Interview with Eileen Barker about Sociology and New Religious Movements

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Eileen BarkerAt the beginning of May, 2012 prof. emeritus Eileen Barker from London School of Economics and Political Science visited Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas to read lectures. Eileen Barker read lectures "Brainwashing, mind control, recruting or conversion? The questions of influence and/or free will upon joining "Cults"" and "Sociological research methods". Milda Ališauskienė interviewed Eileen Barker on May 6th in the airport, while waiting for bording the plane. Eileen Barker reflected on sociology, reductionism, relationship between State and Church, new religious movements and other themes.

Q: How can religion and society benefit from the Sociology of Religion?

A: There are a number of ways. Sociology of religion is a subset of Sociology discipline, and Sociology is about how individuals affect and are affected by the society, society being the traction between individuals. Sociology of religion is about trying to find, as objectively as possible, who believes what, and under what circumstances, and what the consequences are of those beliefs. So that is fairly wide, and we tend to define religion very widely, to include what other people call quasi-religions or pseudo-religions, and even non-religions, like atheism, which contains some very strong beliefs. Some people would include ideologies as well.

First of all, Sociology of religion can help people to get rid of misconceptions. People have a lot of stereotypical ideas about other people’s religions, sometimes - about their own as well. Systematic inquiry using techniques, that have been developed over the years, - the social science approach tends to give more reliable and accurate, objective information, and this can be useful for individuals just to find out and increase their knowledge and understanding, this can be useful for policy makers - obviously it is better to use this knowledge than sensational material that is produced by the media or material provided by people with a vested interest. Those people, who may make generalizations and may use minority religions as scapegoats, lump-pool minority religions that are very diverse. It can be useful for a whole lot of other professionals, doctors, counsellors, to understand what the people believe. For example, if someone believes, that “an evil eye” has been put on them, to understand the psychological effects of such beliefs. … To understand things like fertility rates - if a religion says that you cannot use contraception, or you are meant to be celibate, or to have a lot of sex - or whatever it is. Another example of usefullness of sociological perspective could be the diet issues. So there is a range of possible uses of sociological knowledge, and although the sociologist him or herself cannot say what you shoud do, morally speaking - what is correct or incorrect, she can only describe what people’s beliefs and practices are, and this information can be very useful.

Q: Sociology of Religion has sometimes been accused of reducing religion, could you comment on this idea?

A: First of all, is sociology of religion secular? Yes, in one sense it is. It is secular in a sense that it does not use God or evil as an independent variable, it does not say “God sauses this“ or “the devil causes that”, it only says “People believe that this is God’s action” or “People believe that these are evil forces”, because it is a natural science and it looks at what appears empirically and it cannot go beyond natural to supernatural, supernatural being beyond its limitations, and it would loose its reliability if it made claims beyond natural. It leaves claims it that area to theologians and other people, who are interested in God, - sociologists are interested in people and how they perceive God, the effect that belief has on their lives. So, Sociology of Religion is secular, but it is certainly not saying that “People should not believe” or “God is not an independent variable”, it has to be agnostic about this side of reality. Sociology is “methodologically agnostic”, which is not the same as “methodologically atheist”. We have to be as agnostic about atheism as we are about religion.

