Why Social Scientists (and Some Journalists) Don’t Get Religion

From the November 2014 Forum in South Beach, Miami, Florida

Dr. Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, University of Notre Dame

Sociologist and religious scholar Dr. Christian Smith has identified a broad problem within American academia: religion is poorly understood, and its study has been relegated to the sidelines. He outlines the reasons for this failure of understanding, which include the lack of prestige associated with religious studies in universities, the theoretical secularization of American society, and the isolation of religion from mainstream institutions. Mr. Smith believes that if religion is to be widely understood, that effort must originate within the academic world.


Michael Cromartie

Michael Cromartie

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Our next speaker, Christian Smith, is ‑‑ I don’t think I’ll embarrass him by saying probably one of the leading sociologists in religion in the country today.  I’ve been trying to get him to come to Faith Angle for many years, and when I got him this time, I said, “Chris, you’ve written so many books on so many different topics, I’m not sure what topic to give you, but I want you to hold the dates and to be here and we’ll settle on the topic later.”

Chris Smith is now at Notre Dame, but was formerly was at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He did his Ph.D. at Harvard, and he has written very important books, one called What is a person?  Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up.  He’s written on Evangelicals, he’s written on teenagers and religion.  He has just finished a major study for the Templeton Foundation on “What is Generosity?”

And today I must tell you that he has endeared himself to each of you in this room.  There is a very important journal called Books and Culture, and in January 2004, Professor Smith wrote a column called “Religiously Ignorant Journalists.”


And so that’s why it’s perfect to have him here with us, to explain himself.


Christian Smith.  Thank you for coming.

Christian Smith

Christian Smith

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Thank you, Mike.  And I thank you all. You’re hopefully interested in what I have to say.  I hope what I have to say is interesting and useful to you for your work.  I also have to say after this morning’s presentations and discussions, I feel like we’re doing this massive shifting down from 50 or overdrive to second or first gear, from the Middle East and all of its gravity and complexity to the relative petty problems of American academia.


But that’s what I’m here to talk on, and hopefully your lunch gave you some transition so we can switch to this.

A few preliminary comments.  I’m not going to talk about the fact “that” American social scientists don’t get religion, I’m just taking that for granted.  We could talk about how or ways that may be later, but I’m just going to take that for granted and focus on why.

I’m also, you’ll see, going to toggle between social science, as a broader category, and sociology, as my specific discipline, and obviously I know most about my own discipline, but I think much of what I have to say is true of social sciences more broadly, although in each case, clearly economics is different from anthropology and psychology and so on.  So I’m speaking in broad generalizations, as sociologists tend to do, and we can talk about more nuanced differences later.

I’m going to lay out 14 reasons, some big, some smaller, that I think help to explain why American social scientists don’t get religion.  There are more than that, it’s more complicated.  If you want the more complex story, you can pick up this offprint of the article on the table over there.

And then, finally, I showed up thinking I was going to talk for 45 minutes, and then at breakfast Mike told me 30 minutes, so I did the accordion (makes accordion sound), and then he just told me just now, “Actually there is only one of you, so you can take more time,” so ‑‑


But that should actually be fine here.

So all right.  Is it inevitable that American social scientists don’t get religion?  No, it’s not inevitable.  I don’t think it’s inevitable at all.  It’s explainable by a specific set of historical ideological and institutional factors. That is what I want to talk about here.

Before I jump into those, however, just to tip my hat to what’s the connection between social scientists, as academics, and journalists, what you all are.  Well, clearly both social scientists and journalists are knowledge class professionals.  Journalists are products of American higher education, clearly have gone to college and maybe graduate school, et cetera, and are influenced by academia’s outlooks and its limits, not determined, but at least influenced; and academic findings and theories trickle down to the media more or less well, and then often trickle back up to academia.  Academics actually rely a lot on what gets reported by some of you about what Pew said, so there are circular flows of information that are very interesting.  So I’m also taking for granted that we understand there is sort of a complex relationship between being a journalist and being an academic.

What explains this?  All right, starting with my own discipline of sociology, sociology from the very beginning has had a complicated, fundamentally oppositional relationship with religion, and by religion here I mean Protestant Christianity, liberal Protestantism especially, and this is similar with other social scientists, so, for example, anthropology has its own oppositional identity and sort of structural relation to missionaries, and we can talk about that, too.

What do I mean by this?  Early in American sociology, before it was professionalized, the sort of amateur sociologists ‑‑ and there wasn’t even sociology, it was just social scientists, inquirers, and researchers ‑‑ about half of them were religious people, clergy or sons of clergy, social gospel types, progressive liberal Protestant types, and then as American higher education professionalized, those sociologists who were less religious, who had positions not in churches but in universities, wanted to professionalize, and so in order to do that, they went through some standard professionalization processes, one of which was to identify and cast out anyone who could be defined as an amateur or a do-gooder, and so all the academic sociologists basically got together, professionalized, and threw out, in quite blatant terms, threw out on their rear ends the do-gooders from churches who were trying to do research on behalf of progressive civilization.

And so from that time onward, the academic profession of sociology has sort of cast itself discursively and structurally as a kind of a rival of religion; and if you go back when people are less careful about how they wrote and said things, it’s just amazing some of the discourse that went on about religion.

Religion, from the very beginning of my own discipline was The Other, the amateurs to sort of keep out, who were threats to the profession.  That’s a long deep history which most contemporary sociologists don’t know, and yet these long, deep cultural ways of thinking and oppositions are consequential over time.

Another huge factor is the intellectually stultifying legacy of secularization theory.  This I presume many of you have heard of, if not are intimately familiar with, the secularization theory, but this was basically the fundamentally shared long-term assumption.  It was doxic.  It wasn’t debated.  It was taken obviously for granted in the social sciences and much more broadly in fact, that the more modern society becomes, the less religious it will become, that religion withers in modern societies, it always will wither, and it’s probably a good thing that it will wither, we’re glad that that’s going to happen.

So it combined both a descriptive and a normative element in various contexts that modern societies are places where religion will finally go away.  And this was literally orthodoxy in academia until the 1980s.  I mean, it has deep roots and all of the major social theorists had one version or another of this.  Durkheim would have said we will have a modern religion of the individual, so there will be a quasi-religion, but it will be a religion of the individual.  But Weber and Marx and Freud and everyone else basically took this for granted, that modern societies will not be religious.

And so I’ve talked with lots of older scholars who went through graduate school in the ’50s and were consistently told by their advisors, “You don’t want to study religion.  That’s like studying last year’s newspaper.  That’s like studying the dinosaur.  Why would you want to do that?” So this whole generation or two of scholars who were sort of turned away from studying this and those that eventually did study it had to really fight on their own and push back against everyone who was mentoring them that this was what they wanted to do.

So basically this theory, secularization theory, deterred serious attention to religion and theoretical reflection about religion and analytical pondering about religion all the way into ‑‑ you know, for the entire 20th century up into basically the 1980s.  So the field, so to speak, of thinking intelligently about religion was just basically atrophied because there was this background presupposition running that no one even questioned that modern society ‑‑ that religion is not going to be in modern society, so you don’t have to figure it out.  We are still in academia trying to catch up, even now intellectually, theoretically, how to make sense of religion because of this sort of long, long, long, long delay in thinking about it well.

Then in sociology, after we realized, well, the secularization theory may be wrong, then we spent 15 or 20 years taking a rational choice, sort of economics approach, to thinking about religion, which turned out to be pretty fruitless in the end, too.

So we’ve gone down a lot of rabbit trails, and only now I think are we starting to really think more intelligently about religion in the social sciences.  And sociologists should have been on the forefront of that.  Compared to political science, sociology is positively enlightened about religion; in some disciplines, it’s just not cared about hardly at all, it’s a very small group of people.

Now, why was it in the 1980s that academics finally realized they couldn’t keep ignoring religion?  It’s not because they had developed an enlightened native interest in religion, they didn’t finally say, “Oh, wow, actually this is cool, and it’s probably going to be around in our lifetime, so let’s really try to understand this.”  It was nothing like that at all, it was a very much begrudging engagement with religion through external impositions onto academia by important events in the world.  Academics generally did not have an internal enlightenment where they said, “Let’s figure out religion, we’re behind,” but it was this sort of like, “Ugh, religion, well, I guess we have to figure out this business.”

Again, it was not an internally driven enlightenment but a whole set of things starting in the ’70s and really ramping up in the ’80s forced religion on social science, everything from the so-called religious right ‑‑ Jerry Falwell, of course, was an abomination to most social scientists.  And so a lot of early social science reaction to religion in the public sphere was moral outrage, I mean, it was really expressed by, “How could this be happening?  I can’t believe these Neanderthals still exist in the world,” kind of reaction.  But the Iranian revolution, the Catholic nature or dimensions of solidarity in Poland, John Paul II and communism, liberation theology in Latin America, people like Desmond Tutu, the strong role of churches and religious leaders in South Africa, lots of other leading all the way up to ‑‑ and not just political, but also realizing religion is growing quite quickly in China.  I mean, that’s not necessarily immediately a political event, but just religion not only not going away, but communism was unable to snuff it out; and in some places it’s actually growing, like in South Korea, where it’s “not supposed to.

So to the extent that social scientists have taken religion seriously, a lot of it has been imposed, not welcomed, not intellectually enthusiastic about it, but, “Ugh, I guess it’s not going to go away,” sort of attitude.

The apparent resurgence of public religion around the world ‑‑ and I put “apparent” in parentheses because a way this is often talked about in public discourse is there was a religious resurgence in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, there was a resurgence of religion, which suggests somehow that religion had gone away, that modernization almost worked, that secularization almost happened, and then we couldn’t quite sweep it all out the back door and now everybody is coming back in.  Of course, the reality, in retrospect, is religion was always around, people were always religious, it may have gone through different phases of relative quiet, and the Cold War had to do with some dimensions of that and so on, but so that’s why I put “apparent” in parentheses and “resurgence” in quotation marks.

The apparent resurgence of public religions around the world transpired when American social scientists were focused primarily on theories and explanations that couldn’t properly account for religion.  This is not intentional, but it just so happens that in the ’70s and ’80s American social science was possessed by a set of theories that just were not well suited to make sense of religion, they were very much focused on structural causes of things, economic interests, power, state-centered theory, bringing the state back in, background presumptions of materialism, sort of the Hobbesian view of how the world works, and this was on the ascendancy, this is what was getting all of the attention.

And so if you try to say, “Well, what’s religion?  How does religion fit into this?” it was extremely easy, given the theoretical preoccupations of social science at the time, to ignore or just reduce religion.  You could just pretend it didn’t exist, but if you had to pretend it exists, you could say, well, this is really just epiphenomenal fluff of something else that’s more real or more fundamental, it’s not really the thing in and of itself that the believers claim that it is.

So that also meant that right when social science should have been realizing, “wait a minute, we’ve got to get this right,” very few of the theoretical preoccupations set up social scientists cognitively to make good sense of what religion is and how it operates.

The same is true that the apparent resurgence of public religions around the world transpired when sociology of religion, people in my own field, had been for a very long time primarily focused on denominational religion in the U.S.  That is, that small sect of academics who did study religion, sociologists of religion, tended to look at questions of, “Why are conservative churches growing?” and, “The mainline is in decline,” and, “What was the effect of Vatican II on the Catholic Church?” and et cetera, et cetera, very much focused on U.S. religion, not global, not world religions.

