on the value of religious experience to sociology

Krippendorf asks why I suggest:

I think lacking religious experience of some sort probably makes it harder to be a good sociologist.

The short answer is that religious experience is an amazingly widespread social phenomenon, and it has a sui generis quality to it that makes it difficult to explain without some sort of experiential link.

The longer answer rests firmly on a Durkheimian base. Whether we understand the phenomenon as culture, as shared mental representations, or as beliefs, rites, and rituals separating the sacred from the profane and thereby organizing the believers into a church, I am convinced that much of the character 0f social life is essentially religious. That is, it is shared, taken for granted, and supra-material. Having experienced sociality that is explicitly religious helps in identifying sociality that is only implicitly so. Hence my claim.

This point is made far better in Karen Fields’ totally awesome introduction to her translation of the Elementary Forms of Religious Life, which everyb0dy should read. Lots of times! Building upon Durkheim’s address to the Union of Free Thinkers and Free Believers:

What I ask of the free thinker is that he should confront religion in the same mental state as the believer…. [H]e who does not bring to the study of religion a sort of religious sentiment cannot speak about it! He is like a blind man trying to talk about colour.

Now I shall address the free believer…. There cannot be a rational interpretation of religion which is fundamentally irreligious; an irreligious interpretation of religion would be an interpretation which denied the phenomenon it was trying to explain.

Fields’ argument about the importance of Formes is elegant and extended, and I won’t do it justice here. Two short quotes will suffice:

Durkheim brings us to what he intends by the real tthat human beings in general come to know through the distinctively human means of knowing. Those means begin, he argues, with human sociability. Society is the form in which nature produced humankind, and religion is reason’s first harbor. In Formes, we meet the mind as a collective product and science as an offspring of religion. (p. xix)

…groups are not hodgepodges either but are made up of individuals who have mutually recognized and recognizable identities that set them, cognitively and normatively, on shared human terrain. Hence, the quality of sacredness exists in the real, and its creation is the observable product of collective doing. (p. xxxiv)

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

9 thoughts on “on the value of religious experience to sociology”

  1. “There cannot be a rational interpretation of religion which is fundamentally irreligious.” I’m not sure how this is any different from the perspective that says we can never really know/comprehend a culture that is different from our own. As an ethnographer who studies the “3rd world”, I certainly have taken inspiration from Durkheim in my own realization that religious meanings and beliefs should be taken seriously by sociologists. But the debate about insiders vs. outsiders is a longstanding one. There is certainly much that an outsider will have difficulty comprehending. On the other hand, I have talked with many native scholars of the country I study, and they feel that there are just as many problems with being an insider — in particular, it is harder for them to see what is surprising or puzzling or unusual.

    I should also note that in one of my undergraduate courses I assigned some chapters from “Elementary Forms.” Some students were perturbed by Durkheim’s argument that the sacred power that people experience in rituals is society itself. They felt this gave short shrift to people who actually believe in religion.


  2. Sociologists should also read (lots of times) William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. One quote from the chapter on The Value of Saintliness may suggest why:

    “Since it is impossible to deny secular alterations in our sentiments and needs, it would be absurd to affirm that one’s own age of the world can be beyond correction by the next age. Skepticism cannot, therefore, be ruled out by any set of thinkers as a possibility against which their conclusions are secure; and no empiricist ought to claim exemption from this universal liability. But to admit one’s liability to correction is one thing, and to embark upon a sea of wanton doubt is another. Of willfully playing into the hands of skepticism we cannot be accused. He who acknowledges the imperfectness of his instrument, and makes allowance for it in discussing his observations, is in a much better position for gaining truth than if he claimed his instrument to be infallible. Or is dogmatic or scholastic theology less doubted in point of fact for claiming, as it does, to be in point of right undoubtable? And if not, what command over truth would this kind of theology really lose if, instead of absolute certainty, she only claimed reasonable probability for her conclusions? If we claim only reasonable probability, it will be as much as men who love the truth can ever at any given moment hope to have within their grasp. Pretty surely it will be more than we could have had, if we were unconscious of our liability to err.

