Sur James V. Spickard, « Alternative Sociologies of Religion »

Recension de James V. Spickard, 2017, Alternative Sociologies of Religion. Through Non-Western Eyes, New York University Press, 314p. ISBN 978-1-4798-6631-1

James Spickard’s book is a most welcome contribution to the sociology of religion, West and East. It is an attempt to draw from non-Western sources in order to develop a sociology of religion (in fact, a sociology in general) that is freed from its inherited normativities and ethnocentricities and therefore better designed to grasp the connected and plural realities that make up our global condition today. Spickard critiques the Post-Reformation Christian and Modern inflexions of what he calls sociology of religion’s ‘default view’, which overstates such aspects of religious life as ‘creed, canon, cult and cathedral’ (p.5). The main argument of the book is that conceptual tools and epistemologies are historically and culturally grounded, resulting in their ability to highlight certain aspects of social facts, as well as their ‘inability’ (p.245) to see other aspects. The book advances a hermeneutical pledge : that other cultural settings could have produced different sociologies of religion that would have brought other aspects to the fore. The originality of Spickard‘s endeavour is that he is not content in simply making this argument : he actually walks the walk and presents three different theoretical perspectives which he then applies to a set of phenomena : a Confucian, an Ibn Khaldûn, and a Navajo-inspired sociology.

First, though, the author defines the ‘default view’ which he argues continues to underscore most work in the sociology of religion. An overview of American sociology textbooks reveals a very homogenous and conservative picture in which religion is a minor subject among a series of well-differentiated, instituted social spheres that include family, education, politics, work, justice and so on. Religion is portrayed as being highly belief-centred, and its organizational and moral/ethical (rules) dimensions are foremost of interest. While not accounting for the whole of American (and wider) sociology of religion, the portrait is one in which religion is primarily about beliefs and is embodied in religious organisations (rather than embodied social actors), one which has been largely promoted by both secularization theories as well as rational choice and market model sociologies.

Spickard traces this default view in Modern thought ; namely in 19th Century France, where religion most clearly appeared as Modernity and Science’s ‘Other’ : ‘Sociology was designed to value reason ; thus sociologists portrayed religion as valuing irrational belief. Sociology values free enquiry ; thus religion must value authority and repression ; sociology seeks the free development of individuals ; thus religion creates organizations that seek to maintain their social monopoly on the sacred. By this process, sociology constructed “religion” as the imagined autithesis to its hopeful self-image. Is it any wonder that it saw belief, authority, and church organization as the defining elements of its chosen intellectual adversary ?’ (p.49-50) Secularization (as the planned dissolution of religion both socially and for individuals) appears as far more than simply a set of theoretical propositions : it is a set of presumptions that were ‘implicit in sociology’s foundation’, which helps to explain its endurance. The default view has therefore oriented research, doing a better job at understanding organizations and beliefs than understanding the importance of practices, experiences and complex rapports to other spheres such as race, ethnicity and gender (p.78).

The first alternative presented is that of China and Confucianism. A Confucian perspective blows up the atomic type of individualism that is rooted in Western sociology (which translates the importance of the Protestant relationship that individuals must have with God and the Revelation) and shows an essentially relational portrait of the self and society. The self in China is ‘seen as a bundle of social relationships, rather than as an isolated individual’ (p.86), and the individual’s uniqueness is a result of these relations, including those with the ancestors, who remain integral parts of human society. Through Confucian concepts such as (proper ritualized reciprocal propriety), tiân ming (mandate of heaven) and (proper virtue), a corresponding sociology of religion would not start from a differentiation but rather from an integrated model, highlighting how ‘religion’ happens outside of churches and temples and permeates daily life, namely in what has been called ‘popular religion’. Rather than starting from the individual (and his choices, or beliefs), the focus would be on how relationships between the individuals, the community, the state and the cosmos are created, balanced and maintained. ‘Secularization’ would be impossible as a result, as it appears to simply ask the wrong questions. (p.107-109)

