inevitable (cf. Martin 2016). I wonder if I detect something similar in Davie’s description of the field and its usefulness. In her analysis of the four key historical figures within the sociology of religion—Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel—one can almost detect an arbitrary division of the body, brain, heart, and feet akin to the Purusha narrative. I cannot help but think that the field’s continued reliance on these classical thinkers (with the addition of other standbys such as Berger and Luckmann, Stark and Finke, and various scholars associated with the Secularization Thesis) works to limit the possibilities for analysis to those concerns raised by such figures even in the midst of increased calls for non-Western scholarly interlocutors and more diverse research sites.

An additional parceling of roles is revealed in her treatment of the current tenure of the sociology of religion. Davie makes the important point that the field is dependent on its own social locations. While it emerged in concert with modern European thought, the industrial revolution, urbanization, and shifting patterns of human migration, the discipline is one that attends to the particularities (and at times idiosyncrasies) of its home base. In this vein, Davie almost seems to suggest that the British, Nordic, French, and American varieties of sociology of religion should be treated as separate species that exist as they do as much because of their theoretical foci as the content of religious activities therein—while not explicitly stated as such or presumably her intention, an overly defensive reading (from an American perspective) of Davie’s description of sociology of religion in the United States might conclude that she thinks Donald Trump is a direct consequence of Rational Choice Theory.

Trump is low-hanging fruit but Davie’s evocation of his role within the evangelical corpus speaks to our need for a more critical approach within the sociology of religion, specifically one that seeks to broaden our understanding of how religious adherents negotiate competing claims to their social identities. As a strategist (if we care to call him such), Trump is not employing the same tactics that brought Bush, Reagan, and even Clinton to power. He is not attempting to ‘win’ the evangelical vote based on appealing to their religious sensitivities or by speaking their language (cf. Lincoln 2003). Instead, a more interesting analysis might be undertaken that considers the ways that Trump is working to garner a conservative Protestant base that supports him despite his lack of religious fluency, moral virtue, or cultural resonance with the everyday lives of American evangelicals. In other words, evangelicals are not stupid; they know that Trump is not one of them. If he mobilizes their vote, it will reveal less about the religious beliefs of Americans or the political imagination of conservative Protestants, but rather will speak to the economic, foreign, and social policies that, at least for this election cycle, are perceived as trumping religious proclivities. As with Purusha, evangelical ‘belief in’ or ‘support for’ Trump is only interesting so far as we can locate its social consequences, many of which may prove to be unintended. In this context, the role of scholars of religion is, in part, to delve into and bring to light those instances where religious beliefs, traditions, and identities are incoherent, inconsistent, and contradictory.

Davie’s evocation of the perceived allegiances between conservative Protestantism and American political networks reminds us that the history of the sociology of religion in the United States has taken a markedly different path than its British counterpart. Whereas, as Davie notes, SOCREL has flourished in the British Sociological Association and now stands as its second largest unit, American academic societies have not always been as welcoming towards sociologists of religion, many of whom were themselves religiously-minded and fearful of the Marxist and atheist factions within the American Sociological Association (ASA). While the ASA has been in existence since 1961, it was not until 1994 that the sociology of religion section was established. Instead, a network of alternative associations were established in the mid-twentieth century which were sympathetic to Catholic and Protestant sociologists. The effects of such bifurcation has been, in many instances (although certainly not all) an emphasis on scholarship that provides a service to religion and lacks an explicit critique (Stark and Finke 2000: 15-16; cf. Blasi 2014). More recently, the Sociology of Religion group of the American Academy of Religion (founded in 2008 by Titus Hjelm, a UK-based sociologist and Ipsita Chatterjea, who was at the time a graduate student at Vanderbilt University; it is now chaired by Warren Goldstein and myself) was established as response to a perceived need for engagement with critical and analytical approaches drawn from sociology as a whole. Perhaps as a consequence of its home in the American Academy of Religion, the Sociology of Religion group has not served as a platform for Rational Choice Theory but rather has sought to carve out a space for interdisciplinary conversations devoted to empirically-grounded, theoretically-rich scholarship that employs a critical lens in its consideration of both the categories associated with religions and the means through which religious adherents represent themselves and their perceptions of the world and the understudied occasions where such concerns fall apart.

The possibilities for future directions in the sociology of religion are open, and I concur with Davie that the discipline’s future will likely be shaped as much by the tools it employs in its analysis as it is by its content. No more so perhaps than any other field of study, but hopefully with an increased awareness of the ways in which we as scholars arrange the data. Davie’s thorough outline of the field alongside the forthcoming podcasts from this series are a promising step towards its development.

References

Blasi AJ (2014). Sociology of Religion in America: A History of a Secular Fascination with Religion. Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Lincoln, B (2003). Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Martin, C (2016). Religion as Ideology: Recycled Culture vs. World Religions. In Cotter C and Robertson D (eds) After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. New York: Routledge, pp.63-74.

Smith, JZ (1995). Afterward: Religious Studies: Whither (wither) and Why? Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 7(4): 407-414.

Stark, R and Finke R (2000). Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.

An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion

What is the sociology of religion? What are its particular concerns, dominant themes and defining methodologies? Where did it begin, and how has it evolved? This interview with Grace Davie introduces this important and historically influential approach to the study of religion.

In conversation with David G Robertson, Professor Davie – herself a highly respected theorist of religious change – discuss the four tasks of the sociology of religion; some early sociologists and their relationship to the social changes of their time; modernity, secularisation and a more recent social shift, the Internet; and how Europe may be the exception in the modern world, rather than the model by which all other states will necessarily proceed. They conclude by reminding listeners that we must always keep our theories foremost in our thinking, because they are as socially and historically contextual as the data we use them to interpret.

