Sociology of Religion and Atheism

The sociology of religion concerns the role of religion in society: practices, historical background, developments and universal themes.[1]  This Preface will discuss the four significant figures in the history and development of sociology, religion and methodology. Its second section will try to untangle the threads of sociological research vis-à-vis irreligion.  There was a brief secular flourishing in the 1960’s and 1970’s with such sociologists as Peter Berger (The Sacred Canopy -1967) predicting the decline of religion.  When the predicted decline did not appear to materialize, researchers turned their attention to religion’s functionalist aspect.  There was a dearth of research concerning the secular individual and the irreligious organizations.  The situation is changing and there are now articles, books, and research organizations dedicated to studying secularism objectively.  The non religious viewpoint is becoming heard and understood.  The Book List will feature several of the new volumes and the positive position they hold concerning secular thinking and life styles.

Sociology of Religion and Atheism — Part One

A significant figure in the development of sociology was the 19th Century atheist, Auguste Comte, who was the founder of early positivism. His theories are important to atheist sociology because he undertook to analyze the progress of civilization. He maintained there were three stages of human civilization and this concept of his was one of the first theories of social evolutionism.[2]   The first stage of society mankind passed through on its way to “truth” was the Theosophical or Fictitious Stage.  This stage was marked by people trying to explain natural phenomena by turning to animism, then polytheism, and finally monotheism. In the theosophical stage, the priests formed and/or controlled the government and were important as intermediaries between the divine and the humans on earth.  The second stage was the Metaphysical, during which people tried to explain phenomena by referring to mysterious abstract forces, such as nature, or philosophical principles.  During the second stage, Comte maintained that people thought they were practicing scientific methods, but they were not.  The elite, intellectuals and aristocrats, governed during the Metaphysical stage.  The final stage is the Scientific, when a genuine scientific methodology is developed, based on observation and experiment. The scientists have control during the third stage.  People attempt to find universal laws to explain all phenomena.  Comte’s theories concerning government and religion were highly influential in their day.

It was Emile Durkheim who began the academic study of sociology.  Durkheim was a secular thinker who was attempting to find the universal factor or element of religion for all societies.  He studied indigenous Australian tribes and their totem culture because he thought that primitive tribes captured religious ideas and practices before religion became organized. Such societies could demonstrate the earliest formation of belief.   Durkheim concluded that the individual senses a social force greater than his own and gives that awareness a supernatural face.  He thought that religion was the glue that gave societies cohesion. (See Atheist Anthropology) His volume, Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), was very influential. 

Durkheim established sociology as an independent academic discipline with its own methodology. Here is his famous definition of Religion: “A Religion is a unified system of belief and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden- beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”[3] Durkheim’s definition emphasizes his conception of religion as a social function.  Some contemporary sociologists of religion maintain a biased theory of religion’s functionalism despite evidence to the contrary. 

Karl Marx was earlier than Durkheim and Weber, and he is better known for his socialist political theories.  He was a critic of religion, however, and his introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844) discussed many of his thoughts on religion and what he considered the oppression and exploitation of the worker.  He saw religious belief as a reflection of humanity on itself and not a god.  He maintained that the concept of god was an idealized version of humans’ intimations of their potential. (See Philosophy– Feuerbach), who was an influence on Marx.)  Marx saw religion as a hindrance to reason, and thought it masked the truth of man’s lot in society.  He believed that the correct way to propagate freedom was to present the truth to individuals and let them choose to accept or deny it.  He never suggested prohibiting religion.[4]  

Marx believed that capitalism made the worker an object and distanced him from the products he helped create.  He stated that such a double objectification created alienation.  Marx maintained that religion came in at this point, and functioned as an ideological apparatus of the State.  The worker was told that the wealthy would not get into the heaven of the next world.  Workers tolerated poverty and poor working conditions because they were laying up spiritual capital for the next and better world. Marx famously defined religion as “the opium of the people.”

Max Weber was a major sociologist who published four important volumes on religion, the most well known today being The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905.)His other sociological studies of religion were on China, Ancient Judaism, and India, in which he focused on the respective countries’ non development of capitalism.  He is typically cited, along with Marx and Durkheim, as one of the three principal architects of modern social science.[5] He was an atheist who became famous for his studies on politics, economics and religion. 

