Socrel News Issue 5 (2017) Interview - Prof Bryan Turner

Given the plurality of readings of the secularisation thesis, please could you give us a summary of your own take on our sub-discipline’s paradigmatic theory?

It is common knowledge that the sociology of religion has had a chequered career. At the foundation of sociology as such from Comte onwards religion was a key issue in understanding the industrialisation and modernisation of society. While religion, including its demise and/or transformation, was a major concern in Weber, Durkheim, Simmel and later Parsons however, the dominance of the secularisation thesis in Wilson and to a lesser extent Martin indicated the potential demise of the field in the second half of the twentieth century.

One problem I see in this uneven history is the significant gap between the subfield in the USA and Europe. Sociology of religion in the US was relatively successful, somewhat dominated by quantitative research, less theoretical, and largely blind to European traditions. More importantly perhaps, it was staunchly blind to historical and comparative research which was left to the anthropology of religion. This is not just a caricature, as illustrated in Anthony J. Blasi’s (2014) Sociology of Religion in America which has little to say about Robert Bellah or Peter Berger whose work did in fact straddle the US and European traditions. The gap between these traditions is perhaps well illustrated by Social Compass and the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. More recently Critical Research on Religion opens up the possibility of a philosophically oriented journal on American soil.

But this takes us into the issue of secularisation as a theme somewhat dominant in sociology since Weber’s famously pessimistic lecture on ‘Politics as a Vocation’ in which he spelt out his famous metaphor of the disenchanted garden. With Wilson’s influential Religion in Secular Society in 1966 (see Steve Bruce’s excellent edited version in 2016) it appeared that sociology of religion had little future apart from measuring the disappearance of its subject matter. Moreover, if we take Giddens as the dominant social theorist of British sociology between 1970 and 1990, then his various publications on modernity, self identity, reflexivity and so forth had almost nothing to say about religion.

How then do you explain the recent growth in the prominence of our sub-field, if not vis-à-vis sociology then the social sciences as a whole?

I would say it was Jose Casanova’s (1994) Public Religions in the Modern World which accepted a limited version of secularisation and drew attention to the profound impact of religion in the public/political world, especially the Shia Revolution, the Moral Majority, liberation theology, and the Solidarity Movement. This re-orientation in the sociology of religion did not occur immediately but this emphasis on public religions was subsequently reinforced by 9/11, which had the consequence of bringing Islam in the West into the agenda of sociology generally and the sociology of religion in particular. This subsequently led to a new academic industry around Islamofascism and Islamophobia. I might add however that this has been dominated by French academics who are not necessarily part of the mainstream of the sub-discipline. Comparative and historical studies of Islam from within sociology however are weak.

By contrast, in my perception, modern work in the sociology of religion in post-secular societies predominantly examines the individualisation of religion under many headings – spirituality, on-line religion, religion on-line, post-institutional religion, DIY religion and low-intensity religion. This contrast strikes me as somewhat odd. On the one hand there is the legacy of Casanova’s publication in which there is interest in public religion – however this is somewhat focused on Islam in the west and is mainly concerned with Islamophobia. On the other hand we have a wide spread academic interest in the internet and religion, social media and religion, and spirituality. This focus on post-institutional religion is in my view something of a dead end.

In light of your overview, what would you say are more promising avenues on the agenda today?

I can suggest a number of research agendas here which I hope to expand on in more detail in my keynote this summer. First, it is obvious that populist politics will dominate much of the political agenda for at least the foreseeable future. In other words, Trumpism will outlast Trump. In the US for instance, at first glance religion was absent from the presidential campaigns between Trump, Clinton, and Sanders, especially compared to the Obama and Romney campaigns when there was much public concern about whether Obama was a Muslim and whether Mormonism was a religion. Yet despite his language about woman, Trump had the support of evangelicals because of his views about the Supreme Court, his opposition to abortion, his attacks on illegal (mainly Hispanic) migrants who are mainly Catholic, his defence of WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) in America, and one might add his view of women as inferior to men. In short, I would say that the Trump victory was highly consistent with evangelical Protestantism. Protestant religion was an important if implicit factor in his success, while evangelicals could not tolerate Clinton’s liberal values and her defence of Wade v Roe.

There is also a more general issue here that is connected to Brexit, the migration crisis and the future of Europe which is that European borders are increasingly defined at least in public rhetoric in terms of Christianity versus outsiders or a restoration of the idea of an Abendland with Russian and Greek orthodoxy in the east, Catholicism as the border of Poland and the south, and a Protestant northern frontier.

This moves into a more general proposal that we need more research on religion and law – and not just the growth of Sharia arbitration tribunals – but a more general interest in legal pluralism. There is now a widespread tension between law and religion over same sex marriage, euthanasia, abortion, circumcision. These topics appear to be dominated by legal studies rather than sociologies of religion.

And finally there is the whole issue of biotechnology, medical interventions, genetic revolutions, nanotechnology, cryonics and so forth. We are familiar with ethical debates about abortion and euthanasia, but here I refer more to radical changes to human ontology that we may witness in the next few decades. These reconstructions of the human body have given rise to ideas about post-humanism and transhumanism but within philosophy rather than sociology. In the field of demography, we are aware of how processes of low fertility and ageing populations are radically changing society. In my view these developments raise radical questions about the future of religion insofar as they raise questions about the future of humankind, but as yet they have not emerged in sociologies of religion. A spate of recent books on ‘the future of religion’ have in fact little to say about the potential transformation of humans.

To summarise, as self advertisement, I have an article forthcoming in the European Journal of Social Theory on religion, body, habit and the Anthropocene which gets at some of the theoretical issues behind this agenda.

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