Thursday, April 10, 2008

Does the sociology of religion inherently assume no God?

A Theory of Religion, by Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, is one of the seminal works on a rational choice theory of religion. In the first chapter, they make an interesting claim about the study of religion and the existence of God.

The standard approach in sociology of religion is to assume that this study does not bear upon the reality of spiritual beliefs. As Stark and Bainbridge put it: "It has become conventional in social science writing on religion to lodge the disclaimer that scientific study of religion implies nothing about the truth of religion (p. 22)."

But... S&B disagree. Their theory, like most others in the sociology of religion, is rooted solely in human action. As such, it implies the absence of a Creator. They write: "By attempting to explain religious phenomena without reference to actions taken by the supernatural, we assume that religion is purely human phenomenon, the causes of which are to be found entirely in the natural world. Such an approach is obviously incompatible with faith in revelations and miracles (pp. 22-23)."

This argument strikes me as odd in that it implies that for there to be a God (i.e., true supernatural action), there mustn't be patterned social behavior in response to the supernatural. Put differently, understanding a human mechanism doesn't preclude the existence of a supernatural cause. (For a parable of this)

Having said this, I realize that I have enough invested in both sociology and Christianity that perhaps I am unable to see a contradiction between them (as per balance theory).

What do you think?

6 comments:

Drek said...

If nobody else will comment I guess I'll bite.

The thing about this question is that the answer depends on what sort of god we're talking about. Contrary to common usage, the Judeo-Christian vision of god is not the only, or even most common, option.

If we attempt to find a natural explanation for religion (i.e. something rooted in human psychology and behavior) then, in essence, we're looking for a non-supernatural explanation. Taking the existence of god as a given (something you and I differ on) doesn't invalidate this approach as natural human proclivities may still determine whether or not we worship and, if we do, how. The issue only becomes acute, however, when we don't just suppose the existence of a god, but also a CREATOR god. See, Zeus and Apollo and that lot didn't create man and, as such, acknowledging them doesn't mean anything about how we behave. So, our actions remain to be explained using naturalistic mechanisms. On the other hand, the Christian god is allegedly responsible for the creation of humanity and, thus, if we suppose such a god's existence then almost all questions of why can be reduced to "because god made us that way." The difficulty with such a conclusion, however, is that it stops research before it even starts.

I think what I would say is that the sociology of religion doesn't depend upon the assumption that god doesn't exist, but it's much more productive scientifically if it proceeds under that assumption.

nate said...

That's basically what I thought. "Methodological naturalism" seems to guide social sciences as much as natural/physical sciences.

Brad Wright said...

Thanks for posting, Drek. I was hoping that you would because you offer thoughtful opinions starting from a different assumption than I do, and so I learn a lot from your comments.

The assumption that God doesn't exist has its own implications for religion... though useful in many ways for the person and society (maybe), it is ultimately a fraud. As such, we should favor explanations that incorporate it.

Would an assumption of agnosticism perhaps be most useful?

Drek said...

The assumption that God doesn't exist has its own implications for religion... though useful in many ways for the person and society (maybe), it is ultimately a fraud. As such, we should favor explanations that incorporate it.

I'm sorry, but I don't really follow what you're trying to express here. If nothing else, I think I would suggest that applying the term "fraud" to religion is, as a general practice, unwise. It implies deliberate deception whereas I think the overwhelming majority of religious people are completely sincere. Thus, if there is no god it isn't a case of fraud so much as simple error. That said, however, I'm only saying that for generating testable hypotheses a presumption of non-existence is more useful.

Would an assumption of agnosticism perhaps be most useful?

Functionally, this works out more or less the same way. Methodological naturalism in this case only really means that we proceed in trying to account for religion using natural mechanisms. It's not that you can't believe in god and use methodological naturalism, but if you explain religion by reference to god then you're placing your causal variables firmly outside a realm that's accessible to science.

Brad Wright said...

Good points, Drek.

As for "The assumption that God doesn't exist has its own implications for religion", I meant for the *study of* religion.

Having said that, I completely with your statement that "It's not that you can't believe in god and use methodological naturalism, but if you explain religion by reference to god then you're placing your causal variables firmly outside a realm that's accessible to science."

It's not clear to me, however, that once we focus on natural mechanisms (without putting the supernatural in our model), it really doesn't matter which assumptions we make about the supernatural. (At least formally--certainly our assumptions creep into our work, but that's for another post).

As such, I don't see the value of assuming that God doesn't exist for doing sociology of religion.

Thoughts?

Drek said...

Hey Brad,

You'll find my response over here. Sorry, but I needed to use a visual aid.