April 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 4

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In Favor of Relevance:
When Religion Studies Matter

ASA Forum for Public Discussion and Debate

I respect much of Christian Smith’s published work. But I have to admit to being somewhat embarrassed by his piece in the ASA Forum in the March 2012 issue of Footnotes. I, too, am a sociologist who specializes in religion. I believe religion is, like most social institutions, of some importance; I wouldn’t spend my time doing research in this area if I didn’t. However, Smith does not speak for all sociologists of religion.

Smith’s approach to gain respect or increase the odds that religion will be taken seriously is rather ill-conceived. He begins his essay by mocking critics of religion who have sold millions of books and calling sociologists who find religion disagreeable “ignorant” and “bigoted.”

A better way to convince other sociologists to take religion seriously is to make the case that religion matters. Sociologists of religion have tried to do just that, but much of the research in the sociology of religion suggests religion is not all that important to many aspects of social life. There are 52 ASA Sections, one of which is the religion section. Of the remaining 51, there are some areas that can pretty safely ignore religion. For instance, religion has very little effect on health or criminal behavior. If religion plays any significant role in societal development, it’s as a small impediment. And religion has, at best, a marginal influence on migration patterns, communication technologies, consumption, and the economy.

So where should other sociologists consider religion in their research?  The area where it is most important is related to politics. For instance, knowing someone’s religion significantly improves our ability to predict how he/she will vote. Religiosity also exhibits a strong negative relationship with attitudes toward evolution, science, abortion, gender equality, and education and should be included in any analyses of these topics. Religions do occasionally work toward things like human rights, as some did during the Civil Rights Movement. But they can also work against human rights, as they have for homosexuals, women, and atheists. In short, religion matters... sometimes. The best sociologists of religion can and should hope for is that, where we show religion matters, other sociologists take it into account. But if religion explains marginal amounts of the variation in a variety of areas, I fail to see how we can fault other sociologists for not caring about it.

I have heard the sociology of religion described as “sociology’s ghetto.”  I don’t think that is true. But I can also see why it could be. Religion is growing increasingly marginalized—despite what some sociologists say and the occasional violent outbursts from the religious (or what I like to call ‘religion’s death throes’). If religion’s influence on society and people declines, it is conceivable that the study of religion will be marginalized.

Finally, the history of religions includes all of the things Smith criticizes the book reviewer for noting: violence, misogyny, racism, terrorism, etc. Religions have skeletons in their closets, and we’re still discovering them (e.g., priest pedophilia scandals are ongoing). I’m not all that surprised that the author of titles like Why Christianity Works and Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money would prefer to describe religions’ problems as “complicated” and “challenging” and discourage sociologists from focusing on these aspects of religion. But these are current problems with religion. Calling those who point out the problems “ignorant” or “illiterate” doesn’t seem “beyond dogma” to me.
Ryan T. Cragun, University of Tampa

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