Christina Larner’s small—and sadly rare—volume of collected lectures, originally delivered at the University of Glasgow in 1982 form a fascinating exposition of the link between sociology and natural theology as well as introducing the sociology of religion more generally.
After providing some much-needed historical context in the emergence of the Gifford bequest, Larner’s opening lecture explores the historical development of the sociology of religion, focusing on the underrepresented scholars—many of whom were Scottish—who pioneered the field before reaching its final codification in the work of Weber and Durkheim. Larner rightly criticizes the neglect of sociology of religion pinning that to the Marxist heritage of sociology, eager to dismiss it as ‘the opium of the masses.’
Proceeding by way of methodological atheism (the necessary starting point for any sociological discussion of God) Larner moves to examine pre-Industrial Europe and the idea of ‘cuius region eius religio’ which is, in English translation, 'the prince shall determine the religion of his territory'. Christian faith as ideology provides political internal legitimacy, whereby religious crimes (particularly witchcraft) can be punished on theological grounds, with political and economic impact. This examination of Christianity’s political utility moves on to a more in depth discussion of witchcraft in early modern history (a subject Larner has published extensively on in the past) arguing that the law and order panic around witchcraft emerges from a unique set of combined discourses.
The Christianization of early modern Europe allowed for Christianity to serve a function as a political ideology and thus witchcraft could be redefined as not simply a ecclesiastical crime but a secular one, that must be tried in secular courts. Witch hunting is compelling framed as the pursuit of an ideological crime in the process of legitimizing new regimes of political power. Larner’s final lecture turns to the problem of relativism—the ‘moderately uncontentious’ position that beliefs are a product of the culture they emerge from and should be seen in light of that fact, with the somewhat more contentious idea that all cultural beliefs can only be held to be equally true, valid and rational. Whilst Larner admits to finding relativism as an essential heuristic tool but does not go so far as to completely embrace it. Relativism Larner argues, is a specifically Western cultural product, one prone to falling into reductive binaries.
Larner’s thorough analysis and often compelling voice (the lectures are transcribed exactly as she delivered them) make this a brief, but most invigorating introduction to her work and the vital relationship between society, belief, practice and critical judgment.