The Sacred Project of American Sociology
Reviewed by P. C. Kemeny, Biblical and Religious Studies, Grove City College
Christian Smith, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, is a prolific scholar. His works span a wide range of topics, including liberation theology and the American peace movement in Central America, the secularization of American public life, the spirituality of youth, and critical realism.1 With an endowed chair at a major research university, more than fifteen million dollars in research grants to date, and an impressive list of university press publications, Smith is the ultimate insider among American sociologists. In The Sacred Project of American Sociology, however, he calls out most American sociologists for being religious bigots.
Smith describes sociology as a thoroughly secular and scientific academic discipline. Its founders were mostly atheists. Its guiding assumptions are secular and naturalistic. A good deal of its work, Smith asserts, focuses upon debunking the notion that the ordinary world of everyday life as it seems to most people is not what is going on. So, for instance, people’s naïve religious experiences and practices are better understood through sociological reinterpretations of their scientific meanings and causes, including status struggles, gender inequalities, class interests, and social control.
Contrary to its secular appearance, Smith argues, American sociology is, at its deepest level, a profoundly religious project animated by sacred impulses, driven by sacred commitments, and serving a sacred project. When Smith suggests that American sociology comprises a “sacred” project, he is defining the term exactly as the sociologist Emile Durkheim did to mean things that are set apart from the profane, so hallowed that they are beyond questioning, and so powerful that they motivate human action on its behalf. At its heart, Smith writes, American sociology is 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, by constructing their own favored identities, entering and existing relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures. (8-9, author’s emphasis)
According to Smith, this sacred project is not the goal of just one group of sociologists, but instead is the collective endeavor of an amalgam of a wide range of perspectives. As Smith puts it, “the modern liberal-Enlightenment-Marxist-social-reformist-pragmatist-therapeutic-sexually liberated-civil rights-feminist-GLBTQ-socialconstructionist-poststructuralist/postmodernist ‘tradition’” embraces this sacred project (11, author’s emphasis).
If sociology’s project was merely political, Smith contends, it would only concern a restructuring of power relations. If it was just ideological, it would just address a value- and interest-laden system of ideas. But the project is far more, according to Smith. In fact, it represents an essentially secularized version of the Christian gospel and worldview. According to Smith, parallels abound: both are teleological, seeing history as going somewhere of ultimate importance; both aspire toward a dramatic transformation of the world; both see the basic problem of the human condition as a kind of bondage to some type of “evil” from which humans need to be set free; both value the dignity of human life; both stress the importance of caring for others, especially those on the margins of society; both connect what humans are with how humans ought to live; and both try to share the “good news,” as they see it, with those who are lost spiritually. Smith estimates that somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of American sociologists embrace this sacred project. An estimated 20 to 30 percent are more outspoken “true believers,” while the rest are not quite radical revolutionaries but nonetheless share the vision and advance the project’s cause.
The Sacred Project of American Sociology is more of an essay than a sociological analysis based upon the kind of qualitative and quantitative evidence found in Smith’s scholarly works. Two chapters stand at the heart of Smith’s essay. The first concerns the evidence that American sociology is driven by this sacred project. Smith acknowledges that he does not offer conclusive evidence, at least by the standards of evidence employed by the top journals in the field to substantiate his thesis. Instead, he draws upon personal observations and experience to offer an array of semi-systematic pieces of evidence to render his thesis comprehensible and plausible. He examines several sources, including the official program themes of the American Sociological Association annual meetings, books reviewed in Contemporary Sociology, popular introductory sociology textbooks, and personal anecdotes. Smith finds evidence of the sacred project woven throughout the profession. In a survey of books reviewed in Contemporary Sociology, for example, Smith argues that collectively these monographs focus on threatening social problems (about which sociologists are the prophetic experts), injustices committed by economically and politically power elites (about which sociologists are the whistleblowers), and mobilizing social and political movements for socio-political and economic change (about which sociologists are the scientific experts and cheerleaders). Smith also recounts the controversy surrounding Mark Regnerus’s publication in a peer-reviewed journal of his findings which indicates that the adult children of parents who had one or more same-sex romantic relationships faired significantly worse as adults on several emotional and material measures than their adult peers who grew up in intact, biological families of heterosexual couples. Even though Regnerus did not raise any explicit specific policies conclusions, Smith contends that Regnerus and his scholarship were subjected to rather vicious and hypocritical criticisms because he was perceived as violating the cherished beliefs of sociology’s sacred project.
The second extensive chapter explores the consequences of sociology’s sacred project. According to Smith, the project severely impairs sociology’s ability to function as an academic discipline and to contribute to the academy and society at large. The first and most obvious problem is that sociology misrecognizes and consequently masks the fact that it even has a sacred project. Like religious proselytizers who come into people’s homes under false pretenses and then try to convert them to their faith, sociology misleads students and others about its actual intentions. Moreover, the sacred project perpetuates an incongruity between the strongly egalitarian impulses of sociology’s sacred project and the highly unequal, stratified, status-oriented nature of sociology itself. It also embodies standardized thinking that rivals the most sectarian religious groups. Furthermore, the sacred project shapes sociologists’ worldview in such a profound way that it cognitively, emotionally, and volitionally blinds scholarly visions and imaginations. It can also corrupt the integrity of the impartial double-blind peer-review process. Finally, the sacred project often alienates sociologists. Here he cites the experience of Peter Berger, James D. Hunter, and Jose Casanova, whose work in one way or another violated the orthodoxy of the sacred project and who more or less stopped participating in the profession despite their valuable contributions to the field. In the end, Smith concludes, sociology is accountable to no one except other sociologists, which basically means it is accountable to no one.
Smith’s work can be read as either a jeremiad or as a valediction. At points, he seems to harbor little hope that sociology as a field will seriously and critically consider the merits and appropriateness of their own discipline’s sacred project. In other places, he seems to suggest that sociology, warts and all, can still make a unique and important contribution to the academy and ultimately, the common good. If The Sacred Project of American Sociology is a jeremiad, then sociology now faces a choice: it can either continue to play dumb or come clean and own up to its sacred beliefs. To move forward, Smith suggests, sociologists need to do some serious, opened-minded soul searching about their proper purpose, identity, and practices before they lose what is genuinely good in what they have to offer. The Sacred Project of American Sociology has certainly set the terms for a rigorous self-examination and discussion about the discipline’s nature and purpose. Smith is far too savvy a scholar to think that his scathing critique will not precipitate a response. If he is subsequently treated like a heretic and professionally marginalized, Smith has certainly told the profession what he thinks of the discipline. If he is excommunicated as a heretic, he probably will not consider his banishment much of a loss, but the discipline will be impoverished by his departure.