A very Concise Introduction




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Chapter Two:

Studying Religion


Historically speaking sociology has been diverse in its practise. There have been and still are theoretical sociologists and empirical sociologists, qualitative sociologists and quantitative sociologists, interpretive sociologists and positivist sociologists, microsociologists and macrosociologists. Despite this theoretical and methodological diversity, however, sociology has had, since the 1950s, a dominant and mainstream culture that is statistical, empirical, quantitative, positivist and largely microsociological and a minority counterculture that is qualitative, interpretive, macrosociological, and microsociological.


Historically the major divide in sociology has been the quantitative/qualitative divide. Both approaches, though different, have had the same end, namely to try to discern causality in social and cultural life, and they have the same means to this end, they draw on empirical data and they use a similar approach to doing sociology, namely, 1. Define the problem, 2. Review the literature, 3. Formulate a hypothesis, 4. Select a research design, 5. Carry out research, 6. Interpret the results, and 7. Report the research findings.


Quantitative approaches have generally been “scientific”, or at least quantitative sociologists claim quantitative sociology is scientific, and statistical in nature. Quantitatively oriented sociologists have generally applied the deductive method, the generation of hypotheses out of theories of social causality that confirm, modify, or reject (falsify) hypotheses. Quantitative sociologists, borrowing their methods from “hard” sciences, have long tried to distinguish causality (the notion that one factor caused another or others) from correlation (an association of factors that vary together) by establishing time order (showing that the hypothesised causal factor precedes any other factor or factors), ruling out alternative factors, and ruling out reverse causality (that the factor one assumes to be the causal factor is not actually caused by other factor one is studying) in the process.


Survey research and interviews have been favoured methods of data collection by quantitative sociologists. Quantitative sociologists have generally made extensive use of statistical methods in their analysis of the data they collect and in their search for causal factors. When using statistics they, in standard scientific operating procedure, first operationalise their terms (the analytical and systematic definition of what one is studying, e.g. poverty), delineate dependent variables (factors one is trying to find a cause for) from independent variables (variables or factors one assumes have a causal impact on another or others), and develop hypotheses (propose a negative, no relationship, or positive, a relationship, between variables). Upon concluding their analyses quantitative sociologists want to make sure that their hypotheses are valid (they measure what they were intended to measure), reliable (they are repeatable), and generalisable (they tell us not only about the group being studied, the sample, but the broader population). Historians, of course, are fond of statistics that are longitudinal, collected over time.


Causality is much more difficult to “prove” in sociology, however, than it is in the clinical settings of in the halls of hard science. Sociologists, since they are studying humans and since there are governmental, academic, and disciplinary rules for studying humans (do no harm, get informed consent, be sure that participation is voluntary), generally do not study humans in controlled clinical settings. Given this difference between sociology and social science in general and hard science some sociologists have questioned whether sociology can be a science akin to biology or physics. Others have questioned whether sociology is a science at all.


Qualitative sociologists tend to assume that sociology has to approach the stuff of society differently from the hard sciences. Utilising interviews, ethnographic or participant observation, and historical and comparative approaches, qualitative sociologists attempt to get at the meaning or meanings the social has for human beings by, like Weber and Geertz sympathizing or empathizing their way into, for example, religious cultures or by “going native”, thinking like the religion you are studying. Some qualitative sociologists argue that such approaches can, inductively, establish causal relationships between social and cultural factors factors. Others, we often call them structuralists, post-structuralists, semiologists, postmodernists, or deconstructionists, are not so sure that causal relationships can be established and wonder whether notions of causality are solely in the minds of the “scientific” observer, whether “objectivity is even possible, whether “subjects” act differently when academics are around, and whether the very presence of the “scientific” observer affects what they are attempting to study (the social scientific variant of the Heisenberg principle).


Links: Quantitative Social Surveys

US Bureau of the Census

http://www.census.gov/

US Bureau of the Census, Special Collections (past census data)

http://www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/decennial/special.html

General Social Survey (US)

http://www.norc.uchicago.edu/GSS+Website/

Panel Study of Income Dynamics (US)

http://psidonline.isr.umich.edu/

National Marriage Project (US)

http://www.virginia.edu/marriageproject/

General Social Survey, Statistics Canada

http://www.statcan.gc.ca/bsolc/olc-cel/olc-cel?catno=89F0115X&CHROPG=1&lang=eng

Australian Bureau of Statistics

http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/webpages/statistics?opendocument