Applying such a perspective shifts the hierarchies which underpin our analyses : rather than considering how relationship to God shapes the rapport to one’s neighbour, a Confucian grounded sociology would start from the up-close relationships and from there on move towards a totalizing cosmic. It would also pay close attention to how religions ‘create and sustain the relationships that constitute human social life’ (p.111). Women more than clergy appear to be main actors in this respect. The analysis shows how church suppers in Protestant congregations or for Mexican American Catholics, for instance, come the fore as events through which andare catered for and community is created, rather than appearing as negligible sideshows to the male-centred main events. Also, the contemporary focus on individualised religiosity would be reframed as signifying a new type of rapport between the self, others and community. It is the relationship that is sacred, not the individual, and therefore modern individualism is recast as being inseparable from concern for others and community. A Confucianism embedded sociology would therefore anticipate work done by certain scholars such as Deirdre Meintel, Douglas Ezzy and myself, who have insisted on the inherently social nature of the self the and relational constitution of contemporary religiosities. A further contribution of this chapter is its critique of Max Weber’s static view of tradition and its redefinition of tradition as being not only the mindless and automatic repetition of the same, but through the dynamics of those responsibilities that become of relationships (p.132-134).

The second alternative is restrained to the works of 14th century North African scholar Ibn Khaldûn’s and his understanding of social bonds. Three key ideas are presented, starting with his two ideal-typical social types opposing wild, tightly bounded tribes and looser-bound, more comfortable cities. Next, the notion of al ‘asabiyyah, the emotion that leads group members towards mutual support, or group-feeling, which is variably distributed in tribe or cities, and which, finally, religion can help to heighten. Comparing Ibn Khaldûn with Durkheim, Spickard argues to their opposition as regards the cohesion of tribes and larger social bodies. Khaldûn, he continues, sees groups as bonding in a more centripetal manner, contrary to Durkheim’s externally enforced cohesion through ‘common ideas and customs’ (p.150). Even more importantly, Khaldûn stresses that religion and ethnicity are similar phenomena : both are centripetal emotional (versus ideal) forces.

Ibn Khaldûn’s ideas on social cohesion are put to work on the case of the Medjugorje (Croatia) Marial apparitions in 1981 and the recent rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) phenomenon. Spickard argues that sociology typically distinguishes ethnicity and religion, and has been at a lost in trying to explain how the village of Medjugorje was involved in the ethnic and religious drenched mass atrocities of the ex-Yugoslavian wars. The analysis is too complex to render here, but the main gist of the argument relies on ethnicity and religion functioning together as promoters of strong group-feelings in a decomposed post-soviet environment. As for ISIS, Spickard argues that a khaldûnian approach would stress how the group-feeling promised by warrior Islamism provides an answer to the quests for identity and belonging of immigrant and post-immigrant working classes, thereby aligning with the analyses of French Islamism specialist Olivier Roy.

The last perspective focuses on ritual rather than religion per se, as derived from traditional Navajo culture. Spickard critiques the mainstream definitions of ritual as derived from belief and as ‘actions that have symbolic meanings’, joining Catherine Bell’s critique while criticizing her turn for not providing a solution that is radical enough in his view. Ritual is indeed better understood as a process of ritualization, but Navajo religion draws our attention to the fact that ritual organizes an experience in time more than it conveys intellectual meaning. Rituals are lived, and as such unfold in time. Their experience are therefore ungraspable at once : they are ‘polythetic’ (p.198). Furthermore, Navajo ritual as many other shamanic-type rituals, begin from the diagnosis that ‘something must be out of order’ (p.202), and therefore that the world must be set aright again. Words are actions, not the other way around, as discursive methods posit. Words and gesture do not interpret the world : they create it, and thereby (re-)create order.

This ritual theory is applied to the analysis of Wednesday evening Catholic Workers’ house Masses in East Los Angeles, after which the participants distribute soup for the homeless in the streets. The first thing to note is how the food distribution and personal contact with any person who shows up for a bowl of soup is understood as fully partaking in the ritual sequence. After analysing the symbolic aspects of this ritual whole, Spickard draws from the phenomenological data taken from his fieldwork to show how experience provides the key to understand how this ritual restores both individuals and community, starting with ‘private sorrows’ expressed in the unconventional house Mass and ending in ‘communal solidarity’ experienced in a long hugging sequence followed by the move to the streets (p.222). This interpretation stresses how such rituals ‘weave both ideas and experiences into a nearly seamless whole’ (ibid.), and therefore how rituals produce and (re)shape the world.

