Donald S. Swenson. Society, Spirituality and the Sacred: A Social Scientific Introduction. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1999. 432pp. $29.95

This text is an intellectually rich introduction to the web of interrelationships between religion, culture, society and the sacred. It is broad in scope, offering a plethora of quotations from primary sources and more than passing references to world religions in specific regional contexts.

Trained in theology and sociology, Donald Swenson seeks to weave together a basic history of the world’s religions with a social science flavour. And in this endeavour, I believe he is highly successful. His perspective is Weberian and the text is integrated almost exclusively around a model that highlights the importance and continuing relevance of social action, social structure and culture. Myth, ritual, ethos and institutions are discussed in a theoretically consistent manner by reference to personal experience and institutional order. Individual chapters cover the linkages of religion and politics, religion and family life, and the secularization controversy.

Alternative and complementary theories such as the paradigms of Durkheim, Marx, Freud and rational choice models receive some attention, but this is first and foremost a Weberian text. I am not necessarily criticizing the lens through which Swenson introduces us to the social history and contemporary social reality of religion in Canada and beyond. It is refreshing in its breadth and integration, even if the Weberian theme is a bit overpowering at times. Individual experience is highlighted as is the impact of the sacred on the life of the believer.

The book is organized into three sections: religious world views and boundaries; dilemmas in the institutionalization of religion; and the linkages of religion to other institutions (as well as religious responses to postmodernity). While the first portion of the book is directed towards world religions and the historical context through which they have evolved, the remainder of the book is clearly a modern lens through which to understand spirituality and the quest for the sacred in contemporary society. As a sociologist, I found the latter two sections of the book more engaging; perhaps, religious studies scholars would have a different view-point. Here, Swenson offers us a window to see the sacred within, the sacred between and the sacred among. Students will be able to locate their own private journey towards, or away from, organized religion and compare that to evidences of spiritual awakening in themselves or others.

The book is a wonderful contribution to the Canadian market, for there is very little explicitly Canadian writing on the social scientific study of religion. It would be useful for upper level courses introducing religious studies students to social scientific thought, or for sociology students or students of social history engaged in the study of religious phenomena. It is written in a clear manner, but the book assumes a certain level of prior knowledge about religion and the development of Western thought. It might, therefore, also serve as an introductory text for sociology or history graduate students engaged in their first exposure to the social scientific study of religion.

While the book is remarkably comprehensive in theoretical terms, it does not offer much in the way of any sustained analysis of new religious movements, black religion, neo-paganism or the feminist challenge to patriarchal religions, fundamentalist or mainstream. But, of course, one book cannot - should not - attempt everything under one cover. When all is said and done, the author’s purpose in writing this text should guide our evaluation of it. Donald Swenson set out to offer a Weberian perspective “for studying the personal and social experience of the sacred, the emergence of myths, the expression of the sacred through ritual, the living out of myths through ethos, and the social structuring of the sacred in organizations” (p. 388). He has accomplished this, and much more.

Nancy Nason-Clark
University of New Brunswick
Past President, Association for the Sociology of Religion

November 1999
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