METHODOLOGY IN THE SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION: THREE CONTEMPORARY SOCIOLOGISTS--PETER BERGER, ROBERT BELLAH AND THOMAS O'DEA

PATRICIA ANN YEAMAN, Fordham University

Abstract

The purpose of this dissertation is to describe, discuss and critique just what the enterprise of the sociology of religion is to Thomas O'Dea, Robert Bellah and Peter Berger. In modern times, sociologists can take very revealing stands; two positions are of interest here: the position of the sociologist on value-free sociology and the position of the sociologist on being a believer and a sociologist at the same time. Max Weber's "Science as a Vocation" serves as a starting point for discussing value-free sociology and the believer/sociologist position. But O'Dea, Berger and Bellah must go beyond the "religiously unmusical" Weber in confronting their own positions as believers in the modern world.^ The dissertation is divided into three major parts. The first part is primarily an explication of the methodology of these three sociologists. The second part represents the application of that methodology to a substantive topic in the sociology of religion, namely, religion in modernity. The third part is an attempt to see each of these three people not only as sociologists, but also as believers and to examine some of the tensions involved in the existential situation of each.^ O'Dea and Berger accept Weber's position that values enter into the selection of the research problem. Once the problem is chosen, however, the study should proceed according to methods which are as value-free as possible. O'Dea stresses that the researcher is both conditioned by and part of the historical situation. A researcher can gain a certain transcendence over the problem through theory, but this transcendence of theory is always relative to a perspective of time, culture and the individual. Consequently, sociology is the attempt to approach complete value-freedom along a continuum. Berger proposes that sociology is an act of perception, as pure as humanly-limited means allow. The human limitations are the sociologist's own values and beliefs which are to be held at a critical distance from what is studied. Both Berger and O'Dea affirm a strict role differentiation.^ Bellah does not deny the importance of the canons of scientific objectivity or value-neutrality, but he advocates a different approach. He espouses the integration of the mythic and rational modes of knowledge. For Bellah, the split between knowledge and commitment is not ultimately tenable.^ A value-free sociology generally includes the methodological demand that the sociologist can make no judgment about the truth claims of any religion. For Berger, religion must be examined as human projection because the gods are not empirically available. This does not mean that the projection reflects only the being who projects it. There may indeed be a transcendent God accurately depicted in the projection, but sociology cannot "prove" it either way. O'Dea begins his career by asserting that sociology must admit the existence of an extrinsic reality which evokes the religious response. He later retreats from this position into a more mainline one whereby sociology cannot answer the question as to whether or not some other reality exists "out there." Bellah develops symbolic realism as a non-reductionistic position, maintaining the integrity of both theology and sociology. But he assumes a priori that there exists a reality independent of ourselves.^ The tensions involved in the believer/sociologist stance emerge differently for each sociologist. In short, Bellah attempts to believe "beyond belief." O'Dea attempts to continue to believe while his plausibility structure of support dissolves. And Berger attempts to believe and to be at rest with the relativizing perspective of sociology.^ Finally, the major point shared by these sociologists is that all three protect methodologically the possibility of transcendence. ^

Subject Area

Sociology, Theory and Methods

Recommended Citation

YEAMAN, PATRICIA ANN, "METHODOLOGY IN THE SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION: THREE CONTEMPORARY SOCIOLOGISTS--PETER BERGER, ROBERT BELLAH AND THOMAS O'DEA" (1980). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8020087.
https://fordham.bepress.com/dissertations/AAI8020087

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