Introduction. Thinking Theoretically in the Sociology of Religion
Andrew McKinnon and Marta Trzebiatowska
In the classical sociological tradition, the analysis of religion lies - if not at the very heart of the entire enterprise, as it does in Weber and in the late Durkheim - then as the fundamental starting point, as it is in Marx. The recent 'post-secular turn' in social theory notwithstanding, religion no longer occupies the same privileged location within the sociological enterprise (though it is undoubtedly more marginal in Britain compared to North America). While this development is not entirely inexplicable, the gaps that have been left behind has left the discipline as a whole under-prepared for thinking about religion in the wake of new issues, movements and events that have reminded us that religion is far from a spent force in the world (Chapter 1, this volume).
If religion has been marginalized within the mainstream of the discipline, we have often found ourselves distressed by the limited engagement on the part of sociologists of religion with fundamental issues of sociological theory, many colleagues seeming to prefer studying religion as a phenomenon that demands attention, but which can be studied without being overly concerned about reflection on other aspects of social life or indeed with the social whole in which religion is located. In short, the sociology of religion often seems bereft of sociological theory. The increasing disengagement of sociology of religion from the 'mainstream' of the discipline (again, a phenomenon much more marked in the English-speaking world in Britain than in North America) seemed to us intellectually disastrous for the sub-discipline, and was the major impetus for both the conference from which these chapters stem, and the present volume in equal measure.
In this introduction we locate religion at the heart of the classical sociological enterprise, turning our attention in particular to the work of Marx, Weber and Durkheim. While we would not want this to be treated as the sum total of sociology's classical inheritance, even on the question of religion, we find this a good place to begin. We then discuss the challenge which provided the impetus to the theme of the conference from which this volume derives. Sociology of religion in Britain, in moving from an endeavor largely located in social science departments to one that is now based primarily in theology and religious studies departments, has benefitted from this move, but also faces a significant challenge in terms of both theory and methods. While we do not find ourselves in wholesale agreement with Bruce's provocative diagnosis of the problem in this volume, we do nevertheless recognize that it is a problem that needs to be addressed. We conclude the chapter with a brief overview of the contributions in the chapters of this volume to putting sociology of religion on a firm footing.
Religion in Sociology's Core Classics
In retrospect, it is somewhat difficult to see why those figures, whose work has come to define the classical tradition in sociology, placed the understanding of religion, its sources, operation and consequences, at the centre of their respective intellectual projects, though it is notable that this is much more true of the writers working in non-English-speaking contexts. By contrast, in the United States, the core problematic was more likely to be shaped by concerns over the disorder of urban modernity (Connell 1997), even if the discipline was markedly shaped by Christians, and was a travelling companion of the reforming spirit of liberal theology. Britain's greatest contribution to classical sociological thought in the nineteenth century, Herbert Spencer was not particularly interested in the question of religion; here the discipline as a whole has been much more shaped by its post-war expansion, when social inequality in the context of an expanding welfare state came to form its overriding questions, even if the collapse of the empire lies not far in the background (Turner 2006).
Marx's work has been much less influential in the sociology of religion than it has been in most of the rest of the discipline, even if there are important attempts to develop his insights for the enterprise today (see Chapter 10, this volume). Nonetheless, for Marx, the 'criticism of religion is the presupposition of all criticism' (1977: 64); in his early work - particularly 'Towards a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right' - there are important starting points for understanding the contradictory nature of religion as both a support of, and always a potential threat to, the relations of domination in any given social order (McKinnon 2005). Even if he didn't write much about religion after the 1840s, Marx's analysis of religion, especially what he learned in critical dialogue with the great atheist theologians Ludwig Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer, continued to shape his analysis of otherwise non-religious phenomena. This is perhaps best exemplified by his analysis of commodity fetishism. There, in an analysis drawn out from the Hebrew prophetic critique of idolatry, the commodity, like a god created by human hands, takes on a life of its own and starts demanding obedience. Understood in these terms, capitalism itself becomes a kind of religion, as Walter Benjamin recognized (see Chapter 6, this volume).
Unfortunately, Marx's legacy has yet to be capitalized upon for the sociology of religion, having been largely ignored, with few, notable exceptions (Maduro 1977; Beckford 1989; Turner 1991; Billings 1990), though there is a rich deposit which sociologists have yet to mine, including the work of not only Marx but also Engels (Boer 2011), not to mention the work of Antonio Gramsci (1971) and the Frankfurt School (Mendieta 2004). Although it may be that the political centre of gravity in the sociology of religion lies further to the right than in most of the rest of the discipline, this does not entirely explain why the intellectual promise of these resources suggest avenues that still need to be developed.