This reflects a more broad problem in lots of academia of what we might call methodological nationalism; that is, somehow thinking in terms of the boundaries of nation states as the unit of the religious thing to study rather than something transnational or global or tradition based or something more complicated than that.

Part of this is the completely unintended influence by the fact that a great deal of the funding for American social scientific study of religion came from Lilly Endowment Incorporated, in Indianapolis.  I mean, and God bless them, they helped keep the study of religion alive basically, but in their charter they only fund studies of American religion, they do not study anything outside the United States.

Of  course, they’re perfectly allowed to do that, but the fact is that the dominant funder of religious research said it’s got to be in America, in the United States, just helped to contribute unintentionally to this larger kind of academic parochialism.

So when it was time for social science ‑‑ even when it was way too late for social scientists to be realizing we need to understand religion better, we need to get religion, most of what people had been theorizing and thinking was completely about the United States, and running in the background of that was a kind of normative Evangelical Protestant model, namely, well, religion is something that you have these set of beliefs, and the beliefs matter a lot, and you have to go to church for worship once a week sort of thing, which, of course, some religions are like that and some aren’t.  But there is even a lack of awareness, wait a minute, we’re assuming a particular model of religion without even reflecting on it that’s just not going to be the case around ‑‑ and that takes a long time to lose those presuppositions and retool for the kind of world that we actually live in.

Christian Smith

Christian Smith

The apparent resurgence of public religion around the world also transpired at a time when much of sociology of religion had been especially preoccupied with the study of cults ‑‑ I don’t know if those of you who are old enough will remember this ‑‑ the study of cults, and this is mostly because in the ’60s and ’70s counterculture lots of middle and upper middle-class parents were worried that a cult was going to nab their kid from the streets of Berkeley and brainwash them and turn them into who knows what, and somehow that ‑‑ and so sociologists of religion seized on that, “People care what we’re doing!  Let’s learn about cults!”

And I’m not denigrating the study of new religious movements, every religion starts as a new religious movement, it’s worth understanding, but the study of cults is a very narrow, narrow piece of everything that’s significant to understand about religions broadly and all of their social, economic, and political importance, and this preoccupied a lot of sociology of religion through the ’70s.

So again if you realize in the ’80s, we need to understand this better, what kind of tools do you have in your toolkit to do that well?  Well, we didn’t have a lot, there just wasn’t a lot intellectually and theoretically.  Part of what was problematic about the study of cults is it focused on sort of their particular microdynamics like brainwashing.  Does brainwashing happen?  And again that’s very interesting, but that’s only a miniscule piece of what needs to be understood about religion and not more macro facts and processes at a global level.

So the study of cults, however, at the time it made sense, was just retarding theoretically our intellectual insight and conceptual capacity to make sense of religion such as it was.

Another very important factor ‑‑ people disagree about this and I have colleagues that say you should never talk about the motives, the personal motives, of your colleagues, but, I think this is just perfectly obvious ‑‑ mainstream American social scientists ‑‑ this is just a fact ‑‑ are relatively less personally religious than the average American.  Academics are generally, social scientists are, too, which often contributes to disciplines that they’re in not taking religion seriously in their scholarship.  I mean, part of it is just the very gut level existential sense of, “Well, this doesn’t matter to me, I don’t give a damn about this, so how could it matter to anybody?”  It’s that people won’t actually say it in those words, but there is sort of this background sense this can’t possibly really matter ‑‑ and this connects to some things we talked about this morning ‑‑ if there is something religious going on, it must really be about something else, so let’s get down to what it’s “really” about ‑‑ economics or power or something else, something hard and real ‑‑ and that’s a very easy, natural default position for somebody who isn’t personally religious.

And, just so you know, my own view is people who are not religious at all and people who are totally religious and everything in between can study religion social scientifically very well, they just have to be aware of who they are, what their biases are, what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are.  This has to be self-reflexivity, but there is no privileging necessarily one way or another here.

Also academics love to be experts ‑‑ I mean, most professionals do ‑‑ but definitely academics love to be experts in what they’re talking about.  They never ever want to be shown or seen to not understand something or to have missed something important.  And so when it comes to religion, if they are not personally religious, that is, they have not accumulated enough natural at ease religious capital that they know what words mean, that they know what’s going on in religious words, that they know symbolism, that they religious texts and their references, if they don’t have that kind of religious capital, they feel insecure ‑‑ here I am getting a little psychological, but I think it’s the case ‑‑ they feel insecure, and so they just kind of naturally avoid, because they don’t want to say something dumb, they don’t want to be asked a question they can’t answer, et cetera, so that very easily turns into, “That’s just something I don’t study.”

You can get away with saying, “That’s not something I study,” more or less on certain things.  You can even get away with saying, “I don’t study gender.”  I mean, if somebody says, “What’s the ‑‑ there must be a gender story in what you’re doing here,” that’s harder to say, “I don’t study gender,” because you’re really not paying attention to something that really matters, but you can easily say, “I just don’t study religion,” and get away with that.

Also, if somebody who doesn’t really get religion existentially does decide to study it, they are much more ‑‑ it’s just a fact, I think, they’re much more likely to misinterpret their findings to sort of say, “Well, here is what it really is about,” to not really get ‑‑ they don’t have the familiarity, the depth of familiarity, with the subject matter that’s necessary to interpret data properly.

There is also a common double-standard suspicion of religious scholars, and by that I mean the following.  It’s almost knee-jerk reaction by very many social scientists, if they find out that you are a person of religious faith and you study religion, that you are suspect in whatever you’re doing and have to say because you must have some grossly biasing interest in this.  I mean, it’s hard for them to imagine that you’re not out to promote something or you’re giving something the benefit of the doubt.

What rarely gets reflected upon is that, as human beings, we scholars are all the particularities that we are, and nobody ever says, “Well, if you’re a woman, isn’t that biasing you for studying women’s studies?” or, “If you’re African American, how can you be in an Afro-American studies department?”  So I don’t mean to make light of this, these are challenging and difficult things, but my point is not that it’s trivial, my point is that ‑‑ and I’m a perspectivalist ‑‑ my point, though, is that religion is singled out as you’re likely ‑‑ you’re suspect.  If you’re not a secularist studying religion, you probably are deeply biased about this.

And so this gets known without having to be talked too much about, and so,people will have to keep their personal religious faith quiet, keep it in the closet, or have to engage in all these apologetics, or get in arguments with your colleagues, “Well, you’re Asian.  Why are you studying Asia?” you know, I mean, which nobody wants to go there.


And sometimes it’s ‑‑ I wouldn’t want to overstate this ‑‑ sometimes there is outright activist atheist prejudice and animosity.  I mean, there is a certain amount of this in the academy that’s just outraged that somebody could have a religious commitment, there is something deeply wrong with them, and they need to be attacked and marginalized.

So that’s not the main dynamic here, most of the dynamics are much more subtle, but there is this whole range of dynamics that the fact that the academics are less personally religious, disadvantages them/us at understanding and getting religion really well in our scholarship.

Meanwhile ‑‑ so this is a little plug ‑‑ meanwhile, I just wrote a book called TheSacred Project of American Sociology, which suggests my entire discipline is a sacred project.  We have a sacred vision of the world we want to promote, and that’s everything ‑‑ the vast majority of us are explicitly committed to that even if we don’t understand that, or deny it, and misrecognize it.

So I am persona non grata with most of my colleagues in sociology anymore because I’m calling them out on how deeply committed ‑‑ and here I mean sacred, not religious, sacred in the Durkheimian sense.  So I actually left a copy of the book back there if it happens to interest you.

But my point here is not to sell the book, my point here is to say the layers of complexity of what I would call spiritual and sacred commitments among academics, all woven in and through deep secularity in certain sectors and so on, is very complex and interesting.

So another way to put this is if American sociology was just telling you the facts, it would be even more boring than it is, and we wouldn’t recruit any majors.  So there is an energy, there is a progressive change-the-world energy that’s part of the DNA of my discipline that people are just sold out to so much and they don’t even realize it.  It’s literally the discipline is a sacred project even if people are not especially religious.

Okay, shifting gears to another dimension of this.  Most standard social science methodological tools reflect assumptions and treatments of religion that are thin, skewed, and misleading, and are serious obstacles to understanding and explaining real complex religious phenomena.  So what I’m trying to say here is simply the tools we use methodologically, analytically, to make measurements, for example, are just not adequate for the job.  A lot of them are inherited, a lot of them are inadequate, and so what they do is they turn up nonfindings, and then it appears, well, religion doesn’t matter, you didn’t find anything, when the problem is not that religion doesn’t matter in the real world, the problem is the tools we have to do that aren’t good enough to measure and assess things well.

So for a very simple example, for the longest time most social surveys would have one or maybe two religion questions, and it would be something as pathetic as, “Are you Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or other?”  Well, we all know, I mean, those are not the relevant dividing lines in any of these traditions when it comes to many things ‑‑ political, social attitudes, and so on ‑‑ and so if that’s all you ask, then you run an analysis and find, well, there’s no difference between any of these religions, see, religion doesn’t matter.  That’s an artifact of the method.  It’s an academic misconstruction of reality that’s our fault, not the way the real world is.

More recently, things have become more sophisticated, but most surveys still only ask a religious service attendance question, maybe a Bible view’s question, and again here you can see that there is sort of still an Evangelical Protestant normative thing running in the background of a lot of questions.  So I tend to study across religious traditions, and pretty much what I report on ‑‑ well, my Jewish subjects, I have to say ‑‑ well, that’s the number, but they’re really a whole different ballgame, so my questions really can’t get them right, so just ignore that, I mean, you know, because it just requires a different methodological approach if you want to do comparative work.

“People who are not religious at all and people who are totally religious and everything in between can study religion social scientifically very well, they just have to be aware of who they are, what their biases are, what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are.  This has to be self-reflexivity.”

So and in and through all this, there is generally a failure to take the complexities of qualitative research seriously and to work hard at conceptualization; that is, before we start asking for data, to conceptualize, what are we even talking about? what is this thing that we’re talking about? what are the crucial dimensions of it? and so on.

More generally, the dominant philosophical methodological approach and most social scientists, what I call positivist empiricism, debilitates our ability to make good sense of religion.  The idea of positivist empiricism is that the social sciences ought to mimic the natural sciences, that there is a unity of type of science that goes on here, that it’s limited to direct observables, which is empiricism, and tends to run statistical quasi-experiments ‑‑ I don’t want to go into any detail here ‑‑ an explanation takes the form “If A, then B,” or, “If more of A, then more or less of B,” sort of a Humean constant conjunction theory of causation, which is deeply problematic, and the point here is that this is not a good way to understand religion for the most part.

Christian Smith

Christian Smith

It’s possible to understand certain dimensions of religion with this dominant approach to things, but it’s not well suited to the subject matter.  And I’m an Aristotelian, so I go back to Aristotle said the nature of the science needs to be calibrated to the thing it’s studying and not the other way around.  We too often have this idea, here is what Real Science is, now let me go out to the world and impose it on the world, and then we don’t understand religion adequately because we have the wrong idea of what science is.

Here is an excursus that I’m not going to run you through, but I’ll just tell you the punch line of this.  There are deep, deep philosophical groundings for where we are today that go all the way back at least to late Medieval nominalism.  So this stuff is being set up philosophically for a long time, all the way back from William of Ockham, Kant, Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, and others who laid a groundwork that by the time you traverse that path of intellectual thinking, you’re at a place where it is hard to make sense of religion.

