With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Monday, October 06, 2008

The End of the Sociological Critique of Religion

The following is a presentation I recently gave at a conference on Religion and the Polis:

[I] The sociological critique of religion has influenced the contemporary religious imagination so much so that it is perhaps easier to find those who believe that Jesus was the husband of Mary Magdelene, or the no-longer-interested boyfriend of Judas Iscariot, than that he suffered, died, was buried, rose on the third day and instituted a Church in his Spirit. Advocates of sociology would perhaps be quick to point out why this is so: a married Jesus, or a homosexual Jesus, emerges out of a scientific and historical investigation into the evidence, while that other stuff about him resurrecting and instituting a Church comes from faith. After all, sociology conceives itself as a science that investigates the nature of social evolution and that has as its object ‘the social’ as such. In his monograph titled Sociology, Giddens defines sociology as “the study of human social life, groups and societies,” and quickly moves from definition to characterization adding, “it is a dazzling and compelling enterprise, having as its subject matter our own behavior as social beings.” Max Weber in his Sociological Writings states that sociology is “a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects.” The British Sociological Association, in explaining what sociologists do, states, "Sociology is the one social science which embraces the whole range of human activities and this makes it a very wide field of study.” The ‘whole range of human activities’ … Indeed, that does make it a wide field. It is so wide, that one wonders how this science, finding itself in every human activity, has managed to avoid an identity crisis.

More particularly, John Milbank wondered how sociology has avoided an identity crisis, which is what perhaps led him to investigate its genealogy, its history and its philosophical/theological assumptions. In his highly influential, though intellectually exhausting, 1990 publication Theology and Social Theory, Beyond Secular Reason, Milbank provides the only existing comprehensive treatment of the relation between theology and scientific ‘discourses’ about society. While his conclusions are many, they may be summed up with the observation that, at the end of part II, Milbank himself makes and that many have conceded: namely, that once the historical, philosophical and especially theological roots of sociology are exposed, the sociology of religion must come to an end. It is the purpose of this presentation to examine the contours of this claim and illuminate its more salient features. It is my hope that those who feel in any way burdened by an apparent need for a sociological justification for their beliefs will find their load somewhat lightened, and that those who concede the validity of a sociological critique of religion will find some grounds for self-reflection.

[II] To begin, we must clarify the meaning of the sociological critique of religion. We have already seen some of the ways in which sociologists understand their enterprise: as the science that studies: human behavior, or the causes of social development, or even, the ‘whole range of human activities.’ It is difficult to suppress the way that the identity emerging from these definitions elevates sociology to the status of a metanarrative perched transcendentally beyond the corpus humanum, ever revealing society to itself, seeing itself as the referent to which all human activities must relate for their own self-understanding. In fact, Peter Berger, the modern American sociologist, proposes a definition of sociology that, with respect to religion, enthusiastically endorses this view: “sociology,” he claims “is now the name of the scientific and humanist critique of religion, the fiery brook through which contemporary theology must pass.”[Peter Berger, A Rumour of Angels (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969) 44-45.] Drawing out what was always tacitly present in sociology, this definition transforms the sociology of religions into the sociological critique of religions. As it is commonly understood, “critique” indicates, following Kant, the cognitive process that aspires to establish an object in its purity by clearing away those elements that have merely been added to its essence. In the preface to the first edition of his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant writes, “our age is properly the age of critique, and to critique everything must submit.”[Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A, xi.] It is through critique that the power of reason may establish the purity of a thing beyond all experience, since experience distorts a thing’s true essence, or so Kant thought. For Kant, human knowledge must be set on “the secure path of science,”[William Desmond, Philosophy and Its Others, Ways of Being and Mind (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990) 30.] since only then can our knowledge acquire the certainty and solidity it supposedly needs to move forward. Most modern sciences, and especially the social sciences, have followed Kant down this path like children following the Pied Piper. Where Kant used the principles of human reason as the referent or criteria by which to establish purity, sociology uses the principles discovered within the process of social development itself. Consequently, sociology has adopted the sense of critique in two interrelated ways. First, it has adopted the fundamental assumption that grounds the critical process, namely, that there are such pure states of objects, independent of experience, and available to human ken in their purity. Second, as Berger’s assertion makes clear, it has taken up the Kantian critical process as a fundamental inspiration and impulse. It believes that part of its task in investigating social evolution is to in fact discover the essence of various social phenomena in their pure state, in order that it may more clearly establish their place within social evolution. This pure state is measured by the principles abstracted from the social process itself. In sum, then, what is meant by the sociological critique of religion is this: any attempt by the sociologist to characterize, or render a judgment about, the essence of the religious and its place in social evolution by appealing to the ‘social fact’ as a fundamental, a priori, normative criteria of truth. Or we might say it is the giving of a social explanation for various features of religion, generated largely by the view that while on the one hand with respect to social development religions are problematic, the ‘social’ and ‘society’ are obvious and self-evident.

