Religion, Sociology and Politics: “la fin des haricots”?

Note by Alex: This article was sent to me by my good friend Guillaume, who wished to take part to this adventure of blog and politics. I have not modified a single word, but the pictures are my own addition. For English speaking readers, “la fin des haricots” is both meaning “the last straw” and to an infamous song about which I can only warn the reader.


A short tale for beginners in sociology of religion


Once upon a time, an organization called the Church dominated European countries. Bishops were feudal lords and landowners, they could decide whether to abide to royal decrees in some matters, and the Pope was the uncontested sovereign in all spiritual matters. Crusades could drive warriors out of Europe, and help develop commercial routes, at the cost of bloodbaths with infidels, still perceived (somewhat legitimately) as a historical rape in the Middle East. A first blow struck this world in the 14th c. when European kings decided they could manage things on their own, including taxes and church affairs. This paved the way for modern states, and the ragione di Stato dear to Niccolò Machiavelli. A second blow came with the Protestant Reformations (not just Luther and Calvin, but also Henry VIII, Bucer, Oecolampadus, Zwingli and their colleagues). There could be no more religious monopoly in Europe. Entrepreneurs could develop a mundane religious ethic in harmony with the new means of production; asceticism was no more a monk’s rule. With the help of modern administrations, linguistic unification and confessionalisation reinforced each other, creating political markers for community-building and national identification. A third blow shook definitely the building with the Enlightenment, the age of Revolutions, industrialisation, individualism, citizenship free from religious colours, and so on, until two world wars. Life under the threat of nuclear weapons sucked, so existentialist writers and thinkers, and then the middle-class, would develop sceptical and individualistic attitudes. Everyone devised their own syncretic and self-indulgent religion, under the name of spirituality. Finally, traditional religion would become an extinct species, in the age of postmodernity, and no one but scholars would seriously remember it. Cathedrals would become museums; churches of lesser interest, houses or discotheques. And for nostalgic observers, T.S. Eliot could declare this was the way the world ended, not with a bang but a whimper.

This condensed narrative was named ‘the paradigm of secularisation’. No one takes it seriously today under this form, but it made sense to most sociologists, indebted to the tradition of Max Weber and a peculiar reading (the disenchantment of the world, without quoting more Marcel Gauchet). It is univocal, (Western) Eurocentric, not empirical and not falsifiable. It is more akin to a philosophy of history than to a sociological enquiry. Of course, finer theoretical elaborations of secularization are worth being read when you work on these topics (the works of Peter L. Berger, Thomas Luckmann, David Martin, José Casanova and Steve Bruce, to name a few). They do have an interest, in that they give some insights on the way beliefs mutate and practices evolve, with other relationships to authority and to ethics. If we use secularisation not as a paradigm, but as a more modest concept to enquire on, with empirical bases such as critical quantitative enquiries on religiosity and fieldwork research on contemporary forms of religious community, it is useful. Yet, if we take the debates today, no one argues (well, hardly Steve Bruce _ or, as a militant agenda, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens) that the historical process at work in European countries is ineluctably getting to the end of beliefs, of practices and of religious forms of communalisation. It is not restricted to studies of anthropology: religion is affected by globalisation, migrations and exchanges of ideas do have an impact on religious expressions. Without yelling about the return of God, or The Revenge of God, to quote Gilles Kepel’s essay, it appears that it is not completely irrelevant to talk about religion in sociology and in political science.


From the opiate of the masses


As a consequence, it is still relevant to discuss about religion and politics, even in a light way, under the aegis of political sociology. One must admit is that religion as a social phenomenon was central to the founding fathers of scientific sociology, from Tocqueville and Marx (the famous opiate of the masses) to Weber, Simmel and Durkheim. While sociology of religion estranged itself from mainstream sociology in the second half of the 20th c., apart from the main theoretical debates as the great sociologist James Beckford argued, some bridges have been built with other disciplines. Political science is one of them, so is law and, to a much lesser extent, so are economics _ neoclassical economist Robert Barro studied for instance the relationship between religion and economic growth. After “la fin des haricots” with religions and despite some voyeur interest triggered by media coverage since 9/11, why would we spend time having a look at religious phenomena, apart from the quest for erudition?