So my point is ‑‑ so some of the things I’m saying is here’s what happened in the ’70s.  Fine.  I’m also saying this stuff ‑‑ we’re talking pre-modern foundations and modern developments in philosophy have laid the groundwork for where we are today.  That’s all I’m going to say about that.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  You didn’t put Freud in there.

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Freud?  Well, Freud is one of many following Feuerbach, that if religion is just a projection, then it’s a projection of what?  It’s a projection of these wish fulfillment desires, it’s a projection of society, Durkheim; it’s a projection of attempt to deal with your suffering from being oppressed by capitalists, Marx.  I mean, those are all projection theories of religion ‑‑but they basically go back to Feuerbach.

The social scientific study of religion in the U.S. has been and remains somewhat institutionally isolated.  So now I’m switching to an organizational explanation, that as it developed in a course across the 20th century, those social scientists who studied religion formed their own organizations, which sounds like a great thing, they’re institutionalizing what they’re doing, but what they did is they formed their own organizations that tended to then become isolated from the mainstream.  So we have the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Association for the Sociology of Religion, the Religious Research Association, and so on.  They all have their own specialty journals.

The mainstream in sociology discipline, professional association, the American Sociological Association, didn’t found a religion section until 1995.  So it’s very recent that religion even got into the mainstream organization.  Everyone else was studying everything else, religion was sort of separated off out there in its own organizations.

Part of this was that a lot of mid-20th century sociology of religion was serving religious organizations directly.  They were doing research for the United Methodist Church or whoever to sort of collect statistics, find out what was going on, and that kind of removed them from the mainstream of sociology.

So all of this unintentionally isolated the study of religion and suggested to those who were not part of these organizations religion is being taken care of by someone else, we’ve got that covered, those people over there are doing it, I don’t need to think about it, I don’t need to worry about it.

Another unexpected or ironic version of this organizationally is that this isolation has been reinforced organizationally through the creation and expansion of departments of religious studies.  So since the second half of the 20th century, new departments or reworked departments that were mostly called religious studies were sort of developed, expanded, a lot of them grew out of universities’ theology departments or semi-Christian religion departments, and they have their different backgrounds, but there was an attempt to get a more serious, more professional study of religion as a serious topic, which sounds good, it sounds like that should help our understanding in the study of religion, but basically it had this unintended consequence of saying, “Oh, religion is a subject matter, that department, that’s what they study.  We don’t study it.”

So instead of understanding religion as infused in and through everything ‑‑ there’s economic, political, whatever you study, psychology ‑‑ there is some ‑‑ religion probably plays ‑‑ has an important dimension in that that needs to be understood as part of being in any discipline, it was sort of cordoned off, division of labor, the religious studies people have got that, so we don’t need to hire any people that study religion in our departments.  I don’t think anybody intended that.  It’s an unfortunate consequence of trying to give the study of religion recognition, but this organizational dynamic had that consequence.

I also think it’s very interesting culturally that it fits nicely against the background liberal assumption that religion is one different sector of society; that is, differentiation, religion gets defined as, that’s the religious sector of society, it’s different from military, economics, politics, family, education, et cetera, and so there’s a department that will study that over there rather than understanding religion as involved in most everything or at least everybody else needs to have some basic familiarity with religion just like they need to do with social class and so on.

A couple last points.  The study of religion occupies the lower end of disciplinary status hierarchies in every social science discipline.  It’s not something people are aspiring to that’s the most prestigious, that’s the most well regarded.  In any discipline, it’s not considered central or important.  When I first showed up at UNC Chapel Hill early in my career, I was actually hired as a Latin Americanist, but I started being interested in the study of religion more and more, and I was told over and over by more senior people in my department, “Don’t do that,” “You don’t want to do that,” “That’s not going to be good for your career,” “Avoid that,” and I didn’t take that advice, happily, but there is this sense, “Why would you study this trivial marginal thing, religion?”

So consequently, there are many fewer religion faculty recruited or religion courses offered, even though, ironically, there is very strong demand among undergraduate students, and, in some cases, graduate students, they want to know about religion.  They know religion matters, they’ve read about it in the news, they want to take courses, they want to better understand it, but the faculty in many social science departments just don’t think that’s going to help their status, the ranking of their departments, to hire in religion, they need to hire somewhere else, and so the sort of undergraduate demand for this topic is essentially ignored for reasons of internal status considerations:  What’s a more prestigious subfield to hire in?  Religion isn’t going to win out on that competition.

So this then becomes an institutionally reproduced self-fulfilling prophecy.  I mean, religion doesn’t have all that much status, so we don’t want to train people in this, we don’t want to offer courses, we don’t want to recruit people, and so religion remains in these institutional processes at the same low level of status that it has, less investment in quality.

Two more explanations I’ll put up there, and then we can discuss this.  This is a quite recent insight, at least among social scientists, maybe you all have thought about this your whole life, but the category of “the secular” or being secular has until very recently been treated essentially as the natural universal automatic default setting of rational humanity, like that’s just where you would be if you were normal.


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  It’s not ‑‑ so religion is the problem, not just maybe we don’t like religion, but maybe at a purely intellectual level the question is:  Why would people be religious?  That’s something that’s got to be explained.  Whereas the secularist, well, of course, that’s just obvious.

Recently a whole bunch of writers have been observing, wait a minute, there isn’t even The Secular as a category.  We have lots of secularisms, there are just as many versions of secularisms as there are like different kind of religions, and they’re all historically located, they all followed after ‑‑ after ‑‑ they’re post some religious tradition, Christendom or something else, and so the secular has only very recently become now a problematic object of study, like, well, this deserves to be studied, too.

So if ‑‑ that to me is very revealing, that things secular would just be taken to be the natural automatic universal default, of course, and then religion is the puzzle, shows this kind of self-privileged unproblematic lack of self-reflexivity about where everybody is.  So even people who would be sort of post-modern, that everyone just has their own tribal narrative or whatever, wouldn’t realize, oh, well, the same thing with secularism, too.  So it’s just all sorts of levels of ‑‑ I think this privileging of the secular is automatic and natural feeds into my larger story.

Finally, understanding religion well is hampered by a larger failure in social science ‑‑ and I would say American academia broadly ‑‑ to think broadly and to ask big questions, and all of that is reinforced by standard institutional structures and practices.  What I mean by that is, over the course of the 20th century, of course, we’ve had a massive, massive growth of knowledge, of scientific knowledge, and that’s just produced massive hyperspecialization, so if somebody wants to be competent, they have to master less and less and less subject matter, and the university is not set up to think about linkages between all those pieces, and so what we call the university, the sort of singular coherence of knowledge, is, in fact, fragmented up ‑‑ and this is nothing new, people have been making this critique for decades ‑‑ fragmented up into a chaos-university or a multi-university or something ‑‑ it certainly isn’t “uni.”

Faculty, of course, who are being inducted into this system are focused on their own tenure, their own expertise, their own careers.  Graduate students who are being trained, increasingly in a context where it’s getting more and more intense, are being rushed through programs.  You have 5 years of funding and you better have a number of publications in those 5 years, and so this all is tending to produce technicians rather than intellectuals, not people who take the time to read history and to read philosophy and to think how the pieces connect together, but who know little narrow bits that they can get articles published on that so they can get a job.

And against the largest background here I would say is something like a broader loss of faith by academia itself, I think, and by those outside of academia, in academia’s larger authority and capacity to ask and answer life’s big questions.  I mean, just there is this sense, we’re not here ‑‑ this is not the 19th century Presbyterian college where everything hangs together and the president will give a capstone course to make it all make sense.  There is no in loco parentis, there is no responsibility for anything, it’s that, “We’re a research university, we’re ranked 15th,” whatever that story is.


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  And so the idea ‑‑ and there is this is false humility, like who knows if there is a true good even?  Who knows what a good ‑‑ I mean, nobody ‑‑ I don’t want to impose my vision of The Good Life on my students, so this whole avoidance of anything of real big human significance.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t study and understand religion unless you’re like the big picture, big questions; you can, it’s possible, even within the current framework, but I do think that academia’s loss of faith in itself and the society’s loss of faith in academia’s ability to take and to ask about, how does this all hang together?  What are human beings really like?  What is our condition?  What’s going on with history?  This sort of pulling away from those kind of questions undermines an interest in,even an intellectual interest in understanding religion well.

So for those reasons and many others that I haven’t talked about, the bottom line when you put all this together and all these factors are interactive and historically cumulative and so on, what we have is most social science academics, even today, even in the world that we live in, even after decades of obvious in-your-face religion is really huge in the world still, still don’t get religion adequately.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  Questions?  Thank you for helping me.  Okay.  I’ve already got a whole list running here, and I’m sure all of us want to get in.

Emma Green

EMMA GREEN, The Atlantic:  Great.  So you’ve laid out 14 factors that particularly relate to academia, and I think insofar as academia is one segment of the public sphere, I think there is another access point, and that’s particularly relevant for journalists as well, which is the gray zone that’s presented by pluralism.

When you have a pluralistic society and you have lots of different people with fundamentally different world views trying to live both in sort of a political sphere together but also just in day-to-day life together, there are a lot of tension points, and we’ve seen that a lot in political conflicts that have come up, for example, over the summer with Hobby Lobby.  I think there’s an interesting almost vocabulary limitation when you have an issue that’s so fundamentally part of one group’s religious world view, but then another group can’t even begin to comprehend that, and I think part of that is sort of a public/private distinction where for one group religion should be part of public discourse and part of policies, and then for another group religion is thought of as a distinctly private enterprise.

So insofar as academia also fits into that spectrum of having to navigate these challenges of pluralism not only in terms of different beliefs, but just totally different world views of what’s admissible into the public sphere, how do you think academia navigates that?  And then also how do you even figure that out in the public sphere generally when that’s just such a fundamental and intractable part of living in a pluralistic society?

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  So, I mean, this may be idealistic, but I’m a structural pluralist on theological grounds, but ‑‑

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  What’s that mean?

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  That a good society is not one that pushes toward uniformity but a community of communities, and that each community is committed to accepting at some level the integrity of communities that are different from themselves and even honoring them in some sense.

So from that point of view, which I know is not necessarily widely shared, from that point of view, it’s absolutely necessary, even if the other enrages us, to work to better the other, to not just to defeat them but to understand ‑‑ there is a certain kind of honoring of the other that’s necessary by better knowing where they’re coming from, why they ‑‑ that is, basically it presumes people are not fundamentally irrational, that people have good reasons for what they do and that they’re worth understanding.  And so it seems to me that higher education should be the sphere where that is modeled, where that is practiced.

Anthropologists can say you have to get into the shoes of the natives, whatever, you have to learn critical perspectives, see things from multiple points of view.  I mean, yes, I agree with that, so why ‑‑ I think in higher education we should be modeling, showing our students, if nowhere else, here is how you learn about something you don’t know about and maybe don’t like, here is how you have a disagreement that doesn’t end in a fistfight.

So, that’s one ‑‑ that’s kind of a normative response, that this is part of academia’s calling, so to speak, is to show how pluralism can work, because we are not stuck with, “What’s the public policy going to be?” we’re just trying to figure out, “What do people believe and what are their consequences?”  If we can’t do it at that level, how are we going to do it as a society at a policy level?

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  Do you have a follow-up, Emma?

EMMA GREEN:  I do.  But isn’t there sort of a structural problem almost, which is, you know, if you believe that religion should be normatively a public enterprise, it should be admissible into the public sphere, it should be part of your reasoning for why you believe a certain thing or why a law should be passed or whatever, and then if you don’t believe that, then isn’t that kind of just fundamentally at odds?

