A Book Review of "Key Thinkers in the Sociology of Religion" by Richard Fenn


By Vexen Crabtree 2012

#book_reviews #religion #sociology

Book CoverThis is a review of "Key Thinkers in the Sociology of Religion" by Richard K. Fenn (2009) [Book Review]1. Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, London, UK. There is one chapter for each of 11 key thinkers. My notes here are in chapter order, and I've bolded the subject of the chapter so it is easy to scroll down this page and spot chapter divisions.

The central theme of this book is Fenn's commentary on time (past, present, future), "possibilities" (being used in a mystical but undefined way) and about how the sacred can effect individuals a society and the relationship of the sacred to religion. The author uses words about time and the sacred in confusing and abstract ways, and, this book needs an opening chapter where Fenn lays out his own basic ideas as to what those words mean. The eleven Key Thinkers each have a chapter, and Fenn mentions some of the texts and ideas of those authors. But much of the book is unreferenced and unclear waffle. The key thinkers are not examined methodically or clearly. Each one has only a few works referenced, and one of those is generally a compendium, and very few are directly quoted from. This book suffers from a lack of prime sources.

Arguments and contexts are fragmentary and incomplete, sentences and paragraphs often state "therefore" and "then" but do not follow from previous sentences or paragraphs, and in general it feels like this is a collection of essays whereby Fenn puts forward his ideas of time, past, present and future and the sacred, and pads out each chapter with some commentary on a sociologist.

So here are some of my notes and quotes in order to back up my summary above. I didn't make notes on the "time waffle" during the first few chapters because I didn't suspect I'd end up needing such mystical sentences for anything. One example comes after a paragraph about how Gods sometimes offer their devotees no protection against destruction. However, it is completely unclear as to how it is related or what Fenn means. It is from the chapter on Sigmund Freud:

This is about the typical monotheistic scheme where a creator God created the world, then later destroys it all on a day of judgement, although I don't know why Fenn is avoiding actually saying so, and instead uses this roundabout and flowery prose. Did Freud really write stuff like that? Does the reader of any book really need such a thorough (but obscurely worded) reminder that time passes? That the present becomes the past? It is as if superfluous waffle of the present continually becomes meaningless waffle of the past, making way for more pointless waffle from the future.

Fenn repeats it on p46. He starts out talking about the various ways that society keeps order, from the taboos of primitive societies, to rational laws of advanced ones. There are several pages without any references to any of Freud's work, so I can merely presume that this is stuff that Freud has talked about too, in one of his many (unmentioned) works. Then, suddenly:

I would literally pay good money to have this waffle furnished with some concrete examples, because without them the entire bowl of spaghetti is without meaning. Or, if you read it a few times, you realize that the meanings are contradictory and utterly simple. In short: (1) Primitive societies have taboos, advanced ones have secular and abstract ethics. (2) The rules of society can change over time. These two sentences are clear enough to be understandable, and, would have saved Fenn several paragraphs of non-referenced waffle, all in poor Freud's name.

I was quite relieved to get past the chapter on Freud, and only hoped that Max Weber would have some commentary on religion, perhaps on the sociology of religion, and less about how "extended presents" interact with the past and the future (as a temporal being myself, I am quite used to the passage of time).

Weber's terms and references are introduced in a haphazard manner; some subjects appear to completely lack introductions and merely assume that the reader is already familiar with Weber. Fenn is providing some extra commentary on some aspects of Weber, rather than introducing key concepts. Although important concepts such as free will verses determinism are discussed, the actual implications for religion and belief are only mentioned incidentally. And then have something familiar:

Yes! More time waffle! I have never experienced an "overwhelming" range of possibilities and I'd have (probably) have liked Fenn to explain what this recurring phrase means. I have no idea what "exposed to claims from the past" means, nor how the future can intrude on the present. Examples, or explanations, would not have gone amiss. Is he talking about people fearing secularisation, compartmentalisation, or other things commonly said to be increasing over time? Even if he was talking of things like that, I seriously do not think that these slow changes ever make it hard for people to "create or maintain" their own presence. As social and thinking animals, very few people are so existentially weak as to actually worry about their own presence. If "I think therefore I am" is anything to go by, we're all quite sure of our presence, despite the "overwhelming possibilities" in life. What did all that mean? Beats me!

