Why the world needs anthropology of religion

by Thijl Sunier

According to Dutch media, the Netherlands has reached a milestone these days. For the first time in history, the country has a majority of inhabitants who are ‘non-religious’. This is how journalists summarised the outcomes of a recently published report by the Dutch think-tank SCP (Report SCP). It is the third report in a series. The first two were published in 2018 about Christians and Muslims in the Netherlands. The third one focuses on people who are not any more affiliated with ‘traditional’ religious denominations. A smaller part of this category consists of people who are engaged in “alternative” spiritual activities and movements, but the biggest proportion of the sample is the “religious nones”, as they are coined in the report; people who consider themselves “atheist” or “agnostic”.

The research outcomes are predominantly based on quantitative data, supplemented by interviews with ‘ordinary’ people about their (religious) worldviews and affiliations. The set-up and format of the research correspond with the mainstream sociology of religion secularist paradigm and are based on a number of implicit assumptions. The first is that individual religious conviction generates and thus precedes religious practice, religious institutionalization, and community building. The size of a religious denomination depends on the number of people who consider themselves members of or affiliated with this denomination. In this way, religious denominations are depicted as neatly bounded quantifiable entities and ‘religion’ as a clearly delineated field of activities and institutions.

Secondly, the position and influence in society of religious denominations and religion in general depend on their size. Changes in the religious landscape occur when individuals become more or less religious or explore new ways of meaning-making. Consequently, the dwindling influence of religion in society in the past decades is due to the diminishing number of people who consider themselves religious. This is what the researchers call ‘secularisation’.

Thirdly, the most essential assumption of this paradigm is that secularisation is an inevitable and irreversible force of modernity. Religion is a vessel that gradually empties. The task of the researcher is to map this process, what variations and differences exist between various groups and people, and not unimportantly, which communities do not correspond to that ‘universal’ development and why.

The SCP monitors religious developments already for a long time and their methodology is no doubt consistent and adequate for the approach they adopted. In the many discussions I have had with researchers who ‘measure’ religion’ including those of the SCP, they always point to the high level of sophistication of their methods. In addition, SCP operates relatively independently and has built up an influential and authoritative position in Dutch society. This renders the credibility and persuasiveness of the results, and their reports almost always generate media attention.

However, their approach gives rise to some fundamental queries. Does the picture the SCP sketches constitute the essence of the changing Dutch religious landscape? Does it actually “represent” religion? Does such an essence actually exist? Do the research questions, the methodological tools, the taken-for-granted common-sensical terminology, and the results capture a societal reality out there? According to many politicians and journalists, it does, but I think it does not, or only to a very limited degree.

In his thought-provoking book After Method. Mess in social science research (2004), John Law argues that social scientists may disagree about which method is the most effective and appropriate, they virtually all agree that the world can be understood as a set of fairly specific, more, or less identifiable phenomena and processes. He makes three important observations. First, although there is considerable methodological variety, particular methodological practices are hegemonic because they claim universality. Secondly, many established methodological approaches are adequate for many fairly concrete processes, but what if the reality out there is ephemeral, indefinite, irregular, elusive, and messy? In that case, Law argues, the current dominant methodology is emphatically insufficient and inadequate. The world defies any attempt at overall orderly accounting. Thirdly, methodology is not a merely technical neutral tool. Applying certain methodologies is a performative act and foregrounds certain features, amplifies particular patterns of relations of an otherwise complex and messy reality, and discards others. Thus, methodological tools produce certain realities.

The Dutch religious landscape and the developments that take place over time are prime examples of an ephemeral, complex, and indefinite reality. The charts and mappings of religious developments presented in the SCP reports look convincing but they presuppose order, continuity, and clarity that simply do not exist. The hegemonic methodology of the SCP (and of many other social scientists working in the field of religion) produces a reality of what ‘religion’ entails. Narrowing down the developments of the multivarious, complex, and dynamic Dutch religious landscape to a seemingly transparent quantifiable account of a population spiritually on the move, primarily serves governmental interests of monitoring religious practices.

The SCP report is certainly not the final and conclusive answer to whatever happened to the Dutch religious landscape if it exists at all. But this is not merely a methodology battle or a quest for more of the same research. Behind this hegemonic approach to religious phenomena lies a more fundamental problem. The dominant image that religion is “on the way out”, the so-called secularisation paradigm, has put the study of religion in a precarious position. Less and less money is available for research that does not automatically follow the hegemonic quantitative approach, or that raises alternative questions. The study of religion is often depicted as a rear-guard action about irrelevant issues. This is not only short-sighted, but it also runs the risk of ignoring events, practices, developments, and trends that are not easily captured and observable, but that are crucial and imminent and no less relevant. There is a long and rich tradition of anthropological research on religion-like phenomena that does not start from a secularist stance. It is about time that this research field gets more attention.

Thijl Sunier is Professor emeritus Islam in Europe, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

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