If you’re an academic who fundamentally believes that secularization theory is correct, that religion is a private thing, that there is no place for talking about God in the halls of the academy, then that’s basically fundamentally at odds with someone who does believe that you can reason about your belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God as, you know, an academic explanation for something.  So how do you ‑‑ I mean, it’s sort of a fundamental tension.  How do you even reconcile that?

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  I have an agonistic view of the advance of human knowledge.  It comes through struggle and disagreement and conflict, but it only comes when a conflict is virtuous conflict and not destructive conflict.  So I think it’s incumbent upon everyone in those conversations, at least in my ‑‑ in the ivory tower, to be able to say, “Okay, as a person you make me angry, I think you’re completely wrong, you’re the destruction of Western civilization,” whatever, “but, nevertheless, I want to ‑‑ I’m going to ask questions.  I understand all knowledge ‑‑ I’m a fallibilist, I could be wrong, I want to learn, I want to ‑‑ I’m open in principle to changing my view,” and so that requires a certain virtuous kind of conversation that’s all too rare, but again I think, why can’t higher education pull that off?

I guess what I’m saying fundamentally is, yeah, that’s a huge problem in our culture in society today, what you’re discussing.  I think it’s partly the job of my people in academia to be able to overcome that.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  Okay.  Matt Lewis and then Andy.

Matt Lewis

MATT LEWIS, Daily Caller:  I’ll be quick.  And this I think segues nicely.  My former colleague, Chris Moody, who is now at CNN.com, went to a rally a few years ago, and there was a pastor who was in front of Congress, and the pastor said something to the effect of wanting God to slay the Members of Congress, and it was reported that he wanted them to be murdered, something to that effect, and my colleague Chris Moody had to explain that this means slayed in the spirit and it’s something completely different ‑‑


MATT LEWIS:  ‑‑ than killing all the Members of Congress.  And so I guess the question is, to what degree are there really different, you know, terminology, and are we really speaking different languages?  And if so, it seems like that’s the kind of thing that journalists and academics ought to, even if they don’t believe, take the time to know enough about the different unique language.

So I guess more of a statement, but I thought it segued pretty nicely.  And do you have any thoughts on that?

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Yeah.  I mean, my answer is yes, that’s exactly what’s needed.  And there is not enough of that done, but it does require proactive ‑‑  in other words, to pull off the kind of good society I have in mind, and I think some people have in mind, it requires not just coexisting, it requires proactively learning how to communicate with the other in a respectful, if not ‑‑ not necessarily affirming, but a respectful open way.  That’s a kind of a virtue that’s necessary to be learned, and if we can’t do that, then I don’t know how we can carry on in a pluralistic society.

I should say one thing, that structural pluralism isn’t absolute.  It’s not like any group gets to say like, “Oh, my religion is a human sacrifice.”  No, I mean, it’s within the bounds of certain well-defined constitutional senses of rights and so on.  So it’s not absolute, but it gives a lot more leeway to communities to be who they are than our current system tends to, in public.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  Okay, Andy Ferguson.

Andy Ferguson

Andy Ferguson

ANDY FERGUSON, Weekly Standard:  Thanks.  I have two questions that I’m going to pretend are related so it sounds like one question.

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Okay.  Are they about the Middle East or ‑‑


ANDY FERGUSON:  One is your use of the sacred project of sociology.  I was wondering if you could explain what the object of that project is, what the goals are.  It seems to me there could be several different projects, all of them secular, you know, feminist sociologists advancing one thing, multiculturalists doing another, and so on.  And then sort of related to that, but not really, you talked about positivist empiricism as what people think of as social science, you know, these sort of quasi-experience ‑‑

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  What dominates.

ANDY FERGUSON:  Right.  But isn’t that true?  I mean, if you take away the empiricism, the need to measure things, the need for statistical manipulation, all the things that people think of when they think of social science, you’re not really doing science anymore and you’re off into the humanities in some way.

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Yeah, okay.  So the first question, what is sociology’s sacred project?  I don’t have memorized my very carefully written long sentence of this, but it’s basically that every autonomous individual human being will be free to live however they want with whatever resources they need to do that without any social constraints.

ANDY FERGUSON:  Sign me up.


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  And the irony for me is it’s completely sociologically naive.


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  But if you want the real version of that, it’s in the book.  That is, I’m saying it’s not simply a sort of a left-leaning political agenda, there is actually more of a deep philosophical anthropology of what a human person is and what a good human life is that’s very particular.

So my grief with it is not that sociology has a moral commitment, that’s fine with me, or that sociologists do; my grief with it is that it’s almost total in the discipline, and people that don’t go along with that end up being marginalized, if not persecuted actually.

The answer to the second question is I distinguish between empiricism and being empirical.  Of course, the social sciences, like every science, is empirical, meaning it makes arguments with reference to evidence, observable evidence.  Empiricism is a philosophical commitment that only ‑‑ as I mean it ‑‑ that the only reliable human ‑‑ all reliable human knowledge must be grounded in or must be drawn from conclusions based on directly observable evidence, and I don’t think actually that’s how real science itself operates.  So there’s a difference between being a positivist and a realist.

“There is a certain kind of honoring of the other that’s necessary by better knowing where they’re coming from…it presumes people are not fundamentally irrational, that people have good reasons for what they do and that they’re worth understanding.  And so it seems to me that higher education should be the sphere where that is modeled, where that is practiced.”

I’m a critical realist, not a positivist.  I don’t want to degenerate here into the fine points, but, so, yes, we have to be empirical, but most of the things that matter in reality are not directly observable, I mean starting with causation.  And so once we lock ourselves into positivist empiricism, religion becomes really hard to make sense of in a profound way.  If we become realists and admit nonobservables to the realm of things that we’re trying to understand and theorize, then suddenly the world opens up and we can understand it scientifically much better, and that’s what we end up doing anyway because reality imposes itself upon us despite our philosophies of science.

Is that a helpful clarification?


MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  Okay.  Robert Draper.

Robert Draper

Robert Draper

ROBERT DRAPER, New York Times Magazine:  Sure.  At the risk of sounding narcissistic or masochistic journalist in religion.

You said that there was an overlap insofar as journalists and scholars sometimes pal around.  Beyond that, though, and beyond the basic point that elites score in religion, you point out that it’s the aim of scholars or it should be the aim of scholars to belabor the big questions about why, where journalists are supposed to labor over smaller things.  And so I wonder what the failures are in your view that pertain to journalists in terms of what we get or what we don’t get about religion.

You wrote a column about this once called ‑‑

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Yeah.  Right.  Although, first I don’t accept the premise of your question, and that is I think both journalists and social scientists are interested in the exact same thing, which is understanding and explaining self-reflexively, back to ourselves and the people around us, what’s going on in reality and how does it work and with what consequences; and I think that’s what journalists do and I think that’s what social scientists do.  We have different methods, we operate in different professions and different timeframes, different institutions of production, but I think we’re basically doing the same thing:  What’s going on out there? why is that happening? and with what consequences?  That’s how I understand, so that’s a ‑‑

ROBERT DRAPER:  Yeah, I wasn’t saying otherwise.

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Okay.  Well, but I ‑‑ and whether ‑‑ I guess what I’m ‑‑ whether they’re big or little questions could go either way.  I mean, I think journalists actually are ultimately talking about the questions as well.  That’s why you probably chose your profession.

So your question, where do journalists fall down?  I mean, a lot of it is a lot of journalists who I’ve had interactions with, and I’ve had a fair bit, just don’t have enough like basic fundamental understanding about religions to know what they’re talking about, and they just don’t have the background.  There isn’t a religion beat where they have been given the resources to master the knowledge to be able to make sense of something themselves, and so they call people like me and others and say, “I don’t really understand this at all.  I don’t have time to read anything.  Either spend 2 hours educating me on the phone or ‑‑,” which really literally, “or give me a couple of quotes that will help me out because my deadline is very soon.”


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  And that’s even with a lot of journalists who care about religion and think it matters and are writing on it.  Other journalists ‑‑

ROBERT DRAPER:  That’s not peculiar to religion, by the way, that peculiar to deadline journalism.

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Yeah, that’s embedded in the whole production of ‑‑ right, which is why I don’t personalize it to the journalists, I find it as part of the industry of knowledge production.  But at the same time, there are, I gather, I mean, tell me if I’m wrong, there are spheres of interest that journalists write about which you must know a lot more about.  Right?  You must know about the history of the Supreme Court and so on if you’re going to be Nina Totenberg; you can’t just walk in and say, “What is a ‑‑,” you know, I mean, “What is this again?”


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  So there is unevenness in what a journalist is expected to know as background to write a competent story, and religion, I think, in my experience, it seems to fall on the side of you can start from not knowing much and write up ‑‑ in part because ‑‑ again, this is my very limiting observation ‑‑ religion often gets framed in the news as not serious politics, economics, development, it’s framed in the lifestyle section or it’s just sort of human interesty stuff like, “Isn’t it nice that there is a pastor in the local community doing X?”  And that would seem to require less substantive knowledge of what one is writing about than if one is covering the Supreme Court or the Pentagon, I’m guessing.

Those are some ‑‑ and then another grievance ‑‑ again I’m sure this is just standard across not just religion, but just I get journalists who call me and say basically, “Here is what I want to write about,” and they know what their story is before they have even investigated, and they’re just looking for some quotes to substantiate what they ‑‑ which, you know, to a social scientist is just anathema, I mean, the reality should be the thing that dictates the conclusion, not a quirky interest in something I heard.

David Gregory

David Gregory

DAVID GREGORY:  I disagree actually with your point about the way religion is covered.  I don’t believe that it’s feature driven and that.  I think in political reporting often it’s darker, which is, here is a particular religious view of a candidate, and therefore if we assert that and understand that, we’re going to get a window into a policy view, a political view, what they will do with that faith to the country based on that faith.

So one of the questions that I have that goes beyond process, which is:  How do we do a better job having a conversation and providing some context around, particularly in a society where we believe in the separation of church and state, that we have leaders ‑‑ these can be leaders in politics, they can be leaders in industry ‑‑ who may have a developed inner life and that’s a big motivator for who they are and what they do in the world?  And how do we separate and appreciate that as distinct from particular views that may be used to impose a particular outcome that people would find objectionable?  And I feel like we’re caught up in a very unnuanced debate about when President Bush says, “Well, I appeal to a higher father,” then the default is, aha, you see, God told him to invade Iraq, instead of what a lot of people would understand, which is, yeah, he’s appealing to a higher father for wisdom, for strength, for guidance, a lot of people do that, but that’s not how we tend to ‑‑

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Yeah, so your first point is well taken.  Yeah, it’s more than just ‑‑ that sounds right.  The second, your second, point, I don’t entirely know.  It seems to me, though, that there is running in the background of the problem you’re describing is sort of a deep-seated fear of religion and that the automatic default is it’s threatening or it’s going to violate me somehow rather than ‑‑ there is a hermeneutics of suspicion rather than a hermeneutics of generosity.  Like let me hear how I could interpret this to give somebody the benefit of the doubt at least as a starting point.

So my ‑‑ I mean, some of you have told me over lunch, you know, journalism is a deeply secular institution.  I mean, is this correct?  I’m here to talk about social science, not journalism, and you can tell me, but it seems to me that some of what I described about academia probably also pertains in journalism and has some similar consequences about how the knowledge gets framed and misframed.  What to do about it, I don’t know entirely know.  Something like Faith Angle Forum?

