I read it so you don’t have to: Sociology of religion: A Canadian perspective

Lorne L. Dawson is a prominent sociologist of religion who has made numerous contributions to the study of new religious movements, however, his new book (written with Joel Thiessen), The Sociology of Religion: A Canadian Perspective, is a little too watery for me.


The authors outline the objectives of the book in the preface, and they are as follows:

  • Provide a concise introduction to key theories, findings, and debates.
  • Examine the Canadian context
  • Explain relevance of religion for a mostly secular readership
  • Emphasize Canadian uniqueness
  • Situate functions and future of religion in an overview of the social structural features of late modernity

Overall, Dawson and Thiessen meet their objectives, although I came away from the book wondering why they spent as much time as they did addressing the dynamics of so-called “late modernity.” Regardless, the devil is in the details. Below, I’ve made some rough notes on the chapters. The book is rather paint-by-numbers, which is perhaps to be expected given its generality. My concern is that the authors like religion a little too much. They remind me of English village vicars that long ago lost their taste for God, but haven’t given up on the majesty of religious experience.

Chapter 1: Religion in Canada, the West, and the Rest of the World

The authors argue that the experience of most Canadians is atypical when it comes to religion and that the Canadian view of religion is marked by three prejudices:

  1. Modernization has led to the decline of religion (secularization)
  2. Canadians think of religion as church-going.
  3. Religion involves affirming beliefs about the world. A religion “based in unthinking conformity can be as meaningful and significant socially as one based in the modern preference for reflection and choice” (p. 5).

Dawson and Thiessen’s commentary on the “third prejudice” reminds me of some of the old defences of slavery: Some slaves, you see, enjoy their lot in life.

Our secular self-conception is apparently a kind of hubris. Religion may be biologically based and has always been with us. We need to place suffering in a framework of meaning, and religion “strengthens our resolve to face even more suffering in the future. Without this resolve, societies themselves would wither and die” (p. 7). The authors appear to be adopting a functional view of religion here, and they can’t seem to imagine an alternative.

On cults and sects, the authors adopt the terms quasi- and para-religions. Their examples of Quasi-religions include “Alcoholics Anonymous, Scientology, UFO cuts such as The Raelians and many New Age and Occult groups” (p. 13). Their examples of para-religions are “Amway, Transcendental Meditation, Ramtha School of Enlightenment, various political ideologies such as the Nazis in Germany or Maoist communism at the height of the Culture Revolution in China” (p. 13). Regarding AA, Dawson and Thiessen claim that it is an “enormously successful treatment program” (p. 13), and although they don’t explicitly say so, I get the impression that they think AA’s reliance on surrender to a higher power is important to its success as a program. As far as their empirical claim is concerned, I am disappointed that the authors haven’t mentioned that AA is quite controversial, and even if it is as successful as other interventions, there is no evidence that such successes come from its spiritual dimensions. In fact, many atheists go through the AA program and translate its conception of God into something more in keeping with a secular worldview.

In parallel with the continued public role of religion, Dawson and Thiessen make a nod to the equally surprising and “strident” New Atheism (p. 14). You can probably imagine me rolling my eyes at this point.

Chapter 2: Defining Religion

Dawson and Thiessen write about the difficulties of defining religion, but they nonetheless make the common distinction between functional and substantive definitions. Despite their earlier tendency towards functionalist definitions, the authors claim to prefer a more substantive approach. Before getting to their definition, they discuss the postmodern critique of religion as a category, e.g., religion, as a concept, is relatively new and coloured by European history.

For their own definition, Dawson and Thiessen follow Wittgenstein, that is, all of our concepts operate through “family resemblance” (p. 35). There is no definitive list of criteria for defining religion, but there are features or dimensions: belief, ritual, experience, and community.

The authors seem particularly concerned with the relationship between religion and law in Canada. In this chapter, and elsewhere, Dawson and Thiessen appear interested in protecting unconventional groups, like Scientology: “Holding to a too conventional conception of religion will fail to protect the new and often eclectic spiritual richness of the lives of many Canadians” (p. 38). Take, for example, their handling of Mormon Polygamy. Although Dawson and Thiessen recognize the role of power within the Mormon community of Bountiful, BC, they are also wary of the power dynamics present between the religious sect and the state. They ride the knife-edge here between the constitutional rights of religious minorities and other human rights. In their commentary, for example, they seem to draw few distinctions between an individual having multiple sexual partners simultaneously and polygamy.

