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New Questions

For all these reasons, religion is rising in the public agenda, prompting renewed attention to the topic, expressed among other things in a vigorous research sector. As we have seen, much of this activity is policy-oriented and driven by the changing nature of society. It prompts, however, new questions for the sociology of religion. Three of these will be addressed as a conclusion to this chapter: the notion of the post-secular; the degree to which theoretical approaches (both old and new) can be generalized; and the need to engage the mainstreams of social science in the study of religion. The discussion is brief, deliberately provocative and recalls my earlier writing in this field.

The term 'post-secular' is widely used, but to mean very different things. For a start, it raises once again the possibility that perception may be more important than reality: the world is deemed post-secular because we have chosen to take notice of religion rather than to ignore it. The religious situation itself has not changed that much. Post-secular, secondly, is rarely a neutral term. The increasing visibility of religion is welcome or less welcome depending on who you are, what you do and where you are situated in society. Religion, thirdly, 'returns' in many different ways - some of these are easier to accommodate than others, as indeed are the reactions they provoke. What has become known as the 'new atheism', for example, is largely a response - a vehement one at that - to the re-emergence of religion in the public sphere. New atheists are much less concerned about private belief.

My own view is the following. I welcome the current debate concerning the post-secular and the growing body of literature that surrounds it (see for example Molendijk et al. 2010; Baker and Beaumont 2011). Both are signs that religion is taken seriously - that is a good thing. The notion of the post-secular needs, however, considerable refinement. In Europe, for example, two rather different things are happening at once. It is true that religion has re-entered the public square in new and unexpected ways, and is demanding a response. It is equally true that the process of secularization is continuing - remorselessly so in many places. As a result, large sections of the European population have lost the concepts, knowledge and vocabulary that are necessary to talk about religion just when they need them most. It is for this reason that the standard of debate in many parts of Europe is so poor - an evidently worrying feature. A second strand of thinking draws on the work of David Martin: the post-secular, if it exists at all, is unlikely to be a single or unitary thing. It will be as patterned as its predecessor. Indeed, for precisely this reason, Martin (2011) is highly suspicious of the term. The interactions of the religious and secular should rather be seen in the long-term. 'Religious thrusts' and 'secular recoils' have happened for centuries rather than decades and - crucially for Martin - they work themselves out differently in different places. The shorthand of 'God is back'[1]cannot do justice to this necessarily complex agenda.

Martin's more nuanced approach builds very directly on to his General Theory of Secularization (1978), a book which interrogates the varied pathways of secularization in different parts of the world. This, in turn, underpins the approach of Hans Joas, who distinguishes up to seven different meanings of the term 'secular' (Joas 2002; Joas and Wiegandt 2009). Such complexities must be squarely faced; it is in working through them that a better understanding of late modern society will emerge, not in an exaggerated contrast between unitary, and thus distorting, understandings of secular and post-secular. [2] Such thinking echoes very clearly the point made in my 1998 article. Many of the difficulties that have arisen in the sociology of religion have their roots in the notion that 'one size fits all'. It was too frequently assumed that secularization was a necessary feature of modernization and that both processes will occur in the rest of the world as they have done in Europe. This is not the case - a shift accepted by increasing numbers of people, both in the academy and outside. The point to stress here is that approaches to the post-secular must be equally subtle and varied; it too must be understood in the context in which it occurs.

In 2007 I considered the agenda of the sociology of religion to be critical - in two senses. It was vital that we understood the place of religion in the twenty-first century and its continuing role in the lives of countless individuals and the societies of which they are part. I, however, was critical of a sub-discipline that did not always rise to this challenge. It is my firm belief that the sociology of religion - indeed the study of religion in general - is now in better shape. I welcome this shift unreservedly, but remain skeptical about the motivations for much of the work being done. By and large, religion is still perceived as a 'problem' - and in order to be better managed, it must be thoroughly researched. The emphasis therefore lies on control.