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  That’s why we founded it.  That’s why we’re here.  That’s why we will go on forever.


MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  But that’s a good answer. Thank you, David, for that quick intervention.

Elliott Abrams

Elliott Abrams

ELLIOTT ABRAMS, Council on Foreign Relations:  My question is there is a subculture of universities that are religious and once upon a time would even have included Notre Dame, probably not now, but, you know, there is Catholic University, there is Yeshiva, there is Pepperdine.  And so the question is:  In those places which are willfully religious, or describe themself, is there a subculture of sociology of religion that is different from what you describe?  What goes on in sociology departments there?

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  The answer is generally not, and I’m familiar with them because I went for almost 2 years to Wheaton College, and I graduated from Gordon College, both Evangelical liberal arts colleges, and I’m familiar with a lot of these worlds, and I teach at Notre Dame.

What the Evangelical colleges are very good at are interrogating their disciplines from their faith perspectives and saying, “What is our discipline presupposing?  What are its assumptions about what human motivations are?” whatever the thing.  And so they help their students think critically about the disciplines, which is a really, really good and important service, and that’s benefited me a lot to have enjoyed that as an undergraduate.  But the Evangelical schools are generally not knowledge producers, they’re not research colleges, so to speak, they’re not at the forefront in publishing in journals in Oxford and Cambridge, and so they’re more functioned to consume and mediate to students how to think Christianly or whateverly about what they’re learning, which is important, but it doesn’t really make a causal intervention into the kind of dynamics I’m talking about.

Secondly, many of these institutions ‑‑ not all of them, but many of them ‑‑ are concerned with their own relative status and acceptance in higher education, and Evangelicals both thrive on being outsiders but also desperately want to be affirmed and accepted and not be irrelevant.  Irrelevance is one of the worst things that could happen to an Evangelical.  And Catholics have their own version of that.  Having been historically always the outsider, you know, beaten up by the Protestant kids and such, there is this deep ‑‑ at Notre Dame I notice that there is this deep longing to be accepted.  Now, really “God, Country, and Notre Dame” is over doorways of buildings on campus, so to be accepted, to not be thought of as an undemocratic papist outsider, and so that has consequences of in some ways being ready to buy into mainstream things and almost not being critical enough.  In my view, Notre Dame isn’t.

Finally, who teaches at these places?  Even if they’re the most theologically sophisticated, they have been put through 5 to 10 years of graduate school in the standard programs, where they have been very powerfully formed into mainstream of their disciplines.  So really for Notre Dame to be what it needs to be, it needs to say, “For your first year and a half, Junior Faculty Member, you get to not teach anything and we’re going to have you in a seminar where you think, ‘What does it mean to be a Catholic psychologist?’”  But that’s not going to happen either.

So there are very powerful converging institutional forces that keep alternatives from becoming too significant.  Does that ‑‑

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

SARAH PULLIAM BAILEY, Religion News Service:  Yeah.  So piggybacking on what David was saying, I do think that religion is taken seriously by journalists but often in the context of politics, like:  How are Evangelicals going to vote this election season or whatnot?  But I think when you see after Newtown or Hurricane Sandy or Katrina, you often see the President’s response right away, but it takes a while to get the religious response.  Like people are looking to religious leaders like Cardinal Dolan or Billy Graham for, “How do we make sense of our world?” but we don’t see those quoted until later, until like a week later, sometimes.

But so this has been, you know, fairly depressing, so thank you for this.  But what I do want to kind of get at is, are there things that journalists can learn from sociology of religion in applying how we do ‑‑ how we write about religion?  So I have kind of a three-part question.

So you mentioned how religion gets cornered off in sociology.  Similarly, do you think journalists should specialize in religion or should it be folded into other fields like politics, business, et cetera?  Should religion be covered less about, “What does the Vatican say?” and more about, “How is Catholic thinking shaping attitudes about contraception and other issues?”

And then you touched a little bit about this when you talked about empiricism.  So sometimes we’ll see, you know, pretty incredible things happen like thousands of people will go to a Billy Graham rally and people, Christians, there will say, “Oh, this is the work of the Holy Spirit,” or, “This is an answer to prayer.”  How do you, as a scientist, deal with that?

And then also how do you avoid the “I’m headed into the zoo to report on the animals” attitude that we don’t see when we’re covering Congress, when we’re covering the White House, we do not see those attitudes, but we do.

So are there lessons that journalists can take from social science on those on how to report?

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Yeah.  Okay, so there are four questions there, if I remember.


First is ‑‑ and you might say scarcity prevents this, but in principle, I would say both/and.  I mean, in academia we need both dedicated sociologists of religion, but we need people that study everything else to have some basic familiarity with religion so that if it comes up in what they’re studying, they’re not completely blind to it, they at least know, oh, now I need to pay attention to this and go ask somebody else who does know.

So it’s neither we should have specialists and let them cover it or everyone needs to know everything; we need some of both I guess I would say to the first.

And I know practices of knowledge production are a huge problem, but it just seems to me that the same thing applies that I tell all of my graduate students, is in addition to everything you need to be reading for your doctoral exams and your courses and whatever, you need to add onto that reading everything else, you need to history, you need to read outside of ‑‑ you need to read anthropology, you need to read philosophy, and so to me it’s just a matter of professionals being, to use this phrase, lifelong learners and just reading above and beyond what they have to just for the next assignment, and eventually that accumulates into people being intelligent and much better in what they have to say.  But that’s very hard and demanding and may be impossible.

I’m not sure I’m on your second or third question.

SARAH PULLIAM BAILEY:  So work of the Holy Spirit, how do you ‑‑ when you are trying to capture that.

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Well, from a social science point of view, that’s nothing but data that somebody reported that.  I mean, it can’t be admitted as a ‑‑ it can’t be offered as a partial explanation as to what’s going on, not because social science has the authority to deny it, it’s just not in the purview of what we’re doing to appeal to that kind of explanation, it’s not our task.

So we certainly can say this is what people report, and it certainly seems to be what’s motivating them to do what they do, even to be ready to die over something, not the Holy Spirit, but so ‑‑ but I don’t advocate kind of a religious sociology where you would start mixing ‑‑ you know, you start bringing the divine in.  I just ‑‑ I’m sort of methodologically agnostic about that, I say ‑‑ actually in one book I said maybe the simplest explanation of why people are so religious is that there really is something out there that they are religious in relation to, but that was ‑‑ it was ‑‑ so, in other words, I say it could be religion refers to something real.  As reported to me, people, colleagues, were throwing my book against their office walls, they liked my book until they got to that paragraph.  So ‑‑


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  So I guess in journalism it would be the same thing.  You’re trying to have your readers understand this is what ‑‑ phenomenologically, this is how religious people operate, this is what seems to be ‑‑ this is what they report, and then you just report that, whether or not it is the Holy Spirit, it’s a separate question it seems to me.


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  And the zoo.


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  I mean, that is so ‑‑ maybe in journalism it’s not subtle, but it can become very subtle, and it’s even harder to deal with the more subtle it is, it seems to me, and when people are like blatantly ridiculously have that attitude, it’s a little easier to point it out or call it out.

I don’t know what to do about it, I mean, other than to point out gently to people, “Do you realize the double standard here?  Do you really think that religious people are nuts?” or whatever it would be.  Yeah.  I don’t know.  I mean, I’m a lot better at what the problems are than what the solutions are.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  Well, we’ll get to the solutions after the break.

Napp Nazworth

Napp Nazworth

NAPP NAZWORTH,Christian Post:  Okay.  So there are a few religious people in the social sciences because they’re not joining or because they’re being kept out?  And depending on your answer, what would it take to change that?

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  I think it’s a complex of multiple dynamics at work that produce fewer.  There are self-selection effects; that is, a fundamentalist-leaning Evangelical Protestant is not going to take a couple sociology classes and saying, “This is what I want to do.”  It’s just not going to resonate with sort of their vision of things, and so they will select themselves out.

Sociology admissions committees and all sorts of processes along the way will also select on people who are ‑‑ I mean, this is basic homophily, people like being around people that are like them, and so there are processes of selecting out strange religious people out of academia and departments and so on, and that can be blatant and it could be very subtle.  It doesn’t always happen.  I mean, if somebody is a good mainline Protestant, keep it to themself, et cetera, there’s no problem.  Or if somebody is ‑‑

NAPP NAZWORTH:  So self-censorship would be a different problem then.

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Yeah, or if somebody is ‑‑ or if it’s especially not Christianity, if somebody is the token Muslim scholar, you know, and they’re Muslim, as long as they don’t cross certain lines, it’s sort of like, “Yeah, that affirms we’re diversity-affirming people here, we’re really open.”

So I’m saying it’s not ‑‑ it’s complex the way it actually plays out, but I think self-selection processes and institutional selection processes that continue to reproduce institutionally the relative secularity of.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  We’re addressing that question tomorrow.

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  There are more religious people in social science now than there were 30 years ago, I think, but the kind of dynamics I’m describing are deep, long-term, and powerful.  So ‑‑

Scott Wilson

Scott Wilson

SCOTT WILSON, Washington Post:  So two quick things.  The first, what ideally is the right way to teach religion in the academy?  And I say this because when I studied religion in college, I studied it the way I studied political theory, economics, here is Buddhist text, here is ‑‑ and there is no sense of spirituality ‑‑ right? ‑‑ or very little.  And so how should it be taught and shouldn’t ‑‑ and why ‑‑ I wondered if sort of some of the rigor that people are put through to be professors of religion actually sort of take all the ‑‑ take the spirituality out of what they’re teaching, why wouldn’t a priest or an imam, why wouldn’t those people be better teachers of religion than some of the ways you’re talking about?

And the other thing is ‑‑ I mean, I’m sure you’ve had this experience ‑‑ you go to Europe and people think the Americans are crazy religious people and that the politicians in our country publicly have to affirm their faith.  George Bush did.  Barack Obama did.


SCOTT WILSON:  And American exceptionalism, you have to subscribe to this, which is at its core Christian.  How is the country still so religious given what happens ‑‑ given what you’re describing in the academy?

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  So I’ll take the last point first.  You know, Peter Berger had this statement that you may have heard that if ‑‑

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  He’s given it here.



CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Okay.  I mean, I think this is part of it, and it’s actually mutually reinforcing.  “If Sweden is the least religious nation on the face of the earth and India is the most religious nation, the United States is a population of Indians ruled by Swedes.”


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  And so what that does is it makes the elites feel threatened.  They’re awash in a sea of faith.  If they don’t defend their university and its secularity tooth and nail, that they’ll be overrun by hillbillies.  And vice versa, if you’re an ordinary person, the elites are these liberal secular, da, da, da, and it’s not absolutely untrue on both sides, it’s just that it becomes this crazy dynamic of paranoia on both sides that actually reinforces the identity and the commitment and solidarity of each group of people in relation to the other through this sort of hostility othering.

So it helps Evangelicalism to feel like ‑‑ this is the title of one of my books, Embattled and Thriving.  Evangelicals love to feel threatened.  Well, they don’t love it, but it helps them, and so therefore they love it.  It gives them their energy to feel like if we don’t get mobilized now, you know, we’re in trouble.  And I know ‑‑ I mean, I’ve heard academics in faculty meetings say essentially the same thing, “I came to this university because it’s a state university.  What the hell are you bringing anybody talking about anything religious here?” et cetera.  So that’s partly a mutually reinforcing dynamic that keeps each side antagonistic to the other and then sort of vibrant.

