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Note: This article originally appeared in The Chronicle Review, part of The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 24, 2003, pages B10 - B11. It is reprinted here by the kind permission of the author, Robert Wuthnow, professor of sociology at Princeton University.

Is There a Place for 'Scientific' Studies of Religion?


Is There a Place for 'Scientific' Studies of Religion?

    There have been numerous calls recently for a better understanding of religion. Of course, many of those were heard after September 11, 2001, when it became clear how little most Americans know of Islam, and how much misunderstanding there is among Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists. But even before the terrorist attacks, the Bush administration's efforts to promote faith-based service organizations challenged scholars to consider religion and its continuing place in American life. And the volatile border between religion and citizenship saw rhetorical skirmishes again over a court ruling on the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance.

    Few would doubt that religious studies, theology, history, and even belles-lettres have much to offer in providing relevant information about religion and spirituality. A student interested in learning about Islam would do well to read the Koran and study the history of Muslim teachings. That student would also benefit from knowing something about the societies in which Islam is prominently located today. A good intellectual background for thinking about faith-based social services would require an understanding of religious teachings on charity and the history of religion's place in serving the common good. Some firsthand observations, perhaps vividly communicated by journalists, of soup kitchens and homeless shelters would prove useful as well.

    But is there a place for scientific studies of religion? That is a harder question.

    Isn't it a mismatch to impose scientific methods on religion? Haven't hermeneutics and phenomenology taught us to be skeptical of science? And, for that matter, what do we mean by "science"? I thought about these questions recently when I asked a graduate student if she thought of her research on Native American religion as scientific. Taken aback, she replied, "Well, no, it's just religious studies; definitely not science." She said science smacked of positivism, which, by all means, she wanted to avoid.

    I'd like to be counted among those who see a place for a scientific approach toward the study of religion. However, in that context, I think we need to interpret the word "scientific" broadly.

    In the now-famous Gifford lectures that he delivered 100 years ago, William James remarked, "I do not see why a critical Science of Religions might not eventually command as general a public adhesion as is commanded by a physical science." James had in mind that a science of this kind could do better at shedding light on religion than could philosophy. The trouble with philosophy, he said, was that it "lives in words" and thus fails to capture the depth, motion, and vitality of religion. Science could do that. Properly conceived, it would focus on the facts of religion, employing induction and deriving knowledge from the concreteness of spiritual experience. James gave few examples of what he had in mind, but I imagine he might have been intrigued by studies of prayer, religious experience, and healing.

    History has been kind to James, but not to his point regarding a "Science of Religions." As generations of students tackle his The Varieties of Religious Experience, they discover in its pages interesting anecdotes about the saints and timeless musings about the differences between healthy-mindedness and the sick soul. But they seldom come away inspired by the idea of applying science to religion.

    The reasons are not hard to find. Human behavior has proved more complex than early advocates of the human sciences imagined. Positivism has given up ground in the face of arguments about the inevitability of interpretation and perspective. The brave new world promised by science has turned out still to be dominated by war and injustice as much as by technological progress. If the choice C.P. Snow offered between two cultures -- one scientific and one humanistic -- has to be made, the spiritually inclined will reasonably opt for keeping religion in the realm of values and meaning, rather than reducing it to the dry world of scientific investigation.

    In his book Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Blackwell, 1990), John Milbank, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, wrote a powerful critique of the scientific impulse in the study of human behavior. Standing James's view on its head, Milbank argues that the human sciences are not about knowledge at all, but about power. It is a grab for dominance in discussions of values. It works only by creating an illusion of objectivity and by eliminating from consideration all that does not fit that illusion. If Milbank is right, it certainly makes more sense for people interested in religion to side with theology than to run amok in the social sciences.

    Milbank's criticisms may be overly harsh, for the assumptions he attributes to social scientists scarcely resonate with how practicing social scientists actually think. In my experience, at least, social scientists usually make no pretense of explaining all of human nature, only a piece of it. And they are far less interested in metaphysical assumptions than Milbank suggests.

    Yet the application of science to religion may still be judged folly because of the narrowness of the questions it seems able to explore. Take, for instance, the current interest in whether brain-imaging research, such as that of the Princeton psychologist Jonathan Cohen, can identify spots in the brain that "light up" when people make decisions about whether actions are morally correct. Or in brain activity when people show kindness to their neighbors, make love, or pray. While interesting as a description of neurological processes, such research fails to tell us much about which moral decisions are right, how kindness affects social relations, the meaning of love, or why people pray.