One of the book’s most interesting discussion lies in the last chapter, in which the ‘attempt to use non-Western people’s cultural resources to improve a discipline that has contributed to Wester societies’ dominance of the world order’ is problematic from the perspective of post-colonialism that has inspired James Spickard in part. Indeed, some post-colonial scholars ‘criticize all efforts to use any society’s concepts beyond its own borders especially concepts born in Western context. They think that these efforts are inherently imperialistic, whether or not they are so intended.’ (p.226) This popular tendency today espouses a hyper-relativistic stance that rejects universalism per se and conceptualisation in general. As a white, heterosexual male, is James Spickard’s project which consists in showing that non-Western ideas can be applicable cross-culturally an imperialistic manoeuvre in disguise that ‘silences those natives’ voices’ (p.246) ? While showing much respect for the aims of post-colonial critique, Spickard refuses to condemn universalism per se, only the false pretensions of supposed Western scientific monopoly. For him, ‘one way to overcome colonialism’s legacy is by showing the worth of non-Western ideas’ (p.247), which is precisely what he is doing. Spickard writes that ‘standard Western sociology does not just misunderstand non-Western peoples ; it misunderstands Western peoples as well.’ (p.241) Any theory comes with a set of blinders as well as a hermeneutical potential. A good social science is therefore one that is able to psychoanalyse itself (cf. p.253) in order to augment the latter (for Western and non-Western societies alike) while shedding light on its own historical-cultural biases and overcoming them as much as possible something that is tangentially impossible to achieve. Spickard indeed recalls that all sociologies are historically and culturally shaped, including hisand post-colonialism !

To go one step further than does our author here, it is no surprise in my view that such hyper-relativistic stances have become popular at the very same time that neo-liberalism has become the dominant ideology of economic and cultural globalisation. Neo-liberalism and financial capitalism have eroded the former national-statist political era’s grand narratives and thrive on fragmented realities and blurred boundaries. In this context, post-colonialism’s allergy to conceptualisation stuns its own critical potential with respect to the real challenges of the era : the rise of global inequalities, the threats to human rights and democracy, the spread of war in formerly peaceful zones, and the rise of ultra-violent fundamentalism, among other things, which cannot all be understood as the mechanic effects of former colonialism. Post-colonialism can be criticized at least in part for lagging behind a move and playing the part for utilitarianism and globalised capitalism in the end.


Now, what are the critiques that can be made regarding this book, which sketches three themes that are said to have required a non-Western inspiration in order to transcend the limitations of mainstream sociology of religion : ‘the creation of sacred community, the relationship between religion and ethnicity, and the role of ritual experience in generating community healing’ (p.17) ? My first point is to ask what a definition of religion would look like if it were derived from a Chinese, khaldûnian or Navajo perspective ? Indeed, it is unfortunate that the dive into these three non-Western perspectives does not lead to a substantial discussion on the very definition of religion. In fact, the whole book proceeds from an implicit and loose definition of religion and other concepts such as ritual and sacred. This loose conception allows the author to move from the default view to a more broad and inclusive idea of religion in which events such as church suppers, ethnicity, community, relations and the distribution of food to the needy are encompassed. Yet this definition of religion is unspecified and unexamined. This might be at least partially intentional, and the underlying argument could be something like ‘let us keep the definition questions open’. This is fair play, but I am still left wanting, and I am certain that Jim would have had something interesting here to say.

