My laptop crashed, again, and I was busily trying to salvage my old files when I stumbled across something quite appropos given the militant Christianity that has infected the sociology of religion. This is part of the introduction to a paper which written in 2005 and was supposed to have been published in Sociology of Religion in response to Christian Smith’s apologetic claiming that Christianity is just the greatest religion ever.. His invited essay was published, mine was not.
“American sociology was profoundly influenced by the Christian social reformers of the late 19th and early 20th century. This group of ministers and lay scholars were dedicated to the cause of improving the lot of the poor and downtrodden, so that they might be saved by the gods of Christianity from a fate of eternal damnation—a fiery hell of eternal torment and torture, in most conceptions of the punishment deemed divinely ordained and appropriate for evil doers who reject Christianity. While the former goal is quite noble, the motivation and ultimate end for their cause was counterproductive for achieving that goal. The sociology of religion was forged among those lay scholars with religious agendas; and that hindered its progress and retarded its potential contributions to the discipline. Religious ideologues ignored the development of social theory, and failed to grasp the scientific methods that were pivotal in the institution of sociology as a discipline (Hadden, 1987). Research in the sociology of religion was pathetically underdeveloped in both theory and methods, and this forced our subfield into the backwaters of the discipline for most of the 20th Century. In a recent essay, Christian Smith asserts that the underdevelopment of the sociology of religion was a function of anti-religious biases among sociologists. However, more circumspect views of the history of sociology noted that most research that was done by sociologists of religion throughout much of the 20th century was substandard in its methodological rigor, and lacking the general theoretical insights that might make them relevant to social scientific discourse (Hadden, 1987).
What is equally clear is that the association of Christian sociologists with the sociology of religion had a dramatic and negative impact on the development and trajectory of the sociology of religion. Smith would like us to return to that golden era of sociological irrelevance, when Christian “sociologists” were important for Christian theology but unimportant for sociology. For scholars who are not committed Christians, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, Wiccans, or whatever, there should be less enthusiasm about such proposals. Indeed, the sectarian nature of his essay should give pause to researchers with non-Christian faith commitments, scholars who do not hold religious commitments and Christian scholars who have worked hard to establish legitimate careers as social scientists studying religion. The sociology of religion is once again being dominated by cadres of Christians with non-scientific agendas, funded heavily by quasi-religious foundations seeking to prove the superiority of their religious beliefs. Smith has been pivotal in this enterprise; producing a considerable number of likeminded students, placing them in prestigious universities, and ensuring that they, like he, receive large sums of grant money from foundations seeking to prove the superiority of their brand of Christianity. This is not ad-hominem; it is fact, and it is strongly influencing the direction of our field. Here we sit, with our nation in a religiously motivated war, with our social infrastructure gutted, with other religious wars raging or festering throughout the world, and the major questions posed by sociologists of religion (and touted in requests for applications for grants from Pew, Templeton, and others) are directed towards proving that religion makes you healthy, wealthy, and wise. Of course, there is some evidence that religious participation (Christian or not) makes you healthy (Ellison) , strong evidence that conservative Christianity makes you less wealthy (Keister, 2002, 2003), and strong evidence showing that conservative Christianity hinders educational attainment and cognitive ability (Darnell and Sherkat, 1997; Sherkat and Darnell, 1999; Sherkat 2005).