    In my own discipline, sociologists have, in recent years, been quite attracted to a theoretical perspective, advanced by such prominent scholars as the University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark and the Pennsylvania State University sociologist Roger Finke, that helps make sense of such widely varying religious phenomena as the growth of Methodism in 19th-century America, the late-20th-century decline of mainstream Protestantism, the spread of early Christianity, and the superiority of monotheism among world religions. The argument, as I understand it, is that people make rational choices about religion, much like they do about buying cars (well, maybe not cars), and thus choose religions that give them the most gratification (such as certainty about their fate in the world to come).

    Elegant in its simplicity, this is nevertheless an argument that, in the manner of science, cannot be easily proved or disproved. It is perhaps better to think of this perspective as an effort to bring sociological insights to bear on historical interpretation than as an application of scientific method.

    But if there are reasons to be skeptical about science in the study of religion, there are also reasons to make the most of what science has to offer. Science teaches us the value of empirical rigor and the need for systematic investigation. The scientific method involves thinking of ways in which our cherished assumptions about the world may prove to be wrong. It involves the strategic use of rationality, not in the interest of doing away with all that is not rational (any more than the legal system is meant to replace literature and music), but to have reasons for conducting our research in one way rather than another. Science also involves the criterion of replicability, and that means candidly disclosing what we have done so others can track our mistakes.

    Those aspects of science can be followed without claiming to be finding universal laws of human behavior, and they can be employed in the study of religion without "explaining away" the topic of inquiry. The more scholars have applied scientific methods to the study of human behavior, the more they have learned that human behavior is indeed contextual and contingent, and that its meanings must be examined from multiple perspectives. The recent critique by Alejandro Portes, the American Sociological Association's president, of simplistic models of economic and political development ("The Hidden Abode: Sociology as Analysis of the Unexpected," American Sociological Review, February 2000) illuminated that gap.

    Science is no longer regarded by social scientists, as it was by the early positivists, as the grand search for great truths. Indeed, there has been a remarkable shift in how social scientists think about the role of science in their work over the past half-century. When there was little empirical evidence, science seemed an attractive beacon, but as empirical evidence accumulated, the hope of making sweeping generalizations about the human condition faded. In the study of religion, for example, scholars a half-century ago offered grand generalizations about its social functions, about its attractions to the dispossessed, and about the universality of religious experience. Today, all of those generalizations have been qualified.

    For some, of course, "scientific method" suggests research that employs numbers. The phrase calls to mind the numerous polls and surveys we read about that include questions on religion, for instance polls by the Gallup Organization that tracked Americans' attendance at religious services after the 2001 terrorist attacks. By following rigorous methods of sampling, such surveys tell us about beliefs and behavior in ways that we would not be able to know from our limited personal experience. Among sociologists, the General Social Survey, conducted nationally by the University of Chicago every two years since 1972, has provided an impressive stock of information from which to draw conclusions about trends in religious beliefs, practices, and affiliations.

    But scientific method can equally pertain to studies involving qualitative information drawn from participant observation, interviews, and archival materials. Carefully sifting through letters and diaries in an archive, or through artifacts at an archaeological dig, is ever as much science as computing regression equations or life-expectancy tables. For example, recent archaeological studies, such as those of the forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley, of the Smithsonian Institution, are providing new insights into the lives and cultures of the first human inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest. If science is understood in this broader way, then we can identify more clearly some of the challenges in which it may usefully be employed.

    One of the greatest challenges is understanding more clearly the vast diversity that characterizes our own religious culture and that of the wider world. We are once again, just as we were a century ago, a nation populated by a large number of recent immigrants from a wide array of ethnic and religious backgrounds. For the first time, the United States includes a sizable minority of members of its population who practice religions other than Christianity or Judaism (some estimates range as high as 10 million, when Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus are included). The role of scientific studies should not be, in the first instance, to discover what is common among the various religious traditions, but to understand what is different and to gauge reactions to those differences. That task is especially important because of conflicts among religious traditions, on the one hand, and because of the superficial assumptions one still encounters among naive observers that "all religions are the same."