Chapter 3: The Dimensions of Religion

Dawson and Thiessen elaborate on the features of religion.


There is a cognitive aspect to religious life. Religious people have world-views which provide generalized understandings of life which are themselves often related to another type of reality. Religious beliefs need not be true, but they have social consequences. Dawson and Thiessen make the rather tedious point here that believers’ daily practice of their religion is less about formal teachings than “lessons learned about how to lead the good life” found in the “myths, stories images, and music of a tradition” (p. 46). They readily admit that religious beliefs may not be true, but they are less inclined to question the veracity of the “good life” lessons they describe. What possible lesson could religious believers learn from the massacre of the Midianites?

Dawson and Thiessen free themselves from answering troubling questions by pointing out that most religious people abandon critical thought: “Simple expressions of love, hope, fear, and duty figure more prominently in people’s motivation and responses” (p. 48). Although the authors believe these simple expressions are sincere, they adopt a tone of condescension which is made all the more obnoxious by their benign view of religious knowledge as being conveyed through “words, deeds, and settings that are laced with symbols” (p. 46). If most religious people don’t engage in much critical thought, it is hard to imagine their relationship to the normative content of their religions.


Religion is about doing things as much as believing things. Ritual is nonetheless as hard to define as religion. Like religion in general, Dawson and Thiessen mainly see the benign side of ritual, perhaps with the exception of the role of taboos in enforcing social control. They do mention sacrifice, but with an inappropriate amount of awe or respect for the power of ritual.


Religions claim access to unique and powerful experiences. Dawson and Thiessen write about the subjectivity of these experiences and some of the scholarly debates about the role of experience in religion.


Significant religion is social religion, but the communal character has been shrinking due to the social changes of the late modern world. Dawson and Thiessen briefly address gender, acknowledging that religion has, more often than not, disadvantaged woman. They also discuss the fact that women are more religious than men. I am pleased that they also mention that women are also over-represented when it comes to alternative spirituality.

Chapter 4: Insights from Sociological Theories of Religion

As suggested by the title of this chapter, Dawson and Thiessen explore some of the theoretical approaches social scientists have taken to explain the social function of religion. They begin with Marx, Durkheim, and Weber. This is the usual intro sociology of religion stuff. Boring, but probably necessary. As far as contemporary theory goes, they delve into Berger and Stark. All of this should be familiar.

Dawson and Thiessen write about Stark and Finke’s repudiation of the term “compensators.” I was pleasantly surprised by this because most scholars fail to mention the replacement of compensators with explanations or conceptual simplifications: “These explanations are rewards in themselves, giving meaning and purpose to life” (p. 88).

Chapter 5: Arguments for and against Secularization Theory

We sort of know from the beginning of the book that Dawson and Thiessen share a dim view of secularization theory, but they spend some time in this chapter examining the debate in detail. The secularization debate hinges, at least in part, on the difficulties of operationalizing and measuring religion. The authors draw from Karel Dobbelaere’s preference for distinguishing between types of secularization: societal, organizational, and individual. These categories are self-explanatory.

Dawson and Thiessen summarize Peter Berger’s case for secularization, mentioning that he later recanted. Next in line for summary is Bryan Wilson, and finally, Steven Bruce (who is the strongest proponent according to the authors). Bruce bases his arguments on individualism. In response to Bruce, we get a familiar brand of apologetics: “What he does not consider, however, is the offsetting impact of the heightened anomie people experience in our societies or the strains placed on our personal relationships by the loss of many traditional communal ties and supports” (p. 110).

The case against secularization is argued by Jeffrey Hadden, Rodney Stark, and Jose Casanova. Dawson and Thiessen, being critics of the enlightenment, are clearly drawn to the work Hadden. Although I think the secularization debate is a pseudo-problem, if you’re going to cover it, you should at least be attentive to the fact that those who argue against secularization theory often define religion in such a way that there is no possible way for a process of secularization to take place.

Chapter 6: Religion and Late Modernity

Dawson and Thiessen define the late modern period as roughly from the late sixteenth to the mid-twentieth century. They borrow from Giddens to identify five themes or characteristic of late modernity: de-traditionalization, globalization, expressive individualism and new tribalism, risk/trust dialectic, and the transformation of literacy.

