Review: The Sacred Project of American Sociology," Part III

by Michael Sean Winters

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Last week, I began a review of Christian Smith’s provocative new book The Sacred Project of American Sociology. You can read the first and second parts of the review here and here. Today, I would like to conclude the review by examining, in brief, the remaining chapters and posing the question of whether or not Smith’s thesis is applicable beyond the reaches of the nation’s sociology departments.

In a chapter entitled, “How Did We Get here? The Short Story,” Smith looks at the intellectual roots of the current sad state of sociology which he has so amply demonstrated. He writes that, “Sociology is an archetypically modern endeavor, and its deepest spiritual roots are sunk in the soil of the early modern era, particularly in the modern project of reconstituting society on a rational, universal, secular basis.” He quotes James Faubian:

The existential threshold of modernity [is found] in a certain deconstruction of what [Max Weber] speaks of as the “ethical postulate that the world is God-ordained”….The threshold of modernity may be marked precisely at the moment when the unquestioned legitimacy of a divinely preordained social order began to decline. Modernity emerges…only when what has been seen as an unchanging cosmos ceases to be taken for granted.

That is all true of course. Furthermore, the question for a Christian thinker is not whether this development was good or bad – it was a bit a both, to be sure – but how do we, as believers, avoid the pre-modern temptation of collapsing extant, human social orders into a divine project? We look back at those pre-modern social orders and find the claim that they were ordained by God obscene, and rightly so. And, we can also scoff at the claims, cited by Smith, from early sociologists, including sociologist Edward Hayes’ assertion in 1915 that “Sociology aims at nothing less the transfer of ethics from the domain of speculative philosophy [including religion] to the domain of objective science.”

But, the problematic word in the quote from Faubian is “ethical.” The problems are deeper than ethics and, it seems to me, that Smith’s entire thesis could be seen as yet another piece of evidence that all academic work presumes an anthropological and even metaphysical set of beliefs, whether those beliefs are acknowledged or not.

Nor is it fair to charge liberalism per se with the excesses – and the narrowness - of the modern academy. Yes, there is a lineage there. But, there were and are other possibilities growing from the liberal project. Indeed, the most stiff-necked liberal thinker I know, Leon Wieseltier, has been our culture’s most vocal and incisive critic of the kind of scientism Faubian pretended to and contemporary sociologists hide behind. His brilliant, devastating takedown of Steven Pinker’s essay “Science is not Your Enemy,” does not rely, obviously, on a Christian anthropological critique of modernity. Unfortunately, too much of the debate among public intellectuals have taken Jerry Falwell as representative of Christian thought and the sociologists that make Smith fret as representative of modern liberal academic thought. But Falwell did not speak for me and mine and while the sociologists Smith critiques may be representative in a sociological sense (I could not resist) he needs to seek out liberals who share his concerns, not just hang out with conservatives bring another set of problems in tow. I know, I know – where are they? Leon, meet Christian. Christian, meet Leon. Let the conversation begin. (Let me add, anecdotally, that the finest Thomist thinker I know also loved Leon’s takedown of Pinker, so this conversation can involve many different voices!) I suspect Smith’s gloomy, pessimistic prognosis of his profession entertaining such a conversation is regrettably correct in the short-term, and that his related suspicion that his arguments will be dismissed not engaged will only be further evidence of that gloomy prognosis.

I especially commend Smith’s treatment of the issue of accountability. The peer review system fails when a majority of the people in a given academic line of work are all on board a sacred project. His re-telling of the horrible attacks on sociologist Mark Regnerus make the point that even the impartiality of a double-blind peer review system will be questioned by the acolytes of the sacred project when someone reaches results that do not cohere with their aims. And, Smith rightly notes that the emergence of the blogosphere allows scholars with an axe to grind a new weapon in their arsenal, allowing them to be vigilantes working outside the canons of scholarly review when it suits their purposes. These are all important questions for the modern academy.

Sociology is not the only academic discipline that has to wrestle with itself, and it is precisely those disciplines that constitute the “social sciences” that seem in the most precarious position. I have always been wary of departments that label themselves “political science” departments, rather than, as we do at Catholic University, call it the “politics department.” There is not a lot of science, but there is a lot of ideology, in any study of politics and, certainly, the most important things to know about politics are not precisely measurable in scientific terms. The “liberal arts” and study of the humanities can and should serve as a counter to the faux-scientism of the “social sciences” but, for a variety of reasons, the humanities have their own challenges. Many social scientists and many scholars in the humanities both have developed an allergy to anything that contains even a whiff of Christian influence, unless of course the aim is to denounce Christianity as patriarchal, medieval, etc. Bias is bias. We all have it. It is the failure to admit it that always proves the greatest difficulty.

A word about the appendix. Smith reprints, in regrettably small type for someone like me who relies on reading glasses, a synopsis of his previous work proposing an alternative to the sacred project he has so witheringly and accurately described. His alternative is “Critical Realist Personalism” This one small essay is worth the purchase price of the whole book, whether you agree that personalism is the best future hermeneutic or not. Here is a debate worth having.

I have long been suspicious of the sociology of religion. It has yielded many key insights and, as a friend and scholar I admire likes to point out, many of the problems the Church faces today have sociological roots as well as theological ones, the explication of which can only lead to better decision-making. My concern is not with the quality of the work that is done by religious sociologists but by the significance given to that work. It tells me nothing about the truth of a claim to know that 65% of Catholics adhere to it. And while the Lord promised to be present where two or three are gathered in His name, the Almighty is no inclined to answer a call from a survey researcher yet we believe – we must believe – that the Holy Spirit is at work in the Church. You have only to look to the history of the Church to recognize this: If the thing was entirely in our hands, we would have wrecked it long ago.

Smith’s book should be read not just by his fellow sociologists but by anyone who is concerned about the current state of higher education. For all the money that is invested in higher education, for all the student debt that is incurred, we should hope that the outcome benefits not only the individuals who attain degrees but the rest of society as well. I know people who attended Ivy League colleges and never had to read a book published before 1800. In what meaningful sense of the word has that person received an education? Every human intellectual activity entails, and presupposes, some kind of anthropology and metaphysics, it is inescapable, yet it is unacknowledged and positively denied by many, perhaps most, scholars. Smith’s book should start a conversation that is long overdue. Whether it will or not, still less the quality of that conversation, is unknowable. But things change, sometimes in the twinkling of an eye. Unless the modern academy produces intellectual leaders capable of even asking the right questions in the face of major social upheavals, that same society will ask what is the value of the whole enormous, well-funded architecture which is the modern academy. It may be fascinating to study the sexual behaviors of Eskimos or the migratory patterns of fish, but unless the academy can answer basic questions – What is justice and what does justice demand? Who is my neighbor? What constitutes the common good and how does a society discern it? – people will ask, as Christian Smith is already asking, what is it all good for?



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