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Current Revivals of Interest in Religion: Some Sociological Observations / Regain d'intérêt récent pour la religion: quelques observations d'ordre sociologique. - article ; n°2 ; vol.58, pg 159-174


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Archives des sciences sociales des religions - Année 1984 - Volume 58 - Numéro 2 - Pages 159-174
16 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



Publié par
Publié le 01 janvier 1984
Nombre de lectures 30
Langue Français
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

Ivan Oliver
Current Revivals of Interest in Religion: Some Sociological
Observations / Regain d'intérêt récent pour la religion: quelques
observations d'ordre sociologique.
In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N. 58/2, 1984. pp. 159-174.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Oliver Ivan. Current Revivals of Interest in Religion: Some Sociological Observations / Regain d'intérêt récent pour la religion:
quelques observations d'ordre sociologique. In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N. 58/2, 1984. pp. 159-174.
doi : 10.3406/assr.1984.2331
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/assr_0335-5985_1984_num_58_2_2331Sc soc des Rel. 1984 55/2 octobre-décembre) 159 174 Arch
Cet article ne se propose pas de fournir des détails empiriques té
moignant des récents regains intérêt envers la religion Il pose
une question dans quelle mesure la sociologie peut-elle contribuer
les comprendre auteur considère que histoire de la disci
pline surtout au XIXe siècle abouti une compréhension inadé
quate de la religion toujours en retrait par rapport la sicence
est pourquoi la sociologie été maints égards surtout en rai
son de la conception positiviste de la science sur laquelle elle repo
sait mal équipée pour disserter sur les réveils religieux Puisque les
faits religieux comme tous les faits sont dans une certaine
mesure theory dependent abandon du positivisme en faveur
une position herméneutique plus favorable devait créer un climat
intellectuel mieux adapté examen des problématiques contem
poraines telles que le dialogue chrétien-marxiste le fondamenta
lisme et la politisation de la religion La sociologie wébérienne
semble fournir un cadre méthodologique et théorique intérieur
duquel il devient possible de discuter et non plus de rejeter exis
tence du renouveau religieux suggère aussi que attention de
Weber aux doctrines de la théodicée et du salut peut servir expli
quer non seulement le sens profond de la religion qui persiste tra
vers la recherche de identité personnelle mais aussi improbabi
lité de sa disparition finale selon divers arguments prédisant la fin
de la religion
Religion does not consist of set of given facts waiting passively as
it were to be observed what counts as religion is mediated through the theore
tical spectacles one wears Moreover wish to suggest that many of the theoreti
cal assumptions sociologists and anthropologists have inherited from the past
are embarrassingly wrong when the question of religious revival is discussed
Wrong largely because they rested on inadequate assessments of the relation
ship between religion and the sciences that were held to be replacing it Most no
table here was the assumption that the intellectual and moral problems tackled
by religion could be answered by science itself now conceived of as the most
complete form of knowledge Finally and in opposition to these claims the sug-
gestion is made that Max sociology addresses itself to elements of reli
gious life which help us to understand the persistence of religion against all
claims for its long expected collapse
On some readings of the history of sociological theory discussion of these
issues ought not to be viable part of late XXth century social science This
claim is based on the commonplace observation that substantial portion but
by no means all of the bequest of XVIIIth and XIXth century social theory
amounts to an argument for the end of religion The end or decline of many
aspects of social life have been predicted with varying degrees of enthusiasm
the end of ideology the loss of Gemeinschaft the decline of the working class
and so on Amongst these predictions few have been espoused from so many dif
fering and often mutually contradictory sources than that advanced for the
overcoming of religion
Although the following will offer both an outline of some of the sources
which inspired the end of religion argument and examples of the ample evi
dence against such claims the aim is to provide neither history of sociological
theories of religion nor lengthy discussion of particular religious movements
Rather the intention is to examine one aspect of the contribution of sociology to
the understanding of that which ought not to have happened namely the per
sistence and recrudescence of interest in religion not only as modern cults but
also in some of its most traditional and fundamentalist manifestations
The question is then what part can sociology play in understanding at