The Changing Nature of Religion, or our podcasts on Emile Durkheim, Claude Levi-Strauss, Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture, Marxist Approaches, Bricolage and more…

Five Lectures on Atheism, Nonreligion, and Secularity, from the NSRN

In partnership with the NSRN (Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network), it is our pleasure to bring you the audio recordings of five very important lectures.

The first is the NSRN Annual Lecture from April 2011, recorded at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham:

The other four are the keynote lectures from the NSRN’s Biennial Conference, recorded at Goldsmiths University, London, in July 2012:

Chris, one of the Religious Studies Project’s (RSP) ‘editors-in-chief’, is also Managing Editor of the NSRN’s website and therefore, when the NSRN wanted to make available some podcasts from recent events, it seemed like a win-win situation for both organizations for the RSP to host and disseminate these podcasts on behalf of the NSRN. These lectures come as part of an extensive series of podcasts from the RSP which touch on the study of non-religion – from our recent roundtable discussion on Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies, to our interviews with Linda Woodhead, Callum Brown, and Lois Lee. We appreciate that not all of our visitors will be particularly interested in this area of research, and for that reason we have released all of these lectures at the same time,and avoided placing them on iTunes. However, we are sure that every listener will find something of interest in these recordings, and wish you happy listening over the ‘Christmas’ period.

For those of you who don’t know the NSRN, the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network is an international and interdisciplinary network of researchers founded in 2008 which aims to centralise existing research on the topic of non-religion and secularity and to facilitate discussion in this area. The NSRN run a series of events including their biennial conference and annual lecture series, in addition to maintaining a vibrant website with extensive collection of resources, publications, and listings for teachers and students working in the area of non-religion and secularity.

Due to the lecture style of these recordings, it is somewhat inevitable that the audio quality will be lower than we would like, and that there might be references to PowerPoint presentations or other events happening in the room. However, we know that these will be minor irritations when compared with the stimulating scholarship that you are about to hear, and we are very grateful to the NSRN for working with us to bring you these lectures.

Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?

If you have been listening to the podcast for the past couple of weeks, you will be aware that we are about to go on a brief hiatus until September, to give our listeners some time to catch up, and to give Chris and David a chance to catch up on some of their other commitments. The website will still be releasing content on a less regular basis, and we have at least one more roundtable discussion for your delectation over the coming weeks. We will also be re-releasing our ‘editors favourites’ from the first batch of podcasts – so there will still be plenty of material to keep you occupied. However, before we ‘leave you’ we wanted to go out with a bang, and it is therefore with pleasure that we present the second of our compilation episodes.

As with the first of our compilation episodes (What is the Future of Religious Studies?), every time David, Chris and Jonathan have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: ‘Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?’ The result is this compilation of differing opinions and interpretations of key terms from eight top scholars from a variety of disciplines – sociology, psychology, religious studies, theology – on how academics should position themselves in relation to the groups and individuals that they study.

However, we decided to push things one step further with this one. The inspiration for this episode came from one of Russell McCutcheon’s works which we had encountered through the undergraduate Religious Studies programme at the University of Edinburgh, entitled ‘Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion‘. We thought it would be an excellent idea to invite Russell to respond to the opinions of the other scholars in this podcast, and are very grateful that not only was he happy to be involved, but he sent a ten minute response recording. Enjoy.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, and others’ are still on our ‘to-do’ list, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation. We apologise for the UK-centric nature of these recordings… that’s just what happened in this instance.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

Whether you stick with us over the break, or come back to us in September, we can assure you that we have another great lineup in store. Future podcasts include interviews with David Morgan (Duke University), Kim Knott (Lancaster University), Robert Orsi (Northwestern University), Gordon Lynch (University of Kent), Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity University College), J Gordon Melton (Baylor University), Brian Victoria (Antioch University) and more…

Please keep telling people about us… if you are a lecturer, please consider incorporating this material into your courses… and please keep supporting us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for listening!

What to do with Davie’s ‘Vicarious Religion’?

 

Like with many of Grace Davie’s conceptualizations, the notion of “vicarious religion” is destined to garner much attention and debate. I must admit that when I first read about it, I rolled my eyes without really knowing why. Perhaps I predicted that the same puddle of ink would be spilt in debating the finer points of what was meant and what was actually meant by the new concept. The author would churn out countless articles explaining his or her new framework, which would invite responses from scholars pointing out missteps, which would in turn invite rejoinders from the author insisting that they had been misunderstood. This is how academia tends to work, and it may be why the general public is often vicariously exhausted by our efforts.

Academic self-deprecation aside, I was fascinated by the Religious Studies Project’s interview with Grace Davie. While many different topics are covered in the podcast, in the space I have available I want to focus particularly on her notion of vicarious religion, and examine some of the critique it has spawned, and explore the ways it has been useful for scholars in the sociology of religion.

Davie has in various places defined vicarious religion as “the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who (implicitly at least) not only understand, but, quite clearly, approve of what the minority is doing” (Davie 2007, 22). In the podcast, she notes that while church structures are no longer able to “discipline the behavior and beliefs” of Europeans, there is still some support for their “public utility.” As she points out, although relatively few people are attending these churches, “there is still a certain expectation that they would do things on behalf of a wide number of people when the need arises…For example, if you or I approached the clergy for a funeral of a family member, and that funeral was denied, we would feel somehow that the church had not done what it was there to do.” It is in a similar light that some scholars have seen religion as an “institution of oughts” (Christiano et al. 2008, 43).

