Sociology and Christianity

Excerpt: This essay is concerned with the word “and” in our title, focusing on the relationship between sociology and Christianity. The central questions are: does sociology influence Christianity and does Christianity influence sociology? Sociology has of course had a relationship with Christianity since the formation of modern sociology in the late 19th century, in that it could be argued that sociology emerged from a form of Christianity. The nature of this relationship has never been clear or institutionalized, as different sociological practitioners at various historical points engaged in different relationships. What is clear to us is that – compared to most social scientific and humanities fields – the relationship between the area of academic study (sociology) and Christianity has been very, very contentious, with a number of fairly explicit attempts to define the proper relationship.

Authors: John H. Evans and Michael S. Evans

Notice: This is the authors’ version of this article, which has been published in final form as Chapter 30, pp. 344-355 in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, DOI: 10.1002 / 9781118241455.ch30. This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for self-archiving.


This essay is concerned with the word “and” in our title, focusing on the relationship between sociology and Christianity. The central questions are: does sociology influence Christianity and does Christianity influence sociology? Sociology has of course had a relationship with Christianity since the formation of modern sociology in the late 19th century, in that it could be argued that sociology emerged from a form of Christianity. The nature of this relationship has never been clear or institutionalized, as different sociological practitioners at various historical points engaged in different relationships. What is clear to us is that – compared to most social scientific and humanities fields – the relationship between the area of academic study (sociology) and Christianity has been very, very contentious, with a number of fairly explicit attempts to define the proper relationship.

Christianity is of course many things: rituals, practices, beliefs and institutions, just to name a few components. While we have no doubt that the rituals and institutions of Christianity have influenced sociology – and vice versa – we are unaware of any existing scholarship in these areas. We will focus, like the existing literature, on Christianity as a set of beliefs or ideas. When these ideas are formalized by elites we will call these ideas “theology.” We will call the formalization of sociological ideas “theories and methods.” So, the first question is whether Christian and sociological ideas have influenced each other. We are also interested in sociological and Christian activities, and examine whether Christian ideas influence sociological activities, and whether sociological ideas influence Christian activities.

The relationship between Christianity and sociology probably looks quite different depending upon the side from which one starts. Therefore, it is important to explicitly state that the authors of this chapter start from academic sociology and look at theology, having both been trained in the mainstream of the former and not the latter. We have no doubt that a different essay would be written by someone looking from the other side.

Relationships between Christianity and Sociology

Christianity shaped Western culture, and continues to do so. Sociology, as part of “science,” similarly has shaped and continues to shape our culture. It is clear that these two institutions must have an influence on each other, despite boundaries that have been constructed. The remainder of this essay will be organized by two generic relationships, represented in columns in Table 1. The discussions of both of these relationships will be subdivided by the direction of influence (the rows in Table 1).

Each cell in the table represents a family of claims by sociologists or theologians about what the relationship between sociology and Christianity should be, is, or has been. For example, when we describe the works in Cell 1, we are making generalizations about scholars who have advocated that Christian and sociological ideas maintain a strong boundary, but that Christian ideas do or should influence sociological work. While we sort these claims into these four categories, individual scholars often could fit into multiple categories believing, for example, that Christian ideas influence sociological work and that sociological ideas influence Christian activities.

We think that the four categories are useful generalizations for understanding how scholars have conceived of the relationship between Christianity and sociology specifically. We recognize that our categories may sometimes align with more general approaches, such as Barbour’s (2000) influential four-fold typology of relationships between science and religion. For example, what we describe as Christianity influencing sociology by blending ideas (Cell 3) might be considered an example of “integration” in Barbour’s terms. But to be clear, our focus here is on the specific relationships between sociology and Christianity rather than on the proposed general relationships between science and religion.

Table 1: Relationships Between Christianity and Sociology

Maintain Idea Boundary, But Influence Activities Blend Ideas
Christianity Influences Sociology 1 3
Sociology influences Christianity 2 4

Cell 1: Maintaining the Idea Boundary while Admitting the Influence of Christian Ideas on Sociological Work

The first European sociologists or proto-sociologists were deeply influenced by the enlightenment notion that we should not be looking to religious traditions for our knowledge. We should not forget that Auguste Comte, often depicted as at least the European father of sociology, thought he was going to replace religion with a new religion of science called sociology. If we turn to what is jokingly referred to by undergraduates as the “holy trinity” of original sociological theorists – Marx, Weber and Durkheim – we see that each was deeply interested in religion, and each presumed that religious belief was not true. Religion was the result of people not truly understanding the social forces around them.

