Secularization and Its Discontents
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Secularization and Its Discontents
Warner, Rob. Secularization and Its Discontents. London: Continuum, 2010. 221 pp. pbk $34.95 (USD). ISBN: 978-1441127853

I must confess that my initial reaction to the prospect of yet another book on theories of secularization was a cynical “just what the field needs.” My preliminary reticence sprang from having read far too many discussions of secularization that stake out combative and polemical positions of an unqualified “yes” or “no” to the questions posed by the storied lineage of social scientific thinking on these matters. Rather than join the fight, Rob Warner gives an overview that deftly and critically reviews the debates over secularization, subjecting extant arguments to both theoretical and empirical scrutiny.

If Warner swears allegiance to any thinker it is Max Weber (26). This is certainly a safe play considering Weber’s sacrosanct position in sociology, a discipline that has also held seculari¬zation sacred for the better part of its existence (and still with some very well-placed, orthodox holdouts). In spite of his contributions to theories of secularization, Weber also knew the power of religion, and this perspective allows Warner to be balanced in his treatment of the processes of secularization. This flexibility partly results from the varying currents of Weberian thought. Indeed, Weber’s contradictions (and those of his interpreters) account for much of his continued relevance; there is something for everyone. On the whole, this reflexive positioning makes Warner’s treatment pleasantly objective, but occasionally the contradictions cannot help but surface. At the beginning of the final chapter (156), Weber’s iron cage metaphor of rationalization is critiqued as failing to anticipate the holistic and experiential-therapeutic turn characteristic of contemporary sacralization movements. Yet, the same thesis is smuggled back in the next paragraph via George Ritzer’s “McDonaldization” of Weber—the iron cage with fries. The desire for emotional experience finally wins the day in Warner’s assessment, even if its expression is shaped by the pervasive logic of rationalistic capitalism. For the most part, though, Warner’s theoretical discussions are engaging and compelling.

Unfortunately, there are also some mistakes in the book, such as when iconoclastic American sociologist C. Wright Mills—who is largely responsible for turning the tide of Weberian interpretation away from functionalism and toward conflict theory—is repeatedly called “Wright Mill” (23-24). This is a minor mistake, but one that takes the educated sociological reader out of the otherwise fluid prose. In other places there are consequential typographical errors, such as in the abstract on the back cover and within the statement of a central thesis in the final chapter (177). In the second chapter, a missing “less” inadvertently reverses the meaning of a sentence from its intention (or so I presume given the surrounding context). In addition to issues problematic for generalists and copy editors, there are also occasional oversights that will stand out to specialists, such as when an otherwise excellent discussion of the concept of “religious capital” (175-79) fails to incorporate Larry Iannaccone’s (1990, 1995) thorough theoretical and empirical work on the concept.

These minor problems notwithstanding, the book is full of discussions on difficult topics that surpass the unproductive dialogue that typically accompanies their assessment. Among the exemplary treatments are considerations of how historical church/state arrangements influence eventual processes of secularization (44), the classical theoretical roots of both secularization [End Page 308]

(chapter one) and religious economies perspectives (70-73), and the rise of a consumerist approach to religion accompanied by the temporal instability of religious identities (157-60). Most impressive of all (at least for my analytical interests) is Warner’s interpretive analysis of the “new” atheism. Where most treatments fall into polemics on one side or the other thanks to the polarizing rhetoric of the movement, Warner’s analysis is clear-eyed and insightful (104-7), a real gem in a literature strewn with pyrite. Overall, Warner’s critical distance and erudition make this a valuable contribution to fiercely contested and important topics for understanding religion’s role in the postindustrial world. The book would be useful as an introduction to secularization for advanced students but also has much to offer those...