Is social theory scripture for “The Nones”?

Jesse Callahan Bryant
6 min readNov 16, 2021

Every Wednesday for the past ten weeks I’ve walked down to one of the old-looking buildings on Yale’s beautiful campus and in the gothic living room of a wonderful professor spent two hours talking about “sociological theory.” There are about fifteen of us in the class — folks from China, Hong Kong, Australia, Ukraine, Colorado, San Francisco, Spain, Slovenia, and Compton. Some are in their 40s, others in their teens, and everyone else somewhere in between. Our wonderful professor sits on her couch and gets conversation going, but after a few minutes every week things snowball and are alive. And the whole time I haven’t been able to shake the sense that I’m participating in some new emerging church.

The sort of spiritual dimension of this thing is at once unexpected and yet explainable. Unexpected because everything we read is in some ways understood broadly as rigorous and empirical studies of society, and yet the more we read the more it becomes clear that they are contradictory, challenging, and moralizing attempts to make sense of this world, and in particular the grand philosophical mystery of socialness: Why, at all, do we form communities? How, really, do we navigate as both individuals and members of groups? Why do hierarchies exist? How should I find my place in this big modern machine? What is compassion? What is meaning? What is consciousness? What is sacred?

As we fumble together through the classics on Wednesday afternoons — Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Burke, Dubois, Mead, Arendt, Sahlins, de Beauvior, Parsons, Simmel, Goffman, Freud, Bourdieu, Foucault, Latour — each feel like some new emerging scripture aimed at the big questions of life while somehow retaining a mode compatible with modern secular epistemological sensibilities. Their authority flows from evidence and logic as opposed to more arbitrary authorities. And in a world so obscenely concerned with the primacy of the individual human, reading about the mysteries of the social, for me at least, feels surprisingly sacred.

This is perhaps no surprise. I was raised by a sociologist mother and brilliantly social father in a household where education and experience were worshipped. My philosophical orientation toward life is a part of the growing minority of “nones” — those who experience capital-R Religion as just somewhat irrelevant. But the fact that Religion is just not a part of my life does not mean that I, or my fellow nones, don’t strive for the sacred in the same way as those raised in a particular faith. Many come to worship themselves. Others worship money, others power, others respect. Expectedly, I dump pretty heavily into worshipping knowledge, and it comes in a somewhat spiritual style. In fact, I, classically, would describe myself as deeply spiritual. Taking the knowledge-seeking and spirituality together, it makes sense ultimately that reading something like Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life feels, quite literally, liturgical.

It is a funny conundrum, you know, being born deeply spiritual with no clear institutional outlet to express that nature. In many ways, I think my pursuit of a Ph.D. is an expression of that somewhat suppressed desire for institutionalized meaning. I see my current situation as somewhat akin to a secular priesthood — an extended period of study focused on understanding how the not-yet-known becomes known and helpful to people. And in this church of the academy in which doctoral programs may be seen as some modern monastic rite toward priesthood no course has felt more sacramental than SOCY 542: Sociological Theory.

I think this is the case for at least two reasons. First, it’s theory not science. There is no opportunity for dry conversations about statistical rigor. The only mode of knowing that is relevant in theoretical conversations is whether you buy it or not. Is it valid? And so what emerges in conversations is just a lot of people applying the patterns of thought to their own lives and trying to either validate or invalidate what, say, Marx is writing about based on what they know about history.

The second thing about the sociological theory is that what is being theorized is often huge, sometimes sublime: What is language? What is culture? What is society? What is the nature of the relationship between culture and society? How do groups form? How can we, as an individual, be conscious of what a group needs? What is identity? How did industrial society come to be? What is science? What is politics? What is the true nature of power? How do classes form? How do they struggle with one another?

It is the same reality that makes the social sciences perennially more challenging than the natural sciences that leads also to their sort of liturgical potency. When an astronomer makes a scientific claim about the mineral composition of some astroid they’re just about the only person on Earth that can claim a legitimate perspective, being the only human that’s like, seen the thing or has the ability to see the thing. However, when a sociologist makes a scientific claim about the racially determined distribution of resources in five counties in Northern Texas, oh, there are a lot of humans that will, and rightly so, have opinions about whether the sociologist is right or not. In sociology, regardless of the statistical rigor of “the facts” there will be humans with what will seem like “alternative facts.” Honestly, I think that it is the explosion of sociology into the mainstream over the past decade that really in some ways paved the way for the Trumpian discrediting of science.

And at the same time, nobody really cares about the astronomer. And the astronomer has no shot at really changing people’s lives. They are a detached discipline in that any claim they make must be taken as valid because nobody else has a fucking telescope and at the same time no one cares. Asteroid theory affects nobody. If it is in some ways each of our goals to come to grips with what we’re caught up in and build a meaningful life within it, knowing that there is water on 65 Cybele and knowing that culture emerges through binaries of good|bad, sacred|profane, dirty|clean are different kinds. One is interesting, the other is deeply relevant to a meaningful life.

I don’t mean to suggest that what we’re reading in this class should be treated as canon. I just mean to say that reading social theory of any kind, to the mind of the nones, might feel like scripture in a way that is surprising. If you don’t believe me look at how Kimberle Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality has been treated by the left and reactionary right today. It is a sacred theory that some people treat as true and other see as enormously threatening to their sacred theory of the individual.

Or look at how many today still worship Marx: a social theory that’s treated as sacred by some and deeeeeply threatening to others who, 99% of which having never read Marx, believe that his ideas are ruining entire countries. Or capitalism — Adam Smith was just a social theorist who believed that competition between institutions drives innovation and ultimately leads to higher levels of wellbeing for the public.

Today, whether we are aware of it or not, centuries-old social theories drive how each of us make sense of ourselves and the world around us. For me, why the things I’m reading in this class feel bizarrely liturgical is that they do what religion does while sticking to the nones-sensibilities of knowing that I was raised in of observation, logic, and argumentation. That is, they try to explain the big picture of what I’m caught up in and how that big picture creates the small mundane everyday of my particular life — how I can be one of nearly 8 billion and yet feel special and feel attached to some people and somethings and not others and what this moment we’re living through really is and where gender came from and how language works and how symbols become meaningful and how different events in particular sequences become things like “the hero’s journey” or “the love story” or the “one-six-four-five chord progression.”

And it’s great that toward the end of every class that our wonderful professor, sitting on her couch, quietly sort of stops conversation to ask: so, who buys this theory? People are often split. Some people are realizing that they’re Weberians, others Durkheimians, and others Marxists. Many ways of connecting the dots are on offer, and each are taken seriously and skeptically and, in some cases, as sacred.

But it’s all BS. Really good, and meaningful BS.

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Jesse Callahan Bryant

Jesse is a Ph.D. student at the Yale School of the Environment, creator of the Yonder Lies podcast, and instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School.