Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

One may distinguish morality, which is a practical matter of acting rightly, from ethics, a general matter of how to seek clarity in difficult moral cases. The social scientists who study religion have no code of ethics of their own, but their several disciplines have such codes.

The study of religion raises some ethical questions that do not often arise in other areas. One's identification with a religion and the level of commitment represented by that identification are matters proper to the person and to the person's mode of living. It is relatively easy for academics to do symbolic violence to consciences that may be tender, to persons who may have but a limited verbal apparatus at hand to articulate subtle nuances of belief, or to communities that may enshrine important values in religions. One person's atheism may play an instrumental role in establishing intellectual autonomy. Another person's conversion may have prevented despair and suicide. For another person yet, a tradition may invoke all goodness that lies beyond instrumental reason.

Ethical questions need to mediate among several kinds of objects that may bear moral value. First, there are norms, the content of which may be morally neutral but the authority of which may not be. For example, wearing a veil, hat, or yarmulke in a given place may be morally neutral, except for being prescribed or proscribed in a given society. Second, there are acts that

themselves are morally weighted; most people do not utter falsehoods, for example, without having qualms. Third, there is the matter of identity; some moral obligations need be met by particular persons, not just anybody (e.g., disciplining a child). Fourth, there are the consequences of a deed; a given action may be innocent enough (e.g., revealing a source to whom no promise of anonymity had been given), but foreseeable consequences may lead one to refrain from doing so.


Norms relevant to the social scientific study of religion include the wider norms of the society in which one lives, the norms of the religious groupings under study, and the professional norms of the social scientists themselves. Norms are relative; they are engendered by social groupings. The norms of religions have at times been foundational to the cultures of whole civilizations; however, they change as they come to be applied in new situations. Historians and historical sociologists of religion have the power to affect the course of normative developments by reaching into the past and finding new relevances in a heritage. There is consequently an ethical duty not only to be respectful of normative heritages but also to be critical of them in the light of present social needs (see Séguy 1984).

Social scientists informally follow many professional norms. They cooperate with colleagues irrespective of their religions. They report technical shortcomings and problems that arise in the course of their research, which in the study of something as elusive as religion are common. They report findings that, because of their own persuasions, they wish were otherwise. They exercise caution in citation practices, crediting another whose work is helpful but avoiding attributing to another stances that the other has not publicly expressed. Moreover, social scientists are not cited with any religious modifiers attached to their identities; doing so would imply that there are confessional motives rather than scientific ideas or findings under review. Finally, social scientists acknowledge relevant funding sources, the contexts in which research opportunities arise, and any policy questions that may have led to the formulation of research questions.


Activities of social scientists who study religion are often value-relevant. Because people in general need information upon which to base their moral judgments, the social scientific activities of collecting, analyzing, interpreting, and disseminating information have moral importance. This brings to bear on the scientist the imperative to provide accurate, sufficiently complete as to be adequate, and fair portrayals of various religions, practices, and adherents.

Conducting inquiry raises many issues and has led to developing ethical standards in research (Babbie 1995). If a project might place people at risk of civil or criminal liability, financial cost, or damaged employment prospects, one seeks advice and permission from institutional review boards, which universities routinely empanel. The participation of individuals as subjects in interviews or as respondents to questionnaires needs to be voluntary; prisons, training facilities, and even university classrooms may not leave potential subjects feeling free not to participate. Surreptitious observation of people's private lives or the use of deception is deemed unethical because it infringes on this principle of voluntary participation (for a case of qualms developing during research, see Alfred 1976). In the cases of interviews, questionnaires, and participant observation, guarantees of anonymity are usually given and kept. In some instances where potential controversial information is obtained, it may be advisable to destroy as soon as possible information that may be used to establish identities, lest files be subpoenaed and put to uses that would violate guarantees that the researcher has given. Sometimes it is necessary to conceal the specific purpose of a study, lest people artificially do or say things so as to affect the findings; in such cases, there is often a broad statement of purpose and sometimes a "debriefing" during which people can withdraw permission to use data they have given.

Denominational officials and even publishers sometimes attempt to keep studies of religious phenomena from being published. Because of the contingencies of research funds and publishing rights, proprietary claims may exist that can be used to inhibit the dissemination of information. Threats of litigation and the filing of suits against scholars are by no means unknown. In general, proprietary claims can be valid with respect to particular interview or questionnaire data or to particular accumulations of field notes as well as to creative literary texts; they are not valid with respect to general findings, public domain information, or new literary texts that are created differently in concept and structure from ones to which proprietary rights apply.

