The health of American religious life benefiting may be under debate, but most indicators from economic downturn suggest that the study of American religion is flourishing.
In particular, both the disciplines of history and sociology are drawing new scholars on religious topics as well assigning a more important role to religion, according to recent studies. Christianity Today (March) reports that there is a new surge in the study of religious history after decades of neglect. The magazine cites an annual survey of members of the American Historical Association showing that 7.7 percent of respondents selected religion as one of three areas of interest.
This was higher than the 7.5 percent who chose cultural history, which had ranked first for 15 years. One observer notes that such selfidentified believers who are also wellrespected historians, such as George Marsden, Nathan Hatch and Mark Noll, have “helped propel wider academic interest in religious history” and lent it legitimacy. Over the past three decades, sociology has been treating religion as a significant mover in society, from areas of health to education, rather than as something that is shaped and influenced by other factors, according to a new study. Sociologists David Smilde and Matthew May write on the Immanent Frame, the blog of the Social Science Research Council, that a “strong program” in the sociology of religion has emerged, meaning that religion is treated as what sociologists call an “independent variable”—something that acts on or influences other factors or variables (for instance, the role of religion in affecting education outcomes).
In examining articles in major sociology journals (general and specialized publications) published over the last 30 years, Smilde and May find an increase of those dealing with religion, suggesting that the subdiscipline of the sociology of religion is “healthy and vibrant.” More significantly, it is the way that religion is being treated that stands out: at the beginning of the 30-year period, religion was commonly treated as a variable or factor influenced by a social process. In the last five-year period, “over half of all articles had religious processes as their independent variable.” Moreover, those articles viewing religion as autonomous (or as an independent variable) in relation to other factors tended to portray such religious outcomes as positive, with negative portraits of religion representing less than five percent of all articles on religion in the 1998– 2002 period.
Yet in the 2003–07 period, there was a growth of negative articles, which the authors attribute to the mood surrounding 9/11, the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church and the controversial administration of George Bush. Meanwhile, a study in the American Sociologist (March) finds that a degree of “parochialism” exists in the sociology of religion in the U.S. The authors, Stephen C. Polson and Colin Campbell, examined the content of two sociology of religion journals from 2001 to 2008 and found that issues and topics limited to those of the societies in which the journals were published predominated—the inclusion of non-Western societies in studies of both journals was only 17.4 percent.
While expecting that there would be more attention paid to Muslim societies after 9/11, the number of Muslim studies actually declined in 2004–05. Overall, 9.8 percent of the articles were on Muslims; of these, 35 percent were non-comparative studies of a Muslim community that resided outside of the West. Because the sociology of religion is one sub-field influenced by the larger discipline, Polson and Campbell speculate that American sociology as a whole may be even more parochial.
(Christianity Today, 465 Gunderson Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188; Imminent Frame, http://ogs.ssrc.org; American Sociologist, 11 Main St., Germantown, NY 12526)