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Friday, August 12, 2011

Why a friar writes a sociology textbook

Fifteen years ago I decided to write my own introductory sociology textbook. I worked on it for a couple of years and then put it aside. Recently I decided to pick up the task again.

Why do it?

Sociology asks important questions about how we humans live together. The answers it gives are often incomplete. They are answers formulated without taking into consideration the Gospel. This is not surprising, since many of the people who created the field of sociology were not people of faith.

I am a person of faith. I think the Gospel has things to say about how we humans live together. A field of study that asks questions about that topic is impoverished if it does not take into account how the Gospel can shape human beliefs about the issue.

Sociology claims to be a science. Until a few years ago the word “science” was almost a god-term in western societies. Sociology had to defend itself against “hard” science, which argued that sociology could never be a science. Sociologists were attacked from both sides. Religious people were accusing them of being godless, and the “true” scientists were accusing them of not being scientific enough.

Today the term “science” has lost its godlike status. Postmodern authors have accused science of adding to human misery by using scientific language to cloak political oppression. This is a huge change from the days when science was seen as promising an end to all human misery.

So, sociology, never quite scientific enough, and always suspect of being godless, floats in academic limbo. Some universities, including my own, have abolished their departments of sociology, replacing them with departments of social work and criminal justice. Maybe sociology needs religion more than religion has needed sociology.

I say this because the questions raised in sociology are important questions in the world we live in. There is no problem with using both faith and human “reason” as the basis for discussions about the good life. The great medieval philosopher theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus did it all the time. They constantly asked, “what do we know from faith and what do we know without referring to our beliefs?” The one thing they lacked was the habit of using empirical observation when they discussed what we know without faith. Instead they used philosophical speculation, mostly based on ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, and Muslim philosophers like Ibn Rushd (Averroes)and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna).

Here are some of the questions raised in sociology, questions whose answers can be enriched by bringing in the Gospel. The questions are based on the topics treated in standard introductory sociology textbooks.

What good is science? How can it be misused? How do we know what “misuse” is?

What can we learn about ourselves from empirical observation? Does the Gospel have anything to say about how we do such observation?

What are values, and where do they come from? How do human beings differ around the world in their values? What should we do about those differences?

What do we know about how we humans are born, mature, and die? What influences do our groups have on our being born, maturing, and dying?

How should we react to people who hurt other people?

How do men differ from women and what should we do about the differences?

Why are some people rich and others poor? What should we do about the difference between rich and poor?

What is a good economy?

How does religion operate in human groups? What are some of its good effects and some of its bad effects?

How can we create more successful ways of governing ourselves?

What is a good education, and how can we help more people to get one?

What is good family life, and how important is it to promote it?

What is “health,” and how can we improve it among the people?

What happens when more people are born than die, or when people migrate from one place to another?

Why do people gather in cities? What are the advantages of that gathering, and what are the problems it creates?

What makes people revolt?

How have we humans changed over the centuries?

I have used the word “should” in several of those questions. It has been customary to rule such language out of scientific discussions--the job of science is to determine what is, not what should be.

Who says so? True, as soon as you use the word “should,” you get disagreement. But when you quit using the word, you make the discussion boring and irrelevant. People who refuse to use the word are operating on the basis of a belief that we can have certitudes that we can all agree on, and that by limiting ourselves to those certitudes, we reduce conflict.

It hasn’t worked. Our world has as much conflict as it ever has. When you have no conflict you have either irrelevance or oppression. The classroom is a place where conflict should be welcomed and harnessed for the good of the whole community.

The questions I listed above would have been answered by philosophy in earlier times. Academic philosophy in our day seems to have abandoned discussion of them. Sociology is a place where they can be discussed again.

Let us begin.