This impulse took highly pragmatic form with the emergence of sociology in the U.S. In its earliest forms, “sociology” referred to social reform and its supporting apparatus, and could be applied equally to “settlement houses” such as Hull House, the Christian Social Gospel movement, or to large-scale data collection efforts such as William Bliss’s Encyclopedia of Social Reform. Even as sociology moved from the streets into the universities at the turn of the 20th century, it still had significant overlap with social work and with Christian projects for social improvement. Given its goals of eliminating social problems and improving social conditions, academic sociology had a sort of natural constituency in religious communities.

Yet as a fledgling academic discipline, American sociology faced specific institutional trials. Evans (2009) calls these trials a “dual challenge of credibility.” On one hand, sociology had substantial support from a religious audience and institutional base outside of the university. On the other hand, academic sociologists had to attract participation from university scientists to bolster their institutional legitimacy and establish themselves as credible scientists among the biologists, chemists, and physicists. Yet to do this meant abandoning in some respects the very religious constituency most supportive of the sociological project.

The solution was to turn religious supporters from contributors to consumers, so that sociological theories would be seen as autonomous from religious influence but would still benefit in some ways from religious support. This transformation of the “sociological public” happened in numerous ways. Authors changed the content of textbooks to move religion from a source of theory and purpose to an object of study in its own right (Smith 2003). Articles from proponents of Christian Sociology, a movement linking academic sociology to Social Gospel goals, were slowly phased out of the discipline’s primary journal, the American Journal of Sociology (Evans 2009). Influential academic sociologists populated their new departments with colleagues who were not seen as religiously influenced. And Christian Sociologists became increasingly marginalized within the primary professional association (Turner and Turner 1990). The result is that the basic structures of sociology as a discipline and as a profession depended, and perhaps continue to depend, on a distinctive and strong boundary between sociological and religious ideas.

The incredibly strong boundary against the influence of Christian ideas on sociology is indicated by sociological definitions of religion itself. The most commonly used definitions of religion include dividing the world into sacred and profane. The sacred, when studying Christianity, is typically something like belief in the supernatural. The profane world operates through rational processes, while the sacred world is beyond rationality, the argument goes. For example, in one popular textbook religion is defined “as a system of beliefs and practices by which a group of people interprets and responds to what they feel is sacred and, usually, supernatural as well” (Johnstone 1997, 13).

Religious belief is thus that which is beyond rationality. With mainstream sociology firmly committed to rational explanations, there is no way that something beyond rationality is supposed to influence sociological ideas. This view was reinforced by the secularization assumption that has historically been a dominant theme in sociology. The assumption, put simply, was that scientific truth will eventually win out over the irrational – read “religious” – side of human experience. According to one social science summary,

“the era of the Enlightenment generated a rational view of the world based on empirical standards of proof, scientific knowledge of natural phenomena, and technological mastery of the universe. Rationalism was thought to have rendered the central claims of the Church implausible in modern societies, blowing away the vestiges of superstitious dogma in Western Europe” (Norris and Inglehart 2004, 7).

To be clear, we are not advocating value-neutrality or claiming that sociology is essentially scientific. Rather, we are pointing out that sociologists generally work from this set of assumptions, and maintain a boundary between sociology and religious influence accordingly. With this boundary solidly in place, sociology remains utterly “scientific,” uninfluenced by any of the “irrational” religious ideas or methods of knowing from Christianity. However, it is acceptable within this paradigm for sociological activity to be influenced by Christianity via the religious beliefs of individual sociologists which influence topic selection. This is most famously called Weberian value neutrality in research. As two authors debating this issue recently put it: “we also think that having religious motivations in sociological research is epistemologically and scientifically unobjectionable. In the classic Weberian formulation, social scientists inevitably research intellectual problems generated by specific value commitments” (Smilde and May 2010, 9). For example, if a mainline Protestant sociologist has really been influenced by the beatitudes, he or she may decide that what is most important to understand scientifically is the process by which rich societies produce or tolerate poverty. Christian ideas would then influence the work of sociology, but not the sociological ideas embodied in methods and theories. This works because it keeps sociology itself – defined as its theories and methods – sacrosanct and distinct from religion. It keeps sociology as a science, which allows it to maintain its legitimacy in academia.

