In 2002, in these pages, Peter Berger, the late American sociologist, offered a succinct summary of the health and status of sociology. In Invitation to Sociology (1963), he had praised its promise. Two generations later, he offered a much more pessimistic picture. Now, a decade and a half after his devastating account of sociology’s self-betrayal, I must report that my discipline’s condition has worsened. Sociology is terminally ill.
Berger described two symptoms of disorder: an anti-humanist fetish for quantification, which began in the mid-twentieth century, and the spread of ideology masquerading as scholarship, a consequence of the cultural revolution of the late 1960s. Much of the quantification he bemoaned complemented the politicization. Today, survey data and complicated statistical methodologies are useful aspects of sociological research. But many sociologists use them to camouflage the ideological thrust of their work. Throw enough regression models at readers, especially if they lack the training or time to examine the details, and it is more likely that they will accept partisan pleading as objective science.
The social sciences have been closely linked to the left since at least the Progressive Era, but Berger was certainly correct that the tenor of the politics of sociology had changed fundamentally. In the two decades between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s, which Berger refers to as a “golden age,” the field teemed with imposing thinkers. Presidents of the American Sociological Association (ASA) during those years were impressive minds—and wholly nonpartisan in their work. Berger names several: Talcott Parsons, formidable author of the most systematic theory of social systems in twentieth-century sociology; Robert Merton, brilliant analyst who argued that Puritanism was an important cultural contributor to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century; and Paul Lazarsfeld, innovative and rigorous thinker who produced some of the earliest scientific studies of mass media effects.
Take a sample of ASA presidents from the past twenty years and you immediately recognize the decline. This later group is more “diverse,” to be sure, but their ideas are smaller. Merton explored identity as a crucial agent in the birth of the modern scientific worldview; Patricia Hill Collins, one of the inventors of intersectionality, reduces it to a game of hierarchy and victim status. Parsons produced a magisterial theoretical effort to plumb the depths of modernity; Frances Fox Piven dismisses system theoretical goals altogether, arguing for a disruptive strategy of overtaxing the welfare system to usher in universal, guaranteed income. Lazarsfeld’s research was a model of austere intellectual modesty; Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, the most recent ASA president, claims the election of the first African-American president proves that racism has become still more toxic and insidious than it was during the Jim Crow era.
Recent programs for ASA meetings show decline as well. A few sample presentations from the 2018 meeting, titled “Feeling Race: An Invitation to Explore Racialized Emotions,” will suffice: “American Fears: Islam’s Racialization and the Politics of Exclusion”; “Facing a New Nadir: The Emotionality of Social Justice Work in a Rebirth of White Nationalism”; “Feeling Climate Change: The U.S. Experience in Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Perspective”; “Legal Apartheid?: A Dialogue about Life under Mass Incarceration and Mass Deportation.” I assure you this dreary list could be extended.
In The Sacred Project of American Sociology, Christian Smith describes contemporary sociology as a secularized religion. It is “the visionary project of realizing the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents.” We can be still more specific: This new sociological religion venerates the victim of oppression.
This religion contains only half the content of traditional religion, though. One of the founders of sociology, Émile Durkheim, observed that a religion typically includes both a positive and a negative cult. The positive lays out active rites of engagement with the sacred through sacrificial ritual, communal repast, and commemoration of the mythical acts by which the sacred gives birth to society. The negative or prohibitory protects the sacred from defilement by the profane.
The new religion of sociology focuses on the negative cult. Here, we find the litany of taboos and interdictions, acts that cannot be performed, words that cannot be said, and thoughts that cannot be thought lest they damage the revered icons. Here, too, we see the ascetic practice of the members of the cult. They must constantly investigate and interrogate themselves—and others—in order to ensure their purity. And, of course, enemies of the cult must be vilified and persecuted as an expression of adoration of the sacred victims. This lopsided character of the sociological religion is what makes it so vindictive and combative. It is made up entirely of aggressive vigilance against pollution by the politically incorrect, which is cast as profane.
