The sociology of religion, which was once at the center of the general field of sociology, unfortunately was somewhat marginalized in the latter part of the twentieth century. Now, however, it is coming back as an important area of study, and Paul Froese is one of its very best new researchers. After obtaining his PhD from the University of Washington, where he worked chiefly with me, with Rodney Stark, and with Steve Pfaff, Froese took a position at Baylor University, where he is now an associate professor and a research fellow for the Institute for Studies of Religion.
Professor Froese’s revised dissertation was published by University of California Press in 2008 with the title The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization. In that work, he elegantly describes how the Soviet Union tried by brutal repression to eliminate religion but failed completely to destroy belief in the supernatural, even though it greatly weakened church institutions. Perhaps even more telling, the attempt to replace religion with official Marxist-Leninist faith was drastically unsuccessful. Froese argues not so much that religion is somehow necessary for people but rather that it is very difficult to replace one faith with another by force. In any case, the simplified version of Marxism that the Soviets tried to impose was far too shallow to do the job. Widespread religious faiths get established over generations and therefore cannot be eradicated quickly even if churches are destroyed.
Interestingly, there has been controversy surrounding The Plot to Kill God, which shows the sensitive nature of this kind of work. Some have attacked it as an apology for religion, while others have praised it as a refutation of arguments against religion. But the book does neither of these things. Instead it is a data-driven analysis that shows a previously relatively neglected aspect of how and why communism failed: not only did communism not deliver the economic goods but it also never succeeded in laying a solid philosophical and moral basis for its claims to universal truth. In 2009, it won the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion’s prize for the most distinguished book in the study of religion.
Froese and his colleagues at Baylor went on to obtain a major grant to conduct a series of national surveys on religion in the United States. Called the “Baylor Religion Surveys,” this project included a battery of questions about how Americans think of God. What he and his colleague Christopher Bader found is that while most Americans believe in God, there exist widespread disagreements about the extent to which this God is judgmental and directly engaged in the world. In the ensuing book, America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God—and What That Says about Us (Oxford University Press, 2010), Froese and Bader show that Americans who believe in a more engaged and judgmental God tend to be moral absolutists, they distrust academic science, they are economic conservatives, and they report higher levels of nationalism. But at the same time, the majority of American believers who believe in other kinds of gods do not share those attitudes. Belief as such is not a good predictor of social and political attitudes because the other “three Gods” are different. What counts is the kind of belief. While this finding is not so surprising by itself, it solidly lays to rest the tired argument about whether the “secularization” thesis is right or wrong. Again using an immense amount of data, the book demonstrates that what is going on in America is not necessarily a progression from religion to its rejection but can best be described as a process of change in the way people understand the supernatural. America’s Four Gods was widely discussed in the popular press because it is one of the first solid pictures given to us about the nature of contemporary American religious diversity.
Now Froese has a contract with Oxford University Press for what is going to be a daring new book, to be called On Purpose: A Sociology of Life’s Meaning. As with his previous volumes, this will not be a speculative treatise about what life and religion mean but rather a study based on data that will show how a sense of purpose is socially constructed and varies quite dramatically across different parts of the globe and among different faiths. Students of classical sociology, of Durkheim and Weber, will not be surprised that this is a very important topic, but the fact is that there have been too few recent attempts to examine these large questions systematically combining the use of history, social theory, and the large amount of survey data now available.
Fortunately, an increasing number of senior social scientists have started to pay attention once more to religion, and Paul Froese’s large number of articles and growing body of major books assure this young scholar a place in what is certain to be a central area of concern for the social sciences over the next many decades.
Daniel Chirot is Job and Gertrud Tamaki Professor of International Studies and of Sociology at the University of Washington and a contributor to the SSRC’s Possible Futures digital forum and book series.