It is surely no easy task to piece together a comprehensive overview of a discipline or even sub-discipline. Beckford and Demerath have nonetheless undertaken this formidable challenge, and have thankfully succeeded in providing an immensely helpful roadmap through the terrain of sociological studies on religion. Aiming to provide “a more inclusive and even-handed approach to the sociology of religion” in comparison to the sensationalist accounts of religion pervasive in various media, they have compiled contributions from 37 leading researchers in the field, in order to present the state-of-the-art in sociological thinking about religion. The book is laid out in eight sections. It would be impossible to provide an overview of each chapter in the space of this review; a brief synopsis of each section should suffice for our purposes.
The first section of the book lays out the historical context of the field as well as its fundamental theories and concepts, and features chapters by Randall Collins on the “classical tradition” in sociology; Kevin Christiano on modernities (“pre-”, “post-,” and “ultra-”); Frank Lechner on “rational choice” theories of religion; Jay Demerath on secularization and sacralization; and Peter Bayer on globalization and “glocalization.” Methodology is the focus of the second section of the Handbook. Here, James Spickard examines various qualitative approaches while David Voas defends the use and importance of various quantitative methodologies in the study of religion. John Hall then traces the evolution of the comparative-historical study of religion—what he prefers to call “sociohistorical inquiry”—to its contemporary forms. Part three of the Handbook is somewhat of a smorgasbord and covers diverse social forms and experiences of religion in the West. It includes chapters by Demerath and Farnsley on congregationalism; Freston on the politics of global Protestantism, particularly Pentecostalism; Robbins and Lucas on studies of New Religious Movements; Bainbridge on the significance of New Age religions and various forms of irreligion; and Cristi and Dawson on “civil religion” in America and other parts of the globe.
The fourth part examines different issues of power and control in religious organizations. Two chapters focus on internal elements (Paula Nesbitt’s chapter on careers of religious professionals and Patricia Wittberg’s chapter on religious orders and schismatic sects) while two others focus on external elements (Arthur Farnsley examines the various faith-based initiatives supported by the US government, while Douglas Cowen’s chapter brings to the fore the relevance and impact of the Internet for the sociology of religion).
Part five of the Handbook deals with Religion and Politics, and features chapters by Demerath on church-state relations in the global context, Beckford and Richardson on how religion is both the subject as well as object of regulation, Sharon Nepstad and Rhys Williams on how religion can drive movements for social / political / cultural change, and Laura Olson on the links between religious affiliations, political preferences and ideological commitments.
Part six of the book considers individual religious behavior in social context. Pierre Bréchon’s chapter here addresses conceptual and methodological challenges involved in studying individual religiosity on a cross-national level; Peter Kivisto examines the relationship between ethnicity and religion; John Bartkowski reviews studies on the religious socialization of American youth; and Michelle Dillon addresses the importance of generation, cohort and age for understanding religion at individual as well as societal levels. These latter two chapters might easily have been included in part seven of the book, which deals with religion, self-identity and the life-course. Here, Arthur Greil and Lynn Davidman examine the relationship between religion and various conceptualizations of identity; Linda Woodhead addresses the importance of gender differences; Philip Mellor addresses embodiment and emotion in religious experience; and Stephen Hunt looks at the impact of societal changes on the place of religion in the person’s life-course. The final section of the book is a series of case-studies from around the world: China (Fenggang Yang); Central and Eastern Europe (Irena Borowick); Israel (Stephen Sharot); Japan (Susumu Shimazono); and Mexico (Roberto Blancarte).
The range of topics thus covered is not only broad but also interesting and pertinent. Several chapters provide exhaustive reviews of their subject areas. Especially commendable are Randall Collins’ ambitious yet succinct overview of Comte, Marx, Toqueville, Nietzche, Freud, Durkheim and Weber; John Hall’s chapter on sociohistorical inquiry; Lechner’s chapter on the “religious economies” approach; Cristi and Dawson’s chapter on “civil religion”; Greil and Davidman’s chapter on religion and identity; and Bréchon’s chapter on cross-national studies of individual religiosity. All the chapters in the section on Methodology and the final section on Case Studies are excellent. Chapters such as Cowen’s on the Internet and Mellor’s on emotions and embodiment address important and unfortunately neglected avenues of research for scholars of religion. Several authors also present helpful typologies, although these are not always adequately illustrated. (See footnote)
It is difficult to strike a balance between being too specific or particular on one hand and too cursory and general on the other. Some chapters thus err on one side or other. Demerath and Farnsley’s chapter on congregations and Bartkowski’s chapter on the socialization of American youth, for example, are somewhat weak in balancing case-studies with a comprehensive review of a subject area. Similarly, while Nepstad and Williams’ chapter provides three case-studies which focus on three important contributions of religion to social movements of resistance, the Handbook could have also used a comprehensive review of studies on the relationship between religion and social movements. In addition, the absence of a chapter on Islam in this volume is most unfortunate.
Nonetheless, the Sage Handbook of the Sociology of Religion is a tremendous contribution. I recommend it highly, especially as a resource for instructors teaching a survey course on the topic (although the price of the current hardcover edition is lamentable), and to scholars interested in the latest reviews of various sociological approaches to religion. As a graduate student studying for a doctoral exam in the sociology of religion, this Handbook has been an invaluable resource.