The Immanent Frame has an interesting working paper by David Smilde and Matthew May on the state of the subfield of the sociology of religion. Highlights, quickly, are that there’s a lot of work on the sociology of religion; that most of it focuses on the US and on Christianity, and in particular on Protestants; and that the prevailing paradigm is a “strong program” treating religion as an independent variable predicting other outcomes. Studies that are funded are more likely — by a lot — to find that religion is “good” for people in some way, but the funding source (government vs. foundation, e.g.) is not a factor.
I am not a scholar of religion, though I am interested in the field, so approach this largely from the outside. While I find the independent-variable approach worthwhile, I do worry that religion as a dependent variable deserves lots more consideration too. This is both as a function of time (changes in religious matters over time) and in terms of understanding the origins and development of modalities of religious belief, thought, and practice. It’s too bad that, apparently, the “strong program” seems to have come at the expense of understanding the origins of variation in religiousness. (By the way, the “strong program” term comes from Jeffrey Alexander, who wishes it upon cultural sociology, except that in Alexander’s world culture doesn’t really cause or get caused — it just is, on its own, sui generis. The sociology of religion is to be commended for avoiding that trap.)
I wonder, too, if there’s an institutional explanation. Over the time period covered by the Smilde and May study, there’s been something of an explosion of data available for analysis on religion, particularly in the United States. Much of this data is cross-sectional, which encourages analysts to treat variables as fixed and causal (a.k.a. “independent”). To the extent that religion is a dependent variable, a temporal dimension is a virtual necessity, since one is looking for the etiology of an observed state (whether observed individually or societally). Religion, like other social measures, is also treated in standardized ways, which again encourages analysts to think of it as relatively static.
I would love to see similar studies in other subfields as well. My guess is that over the same time period sociology in general became more causally oriented, used more secondary data analysis, and considered less the development of social states–thus I would imagine that the sociology of religion probably mirrors much of the rest of the discipline.