Weber’s work was an answer to Karl Marx, as Weber did not accept Marx’s theory of religion or economics.  He thought, instead, that men needed some way to reconcile their belief in an extraordinarily powerful god with their knowledge of the imperfection and evil of the world.  Their god not only created, but ruled over such a flawed universe.   In addition, people were troubled by their observation of the wicked prospering and the good suffering.  Religion, Weber maintained, not only provided answers, but motivation.  Salvation meant attaining relief from suffering and bestowed meaning on the world. People became motivated to attain salvation. Weber believed that Calvinism’s belief in predestination gave people purpose and aided the rise of capitalism.  His well known “Protestant Ethic” is discussed at more length in the Book List below.

Sociology of Religion and Atheism — Part 2

The sorry state of sociological and psychological inquiry into secularism has been an issue for atheists and some sociologists.  We do not have enough studies to give us an understanding of the positive views and life styles of individuals who do not believe in a god or supernatural events, nor do we have a complete picture of the kinds of irreligious people who do not participate in organizations which are associated with the supernatural and the divine.  The situation has begun to change.  There is more and more data being collected on atheists and atheist organizations and more research is being done in the neglected area of secularism.  The Preface- Part 2 will discuss the current interest and the data on the growth of secularism below, but first it is important to look briefly at the reasons for the sociological neglect of irreligion.

The most important reason for the dearth of research into atheist concerns seems to be the “dominance of a functionalist view of religion as a universal feature of societies.”[6] The broad scope of the functionalist view works to deny the legitimacy of unbelief and its commitment to a meaningful life.  The same inattention to secularism pertains to the psychological study of religion.  Frank L. Pasquale notes that some scholars have suggested that “framing the field in terms of belief or unbelief tends toward exclusion rather than recognition of desirable alternatives to a religious point of view.”[7] There are other reasons, such as the fact that institutionalized religion favors the existing power structure and often works in tandem with it; the views of those who dissent from religion are seen as illegitimate.  This theory is problematical with regard to the United States, however, as most atheists are not in fundamental disagreement with the government.  The United States Constitution gives the irreligious an opportunity to settle grievances in court, with varying success.  (See Atheism and the Law.)

In the mid 1960’s there were many theories of secularization, with scholars such as Peter Berger predicting a rise of the secular and a withering of traditional religion.  Berger’s Sacred Canopy (1967) is an excellent volume and was very influential at the time of publication.  There are scholars who believe Berger’s theory of secularism is still valid.  (See the Book List below for a complete review of Sacred Canopy.) Colin Campbell and N.J. Nemerath both made attempts at analyzing irreligion and looked at the organizational aspects of secular movements.  Campbell also tried to determine why there had been a lack of research into non religious movements; he concluded this was due to the functional view of religion.

Other reasons for the paucity of research have been suggested, such as the fact that many of the researchers hold theistic worldviews and so are uninterested in pursuing information about irreligion. Richard Sloan, a professor of Behaviorist Medicine at Columbia University, has written a book called Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance between Science and Medicine (2006).  In his book, Sloan discusses the skewed and sloppy methodology of many research projects favoring religion, such as “proving” the benefits of prayer and the health enhancing advantages of regular church attendance.  Professor Sloan maintains that in some studies maintaining the so-called benefits of religion, the researchers simply saw what they wanted to see.

James Leuba’s project of surveying scientists about their non-belief in god and immortality, although limited, yielded interesting results in 1914 and 1933, and has been replicated in the 1990’s.  He found that a majority of U.S. scientists did not believe in god or immortality and the numbers increased with the more elite scientists. But even though there were encouraging results in secular research, religion did not seem to be withering. The advocates of secularism were correct, but probably too optimistic about predictions of religion’s rapid decline in the United States.  When secularism did not immediately take hold as the dominant paradigm, researchers turned elsewhere.  Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, proponents of theories concerning religion’s resurgence and beneficial impact, came into prominence in the sociology of religion from the late 1970’s until the present day. More sociologists followed their lead.  Research into irreligion stalled.

The present situation is very encouraging.  Before the Preface details the dramatically changing picture of interest in secularism and the increase in research into irreligion, we will turn to the Continent and some of its most prominent contemporary thinkers in philosophy, sociology and political science.  Their views are of interest to the secular scholar.  Both Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu are deceased, but their influence on contemporary thought, as well as the importance of Jurgen Habermas’ philosophy, continues to be consequential. 

