18 July 2016

Religion: The Dependent Variable

I was reading an article recently by Philip Mellor and Chris Shilling entitled 'Body pedagogics and the religious habitus' in which the following statement is made:

"The global resurgence of religion in the contemporary era, however, has presented a challenge to what can be seen as the methodological ‘default’ position of many sociologists, namely, that religion is always the ‘dependent variable’, relative to secular phenomena deemed to be more important." (p. 27)

I want to assist with this challenge.

It seems to me that every social scientist must stand downstream from Marx for some period of time, if not to take the plunge then at least to test the water. Why is this? It is plain that the great majority of renowned sociological thinkers draw from that stream. When Mellor and Shilling speak of the 'methodological default', it seems to me what underlies this is a prior commitment of those 'many sociologists' to a leftist theoretical perspective.

A key principle of this school of thought is that material (a classical Marxist would say economic) factors are perceived to be the driving force behind the structuring of modern society. Much needed nuance to this view was first brought to the left by Gramsci in particular (more on him another time), while the right has tended to see the whole school of thought as unjustifiably lighting upon one factor amongst many.

This commitment to the ideological precedence of the material, allied to Marx's personal disdain for religion, which he famously described as the opiate of the masses, was shared by many of his contemporaries. He said that 'man makes religion, religion does not make man'. Given this foundation, it is unsurprising therefore that many of those drawn to the social sciences are either disinclined to conceptualise religion as a key structuring force for similar reasons, or simply socialised into a sociology that does so. (This is not a criticism per se, rather an observation.)

What this has meant, it appears, is that religion itself has been relegated down a category in the conceptual hierarchy of leftist thought. Marx might have said it was not part of the base but of the superstructure of society. Whether we use these Marxian terms or not, religion is, in the words of Mellor and Shilling, treated by many in the social sciences as the 'dependent variable'. My contention (and that of Mellor and Shilling) is that this is a conceptual misstep.

My reason for thinking this is that for those who adhere to any religion with a central moral code, these factors often constrain and supplant other interests and motivating factors. Indeed in many instances religion is expressly concerned with overcoming the material forces of life, and in providing a rational-theological basis for doing so. For example, the Christian scriptures make the following (selected) statements about money and wealth.
  • For the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10)
  • Ye cannot serve God and mammon (Matthew 6:24)
  • Labour not to be rich (Proverbs 23:4)
Christians then strive to bring their lives (attitudes, behaviours and emotions) into line with these biblical commands, which consequently functions to, at least in part, structure their own social world(s).


The extent to which an individual is successful in this venture is of course very much entwined with the complexities of identity and the agency they may either enjoy or lack. We make (admittedly constrained) choices about who we spend our time with, what ideas we will countenance or discuss, the places we will go and the institutions we support.

Practices and habits of individuals (indeed every scale of society) are frequently influenced by religion. It seems that to ignore the religious dimension in our explanations of the structuring forces of society is to miss a critical element.

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