Australian Survey of Social Attitudes

http://aussa.anu.edu.au/

New Zealand General Social Survey, Statistics New Zealand

http://www.stats.govt.nz/nzgss

New Zealand Social Science Data Service

http://www.nzssds.org.nz/

European Social Survey

http://www.europeansocialsurvey.org/


The Social Sciences and Religion

Both quantitative and qualitative sociologists have been interested in religion. Historically speaking social scientists have generally used a variety of these strategies to study religion. Qualitatively oriented social scientists have done ethnography of religious groups and in some cases have, like Max Weber and Clifford Geertz gone native thinking, in an empathetic and sympathetic way, their way into religion. Weber calls this verstehen or, as this is commonly translated in English, understanding. Quantitatively oriented social scientists have emphasised “objective” quantitative measures like attendance at mass, the taking of communion, the sending of one’s children to parochial school, one’s participation in parish activities, one’s interaction with the priest, for instance, as measures of one’s commitment to one’s—in this case Catholic—faith. They have used surveys, questionnaires, interviews, ritual analysis, and participant-observation to get at a persons religious beliefs and practises. Historians have used archival records, census data, membership lists, and pew counts (Patricia Bonomi and Peter Eisenstadt in Bonomi’s Under the Cope of Heaven) to get at religiosity in the past. One important large-scale survey, quantitative in nature, that explores issues relating to religious opinions, values, attitudes, and self-reported behaviour, in the present is the General Social Survey.


Historically most sociologists have seen attendance at some religious institutional function as a measure of religiosity. Sociologists Charles Glock and Rodney Stark have defined religiosity along five dimensions:

  1. the experiential dimension—interactions with the “divine”, however those are defined.

  2. the ritualistic dimension—participation in worship, prayer, and sacraments.

  3. the dimension of belief, whether an individual subscribes to commonly or traditionally endorsed beliefs;

  4. the intellectual dimension—knowledge about religious traditions, teachings, and so on

  5. the consequential dimension—the impact of one’s religious beliefs on one’s behaviour in religious institutional settings.


There are, of course, problems associated with social scientific methods for studying religion. Does one’s attendance at a religious service translate into religiosity? Just because one attends church is one religious? Can one assume that when one says he or she is attending a religious service that he or she really is? Can one trust that the oral histories one takes from an individual are unvarnished truth or haven’t been transformed in the fogs of memory or manipulated to make the speaker appear better in his and in others eyes? As for ethnography or participant observation: When observers go into the field are they able to describe everything that is going on in their arena of study? Does the cultural background and the biases of observers impact or determine what they “see” going on in front of them? Is ethnographic writing itself is a species of western discourse does it tell us more about the observer or the observed? Is it rent through with Western discursive power relations? Are the measures we use biased toward official institutional forms of religion?


Four final caveats: given the lack of organizational form of some “religions” (pagans, astrologers, atheists, those who meditate, those who practise yoga) it is hard to study these less institutional forms via the methods (attendance at religious meetings) social scientists have typically used to explore religiosity. Remember that in some instances one can be, say, an Anglican and a practitioner of yoga or a Baptist or a Baha’i and still read his or her astrological forecast on a daily or weekly basis though the guardians of Anglican, Baptist, or Baha’i orthodoxy may counsel against this. This too makes the study of religion as complex and complicated as human beings. Remember that some two-thirds of Americans report going to religious services regularly. When social scientists actually do ethnography and actually observe whether those who say they go to religious services they find that the survey numbers are between 10% and 30% too high. Remember that looking at religiosity in the present may or may not tell us about religiosity in the past.


The Worlds Great Religions

One of the way that intellectuals and academics have studies religion in the past and in the present is by studying the worlds “great” theistic religions, the “great” religions that worship a god or gods, ethicalist religions, religions whose members adhere to certain moral principles, and animistic religions, religions that believe that spirits are part of the natural world.


A word of warning about the phrase “great” religions before we get into them: Given what we have already learned about the very ideological way religion was defined in the West it should not be surprising that the phrase “great” religions was generally used to describe the “great religions” by scholars, Christian and Jewish scholars, who were members of at least two of the “great religions” they were describing. Remember that the study of religion originated in the post-exploration and Enlightenment West. Ethnocentric much?


The Western Great Religions: The People of the Book

Israel, Judea, and the Torah

One of the small kingdoms that came into existence in the Ancient Near East, one that is particularly important for European and Western History, is Ancient Israel. Israel may have been small in size but it was big in cultural influence thanks to the Roman adoption of Christianity as the state religion in the fourth century CE.


In the traditional tale Israel came into existence after God forced the Egyptian Pharaoh to let his chosen people, the Israelites, go. After a period of wandering for forty years—this was a punishment for disobedience—God guided his chosen people (note the ethnocentrism common to all social and cultural groups here) into the “promised land” (note the ideologies of peoplehood and soil here). Since this “land of milk and honey” was already occupied God—Yahweh seems to be a tribal god of Israel only at this point—helped his people cleanse the land of Canaanites turning Canaan into the land of Israel (an early form of ethnic cleansing and genocide?). In another tale, this one in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible too, Israel simply migrates into Canaan and lives amongst those Canaanites who were already there.