Now to answer your question about reductionism - Sociology is in a sense reductionist, since we are not using God as an independent variable, but most people would agree, that if there is a god - he, she or it, - it works through people and uses people. And that is where sociologists have to confine themselves. As the physicists do not look at the chemical, and the chemical does not look at the biological, and the biological does not look at the psychological, - it is all connected in some ways, and the scientists from all those different fields are not denying the other levels. Compared to the rest of the sciences sociology is not reductionist. In fact, you could say that the other scientists are reductionist, because, for example psychologists do not look at the sociological properties like the power structures, communication networks, they are just looking at individuals. Similarly, the psychologist could say that the byologist is reductionist, since he does not look at the learning theory and things like that. So each discipline has its own level, which from one perspective can appear reductionist, but from another perspective the “lower” levels are reductionist. What we are doing in sciences is this: we are looking at “emergent properties”. Chemistry is interested in the emergent properties of molecules. Hydrogen behaves in one way when it is alone and in another way - when it is combined into water with oxygen - H2O. You get one kind of properties in H2O, but if it is combined in another way H2O2 - hydrogen peroxide - it has other properties. Similarly, if you look at people, when they are combined in certain ways, - bureaucracy, democracy, - the social organization has properties that affect the individual in different ways. Hierarchical church religion will affect people differently than the New Age, which has a networking structure, a “spirituality type” of religion. You cannot look into that if you are looking just at the psychological side of religion. So being a sociologist of religion entails recognizing the expertize that you have, saying the things that you can say, and not denying the expertize that the other levels have, not denying the other levels. Theologian does not always understand the importance of the structural relationships or the culture that people develop as part of their religion, and how that affects their theology and their beliefs. So yes, sociology is reductionist in one sense, but not reductionist in another.

Q: Secularization has been one of the main approaches in the sociology of religion, so how do you see the relevance of this theory in understanding religion in society?

Secularization theory is a theory about a process that might be happening, and is seen in a lot of different ways, it has been on the scene for over a century, and it has been proposed by August Comte, who is the father of sociology. He proposed stages going from primitive religions to positivistic ideas, in fact, he thought about the church of positivism. Then you have Max Weber, who saw increased rationalization, bureaucratization, and he feared entrapment in the iron cage, from where only the charismatic leader could release us. And then we have many sociologists who said crudely that secularization meaning declining of religion took place with modernization, industrialization, urbanization, rationalization, globalization - lots of “izations” or processes that could be observed. They said that those processes will inevitably lead to declining of religion. Then people started to look more closely and said that decline of religion could be defined either at an individual or at the societal level, as it became obvious that many people still claimed to believe in God in societies, that, accordint to that theory, were to be secular societies. And you get that both in cases of economical-rational secularization and in cases of state-imposed secularization, although it works in different ways. So some people said it is privatization that you have in communist countries, leading to folk, or non-institutional religion, “diffused religion”, as it is sometimes called, because it is more difficult for the authorities to control this type of religion. But then you get people like Bryan Willson, who say that secularization is the lack of influence that religions have in entire sections and institutions in society. So, if in medieval times you would have religious institutions and religions very much involved in politics, welfare, education, economics, with secularization, as he describes it, religious institutions have their own particular sphere, and the other institutions become more independent - the family, education become independent of religion. These other spheres of society have developed their own, more rational values, so, instead of working for the glory of God, or for your soul, or salvation, their purpose is now to maximize profit, or whatever. They also have more democratic policies. So that is another kind of secularization. And then Willson would say that religion may exist in the private sphere as an alternative to rationalized, mechanistic, technological, so that people could escape into their own separate sphere.

But then particularly American sociologists started saying, “hey, we still got 40% going to church, nearly 50 % of our population thinks the world is created 10000 years ago, they deny evolution, and Genesis story is correct in their view, we got the growth of Creationism, fight against science in schools, etc., so, where is secularization, religion is everywhere, and even though we have got separation of church and state, religion enters the politics, and through the back door - the education system”, so, they sort of started saying to the Europeans, - “hey, you are the exception”. And we also saw the rise of fundamentalism in the middle east and thousands of new religious movements popping up right, left and centre, there is growth in Africa of Pentecostalism as well as the African Independent Churches, Latin America - again, protestantism there is competing with Catholicism, which is incorporating a lot of beliefs and ideologies and rituals from the slaves. So in this great thriving of religion Europe does seem to be an exceptional place.

But now even in America you have a lot of “none’s” (not nuns), who say “we are not truely religious” and some say “we are spiritual, not religious”, which often means that “we do not go with Abrahamic religions and what it means to be religious in those traditions”. So there is a whole lot of interesting processes going on, so I think words like “differentiation”, “diversification”, “pluralism” are words that describe well what is happening in society. So the concept of secularization has been useful, but more in cases when it has been challenged and proved to be wrong in its application.

