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  1. he Importance of Understanding the Sociology of Religion January 20, 2016 Warren Goldstein will teach "The Secularization Debate" this spring. Warren Goldstein is a sociologist of religion teaching at HDS. While his research aims to develop a critical sociology of religion as a "new paradigm" in the sociology of religion, he is more broadly interested in the development of a critical paradigm in the study of religion as a whole. Alex Mayfield is pursuing a master of divinity degree at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Last fall, through theBoston Theological Institute, he cross-registered for Goldstein's HDS course "Classics in the Sociology of Religion," which had a big impact on him and how he approaches the study of religion. Below, the two discuss how knowledge in the sociology of religion can benefit students who are studying for careers in the academic study of religion, as well as those who plan to go into ministry. Alex Mayfield (AM): What is your educational background? Warren Goldstein (WG): My PhD in sociology is from the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. My thesis advisor was José Casanova. I also did a master's degree in philosophy (with minors in sociology and political science) from the Free University of Berlin in Germany. I have also taught sociology in a wide variety of colleges and universities—public and private, secular and religiously affiliated. My primary areas of specialization are sociology of religion and sociological theory (sociological theory of religion). AM: What are your research interests? What sort of projects are you engaged in? WG: My point of entry into the field of religion is from the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. My doctoral dissertation on Walter Benjamin’s and Ernst Bloch’s mixture of Messianism and Marxism set the rest of my research trajectory. I explained their mixture of Messianism and Marxism through a dialectical understanding of the process of secularization, which I found prevalent throughout their writings. This led me into my next project, which was to make a case for a dialectical theory of secularization to mainstream sociology of religion. This dialectical conception entails that secularization is driven by secular and religious movements and countermovements. I have done this comparative-historically through case studies, such as on Iran and China. While there are several other paradigms operating in the sociology of religion, a critical sociology of religion has remained undeveloped. So, this has been my task—to develop a dialectical theory of secularization as part of a critical sociology of religion. But a critical sociology of religion is broader than this. Its primary task is to understand how religious beliefs, practices, and institutions can both act as sources of domination and vehicles for progressive social change. Beyond this, I have become interested in the further development of a critical paradigm in the study of religion as a whole. As part of this project, I have established The Center for Critical Research on Religion. The Center publishes the journal Critical Research on Religion with SAGEpublications and the book series “Studies in Critical Research on Religion” withBrill Academic Publishers in hardcover and Haymarket Books in paperback, both of which I edit. Besides the journal, book series, and website, we have a Facebook page, listserve, and blog—all of which can be found through the website. It has emerged as the single most important means of communication for those interested in critical approaches to the study of religion. The journal is a very significant endeavor since, until we launched it, there was no journal in the study of religion that has focused exclusively on developing a critical approach. The journal has international advisory and editorial boards with 20 countries represented. We have published many well-known scholars, including faculty from Harvard (Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Michael Puett). Even though we are only at the end of our third year of publication, since the journal is with SAGE, it is bundled with other journals, and we have over 2,600 library subscriptions. On Facebook, we have over 1,200 followers, and we have over 800 authors and reviewers in our database. AM: You are a sociologist of religion at a divinity school. That's a pretty uncommon combination. What has that been like? WG: Well, this is a new environment for me. Previously, I have taught in sociology departments. I would say that it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, most HDS students are unfamiliar with sociology, no less sociology of religion. However, on the other hand, they do come with good working knowledge of theology and the study of religion. Because of this, they have a rich background that enables them to understand the sociology of religion. In the course I taught in the fall, “Classics in the Sociology of Religion,” this led to some very interesting discussions. WG: As a master of divinity student, have you found a sociological understanding of religion useful in your other classes? AM: Definitely. This will be my seventh year of theological education. (I did an undergraduate degree in church history and theology.) Even though I had heard sociologists' names occasionally, I never was familiar with them directly. When I finally got a chance to look through the work of people like Weber, Durkheim, and Marx, I began to recognize how much of what I learned was already inundated with their methods and theories. At the same time, I realized that a lot of what I learned about the sociological approach was taken out of context, which means some of the most important aspects of the discipline never really hit home. For instance, the relationship between socio-economic and theological development is a heated debate within the field of sociology, but it is often ignored or taken for granted in other religious disciplines. Having a better understanding of the various theories of the interaction between society and religion has made my theological work much stronger; it adds another lens through which I can approach my own interests. WG: You are both an ordained minister and pursuing an academic track—that is, you are applying to PhD programs. How is knowledge in the sociology of religion useful to you in each of these? AM: As a minister, you would think that knowledge of sociological theory of religions wouldn't be useful, but nothing could be further from the truth. Ministers are tasked with the pastoral care of people, and people are enmeshed in the socio-economic tides of their times. Sociology of religion provides a framework that relates people's economic and psychological needs to theological beliefs and religious actions. If someone comes from a certain income bracket, certain modes of religious expression could better meet their pastoral needs. Similarly, if someone holds certain religious beliefs, only certain modes of action would make sense for them. Sociology of religion, if anything, teaches you to be more aware of how people arrive at where they are at and what actions their religious framework makes available to them. As someone (hopefully!) continuing in the academic track, sociology of religion is so, so important. Whether it's a historical, biblical, or theological approach, the discipline of sociology helps you understand the complex web of meanings and motivations that lie behind the choices people make in religious contexts. I would like to take a more historical approach to religion in my future studies by looking at the intersections of different cultures and faith communities. Doing that kind of work would be impossible without sociology of religion, and I think the same is true for biblical studies and theological studies. There is almost always more going on than we recognize at the first. WG: Are there any major ideas that you'll be taking away with you from the course in the Classics in the Sociology of Religion? Weber's take on the Marxist paradigm of base vs. superstructure will be really important for me going forward. This is just the idea that material reality affects religious developments and vice versa. I think it is something we are all aware of, but the paradigm and debate over it helps me understand the relationship between the two better. As a scholar, it reminds me to take another look at the context, to delve deeper into the life of the people who produced whatever I am looking at. As a person, it reminds me to live closer to Niebuhr's ethic of responsibility, to take every chance to understand what is going on in a given situation before I try to act ethically. I know that is a pretty personal take on Weber, but what can I say? AM: What is your spring course is about? WG: This spring I am teaching the course "The Secularization Debate," which has been a central in the sociology of religion. We will begin with a few key texts by the classical secularization theorists Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. We will then proceed on to what is referred to as "The Old Paradigm" in the sociology of religion. These were proponents of the theory of secularization, and key figures that we will read include Peter Berger and Robert Bellah. We will then read major figures of "New Paradigm" in sociology, like R. Stephen Warner, Rodney Stark, and Roger Finke. They rejected the secularization narrative and instead focused on religious revival. After that, we will cover "the neo-secularization" paradigm—modifications of the theory of secularization in response to the criticisms of the old paradigm made by the new paradigm. Individuals in this camp include José Casanova and Christian Smith, among others. Finally, we shall end the course with a unit on "the rise of the nones," which has further fueled the secularization debate. See also: Faculty News and Research, Yes
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