De-traditionalization refers to our movement from traditional ways of doing things to our contemporary reliance on expert systems (systems of knowledge and practice). Globalization is strongly associated with the spread of capitalism and a process of homogenization. The flip-side of globalization is expressive individualism, in that personal identity is not an achieved phenomenon. The risk/trust dialectic is a fancy way of saying that we no longer have feelings of security attributed to less reflexive and relativistic time periods. Even in the most private spaces, we are subject to scrutiny from professionals. These changes fuel a new kind of religiosity, both in terms of new religious movements/alternative spiritualities, and the reinvention of more traditional religions.

Chapter 7: The Religious Life of Contemporary Canadians

Dawson and Thiessen trace the religious landscape of Canada from the pre-1960s through the contemporary period. They cover the familiar talking points: missionaries and aboriginals; the Quiet revolution; and protestant and catholic conflict. More relevant to my research, and probably interesting to you, is the divide between religious and non-religious. Religion is not likely to disappear in Canada, but young people take an à la carte approach to their religious beliefs. In keeping with Giddens, Dawson and Thiessen argue that individuals enter a “reflexive process of identity construction” (p. 173), and given the plethora of choices, young people adopt religious and spiritual beliefs to fulfill their subjective desires. The à la carte approach to religion and the absence of religious beliefs are strongly related to intergenerational transmission, in that if parents are less religious, their children are also less likely to be religious. Even if they are religious, parents seem less inclined to push their children to share their beliefs or approach them in the same way.

Chapter 8: The New Religious Diversity

Due to changing patterns of immigration, we now face a greater diversity of religions than ever before, but Dawson and Thiessen are more interested in two other types of diversity: the religious “nones” and new religious movements. The most interesting part of their commentary on immigration is that men in some religious minorities experience a loss of dignity due to the increasing independence of women. Men consequently compensate by “stressing their traditional sources of power and status in the religious communities” (p. 192). The rest of their commentary is predictably milk toast. They conjure the notion of “Islamophobia” and wrings their hands about discrimination against Muslims.

The religious nones are generally young, male, and influenced by patterns of immigration (there has been a steady decline of Roman Catholic immigrants). The religious nones are not exclusively atheists or agnostics, and some are even “religious,” although not in any conventional sense. One may be unaffiliated, for example, and still be religious. Dawson and Thiessen distinguish between “secular religious nones” and “liminal nones.” Liminal nones are those who fluctuate in their identification (p. 204).

Moving away from religious nones, Dawson and Thiessen turn to new religious movements. They quickly head for “the great cult scare,” and the formation of an organized anti-cult movement. The authors contrast those who care about the constitutional rights of new religious minorities and those who apparently don’t, such as critics of new religious movements. Dawson and Thiessen paint critics of new religious movements as Machiavellian. Defeated by their inability to take action against new religious movements on the basis of the “unorthodox, strange, or morally suspect nature of their beliefs and practices” they realized they needed to take a different approach by attempting to prove that certain beliefs are harmful, e.g., accusations of brainwashing and sexual deviance.

As far as brainwashing is concerned, Dawson and Thiessen peddle the usual wares: people may be socially pressured, but the “social manipulation of the converts is on a continuum that we tend to accept as legitimate” (p. 212). To distinguish between objectionable and less-objectionable forms of social pressure is open to accusations of prejudice because it would involve a pre-judgement about the “validity of the beliefs and practices of the religion” (p. 212). On the topic of sexual deviance, Dawson and Thiessen argue that new religions are no more susceptible to “these moral failings than other more conventional religions” (p. 212). The authors are generally relativistic when it comes to making judgements about religion, apparently because of the risk of “arbitrarily favouring one religious tradition over another” (p. 213). The apologetics goes further, however, than just soupy thinking. Dawson and Thiessen seriously consider the possibility that new religious movements offer teachable moments: “[T]hey represent, in many ways, either forms of protest against the deficiencies of late modern societies or laboratories for social experimentation’ (p. 215).

Sociology of Religion: A Canadian Perspective is a narrative of loss and reclamation, couched in the agreeable “value-neutral” language of accomplished scholars. I don’t buy it. What we see here is crypto-normativity. Andrew Sayer talks about this problem within the social sciences: evaluation is viewed as problematic because it is “arbitrary,” and so, people like Dawson and Thiessen try not to reveal too much about where they stand, but the criticism leaks through, or in this case, the relative absence of criticism.

One thought on “I read it so you don’t have to: Sociology of religion: A Canadian perspective

  1. Pingback: Do not be afraid: Pope Francis’s Christmas midnight mass message « Faith Bytes

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