Jurgen Habermas concludes that post-metaphysical thought is prepared to learn from religion, but remains agnostic in the process. He sees religion severed from practical reason, social context and everyday experience.[8] 

Pierre Bourdieu’s aim is to detect the strategies used by the dominant classes to sustain their power and prestige.  Power and domination function in the sense that the dominant culture establishes the “true religion” versus heresy.  “True” religion always favors those in power.  This means those who are dominated tend to diminish themselves and their own religious perceptions.  Bourdieu calls this process symbolic violence.  He maintains that formation of meaning and identity can be constituted by power.[9] 

Michel Foucault’s critique of religion rests on five interrelated factors. First, religion and culture are seen as integrated in his work. Second, he believes religious discourse is framed and positioned in and through the human process of power/knowledge. Third, discourses on religious faith and practice center on the body, for example, by regulating sexuality through discourses on sin and salvation. Fourth, religion is a system of power as it orders life through a set of forced relations.  Fifth, religion attempts to (make individuals) govern the self. In modern society, people discipline themselves to be good citizens and diligent workers.[10] Many atheist Americans will disagree with Foucault that  practices they regard as positive, such as good citizenry and self discipline, are necessarily linked to religion.

Foucault believed his critique held true for all regimes of power/knowledge.  He thought that liberation might be effected if people left religion behind.  But at one point he maintained that religion might be useful in criticizing government control.  His position possibly contributed to his support of the Iranian Revolution of 1979.  He later distanced himself from endorsement of Iran’s theocratic regime.

Continental thinkers’ stances concerning religion are more nuanced and more critical than comparable thinking in the United States.  But since the 1990’s up to the present, a groundswell of interest in secularism can be seen and welcomed in America.  The preface will briefly touch on some of the many interesting developments taking place in sociological research with regard to irreligion.  It is important to keep in mind that one of the growing religious categories in the General Social Survey is NONE.

N.J. Demerath and Mark Chavez have broadened the definition of secularity to neo-secularity and include the decline of religious authority.  Steve Bruce, the author of God Is Dead (2002), is a vocal supporter of the continued rise of secularism and maintains that its putative decline is a myth.  He writes with verve and logic, and presents sociological facts that support his salient argument.  Bruce E. Hunsberger and Bob Altemeyer have co-authored a volume titled Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Non Believers (2006), a research survey of atheist clubs in San Francisco, Idaho and Alabama. As a comparison they surveyed a group of Canadian parents (of their students).  It is a limited study, but is considered methodologically sound. A recent study by Philip S. Brenner, “Identify Importance and the Over reporting of Religious Service Attendance,” confirmed that Americans consistently report more regular church attendance, claiming 35% to 45%, than the reality.  Brenner compared the alleged statistics with time diary data, and found that regular attendance was about 24% to 25%.  Such consistent over reporting is singular to Americans, Brenner found.  The survey was reported in the TS-SI News Service with the succinct headline, “Americans Stretch Truth about Church Attendance.”[11] 

Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart have written Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (2011), a volume that argues for the pronounced flourishing of secularism in the Western industrialized countries of the world as they attain economic and existential security.  However, religion grows stronger in economically challenged societies throughout the world.  Inglehart has written papers concerning Western world secularization that are a welcome addition to the survey of irreligion.

Phil Zuckerman is a persistent voice in the study of irreligion and his works are an invaluable source of objective data for atheists.  He has authored one book on atheism in Scandinavia which demonstrates that people in Denmark and Sweden live secular lives that are both moral and content.  Society Without God (2006) contradicts the illusion of many Americans that belief in god is necessary for a civil society. Zuckerman has edited a 2 Volume work, entitled Atheism and Secularity (2009) with essays by many distinguished sociologists.  Both of these works are reviewed more thoroughly in the Book List below. Professor Zuckerman has authored articles on the positive aspects of atheism and the belief that secularism is on the rise and will continue. In 2009, he wrote an informative article called “Atheism, Secularity and Well Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions.”[12] The text is an excellent look at atheists in general and a robust argument against the stereotyped, negative picture of atheists.  Zuckerman and Gregory Paul authored an article for The Edge in 2007, “Why the Gods Are Not Winning” that is a very strong argument for the rise of secularism, using data and sound methodology.[13] Gregory S. Paul authored a paper in 2005 called “Cross National Correlations of Quantifiable Social Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies.”  He maintains, with data to corroborate, that while the more secular, prosperous democracies in the West show increasing social health, the religious United States stands out for its shortcomings in that area.  The statistical picture builds up and demonstrates that the U.S. has higher homicide rates, higher juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, and teen pregnancy and abortion rates. Paul states that American exceptionalism appears to be that of societal dysfunction rather than the illusion of Americans that our country is the “shining city on the hill,” an example to the skeptical nations of the world.”[14] Religiosity and its undue influence on government and social thought is a large factor in holding our country back from reaching rational practices in many areas of ethics, particularly crime and sexuality.

