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Following some years in so-called early-retirement it was with much interest that I nervously ventured out once again to a mainstream academic conference: that of the Sociology of Religion Research Group of the British Sociological Association held at Easter in the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham. This BSA Group used to be a familiar stamping ground for me, and so I wondered how the sub-discipline would have fared since my last attendance five years before. Of course I also wanted to catch up with where things were now at, given not only the disputed increased salience and ambiguities of the religious factor in the world system, but also, not least, to observe what impact the substantial and unprecedented investment made through the Religion and Society Research Programme supported by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) with its £18 million budget might have made.

It has been apparent for at least the past fifteen years that what one might call the traditional sociology of religion exemplified most notably in a series of textbooks and monographs built around an array of recurrent basic concepts has faced a crisis. Of the latter thought patterns, the long drawn-out careers of the theory of secularisation and debates on the meaning of the term ‘religion’ are the most prominent. The slow but inevitable dying away of the pre-modern residua of religion in the inhospitable normality of rational scientific modernity charted in the theory of secularisation might remind readers with a poetic cast of mind of Matthew Arnold’s famous lines:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Those who have long memories may also recall the postmodern theologian Don Cupitt’s melancholic, grainy image in the Sea of Faith television series when he followed in the footsteps of Jesus and David Friedrich Strauss, and, somewhat lugubriously, announced his nocturnal presence in the Garden of Gethsemane. What this (post-) theologian also acknowledged in the poet was the threat of the unknown, a continuing presence of the irrational,

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Anyone involved in the study of religion, be they theologian, poet, critical scholar in the humanities, or indeed social scientist might well recognise that the retreating tide, with its ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ can now be seen as more like the retreat of the sea to the horizon that precedes the onset of a tsunami that carries much before it.

In face of this ‘resurgence of religion’ in the course of the last decade of the twentieth century Roland Robertson and Peter Beyer advanced the theory of globalisation and the ‘glocal’ matrix as the key components of a new ‘paradigm’ with which to challenge the persisting but apparently faltering theory of secularisation. The latter was regarded by them as incapable of explaining the increased salience of the religious factor and the apparent reflexivity of religious collectivities as they responded to global pressures. In his famous, controversial and influential work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1961), Thomas S. Kuhn argued that ‘normal’ science did not proceed thorough a smooth accumulation of objective evidence but could be subject to a crisis created by anomalies that would eventually bring about the collapse of a comprehensive theory and its displacement by a new ‘paradigm’. Was the same true of the theory of secularisation, and could globalisation theory effect such a displacement?

In my judgement there are problems associated with Robertson and Beyer’s advocacy of globalisation theory in that the ‘middle axioms’ that might make sense of the intermediate connections between the level of ‘grand theory’ (and theories do not come much grander than that of globalisation) and the contingent specificity of any given locale are not that obvious. Thus Beyer made use of the concept of ‘communication’ central to Niklaas Luhmann’s systems theory, and defines ‘religion’ in terms of it being communication, rather in the way that the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher made the feeling of ‘absolute dependence’ the category out of which to construct an entire experiential and theological architectonic. In short, however, Robertson and Beyer are in my judgement correct in attributing determinative significance to globalisation, but how this might be worked through in a satisfactory way is less than obvious.

The conference at Birmingham had a packed schedule and there was a rich diversity of short papers on a wide range of topics. There were three plenary and clearly definitional sessions respectively addressed by equally distinguished speakers. The first was the Scot, Professor Steven Bruce, the second the English (and European) sociologist Professor Grace Davie, and third the British/Australian Professor Bryan Turner. The question of national identity has itself become more salient as the nations of the United Kingdom move in the direction of individual self-determination, and the three speakers refracted this dimension and their awareness of their own individual social backgrounds in a number of ways.

