Tag: Fengang Yang

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.

Bifocal Vision: Sociology of Religion and the Religious World

SSSRAs the picture suggests, I’m at the meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion happening this weekend in Boston. As I’ve listened to the first half-day of papers, I’m reminded of the strange but helpful role that sociologists play in understanding the dynamics of religious life.

When I first started teaching, I ran across a book in the college library about how one couldn’t be a Christian and a sociologist at the same time. It would, the author suggested, inevitably lead to a compartmentalization of faith. It bothered me so much that I developed a special rebuttal for the opening of my sociology of religion course.

It’s helpful, I said, to see the church as a sociological entity because we can isolate the dynamics it shares with other institutional forms. While those observations can prove difficult, they are helpful in the long run. The rebuttal ended with a celebration of God’s Invisible Church, the Body of Christ, because there is no good sociological reason that the church has survived two millennia of occasional stupid and wrongheaded actions. In short, the religious forms we see are only the institutionalized representations of this deeper theological idea. None of my students applaud at the end of that speech, but I felt better.

Maintaining such a distinction requires being able to see both the church as sociological structure and the Church as theological reality simultaneously. In other words, we need bifocal lenses. We need to be able to see close-up and far away. To be more accurate, my glasses in the picture are technically “progressive” lenses. That means that there is no sharp distinction between the immediate and the far-off. I see things as a smooth transition from one to the other. So it is with sociology and faith. The distinction is not quite as sharp as we might think.

One of the papers I liked this morning was by Jay Demerath, a significant figure in sociology of religion circles. I loved that he ended his paper with a poem in Dr. Suess fashion that combined sociology, Durkheim, and St. Peter. But more importantly, he suggested that Durkheim’s distinction between Sacred and Profane maybe needed another factor. He said we should be thinking about the Secular, the Ordinary, and the Profane. (Durkheim’s use of profane was the opposite of Sacred and not in reference to Miley Cyrus videos!) Jay was speaking to what I mean in seeing things with progressive lenses (not politically progressive but seeing smooth movement from one to stage to another).

Here’s another fact about my glasses (actually my eyes). I was born with wandering eye, so sometimes my eyes would cross. Basically, my right eye just did whatever it wanted. So when I was three, we went to the hospital and the doctors cut a muscle in my right eye. There are some lingering effects, but the key one is that I don’t see stereoscopically. In other words, Magic Eye puzzles and 3-D movies are wasted on me. My eyes don’t work together. While my left eye is dominant (and I’m aware I’m using it), I can easily switch to my right. If you’re following my analogy, it means that I can see the purely sociological AND the deeply spiritual depending on how i decide to look. I’ve been blessed and cursed with being aware of both simultaneously.

I went to the Durkheim session today because he’s been on my mind lately. I’m not really a Durkheimian but I find his thought helpful, especially when ferreting out some complex phenomenon. In Division of Labor in Society, he distinguished between structures based on Mechanical Solidarity and those based on Organic Solidarity.

In the former, the primary dynamic is sameness. Everyone shares values and norms. Violation of those norms results in serious sanctions, including expulsion or death, because to tolerate a breach in the barriers that separate those “in here” from those “out there” is deeply threatening to the entire social group. Group members believe in the validity of their positions by internalizing what he called “collective conscience”. While this is an oversimplification, the primary dynamic of a group based on mechanical solidarity is maintaining the cognitive, symbolic, and behavioral boundaries that give the group identity.

Organic solidarity, on the other hand, is based on interdependence. In a diverse society, characterized by lots of different perspectives and values, what binds a group together is their division of labor. It is because they need each other to flourish that they must overcome the differences. Perceived violation of norms results in actions taken to restore relationship. You can’t send people out of the group because you need them.

As I wrote last week, I’ve been thinking about the dynamics of evangelicalism in a pluralistic world. We have to find ways of maintaining a faithful witness even if the world around us is increasingly diverse. But we cannot do so by trying to manage the boundaries between in-groups and out-groups. Instead we must see other groups as connected to us, even if we don’t fully understand.

That’s part of the ongoing millennial response against rigidity in the church (see this piece that Addie Zierman had today in The Washington Post as an example). They just want to figure out how to be faithful Christians without separating from their social circles.

Religion was the topic for ethnic relations Tuesday night. I did a quick overview of Durkheim on religion and then showed two news reports on relationships between Christian Churches and Islamic Centers (I was setting up next week’s look at Muslim Americans). One report was from Murfreesboro, TN. The other was from Cordova, TN.

I’m suggesting that the Murfreesboro folks were responding in a way consistent with mechanical solidarity while the Cordova church was based on organic solidarity (there’s even the added piece of interconnection between the pastor and the cardiologist).

I told my class that whenever the church is focused on boundary maintenance instead of faithful witness, we’re getting it wrong. They didn’t applaud, but they made me repeat and unpack what I’d said. They didn’t get the whole mechanical/organic lecture but what I was saying did seem to speak deeply to my class of millennial evangelicals.

Another helpful paper today was by Purdue sociologist of religion Fengang Yang. He spoke on the relationship between Religious Pluralism and Religious Freedom. He had a helpful contrast between pluralism at an individual level and pluralism at a social level. This distinction allowed him to argue that even if individuals believe that their approach to religion is right and true as opposed to others, they still have an interest in protecting the role of the others because that’s necessary to sustain the individual’s own religious freedom. The structural religious freedom allows for the conversation about the individual differences. Fengang didn’t talk about Durkheim at all in his talk, but I saw his analysis as a wonderful illustration of organic solidarity.

I’m certainly not trying to use my glasses to disrupt the faith. The sociology is only one of the lenses. The other lens, the Christian lens, still sees God operating to build his Kingdom through His church. Seeing clearly depends on keeping both in balance (which those of you who like 3-D movies can do far better than I).

I’m not abandoning commitments to right and wrong. I’m saying that using bifocal lenses lets us see how others see us and the complexities of culture. It’s important that we begin with the recognition that we’re all in this together and then begin the hard work of figuring out what that means. Doing so will require clear vision from all of us.