Sacred Social Science

by Oct 23, 2015Culture, Worldview2 comments

smithsacredprojectI thought the following quotations from Ken Myers’ interview with Christian Smith were so valuable that I took them down word-for-word. Smith is the author, most recently, of The Sacred Project of American Sociology. This is from the book (taken down from Myers’ quotation of it):

Sacred matters are never ordinary, mundane, or instrumental. They are reverenced, venerated, and defended as sacrosanct by the social groups that hold them as sacred…. This is exactly the character of the dominant project of American sociology.

That’s Smith’s central point, really his central charge. If he weren’t such a deservedly respected, accomplished, judicious scholar, some of what he wrote might sound a little wild, a little conspiratorial, a little screedish. But I think he’s basically right (I only question how self-conscious and intentional the project is/was; but he would know better than I—and more on that in a minute):

As a project, sociology belonged at the heart of a movement that self-consciously and intentionally displaced Western Christianity’s integrative and directive hold in society. It was a key partner in modernity’s world-historical efforts to create a secular, rational, scientific social order. In this sense, sociology as a discipline operated functionally in direct structural parallel to the Roman Catholic Vatican’s curia and European Protestantism’s early modern theology faculty, all being assigned the task of conducting the systematic intellectual work undergirding attempts to exert far-reaching influence over society. Sociology was not merely about piecemeal reforms but world transformation, guided by a radically new sacred vision of humanity, life, society, and the cosmos.

Smith told Ken Myers in his Mars Hill Audio Journal interview,

Everything is shot through with value commitments…. Sociology operates to some degree with a kind of a false consciousness about itself, that on the one hand it would like to think of itself as a scientific study of society, a sort of value-free, just-the-facts-ma’am kind of approach to social life, and on the other hand it’s this incredibly highly committed politically ideologically morally project that I argue in this book actually has the character that it’s sacred…. It’s revered, it’s protected.

Smith doesn’t think the whole sacred project of sociology is bad; parts of it are good. But the part where sociologists all agree among themselves that their particular view of what it means to be human is neutral and unobjectionable—that part is bad.

Sociology’s authority, if it has any, comes from its claims to being scientific; it’s not just an opinion, it’s a systematic study that in some senses has something like objectivity to it. And so if sociology wants anyone to pay attention to it has to be able to make that claim. At the same time, it does have these value commitments, these very particular ideas of human nature, human interests, human goods, human motivations, human flourishing, and all the implications of that for what a good society would look like. That for a lot of sociologists it’s so obvious, it’s so taken for granted, it’s become almost invisible within the discipline its possible to think that’s the obvious reality and not realize how distinct or particular it is and how others might reasonably disagree with it.

I think the “invisible within the discipline” line is why I’m a little bit skeptical of seeing this sacred project as self-conscious and intentional. It’s precisely the self-deception involved in viewing oneself as “objective” and “scientific” that makes the sacred project such a powerful idol. Smith acknowledges the invisibility of these assumptions:

I’m just trying to bring to the surface what is so often hidden, tacit, implicit, taken for granted until its toes get stepped on and then it comes up and has a minor explosion, but then it’s not really acknowledged. And when it comes to explaining to undergrads in the classroom it’s usually not acknowledged, and in textbooks it’s not acknowledged.

So what, exactly, is the project of American sociology? Smith writes that it is

exposing, protesting and ending through social movements, state regulations, and government programs, all human inequality, oppression, exploitation, suffering, injustice, poverty, discrimination, exclusion, hierarchy, constraint, and domination by, of, and over other humans—and perhaps animals and the environment.


The visionary project of realizing the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents who should be out to live their lives as they personally so desire by constructing their own favored identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures.

Everybody’s got a sacred project. Everybody worships something, someone. We all either worship our Creator or exchange his glory for something he created.

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  1. Todd Jones

    On first read, I would guess that this project’s intra-disciplinary invisibility grew dramatically as time went on. According to Wikipedia at least (“History of Sociology”), Auguste Comte seems to have been responding intentionally to–and hoping to further–the secularization of Europe. I would wonder whether the time between the World Wars and especially after World War II saw the greatest growth of that invisibility.

  2. Mark Ward

    Woah, woah, woah—you did actual research? Doesn’t that violate the first rule of blogging? All opinions must be generated from armchair without recourse to muscle-moving and finger-lifting.

    Actually, that sounds more than believable to me.


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