Christian Smith responds to my review of The Sacred Project

Please welcome guest blogger Christian Smith, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. His post is a reply to my review of his book, The Sacred Project of American Sociology, originally posted here. He also posted a reply to Andrew Perrin’s review over on Scatterplot today (but because that is just in the comments section, he doesn’t get the CV line “guest blogger” from that appearance). I have added a few comments of my own at the end.

Reply to Phil Cohen’s “It’s Modernity, Stupid”

by Christian Smith

When Phil Cohen’s response to my book, The Sacred Project of American Sociology, was first published on his website, various colleagues alerted me to it, but also suggested it was not worth reading, much less engaging, so lopsided and noxious they said it was. I took their advice. However, over this holiday weekend I thought for fun I might disregard their advice and read Phil’s piece.

My informants turned out to be right. Offering a point-by-point reply to Phil’s review seems fruitless, given where he and I stand. But I will venture a few general observations and leave it at that.

What is most striking about Phil’s response in general is how indeed obviously lopsided it is. If what his readers wanted was the pulling out of context of everything that could possibly be construed to seem to be the worst in a book and framing it in a most damning light, then Phil delivered, entertainingly. His “documented personal animosity” toward me clearly showed in his tone and analysis.

However, if what readers wanted was a careful, reflective, and balanced evaluation of my book, they will have to look elsewhere. Maybe or maybe not such a review will be forthcoming in an academic journal.

Phil’s is the sort of response designed to get a book dismissed early on (within 24 hours of its release in July, in my case) before it is taken seriously by too many potentially interested readers. Throw the damn thing under the bus before it causes trouble. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” is the larger genre of rhetoric to which it belongs. This may be effective ideological activism, but it doesn’t really count as a serious review.

Phil’s reaction is a lot of distraction, mostly. He casts me as an anti-modern grump who can only think anecdotally. He discusses my case as if it were just another round in the Regnerus debacle. He picks away at this and that issue with lots of cute jabs. But those are diversions from my book’s larger argument about sociology’s sacred project and its problematic consequences. The subtext is this: Keep your eye on the ball of the game that Phil wants you to be playing, and ignore Smith’s actual argument. But not everyone is distracted. “I haven’t followed this closely, but it seems like Phil’s reaction just provides more evidence substantiating your thesis,” is what one sociology colleague (a secular, politically progressive, full professor) recently emailed me.

Phil’s view is that sociology’s mission simply = “modernity, stupid.” But that reflects a convergence-toward-uniformity view of modernity inherited from 1950s-style modernization theory. It does serve the rhetorical purpose of branding anyone as anti-modern as a “vaccine denier” who may not agree with Phil’s view of the world.

Unfortunately, Phil’s view about modernity is outdated, specifically concerning the empirical fact of “multiple modernities,” that is, about the massive cultural and institutional pluralism that characterizes real modernity today across and within societies and global regions, which numerous scholars have documented and theorized. There exists an important literature on multiple modernities that Phil might wish to consult to get this point: just as there is not only one modernity, so sociology need not be dominated by one sacred project. Phil’s cloaking of that project with the mantle of an allegedly inexorable singular modernity reflects in yet another way the parochial imagination of sociology’s sacred project that his piece seems intent on defending.

One theme in my book (among many) that Phil’s response obscured is that I am not recommending that American sociology be purged of its sacred project. Most social groups have sacred projects and sociology is entitled to its own sacreds. As I say in my book, sociology would be horrendously boring without a sacred project. Furthermore, when it comes to the particular features of sociology’s sacred project, I personally embrace and endorse many of them. My argument, then, is not to eliminate sociology’s sacred project, but rather to be more honest about our sacred project and its consequences and to allow a greater pluralism of sacred projects within the discipline. That Phil understood that basic point is not at all clear.

I continue to hear reports from various kinds of sociology colleagues around the country who have read my book and say they think it is essentially right, even if they do not agree with all the details. None of them, however, will ever say that in public. Why? Fear, intimidation, self-preservation. They know there is a price to be paid for speaking their minds on these matters, so they keep quiet. American sociology, in other words, has managed to create an environment of uncoordinated self-censorship.

Is everyone okay with that? If so, then let’s be satisfied with the kind of personal-animosity-driven writings like Phil Cohen’s piece. My only request, then, is, as I wrote in my book, that we be completely honest about what is going on and ready to live with the problematic consequences.


Reply from Philip Cohen

Four short points.

1. I didn’t say, and don’t believe, that my review was driven by any personal animosity. What I said in the original post was that, because I once used a profanity in an email to Smith, I didn’t want to get some editor in trouble if they were to publish my review and then Smith produced my email as evidence of bias. That’s why I published the review myself.