According to Davie (2006, 25) religion can operate vicariously in several ways, from church leaders performing rituals and believing on behalf of others to embodying moral codes and offering a space for public debate. Interestingly, if we take seriously Jose Casanova’s (1994) argument that the secularization thesis consists of three different propositions – religious decline, differentiation, and privatization – Davie’s notion of vicarious religion does not challenge any one of them. Indeed, vicarious religion seems to be a theory that takes the differentiation thesis for granted when attempting to explain how religion (at least in Great Britain and perhaps Europe) functions in society. Even individuals vicariously practicing religion are acknowledging, when practicing it in such a way, that society is differentiated and the sphere of religion may have “utility” only for certain purposes.

One of the main critiques of the vicarious religion thesis was put forth by Steve Bruce and David Voas (2010). As they (2010, 245) point out, “Vicarious religion clearly exists; our objection is that it seems to be the exception in the contemporary world, while Davie claims that it is the rule in Europe.” To be fair, Davie suggests nothing of the sort. In fact, she (2010) has been quite clear that “vicarious religion”, as well as “believing without belonging” before it, should be viewed as tools in the sociologist of religion’s toolbox. They cannot be used to extract every nail or tighten every screw, but will likely be useful for some projects. In his most recent book, Bruce (2011, vi) expresses annoyance at scholars who “present a small case study as a rebuttal of a story about large-scale social change.” However, in his disagreement with Davie, it is Bruce who has perceived a large-scale argument when what is presented is “one factor among many in the continuing re-adjustment of religious life in modern Europe” (Davie 2010, 264).

Another major point of disagreement inevitably seems to lie with their differing definitions of religion. While Bruce begins his most recent book by arguing that “social scientists spend far too much time quibbling over words” – a statement that I tend to agree with – it is precisely because Bruce and Davie have different starting points that disagreement immediately follows. For Bruce (2011, 1), functional definitions of religion, those examining “the purposes it serves or the needs it meets” tend to “assume what ought to be demonstrated.” However, Davie is very much working from a functional perspective. Bruce (2011, 1) settles instead for a substantive definition “as beliefs, actions, and institutions based on the existence of supernatural entities with powers of agency or impersonal processes possessed of moral purpose that set the conditions of, or intervene in, human affairs.” Indeed, problems arising from these differing perspectives have “been there continuously, without those who hold to a substantive – or substantial – definition (associated with the substance of belief) and those who favour a functional one (which takes account of the functions of religion in social life) being able to agree and so transcend or resolve the difficulty” (Hervieu-Leger 2000, 32).

In seeing how the vicarious religion thesis has recently been operationalized, let us spend some time on the work of Peter Hemming (2011). Hemming finds some use for the concept in his study of religion and spirituality in a community primary school and a voluntary aided Roman Catholic primary school in the north of England. Some of the parents he interviewed were reliant on their children’s schools to teach and talk about religion. As Hemming (2011, 1072) writes, “Many of the comments were linked to the legacy of past practices and parents’ own schooling memories and experiences.” This is in line with Davie’s argument that the “old residual expectations are implicitly if not explicitly there” as well as Hervieu-Leger’s (2000) view of religion as a “chain of memory.” Hemming (2011, 1073) notes that there was a desire on the part of some parents for schools to “do religion” on their behalf.

A similarly interesting case was presented by Peter Berger when discussing the church tax system in Germany. In Germany, Berger argues, there are no longer any state churches, but religious institutions continue to benefit from certain legal privileges. The “church tax” – which is about eight or nine percent of people’s income – is collected by the state and given to the churches. As Christina Sticht (2004) has noted, many citizens are leaving the church partly because they cannot afford or no longer want to pay this fairly hefty tax (see also Barker 2004). As Berger (2005, 116) quite surprisingly points out:

An individual who does not want to pay this tax can simply declare himself to be religiously unaffiliated (konfessionslos) and thus instantly save quite a bit of money. What is surprising is how many – indeed the majority at least in the western part of the country – have not done it. When asked why, they give different answers – because they might need the church at some point in their lives, because they want the church to give moral guidance for their children, because they see the church as important for the moral fabric of society. Davie has coined another apt term for this phenomenon – ‘vicarious religion’.

As is evident, then, the notion of vicarious religion can indeed be a useful conceptual tool for shedding light on some religious activities. Davie, however, suggests that this is likely not going to survive into the next generation. She imagines vicarious religion as a kind of religio-cultural residue that coats the consciousness of older generations. It is this coating that enables traditional cultural as well as religious structures to have their affective effect. According to Davie, subsequent generations whose cultural context is more varied may find less significance in their ancestral traditions and, in many ways, will continue what Roof (1999, 171) has called a process of “retraditionalizing” were new ways of being may be infused with significance and perhaps even timelessness. As these changes continue, newer and more precise tools will be required to adequately understand the contemporary religious landscape.

References

Barker, Christine. 2004. “Church and State: Lessons from Germany.” The Political Quarterly. (75.2): 168-176.

Berger, Peter L. 2005. “Religion and the West.” The National Interest. (Summer): 112-119.

Bruce, Steve. 2011. Secularization: In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bruce, Steve and David Voas. 2010. “Vicarious Religion: An Examination and Critique. Journal of Contemporary Religion. (25.2): 243-259.

Casanova, Jose. 1994. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Christiano, Kevin J., William H. Swatos Jr., and Peter Kivisto. 2008. Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Davie, Grace. 2006. “Is Europe an Exceptional Case?” The Hedgehog Review (Spring and Summer): 23-34.

Davie, Grace. 2007. “Vicarious Religion: A Methodological Challenge.” In Nancy T. Ammerman, ed. Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, pp. 21-35. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davie, Grace. 2010. “Vicarious Religion: A Response.” Journal of Contemporary Religion. (25.2): 261-266.

Hemming, Peter. 2011. “The Place of Religion in Public Life: School Ethos as a Lens on Society.” Sociology. (45.6): 1061-1077.