Your observation about Europe, I agree with that, but I also think it’s more complicated.  So, for example, in time I’ve spent in England, they are much more ‑‑ I mean, in a way, in some ways, religion is much more a relaxed natural part of public life than it ever could possibly be here.  I mean, you have all of the judges and lawyers go to the annual Anglican mass.  They may not believe anything, but ‑‑ you know, I mean, church and state have ‑‑ and so ‑‑ or you go to the university and there are theology and religion programs.  You do have Anglican priests teaching right next to secular religious studies kind of persons, it’s just taken for granted.  You can teach what Christianity teaches, confessionally it gets taught there, right alongside with standard religions.

So in a way I was surprised at how comfortable many in higher education in England they were with, yeah, religion is in and through everything, whereas here we’re much more sort of rigid and boundary drawing.

So I’m not disagreeing with what you said, I’m just saying it’s complex in ways ‑‑ the American model ‑‑ or another way to think about it is religion in Europe sort of functions like a public utility, and in the United States it functions like a private enterprise, and that has consequences for its role or position or cultural status in public life.  I don’t know if that makes any sense.  So you’re not going to get excited about your public utility and go for visits every week, but you damn well want it to be there, and you’re going to go back to it whenever there is something that, you know ‑‑ so, anyway, I don’t want to get off on that.

The first thing is how to study religion.  I mean, what I’m asking for minimally, I’m not asking for the confessional study of religion or preaching of religion, I just think religion should be understood as part of the human world, heritage, tradition, dynamics of social life just like everything else, and so that could be studied secularly in principle, and I just think it should get ‑‑ just because of the basic mission of what social science is, we want to understand the world and how it works.  Religion needs to be accounted for in relation ‑‑ in proportion to how important it is, and that’s what I’m not seeing being done, so that’s part of my complaint here.

I have a secondary bad conscience about that because there is a part of me that thinks the minute, especially at lower levels of education, the minute you teach about religion as a neutral object, you do take something ‑‑ I think this is what you were ‑‑ you do take something out of it.  I mean, you automatically relativize it for what it is compared to what it’s claiming it is.  But in my way of thinking, that’s more of a problem in elementary, middle, and high school than at the college level.  At the college level, we should just be studying it.

The last thing I would say about that is it depends on the kind of institution.  So as a pluralist, I think we should have different kinds of higher education, we should have different kind of ‑‑ and so at a Wheaton College or a Notre Dame, theology should be taught confessionally, at UNC Chapel Hill, it shouldn’t be.  Theology can be taught, but not confessionally, just here is what this tradition teaches and here is sort of the internal intellectual logic of it or here is why it matters for social, political, economic, whatever reasons.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  Okay, so, Michael Paulson?

Michael Paulson

Michael Paulson

MICHAEL PAULSON, New York Times:  I’m slightly terrified of being that person who asks what a judge is, but ‑‑


So what is a judge?

Was secularization theory false or was it just premature and blinding?  And if it was wrong, what are we seeing with the rise of the “Nones,” the decline of denominations, the kind of removal of religion from American public life?

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Yeah, good question.  So the secularization theory wasn’t absolutely false.  The problem with it is that it compacted together a whole set of ways in which religion might weaken or decline or recede, so ‑‑ and since then we’ve figured out you have to disaggregate all these different meanings and give them different names.

So there’s a difference between the idea that modern man won’t be able to believe things.  That’s the plausibility of religious beliefs.  That’s one thing. Demystification.

Another thing is, is religion differentiated from other spheres of life?  That is, in the course of centuries, is religion sort of a sign, so to speak, institutional sector of life that it’s in charge of that’s different from what the military is doing and what psychiatry is doing and what education is doing?

Another question is whether religious organizations grow or shrink.

Another question is whether religion gets privatized.  That is, people still believe the same things, but they have to keep it personal to themselves, it’s not something that they bring out into the open in public settings.

Another meaning of the word “privatization” is religion could be robust at the individual or community level, but it’s not allowed to affect policy matters, it’s not allowed to enter into political debates, and so on and so on.

So these are all different ways that religion’s authority or presence or plausibility could be reduced or enlarged.  The original secularization theory was not thought through so much, it was just assumed all these things will decline.

So basically what we’ve learned is if what we mean by secularization is institutional differentiation, clearly modernity is secularizing; I mean, religion clearly gets ‑‑ is not thought of as sort of having an influence in all these different spheres of society, it’s sort of compressed down into one sphere of society.  Some religious people say that’s great, that’s the best thing that ever happened to religion.  They’re actually more authentic themselves now that they don’t have their hands in politics as much and the military and education and trying to run the world, now they can focus on what religion is really about.  That’s one vision of that.  Modernity has actually been a refining, constructively refining, fire for religious traditions.

The question as to whether people can no longer believe things religious is clearly false.  Many people, including many well-educated, smart people, still have religious beliefs.  There are certain institutional sectors where religious unbelief function as carriers of that, and higher education is one of them.  So it is the case that there is a growth and decline in the capacity to believe religiously, but it’s very ‑‑ it’s not just a simple evolutionary function of becoming modern, it’s contingently path dependent.  It depends on, are you talking about France?  Are you talking about the Netherlands?  Are you talking about the United States?  It all varies what people ‑‑ it varies if you’re in France if you’re part of the upper class or the working class what you’re able to believe.

So it’s both ‑‑ the idea that modern people just can’t believe anymore ‑‑ I mean, there’s a silly book from the ’60s where a British sociologist said “In the age of conveyor belts, who could possibly believe in God?”  I mean, it’s like what?  What?


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  But that was sort of the idea, conveyor belts somehow made it in.

So in contingent situations like the United States, there is a growth of people who say, “I’m not religiously affiliated anymore,” but that’s much, much, much more complicated than secularization theory said, and a lot of those people were never particularly religious in the first place, they’ve just sort of switched.  They’ve become alienated by the religious right and now they say, “I’m not religious anymore.”

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Yeah.  So basically the secularization theory was on to some things that are true, there are some dynamics, but I would say sort of from my philosophy of social science, one of its fundamental problems, too, was not that it’s just compacted all these different ways that things might secularize, but that its background model of operating as positivist, which is there must be a law of social life, the more modern, the less religious, as this sort of linear evolutionary it’s just going to happen this way, whereas if you break out of the idea that there are any laws of social life, that social life is full of a huge number of causal powers that are all interacting and pushing, and so it depends on the exact situation, the exact place in history, all these contingencies will produce different effects.  So, yeah, some places have become incredibly secular.  Other places are becoming more religious.

Shadi Hamid

Shadi Hamid

SHADI HAMID, Brookings Institution:  Okay.  So in the Holy Spirit anecdote, you talked about how we can kind of empirically observe to what extent individuals are motivated by religion and we just report that as a kind of descriptive thing, but I’m curious just to hear more of your thoughts on if we, as social scientists, want to or need to make causal inferences, that’s where I think it becomes more challenging.  How do we attribute causality to feelings effectively?

And I think it becomes even more complicated when ‑‑ how do you isolate the religious from the political when in the minds of the believer the two are inextricably intertwined?  I suppose maybe in the American context, as you said, religion has been compressed more in one sphere and it’s assumed not to have something to say about all these different spheres of life.  But let’s say in the Middle East, where religious acts are inherently political and perhaps political acts are inherently religious, and where does one end and the other begin?  And this is what I struggle with myself.

And so I would be curious how we make sense of how the political and religious interact, and should we even be considering them as discrete categories?  I mean, perhaps is that a problem in and of itself, the fact that we speak of religious and political or religious and secular, assuming that they can be differentiated between, if that makes sense?

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Yeah.  On the last point, I think it’s helpful for ‑‑ this is not an area that I am an expert on, but I know enough to at least venture this ‑‑ I think it’s helpful for moderns to realize that while we take for granted that as religion has been differentiated and separated from politics and education and the military is a pretty recent human social invention, that for most of human history, religion was inextricably wound up in empire, pharaoh, whatever it would have been, the very idea that religion was somehow this separable thing would not have made any sense, and so that’s sort of the human social default, is this religion is baked into lots of things, and the idea of drawing a line doesn’t even make sense even if it were possible.

Now, because we are moderns, we do try to separate out how much of this is just ‑‑ just ‑‑ economic interest versus religious commitment.  Yeah, those things are incredibly hard because they interact in ways that the subjects, the actors, themselves don’t even know.  They can’t even sort out themselves where those lines and what the differences are, and some economic interests are actually defined by certain religious points of views and so on.

So I guess I’m just commiserating with you more than answering by saying, yeah, that’s really hard, and then I think at that point we just have to do our honest best to report the fact that these things are not so easily separated; for the actors involved, they’re actually melded, and if we want analytically to separate them, we can try, but we’re going to hit serious constraints in our ability to do that.


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  But that’s something about religion that we need to know.  It can’t just be isolated as an independent variable net of every other variable.

SHADI HAMID:  It’s problematic from a social science perspective where we’re supposed ‑‑ I mean, you can’t really attribute causality if you can’t distinguish between different variables.


SHADI HAMID:  So I just feel like if causal inference is central to the enterprise of political science, then religion is always going to provide ‑‑ it’s going to be a problem for that; right?

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  It will present a problem to certain versions of variable social science.  I think certain versions of variable social science are inherently flawed, I mean, they don’t actually match up to the way the world works, and so they don’t give us a good tool to make sense of it.  For example, the idea that there are all these separate variables that have an independent effect net of everything else somehow, it’s just not how the world works.  So I’m much more interested in conjunctural, interactive, and path-dependent causation historical approaches.

But back to your first part of your question, I mean, a fundamental question in the philosophy of social science is:  Are reasons causes?  That is, if we are trying to explain things, an explanation would have to do with showing the causes.  Are people having reasons, legitimate ‑‑ do they constitute something that we could count as causing something, an action or behavior?  I think the answer is obviously yes, reasons are causes.  There are whole traditions in social science that you know that would discount that.  Anything having to do with human subjectivity is ‑‑ it doesn’t fit ‑‑ subjectivity doesn’t fit empiricism’s grid.  You observe subjectivity.  So you have people’s reports, but then all you’re analyzing is discourse, not experience.

So I just think it requires a reframing of our philosophy of social science to let the way the world really is and the way people really are dictate to us how we go about making explanations rather than bringing to the world, here’s what is scientific, and if it doesn’t fit that account, there’s a problem.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  Okay.  Speaking of scientific, Jeff Hardin, who we’re looking forward to hearing from tomorrow morning.

Jeff Hardin

Jeff Hardin

JEFF HARDIN, University of Wisconsin:  Thanks, Michael.

So, Chris, you’ve been talking about social science as if it’s kind of a monolithic enterprise, but I’m guessing that that’s not actually true.  I know at my university, our chancellor, who was in the Obama administration, and there are a number of other people who studied sociology in the social work department but really are social scientists who are studying poverty, there seems to be all kinds of religious reference made.  A number of these people are self-identified religious practitioners, they view religious phenomena or religious communities as vital to the discussion.  I just wonder, is that an aberration or ‑‑

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  There is something about Madison, Wisconsin, that’s just much more friendly to ‑‑


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  No, I’m sorry.


JEFF HARDIN:  I mean, that was a self-evident statement.


