Monday, September 27, 2010

Religion, Sociology and Science

I certainly cannot claim to be well-versed in the sociology of religion. Every time I look at it directly, or, more frequently, read a summary of recent work elsewhere, I find myself quickly bored. The question is: why?
I think a vast majority of Sociologists would assent to two claims:

  1. Sociology is a Science
  2. Science is value-free; that is science is merely descriptive

I think it probable that some who would assent to the first claim would deny the second. With them I have no quarrel at this time. My question is: What are the consequences of both? The discipline of Sociology was once explained to me as the study of the interactions of various groups within a society.

Scientific thinking is necessarily categorical. I think any science has some kind of “unit of analysis” . By “science” here, I do not necessarily mean a discipline matching precisely with the accepted list of separate sciences but rather a discipline in the more basic sense, a study that demands logical coherence and aspires to logical closure. This raises the question as to what constitutes the Sociological atom. I would guess it differs from study to study, though I imagine the influence of Hobbes and Locke looms large and therefore it is often the individual.

Then, Sociology will tend to regard religion as a reason individuals constitute a group. Religion is understood categorically; that is, all religions have the same social function. Understood this way, the proper question for Sociology is whether or not some group is properly regarded as a religious group. The oberved social properties of a religious group follow from the sociological properties of the religious group as such. It is trite to point out that this abstraction cannot be directly observed for no abstraction can be. This problem is hardly specific to the Sociology of religion. There is a difficulty that applies, if not exclusively to the sociology of religion, than at least is a graver difficulty than for other topics.

To the adherents of some religion, the most important aspect of that religion is its veracity. Thus, the social group forms around this idea. Sociology has no vocabulary to describe such things. Thus, in order to achieve its logical closure it must substitute its own reason for existence for the one held by the group. Then, Sociology cannot understand a religious group in the same way its adherants understand themselves in a group. Thus, either the group or Sociology is mistaken about its ultimate aims. The actual picture is surely more complicated insofar as religious groups, as such, have no obvious social function specific to them but many perform social functions (soup kitchens, youth groups, etc.) that seem to overlap with secular organizations. Yet, I think this gets to the heart of the difficulty. A Sociological Analysis will have difficulty distinguishing these secondary functions of a religious organization as distinct from similar activities that are primary functions of secular organizations precisely because it lacks the vocabulary to describe the function to which the aforementioned functions are secondary and therefore the overarching goal toward which they are oriented.

Yet, the account cannot bear this incompleteness. It must substitute a different reason for organization; one that it can understand. The usual solution to this is a Marxist account of religion as some kind of opiate, though usually in more diplomatic language. Essentially, a religious conviction is a means by which a group distinguishes members from non-members and accords privileges and power. Thus, the opiate is not an analgesic to material deprivation but rather palliative for the conscience. This draws Sociology into a theory of the subconscious (and an oddly Christian one but I digress). The only alternative is to ascribe dishonesty or delusion to the group in question.

This Marxist solution is permissible because it is materialistic and therefore regards human behavior as merely a form of animal behavior. The problem is, a Christian understanding of things rejects materialism as untrue, contrary to revelation, and an affront to the dignity of man. This is a serious difficulty for the claim of Sociology to be value-free insofar as it amounts to an abolition of the question of the good of man and an evasion of the question of values. I mean to imply that Sociology is value free only from its own value-laden point of view . This seems incompatible with the concept of “value-freedom” provided it means logical independence of any moral questions or propositions. It seems in order to attempt a kind of freedom from values, Sociology is compelled to categorically reject value-laden principles. Yet this categorical rejection can only be defended philosophically. Since moral values and religious convictions are an important aspect (I would argue the most important aspect) of how man organizes his societies the Social Sciences must either broaden their scopes and embrace them, thereby becoming philosophical (or perhaps even theological), or deny them and become materialistic and therefore atheistic. Either way, I do not think the Sociology of Religion (or for that matter Politics) can be value-free.

What is usually called the hard sciences can achieve a kind of value freedom because its propositions are logically independent of moral claims. Atoms give no reason for irganizing themselves as they do; indeed, physics would tell us they do not organize themselves at all and rather are organized by impersonal forces. A deistically or theistically minded person might object to the description “impersonal” but the point is that only the form of those physical laws is relevant to the hard sciences. The reason for those laws being as they are is considered outside the realm of a descriptive science. Yet the laws of human organization, some of them explicitly written and justified are understood as purposeful and thus have relevance beyond their formal content.

I do not mean a cetegorical denial of the possibility of human sciences so much as I object to the possibility of value-free human sciences. I would prefer to weaken the definition of “science” to be a discipline with the following to crieria:

  1. It has methods specific to itself
  2. It strives after an improvement of these methods in addition to some notion of truth.

I further conjecture that a science may be regarded as mature once the goals of method improvement and truth are no longer easily distinguished. This seems to imply that a science is born a philosophy and matures into a methodology. I suppose the natural follow up question is: a methodology of what? I admit I do not like this conclusion but at the moment am unsure where to go with it. Comments are welcome.