Religion Is Not a Preference


Joshua Mitchell is professor of government, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. 20057.


The resurgence of religion around the globe poses a challenge for both empirical and normative social scientists. For the former, the question is whether the terms at their disposal are adequate to comprehend religious self-understanding and, therefore, human motivation and conduct. For the latter, the question is whether those terms confuse or clarify the way in which religion may be brought into public dialogue without violating the tenets of pluralism or toleration. How, then, do social scientists of both persuasions currently understand religion? I begin by distinguishing religious experience from other sorts of experience, with a view to demonstrating, first, that the two preeminent terms adopted by social scientists today—“preference” and “choice”—cannot comprehend religious experience. To do this, I provide a brief exposition of what I call the “fable of liberalism,” in order to explain why the terms “preference” and “choice” have achieved the currency that they have and what problems their invocation was intended to address. Second, I consider two other terms social scientists often invoke—“value” and “identity”—and suggest that these terms also are inadequate for understanding religious experience. The first set of terms arises in the eighteenth century, out of the Anglo-American tradition; the second set of terms arises in the nineteenth century, out of the German tradition. None of these terms are able to comprehend religious experience, which antedates these sets of terms by centuries. I end by suggesting, first, that empirical social scientists would do well to reconsider whether terms that arose during specific historical moments in order to circumvent or to supersede religious experience can help them understand human motivation, let alone predict human conduct, whenever or wherever religion is involved; and, second, that the attempt by well-meaning normative social scientists to bring religion into the public sphere by treating it in terms of “preference,”“choice,”“value,” or “identity” distorts religious experience, and cannot succeed as a strategy for reintroducing religion into public dialogue, since religion is not what they wish to render it in terms of.