Why Sociologists Can’t Escape Religion: A Warning for the Secular West

Max Weber (1864-1920), the most influential modern sociologist

The West has deployed a substantial amount of artillery for the extension of its secular project. This is not only in the form of the actual physical weapons which it has in the process of modern European colonialism and the postmodern “War on Terror” but also includes weapons that are more conceptual in nature.

It is within such a context that the social sciences became weaponized as secularism’s intellectual soldiers. They either parodied religion openly (such as in psychology), or they tried to avoid it in their intellectual productions altogether (such as in economics).

This conflictual attitude of the social sciences towards religion triggered responses from religious thinkers. With regard to Islam, you have the whole “Islamization of knowledge” paradigm within different universities (mainly in Pakistan and Malaysia), involving personalities such as the late Ismail al-Faruqi and Syed Naquib Al-Attas. Meanwhile, with Western Christianity, you have contemporary theologians such as John Milbank in the UK, who also attempted to offer a religious alternative to the “official” discourse of the social sciences.

In what is considered to be his main book, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (1990), Milbank traces back the historicity of the social sciences. Part II of this work is dedicated entirely to sociology, regarding which he considers the basis of its formulation to lie mainly within the contexts of the 1789 French Revolution and 19th-century positivism, that is, forms of liberalism.

He writes on p.51:

Liberal discourse presupposed only the isolated, self-conserving individual. From the interrelationships of such individuals, the political and the economic had to be deduced as an artificial construct, or else as the ‘cunning’ operation of providence. In either case, the collective order was related to the individual in a negative and indirect fashion.

He later writes, on p.101:

Peter Berger, a modern American sociologist, has claimed that ‘sociology’ is now the name of the scientific and humanist critique of religion, the fiery brook through which contemporary theology must pass. And, to a large extent, theologians themselves have accepted the idea that it is possible to give a ‘social’ explanation for at least some of the features of religious belief. Their response to this situation has been an exercise in damage limitation; although they admit the validity of a reductive suspicion of religion in sociological terms, they seek to limit the scope of this suspicion by staking out a dimension to religion or theology which must remain irreducible. A sensibly critical faith is supposed to admit fully the critical claims of sociology (as indeed of Marxism and Freudianism) as a propaedeutic to the explication of a more genuine religious remainder.

Thus, from the perspective of political theology, Milbank essentially demystifies the social sciences. Behind their “value-neutral” propositions, there’s a genealogy of critical secularism which in reality is a form of counter-religion, and for Milbank, a possible solution could therefore be to consider theology itself to be a “legitimate” social science.

But while Milbank demonstrates the secularizing tendencies of sociologists such as Durkheim and Weber, there is a simple truth that must be acknowledged:

They simply can’t escape from religion.

Durkheim, who is considered as being the father of modern sociology, belonged to a family of rabbis. He was influenced by Comte’s positivism, thus applying its secular and rationalist methodology in the burgeoning field. But as Grace Davie says in The Sociology of Religion (p.30), through his study of the Australian Aborigines, Durkheim also came to the conclusion that religion is a binding force within society. He adopted a “functional” approach to religion, looking at it holistically and, in terms of interconnections, eventually highlighting its societal utility.

This is obviously dismissive of religion as being exhaustive and all-encompassing, but the so-called “conservatives” from the Anglosphere don’t really treat religion any differently. They “preserve” religion only as long as it serves to preserve “tradition” and not for its innate truths and theological propositions.

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Durkheim expands upon this in his last major sociological essay, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912).

The foremost influential modern sociologist, Max Weber, who was also an economist and a legal scholar, is often contrasted with his predecessor Durkheim when it comes to their methodology. Despite both having a common neo-Kantian genealogy, while Durkheim speaks of the “social fact” (“fait social” in French), Weber prefers the “social action.”

Durkheim looks at society holistically. Weber, on the other hand, concentrates more on the individuals. In fact, Weber introduced the so-called “methodological individualism” into the social sciences. This influenced economists from the Austrian School of philosophers such as Karl Popper, who wanted to counter the holistic or what they considered to be “totalitarian” approaches (though in their case the target was mainly Marxism rather than Comte or Durkheim).

Weber wrote on religion quite extensively, even more than Durkheim in fact, with complete studies and essays regarding Judaism and Eastern religions.

Intriguingly, however, he didn’t write much about Islam. This is despite Bryan S. Turner, a contemporary sociologist who has studied Weber’s approach to Islam extensively throughout many books and articles, saying that he did have some familiarity and notions about Islam, albeit of the Orientalist kind.

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Besides this duo of the most influential Western sociologists, there are others who wrote about religion too. This includes the likes of Peter L. Berger, perhaps the first person to show that the data does not support the idea that the world was becoming secularized; and others such as Robert N. Bellah. These were some of the most influential academics of their times.

But—and this is the purpose of this article—why is it that sociologists absolutely have to talk about religion, even if it’s with a secularist bias?

Isn’t this, in some way, acknowledging that religion is part of the fitrah (innate human disposition)? Isn’t it effectively an admission that a society without religion is something inconceivable?

And so, isn’t the secular social science of sociology actually providing some strong indicators and severe warnings to the secular West, especially since this is precisely what it believes—that you can build a society (if not an entire civilization) without religion?

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This page can’t stop talking about secularism, this proves that society without secularism is not possible. Hey, coming up with ridiculous reasoning is kind of fun lol

Fathur Haqi

“this proves that society without secularism is not possible.”

Hey, someone has been missing their 9th grade history class, lol.

Last edited 9 days ago by Fathur Haqi

I upvoted Wayne, he is actually reading the articles as a non-muslim. This means something and I want to encourage him to continue reading, no matter how blind, ignorant and modern he is (for now).

Last edited 8 days ago by aerbil313

India is officially secular but openly favours Hinduism
Japan’s official state religion (Shinto) was ended by a foreign power, the US.
Russia is secular but the Orthodox Church has a privileged position. Same is true for Greece, Serbia etc.

Secularism in its most pure theoretical definition isn’t present anywhere.

Wee Jim

As religion and its effects are part of society, why would sociologists “escape religion” and why should they want to? Religion – or a tendency to believe in religion – may be an “innate human disposition“. That isn’t evidence that any religion is true or even that religion is necessary for a human society. Religion provides explanations for they way things are, but there is no evidence any are true. Effectively religious societies have existed: Confucian China and imperial Rome.

Wee Jim

The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.