When The Sociology Of Religion Isn’t Critical Of Religion

SumerauDr. J. Sumerau is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa.  Zir teaching, research, and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities.  In this post, Dr. Sumerau reflects on zir observations of a conference in the subfield of sociology of reflection.  In particular, ze highlights the surprisingly high number of religious scholars in the field, and the exclusion of critical and marginal perspectives on religion.


Pray the J Away

Last year, I did something I had avoided since I first entered the academy. While I study religion in contemporary society, I had yet to attend a sociology of religion conference. I must admit that my reticence to attend such a conference came from three interrelated experiences during graduate school.

First, I attended sociology of religion gatherings and roundtables at American Sociological Association meetings as a graduate student, and generally felt very uncomfortable in these spaces wherein it appeared that everyone but me was, in fact, religious. Simply put, all but two sociologists of religion I encountered at the time offered feedback along the lines of “well, we have to understand the importance of religion to living a full life” and “well, in my church this doesn’t work like this.” In fact, more than a few asked me “what faith” I practiced and explained to me the importance of their “faith” in casual conversations.

Second, I attempted to publish my master’s thesis in a sociology of religion controlled journal, only to be rejected after multiple rounds of revision. Despite many positive reviews and multiple R&Rs (revise and resubmit decisions), the paper was rejected upon the editor finding a reviewer who basically said they did not “believe” in qualitative methods. When I asked a colleague more familiar with religious studies about this, he explained (himself having published in the field for years) that the experience was not uncommon for manuscripts that that took a more critical approach to religion (see here for a more recent discussion of this issue in sociology of religion).

I also read sociology of religion controlled or focused journals and noticed very quickly that, as Avishai and colleagues point out in their recent review, very little knowledge concerning gender and sexualities studies ever found its way into these journals, and there was rarely much mention of inequalities. And, these journals often use the term “traditional” to refer to anything Judeo-Christian created historically (i.e., traditional marriage in these journals meant the very recent historical construction of Christian marriage rather than the many forms this institution has taken across the world throughout time). There was also relatively little discussion of, for example, non-Christian, non-heterosexual, non-cisgender, and even nonreligious people in such journals, though more recent years have seen some discussion on these topics.

After locating and spending time with some nonreligious people who worked in the sociology of religion, however, I decided maybe I should give one meeting a shot. Importantly, I made sure to have a supportive network at the conference just in case. This was incredibly fortuitous since I basically walked into (what felt like) a church called a conference.

Sociology of Religion As “Church”

If you asked critical questions, for example, people got very uncomfortable and quickly ended the conversations. Similarly, like many academic conferences, everyone seemed to subscribe to a “Sunday best”-style dress code that, with slight variations, meant most people looked like they went to the same uniform shop before the meeting. Unlike other academic meetings, I couldn’t really find any exceptions to the dress code other than my companion and me. I was asked four times by people in these uniforms what “someone like me” (whatever that means) was doing at the conference; I was mistaken for “the help” or “someone lost” twice. It was also the first time that I’d been at an academic conference where someone offered to pray for me after speaking with me for a few minutes. In fact, the moment it truly hit me that I had accidentally entered a church came in the midst of my own presentation.

As I spoke, I looked out into the audience and saw someone actually praying. Now, I will admit by the time I gave my presentation, I was basically doing my own mini-ethnography to try to see just how church-like the place was, and thus I made sure to offer a different type of presentation style than anyone else in the session. Specifically, I took a casual conversational style for my presentation wherein I engaged the audience with questions about the subject, used personal anecdotes to contextualize my approach to studying religion, and utilized explicit language about sexual acts and practices to drive home points.

I wanted to see whether conformity trumped research or the other way around. That said, I didn’t say or do anything that I haven’t done at other conferences, or that, at times, hasn’t gotten me praise and/or free drinks at other conferences. I hypothesized that conformity would rule as is common in religious services, and I was thus not surprised that everyone in the room (other than my companions whom I work with regularly) seemed incredibly uncomfortable and spent a lot of time fidgeting and looking at the exit. I was surprised, however, when an audience member started praying. One of my companions actually saw a second person praying whom I didn’t notice at the time.

