Reflections from Sociology of Religion

I had the joy of teaching a great class in the sociology of religion this fall. Had 20+ in the class and enough willing to engage in class discussion to make a learning experience for all. We used Roberts and Yaname’s Religion in Sociological Perspective as the primary textbook, supplemented by three monographs: Lydia Bean’s The Politics of Evangelical Identity, Vern Bengtson’s Families and Faith, and Fengang Yang’s Religion in China. It was one of the best sociology of religion classes I’ve ever had.

As I wrapped up the semester at Spring Arbor (that’s my building), I decided to end the class with my own list of takeaways that I’ll continue to ponder for the next two years until the class rolls around again.

Here’s my list as I presented them to the students with some elaboration.

1. It’s surprising how little detail we actually have about the importance of religion in society. 

This observation stems from examining our standard measures of religious importance. Most of them seem to be likert items asking if “religion is important” but there’s little data on what makes religion important or what people even mean by that. We get similar fuzziness when asking about the preferred role of religion in society. It’s clear that the answer is somewhere between none at all and Christian America, but our data doesn’t do a good job of teasing out the impacts of those beliefs.

2. Much of what we look at when analyzing attitudes of religious groups is impacted by spurious variables. 

This was particularly evident during the election campaign. We could look at the evangelical vote, for example, but could never be clear if we were picking up pre-existing partisan biases, region of the country factors, racial dynamics, class dynamics, or rural/urban differences. Because so many of those factors were correlated with evangelical identification, it was actually very difficult to determine if religion was operating as an independent variable at all.

3. It’s not clear that denominational affiliation is an important variable. Variance within may be greater than variance between

Another factor that I was puzzling over at the end of the semester was why we keep treating denominational affliliation as predictive of other factors. While Pew data shows differences in political affiliation by denomination, there is still dynamism within that. And when we consider the above-mentioned factors of region, location, and race, separations between congregations within a denomination are great. That’s true whether we’re talking about Presbyterians or Assemblies of God. Add in the growth in non-denominations churches and the impact of denominational affiliation is even further weakened.

4. People claim to be religious independent of church attendance, theological orthodoxy, or religious knowledge. This may simply be culturally bound

Another big takeaway from data gathered around the election. There were sizeable numbers of self-identified evangelicals who never attended church. Other research has demonstrated that people have limited theological knowledge, even about the most basic facts like who wrote the Gospels. Yet those people will be considered “religious” by researchers (and journalists) as much as the Sunday School teacher or MDiv who attends church faithfully every week. People are responding, at least in part, to a belief that they are “supposed to be religious” because it’s what their cultural norms expect.

5. People’s religious attitudes (or their atheistic attitudes) may occur through osmosis more than indoctrination (Bean)

One of the really brilliant focal points of Lydia’s book is that the partisanship of the people in her study congregations (two in Albany, NY and two in Hamilton, ON) didn’t come from anyone in authority ever directing “how people were supposed to think”. Rather, partisan perspectives were developed through the social psychology of adjusting your opinions and statements to those around you. You learn what positions it’s best to take and how to frame them. The political orientation comes almost by default. It made me wonder if this kind of accommodation to the opinions of those around us isn’t also operating in non-religious groups as well.

6. Plausibility Structures can be more rigid or more permeable. This matters in terms of how social change is experienced

In looking at Berger’s plausibility structures and Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails, we got a clear sense of how the cognitive and symbolic structures that support belief are sustained. This speaks to the rigidity of “worldview” language on the one hand and the slipperiness of “seeker” language on the other (this is related to those who didn’t really believe the UFOs were coming).

7. How religion is expressed is correlated with notions of class, race, and gender. This leads to either homogeneity or conflict.

This reflects the Martin Luther King, Jr. quotation about Sunday Morning at 11:00 being the most segregated hour of the week. But it’s also true about social class and gender expectations (especially as it relates to leadership). Congregations will either need to acquiesce to the dominant perspective of their demography or their neighborhood or will need to commit to working through the kind of conflict that accompanies embracing difference.