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  I’m not saying that all social scientists are foaming at the mouth anti-religious atheists.  I mean, in certain sectors, certain people, I wouldn’t call it disciplinary, though.  In certain sectors, certain subfields, people have realized, oh, this ‑‑ we have to figure this out, we have to do a better job at understanding this.  I would still say there is a difference between individual scholars and projects and initiatives in certain sectors of social science versus the dominant culture of social science and the inherited legacy in social science.  I still think that that fundamentally doesn’t get religion because it’s founded on very deep presuppositions about human beings and such, whether they’re Hobbesian or something else, that just makes assumptions that religion doesn’t make sense with them.

Now, to back up to your first statement, clearly the different disciplines are different, they have different cannons, they have different focuses, they’re all evolving in different ways.  If one was studying ‑‑ and one in the old days in anthropology, one was studying a tribe in the jungles of Philippines, one would have to take their religious system seriously as part of their culture, although that didn’t always happen either.

But I guess I’m saying some disciplines like anthropology and sociology should naturally be able to make good sense of religion.  Others, like economics, where their whole setup of framework of understanding of like what they’re even trying to explain and how, it’s harder to make sense of religion, which you can do in economics of religion, but economics itself can’t really swallow religion without choking on it too much.  And then psychology is just sort of evolving more and more in a natural science direction with biology and neuroscience and so on.  So things are in motion.

“This is part of academia’s calling, to show how pluralism can work, because we are not stuck with, ‘What’s the public policy going to be?’ we’re just trying to figure out, ‘What do people believe and what are their consequences?’  If we can’t do it at that level, how are we going to do it as a society at a policy level?”

I guess what I’m saying is, yeah, there are differences, and really to hammer this out in particulars, we would have to really get down to the brass tacks of each discipline, and I’m going to overgeneralize, but I still think that there is a dominant culture and sort of outlook on the world that infuses most of the social sciences despite individuals and despite programs that may be different.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  Okay.  Carl Cannon and then David.

Carl Cannon

Carl Cannon

CARL CANNON, RealClearPolitics:  When we’re talking about most of the century (off mic) what I was curious about is why the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and ’60s (off mic).

CARL CANNON:  You mentioned that through most of the century, sociologists didn’t think religion was worth studying.  My question is why the civil rights movement didn’t utterly change that calculus.  As I said, the intellectual underpinnings came out of the New Testament, the generals in the army were Southern Baptist preachers, the foot soldiers were their parishioners, and not just them, Unitarian and Congregational ministers from Boston, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner came from New York.  Andrew Goodman went to the University of Wisconsin for a year.  These are martyrs in the movement.

This thing ‑‑ this was not a secret.  These speeches were on television.  These people were venerated.  Why didn’t sociologists say, “Well, wait a minute, this is where the action is,” instead of ‑‑

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Yeah, that’s a great ‑‑ that’s a great question, and Napp and I were just discussing this over the break, and I think that is a case study of exactly what I’m talking about.  It didn’t change things, and it’s because it’s not the case that seeing is believing, it’s the case that believing is seeing, and so when social scientists at least looked at the civil rights movement, they didn’t see what you just described.

Most of the important interpretations of it in the field of social movements, which I was in, I was right in the heart of that early in my career, were reducing the civil rights movement to political opportunities because of the long-term fall of King Cotton and this and that and the other thing and organizational networks and growing organizational strength through ‑‑ I mean, there would be reference to churches, but what mattered in the ‑‑ that got through the sociological grid about churches in the civil rights movement is that it provided the movement “block recruitment,” meaning you didn’t have to recruit individuals into your movement, you could show up at a church and get 90 percent of the congregation to join as a block, but that’s why the churches were significant.  The actual thing that got the people into churches or that made them motivated as they were was not really attended to.

The first ‑‑ and it took until ‑‑ the civil rights movement is the paradigmatic movement in the sociology of social movements around which everything else is made sense of, and it wasn’t until I’m quite sure raised Baptist African American sociologist at Northwestern named Aldon Morris came along and wrote one book that said, “Um, actually the religious part of this really mattered,” and everyone was like, “Oh, yeah, if Aldon says it,” but there is this ‑‑ there is also kind of another double standard that if it’s about the civil rights movement, it’s okay if religious stuff gets said in public, and other people aren’t allowed to, but partly because, I don’t know what it is, liberal white guilt about blacks, like if they want to say ‑‑ you know, and I hesitate, I have to choose my words kindly here, but blacks in the civil rights movement get a pass on being religious in public, but it’s partly because they’re progressive and they’re Democrats, too.

But it’s partly just inability to see the religious dimensions of that movement.  It’s really about opportunities, organizational resource mobilization, et cetera, et cetera.  And even still today I don’t think that sociologists who study social movements get the role of religion in that movement.

David Rennie

David Rennie

DAVID RENNIE, Economist:  I just wanted to ask about, do you think that there are aspects of, some aspects of, American religion which also explain the confrontational relationship with American mainstream journalism?  And I think this having been here for 5 years but also covered politics in Europe, because it seems to me that one of the aspects of American religion that is most problematic for journalists is the whole sort of belief in inerrancy, which is not really present in European modern religion, it’s much more dicey, much more apologetic in the lay sense of the word, for Christianity.  And there is something about those kind of very soft confident swaggering and conservative kind of inerrant declarations that just goes against the whole journalistic kind of mindset, which is skepticism and hostility to authority and to lack of deference, and you know.  So there is a sense in which conservative Christianity, you know, when a Republican Congressman tries to shut down debate by saying that climate change doesn’t exist because he (inaudible), that goes against everything.

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Right, right.

DAVID RENNIE: There is no better way of provoking a journalist than doing it that way.

And just briefly on the European side, when you say that you see a kind of healthy role for religion in Britain, I don’t think that’s true.  I think it’s not even that Britain is very secular, although it is very kind of godless, but it’s a kind of ‑‑ it’s the death of deference that’s what you’ve got with this kind of soggy New Agey individualistic sort of spiritual kind of, but total distrust in any authority figure in a kind of pulpit or a church or accepting some soggy sort of staticky kind of vestigial kind of dress-up kind of way.

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Yeah.  Well ‑‑

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: David, you called it the death of what?

DAVID RENNIE: The death of deference.  I think that explains secularism in the lack of kind of church-going, you know, “Who are you just because you’re a priest?  You’re probably a pedophile anyway and you’re probably up to no good,” and it’s that kind of ‑‑ you know, “I’m not going to take my moral code from you, I’m going to take it from a mishmash of self-help books and horoscopes and whatever else.”

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Right, right.  That’s the dominant.  I wasn’t trying to suggest that in England it was a healthy relationship, I was saying it was more a relaxed relationship.  That’s my observation, that compared to the United States, where these things would trigger all sorts of ‑‑ there is just more of a natural interweaving.

Anyway, I’ll set that aside.  So the first point, about inerrancy. So that’s a word that describes a subset of mostly Evangelicals and fundamentalists, Protestants.  It wouldn’t apply to Catholic or Jewish, or most Jewish, I don’t think would use that language or even think in those terms.  And Evangelicals are ‑‑ or mainliners, Protestants ‑‑ Evangelicals have a whole range of positions on sort of the inspired or authoritativeness of scripture in relation to God.  So I think it tends to be that those who think that the Bible is inerrant feel more authorized or obliged to say things in public like that, and so it’s a matter of, who is the most likely to step up to the microphone and say something that will set a journalist off?

But the first point I’m trying to make is inerrantists are a minority of Americans, of even ‑‑ and maybe even of Evangelicals.


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  But I agree with your point that those who are most likely to jump into the fray and say things in public that trigger lots of other reactions from other people are more likely to be ‑‑ I’m not sure I would want to defend this ‑‑ I’ll say it and maybe back away from it ‑‑ are more likely to be people that many of us would think are crazy.

So if the 1970s and ’80s ‑‑ I’m sorry ‑‑ if in the 1970s and ’80s the resurgence of religion in American politics had not been Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed, but something else, it could have evoked a completely different history and culture of thinking through these things, but it was because Falwell, and he comes from a certain place and he has a certain constituency and had to say certain things, that just set off a whole cascade of ways of framing things and thinking about things and being concerned about things that proved to be not particularly helpful.

And in and through that, there were  gobs of conservative Protestants who would like to have rung Falwell’s neck.  I mean, their thinking was, who are you to speak on behalf of conservative Protestants?

So there is lots of internal differentiation and division and disagreement about these things, but, yes, all it takes anymore, partly because of that history, is for one person to say one particular kind of thing, and it’s sort of like a political religious culture that suffers posttraumatic stress disorder.  You know, I mean, all it takes is one little memory or one little buzzword and everyone is traumatized.

And it’s also ‑‑ well, now I’m really editorializing, but I also personally think that with that, that one of the main ways that Americans amuse themselves is by constantly rehearsing these kind of standard conflicts about Ten Commandments in the law court and look at the southern judge.  I mean, it’s one of our forms of entertainment, not to belittle any of the work you do, but there is part of me that tends to think that we are just in such despair about our existential situation in life in the world that we need that kind of story to keep us from slitting our throats, just as entertainment.  How’s that for reductionistic?

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  Well, that’s an ‑‑ yes, right.


MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  Did you have a follow-up, David?  I have a sense that you do.

DAVID RENNIE:  Not at this time.



Miranda Kennedy

Miranda Kennedy

MIRANDA KENNEDY, NPR:  So you spoke about the ways that the attitudes inside social science in the ’50s and ’60s, and it seems like you were saying that things had shifted a little bit.  But I just wanted to clarify, what are the ways, if at all, people have changed their thinking on religion?

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  So in the ’50s and ’60s, as far as I’ve been able to discern, religion was thought of as completely irrelevant, not related or important to anything that a sociologist or generally social scientists would want to study.  It was just doxic that that’s just not interesting, it’s not important.  Starting in the ’70s and moving into the ’80s and after, again there is this semi-begrudging like, oh, no, religion, isn’t going away, this is still part of ‑‑ even if it’s just jihadists or whatever that, you know, trouble us, but that this really is still part of geopolitics, American politics, lots of things, attitudes, opinions, social conflict, and that probably social science needs to figure it out and have something to say about it, but again within the framework, “Probably somebody else should do that, that’s not what I do in my research.”  It’s just ‑‑ it’s an acknowledgement ‑‑

MIRANDA KENNEDY:  But it’s not to say that anything actually changed.  I mean, there is just a begrudging acknowledgement that it should have changed, that, you know ‑‑

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  There’s a begrudging acknowledgement that religion is still something you have to take seriously or somebody else needs to take seriously.  But, yes, not too much has changed.  What’s changed is just an awareness, an awareness, religion is still important in some way, but not that that will change my research agenda for most social scientists.

And, again, after being told, “Don’t study religion,” “Don’t study religion,” at UNC Chapel Hill, finally my chair came to me and said, “That was the stupidest advice I ever gave, I was totally wrong,” and it was mostly because there was so much grant money in religion at the time.


Between Pew and Lilly, it was sort of like, wow, that was important, look at all the millions you brought.  I mean, that’s why it was important, because a scholar could get grant money to study it, not like, wow, I was wrong, you know, about religion and reality.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  Byron York, over here.

Byron York

Byron York

BYRON YORK, Washington Examiner:  It’s a little bit (off mic), but starting with your answer to Carl, you have talked about members of your profession basically respecting the religious beliefs and practices of some Americans and really not of others so that the creation believing, Ten Commandments posting white southern Evangelical is not on the respected end of things, and just talking about your profession, is that just all political bias?  Is there something else playing into it?  What’s the source of this scorn that so many ‑‑ that you say they have for some Americans?

