Purdue University

Interview with Professor R. Stephen Warner

R. Stephen Warner is Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  A sociologist of religion, he is a past president of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, the Section on Sociology of Religion of the American Sociological Association, and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.  He has held the Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, and his research has been supported by the Lilly Endowment and the Pew Charitable Trusts.   Among his publications are New Wine in Old Wineskins: Evangelicals and Liberals in a Small-Town Church (University of California Press, 1988); "Work in Progress Toward a New Paradigm for the Sociological Study of Religion in the United States" (American Journal of Sociology, 1993); Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the New Immigration (with Judith Wittner; Temple University Press, 1998); Korean Americans and their Religions: Pilgrims and Missionaries From a Different Shore (with Ho-Youn Kwon and Kwang Chung Kim; Penn State University Press, 2001); and A Church of Our Own: Disestablishment and Diversity in American Religion (Rutgers University Press, 2005).  With Rhys H. Williams (University of Cincinnati), he is currently at work on Navigating To Faith: Forming American Youth as Christians, Muslims, and Hindus (under contract with Rutgers University Press), based on research for the Youth and Religion Project.  He is co-founder of the Chicago-Area Group for the Study of Religious Communities and a member of the Congregational Studies Project Team. 


1.  You went to China in 2006 to lecture at the Summer Institute. Could you please tell us what kind of impression you had about China before you went to China, and how did those impressions change after you spent some time there?
One of the things that I both have heard and know in different ways is that China is one of the immigrant-sending countries from which people come to the United States with very high rates of saying that they have “no religion,” just like those immigrants from some of the former Soviet countries. I originally thought, yes, the communist regime did their best to wipe out religion and I guess they’ve been pretty successful. But one of the things I saw when I was in China in 2006 is that there is lots of religion. My wife and I went to a Taoist temple, a Muslim mosque, and three Buddhist temples. I was impressed that there are religious sites and they seem to have religious activities going on. In the Summer Palace, south of the longevity hill, there are some beautifully restored temples, just gorgeous. Going up the north side of the hill, there was an active Buddhist temple. It looked really dreary and it seemed that there was no attempt to make it nice. On the other hand, people were actively going there. People were lighting their candles and incense sticks there. So we saw religious activities that seem to be in defiance of the government.

But I noticed that not many people are happy to call what they are doing religion. However, almost everybody coming from India says he/she has religion, though some may not practice very much.  So part of the problem we face is the very word “religion” Is Confucianism a religion? Some people do religious things. If they don’t call what they do “religion,” the government won’t bother them. This is one thing I really understood that I didn’t know before. In the United States, we are very pro-religion. It’s not because we’re very religious, but we kind of like religion. In China, this category of religion is very contentious. When you say religion, some people would think you mean an ancient form of Buddhism which is so backward. Or you mean Christianity. Christianity is foreign, western etc. Or you may mean Islam, but Islam is another thing, it’s also foreign. So, the very category of religion is more contentious in China. Instead of thinking Chinese are irreligious, or disproportionately irreligious, now I’m thinking no. The problem is the term.


2.  Are you still teaching and conducting research after you retired in the summer of 2007? Are you currently involved in any projects?
I continue to teach sociology of religion once a year, and I continue to write essays and give public talks. I gave a public talk about Barak Obama and civil religion about two months ago. I read Rober Bellah’s article when it was brand new 40 years ago. I disagreed with it so strongly that my copy is filled with my notes. Many years later, I changed my mind and I think he was right. One of the reasons I think Barak Obama is such an exciting figure is that he has the capacity to revitalize, strengthen and also broaden American civil religion. American civil religion is not Christianity. It’s clearly influenced by the Bible, but there is very little Jesus in it. It’s all about God and America. Its God is not particularly the Christian God; it’s closer to the Jewish God.

One of my students from last semester has influenced my thought on this matter by reminding me that the category of civil religion was introduced to sociological theory by Rousseau. For Rousseau, civil religion is the only religion that he wants to have in the society. Rousseau doesn’t want church religion in society. Church religion competes with civil religion. Bellah argues that church religion and civil religion can coexist; they are not the same, whereas Rousseau wants civil religion instead of church religion. I think Rousseau has been very influential on the French concept of the relation between church and society. France really wants an overarching meaning system that quiets church religion. Church religion is ok, but people should keep quiet about it. I’ve been thinking the Chinese view of religion and society is similar to the French. I don’t mean to say that there is an influence between the two societies. It’s just that there are ways in which the society…a political community, or I can just say “state”, can have an attitude toward churches that is very positive like in the U.S. We just love churches; we just love lots of different churches. Or the relationship can be seen as competitive—with the state-centered civil religion saying, in effect, “we are the real big religion and the rest of you people just better keep to yourselves.” I think there is a little of that in China.


3.  Do you think it is nationalism or national pride that creates this attitude toward religion in France and China?
No, I don’t think so. We Americans are very nationalistic. What’s different from country to country is whether the churches are seen to compete with nationalism. There is very good reason for that notion in France. The French revolution had to overturn the political power of the Catholic Church. In China, my guess is that the imperial regime has had warred off various kinds of foreign influences, from the Northeast, the Manchu, from the East, the Christians, the Europeans. I don’t fully understand the Chinese situation. But my guess is that the central authority has found itself sufficiently embattled that they think that someone who says “I worship a higher God” is a threat. In America, we don’t think so. Now, if one worships a higher God, one may critique the government. That’s called the prophetic voice. The notion that just because you are religious, you must say that everything American government does is right, that of course is a corruption of Christianity, a corruption of Judaism, and a corruption of Islam. It is not true to civil religion to think that patriotism requires us to think that everything our country does is right, No. It is the prophetic voice of civil religion to question whether it is right to go to war, to neglect caring for the young people and old people, and to condone inequality. God says those things are wrong. That’s our civil religious tradition. But when religion does that, it gets authority more nervous. I think France and China are examples of that nervousness.


