June 1, 2017

Proposing alternatives to Western sociologies of religion

In writing Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes, published in March 2017, Jim Spickard wanted to do nothing less than expand the perspective and toolkit of sociologists of religion.

Spickard is a University of Redlands professor of sociology and anthropology and the author of several books and 70 journal articles on the sociology of religion, social science research methods, and the social foundations of ethics, among other topics. In his new book, he explores what the sociology of religion would look like had it emerged in a Confucian, Muslim or Native American culture rather than in a Christian one.   

“Sociology was invented in France [it was first coined in 1790 by a French essayist and later defined by the French philosopher of science, Auguste Comte in 1838] to try to figure out what’s happening to whom in the massive change of the 19th century,” Spickard notes. “It was in opposition to authorized religious organizations. As a result, sociologists built a particular image of religion into their models—organized, hierarchical churches that focused on rules.”

Since sociology has long used Western Christianity as a model for all religious life, the field traditionally has highlighted aspects of religion that Christians find important, such as religious beliefs and formal organizations, while paying less attention to other elements.

But Spickard imagines what the sociology of religion would look like had it arisen in three non-Western societies. “What would we see if we were all raised Confucian? Muslim? Or even Navajo?” Spickard asks. Each religious system holds radically different beliefs than Christianity. Noting that in the present-day religions are vanishing in the U.S. and worldwide, he proposes that it is time to redefine the sociological study of religion by adopting a global perspective in the social sciences.

His book illustrates how non-Western frameworks can shed new light on several different dimensions of religious life. Indeed, Spickard’s book shows how non-Western ideas understand some aspects of religions—even Western ones—better than does standard sociology.

Spickard came to the University of Redlands as a scholar who could also teach, he recalls. “I’m at this point balanced between scholar and teacher and both are important to me,” he says. “This place is extremely articulate about teaching. There is a scholarship here that matters to me.”

Originally he took a three-year position at Redlands, Spickard remembers, but it turned into a permanent job. “I liked the ethics of the place. There was a vision here I really liked, a sense of being called to serve.”

He thinks Redlands students choose to study at the University because they know they’ll receive a personalized education. “We can become isolated from each other, but Redlands draws connections across disciplines,” he said. 

“There’s a solidarity here, a way that people actually care for each other,” he adds. “Why are faculty members so dedicated? It’s the sense of fairness and equality that we find here. We connect to students and each other.”