Can Christianity and Sociology Mix? Part 3.

By George Yancey
Part 3 in a series (Read part 1 and 2)

It may not be a surprise that a social scientist can allow his studies to inform his faith. Science is often seen as “truth” while faith is seen as “opinion.” But I do not agree with that viewpoint. I see both science and religion as different, but valid, ways of accumulating knowledge. So if my Christianity can be informed by my sociology then my sociology can be informed by my Christianity.

My sociology often provides me with an understanding of how society, and the individuals in it, works. But my Christianity is helpful about informing me on the nature of humans. It gives me a perspective that I would not necessarily see as a pure social scientist. In fact, I think a lot of social scientists have missed the boat as it comes to understanding the nature of humans. My faith tells me about human depravity. It talks about being born into sin and our innate selfish nature. In contrast to the notion of human depravity is the idea which I see among so many social scientists which is human perfectibility. Many of my colleagues believe that we are not innately depraved and that with enough education and training that we can develop a healthy morality. I guess it makes sense that they would have such a perspective since it allows scholars and educators to gain status as those who will play a key role in perfecting humans and society. But the evidence I see supports the idea that we are born with an innate selfish nature not easily changed through human efforts.

It is rather easy to show that we are born with a selfish or self-centerness in our nature. Ever watch a baby? A baby merely wants more and more. He or she has no concept of giving to others. A baby, as cute as he or she may be, is a great example of human depravity. But can we train that baby and create the perfectible moral being that some desire for our society? We can to some extent. But there are serious limitations to what we can do.

The key way many academics believe we are perfectible is through education. But, two of my friends, Michael Emerson and David Sikkink, made an interesting discovery several years ago. They found out that the more education whites obtained the more likely that they said they supported racial integration in neighborhoods and schools. However, they also found that the more education whites obtained the less likely they were to live in integrated neighborhoods and send their kids to integrated schools. Those educated whites talk a good game about racial integration but their actions work against the very integration they profess to desire. It is as if their education taught them what to say on surveys, but also how to maintain the racial status quo that works to their advantage. Education does not create a better person, but simply teach that person how to do a better job presenting his/herself to society.

Education is unable to “prefect” humans because of our basic nature. This is where human depravity can enlighten us about who we are. My Christianity has informed me that while we can get better that there is an element of depravity that cannot be removed by human efforts. It can, and must, be controlled. Ideally it may be controlled through personal efforts at becoming moral but if necessary we need laws and social sanctions to control that depravity. In my every day experience I consistently find the idea of human depravity to be a better explanation for what I see than the idea that humans are perfectible. I thank my Christianity for this valuable insight. It is one that does not come naturally to social scientists who, after all, have a vested interest in believing that they can “fix” society if individuals will accept the training offered by these scientists.

Does this insight shape how I do my work? Of course it does. It informs my sociology by allowing me to be a holistic person of mind and spirit. In the last entry to this series I will look at a specific way in which my faith informs my sociology even as my sociological training has given me skills to better hone my faith. And we will see this in an area that is not automatically seen as being “religious.”


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