[III] All this involves a multitude of assumptions, though a few of the more prominent are worth mentioning. As already alluded to, there is the assumption that there is such a thing as “pure essence of religion” beyond all experience. Another is that the religious enters into social evolution in its own way, giving rise to a separate sphere within society called the ‘religious.’ Related to these first two, there is the assumption that there are cognitive instruments of verifiability available to the sociologist that remain outside this ‘religious’ sphere, and so are unavailable to the ‘religious’ person unless she relinquishes her religious standing and adopts a neutral perspective. With these assumptions in mind, along with their variances, we are in a position to examine how it is one may argue for the end of the sociological critique of religion.

[IV.a.1] Understanding the end of the sociological critique of religion requires that we return to the beginning of the social construction of the religious. In his Theopoligical Imagination, William Cavanaugh argues against the view that the modern state was created to exert control over warring religious factions spurred on by opposing doctrinal loyalties. Instead, Cavanaugh insists that “to call these conflicts ‘Wars of Religion’ is an anachronism, for what was at issue in these wars was the very creation of religion as a set of privately held beliefs without direct political relevance.”[Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination, 22.] It was a time of advances within many arenas of human pursuit, and a new conception of power was being forged alongside a new understanding of human autonomy. Consequently, governing authorities, beginning to rise above ecclesial influence and direction, were confronted by the need to secure sovereignty over their subjects. The privatization of religion was simultaneously the privatization of the Church, driven by and resulting in desire for a larger share of power for non-ecclesial governing bodies. The public space was, therefore, stripped of its once recognizable sacredness leaving a vacuum that was quickly filled when the secular, once understood as the time between fall and eschaton, was reimagined as that space itself. As Milbank tells it, the discovery of this so-called secular domain won widespread approval largely because it was theologically promoted as a sphere where human making, or the made (factum), reflected human knowledge and power as self-government, self-determination and autonomy. But this was an entirely arbitrary interpretation of human power since it was selected over other views that, like the Baroque theories or idea-mannerist theories of art, viewed human making from the perspective of participation in the Good. Rejecting these, thinkers promoting the secular construed it as an artificial (as in humanly made) space, constituted by the interpretation that the conflict for power is ontologically fundamental.

[IV.a.ii] This interpretation took primarily two forms. The first, which abstracted the power play and applied the term ‘politics’ to it, brought about a new science of politics that “tried to deduce conclusions from the demiurgic wills of human individuals.”[Milbank, TST, 27]. This created a political view based essentially upon the unilateral relation of the individual to the whole, driven by a ‘natural rights’ perspective that, suspended between the isolated individual and the sovereign power, had to resort to theories of original contract for explanation. Importantly, it was a political view promoted largely by a voluntarist theology that sought to deduce social development from repeated patters of human volition in reference to state power. But because it was unable to account for the spontaneous collaboration of individuals between themselves, a second interpretation arose that, reducing this spontaneity to the ‘operations of the market,’ developed into the science of political economy. This science arose on the belief that the new science of politics neglected and insulted divine providence. Consequently, political economy sought to overcome this by recognizing God’s immediate presence in the social sphere: “..in political economy the field of social relations between individuals falls under a ‘providential’ discourse about how bad or self-interested actions can have good long-term outcomes…”[TST, 51]. In this way, political economy serves the role of a theodicy, which Milbank sees as evidence that the early phases of the construction of the secular was not an emancipation from theology, but a shift within theology: from Christendom, which saw God’s presence both in and beyond the natural order, to ‘secular society,’ which legitimated autonomous reason through a voluntarism that proposed human power and choice as a reflection of God’s all-powerful will, whose interventions into the natural order reflected a form of theodicy.

