Category Archives: Sociology of Religion

Are Religious Organizations Like Firms?

I initially published this post on March 21, 2012, on on the Black, White and Gray blog hosted by Patheos.

“Can ideas from economics, such as that monopolies are lazy and that competition leads to better products, be applied to understand religion? Every year I teach my students–both those in my class on economic sociology and those in my class on sociology of religion–about the economistic or the rational choice perspective on religion…

One path-breaking book which applies the rational choice perspective to American religion is Roger Finke and Rodney Stark’s The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, which won the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Given that the U.S. has never a state-established religion, religious groups here have always had to win over adherents. To explain which religious groups thrive under these conditions of an open market for religion, Finke and Stark use vocabulary about markets, calling established churches lazy monopolies and describing tent revivals as an important part of competition between religious firms. Because of the American constitutional protections of religious freedom, the U.S. has always had an open religious market, and in that market, upstart, preaching, fiery sects win more followers, both historically and today. How does this happen? The free market gets rid of weak religious firms and rewards the ones that work hard to get people to join.”

Read the full post on Black, White and Gray.

My Conversation with Islamic Reform Scholar Mohsen Kadivar

Published on February 1, 2012, on the Black, White and Gray blog, my post on Islamic reform scholar Mohsen Kadivar. Click here to read the full post.

Mohsen_Kadivar “Although he is known by many as a political dissident, Islamic scholar Mohsen Kadivar emphasized to me over lunch recently, “I never wanted to get involved in politics. I just wanted to be a scholar of religion.” But when the intelligence service in his home country of Iran killed at least four dissidents accused with apostasy and claimed a fatwa of unknown religious authority to justify the killings, Kadivar objected. In articles he wrote and speeches he delivered at a mosque to several thousands of believers during the holy nights of Ramadan, Kadivar argued that according to the Qur’an and the authentic tradition of the prophet Muhammad “terror is forbidden in Islam.” Punishment, he argued, is only the job of the court, not anyone else. It is not lawful, he argued, to kill dissidents for religious crimes.”

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Religious Freedom: An Endangered Liberty in the U.S.?

Posted on January 25, 2012, on the Black, White and Gray Blog, my thoughts on religious freedom. Click here to see the full article.

“In December, Georgetown scholars Tom Farr and Tim Shah organized an online debate through the New York Times that asked if religious freedom is under threat in the U.S.  was particular struck by the viewpoints of representatives of minority religions in the U.S.– such as Sikhs and Muslims–who feel misunderstood, mis-represented, and often find it difficult to carry out their basic religious duties.”

God and Suffering: Remembering the Haitian Earthquake of January 2010

On January 11, 2012, I published this post on Black White and Gray blog “God and Suffering: Remembering the Haitian Earthquake of January 2010.

“Rather than attributing a natural disaster to an individual’s sins or the collective sins of a people, Father Jadotte’s homily emphasized a recurring theme in Catholic social and moral teaching: the people of God are called to build a just world, achieved through a constant conversion that obliges them to keep improving this world even when tremendous obstacles arise.

This homily extends the “theology of grace and hope” I wrote about in Faith Makes Us Live to the latest and probably greatest tragedy in Haitian history. This theology of grace and hope is powerfully illustrated by the picture placed on the altar of Notre Dame, which shows a man in Haiti gazing at the ruins of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. A crucifix remains standing, and at the foot of the crucifix is an image that looks remarkably like the Virgin Mary. The stained glass window behind the picture depicts the Virgin Mary and says in Creole “Mother Mary, you always come to our rescue.”

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Leisure and Worship: A Christmas Message

Published on December 21, 2011, on the Black White and Gray blog. Click here to see the full post.

“Until recently, I thought leisure was what I do when I’m too tired to work. After much prodding, I finally read Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture. While clearly upholding the material and spiritual value of all work, Pieper critiques the modern view of life as “total work.” Although no one really works 24/7, the ideological commitment to “total work”, subscribing to the idea that hard work defines the good life, can be just as harmful as (almost) never taking a break from work.

Why? Because, Pieper masterfully explains, the view that the highest good is found in hard work emphasizes reason and cognition as the only path to knowing. As an intellectual, I rightly prize knowledge. But Pieper challenges us: is knowledge only acquired through arduous mental labor? Pieper asserts:

“The essence of knowledge does not consist in the effort for which it calls, but in grasping existing things and in unveiling reality. Moreover, just as the highest form of virtue knows nothing of ‘difficulty,’ so too the highest form of knowledge comes to man like a gift–the sudden illumination, a stroke of genius, true contemplation; it comes effortlessly, and without trouble.” (p. 34)”

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Why I Love Teaching Sociology of Religion

Published on the Black, White and Gray blog on December 14, 2011. Click here to see the full post.

“Unlike other sociology classes I teach at UNC, students who come to this class are not (for the most part) sociology majors. Many are religious studies majors, some are in biology, and many in English. All come because they are curious about religion, but not necessarily sociology of religion.

So I start them off with difficult readings from Daniel Pals’ Eight Theories of Religion on Weber and Marx, along with Karen Fields’ introduction to Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life. I mix more contemporary readings for those weeks to show why those theories are still relevant. Then I have them go out and observe a religious service and apply one of those theories to what they observed.

Undergraduates are very skilled observers of the social world, and I always look forward to reading their observations about Mormon congregations, megachurches, Bob Jones University chapel, and a whole host of religious organizations I have never heard of but are right under my nose.”

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Best Selling Books in Sociology of Religion, SSSR 2011

Posted on the Black, White and Gray blog on November 6, 2011, my thoughts on recent bestsellers in sociology of religion this year.

“Last weekend at the meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, I perused the book sale, wondering “What are other people buying? What should I be reading?”

On the last day of the conference, I asked Theo, the religion editor for Oxford University Press, to tell me which of Oxford’s books were selling a lot. He pointed at Christian Smith’s Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, and gave me a knowing look. Oh, yes, I said, all Smith’s books from the National Study of Youth and Religion sell well. Yes, indeed, he replied. If you pick up this book, get ready for a rather depressing read about the dominant culture of some (though clearly not all) youth: hedonism.

Two more books on youth and religion are also selling well, Lisa Pearce and Melinda Denton’s A Faith of Their Own and Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker’s Premarital Sex in America. Both are very popular among my undergrad students, so much so that I have had to put multiple copies on reserve at the library because so many students want to write their research papers using them. Neither should be read if you think your children or youth group attendees are angels; but if you want a sense of what youth culture is really like, pick them up.”

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