Hervieu-Leger, Daniele. 2000. Religion as a Chain of Memory. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Roof, Wade Clark. 1999. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sticht, Christina. 2004. “The Role of the Churches in Germany.” May. Die Rolle Der Kirchen in Deutschland. Accessed February 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.goethe.de/ges/phi/dos/rkd/en2012816.htm

The Changing Nature of Religion

In her keynote address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Milwaukee last October, Grace Davie eruditely portrayed the changing perceptions of ‘religion’ over the last fifty years. In the 1960s, most sociologists consciously or unconsciously bought into idea of the ‘death of god’ – religion became effectively invisible to academia. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, a number of events – most notably the ‘Satanic Verses’ controversy – dramatically increased the ‘visibility’ of religion: it became a political problem. Now, in the 21st century, religion is increasingly being construed by politicians, educators, the media etc, as a useful resource to be exploited. These public perceptions are but one facet of the way in which ‘religion’ can be understood as ‘changing’.

In this interview with Chris, Professor Davie discusses the place of religion in modern Europe, paying particular attention to the place of the United Kingdom within the European context. In an effort to combat the caricatures that typify media accounts of religion in the contemporary world, Davie discusses the changing nature of religion, in academia and in the public square, and considers the impact of the arrival of new cultures into Europe, whilst reflecting on secular reactions to these.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. Three freely accessible articles by Prof. Davie which should be of interest to our listeners are “Thinking Sociologically about Religion: A Step Change in the Debate?“, published by The ARDA in 2011,  “Is Europe an Exceptional Case?” from The Hedgehog Review (2006), and “Working Comparatively” from the University of Kent’s Research Methods for the Study of Religion website.

This interview was recorded in October 2011 in Milwaukee, WI at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Podcasts

From Secularisation to Religious Diversity: Understanding Religion in Europe

In her interview with the RSP, Grace Davie provides a survey of the history of the discipline of sociology in the study of religion, and considers the manner in which it has developed in British universities, in contrast to European models. Religion, we are told, is located in societies, and is ‘not an abstract thing’, but very concrete. Sociology, as the study of society, is thus an appropriate methodology for the study of religion. In her definition of the sociological approach to religion, Davie provides the following aspects to its methodology – discovering data, the role of explanation and description, and, finally, policy applications. Davie sees sociologists as having a necessary social and legal function in advising governments, with sociological research having wider implications for the forming of policy at state level. Indeed it may be added here that sociological methods of quantitative and qualitative analysis dominate both public and private sector investigation into social trends. Social sciences are often able to represent their immediate relevance to policy-making more effectively than other disciplines, such as those of the humanities.

Davie points out that the founders of sociology emerged at a time of profound change and even crisis in Western society, with the industrialisation and urbanisation of pre-modern society. For Davie, the late 19th and early 20th century scholars who made the major contributions to understanding these changes were: Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Simmel. Indeed these figures represent the ‘founding fathers’ of the discipline of sociology, but it remains to be considered how this discipline relates to the study of religion. Davie makes a clear distinction between the later development of the study of religion, which she associates with contemporary figures such as Ninian Smart, and the foundations of the sociology of religion.

Since the 1950s, Davie suggests that the sociology of religion has moved away from sociology departments and into departments for religious studies and theology. There has thus been a change in where the sociology of religion is located in the university, finding itself within departments of religious studies alongside other approaches to the study of religion. This shift is, she argues, indicative of how sociology has been reluctant to take religion seriously. It might be suggested that this is also indicative of the dominance that sociological approaches have come to have for faculties of religion in UK universities, superseding other classical approaches to the study of religion, such as comparative religion and the phenomenology of religion. For Davie, there has been a ‘relocation’ of the sub-discipline of the social study of religion, from sociology to the study of religion. She highlights that the traditional departments of theology, such as Durham, have broadened into religious studies and the social study of religion. Sociology departments on the other hand like that of LSE, are Davie claims, shifting more towards anthropology and away from the sociology of religion. This comes in contrast to Europe, where in the Nordic case, sociology of religion has always been found in Lutheran theology faculties, whilst in France, theology faculties are proscribed by law in public universities and thus the sociology of religion has developed there in quite a different manner.

Finally, Davie considers the future direction of the sociology of religion and suggests there are many possibilities, but these should focus on two main themes – how European societies manage the trend towards religious diversity along with the trend towards secularisation. She also suggests that the relation of the sociology of religion to politics and history should remain of utmost importance, so that the sociology of religion can maintain its influential role in policy-making and governance. Sociologists must, she says, be ‘politically literate’ and seek to overcome the ‘religious illiteracy’ that has become prevalent in modern society. It could be argued that this religious illiteracy relates precisely to the disjunction between the two main trends that Davie believes are important for the study of religion – the move towards religious diversity and the move towards secularisation. A deeply secular society and system of governance such as France, becomes less able to tolerate the beliefs and practices of different religious groups that do not conform to its Republican values of liberté, égalité, fraternité and la laïcité. The French model of secularity is discussed by Charles Cameron in his article for Lapido Media – a media charity that seeks to promote religious literacy in policy-making and governance. While French secularity, la laïcité, goes much further than the British form, Cameron argues, in prohibiting any influence of religion on the state, this secularism excludes those whose participation in society is guided by their religious background – particularly the French Muslim population.