2. If my review was really just a lot of diversions, and out-of-context jabs, which obscured “many” themes from the book, then I really wonder what I missed. Where is there any actual evidence for his argument about contemporary American sociology, which is not subject to “framing … in the most damning light”? Maybe he should provide us with another appendix that clarifies which evidence we should evaluate seriously and which we should avoid lest we accidentally cherry pick anecdotes to make him look bad. The book is very short.

3. “None of them, however, will ever say that in public.” Really? Come on, o ye fearful anonymous colleagues of Christian Smith! Do you who think he is “essentially right” really plan to go through your careers without ever expressing your true opinions in public? What kind of intellectual coward does that (especially when they have tenure)? Coincidentally, this is exactly the tactic Nicholas Wade used in the other book I wrote a long review of this summer. “The less academics defend me,” they say, “the more evidence this is that I am courageous and alone in my maverick stance against the all-powerful academic establishment.” While Smith has an endowed chair at a wealthy private university — with zillions of dollars in foundation grants for his research projects — maybe the next person who agrees with his opinions will be the victim of harsh retribution and face some career-ended “price to be paid.” Or maybe this is baloney.

4. Sure, multiple modernities. However, some contemporary modernities are really postmodern pre-modernities.

Note: I tried to find the source for the screaming man image, but it’s been used too many times without attribution, going back at least to 2008, for me to figure out the source.

11 thoughts on “Christian Smith responds to my review of The Sacred Project

  1. I’d like to follow up on Philip’s 2nd point and what, in my view, is the most important point of his original critique of Smith’s book: Why does Smith expect us to believe his claims about the specific and (according to him) problematic nature of Sociology’s sacred project? The evidence he presents is weak by any measure, as Philip points out. In Smith’s response to Andrew Perrin’s critique over on Scatterplot, Smith asks: “Can we please talk about the substance of what is sacred to us and how well it fits what we as a discipline publicly claim to be?” It seems to me that disagreeing with Smith’s specific claims about that sacred project after scrutinizing his evidence is having precisely that conversation that Smith claims to want. Smith wants us to believe that no one is having this conversation because we are too afraid and intimidated (and this unsubstantiated motivation is somehow more evidence of his position), but I propose that we are not engaging with this conversation on the level that Smith would like because we have evaluated his evidence and find his argument unworthy of further consideration.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I posted the same thing (the Larry Wade review does not belong here, but the Christian Smith rview was OK), he refused to post my comments. Sociologists an social/cultural anthropologists had a hard time with biology. In contrast, biological anthropologists do a goo review of Wade an race.


        1. That’s your right as a blog owner. Simply, I have already posted very long reply to your review.
          For starters ” That’s how I was raised to understand natural selection: individuals with stronger, better traits breed more than those with weaker, worse traits.” is wrong. What is “better trait” depends on environment. For example, strong immunological system is good, but it is also costl. In an environment where there is low risk of dying from infection (maybe because modern medicine) too strong immunological system is not necessarily better, since you pay a cost without gaining anything.

          Using words from my own field, evolution is a mutlicriterion optimization problem. When you reduce weight given to some criterion, it does not mean optimization has stopped. It simply started to optimize for different things.

          And getting back to the topic, there really seems to be widespread assumption, that some topics are taboo. It does not mean that they are really taboo; it only means that they are perceived as such – at least this is my impression after reading blogs of people like Peter Frost, Harpending and others, who claim they constantly meet other scientists who tell them “you have balls of steel”. It’s like during communism in my own times. Everybody knew that some topics are forbidden – censorship usually happened in people’s minds before they even started writing anything. And those, who were supporting whole-heartily the system, obviously were arguing that anyone is free to write anything he/she wants. That YOU do not notice the pressure does not mean anything. The question iswhether people who think differently feel pressure to avoid certain thoughts.

          And certainly mthe reaction to the Wade’s book (a letter condemning him for, amongst others, things he didn’t write) also contributes to the general feeling that some topics are note welcome by society and may contribute to the pressure felt by some scientists.


  2. Academic discrimination and self censoring isn’t a conspiracy because it lacks a lot of positive evidence to bear it out anymore than sex crime discrimination and self censoring is a conspiracy because it lacks a lot of positive evidence.

    There is survey data from rapists and academics admitting outright to their behavior. There is a pile of anecdotal evidence of both types of victims self-censoring about their feelings and opinions.

    And the public outcry surrounding these issues, and the self-censoriship that follows for potential targets of that outcry, is supported by canonical social theory on mechanical solidarity. Groups react violently to affronts at their core values — the integrity of Victorian-styled female sexuality and the integrity of the Victorian-styled scientific neutrality of sociology.

    We could do a lot more to understand sexual taboos and academic taboos by collecting more interviews and surveys. Like Smith says, though, the effort here seems to be to crucify people who broach the issue with snark and an unholy machine gun of derogatory adjectives before they can persuade anyone it’s an issue worth studying.


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