Therefore, in this proposed relationship, Christianity influences sociology because Christianity causes certain practitioners to focus on particular topics. For example, Gerardo Marti, while simultaneously studying a congregation as a sociologist and being one of its pastors, clearly embodies this distinction, writing:

“For this study, I operated primarily as a scholar working on behalf of other scholars to generate new knowledge about the processes of ethnic transcendence and congregational diversification. I hoped my analysis would be of use to others examining other multiethnic settings. I also hoped it would provide useful information for church leaders who desire to build integrated congregations effectively (Marti 2005, 204).

It is difficult to empirically assess how much sociological work is occurring using the ideal relationship represented in Cell 1. One challenge to counting is that people operating in this tradition rarely if ever say that their topic selection was influenced by their religion. This is probably for a number of reasons. First, they do not want it to be perceived that their sociological ideas are influenced by Christian ideas (e.g. Cell 3). Second, given that Christianity has shaped American culture, many of the topics one could be motivated to examine from the Christian tradition are already nearly universally considered problems, at least by people with Ph.D.s who work at American universities (e.g. racial injustice, violence against women). Third, in practice sociologists operating in this tradition do not care about the analyst’s motivations, since it is not supposed to influence their conclusions anyway. In fact, there is a sociological tradition that does encourage the analyst to list all of their personal values at the front of their book, and this is the tradition that rejects value neutrality, advocating for sociological work to occur in Cell 3. As we will see, Christians who have advocated for the relationships represented in Cell 3 do so by repeating the theoretical arguments against Weberian value neutrality (Cell 1).

Cell 2: Maintaining the Idea Boundary while Admitting the Sociological Influence on Christian Activity

This cell retains the high wall where the sociological and Christian ideas do not influence each other, but sociology influences Christian activities. Typically, sociology informs religious leaders about the practices or beliefs of religious people, using sociological methods, and the leaders use this information to change their practices.

Probably the most obvious and explicit example in Cell 2 is the field of “congregational studies,” which is essentially applied sociology. In this area of inquiry, scholars with sociological training go to a Christian congregation and conduct interviews, surveys and other analyses to try to teach the congregation about itself or its social environment (Ammerman, et al. 1998). The congregation is then encouraged to change its beliefs or practices based on the findings. More generally, this influence is widespread as Christian leaders read sociological texts to see what the believers “really” think about various issues. For example, there can be no doubt that denominational leaders are aware of the social science research regarding the political orientation of their members.

The leadership in different Christian traditions has different reactions to using sociology to study the beliefs and practices of their members. Catholic sociologists claim the Catholic Church has been resistant to it (Varacalli 1990, 256). On the other hand, in some Protestant denominations, there is essentially an office of sociological investigation of the views of the laity. For example, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a social science research office that conducts regular surveys of the clergy and laity on various issues.

Cell 3: The Influence of Christian Ideas on Sociological Ideas

In the relationship summarized in Cells 3 and 4, the ideas of sociology and Christianity do influence each other. It has been extremely transgressive for mainstream sociologists to claim that sociological theories and methods are influenced by Christianity (Cell 3). It has been less transgressive for theologians to admit an influence from sociology (Cell 4). Sociology is supposed to be scientific and not influenced by ideas ultimately based upon faith, but almost all Christian theology has assumed that “secular” thought may contribute to Christian thought. From the perspective of the sociological work in Cell 3, Christian ideas could influence sociological theories intentionally or unintentionally. As we will summarize below, unintentional influence occurs when the background ideas of the culture are Christian, and sociologists embedded in this culture produce implicitly Christian theories. There is also a long history of scholars trying to explicitly use Christian theology to influence sociological theory.

From its inception sociology has unintentionally incorporated a specific understanding of modernity grounded in Christian ideas. Despite subsequent institutional divergence and ongoing boundary work, Christianity and sociology share what Charles Taylor calls a “modern social imaginary,” the constitutive self-understandings that shape our use and deployment of social categories. In this sense, we have never been secular, whether or not Christianity is explicitly invoked.

