‘Religion’ in Sociology

By Mitsutoshi Horii
August 12, 2015

My ‘critical religion’ article entitled Critical reflections on the category of “Religion” in contemporary sociological discourse>/em> has recently been published by Nordic Journal of Religion and Society. This article is my own personal attempt to suggest to students and instructors of sociology, especially those in the subfield of sociology of religion, to critically reflect upon the term ‘religion’ and to shift the focus of their academic inquiry onto the classificatory practices which employ the category ‘religion’.

Critical reflections on the category of religion seem to be rather counter-intuitive for most sociologists. When ‘critical religion’ perspectives have been acknowledged by some sociologists of religion, I argue, these critical perspectives have not been understood correctly and constructively. It has still been the norm in sociological discourse that the term ‘religion’ is utilised in a generic sense, as a self-evident analytical category, as if sociologists know what religion really is.

My article starts with critical reflections upon recent sociologists’ responses to ‘critical religion’ perspectives. The general attitude of sociologists towards ‘critical religion’ is negative. Sociologists, whom I briefly review in the article, tend to conceptualise ‘religion’ as a historically differentiated social domain, which has established its distinction from other domains such as ‘politics’, ‘science’, ‘education’, ‘law’, ‘mass media’ and the like. This has become the basis of sociologists’ conceptualisation of religion as a self-evident reality.

‘Critical religion’ perspectives would agree with sociologists’ understanding of religion as a historically differentiated social domain, but this is why ‘critical religion’ has turned ‘religion’ and its demarcations from other domains into a subject of critical deconstruction. Although sociologists are well aware of the historical construction of religion (whatever they mean) as a historically differentiated institutional system, they seem to turn a blind eye to the norms and imperatives which govern such a construction.

In the article, I urge sociologists to pay more critical attention to the social process of institutional differentiation and classification which construct the category of religion, particularly, the issues of ideology and power which demarcate ‘religion’ from other domains. I believe that this echoes the critical spirit the discipline of sociology inherited from its historical founders. However, sociologists might be threatened by this approach to ‘religion’ since it undermines the epistemological foundation upon which the discipline stands.

In the second half of the article, I have tried to deconstruct the idea of religion reified in Grace Davie’s Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging (1994). As the main title indicates, this book explores the empirical findings on ‘religion’ as it is commonly understood and measured in Britain. Therefore, the idea of religion in this book represents what is generally meant by ‘religion’ in Britain.

In the discourse of religion in Britain, atheism and nationalism are assumed to be ostensibly ‘non-religious’ and ‘secular’ value orientations. However, given the functional and structural similarities between atheism and nationalism, on the one hand, and what is said to be ‘religion’ in the book, on the other hand, I tried to highlight the desires of classifiers. In this case, the classificatory practice of atheism and nationalism as non-religious secular has an intimate relationship with norms and imperatives of liberal democratic states, which exclude its rival value orientations from its operation by classifying them as ‘religion’. In this light, the category of religion itself is ‘ideological state apparatus’.

This argument is further clarified by interrogating the statistical classification of religion referred to in the book by Davie. I indicated that the taken-for-granted categorisation of Christian beliefs and churches as religion, as manifested in various social statistics, has been a consequence of the historical process whereby modern nation states gradually established dominance over the church. In addition, the inclusion of various non-western traditions and value orientations under the umbrella category of ‘world religions’ has been intimately linked to the historical process by which western colonial power extended its hegemony on a global scale.

The practice of classification is always governed by specific norms and imperatives of classifiers, and it is also interrelated to interests of the classified in complicated ways. In my opinion, this can be an area of sociological inquiry. However, in order to critically study the religion-secular distinction and construct meaningful academic discourse, we have to abandon the generic concept of religion as an analytic category, since it is such a conceptualisation of ‘religion’ that is to be the subject of critical deconstruction. This would be a painful process for sociologists, since the intellectual tradition of the discipline has been deeply embedded in the religion-secular distinction, whereby ‘religion’ has already gained an independent ontology as a generic and analytical category.

In conclusion, I have suggested that a critical reflection of sociological discourse on religion should start from the most basic level. I have pointed out that the category of religion has been taken for granted in an introductory text book of sociology for undergraduate students. It has usually been the case that the difficulty (if not an impossibility) of defining religion has been highlighted in the beginning, but the rest of the book proceeds as if we all know what religion is. Studying what is generally known as religion may be useful as case studies of particular institutions, social practices, value orientations, social movements, and the like. For sociological study of religion to be meaningful, it should focus on why something is categorised as religion and why someone is identified as religious, for example, by examining norms and imperatives of such classification and identification. Otherwise, the problematic discourse of generic ‘religion’ will continue to be reproduced by the next generation of sociologists.

Critical deconstruction of the religion-secular distinction indicates that if sociologists wish to critically address in a more meaningful way human suffering, which is occurring under the global system of modern nation states, it is fundamental to overcome the current discourse embedded in the secular-religious binary. From ‘critical religion’ perspectives, it is no exaggeration to claim that sociological discourse ultimately serves interests of modern nation states as long as utilising ‘religion’ as a generic and analytical category. If one wishes to critically analyse modern liberal democratic society, it is methodologically important to remove one’s discourse from the religion-secular distinction.

I hope that my modest contribution invites some sociologists to seriously reflect upon the category of religion and bring the issue of ‘religion’ to the heart of sociology in a more meaningful way.

This article, with additional links, is available here

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© Mitsutoshi Horii is Associate Professor of Shumei University in Japan, and works at Chaucer College Canterbury


This article is one of a continuous series appearing on Ekklesia through our association with the Critical Religion Association (CRA), developed out of the University of Stirling Critical Religion Research Group. CRA is bringing together academics from a wide range of backgrounds to explore the way 'religion' is employed as a a marker, construct and category in public and intellectual discourse. You can also follow Critical Religion on Twitter: http://twitter.com/CriticoReligio (@CriticoReligio).

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