tachment to religious beliefs and the place of these beliefs in giving meaning
purpose and sense of identity to lives Why is it that the
first question asking the name and requiring response identifying
the individual as the child of God still finds ready certainly of
the most varied kind in terms of growing allegiance to the world religions
Whatever else is intended or achieved in this discussion there will be no at
tempt whatever to offer the explanation of religion or to see sociological ac
counts as in some sense more real or fundamental than others In my view such
attempts lie beyond the limits of sociology of religion although this is in no
way intended to deny the valuable part that sociology can and does play in the
analysis of religious beliefs and practices As in all other areas this analysis will
be shaped by whole range of theoretical and methodological assumptions
which are usually placed under the rubric of the philosophy of social science
The philosophy of social science and the sociology of religion
This is not the place for lengthy discussion of trends in the philosophy of
social science but one basic feature of much recent literature seems to be an in
sistence that knowledge is conceptually formed Thus in opposition to the empi
ricist view that the facts speak for themselves there is growing willingness
other major disagreements apart to recognize these facts as in some sense
theory dependent Even though recently prominent this is not new idea
and ought to be traced back at least as far as critical philosophy
Critique of Pure Reason whilst agreeing with empiricism to the extent
that knowledge begins with experience adds immediately that it does not
follow that it all arises out of Knowledge is in this view of
things conceptually formed to the extent that the priori categories of the un
derstanding provide the framework through which the otherwise chaotic mass of
sense impressions is rendered intelligible 5)
The upshot of this insistence on the conceptual formation of knowledge is
as far as sociology is concerned that there can be no question of simply seeing
religion out there in the real world That is as facts passively waiting to be
grabbed by the throat and forced into the sociology of religion Nor are these
facts neutral and mutually agreed amongst interested scholars readily available
in order to build this or that theory of religion These points are naturally not in
tended to deny the reality of religion Sacred texts and their interpreters reli
gious leaders and followers temples churches monasteries theologies dogmas
and liturgies are all real enough The point is rather that there exists an almost
literally infinite range of possible relevant facts which must be assessed ranked
appropriated or discarded None of this can be done in presuppositionless
way Differing theoretical spectacles guide us towards and this is the key point
differing interpretations of what are to count as the relevant facts for socio
logy of religion Particularly for present purposes how we might understand
the persistence and growth of religious orthodoxies
Nothing said so far is intended to encourage creeping methodological pa
ralysis If the view is taken that nothing can be achieved without the right
theories and methods then to put it mildly results will be delayed for very
long time Nor should there be the slightest suggestion that approaches to empi
rical work can be read off in mechanistic way from cookbook of methods
The traffic between theories methods and substantive work has to be much
more open than this Too great an emphasis on methodology would in Max
timely reminder be reminiscent of attempts to walk by self consciously
applying the principles of anatomy In both cases we would be in ever present
danger of falling over 6)
The purpose in drawing attention to the relationships between theoretical
and empirical propositions is then not to glorify theory at the expense of
fact but rather to guard against too ready an acceptance of incontrovertible
conclusions which are such if and only if the often implicit theoretical premises
upon which interpretations rest are themselves acceptable If one accepts We
argument for the eternal youth of the cultural and social sciences the
ever flowing stream of culture brings new problems perspectives theoretical as
sumptions and with them changed views of the empirical world Thus to use
phrase Weber employed in another context there is an elective affinity bet
ween the theoretical and methodological premises employed and the substantive
analysis of religion arising therefrom This is true of own work but be
fore turning to that brief glance at the theoretical assumptions and attendant
views of religion which have played large part in the history of sociology will
be helpful In particular those assumptions which make current interests in reli
gion difficult to understand precisely because religion ought by now to be at the
very least much diminished force in social life
Sociological theory and the end of religion
The theory dependence of our assessments of the current and future