[IV.a.iii] The emergence of the social as a concept, then, must be located within the emergence of the secular and its attempt to legitimate itself. The new science of politics, influenced especially by Hobbes, Locke and Machiavelli, abstracted the ‘political,’ stimulating not only the desire to understand human power but also the desire to acquire it, while political economy, under the formation of Adam Smith, James Stewart, Adam Ferguson, and others shifted what was once the desire for wealth to the promotion of desire itself. In either case, what is revealed is that the emergence of the secular as an artificial space of human autonomy was, for the most part, generated by both the discourse concerning human power within politics and the discourse concerning human desire within economics. But both discourses ultimately remained focused on power: politics concerned the active pursuit of power, while economics concerned the preservation of power by disseminating it in order to bind the individual subject to the central authority. Since the ‘object’ of these new sciences was abstract power and abstract desire, the attempts to concretize them meant that there was a new ‘city’ being imagined into existence, which would eventually become circumscribed by the notion of ‘society’. And, as Milbank notes, “Secular scientific understanding of society was, from the outset, only the self-knowledge of the self-construction of the secular as power”[TST, 10]. Thus, the emergence of the ‘social’ as a concept occurs alongside the emergence of the secular sphere’s attempt to legitimate itself on theological foundations.

[IV.a.iv] The emergence of a new social space meant the emergence of a new process under which it could be investigated. Milbank traces two fundamental courses that this process underwent, both of which continued to develop the character of sociology while more and more covering up its theological origins. The first course has its origins in the French tradition and a new form of social theology whose metaphysical assumptions, heavily influenced by the novelty of positivism, advanced the idea that because an individual is always already situated within society, the ‘social’ must be positively understood as an ‘aspect of the original divine creation.’ “New scientific approaches focused upon the new object ‘society’,” explains Milbank, “were not, therefore, trying to explain social phenomena as liberalism had sought to explain political and economic phenomena: instead they sought to identify and describe the social as a ‘positive’ datum and to explain other phenomena in relation to this general facticity”[TST, 51]. The second course originates with the German intervention into sociological development, which, although successful in its desire to overcome scientific aspects of the influence of positivism in sociology, unwittingly maintained other metaphysical features of positivism. Milbank notes a few of the more prominent: the association of the ‘social’ with given, permanent categories; a dualistic conception of humanity as caught between ‘real’ nature and ‘spiritual’ values; an identification of the ‘religious’ with irrational and arbitrary forces which are irreducible and unexplainable; an emphasis on functional causality; and an empirical approach to ‘facts’[cf. TST, 75]. Both of these courses, the German and the French, can be viewed as two sides of the same coin: in the French tradition, “the problem with [the] ‘social’ explanation turned out to be that ‘religion’ and ‘the social’ were really identical, [with the Germans] the problem is precisely the opposite: the ‘religious’ and the ‘social’ are conceived of as always and forever categorically separate realms"[TST,76]. In both cases, ‘religion’ is domesticated by the new conception of the ‘social’ giving the impression that the social is prior and thus superior to religion. As Milbank understands it, then, the French and the German sociological traditions were two sides of a coin that was used to purchase the ‘social’ as a transcendental reality positively given.

The preceding is, in a very small nutshell, the historical evidence presented to account for the roots of modern sociology. These roots should reveal to us how modern sociology is planted firmly in the soil of theology, fertilized with very questionable philosophical assumptions. In a time when sociologists believe themselves alone to be scientifically capable of illuminating the truth of the ‘whole range of human activities,’ one wonders how many sociologists have contracted a degree of amnesia of their own history. Consequently, it seems more than valid to assert, as Milbank does, that “sociology is only able to explain, or even illuminate religion, to the extent that it conceals its own theological borrowings and its own quasi-religious status"[TST, 52]. The historical evidence offers an antidote to this amnesia, but for those unwilling to swallow such a pill, there is another antidote in the form of the philosophical evidence.

