Findings & Footnotes December 2017

  • An interesting footnote to last month’s feature article on the growing alliance between American evangelicals and Eastern Orthodoxy over the role of Vladimir Putin is the influence of mid-20th century Russian sociologist Pitirim Sorokin. An article in the Journal of Classical Sociology (online November) by sociologists Dmitry Uzlaner and Kristina Stoeckl finds that Sorokin’s legacy, long in disrepair in mainstream sociology, is prospering among traditional religious conservatives in the U.S. and Russia, who hail the Harvard sociologist as predicting and outlining the rebirth of a moral society. It is particularly Sorokin’s theories of the “sensate culture”—that contemporary society is oriented toward materialism and the senses—and the rebirth of a moral order that are valued by conservatives.

    Sorokin’s work on the importance of traditional family life and the power of culture (rather than economics) to shape society has won the devotion of such traditionalists as Allan Carlson, Rod Dreher in his book The Benedict Option, and even U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence. Transnational conservative organizations such as the World Congress of the Family use Sorokin’s influence as a bridge between conservatives in the U.S. and Russia, though it is the latter country where the thinker’s influence can be felt in universities and even politics. Uzlaner and Stoeckl note that Sorokin’s later works on an altruism (he founded a center for the study of love) that transcends politics and his non-dogmatic approach to religion, stressing religion’s mystical and ethical core that unites people, tend to be given less attention by today’s devotees. For more information on this article, visit:


  • The Spiritual Virtuoso (Bloomsbury, $23.99), by Marion Goldman and Steven Pfaff, looks at the classic sociological concept of the charismatic leader and applies it to a range of figures and their leadership styles—ranging from Martin Luther to Steve Jobs. The sociologists define a “spiritual virtuoso,” taking a leaf from Max Weber, as a specialist in spirituality and organized religion, though they find that the goal and extent of such charisma has changed over time. They find that spiritual virtuosity has changed its focus on purification and personal holiness to stress attaining sanctification or wholeness on earth. Where once the spiritual virtuoso was a role attained by a few, today it is the goal of many, thanks to such influences as the human potential movement. An interesting chapter on Sister Corita Kent and the counterculture shows how the virtuosity of traditional religious leaders created a bridge to the human potential movement, despite hierarchical pressure to constrain such charisma.The section on Steve Jobs argues that the Apple founder used a blend of intense (Eastern) spiritual interest, charisma and branding to extend the human potential movement, even if the consumer-based and costly “indulgences” of such techniques stood in contrast to the more democratic impulses of the 1960s. Goldman and Pfaff tend to see the older forms of virtuosity located in institutions as self-limiting and passé, and argue that the future sites of spiritual virtuosity will emerge from coalitions of liberal believers and skeptics, such as in new forms of activism fighting for immigrant rights and against racism. They even see the mantle of spiritual virtuosity as moving to such secular movements as the Sunday Assembly, which holds church-like services, on account of their ambiguous and flexible spirituality (even though some atheist participants may take issue with that claim) and related social activism.

  • The anthology Organized Secularism in the United States (De Gruyter, $114.99; electronic version is open access), edited by Ryan Cragun, Christel Manning, and Lori Fazzino, does a good job of examining the contours of atheist and secular humanist groups in America and how this movement has innovated in recent years. Although those who are active in such groups as American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, as well as such newcomers as Oasis and the Sunday Assembly, represent a small percentage of non-believers in the U.S., they tend to be the standard-bearers of activism among secular Americans. Many scholars and commentators (including the editor of RW in his 2014 book, with Christopher Smith, Atheist Awakening) have viewed organized secularism as a competitive and conflict-ridden world where cooperation between the different groups has been difficult. But a chapter by Lori L. Fazzino and Ryan Cragun argues that in recent years a new generation of secularist leaders have learned to cooperate and that the diversity in the movement shows its vitality rather than its disorganization and schismatic nature. Another chapter focuses on Houston, TX, and how the variety of secularist groups there have each taken different and (sometimes) shared roles in the community, from education to activism to charitable work.A few chapters continue the debate about how to categorize and label the non-religious, suggesting that there is considerable pluralism in this group that defies the “atheist” designation (as, for example, do those pressing for a secular kind of spirituality). Nevertheless, it seems that, at least organizationally, the groups are split between activists (usually on church-state issues) and what can be called communalists, who are attempting to create support, rituals, and education for both “cradle” and convert atheists (as seen in the chapters on secularist wedding services and dying techniques). In a concluding chapter, Barry Kosmin addresses the perennial problem of secularists being non-joiners and increasingly diverse, though the organizations have been late in responding to their changing demographics. He also calls for organized secularists to embrace both popular (sports) and high culture (public schools and universities) to expand their numbers.

  • Scholars have long addressed the grey zone between religion and non-religion, phenomena such as “fuzzy faith,” implicit religion, and invisible religion, so the recent anthology Religious Indifference (Springer, $79.99), edited by Johannes Quack and Cora Schuh, may seem like more of the same. But the volume does show that indifference is a sociological category, even though several of the contributors see it as shading more toward the non-religion side, especially those scholars who see indifference as the marker of secularization. But as the editors note in the Introduction, both religious persons and secularists often bemoan the growth of indifference to their concerns for either active faith or secularity, with the moral and ethical commitments that accompany these stances. Several chapters go into the ongoing attempts to define secularity and non-religion and how the category of indifference plays into these debates. For instance, Lois Lee looks at indifferent and nonreligious populations, noting that in some cases (much of Europe) the non-religious and the indifferent are one and the same group, while in other societies (the UK but especially the U.S.) they diverge.The book also includes several interesting case studies of how religious indifference becomes visible in relation to real life religion and secularism. Rebecca Catto examines how religious indifference (and illiteracy) affects interfaith dialogues in one British city and how the indifferent and non-religious are left out of such two-way encounters. A contribution on the strongly secular Estonia finds the related religious indifference stemming from several sources—communism and nationalism as well as established Lutheranism. Also noteworthy is Quack’s comparison of Germany and India and analysis of how indifference is on a spectrum that is not irreversible; being indifferent can turn into a more positive or negative posture toward religion.