    “Nevertheless, dogmatism will doubtless continue to condemn us for this confession. The mere outward form of inalterable certainty is so precious to some minds that to renounce it explicitly is for them out of the question. They will claim it even where the facts most patently pronounce its folly. But the safe thing is surely to recognize that all the insights of creatures of a day like ourselves must be provisional. The wisest of critics is an altering being, subject to the better insight of the morrow, and right at any moment, only ‘up to date’ and ‘on the whole.’ When larger ranges of truth open, it is surely best to be able to open ourselves to their reception, unfettered by our previous pretensions. ‘Heartily know, when half-gods go, the gods arrive.’ …

    “I do indeed disbelieve that we or any other mortal men can attain on a given day to absolutely incorrigible and unimprovable truth about such matters of fact as those with which religions deal. But I reject this dogmatic ideal not out of a perverse delight in intellectual instability. I am no lover of disorder and doubt as such. Rather do I fear to lose truth by this pretension to possess it already wholly.”


  3. A firsthand understanding of religious thinking and social organization certainly provides perspective, and lifelong scientific skeptics often, in my experience, find themselves angry or confused when trying to understand religious reasoning and language in particular.

    However, the perspective comes at a cost for many, because in order to genuinely experience the religious mindset, an investment of self into a religious identity is necessary. Even if one later abandons religious convictions, it is difficult to be fully neutral towards that identity.

    The Durkheimian argument carries some weight, but requires a substantial level of self-awareness regarding the bias one’s past and/or present experience carries. As a Christian and former church professional, I must draw a line between embracing my specific interest in creating quality sociological research related to that background and carefully avoiding partiality toward findings that support my own religious convictions. Similarly, the ex-religious rarely if ever have left without some disappointment or frustration at particular ideas, practices, or institutions that stand to bias unreflective research.

    Such a bias is not limited to religious background or research, but religious sentiment tends to bridge multiple intelligences, areas of consciousness, and social settings. Thus, it poses a greater risk to impartial research if unaddressed than many activities or beliefs.


  4. “Whether we understand the phenomenon as culture, as shared mental representations, or as beliefs, rites, and rituals separating the sacred from the profane and thereby organizing the believers into a church, I am convinced that much of the character 0f social life is essentially religious. That is, it is shared, taken for granted, and supra-material. Having experienced sociality that is explicitly religious helps in identifying sociality that is only implicitly so. Hence my claim.”

    I think I understand what you’re driving at, but I don’t entirely buy the conclusion. Nationalism and sports fandom (to name two other forms of sociality) have many features in common with religious experience. Why then are those experiences not enough to help understand religion (as being part of one religious organization would help in understanding the practices, etc. of another)? Why is religious experience recognized as such somehow a more ‘basic’ or fundamental or just plain useful-for-understanding form of sociality, if we accept that other forms of sociality are similar? Particularly, if we are trying to understand forms of sociality other than religion (nationalism, etc.), why is religious experience the most useful starting point rather than some other form?


    1. Dan — it is interesting that you bring up sports fanaticism as an example. As a grad student at Michigan that grew up going to church (at least when I was young), it wasn’t until I went to a U-M football game that I really understood Durkheim. For those who have never experienced a Big 10 (or, I imagine Big 12 or SEC football game), it is a truly sociological experience to do so. I really felt what it meant to have a collective identity with the embodiment of ceremony that comes in the liturgy of rituals and totems that symbolize belonging. I would qualify this as a religious experience in the way that Durkheim intends.


  5. Durkheim’s dictrum that we should “confront religion in the same mental state as the believer” — how far do we take this? I had a colleague who, when I mentioned some important study on drug use, said he distrusted it because the researcher had never used drugs. And what about crime, poverty, divorce, extreme wealth, and just about anything else we study? How necessary is subjective, first-hand experience?

    A churchgoing Blue fan (@Mike3550) would insist that there was an important difference in his state of mind at one ritual or the other. But if you paid attention only what people do, rather than what they say about what they do, you’d be hard pressed to distinguish secular rituals from religious ones. Here’s a British observer writing about the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade:

    “The secular, American descendant of the European Catholic Easter procession in which all the icons and saints’ bones are removed from the churches and carried ceremonially around the town. The baseball hero, the gaseous, rubbery Mickey Mouse, the Mayflower pilgrims were the totems and treasure relics of a culture, as the New Orleans jazz and Sousa marches were its solemn music.” (Jonathan Raban, Hunting Mr. Heartbreak.


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