Sociology of Religion

A Critical Primer

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Walter A. Jensen
  • Walter Adrian Jensen
    , August
     116 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his introduction to Sociology of Religion: A Critical Primer, Walter A. Jensen states his twofold purpose: “first, … to make available to student and layman [sic] alike a substantial amount of useful information about the non-theological study of religion in a short amount of reading time; and second, … to increase the interest in the study of religion.” The latter purpose is not possible for me to scientifically evaluate, but Jensen does summarize considerable information in 100 pages. The claim on the back cover—that this “overview of the sociology of religion” is both “broad” and “thorough”—would be an overstatement for any book of this size, as it would be impossible to capture the depth of the field in such limited space. However, Jensen’s attempt isn’t really an overview of the sociology of religion as a field, but rather three topics within it.

The first two topics are of general interest and longstanding debate within the field of sociology of religion. Chapter 1 focuses on defining what is meant by religion, while chapter 2 deals with secularization. Jensen seeks not only to explain what is meant by each of these issues, but also to show how the two questions are intertwined.

The first chapter—“What is Religion?”—presents an overview of seven approaches to the sociology of religion: Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, Peter L. Berger, Thomas Luckmann, Rodney Stark, and Grace Davie. Jensen doesn’t explain why he has selected these approaches in particular, though most sociologists of religion would agree that these should be covered in any short list of important figures. Jensen has a knack for summarizing the most salient points of each author’s work, and enumerating these in systematic fashion. Given his space limitations, he has summarized each approach well—with one glaring mistake when he states, that “for Berger, God does not exist,” but is created by the institution of religion to defend humans from a “meaningless life” (21). In fact, while Peter Berger indeed believes that religion serves the purpose of defending against anomy, he is adamant in numerous writings that science can have nothing to say about the existence/nonexistence of God since given that science can only study empirical objects: for example the Appendix II of The Sacred Canopy (Doubleday, 1967) and “Some Second Thoughts on Substantive versus Functional Definitions of Religion” (Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion,1974).

I intentionally used the word “approach” above. While the chapter title and opening paragraph lead one to expect that this chapter might focus primarily on definitions of religion, only in a couple of cases is the theorist’s definition stated. Jensen is focused on the broader issues—beyond what religion is—of what religion does, what causes religion to exist, and how each theorist handles the topic of religion. This is both impressive—for his ability to summarize so well—and disappointing—as he doesn’t really get around to some key points of debate that should be discussed here. For example, an important element of the definitional debate is that of substantive versus functional definitions. This is scarcely mentioned in chapter 1—where perhaps as close as he comes is to referring to Stark’s definition as “non-substantive”—yet he begins chapter 2 with a concern over substantive versus functional definitions even though he really hasn’t yet explained what these are. For all of his excellent summarizing, it seems he has failed to make—or explain—his case.

The second chapter—“Secularization vs. desecularization: The evidence”—examines another important debate within sociology of religion—whether religion is declining in importance. In this chapter, Jensen lays out both sides of the argument—at least insofar as relates to the societal and institutional level. He argues for both a substantive definition of religion and for secularization. Those who disagree with these stances won’t be satisfied with his lack of attention to issues such as the private importance of religion or with his near-equation of desecularization with Rational Choice Theory. However, he builds a case and tries to anticipate and answer objections to it—something I wish he had done in chapter 3. Additionally, I’d like to see more development of thought between the three chapters to show that he is building a case, as well as more transparency in saying upfront that this is what he is doing—as opposed to just trying to provide material and generate interest.

The third chapter—“The critical theory of religion: The house that Siebert built”—focuses on one theoretical approach to the sociological study of religion—that of the Frankfort School. Unlike the previous chapters which covered topics of general interest to sociologists of religion, this focuses on one approach among many. Jensen builds the “house” of critical theory based upon four cornerstones, four walls, and a roof. The cornerstones are Marx’s critique of religion, Freudian psychology, Hegelian dialectic, and anti-fascism. The four walls are theodicy, Max Horkheimer’s definition of religion, Horkheimer’s assessment of religion in the modern world, and an answer to why people are religious. And the roof is to work toward a more just society on earth rather than await it in heaven.

This third chapter could be developed into a separate book and revised to make it of greater interest to a general audience. First, it shouldn’t assume too much about the reader’s background knowledge of philosophy, Freudian psychology, etc. Second, since it is one approach among many, it should offer information on other approaches and try to anticipate and answer potential objections raised by theorists using other approaches. I offer a couple of potential objections to address: 1) it has long been recognized that Freud conflated illusion with delusion. Many theorists, including D. W. Winnicott, Paul Pruyser, Alfred Schutz, and Berger, allow for valid human experience beyond what is empirically verifiable or belonging to the everyday realm; 2) it has also long been recognized that religion is not merely the opiate of the people and sigh of the oppressed which prevents people from creating a better world. Reinhold Niebuhr, in his introduction to Marx and Engels: On Religion (Schocken Books, 1964), pointed out that even Engels’s work on the Peasant Wars contradicted that thesis. Likewise, many Christians have seen potential for radical activism from parts of the Bible—including Jesus’s first public statement wherein he says that he was sent “to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18; in Greek, those who have been made poor by exploitation).

About the Reviewer(s): 

V. Jacquette Rhoades is instructor of sociology at Rhodes State College.

Date of Review: 
July 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Walter A. Jensen specializes in sociological theory, the sociology of religion, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, and, in particular, the works of Erich Fromm (1900-1980).


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