Critical Discourse Analysis in the Sociology of Religion

Finally, I would like to discuss the relevance of CDA to several current issues in the sociology of religion and discuss topics for which a CDA approach would be especially conducive to. While reflecting on broad themes instead of a detailed case study using CDA might seem like an odd strategy in light of the discursive versus discourse analytical distinction made above, I think it is justified by the fact that whereas analysing constructions of religion with discourse analysis is possible from a multitude of perspectives, critical DA (and sociology of religion) has specific emphases, three of which I explore here: (1) the religious legitimating of social inequality, (2) the legitimacy of religions as a discursive construction, and (3) a CDA perspective on (de-)secularisation.

Opium of the People - and More

This is no place to enter the exegetical debate on the correct interpretation of Marx's famous 'opium of the people' phrase (see Hamilton 2001: 93; McKinnon 2006). When Cadge et al. (2011: 442) refer to the 'excesses of old-fashioned Marxist portraits of religion as an opiate of the masses', they don't seem to have analytical sociology of religion in mind. Suffice it to say here that for Marx, religion is more than a numbing drug; it is 'a force which legitimates' the social order (Hamilton 2001: 93-4). Although rarely considered a proponent of 'critical' sociology, and despite his ardent personal dislike of Marxism,[1] Peter Berger - arguably the most influential sociologist of religion of his generation - picked up this idea (minus the class emphasis) in his widely read The Sacred Canopy (published in the UK as The Social Reality of Religion):

[R]eligion has been the historically most widespread and effective instrumentality of legitimation. All legitimation maintains socially defined reality. Religion legitimates so effectively because it relates the precarious reality constructions of empirical societies with ultimate reality. The tenuous realities of the social world are grounded in the sacred realissimum, which by definition is beyond the contingencies of human meanings and human activity. (Berger 1973: 41)

Especially for the later Berger, legitimation is a matter of social cohesion (Turner 2008: 496), but from a critical perspective, legitimation is a struggle for hegemony. In this sense religion, as expressed by Berger, is an example of ideology, or 'meaning in the service of power', as discussed above: alternative constructions of reality are suppressed by reference to an ultimate, unquestionable source - the sacred. This of course ties in with what many consider Marx's most important sociological (qua economic) contribution: the theory of alienation (Marx 1961: 175-85, 250; see Ollman 1976; Swain 2012). The question for CDA is: how are these legitimations accomplished discursively? How is religious alienation reproduced and/or challenged in discourse? In this sense CDA provides a methodological source that has been rarely tapped in the sociology of religion -Marxist or otherwise.

Despite processes of secularisation, religious legitimations remain important in the modern world, and not just in the developing world. The obvious ones are often related to gender roles, sexuality and reproduction. Thus we have the Catholic Church's continuing opposition to contraception, fundamentalist 'pro-life' campaigners against abortion, and completely separated spheres of life for men and women in Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel and under the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, for example. Even research that otherwise celebrates what it sees as the continuing relevance of (relatively liberal) mainstream European Christian churches (see Backstrom et al. 2011) acknowledges that the very same churches are the source of notions that have enabled the reproduction of unequal gender relationships in society (Edgardh 2011: 63). The aim of CDA is to look at how these practices are discursively reproduced and transformed.

  • [1] Berger's move from essentially Marxist dialectics to conservatism has been discussed in Goldstein (2009). See also Berger (2002).
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