Professor Bruce is a combative figure who throughout his career has trenchantly defended the secularisation tradition established by his mentor the late Bryan Wilson of the University of Oxford. At the BSA Conference Bruce once more re-asserted his position as a consistent scientific positivist, and pointedly excluded as basically irrelevant ‘normative theory’, ‘zeitgeist metaphors’, any extraneous ‘agenda-setting theory’ and feminist sociological insights, as opposed to the correct path of ‘sociological explanation’ to be applied to the study of religion. Professor Davie is a skilled practitioner of via media, and rather than confront Bruce she presented a positive (as opposed to a positivist) report as she highlighted the values of diversity in topics, theory and method apparent in the present-day sociology of religion in Britain. This emollient approach was indeed advisable as aspirant researchers availed themselves of the beneficence of the AHRC, a largesse that may well be unrepeatable; consequently we should think carefully before we bite the hand that feeds us. As a sociologist of renown, Professor Turner has had exceptionally wide international experience and he focused upon the topic of charisma, because unlike the positivist empiricist Bruce and the positively eclectic Davie, Turner would appear to have an enduring – even a personal – relationship with the core subject matter of religion, which on this occasion he identified with ‘charisma’. All three contributions were in their various ways controversial, but in the discussions that followed the interchanges were muted. Why, might one ask was this the case? How might we understand this relatively subdued atmosphere?

In the peace-promoting surroundings of Woodbrooke there was a strong sense that the sub-discipline of the sociological study of religion has reinforced its boundaries as a quasi-autonomous niche culture within the wider sociological field. Despite this, there are considerable questions that remained for the most part submerged. For example, whilst the ‘spiritual revolution’ was frequently mentioned but dismissed on the basis that the active spiritual subjects in Heelas and Woodhead’s Kendal Project only represented a tiny minority (according to Professor Bruce this was only 0.8% of the population), the tacit assumption that quantity should be equated with societal significance was never questioned. Such an assumption would make the terrorist an irrelevance. Globalisation and the global/local (‘glocal’) problematic was completely marginal. International political and cultural violence intensified by religious zealotry was likewise at the periphery of conference concerns whereas this is a matter of global importance. Clearly something was taking place that prevented anything really interesting from happening.

In conclusion, I invite you to imagine that we are beside a waterhole in the savannah amongst lions – and other animals standing at a respectful distance. The sombre tone of Sir David Attenborough’s voice can be heard as he comments quietly on the ethology of the animals we observe. A great grizzled lion who has banished many a rival continues to ensure the survival of his genes (and memes) by the elimination or cowing into silence of all opposition. The patriarch’s message is this: lions do not cultivate or eat vegetables; they do not eat fruit; they do not manufacture food; they hunt animals and eat meat alone: the true lion is a carnivore. A noble lioness, the matriarch that has born many cubs lies sunning herself at the other side of the waterhole. She knows that once roused the female is deadlier than the male, and so she keeps her counsel and lets her cubs down to the water’s edge to drink. All the other lions, young and old, know that the waterhole will soon dry up and so they likewise keep their growls to themselves. Another venerable master lion on the periphery stalks slowly forward and ventures to observe that lions should eat authentic wild meat and not factory-farmed animals. He then quietly walks off and away back to own far distant waterhole. The patriarch and the matriarch are meanwhile content. In ethological and social-psychological terms we can see that the patriarch and matriarch enjoy ‘sphere dominance’. Wisely, however, they know that they do not enjoy or aspire to ‘full spectrum dominance’, as this rightly belongs to a higher species that only very occasionally visits the oasis. Yet the future of the waterhole – and of the lions – depends upon the ideas and the behaviour of the higher species who understand the ecology that comprises both. The lions are meanwhile content to sun themselves until the hunt for the next meal. When, where, and in what form a Kuhnian ‘crisis’ might come that re-imagines some of the critical issues the BSA conference seemed unable to address is unclear, though simply continuing to lie in the sunshine and drink at the waterhole filled by AHRC largesse is not a long-term option.