Q: I would like to turn our talk to macro level now. I know you are interested in Church and State issues, Freedom of Religion. What could you say about the main issues in those spheres of interest?

A: I celebrate some of the changes that are taking place, but I am interested in trying to define and explain what is happening. Freedom of religion is of course, according to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights that almost all states have signed, says that every person has a right to choose his or her religion, practice religion, or choose not to have a religion. And in article 29 there are limitations, that in the democratic society you have to take into account the other people’s freedoms and morality. Of course, these statements can be defined in various ways, questions “whose morality?” and “whose rights?” can be asked, and lists of competing rights can be compiled. Is it the individual as opposed to the group? Is it my right against your right? Is it this right as opposed to that right? Freedom and equality can be set against each other, and so it is in the field of religion. So, it is not as clear-cut as you can see, and there arguably good reasons for states to control people’s rights.

At one extreme, where states are concerned, you get a complete denial of rights and complete eradication of religion. That does not happen very often, but it happened in Albania under Hoxha, and it happened for certain periods of time in China during the “cultural revolution”, it is happening probably in North Korea at the moment. But generally speaking some recognized religions are allowed to practice. It is sometimes a monopoly religion, like in Saudi Arabia - Islam, but most frequently there is an oligapoly, where you get several religions, and you have this in Lithuania, where there are sever religions given special recognition, and other religions have less rights or privileges. In other societies those religions, that are not official, can have their rights removed, like it happened in China, where you have five recognized religions, that are recognized in a particular way. In Chinese Catholic church it is the communist party that chooses bishops, not Rome. So, they are pretty controlling, but they allow practice. And in practice there are other religions that can operate in China untill they come to be seen as a threat when they organize themselves so they can be seen as alternatives to the Communist party in China. Then you get countries like Britain where you have an established church, and where it does not mean an awful lot. It has some influence, like on public occasions, and bishops are sitting in the House of Lords, and the Queen has the title of “Defender of the Faith”.

Q: What do you mean by “sitting in the house of Lords”? Are they elected?

A: No, they are not elected, they are the 24 or 25 bishops, and their voice can be heard. I am not sure exactly how it works. There are initiatives to reduce their number to 12, or else - make the whole House of Lords elected. The House of Lords are not an elected chamber currently, they are either hereditary lords, or lords, appointed by the current government. So it is not a democratic institution, the democratic one is the House of Commons, that has the real power.

So we do have an established church, but otherwise all the religions have equal rights, though recently there has been a lot of fear of terrorism, so monitoring of Islamic groups has been started which at times interferes with freedoms. America is another example of an extreme laissez-faire, at least in theory. So you have a wide spectrum.

You can also make a distinction between two types of policies of the states that more or less allow for freedom of religion. Some states do things to prevent harm coming from religions and protect their citizens, for example - China or France, which has set up an interministerial organization to fight the sects and control them, to prevent doing harm to citizens. On the other hand you have states like Britain or US, where people and religions are equal before the law and are presumed innocent untill they have done something bad. That is not absolute, we also try to prevent some things happen, but the law about behaviour of religions is not really about religions, it is about individuals and their behaviour. Again, one can make exceptions, but for the large picture, there is a difference between a position allowing religions but suspecting some religions of being possibly harmful and doing something to prevent them from causing harm and another position, where everyone is presumed innocent whether they are catholic, protestant, anglican, moonie or methodist, where they are equal before the law and only judged different by what they do. Again, there are exceptions, but generally speaking that is helpful to understand differences in state-church relations.

In US the First Amendment of the Constitution is said to prohibit teaching religions in schools, but actually there is quite a lot of religion in schools, compared to England, where the 1934 Education act said you have to teach religion in schools. And I remember - it was about 20 years ago - in one week two things happened. A woman, who was teaching at an american school in Texas or Tennesey got sack because she taught that the Genesis story could be mythical rather than literally true, and the same week in England a religious education teacher in a school got the sack because he taught that Genesis story is literally true and evolution theory was wrong. So that is a lovely example of how differently the formal stances towards religion can be implemented.

To be continued.