Not all scholars of Ancient Israel accept the first of these traditional tales. Some regard the Hebrews as the habiru of ancient texts. In this scenario the Hebrews represent nomadic Canaanites. In a variant of this theory Biblical scholar Norman Gottwald, influenced by the politically radical liberation theology of the 1970s, argues that Israel originated out of a successful revolt of Canaanite poor in “the land of Canaan”.


Regardless of which of these stories are true and regardless of how the Hebrews got to the “chosen land” one thing is clear, the period around 1200 and 1100 BCE, when the Israelites were supposed to have entered their “holy land”, was a catastrophic one for many empires in the Ancient world. The Hittite Kingdom fell around the same time in 1200 BCE. Egypt was invaded by the mysterious “Sea People” around the same time. Mycenaean Greece fell around the same time.


Ancient Israel was very different from the powerful Hittite, Egyptian, and Mycenean kingdoms. Ancient Israel was essentially a cat’s-paw to whichever great power happened to exist in the Tigris and Euphrates, Anatolia, or Nile areas of the Ancient Near East part of the Mediterranean. The history of Ancient Israel was not static. Around 920 BCE Israel divided into the kingdoms of Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE. Judah would fall to the Babylonians in 587 BCE, the Persians in 550 BCE, the successors of Alexander the Great in the 300s BCE, and the Romans in 63 BCE. One of the few times, in fact, that Israel was autonomous was during the reign of Kings David and Solomon and some of their successors.


More than anything else it is the Tanakh, the Bible, that has been Israel’s legacy to the Western world. For many, the first five books of the Bible, which are attributed to Moses—Jews refer to these as the Torah, the five books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Christians call it the Pentateuch—tell us about the creation of the world, the early history of the world, and the early history of the Hebrew and Jewish people. The Bible contains various types of writings—myths of origin, epic myths, history, prophecy, wisdom literature, poetry, including sexual poetry (the “Song of Songs”)—and is full of writings about Israel and Judea as a chosen people, i.e., as a people in an exclusive covenant with Yahweh, Israel and Judea’s god. The Hebrew Bible, in other words, contains a healthy dose of ethnocentrism. Many have and many continue to regard the Bible as literally true.


For many it was the monotheism that developed in Ancient Israel that was the most important influence of Israel on the modern world. When this monotheism began is uncertain. There are some scholars who maintain that Israel’s monotheism had been there from the beginning. Others argue that Israel’s monotheism developed between 1200 BCE to 546 BCE. There are after all, they point out, different names for God in the Hebrew Bible including YHWH, Elohim, and El Shaddai. Regardless of who is right, and we will likely never know since origins are lost in the fog of prehistory, the years before the appearance of written history, monotheism was certainly important by the time of David (1012 BCE-972 BCE) and Solomon (972 BCE-932 BCE), a rare period in Judea’s history when that nation was, as I mentioned earlier, relatively autonomous from the great powers around them.


Central to early Hebrew religion was the notion I mentioned earlier, that Israel was God’s chosen people as a result of a covenant made between God and the Hebrews, a covenant in which Israel, after some discussion and debate (see the Abraham and Isaac tale where Abraham argues with god) agreed to follow the commandments of God, commandments that are now found in the Torah. As long as Israel followed the covenant, it was believed, god would keep Israel safe.


Very early on a problem with this ideology became apparent: why are Israel and Judah, if they are god’s chosen people, so powerless relative to the great powers around it like the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians. The conquest of Israel and later Judah by these great powers eventually led to a crisis in the Hebrew religion. Why, Judahites asked, did God allow Judah to be conquered again and again. Religion, of course, is fundamentally about why good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. And eventually Judah’s prophets thought they had the answer to this conundrum: Judahites were not living up to their covenant with god so god was using the powers around Judah to punish Judah for failing to live up to the covenant.


Eventually, the Torah, the Nevi’im, the Prophets, and the Ketubim, the writings, would be collected into the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible in the first century of the current era. The Torah, in particular, has proven to be quite controversial in intellectual circles beginning with the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. Beginning with Baruch Spinoza, a philosopher of Jewish birth living in Holland in the seventeenth century, however, another way of looking at the Torah arose. Spinoza questioned whether Moses actually wrote the books of the Bible as tradition in Jewish and Christian circles claims. By the nineteenth century under the impact of Darwinian evolutionary theory a number of scholars, many of them German, came to the same conclusion. Arguing that the Bible could not have been written until urbanism, the monarchy, a priestly caste, and writing had developed in Ancient Israel they suggested that the five books of Moses were actually derived from several previous sources not authored by Moses: the J or Y document—a source which used Yahweh for god, the E document—a source which used Elohim for god, the P document—the priestly document which contained regulatory and ritual sources relating to the priesthood in Ancient Israel—and the D document—a source discovered by King Josiah in the 600s BCE in the temple in Jerusalem. Scholars date these sources to no earlier than the rule of King David. However, it is likely that these sources draw on earlier oral tales making the early parts of the Bible akin to the
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