Saturday, March 12, 2011

Stark naked sociology of religion

While I'm trying to remember just why I can't stand Rodney Stark, let me call your attention to this article:

Stark, Rodney. "Religious Effects: In Praise of 'Idealistic Humbug'," Review of Religious Research, 41: 3, 2000, pp. 289-310.

Stark indicts the entire sociological tradition for denying religious belief as a socially causal factor. Stark aims to prove that certain historical events attributed to material causes have their roots in religious beliefs. Stark also argues that a sociology of religion ultimately rests on a sociology of gods.

Stark's examples are indeed interesting, but he missed something in his analysis of what's wrong with Marxist as well as other sociological explanations of religion.

If you'll notice, the problem centers on attributing ostensibly religious motives to economic or political motives. Apparently, a fair amount of bad Marxism was done this way. But positing a duality of motives in this way obscures the way in which people interpret their experience through the lens of their ideology, and more fundamentally, how their very subjectivity is formed.

The question, never satisfactorily addressed within the atheist movement, and apparently not fully via sociology, is what is religion exactly and what is its relation to social causality? Only dialectical social theory can address this riddle, not economism, not a crude conception of ulterior motives, not an assumption that irrational mythical thinking is a mechanically determined epiphenomenon of rational material interests, not just a translation of subjective motivations into putative objective material motivations without taking into account the formation of subjectivity itself.

Stark has some interesting observations, and his notion of the consequences of causal efficacy attributed to gods is worth investigating, but he remains trapped within the parameters of bourgeois sociology.

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