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Sociological and Anthropological Conceptions of Modern Religious Movements | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Worshippers at a mosque in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. (AFP)

Rabat – Religion and socio-religious movements have been an area of study for western sociologists. Classical schools of sociology had adopted the epistemological approach of the traditional French enlightenment period that said that the religious phenomenon was just a social condition that will weaken in the world of modernity and liberalism. Consequently, scientific changes and the development of western and world societies will inevitably lead to the weakening of religion and its destruction.

The modern school however came to say the opposite, claiming that religion and religious movements are an integral part of the historic cultural process of modern societies, whether they are democracies or dictatorships.

Even though secular discussions pervaded modern life up until the 1960s, the philosophical debate over religion remained and it produced schools of criticism from within modernity. Schools of social science sought to produce new approaches that tackled religion and secularism and the ability of each to overcome the other. They also reexamined the social dialectics of religion after the 1980s with the emergence of the “public religion,” as penned by Jose Casanova, renowned scholar in sociology of religion.

Casanova said that the expansion of the scope of the religious phenomenon is not a historic coincidence. The return to religious discussions is complicated and places social sciences and modernity before a real challenge related to systematically rethinking the ties between religion and modernity, and more importantly the potential roles that religion may play in the general scope of modern societies, explained Casanova in “Public Religions in the Modern World”.

In this regard, we can say that when sociologist Emile Durkehim speaks of the historic process of secularism, he is pointing to the central role religion plays because it is a “central reflection of the entire social life.” The power of religion therefore lies in its ability to produce all that is essential in society. On this note, Durkheim maintains that the study of religion is concerned with revealing the main social essence of religion in public life.

The essence of society means reaching its “secular characteristics” and dealing with them in a rational scientific way. For Durkheim, religion is determined based on the distinction people make between what is holy and what is worldly. He here concludes that the truth of religion is not illusory and the religious test is the test of a firm social truth.

This idea is also found with sociologist Georg Simmel and Max Weber. Simmel spoke of the central piety linked to the idea of divinity.

French sociologist Raymond Boudon said that sociology is required to not take literal explanations of the pious person, but it should analyze this religious test by adhering to scientific principles.

We should pay attention that studying religion from an anthropological angle was subject to cognitive development and change because scholarly justifications and classical rationalization claims affected the anthropological operating method. This has left it to rely on narrow concepts and old assumptions that preceded World War II. After the war, this western scholarly field lived off the works of Durkheim, Weber and Sigmund Freud, which left it in a period of general stagnation, according to English anthropologist Clifford Geertz.

Durkehim and Weber predicted that traditional religion will be eroded in the modern world. This claim however was refuted by the sociological facts in the world where Christianity, Islam and other religions are widespread. It was even said that the 20th century was the century of religion.

Thomas Luckmann was among the first to criticize the claim of the erosion of religion. He instead proposed in his book, “The Invisible Religion”, the separation of secularism from its ideological roots. He however reached a conclusion that was refuted by the current Muslim, Christian and Buddhist reality when he said that religion will lose its traditional roles and eventually be marginalized.

This is the scholarly crisis that such studies have fallen into. It prompted Casanova, when speaking about the return of religion to the general spotlight, to call for adopting two scholarly approaches in such studies. The first calls for disregarding them because they are unscientific, which has become the general approach in the modern western social world. The second calls for reviewing the theory in a way that can respond to its critics and at the same time answer the questions that are asked by modern reality.

In line with the development of western sociological research on religion, sociologist Peter L. Berger said that people were wrong to believe that they are living in a secular world. With a few exceptions, he said, we are living in a purely religious one. This means that the previous works by historians and social scientists on the theory of secularism are wrong.

This conclusion leads us to deepen the discussion over the study of secularism and the nature of the separation between religion and politics among other issues.

*Khaled Yamout is a visiting political science professor at Mohammed V University.