Recent Developments in British Sociology of Religion

In the UK, a vibrant sociology of religion stems from the 1960s, and Socrel, now a section of the British Sociological Association, dates from 1975, where it developed around a core of interests, particularly secularization and new religious movements. Although always a broad tent, sociology of religion was nonetheless firmly at home in sociology as a discipline, and its practitioners primarily housed in sociology departments, even if colleagues in those departments were on occasion somewhat bemused by the interest in what may have sometimes seemed like obscurantist interests. Nonetheless, the sociological interest in religion could be readily justified by reference to the classics (or at least the rendition of them provided by Peter Berger (1967)).

While religion is having something of a comeback in contemporary theory (with the exception of Ulrich Beck, most of it outside sociology) we would contend that these developments are somewhat limited compared with the legacy of the classics for two reasons. First, because a discipline's classic texts form the context of all subsequent sociological conversations (Alexander 1987); they provide a great deal of our most important vocabulary, the inspiration for many of our methods, and the starting point for most of our conversations about the social world - even if their world is occasionally very different from ours. An understanding of their texts is a cost of admission into the field of sociological research (Bourdieu 1990: 30). Second, classics are by definition works that contemporary communities continue to find important and useful, and - somewhat paradoxically - act as sources of innovation. Classic texts are not simply collections of sociological rules to be mastered, nor compilations of hypotheses to be tested. Rather, they 'inspire imitation, invite elaboration and provoke discussion ... [A] surplus of sociological signification ... is the most indelible mark of a genuine disciplinary or sub-disciplinary classic. From this point of view, classics are not terminal destinations but rather points of embarkation for departure on future intellectual journeys' (O'Toole 2001: 140141). For this reason, every generation reads and interprets the classics in new ways - posing its own questions and challenges to the ancestors, finding new ancestors to add to the pantheon, and (at least temporarily) shelving others. The classics have important challenges for us, as well. Marx, Weber and Durkheim set a very high bar for scholarship with their innovative ways of understanding religion, but also with the breadth and depth of their historical, comparative and philosophical knowledge - not to mention the scope of their research questions.

The canonical texts of classical sociological theory are important, not only for the ideas that they contain, but also for the model of research that they uphold. While we certainly see no reason to disparage the 'pure theory', in examining these canonical classic texts we find that the authors set the task of thinking theoretically in relation to a particular empirical problem, or they are spurred on to their theoretical thinking by the need to solve concrete research problems.

For reasons that still demand a sociological explanation, it is no longer the case that sociology of religion in the UK lives in sociology departments (Chapter 2, this volume): sociologists of religion have largely packed up and moved into theology and religious studies, or increasingly, have been born and grow up there. While this undoubtedly has the advantage of collegial relations with others interested in the topic of religion and opening up the sociological study of religion to other disciplines, and provided an infusion of new ideas and energy, moving home is always expensive. The primary costs, it seems to us, are as follows. First, as the training in sociology of religion, at least in this country, is now happening almost exclusively outside of sociology departments, new generations of sociologists of religion are at risk of missing out on fundamental methods training, but even more vitally, the core theory (classical and contemporary) that makes the enterprise recognizable to other sociologists. While the more 'interdisciplinary' training in theory which undergraduates and increasingly postgraduates explore tends to focus on those theories, theorists and texts that are in the first place interested in religion itself, this is often to the neglect of the 'big picture' or the attempt to connect it with other social processes and phenomena (something that is certainly not true of the classics). Many of the areas of study to which sociology undergraduates are introduced have obvious (though particularly in the UK, largely underexploited) connections to the sociology of religion: the sociology of organizations, crime and deviance, political economy, arts and culture, education, science, family, media and social movements, just to name a few obvious ones, each long-standing lines and topics of inquiry with substantial literatures.

Meanwhile, it is hardly the case that all is well in the old neighborhood. Judged against the classics, much of contemporary sociological theorizing seems rather thin indeed. From our point of view, and the purposes of this chapter, these weaknesses are twofold. First, while every sub-discipline almost inevitably seems to feel that it is ignored and marginalized by the 'mainstream' of the discipline, we do think that sociology has much to learn, not only from the classics, but from contemporary sociologists of religion. Religion, despite the fact that it has returned to the public agenda (including where it is connected to questions of immigration and multiculturalism; conflict, violence, peace-making and terrorism), does seem to be largely ignored in sociology departments (as far as we know, sociology of religion is at present only taught as a core module in undergraduate sociology at Aberdeen). Where important figures in the discipline have begun once again to address religion, one often has the feeling that they are hard at work reinventing the wheel without being fully apprised of the important work of specialists in the field. Thus, Ulrich Beck's (2010) contention that religion has become increasingly individualized will not be experienced as a major revelation by contemporary sociologists of religion. While Jose Casanova, Grace Davie, Steve Bruce and Paul Heelas are all referenced in the bibliography, they are kept out of the discussion itself.

More broadly, and sub-disciplinary special pleading aside, one could argue that even a generation ago sociology, even when it was concerned with contemporary matters, was all the same a firmly historical-comparative discipline (Abrams 1982). While the concept of modernity has come to be questioned in contemporary debates (see Chapter 7, this volume), even those who might reject the notion out of hand will readily accept that the notion of modernity always demanded thinking comparatively, of locating any sociological analysis in a particular present which is different from the past.

Today we are often reminded of the classic distinction, often made by undergraduate students on exams, and which used to result in winks, nudges and third class degrees: 'in olden times ... but in modern times'. By this they inevitably mean within the timeframe of their own lived experience. Unfortunately this is increasingly risking becoming the disciplinary norm for thinking about the present, whether this is conceived as 'post-traditional', 'reflexive', 'liquid' or a hundred other terms for the contemporary social world. When this caricature of 'modernity' becomes the sum total of what sociologists study, without comparative reference over space and time, the whole project is in peril (Elias 1987).

We hope that sociology of religion's recent move into religious studies will in the long-run help to foster healthy cross-cultural comparison, and therefore more sophisticated theorising, due to that discipline's long-standing concern with comparative religions, even if these benefits are not yet particularly apparent. The historical sensibilities of the sociology of religion seem in much greater trouble. Until recently the preoccupation with the study of secularization in British and European sociology of religion has kept sociology of religion's historical imagination alive, even if the timeframe within which the literature on secularisation concerns itself has made it less conducive to engaging in analysis of the longue durée (but see Martin 1978 for an important exception). While the heated debates and disagreements over the conceptions, and adequacy of, secularisation theory are a healthy aspect of the discipline (especially insofar as they begin to incorporate a comparative dimension and recover a sense of the longue durée), the current risk is that the apparent waning of interest in sociology of secularisation has begun to diminish the sub-discipline's historical capacities. The historical sociology of religion is by no means synonymous with secularisation, however, and there are other helpful starting places for the development of sociology of religion's historical imagination (Woodhead 2004; Wuthnow 1989, 2009; Gorski 2003, 2013; Bellah 2011; Casanova 1994), and we have included work by others we think may be helpful for this development in this volume.

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