    To their credit, social scientists who study religion today are much more likely to insist on in-depth analysis of specific traditions than to settle for superficial generalizations. Investigations of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism have all moved in this direction, paying closer attention to distinct practices and illuminating the internal diversity of each tradition. For instance, in the series of books on religious practices being edited by the University of Michigan Buddhism scholar Donald Lopez, the emphasis has shifted decidedly toward the variability of religious experience and away from seeking grand generalizations.

    In sociology, the concern for detail is evident in in-depth studies of the beliefs and practices of new immigrant religious communities. In Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami, and several other cities, research is now being conducted on how such communities are adapting religiously and culturally to their urban environments. For instance, the University of Houston sociologists Helen Rose Ebaugh and Janet Saltzman Chafetz have edited an illuminating collection of essays (Religion and the New Immigrants, AltaMira Press, 2000) that describes in detail how Asian Christians, Hispanic Christians, Hindus, and other groups are coming to terms with life in suburban Houston.

    To be sure, the boundary here between social science and investigative journalism is sometimes blurred. But scholars have opportunities that journalists don't, both in asking questions about topics that may not be newsworthy and in taking the months and years that may be required to conduct in-depth research. I think especially of the book Terror in the Mind of God (University of California Press, 2000), by Mark Juergensmeyer, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. It is a masterful study of the relationship between religion and violence that became an instant sensation after September 11, 2001, but which was based on nearly a decade of research with accused and convicted terrorists, survivalists, and vigilante groups.

    Another challenge is to harness the vast resources currently available to scholars interested in religion (especially from private foundations, and from colleges and universities) for studies having strong normative concerns. I've worked for many years with students in various disciplines who are interested in religion. My biggest complaint about these students isn't that their studies lack rigor, but that they lack purpose. All too often studies are initiated because data are there, or because nobody has looked at a particular topic before, rather than because the research explores a larger concern. That is the fault of faculty members more than of students. We have done a better job of teaching methods than we have of instilling purpose.

    We need studies that investigate more pointedly the great human concerns that redound in special ways to each generation, whether those are framed in terms of such problems as violence and injustice or in the language of virtue and hope. Certainly, the possible connections between terrorism and particular interpretations of religious teachings have come to be of concern, as the response to Juergensmeyer's research shows. Recent research examining the role of religion in encouraging forgiveness, or in promoting acts of unconditional love, also fits the bill.

    If the study of religion were more consistently deliberate in bringing together the realm of facts with the world of values, then it would be harder to imagine where the objections to scientific studies would lie. Of course, humanistically oriented scholars and many in the social sciences would probably be put off by studies seeking to reduce religious impulses to hard-wired biological or economic concerns. But such studies differ from the looser and more practical ways in which most social scientists currently approach scholarship on religion.

    It is in relating fact and values that scientific studies of religion can illuminate issues such as Islamist terrorist attacks, or the relative merits of faith-based service organizations. Besides reading religious texts, students should explore research on Americans' responses to September 11, 2001, examining the roots of religious prejudice or the extent of contact between Christians and Muslims.

    Beyond discussing the separation between church and state, students should do more -- as exemplified by the work of the University of Pennsylvania sociologist Byron Johnson, or the team of scholars at the State University of New York at Albany under the direction of Richard Nathan -- to compare the effectiveness of faith-based and nonsectarian service organizations.

    There is also a continuing role for the kind of science that William James had in mind if we consider a point that is often neglected in discussions of his argument. James recognized that we have a natural tendency to concentrate on the "local" and the "accidental," and that these should be the starting point for any scientific inquiries. In the same spirit as James, Clifford Geertz has observed that "local knowledge" is of particular value, both in daily life and to the enterprise of the human sciences. We know ourselves only by comparing the locale in which we live with the locales in which we do not. This quest for comparison and generalization probably inspired the first generations of social scientists. In the process of comparative investigation, the familiar does not become general; it becomes strange, and thus is experienced in new ways.

    Scientific studies of religion need to be guided both by hubris (to venture hypotheses at all) and humility (to acknowledge when they are wrong). William James said it well: "The science of religions would forever have to confess, as every science confesses, that the subtlety of nature flies beyond it, and that its formulas are but approximations." Those approximations, nevertheless, are valuable guides to understanding what it means to be human. And properly conceived, scientific studies of religion can contribute significantly to those approximations.

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    Robert Wuthnow is a professor of sociology at Princeton University and director of its Center for the Study of Religion. His recent books include Loose Connections: Joining Together in America's Fragmented Communities (Harvard University Press, 1998) and After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s (University of California Press, 1998).