Sociology of religion: the state of the art

Roberto Cipriani

250 years have passed since David Hume published Four Dissertations: The natural history of Religion, of the Passion, of Tragedy, of the Standard of the Taste (1757) followed by Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, in 1779. Thanks to the English empiricist – whose books were enlisted by the Catholic Church in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum – the first systematic attempt of a religious study starting from human experience instead of a metaphysical perspective.

Sociology started with A. Comte, approximately one Century later. However, the studies of Hume were to anticipate the principles of a scientific approach to religious phenomenon. This approach was continued by Durkheim and Weber, further developed by Le Bras and Bellah, up to now when sociology of religion is experiencing a particularly good period, even if great theories and masters are lacking (such as Parsons and Luhmann), and others (like Berger and Luckmann) are less present.

Certainly, the number of good quality researchers has increased, notwithstanding the absence of absolute excellence normally recognised by the majority of the scientific community. In the mean time, there are a good number of field researches, illustrating interests ranging from the more traditional sector of Christian religious experience to that of new religions, with a particular increase in Islamic studies (cfr. Sociology of Religion, vol. 68, n. 3, Fall 2007) and in the generally neglected Asiatic realities.

A backward situation is noted, however, on the state of the studies concerning religious diversity in Africa (we should always be grateful to Bennetta Jules Rosette).

A new and significant contribution now comes from central and south America, where new initiatives combining events between various sociologists of religion, such as conferences and reviews are held: following the footsteps of the Brazilian Reginaldo Prandi, the Argentinean Alejandro Frigerio is now playing a major role, along with Ari Pedro Oro, who is also from Brazil.

In the last few years, however, some significant scholars have passed away, such as Niklas Luhmann in Germany, Silvano Burgalassi in Italy, Bryan Wilson in Great Britain, Srđan Vrcan in Croazia, Yves Lambert (whose La naissance des religions, Armand Colin, Paris, 2007 has now been published after his death), and Jean Séguy in France.

New fellows, however, are emerging and seem to be of good quality, especially in the field of Orthodox churches, thanks to Victor Roudometof and Alexander Agadjanian, who, together with Jerry Pankhurst, edited Eastern Orthodoxy in a Global Age. Tradition Faces in the Twenty-first Century (Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, 2005, pp. 290), with contributions by – among others – Gavril Flora, Vasilios N. Makrides and Kathy Rousselet.

Another good job is being carried out by Fenggang Yang (editor with Joseph B. Tamney of State, Market, and Religions in Chinese Societies, Brill, Leiden-Boston, 2005) who is not only fostering research on Chinese religiosity (see vol. 67, n° 2 of the review Sociology of Religion, dedicated to Conversion to Christianity among the Chinese), but is also promoting initiatives in order to create links among Chinese sociologist of religions. In fact, the first International Symposium of Chinese Sociology of Religion was held in Beijing on July, 10-12 in 2004 (historically relevant date to remember). The ideological influence is still strong; however, scientific quality is of a good level and is bound to get better.

Another important development in sociology of religion is that of post-communist countries. The most dedicated researchers are: the Croatian Siniša Zrinščak (see his essay, written with Dinka Marinović Jerolimov, on Social Compass, vol. 53, n° 2, 2006), the Polish sociologist Irena Borowik (who, with Miklós Tomka, edited Religion and Social Change in Post-Communist Europe, Nomos, Krakow, 2001), the German Detlef Pollack, the Byelorussian Larissa Titarenko, the Bulgarian Nonka Bogomilova-Todorova, just to make some names.

Within European boundaries, the work of Grace Davie is highly considered (Religion in Modern Europe, Blackwell, Oxford, 2000; Europe: The Exceptional Case. Parameters of Faith in the Modern World, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 2002). Grace Davie also summarizes the state of the art of the discipline in the book The Sociology of Religion: a Critical Agenda (Sage, London, 2007). Jean-Paul Willaime also studies the subject of religion in Europe (Europe et religionLes enjeux du XXIème siècle, Fayard, Paris, 2004).

The lay discourse is developed within the European context by Jean Bauberot (Laïcité 1905-2005, entre passion et raison, Le Seuil, Paris, 2004). Instead, in central and south America it is developed by Roberto Blancarte (Laïcidad y valores en un Estado democratico, El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico, 2000).

Among the new subjects in the socio-religious area, we have to highlight the pioneering work of Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead (The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality, Blackwell, Oxford, 2005), as well as Giuseppe Giordan is working on vocation, he edited Vocation and Social Context (Brill, Leiden-Boston, 2007) and is now preparing a book on conversion.

James Beckford has written about socio-religious institutional issues (Social Theory and Religion, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003) and is currently carrying out a number of researches on religious presence within prisons (starting from Religion in Prison. ‘Equal rites’ in a Multi-Faith Society, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998).

Among new talents, the Swiss Jörg Stolz (University of Lausanne) is particularly versed in theoretical issues, while the French Erwan Dianteill is the author of an outstanding field research  (La samaritaine noire. Les Églises spirituelles noire américaines de la Nouvelle Orléans, Éditions de l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, 2006, pp. 262, with the DVD: Roll with the Spirit).

A new perspective is outlined by the quantitative inquiry by Milena Vilaça in Portugal (Da Torre de Babel às Terras Prometidas. Pluralismo Religioso em Portugal, Edições Afrontamento, Porto, 2006).

Attention should be given to the book which collect the most important essays by Robert N. Bellah on religion: Robert N. Bellah, Steven M. Tipton (eds.), The Robert Bellah Reader, Duke University Press, Walnut Creek, 2002, pp. 366) and the one by Inger Furseth and Pål Repstad, An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion. Classical and Contemporary Perspectives, Ashgate, Aldershot-Burlington, 2006, pp. 242.

A special mention should be made of the young Finnish sociologist Tuomas Martikainen, who is specialized on religious diasporas and inter-religious relationships.

In conclusion, websites and centres of sociology of religion are becoming more and more frequent.

Furthermore, the number of registrations and the percentage of attending interested scholars at the conferences organized by the International Society for Sociology of Religion and by the Association of Sociology of Religion, and others, show a notable increment.