Spickard’s definition of religion in this book is intriguingly both inclusive and conservative. Inclusive because the very project of this book could not even come into being were the definition of religion of a Weberian, substantive typei.e. limited to the world’s ‘Great Religions’, composed of salvation doctrines, organizations, clergy and deities. In fact, as we have seen, it is this very content that is criticized for being an ethnocentric default view. Let us recall that for Weber, Confucianism was more of an ethical system than a religion, and that he did not have much to say about ‘tribal’ religions such as the Navajo’s. This book’s project starts from an implicit assumption that ‘religion’ is something indeterminate if not universal, and therefore goes against such popular theses as Talal Asad’s critique of the concept. It would have been opportune and fruitful had these important theoretical questions been examined and discussed, and the implicit notions from which this book proceeds been explicated. Perhaps the most important point that Jim makes should have been the object of more emphasis : that the first step we have to make is to uncouple our understanding of religion from the secular – and secularisation.

On the other hand, we can ask why Spickard did not go the whole distance with respect to his aim to expand the sociology of religion’s gaze in order to ‘examine religion in non-religious places’ (p.15). Indeed, Spickard’s analyses start with quite self-evident religious objects, and in most cases simply widens the scope of what constitutes religion : the church supper happens in a church ; Medjugorje starts with visions of Mary, Catholicism and Islam ; ISIS is very explicitly Islamic ; the Catholic Worker soup distribution starts in what is explicitly called a Mass… Implicitly, what the argument does contradicts to a certain extent the intention : it is hard to see how these case studies really differ from a conception of religion as church, belief, rules and so on. In so doing, much of the potential of this book is diluted. What would happen if the analyses did not start with what is commonly and conservatively called ‘religion’, but would rather seek out what constitutes community, group-feeling, symbolic healing, wherever this may happen in a given society ? What if these concepts were applied to phenomena such as raves and other subcultures, protests, alternative communities, festivals, concerts, sports, politics and so on ? In my view, the full impact of this book’s argument would appear clearer had the analysis been applied to a bolder choice of phenomena.

My second argument is more radical, although probably expected. Is it necessary to make the world tour/detour proposed here in order to include these three themes in the sociology of religion ? Do we need Confucius, Ibn Khaldûn and the Navajo to highlight the limitations of the ‘default view’ ? In my view, we don’t. Most of what is proposed here could have been achieved by other means, namely through a revisit of the Durkheimian school’s sociological work. In what follows I argue that it is because the sociology of religion has steered away from the Durkheimian project that the default view has crystallised the way it has. This is not to critique Spickard’s work, but rather to highlight how seeing ‘through non-Western eyes’ was foundational to the discipline. If it seems so important today to stress the need for moving outside our Western perspectives, it is in good part because we have cut ourselves away from an essential step in our epistemologies and methods.

Both Weber and Durkheim engaged in a comparative project which was precisely aimed at de-centring their social scientific analyses. Weber’s research question (Why did capitalism emerge in the Protestant regions of the West when it did and not elsewhere ?) commanded that he research the world’s great civilisations and their religious ethics. Yet Durkheim’s project was different. His aim, and that of his many collaborators, was to found a general sociology that would apply everywhere, even though his main concern was the modern West. Scholars tend to disqualify this project as being profoundly and irretrievably ethnocentric and imperialist. They are wrong. As for religion, it became one of his primary subjects of enquiry as of 1895, when he experienced a ‘revelation’ concerning the role of religion in the production of society and of non-religious spheres and notions. Indeed, Durkheim started with the modern classical question of the roots and causes of the division of social labour and the production of solidaritythe very same question that was at the heart of Adam Smith’s Enquiry into the Causes and Nature of the Riches of Nations, and Karl Marx’s critical political economy. As many authors have noted, Durkheim’s intellectual project changed course from 1895 on, and it is not by chance that he delegated the issue of religion to his brilliant nephew, Marcel Mauss. Religion was to enable answering the questions raised in his earlier work (Division of Social Labour, Suicide, Rules of Sociological Method) on social bond and regulation.

