I. The State of the Art and Science of the Sociology of Religion

Thinking Sociologically about Religion: A Step Change in the Debate?


Grace Davie

More than once in the last two decades, I have been invited to write a chapter or an article about the current state of the sociology of religion. Two of these stand out in my mind. The first took the form of a contribution to an encyclopedia on religion and society (Davie 1998). A dominant theme in this article concerned the different trajectories of religion in different parts of the world and the effect that these had on academic reflection. The contrast between the relative secularity of Europe and the continuing religious activity in large parts of the United States was central to this discussion. Very different approaches to the discipline have emerged as a result: in Europe, secularization has remained a (if not the) leading theory; in the United States, this is much less the case. In the latter, rational choice is the preferred paradigm for many scholars. Nothing has changed in this respect. It is abundantly clear that the sociology of religion reflects the context in which it finds itself. It is also conditioned by widely differing cultural and academic traditions, not to mention the institutional settings (universities, government agencies, pastoral institutes, etc.) in which it is conducted.

The second piece was published in 2007. This was a book-length treatment of the sociology of religion, commissioned by Sage as part of their New Horizons in Sociology series (Davie 2007). The opening pages of this volume introduce the thread that runs through the book: the notion of a 'critical' agenda, understanding 'critical' in two ways. The agenda in the sociology of religion is 'critical' in that we need to get it right; religion is a crucially important issue in the modern world about which students (and indeed others) need to be properly informed. But I was critical in the sense that I was not at all sure that the profession - those who call themselves sociologists of religion - were responding to this challenge as well as they should. I argued as follows:

I do not want to sound negative: a great deal of excellent work is being done in this field. There remains, however, a deep seated resistance to the notion that it is entirely normal in most parts of the world, to be both fully modern and fully religious. To overturn this resistance, both in the sociology of religion and in the social sciences more generally, is the principal aim of this book. (Davie 2007: ix)

It is interesting to reflect on this claim some five to six years later.[2]

Is the implied critique still justified? In the pages that follow, I will argue that there has been something of a step change in the debate: there has been a real attempt in the sub-discipline to confront the realities of religion in the modern world. What, then, has happened to justify this claim? Where and how has this change taken place ? And why has it occurred? These are the questions that frame the argument of this chapter. Two things will become clear in the discussion: both that a great deal of work has been accomplished, but that this in turn is generating new and urgent questions. It is these questions that constitute the concluding section of this chapter.

  • [1] A different version of this chapter was published originally as part ARDA Guiding Paper Series. State College, PA: The Association of Religion Data Archives at The Pennsylvania State University, at thearda.com/rrh/papers/guidingpapers.asp.
  • [2] A revised edition of this book appeared in 2013. A number of the ideas contained in this chapter can be found in the Preface to the new edition.
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