The pig is not the problem

The originating and continuing impetus behind sociological inquiry into religion has been a sense that religion is “at odds” with modernity, continually undermined by ongoing rationalization. Secularization theory was modified and elaborated, but remained essentially unchallenged until the late twentieth century, when a conjunction of theoretical developments and a world-wide revival of religious identification and public religious discourse led to a reconsideration of the secularization thesis. The most influential statement in opposition to the secularization perspective in sociology has been the market theory of religion, including both a strict rational choice account and a “new paradigm” account that uses the market as a metaphor for the voluntarism, pluralism, and choice characteristic of religion in modern societies.

Regardless of their stance on secularization, both classical and market-based positions take modernityfor granted as the starting point for meaningful theorizing about religion. Both perspectives largely agree on modernity’s core features, and both are dominated by a substantive, neo-Weberian approach to religion as an object of study, focusing on self-identified religious groups and institutions. In this approach, religion provides coherent and bounded belief systems to which individuals commit through a process of rational assent, and which they find appealing for reasons of elective affinity with a religion’s capacity to make sense of the contemporary social environment and to orient behavior in effective ways to achieve desired ends.

From this perspective, the religion that thrives in the modern world, to borrow (and perhaps misuse) a metaphor from Mary Douglas, is a pig that has learned to chew its cud, an ill-fitting social form transformed into something that fits, albeit precariously, in the modern order. The pervasive unease about whether religion can maintain its role in highly modernized societies drives the substance of sociological inquiry—can the pig keep chewing its cud, can religion continue to fit in the modern world, or is the transformation ultimately doomed to failure? Central debates have revolved around issues of religious authority, understood as the authority of religious elites and officials to compel respect, and the authority of orthodox doctrinal statements to compel assent and to shape behaviors.

Completely unremarked, for a very long time, was the unity of the formative assumptions about religion—what it is, how it “works” in the world—that both sides of this debate took for granted.

The emerging “strong program” in the sociology of religion identified by Smilde and May makes perfect sense given this underlying schema, broadly shared not only among sociologists of religion but, more generally, in wide swaths of the discipline. This schema defines religion as something that individual people believe and assent to rationally (or disbelieve and ignore), thus motivating behavior consistent with (or in rebellion against) the originating belief.

If you think of religion this way, the shift over time to viewing religion as an independent variable makes perfect sense, as does the concentration on particular kinds of Protestant religious experience and expression, which are highly doctrinal, cognitive, and rational. The focus on the United States makes sense too, as the most interesting “case” that seems to refute secularization assumptions. It also makes sense that one would then need to assess religion’s positive (and negative) impact on society, and that the frequency and tone of such assessments might vary according to major developments affecting the secularization debate, as noted above—for example the ongoing vitality and pluralism of religion everywhere but Western Europe, including a recent multi-continent revival of Pentecostal and charismatic forms of Christianity; developing awareness in the West of the need to understand Islamic societies, politics, and movements; the persistence of religious nationalism; and the threat to the story of American religious exceptionalism implied by the rising number of religious “nones” and the anti-religion sentiment among younger cohorts.

Taking cues from the work of William Sewell as well as cognitive anthropology and cognitive science more generally, it is possible to see quite clearly how the scholarly discourse about religion—the treatments produced in journals, specifically the debate between secularization theorists and market theorists, and the emerging debate about religion’s positive or negative influence on society—are organized by this largely unarticulated religion schema. This schema is durable, as schema are, and remarkably impervious to an entire range of developments elsewhere in the literature, including the newer work on religion that Levitt et al. refer to in a related post. The schema has also endured despite a large body of work in sociology that raises more general questions about the tight and formative link between attitudes and behaviors.

Levitt et al. are right to suggest that one way around this is to begin from a different starting point, approaching religion with a different set of tools rooted in a different basic theoretical understanding of modernity, religion, and the relationships (plural intended) between the two. They point to a number of positive developments in the study of religion, including research on non-Christian religion and on non-US contexts, a focus on religious practice outside of mainstream religious institutions, and critical engagement with the positive socio-evaluative orientation to religion.

