Religion inthe Contemporary World Anv study of the sociology of contemporary religion needs to address two
basic questions. First, is religion worth studying’? Second, can sociology
add to our knowledge about religion? This book is geared to answering
those two questions. It does not assume, hut aims to show, that religion is
important and that sociology enhances our understanding of it.
Religion – worth our continued attention?
One reason why the study of Religion inthe Contemporary World is a problem for
sociologists is that the sociology of religion has been dominated by a debate
about the secularization thesis. Although, as with any key term, there are
deep disagreements about the meaning of secularization, for the momeni
we may adopt Wilson’s (1966: xiv) concise definition: ‘the process by
which religious thinking, practice and institutions lose social significance’.
This definition, and the theories of secularization which lie behind it, are
profoundly challenging to the status of religion as an object of study. First,
if we accept that religious thinking, practice and institutions have been in
decline for centuries, is there anything left? Surely religion is simply withering away, as the Bolshevik revolutionaries, inspired by the work of Karl
Marx and Friedrich Engels, believed to be inevitable? Second, the process
is often presented as irreversible. Hopes for an uplift in religion’s fortunes
are said to be misplaced, and the facts are correctly labelled ‘statistics of
decline’. Third, secularization is seen as a universal phenomenon affecting all advanced societies. Countries of the Third World will find, whether
they wish it or not, that modernization wil l inevitably bring secularization.
Encyclopedia of Religion, Communication, and Media
Every effort has been made to trace the copyright holders but, if any have
been inadvertently overlooked, the publishers will be pleased to make the
necessary arrangements at the first opportunity.
Although no one apart from myself bears any responsibility for the
content of this book, many people have helped by fheir teaching, research,
and acts of kindness and encouragement. M y introduction to the sociology
of religion was through the work and example of Bryan Wilson; I join many
other sociologists in owing him an enormous debt of gratitude. Members of
the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group
have been helpful in more ways than (hey know. 1 should like to thank them
all for their support, and in particular Jim Beckford, Grace Davie, Kieran
Flanagan, Mik e Homsby-Smith, Peter Jupp, David Martin, Denise Newton
and Sarah Potter. M y colleague Russell McKinla y taught me about
Quakers. Joan Chandler has been most encouraging; she is a discerning
reader, so 1 hope she enjoys the book. 1 should also like to thank Eileen
Barker, a stimulating thinker and a great source of encouragement. I am
grateful to Ernest, Elsie and Marjorie Aldridge for their healthy attitude to
the subject of this book. I owe more than 1 can say to Mery l Aldridge, to
whom the book is dedicated,
Filially, the loss of social significance means the potential loss of evervthing that is significant. Religion may survive for a while in the recesses of
social life, as a source of meaning and comfort to individual believers, but
it no longer shapes the social, cultural, economic or political destiny of any
modern industrial society. If that is so, it may not be long before religion
loses even the role of comforting individuals.
Perhaps it is this last point, above all others, which accounts for the view
held by some sociologists that the sociology of religion is a backwater of no
interest to those who navigate the main river. ‘Religion – where the action
isn’t?’ was one sociologist’s memorable query (Eldridge 1980). Religion
tends to be seen as an epiphenomenon, that is to say an effect rather than a
cause, with no independent impact of its own. On this view the most
religion can offer is a gloss of legitimacy to institutions that can increasingly do without it.