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Putting Baby Back in the Bath: Theorising Modernity for the Contemporary Sociology of Religion

Andrew Dawson

The Problem at Hand

The concerns and issues addressed in this chapter arise from a number of areas. First, they arise from my own work on contemporary religious developments in Europe, South America and the United States (e.g. Dawson 2007, 2011, 2013). Though mindful of the variegated socio-cultural terrain and varied geographical contexts in which research occurs, I nevertheless seek to articulate an understanding of contemporary religious change against the overarching theoretical backdrop of modern societal transformation. In short, the concept of 'modernity' provides a unifying analytical theme to my attempts to explicate the character and implications of ongoing transformations in religious belief and practice across a range of socio-cultural contexts. Perhaps precisely because of the modernity-oriented and transnational aspirations of my research, I have been struck by the growing popularity of academic discourse which both problematises modernity as a viable theoretical tool and eschews any meaningful attempt to relate an otherwise local or regional analysis with wider processes and dynamics of a cross-border or global nature (see below).

Second, the concerns and issues addressed below arise from personal interactions with academics and colleagues who, imbued by an increasingly fashionable theoretical provincialism, criticize my use of modernity as a transnational heuristic as both ideologically corrupt (because of its Western provenance) and analytically naive (in view of its international aspirations). In one exchange, for example, my interlocutor baulked at my qualified use of late-modern theory (á la Bauman, Beck, Giddens, et al.) to engage the nonmainstream religiosity of urban-professional practitioners in Brazilian cities such as Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. My reply that new middle-class members of Brazil's alternative religious scene frequently have more in common with nonmainstream adepts in the big cities of Australasia, Europe and North America than they do with many of their fellow citizens nevertheless failed to mitigate an evident discomfort with the purportedly unwarranted application of 'foreign' concepts to Brazil's domestic religious field. Offering absolutely no engagement with the theories being applied, my critic's discomfort rested solely upon an ostensible violation of Brazil's regional particularity. In the same vein, an academic colleague commonly rejects all attempts to explain the socio-cultural transformations currently underway in her/his geographical area of specialization which mobilise established sociological theories and concepts. Drawing a clear distinction between 'East' and 'West', my colleague refutes the relevance of concepts like 'modernity' on the grounds that they apply only to the socio-cultural cradle (i.e. the West) of their birth. Likewise offering no substantive critique of the sociological theories mobilised, my colleague's intellectual distress is provoked solely by the purported violation of regional integrity caused by the transnational application of social theories of modernity.

What follows opens by situating the suspicions of my interlocutors within the broader theoretical backdrop of recent problematisations of modernity as an ahistorical evolutionary model which is both overly homogenising and regionally biased. Given its progressively fashionable status within the sociology of religion, the multiple modernities paradigm is subsequently treated as a working example of such a critique. The remainder of the chapter then addresses the contemporary problematisation of modernity by doing two things. First, it argues that the problematisation of modernity currently in vogue within the sociology of religion actually loses as much as it gains in respect of its theoretical grasp of contemporary belief and religious practice. In effect, the views expressed by aforementioned interlocutors and exemplified by the multiple modernities paradigm serve only to swap one faulty conceptualisation of modernity (and thereby religion's place in it) for another. Though ideologically more 'right-on' than traditional representations, the conceptualisation of modernity currently fashionable among many sociologists of religion is as equally problematic in respect of its analytical limitations. Second, the chapter argues for the theoretical indispensability of modernity as a means of construing and interpreting contemporary societal and religious developments as both locally instantiated and transnationally accomplished. Serving both as a cri de coeur and rudimentary prolegomenon, the latter part of what follows identifies a number of requirements which any conceptualisation of modernity must meet in order to be of use to sociological engagement with contemporary religion.

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