Durkheim’s references also change as of 1895. Before this date, references are mostly about the West, with a particular focus on economics, law, politics, social philosophy and social science. As of this date, non-Western ethnography and anthropology represent an important part of works cited, alongside ‘sociological’ works. For Durkheim, sociology was conceived as an overarching and synthetic discipline, with anthropology cast as a fundamental sub-discipline. For Marcel Mauss, sociology could not be separated from anthropology, and both are even sometimes used as synonyms. The reason for this, according to Mauss, is that sociology tended to focus on modern and Western societies and their institutions, while anthropology tended to concern itself with inferior or idealised non-Western others. The Durkheimian school, and Mauss in particular, repeatedly asserted that the variety of human societies did not constitute two different species but variations with respect to a single human nature. This is already present in Durkheim’s Division of Labour : contrary to Tönnies’ opposition of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, mechanistic and organic types of solidarity are different types, but do not constitute a difference in nature. As a consequence, a truly scientific sociology must proceed from the widest possible array of facts emanating from the widest possible array of societies across the globe. Almost a century before post-colonialism, the Durkheimian school held as a prerequisite that one should take a tour around the world before being able to say anything sociological. This method was not only practised by Durkheim and Mauss, but by all members of the Durkheimian school, namely François Simiand, Maurice Halbwachs, Robert Hertz and Henri Hubert.

So what happened ? As Jean-Paul Willaime and others have noted, post-Second World War sociology of religion emerged as a very minor sub-discipline, severed from both general sociology and anthropology. Post-war sociology of religion claimed a Durkheimian and Weberian lineage, but was largely the fact of religious scholars using sociological methods, hence the ‘religious sociology’ (sociologie religieuse) appellation. The ISSR’s history is tied to this evolution, as it was born under the name Conférence Internationale de Sociologie Religieuse. What was to become sociology of religion clearly had pastoral and religious aims that guided, more or less explicitly, its production of knowledge. In this framework, measuring the levels of secularisation appeared more urgent than looking for inspiration among the Bantu, the Navajo or Confucius.

Teaching in the sociology of religion at the University of Fribourg, I devote much of my time de-Christianising and de-Westernising my students’ ideas about religion and other notions. Spickard would say that I am contesting the ‘default view’ from the outset. Yet I find no better place to start than the works of Durkheim, Mauss and Hubert. Mauss’ works on the notion of mana is paradigmatic. Mauss had read pretty much anything and everything that had been published on non-Western cultures at the time, in French, English, German and other languages. These included Chinese, Muslim and Navajo material, but also many, many other societies. It is from these readings that he noticed how autochthonous theologies had an ambivalent notion that embodied ideas of force, efficiency, chance and so on. It is from this quasi universal bulk that he abstracted the notion of ‘mana’ from its Melanesian origins, which in turn served to construct the concept of ‘sacred’. In this case as in many others, Mauss started from indigenous categories to understand Christian theological notions such as grace, and not the reverse.

If we get back to Spickard’s book, I would argue that the advances that he makes would be almost all possible if we were to start from a Durkheimo-Maussian perspective. Spickard stresses the need to deterritorialize our gaze to escape and enrich the default view, and even more so in a globally interconnected world. My argument is similar, yet different : I argue that if we renew with the Durkheimo-Maussian project, we can find that we are much further ahead than we think on many issues.

The Confucian idea of the importance of relations, cast as it is in Spickard’s book, is probably the most novel contribution. Yet many of the elements that appear from a Confucian perspective can readily be translated in Durkheimian terms. The inherently social self is certainly a fundamental Durkheimian proposition, and his sociology of religion does very much highlight the sacred dimensions of community production. The importance of caring for interpersonal relations does not exactly match Durkheim’s theory, but neither is it entirely foreign. Indeed, Mauss’ work on the gift recast the analysis of social structure and individual in a radically interactional frame. In his Essay on the gift, it is easy to find the imperative for nurturing the social bond, and how this is tied to the cosmos.