There are developments for research projects on atheism and secularism that are very encouraging.  Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar have authored the book Religion in a Free Market: Religious and Non-Religious Americans, Who, What, Why and Where. (2006). They were the principal researchers of the American Religious Identification Survey, ARIS, published in 2008, which has been extensively quoted in the media.  Joseph Hammer, a psychology graduate student at the University of Missouri, has begun a Web Research Atheist Project called  In Cambridge, England, Lois Lee, a sociology graduate, has started a Non Religion and Secularity Research Network on the Web,

The Book List will discuss books by Peter Berger, Barry Kosmin, Phil Zuckerman, and other contemporary authors for a more extensive glance at secular sociological volumes.

In the case of the recent books and articles by authors such as Zuckerman and Bruce, it is a very good thing to have the study of Secularism on the rise once more, its theories and predictions confirmed with research from well-regarded sociologists.  Secularism is making strides in taking back the field of research from “religion as functionalism.” Such an occurrence is a matter of celebration in an area of studies begun by the great secular sociologists, Weber, Marx, Comte and Durkheim.

Video of Lecture: Atheist Sociologies with Atheist Demographics

Atheist Sociologies with Atheist Demographics

Video of Discussion: Atheist Sociologies with Atheist Demographics

Discussion of Atheist Sociologies with Atheist Demographics

Recommended Books

The following volumes on the book list have been chosen for their merit by critics and readers:

Berger, Peter. (1967) The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Anchor Books, 1990.

Berger’s book is a classic in the field, considered one of the most important books concerning the rise of secularism.  Berger has since rejected his theory, but with some qualifications.  Many sociologists, for reasons we have seen in the Preface, have denied the concept of secularism, but there are important thinkers who find it valid and robust.  One of the principal reasons given for the temporary waning of secular theory is that secularism never took place, although Berger and other scholars had predicted it. Instead there seemed to be a flourishing of religion.  Yet as can be seen from the Preface, there is a steady rise of secularism that continues despite the vociferous claims that religion is spreading over the globe.  That is not the case and there are statistics and research to prove it.  Berger has a lucid, accessible style and the book is written in the tradition of the humanities, with depth and penetration.

The first part of Sacred Canopy concerns the human construction of religion.  Berger believes that people exteriorize their inner thoughts and fears in the attempt to fill the world with meaning.  In the exteriorization process, people create a culture and a religion and then (re) interiorize them. He thinks that people have a “masochist attitude,” particularly in their relation to monotheism.  He maintains that religion serves as a “sacred canopy,” the title of his book.  Religion is a protective covering that gives meaning to the world, including suffering and death.  Religion is additionally used to maintain the status quo of the power structure, casting dissenters as evil or mad.

People interiorize societal dictates that Berger calls the nomos or laws.  We depend on these laws to tell us what to do and how to respond to the world by way of our parents and other elders.  Religion abets that process by painting a detailed picture of how the workings of nature, society and authority are rooted in the cosmos and are not only correct but unchanging.  Humans fear being plunged into chaos, so they accept the orderly pattern explained and justified by religion.   They no longer realize that their belief is a human creation; Berger calls this process reification. He believes that language is an important factor in the sequence. 

Berger believed that there would be an all-encompassing secularization of the world.  He cited the rise of science, the spread of the more interior Protestant religion, the loss of the churches’ monopoly of worship and truth, and their marketplace competition for members.  He maintained that religion had become more private and psychological and at the same time, more pluralized.  He stated that religion was being forced to compete with other institutions and thought systems (137), such as revolution or nationalism, for the authority to define reality.  What had been a firm fact in religion for people had now become a religious preference.  Berger stated that religion was suffering from a crisis of credibility. (151) Secularization, pluralization, and subjectivity would undermine religion and give rise to a secular world.  Berger’s theory was very influential in its day and we can see from the data that it is likely correct; the process of secularization has been much slower than Berger predicted, but it is sure and inexorable.  Secularization theory was abandoned too soon.