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  It’s political and social, partly social class, so it’s not just their political views, it’s if the person is ‑‑ if a religious person is better educated, better spoken, and knows ‑‑ knows ‑‑ how to properly keep their religion in its place, that will be okay.  So most mainline Protestants will have learned such ways of ‑‑ and not because they want to impress their colleagues, that’s just how mainline Protestantism will operate.  And so that will be more acceptable.

So I guess it’s an interaction of sort of respectable knowledge class education social class and sort of where one sits in one’s political views on a spectrum of things.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson

MICHAEL GERSON:  I thought that one of the most provocative phrases you used was the phrase you used dismissively, the modern religion of the individual, which I think you said was a Durkheim phrase.


MICHAEL GERSON, Washington Post:  But it seems to apply to prosperity gospel Protestants and cafeteria Catholics and Libertarian pot smokers, and New Agers, and it seems to be very American.  I wonder if you have any thoughts on just individualism as a trend and maybe the way that’s affected even believers in the way they interpret their own faith, and how modern is that? how pervasive is that?  I’m interested.

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Right.  In a way, Durkheim was completely right, and I didn’t mean it dismissively in the sense that that was crazy, I meant it in the sense that Durkheim’s religion of the individual is not what traditionally religion has stood for, so it’s a migration of the holy from religious traditions to individualism basically.

It’s clear that ‑‑ well, I don’t want to get comparative.  It’s clear that in the United States individualism is one among many strong themes in our culture that people use to sort of understand themselves and life in the world.  I think we’re not radical individualists, I think we’re voluntaristic individualists, meaning that we’re strong individualists, but we also really think that part of what a good individual probably should do is voluntarily be part of civic organizations like churches and other things, the YMCA and so on.  So we’re not an anti-joining people even though we’re individualistic people.  Claude Fischer at Berkeley Sociology has this interesting take on American individualism, as a voluntaristic version of individualism, not a sort of everybody for themself.

So I think that voluntaristic version of individualism has really profoundly been reshaping or reconstituting the nature of American religion.  Catholicism has clearly become transformed into much more individualist, the individual believers, the authority of what they’re going to believe, not church teachings or dogma.  Evangelicalism or all Protestantism is almost by definition in some sense individualistic even if there is a voluntarist-joining congregationalist dimension to it.

So, I guess what I’m saying sounds unremarkable to me, but, yeah, individualism is a crucial dimension of American religion, and a lot of traditions that showed up here, whether through ethnic immigration or otherwise, have been sort of reconstituted in much more individualistic terms.  It’s partly because American religion operates on a marketplace model where anybody can choose anything, there isn’t a state religion, et cetera, and so the religions need to appeal to individuals as adherence to get them to continue to believe, come, and give money, and so that turns religion into something of a consumer item, which arguably sociologically keeps it more robust than, say, a lot of European traditions where there is a state church and everyone more or less loses interest.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Do you have a follow-up on that, David?


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  You’re supposed to do this first; right?

DAVID GREGORY:  Well, I know, but over here we’ve got this groove where I sit.


DAVID GREGORY:  But does that mean if there is more individualism sociologically, is it more difficult then to use religion as a basis to understand reality if you’re getting away from group thinking, group explanations for a group way of thinking?

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  From the point of view of many historic religions, yes, but this goes back to the ‑‑ I don’t want to overcomplicate this, but this goes back to the theoretic discussion of this morning of, what is a “religion?”  Is it ‑‑ is there something from the ‑‑ is there an essential something of religion that will define how good or bad we’re doing in relation to it?  Is there some part of history that must always ‑‑ or tradition, received tradition, that must always be part of it, or is it just whatever people make of it?

So I would say something like the practical answer to your question is insofar as Americans are still joiners mostly, although that’s diminishing a bit, to the extent that the organizations and congregations they join can mobilize them as individuals to believe and support something, it is still very possible to construct communities of people with shared beliefs, shared commitments and outlooks, who will act in certain ways.

So it’s not the destructive end of what you’re talking about, but it makes it more challenging.  The conditions of it succeeding have got to take into account the kind of individuals we’re talking about and work with it rather than just assume, well, if the church teaches that, the people will follow.

DAVID GREGORY:  But if religion becomes more diffuse ‑‑ I mean, I use Judaism as an example.  So in the civil rights context, a lot of particularly reform synagogues are driven by social justice; right?  That’s a key component of Judaism.  Now, you know, there may have been others who could have been much more spiritual Jews who were not as motivated by social justice but maybe something that was textual that motivated them.  So particularly where there are cafeteria Catholics, I think there are a lot of Jews like this, who choose among the meats, vote, and so forth.

And so you get a little bit more ‑‑ it’s kind of what David was saying or bemoaning about the death of deference and kind of institutional attachment in Europe, that you have a lot more individualized spiritual practice that’s more in vogue, much more accepted now, it seems to me, in America ‑‑


DAVID GREGORY:  ‑‑ and therefore gets more difficult to pin down group behavior when the group becomes more diverse.

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Mm-hmm.  No, I think that’s true.  I think empirical evidence shows that those who would consider themselves spiritual but not religious are less likely to volunteer, be part of group activities, and so on.  I mean, it’s almost by definition that’s what that means, but in terms of civic involvement and so on, it has consequences.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  Okay, carrying us into getting ready to go into the break is Emma Green and Sarah Bailey, and then after the two of you, we’re all heading to the beach.

EMMA GREEN: It seems to me throughout all this there have been similar knowledge access problems that have come to the fore both about problems that journalists face but also problems that academics face.  You’ve been critical of both fields.  And so it seems to me that that problem is religion is this kind of ephemeral limited thing that happens in people’s heads and hearts and it’s all sort of mystical and has this magical element and it’s very hard to pin it down into a series of events or discrete items that you can then report on either in a reported journalistic sense or that you can record in an academic sense.

But it seems to me that sort of at the same time as you’re identifying all of these problems with social science and the academy and everything, yada yada yada, you know, on the internet in particular there is this I think cultural knowledge access assumption that if there’s a study about it, then we can make some conclusion about how humans act, and that might just be like the lazy world of internet journalism that I reside in, but I think there definitely is a positivist strain to that, so it’s sort of I guess symbiotically existing in this environment of not being able to figure out what’s going on with religion, and so journalists are like, “Hey, that social scientist at that thing,” and then the social scientist is like, “Hey, I don’t know anything about religion in the first place.”

So I guess all of that is to say, how do you think both academics and journalists residing in the same kind of crummy place in terms of being able to figure out what in the world is going on in religion in the first place should do with that and what should be sort of the attenuations in their behavior and, you know, have you experienced the deep cuts internet that is actually positivist in nature?

Christian Smith

Christian Smith

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  I could be missing something, but it seems to me ‑‑ I mean, there are a number of process changes that could help matters, but they’re probably all utopian, so I’m not going to focus on them, like the political economy of the production of news gives people more time to research, and so I’m not going to go there, but somehow it seems to me that this is a case of anything like it, and there is no way to get around it other than ‑‑ if I wanted to ‑‑ if I realized or if you realized, oh, here’s a dimension of human life that I’ve missed, I haven’t gotten it, and it’s actually really important, I need to get it, I need to understand it better, I need to give myself better tools to be able to understand and explain it, it seems to me that it’s the same, religion or anything else, it’s going to be the same process:  spend a lot of time doing a lot of reading, talking to people, going out into the natural settings in the real world, visiting, soaking and poking, taking in, going to events.  It’s just learning about it through lots and lots of ways to the point where again if I wanted to become a specialist in Hinduism, that’s what I would have to do.  And it seems like social scientists need to do that in various ways and journalists need to do that, otherwise we’re just stuck.

EMMA GREEN:  And so do you think that’s satisfying when you get to the endpoint there, wherever you can figure out, that’s going to be a satisfying way of understanding what’s going on in the hearts and heads of people when they’re having these mystical experiences with God?

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Well, first of all ‑‑ so I emphasize subjectivity, but I don’t think ‑‑ I think very, very little of lived religion is mystical experience with God.  I think for most people it’s just sort of practice of ‑‑ and a lot of it’s observable, I mean what people do, and so I guess I don’t ‑‑ maybe I’m confusing things I’ve said earlier, but I don’t think most of it’s inaccessible.

Religion gets acted out in what certain scholars call “liturgies,” not like the Anglican liturgy, but like here are practices in which you engage in order to access the superhuman power or force that you believe exists that you want to have a relationship or interaction with.  It’s not all just interior, it’s practiced.And so I think practices and then people’s accounts of what they’re doing when they engage in a practice can tell us a huge amount that we need to know.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  So, Sarah, we’re about to go take a break.  Do you have a 5-point question or one?


SARAH PULLIAM BAILEY:  It’s actually a very practical question.  How do we get ideas for story ideas besides calling you asking for 2 hours of your time?  Do we read these scholarly journals?  What are ways we can put this into practice?

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  Some of you can call me for 2 ‑‑


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  I haven’t thought about that very much.  I mean, it seems to me that at least scanning professional journals and the catalogs of Oxford University Press and, all the presses that are producing good books, seeing what kind of projects are being ‑‑ I mean, the problem with that is it selects on what’s already being paid attention to, and some of what you want to be doing is looking at what’s not being paid attention to.  And there are also selection processes in what scholars choose to study.

So I don’t properly know other than to get yourself out on the streets and in meeting houses of worship of various sorts and just be talking to lots of people about what’s happening in the world.  Again, that sounds completely utopian.  I know you’re all incredibly busy and can’t, but ‑‑

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  On this quick point, Shadi has a quick intervention, and then we’re going to take a break.

SHADI HAMID:  I’m just curious.  I don’t know much about how Evangelical movements are covered in the U.S., but what do people do if they want to report on these groups?  I mean, if I’m thinking about it in terms of how I study Islamists, a big part of it is just spending a lot of time with them.  Is that normal practice in the journalistic community, that you spend a few weeks just being a part of their world and trying to absorb everything you possibly can?  I’m just curious.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  Well, you know, the anthropologist at Stanford University ‑‑ Christian Smith will tell me her name ‑‑ spent 2 years being a part of a seeker church.  Her name is ‑‑ Chris?


MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  Yeah.  The woman who wrote the book on the ‑‑

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  This is way back in The Atlantic or recently?


MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  When God Talks Back.


MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  And she’s an anthropologist at Stanford ‑‑

CHRISTIAN SMITH:  But that’s what anthropologists have to do.  It’s a rite of passage, you have to go live for a year or two in a tribe.


CHRISTIAN SMITH:  A lot of other disciplines, you sit in a lab and download the dataset and crunch numbers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE SPEAKER:  I’ll call somebody out.  I mean, Michael did a nice piece on L’Arche, for example, and, you know, that involves some direct contact with L’Arche people; right?  So maybe you could say something about that.

MICHAEL GERSON:  It’s actually a little depressing because you just dip in and out of somebody’s life, you know.  It’s hard to do that in any sustained way, so you spend half a day at a place and write about it, and then you have to write about something else.  I actually find it challenging.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE:  Okay.  Well, let me just say that at 6:30 we’re going to meet for cocktails and have dinner outside by candlelight, but for now in the next 3 hours you are free to do whatever you like.

Join me in thanking Professor Smith for a wonderful presentation.

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Dr. Christian Smith

Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, University of Notre Dame

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