Spickard does devote considerable space to discussions about Durkheim, probably because he feels that there is indeed much there that comes close to his own project. The main critique he addresses concerns Durkheim’s evolutionism. This is indeed one of his main liabilities. Yet this fault is not fatal, and Mauss himself had moved the school’s intellectual project beyond this, even before Durkheim’s death in 1917 (Simiand did too, but he is less relevant here). In his chapter on Ibn Khaldûn, Spickard argues about the latter’s fecundity in contrast to Durkheim, especially in the Division of Labour and Suicide. His main points are that Durkheim’s model of social bond is not as centripetal as Khadûn’s, as he ‘saw simpler societies tied together by external laws and compulsion’ (p.152). Against the backdrop of the opposition between mechanistic and organic solidarity, ‘Durkheim found social solidarity more problematic for simpler peoples’ (ibid.) Spickard argues that Khaldûn insisted much more strongly than Durkheim that ‘group solidarity requires strongly felt emotional attachments between members’ (ibid.). In my view, this appraisal is wrong. As I have mentioned above, Durkheim’s intellectual took a major shift as of 1895 which put religion at the very centre of the production and maintenance of social bond. Therefore it is impossible to isolate Durkheim’s views on both religion and social bond in his earlier work (in which religion was a secondary, and very limited social sphere) from its later efflorescence. In the Elementary Forms, Durkheim’s magnum opus on religion, social bond is most certainly as centripetal as Khaldûn’s. This is even one of the major critique that was addressed to Durkheim in posterity.

The second point concerns Spickard’s critique of Durkheim’s neglect of ethnicity and its relation to religion. I am not sure that Khaldûn ever spoke of ‘ethnicity’ per se (he spoke of kin and kin feeling), as it is anything but a natural category. It is a modern category that we apply to Khaldûn and others’ writings. Durkheim did shine attention to social structures and social forms, and it is possible to define ethnicity as a type of modern social form that has something to do with the nation. French scholar and specialist of Durkheim Camille Tarot has noted how religion must be thought of in relation to social forms. In essence, Tarot writes that for Durkheim, religion is tribal in tribal societies, imperial in the great Empires of the Ancient Near-East and Meso-America, and national in national societies for instance. From this perspective, it is possible to see how the collapse of the Yugoslavian national state produced a set of subgroups that defined themselves in ethnic and religious terms, even though both these denominators appear to lack much historical reality and depth. There is nothing in Durkheim, especially the later Durkheim, that says that social bond is necessarily inherited, and cannot be voluntary. If ethnicity is understood as a modern social form, in a Durkheimian framework, it follows that there will be some sort of religious component at the very heart of it. In this case, Durkheim’s analysis actually runs deeper than Spickard’s khaldûnian interpretation : the nationalistic, centripetal religion of Yugoslavia ceded to a set of smaller and ‘purer’ national religions based on a constructed notion of ethnicity and Christian (Catholic or Orthodox) or Muslim religion whose frailty actually required a strong centripetal surge accompanied by a centrifugal expulsion and annihilation of difference. In a way, then, a Durkheimian approach could actually predict the genocidal direction of the post-Yugoslavian Balkans. It also most certainly aligns with the khaldûnian analysis on some of its most important elements.

The third idea that emerges from Spickard’s voyage comes from the Navajo, and rightly stresses the importance of the experiential dimension and the limitations of the symbolic approach. Here, Mauss’ notion of the symbolic shifted away from representation to include emotional and corporeal dimensions. This is evident in Mauss’ Techniques du corps essay, in which he emphasizes the institutionalized aspects of behaviour patterns regarding eating, sleeping, walking and having sex. He draws upon extensive ethnological material once again to show how societies construct experience. Mauss certainly would have been sensitive to how rituals in particular do this. His Essay on sacrifice, written with Henri Hubert early in the century’s first decade, already stressed the processual dimension of ritual, and therefore how it develops in an intimate relation to time. As for the function of healing and repairing communities and the world, it is also a very present theme in anthropological accounts, and constitutes the core of Lévi-Strauss’ theory of ritual, influenced by Mauss. I don’t think I am going far out on a limb to say that an updated Maussian understanding of ritual would go in Spickard’s direction. Yet I do admit that that hasn’t been the case. And so this book acts as a welcome primer for pushing sociologists to pay attention to non-Western perspectives and material, whether it be understood as something new that fits our global condition, or the return to the best of the founders’ methods. In both cases, this amounts to breaking the walls separating sociology and anthropology, and bridging that gap.

// Article publié le 15 octobre 2017 Pour citer cet article : François Gauthier , « Sur James V. Spickard, « Alternative Sociologies of Religion » », Revue du MAUSS permanente, 15 octobre 2017 [en ligne].
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