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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

David Martin and the Sociology of Religion: A Review

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

Review of Hans Joas, ed., David Martin and the Sociology of Religion (London and New York: Routledge, 2018). ISBN: 978-0815393306.

[This review was commissioned by the American Academy of Religion's Religious Studies Review, but has yet to see the light of day. Before it gets any staler, therefore...]

One of the most capacious, insightful, and eloquent minds in the sociology of religion departed this life in 2019. David Martin, who earned his PhD at the London School of Economics and retired Professor Emeritus from the LSE decades later, was rivalled only by Bryan Wilson at Oxford among the last generation’s British giants in their field. Martin awaits a proper book-length treatment of his wide-ranging scholarship, punditry, and preaching. But the eminent German scholar Hans Joas here marshals a fine group of essays to probe Martin’s contribution to the sociology of religion, and Martin himself provides a characteristically gracious, illuminating, and bracingly unapologetic response.

The contributors and contributions are varied indeed. Grace Davie, Professor Emerita at the University of Exeter, writes as an appreciative, if also very distinguished, acolyte, while the equally eminent José Casanova of Georgetown University presses Martin hard on his interpretation of Latin American Christianity and culture—particularly over whether Martin gives proper recognition to the self-abnegation of Roman Catholic hierarchs that gave social space to the emerging Pentecostals. (Casanova thinks Martin slights them; Martin replies that he doesn’t.)

Other contributors come from the University of London, the Bruno Kessler Foundation in Italy, the Eberhard Karls University and Göttingen University in Germany, the University of Warsaw in Poland, and the University of Agder in Norway, thus giving a sense of how widely in Europe Martin’s work has been valued. They lift up aspects of Martin’s vast corpus—an impressive, if not quite complete, bibliography to which is another offering of this volume—from fundamental questions about Martin’s famous general theory of secularization to arcane, but still relevant, issues of the sociology of music. (Martin was an almost-concert-class pianist and often mused on the sociology of music and architecture as indicative of larger questions of religion and politics.)

Hans Joas himself, of the University of Chicago and the Humboldt University in Berlin, begins the book describing Martin—to Martin’s express delight—as “more Weberian than Weber.” By this phrase, Joas makes clear, he does not mean to tease, much less demean, Martin’s work—per the jocular “more Catholic than the Pope.” Instead, Joas sees Martin as taking up Weber’s “historico-comparative” research program—Martin is so steeped in history that Steve Bruce calls him simply “the history man”—and leading it to systematic conclusions in Martin’s famous scheme of various historically inflected paths to modernity…and thus various forms of secularization that are dependent on the qualities of a given society given by its history.

This strong sense of historical contingency marks Martin’s sociology over against those who seek and then promulgate hard-edged rules of social development, a kind of physics of humans as mere bodies-in-motion. Martin is sensitive to social differences at every level, able to parse the nexus of politics and religion and art not only at the national level, but at the regional and municipal—and sometimes even the neighborhood—level as well. Martin’s extraordinary erudition and acute power of analysis prepared him to offer startling and yet immediately persuasive insights about their own situations to audiences as various as those he addressed in Dallas, Berlin, Olso, and (in my hearing) Kingston, Ontario.

Martin’s keen eye for the telling detail as well as for the varying textures of social life resulted in what he and his interlocutors call “socio-theology.” I take this neologism to mean that Martin is alert to, and appreciative of, the power of religious ideas in historical development. Rather than reducing theology to an epiphenomenon of more interesting and important social forces—economic, psychological, and so on—Martin sees in the symbolic treasuries of the world’s great religions, and even small new religious movements as well, myths, concepts, terms, and rituals that possess both a resilient core and a versatile ambiguity such that they both shape and are shaped by the realities of power on the ground.

Martin thus isn’t doing theology in the sense of constructive, normative, “systematic” theology. He is, however, compellingly combining awareness of such staples of social analysis as ethnicities and ethnic histories, political frameworks and movements, and geographical features and changes with both a social scientific and a humanistic appreciation of symbols and signs, the arts as well as the structures and technologies of a culture. Martin explicitly takes into account, that is, what a society does and also what a society means—and shows how doing and meaning profoundly connect and influence each other.

As I say, this enormous interpretative agenda that ranges over Europe and the Americas during the several centuries of modernity—even Martin’s Olympian gaze could not take in Africa and Asia, and only Oceania in a few glances—awaits a full-scale systematic treatment. But this volume, arising out of an appreciative conference on Martin’s thought held in Erfurt, Germany, in 2016, highlights a number of important elements necessary to such a treatment and will thus interest David Martin’s many fans.

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