Scholars have debated presenting studies of controversial religions in conferences funded by and organized under the auspices of the controversial religions themselves. The concern is that the scientists might be co-opted by a religion under study, and subtly, if not blatantly, lose their objectivity (Horowitz 1978). In informal discussions, concern has been expressed about whether scientists should accept invitations for expense-paid trips to such conferences, whether they should publish their findings in volumes subsidized by the religious bodies, whether compromised individuals might form a powerful scholarly network, and whether work in the whole field would lose credibility because of the appearance of being compromised. Journal editors have declined offers even from non-controversial religions for special subsidized issues because of these discussions. Editor Roger O'Toole of Sociological Analy- sis (now Sociology of Religion ) published a symposium in 1983 designed to bring the discussion into the open; there was general agreement on principles but disagreement over whether co-optation had taken place. One view, expressed by Irving Louis Horowitz, was that if a religion were pursuing a pernicious objective, there would be an ethical obligation to study not merely its workings and the backgrounds of its members but also its wider purposes. This concern is analogous to one expressed by Marie Augusta Neal (1972: 129), that sociological analyses that serve a prophetic purpose are criminalized by some regimes while those that do not are made required reading. The distribution of disposable resources in a society can affect the balanced or imbalanced nature of social scientific inquiry and publication, and the study of religion is not immune to this possibility.

Among the personal stratagems described in the 1983 Sociological Analysis symposium was that of Bryan Wilson, who made his participation in any conference conditional upon, inter alia, his being free to say what he chose and not be subjected to any propagandistic addresses; he did not want to be co-opted and did not want to lend his reputation to any campaign of advocacy. Eileen Barker found the conferences useful for obtaining some information for her studies, but she declined honoraria and accepted only travel reimbursements that would have been covered anyway from other sources; she did not want her own financial position affected by the group she was studying.

Beyond conducting research and reporting it, there is another kind of relevant activity—serving as experts. Scholars know that there are multiple explanations of events in social life, religious events included; but the superficiality of the media and the quest for one-sided decisions in litigation do not allow for an honest circumspection regarding multiple explanations. The expert is left in the quandary of how to give "yes" and "no" answers when truthfulness demands greater nuance. Moreover, there seems to be no shortage of perpetrators of such pseudoscientific notions as "brainwashing" and "snapping" to give media operatives and attorneys the simplistic testimony they want (Shinn 1992).


The identity of the social scientist, as an ethical matter, pertains to what the scientist should or should not do by virtue of being a scientist. The scientist is someone who needs to maintain access to information that may be private or sensitive in nature. Because of the wider social significance of knowledge, it is important in the social world for people to be able to talk to scientists, answer questionnaires, and share their experiences with observers, without having their privacy violated. Thus the social scientist not only needs to protect the anonymity of sources as a promise to be kept, as discussed above, but also by virtue of being a member of a profession that plays a significant role in society. Moreover, it is incumbent on others not to attempt to compromise the privacy of social scientists' sources, save for the gravest of reasons.

The identity of the social scientist also involves responsibilities regarding the accurate and adequate dissemination of information. The scientist is the custodian of certain kinds of information. Publishing is not a mere stratagem for personal career advancement but an obligation. Many social scientists present lectures on a pro bono basis; others conduct research for groups that cannot pay anything; and still others serve as consultants for a variety of community organizations. The scientist who studies religion not only consults on matters involving information about religion but also, because of having gained the confidence of religious officials, is asked to serve in various other capacities for religious organizations.


Consequences of the research and publication activities of social scientists of religion vary from the relatively immediate to the remote. The concern that no harm come to the subjects of research pertains to relatively immediate consequences; the process itself should not occasion an attack on respondents' self-concepts or affect their levels of religiosity. Such possibilities are more relevant to participant observation research than questionnaire surveys, but even in the latter the researcher needs to be careful when delegating data collection to others. Religious officials who have distributed questionnaires for researchers have been known to lecture groups of respondents about what were supposed to be confidential responses (Babbie 1995:450). The concern over maintaining professional confidences is a traditional one in ethics and takes the form in the contemporary world of the right to privacy (Hurley 1982:53).

In general, the social scientific study of religion has revealed the extent of the variety of religious and moral systems; this is particularly true of cultural anthropology and comparative studies. The remote but inevitable result of this is that it becomes increasingly difficult for educated people to condemn actions that violate their own standards but appear to work no harm on anyone. For better or for worse, social science furthers broadmindedness and thereby is value-relevant. The remoteness of such consequences often makes adequate foresight difficult if not impossible in this regard. Consequently, the ethics of scientific pursuits rarely takes the form of applying a priori principles to projected actions but, instead, takes the form of finding oneself in an activity that engenders, furthers, or inhibits some social change and intellectually evaluating one's own contribution well after having begun a line of inquiry (see Caceres 1990).

Anthony J. Blasi


R. Alfred, "The Church of Satan," in The New Religious Consciousness , ed. C. Y. Glock and R. N. Bellah (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976): 180-202

E. Babbie, The Practice of Social Research , 7th ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1995)

M. Caceres, "Gramsci et l'éthique," Social Compass 37(1990):353-366

I. L. Horowitz, Science, Sin and Scholarship (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1978)

M. Hurley, The Church and Science (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1982)

M. A. Neal, "How Prophecy Lives," Sociological Analysis 33(1972):125-141

R. O'Toole (ed.), "Symposium on Scholarship and Sponsorship," Sociological Analysis 44(1983):179-225

J. Séguy, "Ernst Troeltsch," Social Compass 31(1984):169-183

L. D. Shinn, "Cult Conversions and the Courts," Sociological Analysis 53(1992):273-285.

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