In sociology this is perhaps most evident in the attempt to identify universal and abstract social laws that govern society. Christianity is built on the idea that salvation is universally accessible, but that there is only one true path to salvation. The meaning of Christ is universal and independent of any other meaning or action. Thus the entire premise of Christianity is that some meaning systems (specifically, the meaning of Christ) can be completely abstracted from their local context and applied universally. In sociology this Christian concept of a universal and abstract meaning system manifests as the positivist approach to finding social laws or rules that, though varying in time, place, and extent of expression, nevertheless lie at the heart of social reality. For much of mainstream sociology, the goal is to identify such laws or rules, for example by using statistical techniques to establish objective analyses that eliminate possible bias from subjective (meaning local and variable) perspectives. Sociology can thus be described as the systematic pursuit of abstract and universal meaning systems in society. This is a pursuit that only makes sense within a particular Western notion of modernity driven by Christian ideas, as it is neither common nor sensible for religion or social organization in non-Western societies (see Asad 1993).

Another key Christian idea in modernity is that what is true determines what is good. That is, once the various distractions of the social world are identified and set aside, the truth that remains will guide the proper selection and implementation of the good in society. For Christianity this is, variously, the truth of the Bible, the truth of Jesus’ teachings, the truth of magisterial declaration, the truth of discernment, or the truth of revelation. For sociology this is the truth of scientific method, the truth of value-neutrality, and the truth that emerges once the illusions (or delusions) of good are disproven through systematic study of causes and effects. Again, the divergence is based on institutional distinctions, not on commitment to underlying principles. Both Christianity and sociology intend to debunk illusory good, whether that is the immoral lure of sexual deviance or the immoral lure of neoliberal ideology, in favor of the true.

Were it the case that these abstract ideas did not generate meaningful differences in the execution of sociological research, we might dismiss them as so much theoretical hand-waving. However, it is increasingly clear that Christian ideas influence how sociology is done, particularly in how they define the categories with which social scientists work.

Given the paucity of sociological self-reflection on this point, it is helpful to look to the related field of anthropology for examples. Fenella Cannell offers the example of “interiority,” an individual’s inner consciousness, the part of consciousness that reflects on one’s own circumstances and place in the world. Such a concept largely goes unquestioned, though it may encompass many different kinds of experiences analytically. Yet Cannell points out that the concept of “interiority” itself depends on the separation of the world into hierarchies and strata, in particular between life and afterlife, human and divine. Thus the current application of the concept as individual self-reflection originates “in the need of the Christian to consider the fate of his or her own soul” (Cannell 2006, 15). Further, as Webb Keane (2002) notes, such a notion of interiority is intertwined with Protestant notions of sincerity. When someone speaks sincerely, it is because they speak from a place of interiority that is not skewed by outside influences.

An example in sociology proper is the concept of agency. It is hard to imagine sociological theory without a concept of agency. Yet as it is argued among sociologists, agency has primarily been seen as something that is exercised by individuals within and against larger (social) structures. While there are wide variations in how this is interpreted, and many arguments about the relationships that mark structure and agency, Keane helpfully notes that the Protestant origins of the idea of individual agency as separated from divine agency grounds much of what social scientists understand to be (or recognize as) agency. The conceptual apparatus that imagines a world built around motivated willful actors with freedom to make meaningful choices is a Protestant conceptual apparatus wherein such freedom of choice and action is necessary to answer fundamental questions about who should be saved and what they should do to be saved.

Many of the criticisms of Christianity are leveled at sociology by scholars working from postcolonial and subaltern studies perspectives. Talal Asad (1993) famously points out that the version of modernity that tries to render religion as a human universal is grounded in the Christian assumption about abstraction and universality, such that otherwise well-meaning secular social scientists are failing to recognize that their universal project is actually based on the imposition of parochial notions of modernity on other cultures and societies.