Viewed historically, this is an odd turn of events. The first generation of sociologists, the real “golden age” (I am fully confident that Berger would not dispute the point), recognized that modernity undermines religion and the sacred. Traditional bonds to families, communities, and churches are subjected to rationalist criticism and, eventually, demolition, without much consideration for the personal and societal crises that might be produced, and without any presentation of alternate forms of social and cultural order to put in the place of the destroyed forms of life. Totalizing individualism burns away supportive webs of mutual dependence. This erosion is modernity’s baseline force. It works against the collective symbols, norms, and rites that have been the glue of human society from time immemorial. The shared body of symbolic and ritual material was what Durkheim described as the object of religion: the sacred.
The first generation of sociologists spoke unapologetically about the importance of the traditional sacred. Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim are the three most important early sociological thinkers. Weber wrote with trepidation about a modern world in which religion retreats from human experience. Durkheim’s magnum opus, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, is perhaps the most profound work in the founding generation. Superficially a description of the religious lives of Australian Aboriginal tribes, the book is in fact a historical and theoretical account of the origin of the sacred. I have read it cover to cover a dozen times over the years, and it never fails to reveal new insights about the enduring role of the sacred in any functional society.
Sociology’s founding fathers were generally not religious believers, but neither were they cheerleaders for the death of the sacred and the rise of the unanchored individual. They expressed concern about the threat modernity poses. If religion became enervated, what would happen to the sacred? Would it vanish altogether? Or would it find a suitable habitat elsewhere? If “autonomous, self-directing, individual agents” became completely separated from the collective force of the sacred, what would become of them?
The founders were typically at the fringes of, or altogether outside of, traditional faiths. Yet their embrace of the intellectual calling to study social phenomena took on the aspect of a sacred project of its own. This is evident in Durkheim’s assembly of a scholarly team in turn-of-the-century France. For them, the hard questions of modernity had to be investigated by people who had bracketed their political and cultural prejudices. They sought to deal unflinchingly with the truth that rituals of the sacred produce a community of shared belief characterized by profoundly collective rites and symbols, whether or not it was called “religion.” They found, in their very separate ways, that the sacred does not die. Mankind’s need of it is too basic.
Since that golden age, we have lost this hard-won knowledge. Today’s sociologists are like naive religious believers, not sophisticated, self-aware thinkers like Durkheim. They practice their own quasi-religion, sociology as an “engaged” discipline, while they typically ignore—or express contempt for—religion and the sacred in traditional forms. To be sure, there is still a moderately populated ASA section in Sociology of Religion. But pick up a journal article or book on religion by a contemporary sociologist and you can be reasonably sure that race, class, gender, sexuality, and diversity in one form or another will somehow be the central theme. The cult of ritual purification from the defilement of “oppression” reigns supreme. Meanwhile, the nature of the sacred, the experiences of the religious in terms not reducible to the categories of intersectionality, and the question of what can be expected in a society without the sacred—these topics make rare appearances in that literature.
In little more than a century, sociology has devolved from a world of scholars cognizant of the fundamental role religion plays in human social order to a world of anti-religious scholars practicing an ersatz religion of activism. They misconstrue the nature of society because they can’t gauge the power of the sacred at work in their own discipline. In his sublime “Science as a Vocation,” which once served as a kind of holy writ of sociology’s calling, Weber scorns the “academic prophe[ts]” who have turned their politics into a substitute for the religion they lost, and foisted their ideological foolishness on students under the guise of scholarship. The spirit of the academic prophets Weber loathed is now ascendant. Sociology will not survive their reign, for it is a discipline born to observe, analyze, and reflect upon religion’s power and influence—not to serve as its unwitting surrogate.
Alexander Riley is the author of Angel Patriots: The Crash of United Flight 93 and the Myth of America.