Bruce, Steve. God is Dead: Secularism in the West.  Oxford, U.K.; Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers 2002.

Steve Bruce is a strong proponent of secularism.  He maintains that secularism is an inexorable process and that it has been going on at least 150 years in England.  His first chapter on the “secularization paradigm” is difficult for beginners.  But the rest of the book is very accessible for all readers.  Bruce’s central theme is that there has been “a long-term decline in the power, popularity and prestige of religious beliefs and rituals.”  He believes the decline has been brought about by modernity: individualism, diversity and egalitarianism.  He dismisses the trend to New Age Spiritualism and does not believe it will lead to any sort of religious revival.  He cannot see how a shared faith can be made from “a low salience world of pick and mix religion.” He maintains that the prominent philosophy of the current day, prosperous West is based on the “authority of the individual, autonomous consumer.”

Bruce has statistics and methodology to back up his claims.  He focuses two chapters on academic disputes concerning the sociology of religion.  One of these chapters discusses the methodological difficulties with surveys that show high “unofficial belief.”  He maintains that the questions are frequently biased and the definitions of belief are twisted or watered down to support a weak theory.  Much of God is Dead discusses England but Bruce does have one chapter on the United States.  He thinks that the U.S. is behind the rest of the prosperous West by perhaps 50 years, but that secularity is happening here, also.  He does not believe the Western trend to secularization will lead to atheism, but rather to indifference.

Bruce is a sociologist, but his style is accessible, flowing and pungent.  The first chapter is a hard go for lay people, but the rest of the book is quite rewarding.  Readers new to sociology might want to skim that chapter and return to it when they have finished the book.  Recommended.

Chavez, Mark. Congregations in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.

In 1998, there was an important study, the first of its kind in America, called the 1998 National Congregations Survey.  Chavez was the principal investigator, and his findings from the results of 1,236 congregations in this country are eye-opening.  Overblown media coverage and the political battles in Washington D.C. have created a false picture of American churches giving significant aid and support to the disadvantaged. Chavez has discovered that most United States congregations focus on “the most fleeting contact,” if any at all, with needy people.  Since the majority of American congregations are small, with 60% of them having fewer than 100 members, there is no real “untapped resource” for social programs.  The actual activity the churches engage in is cultural, in an effort to get their spiritual message across to congregants. It does not hurt that these activities entertain, as well.  American churches use educational programs, theatrical performances and music for the edification of their members.  Music is especially important to the houses of worship.  Chavez states that churches are one of the few places left in this country where people sing together.

It seems that the idea of churches performing much-needed social services in the United States is one more myth.  Chavez has performed an important service by dispelling the miasma and letting us see the reality.

Clarke, Peter B., ed. The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

There are 57 contributions to this volume, edited by Peter B. Clarke and it is a very impressive book.  The topics are up-to-date and the authors use the latest research. The Handbook opens the door for a study of religion globally, which many sociology texts ignore or mention in passing.  Some of the topics covered are methodology, gender and religion, art and religion, religious diversity, religious violence and more.  The range and depth of topics makes The Handbook an excellent text for the general reader. 

The book is flawed however, and seriously so in the case of the essay on “Atheism.”  There are three articles on secularism, which is a decent number for such a wide ranging volume, but Clarke’s choice of scholar for the atheism essay is very disappointing.  “Atheism” was written by William Sims Bainbridge, one of the first sociologists to begin discussing religion’s functionalism and resurgence in the late 1970’s.  He is a strong proponent of religion and while affecting an objective tone, scatters negative statements about atheists from opinion polls throughout the entire article and claims that the atheist community “might” be too small and diverse to study adequately.  Bainbridge admits that secularism could be on the rise and might benefit from the new scientific research on the brain.  He also concedes a point to naturalists- that humans do not appear to have an immortal soul.  His article is not recommended except as an example of the sort of academic prejudice against secularism and atheism too prevalent in some quarters of the sociology of religion.