The next sentences of Fenn's are so convoluted and strike out at such tangents that I cannot tell if they are related to the previous ones just quoted. He says that the very complex world gave birth to globalisation, leading to multiculturalism (I think that Fenn means although he doesn't say so directly), and, this complex world lacks order. Then, he references Weber: "Weber (1964: 56) in fact traces "a causal connection" between the Near-East notion of a "personal, transcendental and ethical god" and the "all-powerful mundane king with his rational bureaucratic regime.". Now, I would love to know what this connection is between the god and the kind and his regime, but, Fenn doesn't say. I don't know if he is assuming we simply already know what Weber says the connection is, and what this actually has to do with globalisation and multiculturalism and the way these threaten religion. This vague "connection" goes unexplained, and, doesn't actually seem to follow from the first sentences of this paragraph at all.

They are followed by more sentences that don't seem to belong in this paragraph either: "The entire social order, then, emanates from the experience of a monarch whose being permeates every social relationship and indeed the order of nature itself". So, what is the connection that Weber points out? Why does this follow on from comments on globalisation? We'll never know. It is utter rubbish though, for Fenn to say that "The entire social order, then, emanates from..." as this simply doesn't follow. The monarch or god just mentioned certainly does not permeate every social relationship. In nearly all societies with kings and in all theocracies, the vast majority of social relationships continue exactly as they always have, even during and after complete regime changes. And, the ridiculous comment that the order of nature itself is affected by whoever-is-at-the-top is more nonsense. Not only is it nonsense in its own right, but, it is as if this paragraph is constructed out of 3 sets of unrelated sentences, each stating that they follow on, but, none do.

There is a constant feeling through most of Fenn's book that sentences and paragraphs have been edited or re-ordered: that once in an original context they might have made sense and formed proper arguments. It reminds of the infamous postmodern-text generator; give it some terms and it automatically produces waffly text of great proportions which looks impressive and scholarly and is scatted with phrases that make it look like arguments are being made, but, if you try to understand the actual content, turns out to be pure waffle. It's not that bad and Fenn does make sense half the time if you abandon the original idea that this book is about the Key Thinkers in the Sociology of Religion.

The fact he says "legitimate possibility" implies there is an "illegitimate" kind. As usual, just one concrete example would explain what he might mean. Fenn uses "past, present and future" in some mystical and unusual way while talking about "possibilities" (Some relegated to the past! Some delayed to the future!). It takes up lots of space in the book in every chapter so I simply don't believe that the authors Fenn is talking about wrote anything like it.

Weber, it seems, is just as waffly as Freud, and also loves talking in abstract terms about "possibilities", "presents", "indefinitely extended presents" and other such bumf! It is like this... This central theme of "possibility", "past, extended present, future", is what Fenn wants to talk about. Each chapter he looks at some of the works of the author the chapter is about, and talks about some of their ideas in an indirect and often abstract way. But each chapter is just another chance for Fenn to repeat his own unclear theme, strangely put into the context of a key thinker in the sociology of religion.

So, what does Talcott Parsons bring to the discussion?

Well at least Fenn didn't use that awkward and unexplained phrase "legitimate possibility" again. And at least Parson's is not here involved in the same time-waffle Fenn has his other sociologists espouse. And in general, Fenn's text on Parsons is adequately referenced (at last) and discusses a lot of Parson's topics and phraseology in his own words, making this the best chapter in the book for actual worth.