A first reason is that beliefs, practices and communalisation do have an impact on political attitudes and political actions. The classical works of Simon and Michelat, René Rémond and Donegani in France, and more recently of the famous Robert D. Putnam in the United States, can be mentioned here. This is not just about voting preferences, related to religious affiliations as well as to age, class, gender and location variables. One must look at how religious references are used in political speeches, mobilisations based on religious affiliations (Yves Déloye and Magali Della Sudda renewed the look at conservative Catholic militancy, including right-wing feminism, at the beginning of the 20th c.). Religious symbols are, just as other symbols, subject to politicisation processes (Françoise Lorcerie and others on the veil in Europe, the case of the crucifix in Italian schools in Lautsi vs Italy for the European Court of Human Rights…), controversies do involve religious actors (e.g. the issues linked to creationism and the Intelligent Design in the works of Joan Stavo-Debauge and Philippe Gonzalez). Religion still confers legitimacy to political actors. Clifford Geertz made such observations in the case of Morocco and Bali.

A second reason is that religious institutions work, precisely, as… institutions, they indicate the way a religious sector is produced in a national or a local space for instance. Some pioneer works, in collaboration with sociologists, are of high interest here _ the works of Pierre Bourdieu (“Genèse et structure du champ religieux”) and of Michel de Certeau on the institutions of belief (La faiblesse de croire) are must-read. For example, the late Jacques Lagroye worked on the Catholic Church as an organisation, highlighting the tensions since the Second Vatican Council between adherents to a regime of certitudes (they abide to the doctrine because it is certified by the magisterium) and adherents to a regime of testimonies (they abide to the doctrine because it makes sense if practised). Such enquiries are quite new, as they require a cool, empirical look at the way interreligious or interfaith initiatives, for example, take place in some settings and not in others, with some interlocutors and not others, as in the works of Anne-Sophie Lamine. This is also the place to mention the impressive research done on the institutionalisation of Islam in Western countries, in the USA (Jocelyne Cesari), in Belgium (Felice Dassetto, Corinne Torrekens), in France (Bruno Etienne, Claire de Galembert, Franck Frégosi, Solenne Jouanneau), in the UK (James Beckford, Sophie Giliat-Ray), in Italy (Enzo Pace, Silvio Ferrari, Stefano Allievi, Renzo Guolo), in Switzerland (Christophe Monnot), at local and national levels. The religious diplomacies of Turkey, Morocco and Indonesia are of great interest here too. The issues of legitimacy, the mechanisms of representation involved, the exchanges of recognition are of great interest here. While a hypothetical specificity of religious institutions with regard to the adherence of beliefs and the controlled ritualization of practices must be considered seriously, the tools of political science are.


To the needle and the damage done


So, if we sum up this, what is the core interest of dealing with religious phenomena in political science today? What are the difficulties with empirical research on an object without a definition such as religion (see the debate between scholars, up to Charles Taylor and Ronald Dworkin, on this impossibility)?

A sane dose of nominalism does not mean the end of the object, which is defined by social interactions in specific contexts. Xabier Itçaina suggested in 2006 three tracks for a political sociology of religion: the classical way, close to law, on the regulation of religions by the state; an inquiry at religious mobilisations and the black box of public policies (e.g. the institutionalisation of chaplaincies for minority faiths in prisons or of Muslim Religious Education in some German Länder); the enquiry on religious communities as political organisations in their own way (what we discussed briefly above). Religion can be an object of public policies and of instrument innovation (including expertise and hybrid fora), affected by the decomposition and reforms of the state, not only in education, but also in very prosaic domains _ think about the church bells and calls to prayers in towns, which can generate controversies, or places of worship. It is about normalising an object, by compensating the disadvantages of field specialisation _ and the institutionalisation of Religious Studies in Anglophone universities is quite ambivalent in this regard.


The great problem remains: how can one develop a disciplinary look at religions? The issue is about elaborating an external discourse, founded on empirical evidence, distinct from the religious discourse (i.e. the crisis spoken about in the Catholic Church is not necessarily a crisis, but a fact of discourses for the observer) without (necessarily) being hostile to it (the antireligious image attached to the sociology of religion is a false accusation). This is much more serious in the case of Islam. A scholar has to avoid recuperation by moral entrepreneurs (or, as Stefano Allievi put it for intellectuals such as Oriana Fallaci, entrepreneurs of fear) and militants who take Islam as a danger, be it for laïcité, for Judeo-Christian roots, for public order or whatever, thereby designating an enemy where Muslims show a diverse outlook, irreducible to specific religious characteristics (empirically, against the believer’s tenet that Islam is One). This is valid too for attempts of institutional recuperation, in the example of works on laïcité in the social sciences, a heated field of study in France. Comparative work is salutary here, as Philippe Portier remarked about the secularisation of institutions. But he or she has to avoid, to some extent, producing a descriptive account, which is a copy-paste version of the religious discourse; taking, for instance, the Evangelical Christian marker as a valid marker for a prototype of Protestant religious actors, while it must be contextualised (see the historian Darryl Hart on the construction of Evangelicalism in the USA). The issue of funding for the research comes right here. But such a task is by no means impossible.


Believe me, if you want.


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