Journal Watch: Sociology of Religion
Peter Berger once imagined that the end of the 20th century would witness believers huddled together in small sects as they tried to survive a worldwide secular culture. He's now a critic of the theory that humankind is slowly outgrowing religious faith, but the question persists: Why isn't the world more secular? And why are there still so many Christians?
Sociologists have many answers, as Christian Smith notes in the summer 2007 issue of Sociology of Religion:
The moral and emotional uncertainties of the transition from communist order to now-emerging market societies, for example, might be thought to explain the growth of Christianity in China and Russia. The social dislocation resulting from the mass migration of Latin Americans from rural to urban areas is believed to explain the powerful appeal of Pentecostal faith in that region. The competition and "product" richness of America's de-regulated religious economy are theorized as explaining its high rates of theism and churchgoing.
"Such sociological accounts are valid as far as they go," Smith writes. "They often can illuminate the social processes influencing the extent and shape of religious practices. But in the end, such sociological accounts possess limited abilities to explain the persistence over millennia and into the modern world of religion generally andfor my purposes hereChristianity in particular."
What sociologists sometimes miss, Smith writes, is that there's something in Christianity itself that may explain its persistence.
"[T]he belief content of the Christian faith gives rise to certain practices and experiencesparticularly emotional onesthat many people find highly engaging, compelling, persuasive, ...