Davie mentions her own research into religion in Britain and the importance of gender differences, but there are other significant religious divides in British society, aside from that demarcated by gender, between communities belonging to different religious traditions who don’t appear to understand each other, and between whom there is even hostility. Davie points out the limitations of traditional social theory in the academy – that the West has a habit of imposing its own model of religion and understanding of the sociology of religion through its own history of secularisation on other non-western cultures. However, this problem of methodology is indicative of a more substantive one, that with a more religiously diverse population that may not subscribe to modern secularism, Europe finds itself faced with conflicting views about social values. It may be said that secularisation has made the West religiously illiterate, in that it struggles to accommodate those who do not espouse its secular values, particularly the separation of religion from the state (la laïcité). As secularisation no longer appears the end point in the development of a modern society, we must find alternative theories to those established by Davie’s founding fathers of sociology. Indeed it is the comparative study of other social models, not subject to the same distinctions of the religious from the secular that have emerged in the West, which will contribute to understanding the problems that have been posed by increasing religious diversity in Europe.

Whither the Sociology of Religion?

Grace Davie’s discussion of the sociology of religion provides a comprehensive overview of the field. She offers insights garnered from her own eminent career within British sociology of religion and speaks directly to the ways in which the field has been shaped as much by its social location and historical movements as it has been by theoretical innovations and scholarly developments. Her overview will serve as the foundation for the Religious Studies Project’s forthcoming series of discussions covering a broad spectrum of topics related to sociological inquiry into religion. This podcast could be easily integrated into course materials for undergraduate courses as it provides a succinct description of the field’s history and attends to questions of its public worth, which I imagine could prompt lively classroom discussion and debate. In addition, Davie’s unassuming discussion of the multiple shifts the field has taken over the course of her own career should warrant consideration on the part of junior scholars in any discipline who are thinking about the larger trajectory of their careers and the ways in which we balance our scholarly interests, pedagogical ambitions, and institutional obligations. In this context, Davie wants us to take seriously the social value of and potential contributions by the sociology of religion to both policy-making and inspiring empathy for those we (along with our students and the general public) might think of as ‘other’ or foreign.

I do not have a lot to offer by way of critical comments about Davie’s history of the discipline. I agree with her assessment that more consideration is warranted of the fluid nature of the field as it flows from the social location of its various schools of thought. I too am interested in thinking about the ways that new technologies, online religions, and artificial intelligence offer innovative frameworks for thinking about religious practices—both for adherents of religious traditions and for scholars who study them. I find Davie’s assumptions concerning the category of religion to be too concrete for my own use (both in terms of how I conceptualize it as a scholar, but also in how I see religious adherents making use of it); since this topic has been covered extensively as of late on the Religious Studies Project blog, I will set it aside and instead speak to what I see as the primary intention of this podcast: to offer a comprehensive framework for moving forward by considering the past, current, and future routes available to sociologists of religion.

In a comparable reflection on his career teaching about religion in public institutions, Jonathan Z. Smith describes a conversation he had with a senior colleague at an early juncture in his career. In that conversation, his would-be mentor remarked that the study of religion would survive as long as it continued to tether itself to theological studies. Smith imagines a Purusha-like sacrifice whereby the field is somehow partitioned up and sacrificially offered in a way that serves the almighty, eternal aims of divinity education (Smith 1995). While Davie’s description of the sociology of religion—both its origins and its future—does not prescriptively suppose that the field ought to uncritically follow the beck and call of transcendent forces, a similar logic is at work both in the way she relates the history of the field within the United Kingdom and her own illustrious career at its helm. In a tone that is slightly wistful, Davie relates that the sociology of religion has shifted its allegiances from departments of sociology to religious studies (and into anthropology departments) which she sees as an indicator that sociology does not take religion seriously. In many ways, this shift she describes resonates with the shift Smith and others observe concerning the transition from theological studies to the study of religion.

My allusion to Purusha is not intended to suggest a disagreement with Davie’s assessment of the field but rather to call for a critical inquiry into the work we do under the broad banner of sociology of religion. Purusha, of course, is the primordial man of the Rig Veda whose ceremonial sacrifice generates the caste system—one of countless instances in which we see the introduction of a religious narrative to buttress political hierarchies and social inequalities. In other words, it stands as a story recounted in such a way that makes the social system it speaks to appear inevitable (cf. Martin 2016). I wonder if I detect something similar in Davie’s description of the field and its usefulness. In her analysis of the four key historical figures within the sociology of religion—Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel—one can almost detect an arbitrary division of the body, brain, heart, and feet akin to the Purusha narrative. I cannot help but think that the field’s continued reliance on these classical thinkers (with the addition of other standbys such as Berger and Luckmann, Stark and Finke, and various scholars associated with the Secularization Thesis) works to limit the possibilities for analysis to those concerns raised by such figures even in the midst of increased calls for non-Western scholarly interlocutors and more diverse research sites.

An additional parceling of roles is revealed in her treatment of the current tenure of the sociology of religion. Davie makes the important point that the field is dependent on its own social locations. While it emerged in concert with modern European thought, the industrial revolution, urbanization, and shifting patterns of human migration, the discipline is one that attends to the particularities (and at times idiosyncrasies) of its home base. In this vein, Davie almost seems to suggest that the British, Nordic, French, and American varieties of sociology of religion should be treated as separate species that exist as they do as much because of their theoretical foci as the content of religious activities therein—while not explicitly stated as such or presumably her intention, an overly defensive reading (from an American perspective) of Davie’s description of sociology of religion in the United States might conclude that she thinks Donald Trump is a direct consequence of Rational Choice Theory.