I had already long become accustomed to the religiosity embedded in the sociology of religion. One need only look to Mark Regnerus’s study and the support it received from many prominent sociologists of religion in an open letter or findings from editors of pro-religious bias in the subfield’s main journals for examples. But, I was rather surprised to see it so openly displayed in the midst of conference proceedings. It made me wonder where the line is drawn (if it is) between a sociology of religion and religious sociology? It also made me wonder what, if anything, we really know about religion sociologically at this point in time where it appears that religious believers run most of the subfield?

Exclusion And Uncritical Perspectives

Considering that historically men, whites, cisgender people, heterosexuals, and other scholars from privileged groups missed a whole lot about gender, race, cisgender privilege, and sexualities, I can’t help but wonder what religious scholars (i.e., scholars who identify as religious themselves) have missed about the social operation of religion in the world. While it seems intuitive that religious people would be interested in studying religion and I think that these perspectives are useful and helpful for understanding some aspects of religion in society, it is unlikely we’ll understand much about religion overall without also gathering the perspectives of religious minorities and the nonreligious. One may simply imagine the same scenario in other subfields to visualize this idea. If, for example, sexualities scholarship was almost entirely controlled by heterosexuals, racial scholarship by white scholars, and gender scholarship by males, we might expect the same patterns we see in the sociology of religion wherein critical or inequalities focused studies are relatively rare, and positive depictions of existing sexual, race, and gender systems are the norm. As the editors of the newly formed Critical Research on Religion journal asked, I wonder what a more diversified approach to the study of religion might reveal (both positive and negative) about this social system.

While I can’t begin to answer this question at present, I do know from experience just how awkward it can be to be nonreligious while studying religion in the current academic marketplace. When, for example, one comes across questions from conference-goers or journal reviewers that effectively say “be nicer to the religious folk” or “you need to recognize the importance of faith,” it is a constant reminder of the taken-for-granted privilege and dominance of religious perspectives in our society. At the same time, when conference-goers and reviewers in other fields downplay the importance of religion to the existence of contemporary social inequalities (i.e., our racial, classed, gendered, and sexual systems all rely heavily on religion for their initial and continued existence), one has to wonder how much religious privilege influences “which” inequalities we are able to discuss and debate. In fact, considering that around 70% of professors express some form of religious belief, one has to wonder just how much of the academy itself is shaped by religious assumptions and perspectives.

I also know from experience that religious journals often don’t want research that critiques religion, and that mainstream journals often reject the same pieces because (they say) such work belongs in religious journals. As another friend of mine put it succinctly, “Religion wins because religious outlets protect it and critical scholars don’t want to question it.” Although critical work on religion does occasionally appear in mainstream sociology of religion journals (i.e., Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and Sociology of Religion) and journals with more critical orientations have risen in recent years (i.e., Secularism and Nonreligion and Critical Research on Religion), most work that critically evaluates the good and bad of contemporary religion finds voice in other places and by focusing primarily on other issues (i.e., race, class, gender, sexualities, and health) while utilizing religious samples. In fact, in my experience, one seeking to publish critical work on religion must be ready to fight with reviewers (i.e., about what it says about religion instead of about say theory or the data itself) even if one receives some editorial support for their submissions.

As a result, I (and the thankfully growing number of other scholars I know who take a critical approach to religion in society) find myself in an awkward academic position quite often wherein it feels like sociology attempts to pray or otherwise do away with empirical findings that call religion into question. I cannot help but wonder what this says about contemporary sociology, and how other nonreligious people manage this dilemma throughout their academic endeavors.


1 It is noteworthy that after the experience contained herein, I attended another sociology of religion conference put on by a different professional organization. In this case, I only went to one nonreligious and one gender session, but experiences in these sessions were much more like my experiences in academic conferences as a whole. I don’t know if this is because of the organization, because it was in combination with other meetings instead of a stand alone conference, because I was only there for about two hours (i.e., two sessions), or if it was simply because I only went to sessions engaged in more critical-oriented niches within the larger subfield. I did not present at this second meeting, but I also escaped without anyone offering to pray for me.

6 thoughts on “When The Sociology Of Religion Isn’t Critical Of Religion

  1. Thank you SO much for publishing this. It raises important issues in the discipline of sociology and NOT just about religion. Can you imagine someone critiquing Durkheim for not being “nice enough” to religious people or not considering “faith” enough…?


    • You’re very welcome and thank you for both reading and sharing your own thoughts as well 🙂 My hope is the post will get people talking about issues concerning what and how we study and critique within and beyond the sociology of religion subfield.


