Tuesday, May 5, 2009

W. E. B. Du Bois on Religion (3): Phil Zuckerman & sociology of religion

Du Bois on Religion, edited by Phil Zuckerman. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2000.
ISBN 0742504212, 9780742504219
209 pages

You can find excerpts from this book on google books.
"Phil Zuckerman here gathers together Du Bois's writings on religion, and makes a compelling case for Du Bois to be recognized among the leading sociologists of religion. Du Bois on Religion includes selections from his well-known works such as The Souls of Black Folks to poems, prayers, stories and speeches less widely available. Brief, helpful introductions preface each of the twenty-six selections. Also, a general introduction traces Du Bois's move from church-attending Christian to relentless critic of religion and evaluates Du Bois's contributions to the study of religion. Du Bois on Religion is an important text for sociologists or for anyone interested in the history of race and religion in the United States."
On the surface it's terrific that such an anthology exists. But what is Zuckerman's agenda? Let's look at a couple of reviews.

Newman, Mark. Review: Phil Zuckerman, editor. Du Bois on Religion, Journal of Southern Religion, vol. 7 (2004).

Note that Newman questions Zuckerman's selection process.

Pierce, Yolanda. Review of Zuckerman, Phil, ed., Du Bois on Religion. H-AmRel, H-Net Reviews.
July, 2001. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=5301

Pierce notes the contradictory attitudes to religion revealed in Du Bois' corpus. Pierce also criticizes the lack of cohesiveness and support for Zuckerman's selection of material.

To learn more about what Zuckerman is up to, see this article:

Zuckerman, Phil. "The Sociology of Religion of W.E.B. Du Bois," Sociology of Religion, Summer, 2002.

Zuckerman is impressed by Du Bois's primary research and his empirical backing of his claims. He covers the variety of Du Bois's reaction to religion and churches, black and white. Here is the conclusion:
W.E.B. Du Bois's work on religion has, for too long, been ignored. His exclusion from the canon has had significant consequences for the development of the sociology of religion, especially here in the United States. His numerous analyses of black religious sacred group enthusiasm and dramatic emotional ritual (as in the "rock Daniel rock" excerpt quoted earlier) preceded and anticipated Durkheim's theories of "collective effervescence." His exploration of the role of the black church as a safe haven for African Americans in a world of racist segregation/persecution greatly embellishes Freud's understanding of religion as a source of comfort and Weber's focus on theodicy; specifically, religion does not only serve as some sort of "cosmic" or existential balm in the face of life's deep mysteries or questions, but religious institutions can also serve as immediate, everyday, this-worldly sources of communal comfort in the face of everyday oppression.

In sum, what Du Bois wrote on religion was insightful, relevant, and specifically sociological in nature. He should be regarded as the first American sociologist of religion. He employed standard sociological research methods to a degree unparalleled by the canonized classical sociologists of religion. He focused specifically on the important phenomenon of black American religious life, providing landmark contributions in that area. And most importantly, Du Bois stressed the ways in which religious institutions can be recognized as social, communal centers which provide this-worldly rewards and comforts. He implicitly argued that religious involvement need not solely be explained as a quest for cosmic communion or psychological compensation, but as an avenue for communal refuge and social bonding. [ . . . . ]
Note also footnote 2:
It is crucial to highlight that Du Bois died an agnostic, but not an atheist, per se. In 1948, a priest wrote to Du Bois asking him whether or not he believed in God. Du Bois replied: "Answering your letter of October 3, may I say: If by `a believer in God,' you mean a belief in a person of vast power who consciously rules the universe for the good of mankind, I answer No; I cannot disprove this assumption, but I certainly see no proof to sustain such a belief, neither in History not in my personal experience. If on the other hand you mean by 'God' a vague Force which, in some umcomprehensible [sic] way, dominates all life and change, then I answer, Yes; I recognize such Force, and if you wish to call it God, I do not object." (Aptheker 1978:223).
That Du Bois contributed specifically to sociology of religion is not at issue. The question here is, is Zuckerman's agenda strictly an acknowledgment of Du Bois as sociologist, or is it the rehabilitation of Du Bois as a religious thinker? You be the judge.

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