The Oxford Handbook offers a fine essay by Inger Furseth on religion in the works of Habermas, Bourdieu, and Foucault, three important Continental thinkers with a generally negative view of religion. (See Preface.) There is a very enlightening and objective essay on secularism by Karel Dobbelaere, a well thought of expert in the field.  Dobbelaere believes that secularism is on the rise, and quotes studies that confirm the concept that many scholars would like to deny.  His article is highly recommended.

Hunsberger, Bruce E. and Bob Altemeyer. Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Nonbelievers. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2006.

Admittedly, this short (143 pages) book is a small study of atheists, but is probably the first one in which atheists are not lumped together with agnostics and “nones” (no religious preference.)  Bob Altemeyer is a psychology professor at the University of Manitoba, Canada, and the late Bruce Hunsberger was a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Manitoba.  The two have managed to ease out a profile of atheists by letting them speak for themselves and comparing the results with the opinions of the fundamentalists and agnostics they spoke with.  There were 353 atheists who came from atheist clubs in San Francisco and 28 atheists belonging to atheist clubs in Alabama and Idaho.  The authors used the parents of their Canadian students as a comparison.  These writers are professors and sociologists, so look for lots of end notes that cover statistical significance, correlation, alpha factors and so on.  A good portion of Chapter 8 commendably criticizes the authors’ own methods, and they try to point the way for future studies.  They are so sharp on methodology that a reader who wants to attack theirs had better be prepared to wade through the book’s statistics and documentations carefully.

Atheists, they find, can be dogmatic, but usually are less authoritarian than fundamentalists.  They generally have less racial and ethnic prejudices than the other group.  Most unbelievers, 96%, have no doubt about atheism, but 33% of Christians express a small doubt about their god. Atheists who were former Christians are sometimes deserted by friends and family when they “come out,” while atheists who have been non believers for a long while usually report little difficulty.

Hunsberger and Altemeyer’s study is too small, but it’s a beginning.  The writers have an accessible, humorous style and the book is likely to be interesting to atheists and agnostics.

Kosmin, Barry Alexander and Ariela Keysar.  Religion in a Free Market: Religious and Non Religious Americans, Who What Why Where.  Ithaca, New York: Paramount Market Publishing, Inc. 2006.

Both authors were the lead investigators of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) in 1998.  This was an important study because the U.S. Census does not survey religious preference.  The text of Free Market is a reader friendly explanation of all the data in ARIS, which polled over 50,000 Americans.  The data collected contradicts claims made by the media, religious figures and some sociologists prior to the study.  The results have been reported, but it is worth repeating some of the numbers that will be of interest to atheists.  The share of American adults who say they have no religion rose from 8% in 1990 to 14% in 2001, which means that some 30 million people are unaffiliated with organized religions.  The share of Christian faith tradition people in the United States declined abruptly from 86.2 % in 1990 to 76.5 % in 2001.  The authors maintain that the freedom declared in the U.S. Constitution makes our country a “hotbed” of new religions.  Many Americans now change religions, start new religions, and leave religions with ease.  The authors do not have a negative view of religion but their book is an excellent place to begin interpreting the ARIS data.

Weber, Max (1904-1905) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Tras.Stephen Kalberg . New York: Oxford University Press, U.S.A., 2008. 

Max Weber’s brilliant analysis of the protestant religion’s effect on the rise of capitalism, although controversial, remains an important classic in sociology.  Weber did not undertake a criticism of Calvinist Protestantism but an analysis.  He maintained that the idea of predestination in the Protestant religion created anxiety in believers.  If a person was preordained to attain heaven or be punished in hell, how could he ascertain whether he was a “saved” individual?  The answer was to work hard, postpone or disavow pleasure, and pile up as much wealth as possible.  Dedication to work not only was an indicator of salvation, it also “made” or defined the individual.  Both Kant and Hegel, European philosophers, also believed that the object of work was to “become” rather than object acquisition.  Eventually Calvinism was undermined by its own doctrines, leaving capitalism as the dominant paradigm.  Weber attempts to refute Marx in this volume. The text is a brilliant analysis of both religion and economics and the Kalberg translation is considered an unusually good one of Weber.

Weber’s other volumes on ancient Judaism, India and China attempted to analyze why those societies did not develop capitalism.  They are cogent investigations of bureaucracies. Weber was ambivalent about capitalism.  He liked the spirit of democracy and science that capitalism encouraged but thought that it had contributed to the “disenchantment” of the world.  Weber’s thinking is nuanced and his style is very accessible. Although dated, his analyses are worth consideration.