  2. Your mention of Mark Regnerus’ study has my curiosity piqued; according to Christian Smith in The Sacred Project of American Sociology, the official audit of the Regnerus study did not discredit it as valid scholarly research. Smith claims that the Chronicle of Higher Education reported the following (all of this is in blockquote):

    [The auditor] did not find that the journal’s normal procedures had been disregarded, or that the Regnerus paper had been inappropriately expedited to publication, as some critics have charged. He also vigorously defended … the editor. “If I were in [the editor’s] shoes,” he writes, “I may well have made the same decisions.” Because the reviewers were unanimously positive, [the editor] had little choice but to go ahead with publication, according to [the auditor]. He goes on: “My review of the editorial processing of the Regnerus … paper … revealed that there were no gross violations of editorial procedures—the papers were peer-reviewed, and the ‘peers’ for papers on this topic were similar to what you would expect at Social Science Research.” (Kindle Locations 2573–79)

    He claims “That was the official report.[22]”

    [22] See Darren Sherkat, 2012, “The Editorial Process and Politicized Scholarship: Monday Morning Editorial Quarterbacking and a Call for Scientific Vigilance,” Social Science Research, 41: 1346–1349.


    Did Christian Smith misrepresent the peer-reviewed portion of the audit? By this, I mean the portion of the audit results which must adhere to the highest scholarly standards, on pain of reputation damage. Smith reports that when Sherkat stepped outside his scholarly, peer-reviewed auditor role, the connotation and denotation changed:

    The personal response of the appointed investigator, however, reframed the audit’s results in the same breath by immediately and publicly adding that “it’s bullshit” and that “scholars who should have known better failed to recuse themselves from the review process.”[23] (Kindle Locations 2580—82)

    [23] Tom Bartlett, “Controversial Gay-Parenting Study is Severely Flawed, Journal’s Audit Finds,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 26, 2012.


    I wonder if there is a place where the statements “made under oath” can be compared and contrasted to those which are not required to adhere to the highest standards in scholarship. Christian Smith definitely paints one picture, but I’m sure there are others. One concern is ideological alignment of the reviewers in the study with one of the possible interpretations of the study, but I would want to see evidence that this does not frequently happen. The very existence of Heterodox Academy suggests that perhaps ideological alignment is more common than many who would like to think of themselves as ‘objective’ would like to admit, and that it is only construed as a problem when the ideology is disagreeable. To determine whether this is true would need proper social science research.


    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. As to your questions, there are a lot of aspects to the Regnerus controversy that have played out over the last few years (including updates and new information this year) so rather than go into that issue in this space I’ll simply point you to the Family Inequality site (here is the link for all the coverage on the Regnerus stuff over time – just use the older posts button at the bottom to go through the timeline if you wish – https://familyinequality.wordpress.com/?s=regnerus). Over the years, this site has (from what I can tell) covered the varied aspects of the controversy in as much or more detail as any other I’m aware of. I hope the information is useful for your own considerations.


      • Thanks. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a good solid account which separates out the audit report from interpretation of that report. The way Christian Smith describes the account, most everyone has twisted and contorted the actual contents of the audit, instead of faithfully reporting the audit. I would love to see a counter-argument to this. Perhaps I’m searching for the wrong term when I use ‘audit’? I’m looking for the “official documents” of the peer-review and auditing process, not stuff like [1]. Fortunately, your link was better than [1], but I’m still concerned with finding words written, for which one can suffer reputation damage if they do not adhere to the highest standards of social science rigor, and interpretation which is something less than that, something different from that.

        Is it reasonable to ask for a clear distinction in the way I have? I understand the need for interpretation and I understand that it is part of science to speculate beyond the evidence, outside the strictest bounds of method. But at least in the biological sciences, I know it’s important to distinguish between the two, to label the latter as speculation instead of facts firmly rooted in the evidence.

        [1] http://wonkette.com/518227/lets-all-laugh-at-the-christianist-sociologists-with-an-actual-sociologist-who-is-not-dumb


  3. Hello again. I did not realize you were looking for the actual report at this stage, but I am happy to provide the link here so you can evaluate it for yourself (you may access it here http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0049089X12001652). You may also want to check out the more recent scholarly analyses of the situation wherein other researchers sought to replicate the original study by Regnerus, and in so doing found completely different results once measurement errors and other issues in the paper (noted in the commentary and the audit report) were fixed (this can be accessed here http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0049089X1500085X). I hope these resources are helpful to you.


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