prospects for religion can be simply probably too simply illustrated in terms of
the problem of definition Much can be achieved at stroke as it were by
definitions which create the widest possible differences in the scope allowed to
religion For example Parson Thwackum caricature ofXVIIIth cen
tury Anglicanism offers the following
When mention religion mean the Christian religion and not only the
Christian religion but the Protestant religion and not only the Protestant reli
gion but the Church of England 8)
In contrast to which some philosophical and theological reappraisals of reli
gion in this century have produced existential definitions of quite different
Religion is at home everywhere namely in the depth of all functions of
spiritual life Religion is the dimension of depth in all of them ..[Religion
points to that which is ultimate infinite unconditional in spiritual life Reli
gion in the largest and most basic sense of the word is ultimate concern 9)
Neither the merits of these definitions nor their relevance especially the first! to
sociology need concern us here The point is that definitional man uvres invite
radically different conclusions Either that institutional decline or increase
charts the fate of religion per se or that religion is so basic an element of human
existence that the fate of any specific institution is quite irrelevant to that which
by definition can never disappear
Clearly the history of sociological accounts of religion is not confined to
simple choice between these or other alternatives Even so and at the risk of some
simplification it can be argued that the decline and eventual disappearance of
religion was dominant theme in XVIIIth and XIXth century social thought
So much so that the history of the concept of secularization and the history of
sociological theorizing about the great transformation from so-called tradi
tional to so-called modern societies are very closely related 10 Fortified by an
enthusiasm for science and the doctrine of progress and also by evolutionism or
romantic attachment to the past many XIXth century thinkers produced stri
kingly similar accounts of the transformation Certainly there were differences
notably in their evaluation of the changes Nevertheless in for example Spen
cer Tonnies Durkheim we find the transition depicted in terms of the loss of
small agrarian communities in which religion plays large part and their repla
cement by the large urban industrial complex dominated by secular values
This supposed decline of religion was of course part and parcel of the world
view of XIXth century positivism view imbued with theories of progress now
coupled with evolutionary assumptions and admirably expressed in
law of three stages Marxism which had thoroughly ambiguous relations
hip to the various strands of positivism gave massive reinforcement to the end
of religion thesis through the materialist transformation of philosophy
God marching out of history and the bringing of heaven down to earth are the
order of the day for the young Marx who makes his own position clear through
Prometheus outburst in simple words hate the pack of gods 11 The theo-
ries of religion to take one last example advanced by Spencer and the founding
fathers of British anthropology Tyior and Frazer were also of considerable im
portance Just as the theory of evolution and the discoveries of geology allowed
us to reconstruct the history of nature so also could we reconstruct with the aid
of conjectural history the history of society and the origins of religion Given
the positivist assumptions upon which they worked their problematic became
that of explaining how potentially rational beings had come to hold false ideas
such as religious beliefs
Of course the idea that science answers all questions and that as result
we were witnessing the end of religion was by no means the whole story Even
as far as many positivists were concerned some qualifications are necessary
Durkheim although thoroughly wedded to the positivist and secularist position
also claims that there are no false religions 12 and that faith in science does
not differ in its essentials from faith in religion 13 Certainly for Durkheim the
scientific world view is more refined than the religious and the truth of reli
gion is not that which the believer mistakenly takes it to be Nevertheless there
are important qualifications which perhaps suggest some of the influence of St
Simon and Comte who likewise held rather contradictory and ambiguous views
on the defeat of religion by science Similar qualifications in respect of other
major figures ought to be made Tyior may have seen the savage as mistaken
but often the religious inferences of the ancient savage philosopher are seen as
reasonable given their low state of cultural development 14 In somewhat si
milar vein the considerable influence of Levy-Bruhl should not be forgotten
Particularly the claims that there existed primitive mystical and pre-logical
mentality which contrasted with the more advanced form of scientific thought in
western societies However in his later years he came to see this distinction as