If one looks closely at American sociology since its founding, one also sees repeated calls for an intentional integration of Christian and sociological ideas. At their most general, these calls are for, in the words of one scholar, conducting “sociology as if religion is real” (Swatos 1987, viii). What is most striking about these calls is that they emerge in brief episodes and then die out quickly, that they never change how mainstream sociology operates, and do not even lead to an identifiable body of research using their own claims. Theoretical statements abound, but with a few exceptions (e.g. a few chapters in Swatos) empirical sociology research from, say, an evangelical perspective, cannot be found.

The American Catholic Sociological Society, founded in 1938, makes a good case study of how difficult it is to explicitly try to influence sociological ideas with Christian ideas. While there were many reasons for the founding of a separate academic society, one was clearly the anti-modernism of the Catholic hierarchy during this era, which led to a suspicion of mainstream sociology. In the early days there were clearly two main factions. The motivation of this first group was to “facilitate the Americanization or assimilation of this group” into the sociology that had rejected them (Kivisto 1989, 353). More important for us is the second faction, which wanted to “forge a distinctly Catholic sociology” that would “become an agency for developing a theological grounded sociological position, one that sought to utilize interpretive tools from the social sciences that harmonized with Catholic faith.” This was sometimes even called a “supernatural sociology” or a “sacred sociology” (355, 356). This second group was advocating a relationship that places it squarely in Cell 3.

While the exact meaning of sacred sociology has never entirely developed, it is usually stated in terms of a rejection of the logical positivist tradition in mainstream sociology and specifically a rejection of the idea that one’s religious ideas can be removed from one’s sociological analysis and theories (i.e. a rejection of Cell 1). Joseph Varacalli, who was one who did not abandon the idea of a Catholic sociology, offers some examples of sociological presuppositions that would flow from Catholic theology, such as: there is an objective moral order, a human nature tending toward sin, and that humans have spiritual and material needs (Varacalli 1990, 254-55).

Advocates of a Cell 1 perspective were present in the Society, even at the beginning, and this group grew with time. In a 1942 address, the President of the society argued for separating the roles of social philosopher, social scientist and social reformer. Sociologists should conduct sociology “in the interest of a theological inspired social reform” – note the parallel with value neutrality – and “he did not think that the Catholic sociologist qua sociologist inquired into the dynamics of the social world in a manner distinct from other sociologists” (Kivisto 1989, 357). A later Catholic sociologist is described as viewing “Catholic sociologists as producing knowledge that should inform Catholic social thought and programs aimed at implementing Catholic social values” (359).

By the 1950s, “calls for creating a Catholic sociology had virtually disappeared” (Kivisto 358). The weakening of the anti-modernist impulse of the hierarchy over time may have had a role, and Peter Kivisto explains this shift as the result of the increasing acceptance and assimilation of Catholics in Post WWII America. Joseph Varacalli agrees about the declining number of people advocating a Cell 3 relationship, writing that the decline was the result of “the desire of young Catholic sociologists trained in secular universities to gain society-wide recognition by conforming to the standards of the mainstream, outer and secular profession of sociology” (Varacalli 1990, 251). Indeed, the Society is now called the “Association for the Sociology of Religion,” and its journal has changed from the Catholic Sociological Review to Sociology of Religion. Varacalli also sees a collapse of Cell 2, in that the Catholic Church never accepted the help that sociology could offer for two reasons. One, it thought that truth could be derived solely through theology and philosophy, and that the hierarchy correctly perceived that value-free scientific sociology was the carrier of “Protestant and secular thought into the Catholic body” (Varacalli 251, 256).

Similar attempts by Protestants show similar results. In the UK, Protestant sociology had long roots. However, the British Protestant version of “Christian Sociology, as a self-conscious movement, declined after the war [WWII] because of the increasingly secular context, the complexity of the issues, and competition from empiricist, academic sociology” (Lyon 1983a, 233). Like Catholics, David Lyon concludes that both the US and UK versions of Christian sociology failed to make a link between Christian ideas about humanness and sociological theory, and died around WWII, laying dormant until the late 1970s (Lyon 1983a, 237).

After 1980 there was a glimmer again, but again nothing came to fruition, possibly because of the lack of an organizational mechanism (Lyon 1983a, 239). The decade produced at least a small shelf of books and a file folder of articles and chapters advocating some version of a Christian sociology. Almost all are in obscure venues, having little to no influence on the field. They are jeremiads, leaving no research tradition among mainstream sociology nor within a distinctly evangelical sociology (of which we are aware). Indeed, the authors of this article – trained in mainstream sociology – were unaware of almost all of them until beginning to write this article.