Max Weber makes a clearer case for the centrality of religion in classical sociology of religion. Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is known to most sociologists of religion (though sadly sometimes only as a caricature). While this is undoubtedly Weber's best known and most read book, it was by no means his last word about religion, nor, some would say, is it necessarily his most important (O'Toole 1984). In the period following the publication of the Protestant Ethic essays in 1905-6, Weber spent the next 14 years working away on a massive project on the comparative economic ethics of the world religions, completing volumes on the religions of China ( 1951), India ([1916-17] 1958) and Ancient Judaism ([1917-20] 1956) before his death, leaving undone projected volumes on Medieval Christianity and Islam (and much speculation on what those would have entailed). He did nonetheless bring this project to a provisional close, publishing these volumes together with an introduction ('The Social Psychology of the World Religions',  1946a, and 'Intermediate Reflections' ('The Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions',  1946b). Also important is the section on religion in Weber's posthumously published Economy and Society (1978: 399-634), though some (cf. Tenbruck 1980) have challenged the claim that this volume should be seen as 'the sum of Max Weber's scholarly vision of society' (Roth, in Weber 1978: xxxiii).
Unlike Durkheim, Weber drew no sharp distinction between religion and magic; rather magic forms the core of his analysis of primitive religion, and an ongoing, important component of popular religion. Whereas in prayer, people beg the gods for something that they need, in magic, they compel the gods to act on their behalf (1978: 422ff.). In practice, the distinction between asking and compelling is a thin one, especially when set rituals for supplication or sacrifice are involved. For Durkheim, it was this practical purpose of magic, 'the technical, utilitarian ends' he called it (2005: 58), as much as its purported non-collective nature, that made magic so different from religion. On the other hand, for Weber the most elementary religion is thoroughly practical, oriented not to the 'hereafter', but to this world. Thus:
Religion is man's continuous effort to deal rationally with the irrationalities of life. Religion arises out of the Not [poverty, hardship] of existence, its ambiguities and conflicts, and gives the necessary Begeisterung [spirit, enthusiasm] to live. It makes life's precariousness acceptable, gives life preciousness and prescribes a way of life that makes living worthwhile. (Steeman 1964: 56)
Religion gives meaning in the face of the difficulties of life, and the ubiquity of hardship, suffering and death. Religion starts, for Weber, not with the experience of collective effervescence, but rather with the problems of embodied existence (Turner 1991), thus, even in societies where religious beliefs and institutions are not as important as they once were, Weber's sociology of religion does not thereby become irrelevant. Religion is, thus: heavily concerned with the basic needs and routines of mundane existence while offering the opportunity of transcending them in the search for meaning and the good life ... [religion may therefore] be the means by which human beings adjust to their natural, social, economic, political and intellectual environments, it may also, a fortiori, be the means by which these are transcended or changed. (O'Toole 1984: 140-141)
Thus, Weber's project was concerned with the tendency in particular religious traditions towards adjustment to the world. Thus: Confucianism 'reduced tension with the world to an absolute minimum ... The world was the best of all possible worlds' (Weber 1951: 227). Confucianism thereby promoted an ethic for living a good life, on learning to adjust to the natural and social world, and this made Confucianism popular with many rulers in East Asia (including in Japan where state-Shinto is a form of neo-Confucianism), who promoted it for its contributions to social harmony and integration.
The 'salvation religions' (Erlosungs religion), exist in (and promote) tension with 'the world'. In Weber's view, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and
Jainism are all religions of salvation, although within these traditions there are different ways of responding to this tension. Mystics, which exist in all of the major salvation religions, attempt to merge their soul with the divine reality, escaping all 'worldly' distractions in order to do so (early Buddhism is the clearest type for Weber). In contrast to mysticism, 'other-worldly asceticism' involves self-mastery in the interests of devotion, but does not involve the mystical flight from the world, but a physical flight from the world into religious communities. Here Weber seems to have the medieval European monasticism foremost in his mind - monks could devote themselves to saying the mass and living in exclusive service to the divine, unencumbered by the demands of daily living outside the monastery. What Weber calls 'inner-worldly asceticism' (innerweltlich askese) has been less common historically, but it plays a vital role in the development of western rationalism. (Although it may have been better if the first generation of translators had opted for the less literal rendition 'this-worldly' asceticism, 'inner worldly' has become the standard technical term.) The puritans, who are the heroes of The Protestant Ethic are the archetype of inner-worldly ascetics. They have eschewed the mystic's union with God, and the other-worldly ascetic's escape from the world to the monastery. The remaining route for dealing with the tensions between the world of sin and the demands of God is to change the world in accordance with God's precepts. If the mystic tries to be the vessel of God, the ascetic, especially the ascetic of the inner-worldly type, tries to be God's tool for transforming the world. It is for this reason that he devotes himself to his calling in the world with such devotion. He is called upon to be God's tool in that occupation, doing God's work in the world. This, as in the case of ascetic Protestants, giving birth to modern capitalism as they lived their calling in the world; their faith provided a major impetus for social change, even if the change was inadvertent, unintentional and developed in ways nobody could have expected.
