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David Martin and the Sociology of Religion, edited by Hans Joas

19 October 2018

Duncan Dormor enjoys essays engaging with a veteran of sociology

LIKE many areas of life, the academic world is subject to the tyranny of the present and its preoccupations. Ideas, schools, and theories rise and fall, only partially determined by evidence and argument. True, searing independence and originality of mind are rare.

So, to David Martin, and this wonderful collection of nine essays, which critically engage with his lifelong intellectual achievements as a sociologist. These achievements have been wrought, often, with his face to the wind: most conspicuously in his assessment of secularisation, his articulation of a political sociology of religion, and his accompanying assessment that religion per se simply cannot be regarded as the cause of violence; but also, perhaps at more obvious personal cost, in his rejection of the “utopian delusions” of the 1960s and his account of the rise of Pentecostalism in Latin America.

The great strength of this volume lies in the depth of critical engagement. Martin is rightly (if not universally) acknowledged as the scholar most critically engaged with the teleological accounts of secularisation which were paraded as sound doctrine among sociologists for decades.

Key contributions from Matthias Koenig, Paulo Costa, and Anthony Carroll assess this highly significant contribution. Setting Martin’s writing alongside that of the philosopher Charles Taylor, Costa looks at how Martin has sought to deepen our appreciation of historical contingency, so that his account of secularisation is not simply a moral tale or indeed “over-organised history”. Similarly, Koenig explores how Martin’s contribution fits within what he describes as the “third round” of the secularisation debate. In particular, he explores how Martin’s epistemological premises shape the way in which he thinks about the progressive structural differentiation of modern society into separate spheres.

Andreas Hasenclever picks up another key strand of Martin’s work, taking issue with Martin’s analysis about the degree to which religion, as a source of social solidarity, is vulnerable to being co-opted by secular power dynamics and thereby drawn inevitably into war and conflict. Rather, drawing on a range of empirical studies, he argues that, where religious communities have nurtured certain key characteristics, they are capable of resisting the politicisation of religious symbols and traditions.

There are further excellent contributions from Grace Davie and Pal Repstad on religion in Britain and Scandinavia, and a wonderful piece from the Polish sociologist Michal Luczewski — further testimony in this international volume to Martin’s wide influence. Jose Casanova’s contribution and Martin’s vigorous dissent from aspects of his assessment provide a small window on to the fierce nature of the intellectual engagement behind Martin’s lifelong contribution to the subject (they disagree profoundly in their assessment of the part played by the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America).

The last word should go to the editor himself, Hans Joas, who makes the fascinating observation that when, you step back, Martin’s work can be seen as an attempt to resolve the tension in the work of the great German sociologist, Max Weber. Joas concludes that Martin is “more Weberian than Weber”. This is rightly an assessment that Martin delights in — and it contains an interesting truth.

The Revd Duncan Dormor is the General Secretary of the USPG.

David Martin and the Sociology of Religion
Hans Joas, editor
Routledge £115
Church Times Bookshop £115

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