untenable and as his posthumously published notebooks show abandoned it al
together 15)
Important as these qualifications and others not made here are the general
tendency was towards massive support for the end of religion argument The
high tide of XIXth century positivistic and evolutionary social thought was ne
cessarily linked to claim that the modern world was experiencing the progres
sion from religious to scientific modes of thought
From such viewpoints the course of events cannot be wholly comforting
experience Certainly there have been many signs of increasing secularization
but much has also gone rather badly wrong If the great transformation has
happened or is happening now then the events certainly are not to be unders
tood in any simplistic or unilinear way Like the British aristocracy reported
ly dying out since the Wars of the Roses religion seems not to be making any
hurried departure Whatever reservations post-positivist philosophy of social
science has concerning the empirical testing of theories it seems clear that the
heritage of much of classical sociological theory has poor grip on reality as
far as the analysis of religion is concerned It is not collapsing in the face of
progress enlightenment and science
Quite the opposite conclusion seems warranted if we explore the numerous
examples to hand in many societies and in differing religious traditions Of
course it is open to any objector to claim that since have already stressed the
theory dependence of these facts of the religious life such events are not
really religious phenomena at all That if seen through differing theoretical
frameworks they become ideologies manifestations of nationalism or
multiple deprivation or whatever Certainly there are likely to be some as
pects that can be understood in these ways but it would be necessary to perform
the most convoluted and tortured exercises in hermeneutics to reach the fanciful
conclusion that all can be explained away so readily
Naturally it would be impossible to rank examples in some supposed or
der of importance and similarly impossible to say very much about them in the
present context Nevertheless some indication of the strength of current revivals
of interest in religion is required One obviously prominent example is the Ira
nian revolution in which charismatically led religious revival and an upsurge of
nationalism developed hand in hand Indeed it would be impossible to separate
the two since the structure of the state and the method of its government are
held to be inextricably bound up with the teaching of Islam 16 Nationalism
also plays part in the quite different context of Poland where Catholicism has
provided rallying point against the numerous threats to the existence
in the recent and more remote past Perhaps this is also to some extent true of
religious divisions in Northern Ireland In each case the strength of religious fee
ling will be in some measure attributable to the search for group or natio
nal identity in the face of external opposition although to say this is not to say
that such feelings are full and sufficient explanation of religious commitments
It would be surprising if the intellectual foundations of religious teachings
had remained unaffected by the attacks launched against them and in these
areas also number of revitalized commitments have come to the fore in recent
years Certainly within Christianity there have been many modern crises of
confidence centring on the role of the church in the world largely in response
to the often repeated charges of inherent traditionalism and conservativism In
these circumstances one response has been the search for an avowedly radical
political role In pursuit of relevant faith which can identify with the politi
cal economic and social realities of the XX th century an increasingly politici
zed stance as Edward Norman calls it 17) has come to the fore Norman
himself is highly critical of the extent to which as he sees it secular rather than
spiritual values have come to shape the moral teachings of the church
Whatever the theological issues involved in this politicization it is not diffi
cult to see its appeal to those in the clerical profession who claim rightly or
wrongly to see the future redundancy or irrelevance of the church staring them
in the face In such radical stances it might be argued there is possibility that
the ancient messages can be revitalized in such way that the oppressed of this
world can more readily identify with them
Thus there exists an active interest in the Christian Marxist dialogue
amongst those who find themselves capable of drawing together demytholo-
gized Jesus and humanised anti-positivistic Marxism That is the Mar
xism that grew amongst philosophers and sociologists who geographically
speaking faced the realities of the Eastern Bloc i.e the writers of the Frankfurt
School the influences of the Prague Spring and the Belgrade Praxis
group 18 Political theology which draws sustenance from Frankfurt Mar
xism seeks to develop as critical theory attempting thereby to draw