Trump is low-hanging fruit but Davie’s evocation of his role within the evangelical corpus speaks to our need for a more critical approach within the sociology of religion, specifically one that seeks to broaden our understanding of how religious adherents negotiate competing claims to their social identities. As a strategist (if we care to call him such), Trump is not employing the same tactics that brought Bush, Reagan, and even Clinton to power. He is not attempting to ‘win’ the evangelical vote based on appealing to their religious sensitivities or by speaking their language (cf. Lincoln 2003). Instead, a more interesting analysis might be undertaken that considers the ways that Trump is working to garner a conservative Protestant base that supports him despite his lack of religious fluency, moral virtue, or cultural resonance with the everyday lives of American evangelicals. In other words, evangelicals are not stupid; they know that Trump is not one of them. If he mobilizes their vote, it will reveal less about the religious beliefs of Americans or the political imagination of conservative Protestants, but rather will speak to the economic, foreign, and social policies that, at least for this election cycle, are perceived as trumping religious proclivities. As with Purusha, evangelical ‘belief in’ or ‘support for’ Trump is only interesting so far as we can locate its social consequences, many of which may prove to be unintended. In this context, the role of scholars of religion is, in part, to delve into and bring to light those instances where religious beliefs, traditions, and identities are incoherent, inconsistent, and contradictory.

Davie’s evocation of the perceived allegiances between conservative Protestantism and American political networks reminds us that the history of the sociology of religion in the United States has taken a markedly different path than its British counterpart. Whereas, as Davie notes, SOCREL has flourished in the British Sociological Association and now stands as its second largest unit, American academic societies have not always been as welcoming towards sociologists of religion, many of whom were themselves religiously-minded and fearful of the Marxist and atheist factions within the American Sociological Association (ASA). While the ASA has been in existence since 1961, it was not until 1994 that the sociology of religion section was established. Instead, a network of alternative associations were established in the mid-twentieth century which were sympathetic to Catholic and Protestant sociologists. The effects of such bifurcation has been, in many instances (although certainly not all) an emphasis on scholarship that provides a service to religion and lacks an explicit critique (Stark and Finke 2000: 15-16; cf. Blasi 2014). More recently, the Sociology of Religion group of the American Academy of Religion (founded in 2008 by Titus Hjelm, a UK-based sociologist and Ipsita Chatterjea, who was at the time a graduate student at Vanderbilt University; it is now chaired by Warren Goldstein and myself) was established as response to a perceived need for engagement with critical and analytical approaches drawn from sociology as a whole. Perhaps as a consequence of its home in the American Academy of Religion, the Sociology of Religion group has not served as a platform for Rational Choice Theory but rather has sought to carve out a space for interdisciplinary conversations devoted to empirically-grounded, theoretically-rich scholarship that employs a critical lens in its consideration of both the categories associated with religions and the means through which religious adherents represent themselves and their perceptions of the world and the understudied occasions where such concerns fall apart.

The possibilities for future directions in the sociology of religion are open, and I concur with Davie that the discipline’s future will likely be shaped as much by the tools it employs in its analysis as it is by its content. No more so perhaps than any other field of study, but hopefully with an increased awareness of the ways in which we as scholars arrange the data. Davie’s thorough outline of the field alongside the forthcoming podcasts from this series are a promising step towards its development.

References

Blasi AJ (2014). Sociology of Religion in America: A History of a Secular Fascination with Religion. Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Lincoln, B (2003). Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Martin, C (2016). Religion as Ideology: Recycled Culture vs. World Religions. In Cotter C and Robertson D (eds) After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. New York: Routledge, pp.63-74.

Smith, JZ (1995). Afterward: Religious Studies: Whither (wither) and Why? Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 7(4): 407-414.

Stark, R and Finke R (2000). Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.

An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion

What is the sociology of religion? What are its particular concerns, dominant themes and defining methodologies? Where did it begin, and how has it evolved? This interview with Grace Davie introduces this important and historically influential approach to the study of religion.

In conversation with David G Robertson, Professor Davie – herself a highly respected theorist of religious change – discuss the four tasks of the sociology of religion; some early sociologists and their relationship to the social changes of their time; modernity, secularisation and a more recent social shift, the Internet; and how Europe may be the exception in the modern world, rather than the model by which all other states will necessarily proceed. They conclude by reminding listeners that we must always keep our theories foremost in our thinking, because they are as socially and historically contextual as the data we use them to interpret.

The Changing Nature of Religion, or our podcasts on Emile Durkheim, Claude Levi-Strauss, Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture, Marxist Approaches, Bricolage and more…

Five Lectures on Atheism, Nonreligion, and Secularity, from the NSRN

In partnership with the NSRN (Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network), it is our pleasure to bring you the audio recordings of five very important lectures.

The first is the NSRN Annual Lecture from April 2011, recorded at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham:

The other four are the keynote lectures from the NSRN’s Biennial Conference, recorded at Goldsmiths University, London, in July 2012:

Chris, one of the Religious Studies Project’s (RSP) ‘editors-in-chief’, is also Managing Editor of the NSRN’s website and therefore, when the NSRN wanted to make available some podcasts from recent events, it seemed like a win-win situation for both organizations for the RSP to host and disseminate these podcasts on behalf of the NSRN. These lectures come as part of an extensive series of podcasts from the RSP which touch on the study of non-religion – from our recent roundtable discussion on Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies, to our interviews with Linda Woodhead, Callum Brown, and Lois Lee. We appreciate that not all of our visitors will be particularly interested in this area of research, and for that reason we have released all of these lectures at the same time,and avoided placing them on iTunes. However, we are sure that every listener will find something of interest in these recordings, and wish you happy listening over the ‘Christmas’ period.

For those of you who don’t know the NSRN, the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network is an international and interdisciplinary network of researchers founded in 2008 which aims to centralise existing research on the topic of non-religion and secularity and to facilitate discussion in this area. The NSRN run a series of events including their biennial conference and annual lecture series, in addition to maintaining a vibrant website with extensive collection of resources, publications, and listings for teachers and students working in the area of non-religion and secularity.