Zuckerman, Phil.  Society Without God: What The Least Religious People Can Tell Us About Contentment. New York; London:  New York University Press, 2008.

Phil Zuckerman spent about a year in Denmark, and in a series of interviews with citizens from Denmark and Sweden ascertained that it is indeed possible for countries to be moral and civilized without belief in god or the supernatural.  The Scandinavian countries he visited were very secular and unbelieving, but enjoyed prosperity, democracy and a fine quality of life. Some critics have noted that this finding is a good argument against religion being coded into human genes.  Zuckerman thinks that religion is not a basic human need.

Interestingly, the people interviewed by Zuckerman did not have much anxiety concerning death, despite their indifference to religion.  Some of them stated that death was final; they had no belief in an afterlife. Yet a common explanation for religious belief is that it eases people’s fear of death. Zuckerman’s observation suggests that it might be possible to look at death and anxiety in a different way.  The fear of death might come from casting it as a judgment day with the potential of very severe punishment.  

Zuckerman has some ideas why Scandinavian societies are secular.  The state religions are supported by tax dollars; they are monopolies that do not have to compete. There are some sociologists who believe that religion in the United States remains strong because so many churches offer it to consumers. It is less a need than a superfluity. Sweden and Denmark are social democracies that reflect the values of their citizens, another factor believed to undermine religion’s hold. A secure condition of life with little need for psychological comfort is another possible explanation for Scandinavian indifference toward religion.  Highly educated citizens are the norm for Sweden and Denmark and both countries are also highly egalitarian. Education and social equality have been cited as factors favoring secularism.

Zuckerman has an unadorned, but clear and pleasant style that is very accessible.  Even without a background in sociology, a secular reader will find Society without God an interesting and eye-opening book.  Although a large portion of the volume is anecdotal, Zuckerman presents supporting data that makes the probability of societies being capable of progress, lawfulness and equality without god very high. Many atheists will have their convictions confirmed about how well societies can function without the props of god and immortality.

Zuckerman, Phil (Ed.) Atheism and Secularity. 2 Vols.Santa Barbara, CA.: Praeger Perspectives, 2010.

Atheism and Secularity is an excellent addition to any atheist’s personal collection. The first volume contains essays by Eller, Furseth, Demerath and other important scholars.  The issues, concepts and definitions of atheism are discussed, with up to date statistics.  There are articles on a definition of atheism, families and atheism, secularity and sexuality and so on.  Volume 2 discusses atheism on a global scale with articles on secularity and irreligion in Japan, India, Britain, China and more.  Up to date statistics and excellent writing are just two advantages of this work.  Both volumes contain graphs and charts and the essays are well referenced for further study.  Highly Recommended.                              

Zuckerman, Phil.  Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Phil Zuckerman’s latest book researches the growing phenomenon of people leaving religion in America.  The introduction lays out some fascinating statistics, such as the well-known one that 15% of Americans now claim “none” as their religion. Some lesser known figures are from the Harris Poll, which found that 10% of Americans were atheists in 2008, with another 9% agnostic.  The Nationally Syndicated Parade magazine reported that 27% of Americans “do not practice any religion,” and that “religion was not a factor” in their lives, according to Zuckerman.  The author points out that in 2009, President Obama mentioned nonbelievers as part of America in his inaugural speech, for the first time in a public forum.

Faith No More puts a human face on the statistics.  Professor Zuckerman believes that “a wind of secularity is sweeping through America,” and tries to unravel the complex reasons behind individual decisions to become apostates.  Apostates are people who have left religion behind them, some becoming atheists or agnostics, others retaining some form of belief while refusing affiliation with religious organizations or communities.  The author interviewed some 87 people in depth, revealing many different reasons for the drift out of religion.  Many apostates reported that religion stopped “making sense,” as well as difficulties with belief due to misfortune, sex, the malfeasance of others in the religious community, and so on. 

Professor Zuckerman’s book is, as are all his volumes, very well-written, with a clear, non-pedantic, and engaging style.  Many interesting facts arise emerge from this volume.  The author warns that if people feel disruptions due to global warming, poor economic conditions and fear of losing jobs, health care and educational opportunity, apostasy will remain uncommon. A secure social fabric helps the spread of secularity. 