There are, potentially, two other paths to a more theoretically and empirically adequate understanding of religion-in-society. The first is suggested by research in cognitive and social psychology that views consciousness as a two-level phenomenon, with most motivations for behavior originating in an underlying, pre-rational level (the gut, or “blink,” reaction made famous by Malcolm Gladwell). Rationalized beliefs and belief systems, including religious ones, are in this view largely just that—post-hoc rationalizations of the real underlying motives for action. These underlying motivations are pre-conscious moral, aesthetic, and practical impulses and habits—if that sounds like the habitus, that is in fact an adequate way to translate these concepts for sociologists. Other research in linguistics and cognitive anthropology, as well as cultural sociology, suggests that intervening between these pre-conscious impulses and surface-level rational beliefs and discourses is another level of analysis, that of cultural schema. These schema include metaphors and scripts that link the initial pre-conscious impulses on the one hand, and our rational discourses and beliefs on the other, organizing them into a limited number of bundles, according to principles of which we may remain largely unaware. These schema are deep features of the habitus and are also embedded within fields of practice and institutional arenas.

If religion is understood as a cultural phenomenon that expresses underlying pre-conscious moral and aesthetic impulses, that takes much of the wind from the sails of the strong program. An entirely different range of questions and problems becomes theoretically interesting in this view, including the role of embodied religious practice in producing the habitus, and the discovery of cultural schema that underlie and shape the choices of religious discourses and beliefs made by people embedded within particular socio-historical contexts. Moreover, there is an explicitly global orientation to this research that emphasizes the need to move beyond an understanding of moral impulses and moral systems rooted in a Western gesellschaft-inspired set of assumptions about the primacy of fairness and caretaking as moral imperatives. For example, Jon Haidt, an influential cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, calls for an approach that investigates the other moral impulses more common in non-Western societies (and in our society, among those who are not white highly educated political liberals); these include respect for authority, the importance of in-group loyalty, and a drive to maintain purity/sanctity.

A second, and somewhat related, path involves a focus on religious embeddedness. The idea that religion can be neatly separated out from the influences of race, gender, social class, and other aspects of social location, and that its influence on individual action can then be modeled as a discrete independent variable, is seriously challenged by theoretical perspectives and empirical work demonstrating religion’s embeddedness in a particular social milieu. The assumption of embeddedness challenges what Mark Chaves has called the congruence fallacy—the idea that an individual’s religious beliefs and attitudes cohere in a neat package, that this package motivates individual behavior in the same way across social contexts (for the same individual) and across individuals (in the same or varied social contexts). Empirical research on the link between religion and racial attitudes provides compelling support for an understanding of religion as an embedded social phenomenon, showing that the effect of religious cultural tools on racial attitudes is dependent upon such features of social location as one’s own gender and race, as well as on the particular conjunction of historical and institutional factors. This is just one example of how a focus on embeddedness can challenge the strong program in religion by originating in a different schema of religion in the modern world.

In short, it is possible to understand the emerging strong program in the sociology of religion as deeply motivated by the tension over figuring out if that pig can keep chewing its cud—and, in fact, as an assertion that it can do so indefinitely (that the transformation is complete). It is also possible to understand the emerging critique of the strong program, and the other potential avenues of critique suggested here, as revolving around a fundamentally different problematic. What if we did not start with the assumption that the pig is problematic? What if we started by wondering why the pig is unclean in some contexts, while in others it is not? What if what needs explaining is why some people think and act as though religion were a set of beliefs to which one assents (or from which one dissents), while others ritually seek an experiential encounter with a sacred other, and others primarily seek out religion in order to commune with one another through ritual (and food), and others cannot separate religion from the nation, and yet others….

Well, it’s a lot more than just pigs, isn’t it?

This was originally published at The Immanent Frame