Due to the lecture style of these recordings, it is somewhat inevitable that the audio quality will be lower than we would like, and that there might be references to PowerPoint presentations or other events happening in the room. However, we know that these will be minor irritations when compared with the stimulating scholarship that you are about to hear, and we are very grateful to the NSRN for working with us to bring you these lectures.

Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?

If you have been listening to the podcast for the past couple of weeks, you will be aware that we are about to go on a brief hiatus until September, to give our listeners some time to catch up, and to give Chris and David a chance to catch up on some of their other commitments. The website will still be releasing content on a less regular basis, and we have at least one more roundtable discussion for your delectation over the coming weeks. We will also be re-releasing our ‘editors favourites’ from the first batch of podcasts – so there will still be plenty of material to keep you occupied. However, before we ‘leave you’ we wanted to go out with a bang, and it is therefore with pleasure that we present the second of our compilation episodes.

As with the first of our compilation episodes (What is the Future of Religious Studies?), every time David, Chris and Jonathan have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: ‘Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?’ The result is this compilation of differing opinions and interpretations of key terms from eight top scholars from a variety of disciplines – sociology, psychology, religious studies, theology – on how academics should position themselves in relation to the groups and individuals that they study.

However, we decided to push things one step further with this one. The inspiration for this episode came from one of Russell McCutcheon’s works which we had encountered through the undergraduate Religious Studies programme at the University of Edinburgh, entitled ‘Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion‘. We thought it would be an excellent idea to invite Russell to respond to the opinions of the other scholars in this podcast, and are very grateful that not only was he happy to be involved, but he sent a ten minute response recording. Enjoy.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, and others’ are still on our ‘to-do’ list, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation. We apologise for the UK-centric nature of these recordings… that’s just what happened in this instance.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

Whether you stick with us over the break, or come back to us in September, we can assure you that we have another great lineup in store. Future podcasts include interviews with David Morgan (Duke University), Kim Knott (Lancaster University), Robert Orsi (Northwestern University), Gordon Lynch (University of Kent), Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity University College), J Gordon Melton (Baylor University), Brian Victoria (Antioch University) and more…

Please keep telling people about us… if you are a lecturer, please consider incorporating this material into your courses… and please keep supporting us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for listening!

What to do with Davie’s ‘Vicarious Religion’?

 

Like with many of Grace Davie’s conceptualizations, the notion of “vicarious religion” is destined to garner much attention and debate. I must admit that when I first read about it, I rolled my eyes without really knowing why. Perhaps I predicted that the same puddle of ink would be spilt in debating the finer points of what was meant and what was actually meant by the new concept. The author would churn out countless articles explaining his or her new framework, which would invite responses from scholars pointing out missteps, which would in turn invite rejoinders from the author insisting that they had been misunderstood. This is how academia tends to work, and it may be why the general public is often vicariously exhausted by our efforts.

Academic self-deprecation aside, I was fascinated by the Religious Studies Project’s interview with Grace Davie. While many different topics are covered in the podcast, in the space I have available I want to focus particularly on her notion of vicarious religion, and examine some of the critique it has spawned, and explore the ways it has been useful for scholars in the sociology of religion.

Davie has in various places defined vicarious religion as “the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who (implicitly at least) not only understand, but, quite clearly, approve of what the minority is doing” (Davie 2007, 22). In the podcast, she notes that while church structures are no longer able to “discipline the behavior and beliefs” of Europeans, there is still some support for their “public utility.” As she points out, although relatively few people are attending these churches, “there is still a certain expectation that they would do things on behalf of a wide number of people when the need arises…For example, if you or I approached the clergy for a funeral of a family member, and that funeral was denied, we would feel somehow that the church had not done what it was there to do.” It is in a similar light that some scholars have seen religion as an “institution of oughts” (Christiano et al. 2008, 43).

According to Davie (2006, 25) religion can operate vicariously in several ways, from church leaders performing rituals and believing on behalf of others to embodying moral codes and offering a space for public debate. Interestingly, if we take seriously Jose Casanova’s (1994) argument that the secularization thesis consists of three different propositions – religious decline, differentiation, and privatization – Davie’s notion of vicarious religion does not challenge any one of them. Indeed, vicarious religion seems to be a theory that takes the differentiation thesis for granted when attempting to explain how religion (at least in Great Britain and perhaps Europe) functions in society. Even individuals vicariously practicing religion are acknowledging, when practicing it in such a way, that society is differentiated and the sphere of religion may have “utility” only for certain purposes.

One of the main critiques of the vicarious religion thesis was put forth by Steve Bruce and David Voas (2010). As they (2010, 245) point out, “Vicarious religion clearly exists; our objection is that it seems to be the exception in the contemporary world, while Davie claims that it is the rule in Europe.” To be fair, Davie suggests nothing of the sort. In fact, she (2010) has been quite clear that “vicarious religion”, as well as “believing without belonging” before it, should be viewed as tools in the sociologist of religion’s toolbox. They cannot be used to extract every nail or tighten every screw, but will likely be useful for some projects. In his most recent book, Bruce (2011, vi) expresses annoyance at scholars who “present a small case study as a rebuttal of a story about large-scale social change.” However, in his disagreement with Davie, it is Bruce who has perceived a large-scale argument when what is presented is “one factor among many in the continuing re-adjustment of religious life in modern Europe” (Davie 2010, 264).