Interestingly, the Christian idea that sociological theory is seen to need a Christian account of a person (in contrast to a secular sociological account) remains constant across time and across the Catholic and Protestant versions. For example, David Lyon, in a book published by Inter-varsity Press, attributes the troubles within mainstream sociology to its views of humanness, and argues for a Christian view of humanness as a replacement (Lyon 1983b). Moreover, the way to convince mainstream sociology remains a critique of positivism and a critique of the possibility of value free sociology (Cells 1 and 2).

The Christian Sociological Society is still active. Our impression is that it primarily functions in immigration mode analogous to the Catholic Sociological Society in the 1940s, because while Catholics have gained acceptance within academia, evangelicals are still looked down upon. However, the explicit influence of evangelical ideas on mainstream sociological theory still seems as unlikely as the influence of Catholic ideas on mainstream sociology in the 1940s. While books are occasionally published that claim to be sociological studies from an evangelical perspective, the supporting research comes from evangelical research groups (e.g. Barna) that are outside of academic sociology, demonstrating the ongoing resilience of the institutional boundary. In sum, Christian ideas have influenced sociological theory and method, but the influence has largely been unintentional. Intentional projects have largely failed. When we turn to our final cell in our four-fold table, we can see that far more openness has existed for the other direction of this relationship.

Cell 4: The Influence of Sociological Ideas on Christian Ideas

Christian theology does not draw such high boundaries against influence from secular sources, and the influence of Christian theology on mainstream sociology has been almost nothing compared to the influence of mainstream sociology on theology. We can draw a distinction between theologians importing sociological ideas, and the more rare case of sociologists trying to influence Christian ideas.

Sociological influences on theology are many (Roberts 2005). A prominent example is narrative theology, which is a general term for an approach to theology characterized by an understanding of Christianity as a way of constructing stories about the world. For narrative theologians, there is no essential or enduring component to Christianity that is located in particular beliefs, doctrines, rituals, or practices. Such things are important, but they are not foundational. Rather, they are constituted in and through communities that share common purpose and understanding of the world and organize their use of language and material accordingly. This approach has many variations, but the underlying commonality is an understanding of the world as constituted by language (following Wittgenstein), and the power of ordering language through narrative (Comstock 1987).

In sociological terms, narrative theology is what happens when you start from the assumption that the world as we understand it is socially constructed. What matters for narrative theologians is not whether there is something “really real,” but whether the constructions that we create make sense within a Christian framework as realized by a particular community. Put another way, narrative theology represents a “cultural turn” in theology. Rather than seeing pluralism of practice or doctrine as aberration or heterodoxy, narrative theologians evaluate whether or not any given second-order structure is consistent with the story that Christianity tells (primarily through the Bible) and with the intentional community in which the second-order structure resides (or exists).

Two different examples of sociology’s influence on narrative theology can be found in the work of (respectively) Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank. Hauerwas’ written work focuses on the role of the church in society, and in particular how we should “speak not of the truth of Christians’ beliefs but of the truthfulness of their lives” in “demonstrating Christian virtues in our communities of faith” (Comstock 704). For Hauerwas, the dependence on unyielding foundations (such as magisterial doctrine) interferes with the possibilities for constructing a good Christian life through community, and should therefore be deprecated. In contrast, Milbank (2006) focuses on confronting the “ontology of violence” that marks social science understandings of society with an “ontology of peace” consistent with Christian narratives. For Milbank, such “radical orthodoxy” provides the only way to truly enact social change, as you cannot challenge an ontology when you share its premises and assumptions. On the one hand, Milbank would see sociology as a secular heresy. He sees Christian theology as corrupted by the interaction of sociology and theology, shows the myriad influences of the latter on the former, and calls for a radical divide between the two. In Roberts’ summary of Milbank, “secularity and secular discourse are heresy in relation to orthodox Christianity, and the archeological investigations will show that all ‘scientific’ social theories are in fact ‘theologies or anti-theologies’ in disguise” (Roberts 379). So, while decrying the existence of Cell 4, and calling for its end, Milbank nonetheless uses a “Nietzschean postmodernity” that is “offered to theologians for their positive appropriation” (Roberts 379). This strikes us as requiring the narrative theology that was itself influenced by social theory. Both Hauerwas and Milbank, as narrative theologians, accept social construction as critical to understanding social life. However, each in his own way turns this sociological insight toward theological ends, and in particular how such insight might inform a Christian life.