On to David Martin:

I've quoted the entire paragraph. Fenn does more than "suggest", as he says at the start: his time-waffle and odd "possibilities" talk is repeatedly thrusted on the reader, not "suggested". The paragraph before and after this inserted nonsense can be put together and read as a sensible narrative about Martin. This timewaffle insertion is out of the blue, and seems out of context. What is it doing there? Who knows. Although it is often obscure and sometimes unclear, the rest of the chapter on David Martin is largely informative.

Fenn comments on David Martin's idea of "secular mutations" of religion: p109: "With the notion of a transposition from the religious to the secular comes not only a loss of monopoly but a kind of continuity. [... And an example of secularisation...] If such defeats for the churches are not successes, what are they? [...] These endings are in fact new beginnings: these defeats in fact novel successes. Secularization is always and everywhere, then, a form of religious change."

My mouth dropped upon reading this. Fenn is saying that David Martin thinks religion cannot lose influence, membership, and have its beliefs slowly forgotten: all of this is merely novel success by means of change. Fenn thinks that David Martin is saying that all such change results in secular mutations and transposition of religious ideas on to secular realms. I suspect somewhat that David Martin certainly does not think this! If religiosity could only change and religion suffer no defeats, why is it that there are so many extinct religions, and religious ideas that are abandoned wholesale by entire continents (polytheism, anyone?).

Or does he? On p115 Fenn references Martin as saying that religions can themselves become highly rationalized - "Few understand as well as Martin just how secular religion itself can become, especially when it is thoroughly rationalized." And on p117, "Martin's work is also a reminder of how much has been lost in this mutation or transposition of the sacred into the midst of the secular". Note how these two quotes deny the ridiculous concepts that Fenn earlier said Martin would uphold: that secularisation is "always and everywhere" a form of religious change, not a loss for religion, but a success! However these two comments on Martin clearly show that Martin is not devoid of common sense: a lot of secularisation involves religious change that is a clear loss for religion. If Martin has contradicted himself - or if Fenn thinks he has - it would be nice to directly and clearly highlight the contradictory texts or the change of mind. But Fenn is not one for fact-by-fact analysis and the contradiction is an unexplored niggle, when it should have been directly mentioned.

The next chapter is about Bryan Wilson, who, Fenn informs us, has some rather waffly ideas about time, the past, the present and the future:

That's right: The present, i.e., right now, might embody elements of the present. And... In "some" kinds of present, an advance in to the future is made. It is astounding that an academic author thinks his readers might need telling on p120 that the present time contains affects from the past, and on p122 that the present time comes before the future but that change can be rapid or slow. But watch out, because p124 informs us that some religions can break cause and effect, and embark on amazing time-travel quests and confuse us all! I dare you to re-read the p120 quote and attempt to understand what causes the "present [to] begin to acquire secularity".

The correct title of this book should have been "The Sacred and the Past, Present and Future" with a subtitle of "Themes in Some Writings of the Key Thinkers of the Sociology of Religion" by Richard K. Fenn. That way, I would not have started out with the misconception that the prime focus was going to be an introduction to 11 key thinkers on the sociology of religion. The blame is probably to do with the publisher, or the Key Thinkers book series management, who have decided to brand Fenn's book in an inappropriate way.

I only have one note on the chapter on Peter L. Berger, and that is on p148 with the sentence that starts "God may be returned to the Pledge of Allegiance or to honorable mention in the public schools with or without exerting...". It appears that Fenn doesn't know that the words "Under God" was only added to the Pledge of Alliegiance in 1954.

From Chapter "Niklas Luhmann":

Phew! This type of text continues before and after the quoted section, although the quote is taken from where it is deepest. My single annotation in the margin across pages 167 and 168 is a single large exclamation mark. I can't imagine a single sociologist who thinks that the non-religious are not part of any social system. Even outcasts and minorities are part of society, as they are human beings who visit shops, send their kids to school, vote, etc. Not only is this time-waffle utterly meaningless pseudo-English, but, Fenn here specifically tries to put it into the mouths of Luhmann and Durkheim. Fenn may have forgotten when he name-drops those two sociologists that he has of course written incredibly similar paragraphs into the chapters on every other sociologist he mentions.

