The book under review promises to propel a host of questions related to religion, society and self. These questions have acquired new forms, proportions and meanings at a chaotic time. This is the nauseating chaos of politico-communal religionism that has afflicted not only the body politics but also and more importantly the core of the body of the innocence. This has caused the banishment of poetry from social spaces charting a tortuously melancholic landscape. Religion is producing a deeply troubled being. Religion as the defining category in everyday social life is increasingly emerging as an uncritical equalizer in our contemporary social life, acquiring newer shades almost everyday. The religiously defined spaces have fostered a disposition where everything appears as self-evident, damaging critical thinking and practices.
Religious identity politics has turned into a battle of survival for conflicting communities concealing internal differentiations of all types reinforcing the existing modes of domination. Religious symbols have been deployed as mechanisms of oppression producing theoretical protectionism of the worst kind.
Religion is almost condemned to operate within the domains of the social, as it is the social world that produces it. Thus, despite its historicity, the ‘sacred’ gets profaned even mundaned. God alone seems to be the uncaused cause and that has put even now the humans in a state of constant bafflement. However, the grammar of religious beliefs needs serious academic self-reflection.
The whole question is also related to how we look at religion, religious groups, and the way they behave in certain situations. In other words, the question that structure, its mechanisms of survival and functions are self-regulatory or interactive—shaping, moulding and getting moulded by each other—remains a central question. In other words, methodologically speaking the internal properties of a social structure alone are not sufficient to analyse a social structure. Similarly, the complex questions related to the structuring principles of universalism and particularlism in world religions have been under discussion for long. Philosophical/praxiological foundations of universalism and particularism and the predicaments associated with them have generated much heated debate. Thus, two oft-repeated ways are suggested for the related question of inter-faith dialogue. Firstly, respect for all religions and secondly different religions be considered as intrinsically linked with each other (for example, the well-known idea of ‘Ittehad-ul-Adyan’—unity of religions—within Islamic discourse), i.e. one religion should lead to the understanding of another religion and the view may emerge as the organizing principle for any inter-faith dialogue. But there is a problem—we know that praxiologically the structuring principles of religions are derived from binary opposition rooted in epistemological absolutism. Exclusivism, thus, is the cornerstone of religions aimed at creating a regime of single-model- (religious) truth. Thus, religions simultaneously represent autonomous contested and celebrated zones. That is why religions simultaneously bring about internal (followers among) cohesion and external (among non-followers) divisions. Internal divisions on various grounds are also important as they denote secondary multiplicity without questioning the meaning system of the core truth of the religion. For, without the sole claim to the ultimate truth no religion can maintain its exclusivist identity—epistemological absolutism. Religion thus promotes domestication of discourse and dialogue with diversity seems unattainable. It is this that has led to religious conflicts in history. In such a situation can inter-faith dialogue be a part of dialogue with non-religious diversities?
A book on sociology of religion is bound to demand to break the disciplinary boundary. Religion and religious groups have traditionally been from viewed different vantage points. Traditionally within the disciplines of social science—from Comte to Marx and Frazer—religion is treated as an intellectual error in the long journey of history of human cognition and believed that it will disappear with the growth of scientific spirit. These early thinkers viewed religion as ‘institutionalised ignorance and superstitions’. Marx, however, looked at it as a more complex phenomenon adding the dimension of class interest and the ideology of dominant social groups. He characterized religion not only as the opiate of the society but also as the soul of the soulless thus pointing out the need to study social consciousness as a form of ideology. Even Weber acknowledged the role of religion in legitimizing the structures of power and domination. However, it was Weber who perhaps was the first social scientist to have used the politics of comparative method in his representation of Islam with clear bias in favour of western paradigms. Phenomenological philosophy and sociology have privileged actor and actor’s view in a defining way while dealing with the social phenomena privileging everyday practice and perception of people about religion and religious practices.
However, the study of religion and society has undergone radical changes along the arduous, often tortuous path of history. The role of religion in both combating and preserving a socio-economic or ideological system has come under scholarly scrutiny. Religion as an anti colonial/imperialist ideology has been hotly debated and vigorously practised. Colonial representations of the religion(s) and religious practices of the colonized have found significant place in the anti-colonial debates. Politics and ideology of representation and interpretation of religion and religious practices of certain people have assumed newer meanings in the contemporary world that is marked by globalization, newer forms of imperialist domination, new information technologies, debate on multi-culturalism and plural society, rise of communal fascism and the forces of cultural and ideological homogeneity. Recently Talal Asad has influentially argued that each religion is the product of its specific cultural and historical developments thus emphasizing on the local contextualities and on religion as the lived reality.