We can gesture to many other examples of the influence of sociological ideas on theology. For example, it is claimed that H. Richard Niebuhr was strongly influenced by sociologist George Herbert Mead, ultimately creating a “sociological theology” (Garrett 1987, 42). Liberation theology obviously draws heavily on Marx, and the theology of Hans Küng and Gregory Baum extensively use Marx, Hegel, Freud, Durkheim and Weber (McAllister 1987, 27). Richard H. Roberts writes that Bonhoeffer incorporated both Toennies’ Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft distinctions, as well as secularization theory in his work (Roberts 375-76).

Much more rare are card-carrying sociologists who try to argue that sociological ideas influence Christian theology. Most famous is undoubtedly Peter Berger, the most influential sociological proponent of the human construction of religion, who wrote in 1967 that only after the theologian:

“has really grasped what it means to say that religion is a human product or projection can he begin to search, within this array of projections, for what may turn out to be signals of transcendence… . An ‘empirical theology’ is, of course, methodologically impossible. But a theology that proceeds in a step-by-step correlation with what can be said about man empirically is well worth a serious try” (Berger 1967, 185).

Berger most explicitly engaged in this project in his 1979 The Heretical Imperative, which argued against what he called the “deductive” and “reductive” methods in theology, and in favor of an “inductive” method, simultaneously critiquing theologians such as Barth and Bultmann (Berger 1979).

This impulse does not end with the mainline Protestant Berger. For example, Richard Perkins, in a book published by an evangelical publishing house, writes that:

“Christians need to have their parochial view of the world – including Christianity – challenged by the skeptical orientation of modern sociology. We need to be able to critique in a reflexive way (and jettison if necessary) some of the reified cultural baggage accumulated over the centuries. In particular, the commitment of evangelicals to an unbiblical ideology of individualism indicates the degree to which Christian thinking has been influenced by our cultural context” (Perkins 1987, 176-77).

Sociologists trying to influence Christian ideas with sociological ideas remain rare.


Mainstream sociologists have been happy with the dominance of the arguments in Cells 1 and 2. While some work in cell 3 exists, it has had little lasting influence on mainstream sociology. Likewise, mainstream sociologists generally do not care about the existence of work in Cell 4. While Milbank would say that sociological influence on Christian theology has been a disaster, others may disagree, and we will leave it for others to make that evaluation. It is however clear that the two fields cannot be hermetically sealed and influence will occur. Perhaps what would be best is for this influence to be transparent, because then we can better see the advantages and pitfalls of such influence. We hope that this will ensure that any boundary is not simply a product of institutional boundary work, but also a site for useful and generative engagement of ideas.


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Swatos, William H. Jr. Religious Sociology: Interfaces and Boundaries. New York: NY: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Turner, Stephen, and Jonathan Turner. The Impossible Science: An Institutional Analysis of American Sociology. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1990.

Varacalli, Joseph A. “Catholic sociology in America: A comment on the fiftieth anniversary issue of Sociological Analysis.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 48. 1990: 249-262.

Further Reading

Asad, Talal. Geneologies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
This book collects several of Asad’s essays that detail how religion emerged as a specific historical category underpinning Western ideas about modernity and universality.
Comstock, Gary L. “Two types of narrative theology.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 55. 1987: 687-717.
In addition to identifying important differences between strains of narrative theology as it emerged, Comstock provides a useful overview of key concepts and arguments that continue to drive its development.
Perkins, Richard. Looking Both Ways: Exploring the Interface Between Christianity and Sociology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987.
A good example of an attempt to merge ideas from Christianity and Sociology from an evangelical perspective.
Taylor, Charles. Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.
Taylor contrasts explicit rules of moral order with the less explicit shared self-understandings and expectations that constitute a “social imaginary,” and suggests that the historical development of the economy, public sphere, and democratic self-rule as cultural forms have defined Western modernity’s distinctive social imaginary.

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2017