Although the difference between Protestants and Catholics features in the argument of Suicide ( 2002), Durkheim's project for the development of a sociological science is not manifestly preoccupied with the question of religion until after his move to the Sorbonne in 1902, and culminating in his masterpiece, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (2001). In that book, religion becomes the very heart of the social, even as the social becomes the soul of religion. Ostensibly writing about Australian Aborigines but in reality providing an analysis of religion in Europe, Durkheim makes several arguments about the fundamentals of social order that locate the institutions we have come to understand as 'religion' at its very heart. For Durkheim, religious rituals that bring the society together serve to produce the collective effervescence that lies at the heart of social attachments, create shared identities in collectively worshipped (proto-) gods, and create, maintain and successfully negotiate the boundaries that distinguish sacred from profane.
The Elementary Forms is not, and probably never has been, a state-of-the-art discussion of aboriginal totemism - the concept of totemism having already begun to fall from grace in the anthropological literature, even as Durkheim wrote his treatise. As an empirical study of the 'religious' life of the Aborigines, very little that Durkheim wrote is worth much today ( Jones 1986). On the other hand, as an analysis of religion in 'our' (contemporary western) societies, Durkheim's analysis is still one of the greatest contributions to the sociological study of religion. Although it is nearly a hundred years old, it continues to challenge readers and to provide new insights into the study of religion; for this reason, it is rightly seen as a 'classic' in the sociology of religion (O'Toole 2001).
Durkheim's explicit argument for why we should examine the 'religion' of the Aborigines in order to understand contemporary religion is undoubtedly evolutionary. Thus, he argues, with more than a hint of tautology, All are equally religions, just as all living beings are equally alive from the humblest unicellular organism to man' (Durkheim 2001: 5). If we can accept that all religions are instances of the same thing, then why privilege the study of the 'humblest unicellular organism' for the study of life ? Durkheim provides a garden-variety socio-evolutionary argument at this point: totemic religion, like the unicellular organism, is the subject under the microscope in its purest form. By understanding that purest, simplest, earliest form - its 'elementary form', it casts new light on the more recent advanced forms of the same phenomenon. The complexity of later religion, Durkheim argues, makes it more difficult to distinguish primary and secondary elements. Further, the division of labour in religious practice makes it difficult to see the religion as a whole but for the parts: priests, prophets, laity, etc.
In practice, Durkheim shows little interest in 'religion in general' [Introduction, I]; rather, he confesses, 'like all positive science, [his] goal is first and foremost to explain a current reality, something close to us and consequently capable of affecting our beliefs and actions. The reality is man, more specifically, man today' (Durkheim 2001: 1). Indeed, Durkheim does not seem particularly distracted by the evolution of particular religions, 'religion in general', or even in comparisons between religions in different social contexts. For Durkheim, Australian totemism is important because it helps us to understand contemporary French religion.
Durkheim uses numerous metaphors to describe Australian totemism, and all of these serve to bring into association the world of the Aboriginals and our world into association - they are the basic means by which the two societies are compared. He says that the totem is 'not simply a name; it is an emblem, a true coat of arms, and its resemblance to the heraldic coat of arms has often been commented upon' ([Book 2, 1, II] Durkheim 1995: 111). In making this comparison, we understand perfectly well the relationship between the symbol and the group, through an example that is part of 'our' history. Elsewhere, Durkheim says that the totem is the clan's flag [Book 2, 7, III]. Given the upsurge in nationalism in the years leading up to the First World War, this better indicates the emotional intensity with which a totemic symbol can be invested, and the absolute seriousness with which totems are regarded.
Of course, unlike Muslims, Jews and Christians, the beliefs and practices of the Aborigines are not really concerned with a God, gods, or even spirits. The totemic principal, Durkheim informs us, is not a god, but a 'force' or 'energy' (an idea that may derive from Sylvain Levi's researches on Brahman sacrifice (1898)). There is nonetheless, Durkheim claims, something 'godlike' about the totemic principle, and in fact, he tells us, it is the precursor to the idea of the gods. The totemic principle is a 'semi-divine entity' (2001: 141). It is incarnate in every totemic species, and in particular in those 'holy' things that are set apart by ritual prohibitions. This allows Durkheim to make the connection between the totemic principle as object of worship and representative of the group, with the gods of later religious traditions: the totemic god - to use the metaphor we have just adopted - is in them, just as it is in the totemic species and in the people of the clan. Since it is the soul of such different beings, we can see how it differs from those beings in whom it resides. (Durkheim 2001: 141)
Although sometimes underplayed in discussions of The Elementary Forms, ritual lies at the very heart of Durkheim's discussion. Positive rites affirm the sacredness of the symbol, and negative rites keep the symbol separate from all that might profane it. Both bring the social group together, where their connection with each other and the sacred, and the shared prohibition of infringement on the sacred, animates (in the literal sense of 'giving soul' to) the group.