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Professor Christian Smith’s The Sacred Project of American Sociology was published in August 2014 from Oxford University Press. This book attributes the norms and imperatives of sociology to the notions of ‘sacred’ and ‘spiritual’. It challenges the presumed idea of sociology as a secular, naturalistic, rationalistic, and scientific enterprise. From the critical religion perspective, this book can be read as a self-reflection by a sociologist about the apparent secularity of the discipline. It is disappointing, however, that the book’s critical thrust against sociology did not directly penetrate the discipline’s religion-secular distinction.

Professor Smith stresses that the academic discipline of sociology is essentially a modernist ‘project’, which is “a complex, purposive endeavor requiring concerted effort sustained over time to mobilize, coordinate, and deploy resources of different kinds to achieve a desired but challenging goal” (p.3). The collective enterprise of sociology “is at heart committed to the visionary project of realizing the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire” (pp.7-8, Italic original). The same is repeated in the Conclusion (p.189)

According to Professor Smith, these shared commitments of the sociological project are the sacred in the Durkheimian sense. Sacred matters are “reverenced, venerated, and defended as sacrosanct” and sacred objects are “hallowed, revered, and honoured as beyond questioning or disrespect” (p.1). In the same way, the sacred project of sociology has “particular power to motivate and direct human action” (p.2). The sociological sacred thus “compels sociology to work to expose, protest, and end through social movements and state regulations and programs all human inequality, oppression, exploitation, suffering, injustice, poverty, discrimination, exclusion, hierarchy, and constraint of, by, and over other humans” (p.189).

The project of sociology is also ‘spiritual’ in the sense that sociological concerns “speak and respond to what is most worth living for, what purposes merit our devotion, what goods are to be most prized, what ends are worth dedicating ourselves to realize” (p.2). The sacred project of sociology mobilises “sociologists in the struggle on behalf of the project’, and this “is a dedication of the human spirit to what is believed to be most worthy of one’s devotion, true goods to be cherished, and purposes justifying a life’s investment and dedication” (p.191). At issue are “concerns and ideals drawn from the deepest wellspring of people’s hearts” (p.191).

The project of sociology ought to be called ‘sacred’ and ‘spiritual’ because “sociology’s project engages what is believed to be a noble moral cause of weighty human meaning, ultimate value, and world-historical consequence defining the ultimate horizons of vision, purpose, and devotion” (p.192). Importantly, the book begins by claiming that although sociology appears “on the surface” to be ‘secular’ (p.ix), at the deepest level it is actually a ‘sacred’ and ‘spiritual’ project. Professor Smith further emphasises that sociology’s sacred and spiritual project closely “parallels that of (especially Protestant) Christianity in its structure of beliefs, interests, and expectation” (p.18) and repeatedly highlights the essential sameness between sociology and Christianity (pp.18-20).

In spite of qualitative resemblance between sociology and Christian ‘religion’, however, the book identifies sociology as ‘secular’. We can find the phrases such as: “sociology’s project represents essentially a secularized version of the Christian gospel and world view” (p.18) and “sociology’s sacred project is a secular salvation story” (p.20). The idea of sociology as modern and ‘secular’ is also embedded when Professor Smith states: “Sociology is an archetypically modern endeavour, and its deepest roots are sunk … in the modern project of reconstituting society on a rational, universal, secular basis” (p.119, emphasis added).

As the historical background of the emergence of sociology, the book explains, the so-called ‘wars of religion’ during the sixteenth and seventeen centuries made European thinkers “convinced of the need to ground social orders not on shared religious commitments (as in European Christendom) but on a more secular basis that would provide greater social stability and material prosperity” (p.120, emphasis added). From the critical religion perspective, this kind of historical understanding is a major drawback of the book’s critical thrust. For example, William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence (which is actually referred to at this point of the book) stresses that the story of ‘wars of religion’ is rather “a creation myth for modernity”, or “a soteriology, a story of our salvation from mortal peril” (p.123). It has a crucial legitimating function for the idea of ‘secular’ state. In this light, we should argue that by telling the story of violent wars of ‘religion’, the project of modernity and sociology constructs its ‘secular’ self-identity to naturalise and authorise its domain as ‘rational’ and ‘scientific’ against ‘irrational’ and ‘unscientific’ ‘religion’.

It is from this stand point that it is right to say: “As a project, sociology belonged at the heart of a movement that self-consciously and intentionally displaced western Christianity’s integrative and directive role in society” (p.122). Then it should be continued like this: “It was a key partner in modernity’s world-historical efforts” to authorise and naturalise its social order as ‘secular’, ‘rational’, and ‘scientific’ by categorising functionally and structurally parallel Christian social order as ‘religious’, ‘irrational’, and ‘unscientific’ (rather than “to create a secular, rational, scientific social order” as originally stated) (p.122).

Then, if we modify other statements from the book (p.121), we can continue like this. Once the project of modernity gained serious momentum in the early nineteenth century, sociology was invented and it provided the conceptual tools by which to understand, explain, control, and reconstruct human societies. The religion-secular distinction is part of this new constellation. The categorisation of the project of modernity and sociology as ‘secular’, as opposed to the ostensibly ‘religious’ project of Christendom, authorised and naturalised the modernist and sociological understanding of the world.

This way of framing the issue more fundamentally challenges the ‘secular’ self-identity of sociology as opposed to ‘religion’, highlighting sociology’s resemblance to what is generally identified as ‘religion’. It is not to say that sociology is a religion, but to indicate the arbitrariness of the religion-secular distinction which ideologically classifies sociology as nonreligious secular.

As the book implies, there is no essential difference between sociology and religion. But what is not highlighted in the book is that the demarcation between ‘secular’ sociology and religion is an ideological construction. Classifying sociology as ‘secular’ naturalises and authorises its ‘sacred’ and ‘spiritual’ project above ‘religion’. Another important issue which has been noted but not discussed in the book is sociology’s intimate relationship with the historical development of the modern nation-state. The religion-secular distinction has been utilised by the state to establish its hegemony by naturalising and authorising its norms and imperatives, while domesticating and controlling others as ‘religion’. Sociology has successfully gained its ‘secular’ status for its service to the modern nation-state.

In order for sociologists to be fundamentally self-reflexive, I would argue, what they should question is the religion-secular distinction which sociology is part of. Sociology’s self-identity as ‘secular’ (as opposed to religion) is part of a fundamental constituent of modernity. When sociology implicitly or explicitly claims its non-religious secularity, from the critical religion point of view, it ultimately functions as, what Louis Althusser famously called, ‘ideological state apparatus’. What concerns me is that as long as sociological discourse is embedded in the religion-secular distinction and sociology locates itself on the ‘secular’ side of the binary, sociology essentially serves the very ideologies it tries to subvert.