On p168 Fenn restates many of the already-quoted sentences;

It goes on and on for pages, repetitively, meaninglessly, devoid of concrete statements or explanations. Doc Emitt Brown from Back to the Future would be proud of Fenn's determination to say some things about time, and completely confused by exactly what he was saying.

Page 170 does contain something new - Fenn expands on his odd use of the word "present" by trying out a few other constructs related to that word: "For religion to create or re-create the present requires many to be present, to offer presents, and to make presentations." I think that Fenn is saying that in religions, people make sacrifices (i.e., give away food, tithe, etc) for their beliefs (i.e., 'offer presents') and of course people can only do this if they are "in the present", i.e., alive. Great. Presentations I guess is a reference to rituals; and Fenn does go on for a few sentences to mention some types of ritual, however, what exactly he was saying managed to slip me by (it was something about "possibilities" being banished to the past).

Fenn on page 175, still in the chapter about Niklas Luhmann, says: "In some passages [Luhmann] seems to argue that the present is a mere point in time." Any reader of this review should by now be able to predict that Fenn does not use the word "present" in any ordinary sense; the one thing that the present certainly is, is a mere point in time.

On p179 is a statement that some problems cannot be resolved except "at a level far beyond the reach of retrospective foresight". It would make sense if he said "beyond the reach of retrospection" (i.e., we can't resolve it by looking only at the past), or, if he said "beyond the reach of foresight", meaning, we can't resolve it at the moment. But to combine the two words makes it completely meaningless and contradictory. Time-waffle. Page 180 repeats and rewrites some of the time-waffle paragraphs already quoted; each time these repetitions are rewritten (they aren't copies), but, are all equal in emptiness of meaning. Perhaps our understanding of Fenn cannot be resolved through respective foresight, because the future-present has been relegated to the distant past? Whatever.

Clifford Geertz: I was relieved to finally finish this chapter on time travel, which Fenn says has something to do with Luhmann. However, Groundhog day was not yet over. Because, Clifford Geertz teaches, according to Fenn on the first page about him, that "What formerly was the present has become the past; the passing moment turns out to have been a moment in which the past itself has changed and now encompasses what it excluded before."

My note in the margin says simply... not all this again! Thankfully and refreshingly, page 185 (and 187) allows me to change the topic of my criticisms. Because he mentions twice that "it is worth remembering Bloch's complaint that Geertz...". But, and I checked, Bloch is not mentioned so far in this chapter, and there is no chapter preceding this on Bloch. Was Fenn just assuming that the reader has an encyclopedic knowledge of who has criticized who? Luckily, this question was answered... the following chapter is on Bloch, and in it he criticizes Geertz. So this is perhaps a clue that editor/publisher of this book has thrown the chapters together without adequately reading them?

Maurice Bloch's chapter is refreshing in that it seems to spend a lot of time talking of particular concepts and phrases used by Bloch. But it was too late... At this point in the book, I have come to distrust anything written by Fenn, so I was no longer looking for anything useful. I was just looking for more things to criticize. I only found one piece of time-waffle, on p208: "The momentary comes into contact once again with the momentous, and the past is never quite the same again, just as the present becomes part of the newly and differently told past." The unusual addition of the word "told" in that last sentence actually makes it make more sense this time round. Unfortunately, the chapter on Bloch is one of the shortest in the book, yet is one of the best, although like all the others it still lacks references and prime sources - of the 2 items in the Biblio, one is itself a compendium, as is the norm in other chapters in this book.

So: it is not in my character to write such a negative review but in my defence, I was stimulated to write it on account of the so-ridiculous-it-is-entertaining time-waffle!