8. Religious Expression is related to Family, School, and other institutional dynamics

The Bengtson book is a remarkable piece of research that follows religious expression across four generation in Southern California. Religious transmission is influenced in great measure by issues of parental style and warmth, by where one goes to school, by marriage and divorce patterns. We need to understand far more about how religion intersects with other aspects of an indivdiual’s life.

9. Megachurches, online platforms, and other consumerist expressions of religion may flourish for awhile but will be supplanted by more personal expressions.

Roberts and Yaname devoted a couple of chapters to alternative expressions of religious life not captured by the small congregation on Sunday morning. Many of these allow an individual to pursue feelings of comfort, of entertainment, or of insight without demanding much of the individual. There seems to be a real tension between the authenticity and accountability of a house church and the spectator role in an entertainment venue led by a celebrity pastor (skinny jeans or not).

10. The rise of the “nones” correlates with generational shifts in terms of religious expression. 

The growth in the unaffiliated population is primarily driven within the younger cohorts of society. It is true that there is a group who we now call “dones” and that average church attendance has declined by a week a month. But the principle driver of the changing perception of religion in America comes with the younger generation. Whether they are stopping out for a while or leaving for good remains the be seen but it is foolhardy to assume that they will match commitment levels of the preceding generations.

11. It’s intriguing to think of the “nones” in light of Yang’s approach to supply and demand markets

When Yang studied religion in China, he explored the relationship between government regulation, the nature of the religious market, and the ubiquity of demand. In short, he argues that while China attempted to eradicate religion that didn’t happen. When China attempted to dictate which religions groups were allowed to operate, it couldn’t stop a black (or gray) market from developing. Because the demand is higher than the supply, it makes it hard to determine who is really religious. In that light, it’s at least plausible that part of the “nones” in contemporary American society are simply dissatisfied with the supply available and are opting not to “purchase” at the moment. That would suggest that as some of the excesses of religious rhetoric start to shift, many of the nones may come back. 

12. Plurality (Yang) will be the driving force of religion in the coming decades. 

Yang made a very interesting distinction between plurality and pluralism. He suggested that plurality is a raw measure of the amount of religious diversity present in a society. The more avenues of religious expression, the higher the plurality. This is the condition we find ourselves in at the end of this year. There are white evangelicals, black evangelicals, Hispanic Catholics, Anglo Catholics, Nones, mainlines, muslims, sikhs, Jews, and atheists. The very fact of such diversity creates a shifting understanding of religion going forward (the thesis of Robert Jones’ The End of White Christian America). We come an awful long way from Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew.

13. Pluralism (Yang and structural arrangements) will require significant inter-group interaction in the near future

Yang described pluralism as the specific societal structures, legal and political, that will be required to develop the framework for handling a society characterized by plurality.  While the temptation will be for groups to look out for their own, successful structures will require bridges to be built between religious groupings. John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism is a good start in this direction.

14. How churches and religious organizations handle questions of social accommodation will have a lot to do with the vitality of religion going forward

This speaks back to issues presented in #6. The more rigid a group’s plausibility structure, the harder it is to reach across plurality boundaries. But too much accommodation leads to an extremely porous sense of group identity that challenges #5 and #8. To take a current example from the election season, Franklin Graham claims Trump won because God made it happen. That’s consistent with Graham’s worldview but won’t do anything to reach across religious boundaries. 

15. This will become very difficult in terms of the globalization of the faith and the politicization of religious decision making

The Christian church is growing most rapidly in Asia and the global South. But much of religious expression in those regions is much more conservative than religion in America, Canada, and Europe. To many of them, social accommodation begins to look like the abandonment of religious commitment. Those sentiments, when added to the more rigid worldview described above, suggest that religion will continue to feel marginalized. Ironically, this will happen as religious group suspicions seem to be at their highest (because we wind up confounding nationalism with Christian commitment as #2 would suggest.)

These 15 points simply reflect my best thinking at the moment. I’m not sure what I’ll do with them or if any of the implicit hypotheses stated herein have any evidence to support them. I can only say that I came out of the semester with fewer answers about the state of religion in modern society than at about any point in my career.


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