Christianity out of the privatized world of individual preference into the overtly
public arena of politics Through the emancipatory practice advocated in Ha-
bermas writings theology may be able to develop new hermeneutic capable of
presenting the faith in modern dress Finally the most overtly political stance is
found in that element of Latin American Catholicism which pursues libera
tion theology for and on behalf of the politically and economically oppressed
Here the faith is interpreted as radical call for social justice in new economic
order 19)
The significance of the various forms of religious radicalism is obviously
very contentious issue for either the sociologist or theologian and one which
cannot be satisfactorily discussed here Perhaps the only point which can be
made is that such radicalism attempts to take modern secular ideologies serious
ly and as it were to meet them on their own ground by arguing that religious
world ce human views are rights also capable and so of on addressing the problems of freedom justi
This sense of common or shared set of assumptions is precisely what is
lacking in one of the most spectacular growth areas of religions That is the re
markably rapid advance of Christian fundamentalism in recent times Mol
has pointed out that the more conservative and sectarian traditions have often
grown very much faster than population growth 20 discussion of the re
turn of the sacred identifies fundamentalist groups particularly in the U.S.A. as
potentially one of the strongest elements in current religious revivals 21)
To say that these groups are unlike the modernists and radicals in that they
reject the assumptions that theological and political radicals share is not of
course to claim that fundamentalists reject search for freedom or justi
ce Obviously not The point is that different interpretations of such notions
are employed Falling back on sectarian in the sense in which the term is
used in the sociology of religion theology considerable emphasis is placed
upon the group as redeemed or redeemable remanent which wishes to make
strong distinction between its own social teachings and those of degenerate
and backslidden world world that is whose members have not experienced
the rebirth the personal regeneration that is so essential for right thinking and
action Without this right thinking nation may depart from God in directions
which however pleasing to liberal and radical opinion are detestable to funda
mentalism Here leftwing politics and the approval or condoning of liberal atti
tudes towards homosexuality divorce abortion capital punishment and eutha
nasia are all roundly condemned 22)
It should be possible to find in deprivation anomie alienation
status compensation disintegration and the like terms which help explain
some of the attractiveness of faith which insists on firm bedrock of revealed
and incontrovertible truth in opposition to the sea of relativism which is cha
racteristic of more worldly orientations However in the view taken here more
than this is involved One of the most powerful attractions of fundamentalism
lies in its capacity to offer distinctive interpretation of the human condition
which is sharply separated from more secular orientations From fundamenta
list point of view there is nothing distinctively religious in much of the tea
ching of the modernist and radical positions nothing that is which distinguishes
particular claim from those advanced by secular humanists Liberalism either
lacks clear set of teachings or if these teachings exist they seem to many fun-
damentalists to be at best secular tails wagging the religious dog In short theo
logical liberalism with its demythologized theology and relativistic ethics is clai
med by fundamentalists to offer the believer little in the way of that distinctively
religious identity which is to be had by those who are born again in faith
Sociology and explanations of the revival of religious awareness
Quite apart from the inadmissibility of any claim on behalf of sociology to
know which if any explanation of revivals in religious commitment is in some
ultimate sense the true one it is also the case that the difficulties are com
pounded by an inability to say which if any is the factually correct inter
pretation of doctrine and social teaching Hence there can be no question of
identifying the growth of say fundamentalism in terms of its greater con
gruence with the truth This is largely because facts about religion are episte-
mologically speaking in no way different from other facts Here too they do not
speak for themselves but are theory dependent
There may be to take Christianity as an example much agreement over
certain fundamentals e.g the birth life death and resurrection of Jesus but far
less consensus over the practical application of the Gospel message to concrete
social issues The commandment to love one another John ch 13 34 has
been subject to multitude of interpretations Similarly the activist injunc
tion to feed clothe and shelter the least of these my brethren Matthew ch 25