[IV.b.i] The philosophical evidence begins with what Milbank calls ‘meta-suspicion’, which is a form of suspicion that questions the grounds of suspicion itself. The sociological grounding that his meta-suspicion calls into question is the existence of the ‘social’ as conceived by sociology. Rather than merely questioning the functional reduction of religion to the social, meta-suspicion asks, is there a transcendental, a priori category called the ‘social’ that may serve as a reference for societal constituents like religion? Given the abstract terms of the question, a definitive and determinate answer either way does not seem possible. But we can find a way forward by recalling the various modes of demonstrating the truth set forth by Aquinas.

[IV.b.ii] St. Thomas maintained that when arguing on the grounds of human reason, one may either demonstrate the opposite position to be in error, or one may demonstrate that it is not necessary. By demonstrating that a position is not necessary, it means that it is a position held by contingent reasoning, which can also be described by saying one assents to the truth of the position from a quasi-faith perspective. In light of this, arguing against the existence of the ‘social’ as sociology conceives it does not require that we positively demonstrate that there is no transcendentally, a priori, ‘social’ category. Instead, all that is required is to demonstrate that such a view is not itself necessarily true, but is contingent upon the sociologist’s perspective and thus posited as a revealed principle of sociological “faith.”

[IV.b.iii] This becomes possible when we examine the Platonic-Kantian impulse that energizes belief in a transcendentally a priori social category. Following the Platonic impulse, sociology, whether implicitly or explicitly, subscribes to the idea that there exists some ideal form of the social unadulterated by the various images or concretions that make it visible. Following the Kantian impulse, it believes this ‘unadulterated category of the social’ to be transcendentally a priori, giving it a quasi-revealed status discernible only by the specialist, the sociologist, who abstracts the ‘social’ from every interaction, particular custom and ritual, linguistic structure etc. Because it is impossible to point to the ‘social’ as such, it must be abstracted from all societies over space and time. And since a given society is constituted by a relative infinity of particulars, this abstraction must be supplemented by a value-inference on the part of the abstractor as to what particulars of a given society are given emphasis and what particulars are not. In order to be objective, however, “one must try to uncover the unique value-perspective that is constitutive of a particular culture, and which derives form the non-historical, a priori realm of valuation"[TST, 80]. Moreover, the value system applied must be universally and unconditionally applicable, which involves applying the Kantian test for a genuine categorical imperative, asking ‘am I able to universalize what I value at this point for all people?’ But this position assumes that all societies are constituted in such a way that they can be abstracted and easily fit into a Kantian value-structure.
For example, both Durkheim and Weber tend to categorize various societies in terms of the relation of the individual to the whole, which reflects a very Modern political value – what Cavanaugh calls ‘centripetal politics’ – and neglects the way that many societies understood themselves in a hierarchical ordering. Even when this hierarchical ordering is acknowledged, it is so only in a negative way, “in terms of the observation that organic and hierarchical societies exercise strong ‘control’ over the individual, as if the member of this [hierarchical] society were secretly shadowed by the presence of the modern, self-determining subject"[TST, 103].
In order for the ‘social’ to do the work that sociology claims it does, it must be a concept free from the debris of subjective value. Otherwise, as a category, it becomes merely the ambassador for the sociologist’s own value-laden worldview, and in effect, another religious perspective. And precisely here is the contradiction: for the ‘social’ to become a concept, it must be abstracted from a variety of manifestations; this abstraction cannot avoid being supplemented with a value-inferential interpretation provided by the sociologist’s own particular experience of the ‘social’. Consequently, the ‘social’ is either nothing more than a reified abstraction, accepted from a subjective point of view as to what values should constitute a society, or a principle revealed from a transcendental, ahistorical and a priori realm. In either case, sociology is exposed as a religious narrative that offers explanations of societal constitution based upon what is accepted through revelation, rather than based upon what is necessarily true or self-evident. The sociologist that believes herself capable of critiquing religion, then, is like a Buddhist who explains the resurrection in terms of Nirvana.