Such a statement requires immediate qualification. It is more applicable in some places than in others, to some disciplines than to others, and to some researchers than to others. Broadly speaking the potential of religion to become a positive resource is most easily appreciated by those who know it best. Specifically, American scholars find it easier than their European equivalents and those who work in the developing world find it easier still - notably anthropologists and development workers. Right from the start, the former were less affected by the secular turn than their sociological cousins. The latter are practical people driven by the circumstances in which they find themselves - very often they work in places where religious networks are both more intact and more reliable than their secular equivalents. It seems, moreover, that researchers who 'live' in the field (in whatever capacity and in whatever kind of society) are more likely to display a respect for their subjects and the lifestyles they embrace. Respect can include of course a critical perspective.

What next? Large numbers of researchers from many different disciplines are currently engaged in the study of religion - much of their work is innovative and insightful. In itself, however, this success suggests a further step: the need to penetrate the philosophical core of the associated disciplines and to enquire what difference the serious study of religion might make to their ways of working. The size of the task should not be underestimated. Most of the disciplines in question have emerged more or less directly from the European Enlightenment, implying that they are underpinned by a markedly secular philosophy of social science. Interestingly it is precisely this point that Jürgen Habermas appreciates so clearly and addresses in his recent writing (for example Habermas 2006). He insists, moreover, that others have a similar responsibility: that is to rethink the foundations of their respective fields of study in order to accommodate fully the implications of religion and religious issues in their analyses of modern societies. This, moreover, means accepting religion as it is, not as we would like it to be. Above all, it must be driven by the data, not by the assumptions of overly secular social science.


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Bäckström, A., Davie, G., Edgardh, N. and Pettersson, P. (eds) (2010). Welfare and Religion in 21st century Europe: Volume 1. Configuring the Connections. Farnham: Ashgate.

Bäckström, A., Davie, G., Edgardh, N. and Pettersson, P. (eds) (2011). Welfare and Religion in 21st century Europe: Volume 2. Gendered, Religious and Social Change. Farnham: Ashgate.

Baker, C. and Beaumont, J. (eds) (2011). Postsecular Cities: Religious Space, Theory and Practice. London: Continuum.

Berger, P. (ed.) (1999). The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co. Cox, J.,

Campbell, A. and Fulford, B. (eds) (2006). Medicine of the Person: Faith, Science and Values in Health Care Provision. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Davie, G. (1998). The Sociology of Religion, in Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, ed. W. Swatos. New York City: Alta Mira Press, pp. 483-9.

Davie, G. (2002). Europe: The Exceptional Case. Parameters of Faith in the Modern World. London: Darton, Longman and Todd. Davie, G. (2007). The Sociology of Religion. London: Sage. A revised edition appeared in 2013.

Ferrari, S. and Cristofori, R. (eds) (2010). Law and Religion in the 21st Century Relations Between States and Religious Communities. Farnham: Ashgate.

Habermas, J. (2006). Religion in the Public Sphere. European Journal of Philosophy, 14(1), 1-25.

Joas, H. (2002). Do We Need Religion? On the Experience of Self-Transcendence. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Joas, H. and Wiegandt, K. (eds) (2009). Secularization and the World Religions.

Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. Kepel, G. (1994). The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern World. London: Polity Press.

Martin, D. (1978). A General Theory of Secularization. Oxford: Blackwell. Martin, D. (2011). The Future of Christianity: Violence and Democracy, Secularization and Religion. Farnham: Ashgate.

Marty, M. and Appleby, R.S. (eds) (1991). Fundamentalisms Observed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Micklethwait, J. and Wooldridge, A. (2009). God is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith is Changing the World. London: Allen Lane.

Molendijk, A., Beaumont, J. and Jedan, C. (eds) (2010). Exploring the Postsecular: The Religion, the Political and the Urban. Leiden: Brill.

Rozenberg, J. (2013). Balancing Christian and Gay Rights isn't Easy – Give Strasbourg Some Credit. Guardian, 15 January [Online]. Available at [accessed: 7 March 2013].

  • [1] This was the title of a much discussed book authored by two senior journalists at The Economist (Micklethwait and Wooldridge 2009).
  • [2] On this point, Hans Joas is sharply critical of Jurgen Habermas (see in particular Joas 2002).
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