4.  In your interview with the Religion Weekly (published in Beijing) in the summer of 2006, you said that there is no such paradigm in the scientific study of religion that could be applied to every society. Do you believe that Chinese scholars should develop their own paradigm to explain Chinese phenomenon rather than appropriate models developed by Western scholars based on their observations of the Western societies?
What I call new paradigm is not rational choice theory. I spent quite some time trying to say that, in Beijing in 2006. The new paradigm is a way to understand American religion, which is very different from European religion. Grace Davie has come along to say that many societies have their own ways to deal with religion. I think that is terribly important. China also has its own way of dealing with religion. But that difference throws the concept of “religion” into some doubt. If I say that Americans have very high religiosity, someone from Europe will say, “ah, but you’re not serious about it. For you, religion is just going to church and seeing your friends, and that’s not religion.” But that is religion to Americans. I’m not all sure if the word “religion” can really be free of cultural baggage. And, I’m not even sure if there is a single thing called “religion” that is found in all societies. We in the west impose this category. In some societies this doesn’t necessarily work.

At the same time, I’m not sure about the general applicability of “spirituality” either. That’s also a Western concept. It seems to me that spirituality connotes something that is excessively individual and excessively psychological. It is clear that East Asian religion, including that in China and other societies, is less congregational than American religion. It’s less important for people to be together in a congregation. I think what happens in America is that when people immigrate here they come to do religion in the American way, because it’s how we do religion in America. On the other hand, using the word “spirituality” instead of “religion” for Asia would imply that people don’t do things together. But they do actually do things together, especially in families and in various occasions. We went to a Taoist temple in Beijing where a group of people were doing a memorial for the deceased. They were doing things together. I wouldn’t call them a congregation. Monks were involved in this ritual, and it was part of a social institution. To use the word “spirituality” implies individual and psychological, and gets away from the importance of ritual and community. So, I don’t recommend the word “spirituality” for religion in China either.


5.  What, then, would you recommend?
I’m not sure. When Durkheim defines religion, he says beliefs and practices. But it’s also about institutions and organizations. In my presidential address to SSSR in 2007, I stressed singing as a form of ritual activity. There are lots of different forms of ritual, but that’s the one I particularly enjoy myself. I think Durkheim’s definition of religion may be OK, but don’t expect it’s going to be useful to the people you study. We have to be careful not to impose all the connotations we have about the category of religion so that it doesn’t prevent us from communicating with people who find that category alien or off-putting.

I do think it’s important to understand that how religion works in a given society is probably very particular to that society. Having said that, I don’t want to say that you can’t use ideas across societies. If so, then we would be historians, we wouldn’t be sociologists. I think using all sorts of theoretical tools is fine. We do need general concepts. I don’t think the concept of religion is not useful. Religion is fine, but the word can get in the way.

Fenggang Yang’s triple market model is brilliant. But I think it is a tenuous application of rational choice theory. He’s using rational choice language to develop a paradigm for Chinese religion, which is brilliant, although it probably doesn’t work for everything in China. Some Chinese scholars and religious people might be offended by the language. Fenggang studies both Chinese religion and American religion. He has grounded empirical knowledge about two very different societies. He’s also a scholar who was trained in Chinese religion and philosophy before he ever came to the United States. I’ve learned hugely from him, but it’s not because he’s a rational choice theorist. I would say his model is a Chinese paradigm. He is stimulated by rational choice thinking, but I don’t think his model is best understood as an application of rational choice theory. It’s an imagining and conceptualizing of the way religion works in China using different theoretical tools, one of which is the work of Finke and Stark.


6.  What do you think about the role Western scholars plays in studying China, especially religion in China?
It’s terribly important in such a country as China for scholars to be honest and sensitive with each other. It’s possible that we Westerners can appear overwhelming. We say something and our Chinese hosts try very hard to be polite. They don’t tell us that we’re wrong because they are trying to be very nice. And we are so overbearing and we don’t listen very well. Communication can be very problematic. It’s very important for Westerners to be aware that we can be biased and our manner can be overwhelming. Our way of being sociable may appear in other cultures as very offensive, even though we don’t intend to be. Meanwhile, I think Chinese should be more straightforward in their response, and say “I think you’re wrong” or “would you please listen to me.” There are problems in both sides. But I also believe that outsiders, no matter who they are, can bring perspectives to a country for the people there to see what’s really going on. We, as Americans, have learned from visitors so many times. I have learned from people from China and Europe saying that they can’t believe how much religion they have encountered here in America. They had thought that it’s a materialistic country, but they find religion when they come here. That’s a very helpful perception for me. I think it might be helpful for scholars in China to hear from us what we perceive as religion, even if they might not agree that Confucianism is religion.


7.  I’m sorry to learn that you are not going to attend the Beijing Summit due to the time conflict. What are your expectations and hopes for this summit?
I did get an invitation and I certainly would have come. But the timing is terrible for us.  But I was really flattered that they invited me. I hope this scholarly exchange can continue. It’s been greatly valuable for those of us who participated as teachers. I felt that I was much appreciated when I was in Beijing in 2006. It’s a wonderful thing for a teacher to go into a classroom where the students seem to really care about what you’re saying. I hope that they learn something from us.

(Interview conducted by Yuting Wang)



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