vv 31-46 might be subject to differing interpretations from those offered for the
more quietistic passages urging the putting away of wordly anxieties the ta
king of no thought for the morrow Matthew ch vv 25-34) or the reminder
that my Kingdom is not of this world John ch 18 36 Or consider the po
tentially ambiguous ethical social and economic teachings that may be drawn
from comparison between the parable of the talents Matthew ch 25 vv 14-
30 or pounds Luke ch 19 vv 12-27 and that of the labourers in the vineyard
Matthew ch.20 vv 1-16)
What can be said is that as long as sociology remained and to large ex
tent still remains allied to the positivist world-view little explanatory purchase
could be gained on the regrowth of religious commitment Within positivism the
world religions have at best to be understood in terms of God of the gaps
theology which offers an inadequate picture of beliefs as obscure and probably
irrational anachronisms ever retreating before the face of science Without being
in any way anti-scientific it can be pointed out that the West has seen some de
cline in the imperialistic claims made by positivism for the scope of scientific
knowledge Similarly parts of the Third World seem to have lost some of the
enthusiasm for western science and technology as the road to development of
ten conceived of as resulting in modern secularized society In this process
measure of faith in more ancient answers has been recovered Answers which
as in the case of Islam draw religious identity nationalism and politics into
close connection with each other In circumstances such as these which deny
the claim that science has monopoly over the truth we should not be surprised
at the persistence and renewal of religious orthodoxies
Had this article been written in the an explanation in functionalist
terms would have been in keeping with the then dominant theoretical fram
work framework which considered religion as universal feature of socie
ties pre-requisite of social stability Although much has been made of the
weaknesses of functionalism its tendencies towards tautological and teleologi-
cal explanations towards conservatism and so on it must be remembered that
functionalism also spoke of the role of religion in ameliorating the strains and
uncertainties of human existence This function has some links with the focus
on suffering theodicy and the meaning of life which will be considered presen
Despite all the theoretically exciting water that has flowed under the bridge
since the demise if that is what it is of functionalism it is to Max so
ciology of religion that we can in the view taken here best turn The links bet
ween his epistemology methodology and substantive works on religion provide
an account of religion which takes us beyond the God of the gaps imagery of
positivism These links offer conceptual framework which helps us to unders
tand the present and perhaps abiding place of religion in human society
In saying this it has also to be remembered that like many of those mentio
ned earlier Weber also speaks of the decline of religion most notably in terms of
the disenchantment or demagification of the world Although the process
is for Weber of world historical importance he does not start from the priori
assumption so characteristic of positivism that religion is giant mistake of
human reasoning That is he does not make ontological claims about religion
To define religion to say what it is not possible at the start of
presention such as this Definition can be attempted if at all only at the conclu
sion of the study The essence of religion is not even our concern as we make it
our task to the conditions and effects of particular type of social ac
tion 23)
Nor does he offer deterministic theory of history in which the inexorable
logic of capitalist developement grinds religious commitments out of existence
It may be that for Weber Puritan morality dies out into utilitarian econo
mics 24 but this observation does not commit him to the claim that religion al
ways digs its own grave The capitalist ethos may be an iron cage bu new
prophets may appear old ideas may be reborn or pétrification may result In any
event we cannot mortgage the future even likely outcomes are not certain 25)
Max Weber epistemology methodology and the sociology of religion
sociology of religion in may ways parallels his Kantian epistemo
logy The knowable world is infinitely extensive and given the finite capacity of
the human mind to know is potentially without form or meaning 26 We our
selves impose order on finite segment of the meaningless infinity of the world
process 27 through the use of concepts which are analytical instruments for
the intellectual mastery of empirical date 28 Knowledge thus gained is al
ways knowledge from particular points of view 29 Since these are in conti
nual process of change the historical and social scientific disciplines are neces
sarily those to which eternal youth has been granted 30)
Influenced as he was by neo-Kantianism Weber seeks to show in
his methodological writings how the knowing subject achieves coherent know-