Another major point of disagreement inevitably seems to lie with their differing definitions of religion. While Bruce begins his most recent book by arguing that “social scientists spend far too much time quibbling over words” – a statement that I tend to agree with – it is precisely because Bruce and Davie have different starting points that disagreement immediately follows. For Bruce (2011, 1), functional definitions of religion, those examining “the purposes it serves or the needs it meets” tend to “assume what ought to be demonstrated.” However, Davie is very much working from a functional perspective. Bruce (2011, 1) settles instead for a substantive definition “as beliefs, actions, and institutions based on the existence of supernatural entities with powers of agency or impersonal processes possessed of moral purpose that set the conditions of, or intervene in, human affairs.” Indeed, problems arising from these differing perspectives have “been there continuously, without those who hold to a substantive – or substantial – definition (associated with the substance of belief) and those who favour a functional one (which takes account of the functions of religion in social life) being able to agree and so transcend or resolve the difficulty” (Hervieu-Leger 2000, 32).

In seeing how the vicarious religion thesis has recently been operationalized, let us spend some time on the work of Peter Hemming (2011). Hemming finds some use for the concept in his study of religion and spirituality in a community primary school and a voluntary aided Roman Catholic primary school in the north of England. Some of the parents he interviewed were reliant on their children’s schools to teach and talk about religion. As Hemming (2011, 1072) writes, “Many of the comments were linked to the legacy of past practices and parents’ own schooling memories and experiences.” This is in line with Davie’s argument that the “old residual expectations are implicitly if not explicitly there” as well as Hervieu-Leger’s (2000) view of religion as a “chain of memory.” Hemming (2011, 1073) notes that there was a desire on the part of some parents for schools to “do religion” on their behalf.

A similarly interesting case was presented by Peter Berger when discussing the church tax system in Germany. In Germany, Berger argues, there are no longer any state churches, but religious institutions continue to benefit from certain legal privileges. The “church tax” – which is about eight or nine percent of people’s income – is collected by the state and given to the churches. As Christina Sticht (2004) has noted, many citizens are leaving the church partly because they cannot afford or no longer want to pay this fairly hefty tax (see also Barker 2004). As Berger (2005, 116) quite surprisingly points out:

An individual who does not want to pay this tax can simply declare himself to be religiously unaffiliated (konfessionslos) and thus instantly save quite a bit of money. What is surprising is how many – indeed the majority at least in the western part of the country – have not done it. When asked why, they give different answers – because they might need the church at some point in their lives, because they want the church to give moral guidance for their children, because they see the church as important for the moral fabric of society. Davie has coined another apt term for this phenomenon – ‘vicarious religion’.

As is evident, then, the notion of vicarious religion can indeed be a useful conceptual tool for shedding light on some religious activities. Davie, however, suggests that this is likely not going to survive into the next generation. She imagines vicarious religion as a kind of religio-cultural residue that coats the consciousness of older generations. It is this coating that enables traditional cultural as well as religious structures to have their affective effect. According to Davie, subsequent generations whose cultural context is more varied may find less significance in their ancestral traditions and, in many ways, will continue what Roof (1999, 171) has called a process of “retraditionalizing” were new ways of being may be infused with significance and perhaps even timelessness. As these changes continue, newer and more precise tools will be required to adequately understand the contemporary religious landscape.

References

Barker, Christine. 2004. “Church and State: Lessons from Germany.” The Political Quarterly. (75.2): 168-176.

Berger, Peter L. 2005. “Religion and the West.” The National Interest. (Summer): 112-119.

Bruce, Steve. 2011. Secularization: In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bruce, Steve and David Voas. 2010. “Vicarious Religion: An Examination and Critique. Journal of Contemporary Religion. (25.2): 243-259.

Casanova, Jose. 1994. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Christiano, Kevin J., William H. Swatos Jr., and Peter Kivisto. 2008. Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Davie, Grace. 2006. “Is Europe an Exceptional Case?” The Hedgehog Review (Spring and Summer): 23-34.

Davie, Grace. 2007. “Vicarious Religion: A Methodological Challenge.” In Nancy T. Ammerman, ed. Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, pp. 21-35. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davie, Grace. 2010. “Vicarious Religion: A Response.” Journal of Contemporary Religion. (25.2): 261-266.

Hemming, Peter. 2011. “The Place of Religion in Public Life: School Ethos as a Lens on Society.” Sociology. (45.6): 1061-1077.

Hervieu-Leger, Daniele. 2000. Religion as a Chain of Memory. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Roof, Wade Clark. 1999. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sticht, Christina. 2004. “The Role of the Churches in Germany.” May. Die Rolle Der Kirchen in Deutschland. Accessed February 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.goethe.de/ges/phi/dos/rkd/en2012816.htm

The Changing Nature of Religion

In her keynote address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Milwaukee last October, Grace Davie eruditely portrayed the changing perceptions of ‘religion’ over the last fifty years. In the 1960s, most sociologists consciously or unconsciously bought into idea of the ‘death of god’ – religion became effectively invisible to academia. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, a number of events – most notably the ‘Satanic Verses’ controversy – dramatically increased the ‘visibility’ of religion: it became a political problem. Now, in the 21st century, religion is increasingly being construed by politicians, educators, the media etc, as a useful resource to be exploited. These public perceptions are but one facet of the way in which ‘religion’ can be understood as ‘changing’.

In this interview with Chris, Professor Davie discusses the place of religion in modern Europe, paying particular attention to the place of the United Kingdom within the European context. In an effort to combat the caricatures that typify media accounts of religion in the contemporary world, Davie discusses the changing nature of religion, in academia and in the public square, and considers the impact of the arrival of new cultures into Europe, whilst reflecting on secular reactions to these.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. Three freely accessible articles by Prof. Davie which should be of interest to our listeners are “Thinking Sociologically about Religion: A Step Change in the Debate?“, published by The ARDA in 2011,  “Is Europe an Exceptional Case?” from The Hedgehog Review (2006), and “Working Comparatively” from the University of Kent’s Research Methods for the Study of Religion website.

This interview was recorded in October 2011 in Milwaukee, WI at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.