Professor Zuckerman includes an appendix that discusses his research methodology.  Faith No More includes a fine index and excellent bibliography.  Recommended.

Further Reading: Barry Kosmin. One Nation Under God. (1993.); David Martin. A General Theory of Secularization. (1978); Dobbelaere, Karel. Secularization at Three Levels. (2002.); Furseth, Inger. An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion. (2006.); Tony Walter. The Eclipse of Eternity. (1996.).


1 Christiano, Kevin J., et al. Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments. Laham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008. 3.

2 Classical Sociological Theory 4/e. McGraw Hill. Web.  Chapter 3- Auguste Comte.

3 Idinopulos, Thomas A. and Brian C. Wilson, eds. What is Religion:  Origins, Definitions and Explanations. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 1998.  150-151.

4 Christiano, Kevin J. Sociology of Religion. 126.


6 Campbell, Colin.  Toward a Sociology of Irreligion. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

7 Pasquale,Frank L.. “Unbelief and Irreligion: Empirical Study and Neglect Of.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 763.

8 Furseth, Inger. “Belief in the Works of Habermas, Bourdieu and Foucault.” in Peter B. Clarke, ed. The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 94-115.

9 Furseth, 94-115.

10 Furseth, 94-115.

11 Brenner, Philip S. “Identify Importance and the Over reporting of Religious Service Attendance Using American Time Use Study and the General Social Survey.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 50: 103-115.

12 Zuckerman, Phil. “Atheism, Secularity and Well Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions.” pdf 2009.

13 Paul, Gregory S. and Phil Zuckerman. ”Why the Gods Are Not Winning.”  The Edge. 2007Web.­_culture/paul/07/Paul07_index.html

14 Paul, Gregory S. “Cross National Correlations of Quantifiable Social Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies.” Journal of Religion and Society. Vol. 7, 2005.


Bainbridge, William Sims. “Atheism.” in Peter B. Clarke, ed. The Oxford Handbook to the Sociology of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Berger, Peter. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Anchor Books, 1990.

Brenner, Philip S. “Identify Importance and the Over Reporting of Religious Service Attendance using American Time Study and The General Social Survey.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 50: 103-115.

Bruce, Steve. God Is Dead: Secularism in the West.” Oxford, U.K.; Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

Campbell, Colin.  Toward a Sociology of Irreligion. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

Chavez, Mark. Congregations in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Christiano, Kevin J., et al. Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments. Laham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008.

Clarke, Peter B., ed.The Oxford Handbook to the Sociology of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Demerath, Charles, et al. “On Spitting Against the Wall: Organizational Precariousness and American Irreligion.” American Journal of Sociology.  71 (1966).

Dobbelaere, Karel. “The Meaning and Scope of Secularism.”in Peter B. Clarke, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Sociology of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Furseth, Inger. “Belief in the Works of Habermas, Bourdieu and Foucault.” in Peter B. Clarke, ed. The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Hunsberger, Bruce E. and Bob Altemeyer. A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Non Believers.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2006.

Idinopulos, Thomas A. and Brian C. Wilson, eds. What is Religion:  Origins, Definitions and Explanations. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 1998.

Kosmin, Barry Alexander and Ariel Keysar. Religion in a Free Market: Religious and Non Religious Americans, Who, What, Why, Where. Ithaca, New York: Paramount Market Publishing, Inc., 2006.

Pasquale, Frank L. “Unbelief and Irreligion: Empirical Study and Neglect Of.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.

McGraw Hill. Classical Sociological Theory 4/e. McGraw Hill. Web.  Chapter 3- Auguste Comte.

Paul, Gregory S. “Cross National Correlations of Quantifiable Social Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies.” Journal of Religion and Society. Vol. 7, 2005.

Paul, Gregory S. and Phil Zuckerman. ”Why the Gods Are Not Winning.”  The Edge. 2007Web.­_culture/paul/07/Paul07_index.html

Weber, Max. (1904-1905) Stephen Kalberg, trans. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Oxford University Press, U.S.A., 2008.

Zuckerman, Phil. “Atheism, Secularity and Well Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions.” pdf 2009.

____________, ed. Atheism and Secularity. 2 Vol. Santa Barbara, CA.: Praeger Perspectives, 2010.

_____________. Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment.  New York; London: New York University Press, 2008.