[V.] Admittedly, this compact presentation has attempted to deliver a thesis whose complexity requires much more space to expound. For such an exposition, I yield to Milbank, Cavanaugh and others. Nevertheless, I hope that what has been presented enables theologians to stand firm against the criticism – as common as it is unexamined – that theology is no longer possible since it grounds itself upon revelation rather than scientific, or sociological findings. This is not to say that there is no value to be found in the sociological enterprise. After all, a Buddhist who explains the resurrection in terms of Nirvana may shed light on aspects of this event that may have gone unnoticed. But in this case, it becomes an aesthetic, or narrative, encounter between the Christian and the Buddhist, and not a scientific one. For sociology to enter into the religious conversation, it too must see itself for what it is: another narrative that seeks to tell the story of the world, the origins of human existence, the roots of evil and the best way to be saved from evil, using principles of human reason, but also using principles it faithfully accepts as revealed. Therefore, theology no longer needs to acquiesce to sociology, for as Milbank rightly observes, “in effect, theology encounters in sociology only a theology, and indeed a church in disguise, but a theology and a church dedicated to promoting a certain secular consensus"[TST, 4].

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  • At 10/23/2008 6:33 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    A very nice piece. I'm sure it was well received.

    Are you sold on Milbank's historical narrative? Or do you have any criticisms of it that don't come through in your appropriation of it here?

    If Milbank's conclusion about the theological nature of sociological discourse is correct (as you note, constituting an alternative set of "revealed" articles of "faith"), then should Christians approach the modern social sciences in the same way we approach inter-religious dialogue or apologetics? Or do we even need to address them as "Christians" per se? Would it be enough, having exposed sociology's "revealed" roots, to oppose its presuppositions on the grounds of natural reason alone?

    Pax Christi,

  • At 10/29/2008 2:44 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    Pat -

    Great questions, and ones that could easily open a very important and involved discussion. I almost don't want to attempt a response here for fear of reducing the issues.
    Thus is a blog, no?

    Anyway, as I have not done enough work to judge Milbank's historical reading of the matter, I can only assess his hermeneutic. I think he gets overly criticized because his reading is so critical and as such tends toward its own kind of reductionism. But I don't think he would apologize; after all, the beast he is seeking to tame is one that does this very same thing. In other words, his hermeneutic seems proportionate to the object of his investigation and its development.

    The sociological anti-theology has become so ingrained into Western thought that it must be rocked into the open, it must be wrenched into visibility. More people dogmatically swallow the spoon-feedings of sociology than any people at any point in history swallowed any other dogmatic offerings. Sometimes an epoch needs a nice dose of ipecac to induce vomiting...

    My own response to your other question is to say a few things. First, I think - as you know - that it's time to move away from the kind of apologetics that has come to dominance in Modernity - namely, a very defensive, reactionary apologetic that tends toward correctness instead of truth, claiming that one holds the absolute position instead of guiding all in a dialogue toward a greater grasp of the light of the absolute. Now, of course, I'm not one who eschews absolute truth claims either. This can confuse some (especially those who haven't read Desmond). Apologetics, in my view, must become imbued with a more aesthetic sensibility, where the goal is not being right but transfiguring all thought into greater conformity with the Gestalt Christi.

    So, what does that mean with respect to sociology? Well, as I mention in the paper, sociology still has a value insofar as it can provide a broader view of the 'homo religiosis' - man as a creature of transcendent, and transcending, aspirations. But when sociology conceives of itself as a theoretical (rather than a practical) science, it goes astray. So in some way, it does become like a sort of inter-religious dialogue. But of course, even inter-religious dialogue - as a concept - needs to be reconfigured, which is why I'm reluctant to label theology's relationship to sociology as such.

    Moreover, it is only valid to oppose sociology's 'revealed' aspect on the grounds of natural reason insofar as reason is able. In the paper I tried to show that natural reason is capable of demonstrating certain truth claims to be 'not necessary' and thus contingent. But if sociology accepts a principle as self-evident, when in fact it isn't, and when reason has shown this to be the case, then reason can only demonstrate consequent inconsistencies in hopes of persuading the sociologist that the Catholic/Christian position is in fact more consistent with reason. But reason's power is limited to this if the dialogue must remain "scientific" (however that may be understood).
    Once that is cleared up, it becomes more a matter of dialogue than apologetics, where persuasion to the truth should be the transfiguring strategy.

    What about you. How do you approach the matter?


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