Today a book on sociology of religion cannot be oblivious of contemporary politically constructed religionism both locally and globally and that has become part of constitutive elements of the everyday life and politics. The author of the book under review too is fully aware of this when he says: ‘. . . religion is becoming an ever more dominant feature’. His agenda is that ‘religion is a crucially important issue in the modern world order about which students need to be properly informed’. The principal aim of the book is to overturn the ‘deep-seated resistance to the notion that it is entirely normal in most parts of the world to be both fully modern and fully religious’ raises serious questions pertaining to the nature of European modernity, the enlightenment movement and the ascendancy of science, reminding one of the problematic of Cartesian dualism.
The book, it is claimed, is on the sociology of religion and the debate within this particular sub-discipline, and not a book about religion in the modern world per se. However, ‘the tension between global realities and sociological understanding will surface in almost every chapter’.
The book is divided into two parts. Part I with five chapters raises issues such as common sources of religion, secularization, modernity—as a single or plural construct, etc. Part II with six chapters discusses issues such as mainstream religions in the western world, minorities and margins, fundamentalism in the modern world, globalization and the study of religion, religion and the everyday etc.
The book begins with the question as to how the debates about religion in the modern world are so different from those that have predominated in the sub discipline and what has caused this mismatch, how to overcome this which is a necessity if we have to fully understand the significance of religion in the modern world order. Thus the ‘centrality of religion to late modern societies’ and that religion cannot be ‘relegated either to the past or to the edge’ is the central argument of the book. He argues that the resources of both secular and religious can be drawn to critique both. Davie argues that the emergence of sociology and sociology of religion within the historical context of European and industrial revolution ‘coloured’ both the subject matter and tools and concepts of the discipline. As a result a ‘false assumption’ began to assert itself that ‘the process of modernization was necessarily damaging to religion’ and yet Davie admits that the traditional structures of religious life were crumbling under the pressure of industrialization and urbanization. But secularization as the dominant paradigm in the sociology of religion within the specificities of Europe according to Davie ‘worked relatively well’. The European modern-secular binary became standard to judge all other cases that made it difficult for the European sociologist to understand why religion remains ‘a profoundly normal part of the lives of the huge majority of people in the late modern world’.
Davie is clearly walking a thorny path. His concerns and tensions to prove the pervasiveness of religion among a majority of people in the modern world has two dimensions: firstly, in support of his thesis he quotes prominently from the experiences of his association with a working group of the World Council of Churches formed to understand better the nature and forms of religion in the modern world. For the future of the ecumenical movement he quotes two non-European members of the said working group declaring that the ‘secularisation thesis’ is inappropriate and simply wrong. Secondly, he clearly is taking a kind of positivist position going by the observable and without raising the question of religious epistemological absolutism as a major source of conflict in the long history of institutionalized religions. Moreover, there seems to be a bias in the understanding of the process of secularization in European-non-European situations.
The book is essentially a critique of the modern-secular thesis and in defence and relevance of religious beliefs in the modern world. Chapter nine has an interesting discussion on the rise of fundamentalism since the mid 1970s. The chapter on globalization and the study of religion too is written in the same spirit. His understanding of relationship between religion and globalization is rather curious. He says that when Pope John Paul II died in 2005 Rome became the centre of attention—heads of state, religious leaders, journalists and hundreds of thousands of individuals from all parts of the world converged on the city. Thus, according to Davie ‘Here there is overwhelming evidence of the continuing presence of religion and in the modern world and the relationship between religion and globalization’. This shows an understanding of globalisation, which is completely devoid of its politico-economic contents.
However, Davie’s concern to bring the sociology of religion to the centre stage of the discipline of sociology must be appreciated.
Neshat Quaiser teaches in the Department of Sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia, Central University, New Delhi. He has worked on religion, nationalism and peasant politics in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh for his doctoral thesis. He is currently working and has published on historical sociology/social history of medicine with reference to the encounter between Unani and western systems of medicine in colonial India.