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Markus Luber SJ

End of Secularization?

Recent Insights of the 29th Congress
of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 4/2008, pp 259-269
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In July 2007 in Leipzig the 29th Congress of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion took place. The conference dealt with the topic "Secularity and Religious Vitality." MARKUS LUBER, minister of the Catholic students in Leipzig gives a survey of issues and findings of the Congress and regards interculturality at present as major challenge for forming religio-sociological theories.


For the sociology of religion the territory of the former German Democratic Republic offers even almost two decades after the reunification a special religious situation. There is hardly any other region of Europe with such a comparably high level of a permanent lack of religious beliefs. Here phenomena of a secularization process appear which cannot easily be subsumed under the usual interpretation patterns of confrontation between modernity and religion.

At the end of July 2007 in Leipzig the 29 Congress of the International Society for Sociology of Religion (ISSR) took place under the heading "Secularization and Religious Vitality". The title page of the programme showed the Leipzig Nikolai Church with the commemorative column for the "Peaceful Revolution". What at first seems like a harmless city view on closer inspection turns out to be a "symbol" that extremely well illustrates the difficulty clearly to determine the relationship of secularization and religious vitality: Leipzig was the outstanding scene of enormous processes of political change, which decisively took shape in the church context. The peaceful revolution leading in 1989 to the collapse of the SED dictatorship found its place of gathering and inspiration above all also through the peace prayers in the said Nikolai Church. But at the same time that church stands in a representative city of eastern Germany, where despite the profound social changes hardly anything has changed in the religious situation since GDR times.

The historical moments that also determine this specific relationship between religion and modernity can be located in Leipzig like in a model city. Because it is not only the city of the Peaceful Revolution but was also the economic centre of East Germany, and with its music and fair tradition it represents the cultural Protestantism of a self-confident, enlightened bourgeoisie. Apart from the Nikolai Church also the Thomas Church as important place of Protestant musical culture and the blown up Pauliner Church as symbol of the struggle between religion and the ideology of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) in the 20th century are therefore counted among the emblematically charged places of that history of religion. Even though it is impossible here further to develop the interplay of those factors, it is clear that the current phenomena are complex.



So it is not surprising that studies on this specific situation in Eastern Germany recently got the well-consolidated theories of sociology of religion moving. The International Society for the Sociology of Religion had therefore good reasons after 20 years to come again to Germany, and especially to Leipzig to an "inspection of the locality".


The Classic Secularization Thesis and its Developments

In order to explain the title of the Congress the current theory discussion within sociology of religion must be dealt with. Its centre is still the secularization thesis, which has decisively been formulated by Max Weber at the beginning of (the) last century. It claims that in modern times, under the influence of increasing urbanization, industrialization, growing prosperity, individualization and cultural pluralization major revolutions occur also in the sphere of religion. From the autonomization of politics an institutional separation of State and churches results. At first the consequences appear above all within the area of the organized religion, which increasingly leaves the public sector and becomes a private matter.

The original, radical version of that theory is based on a general incompatibility between modernity and religion, and holds the irreversibility of the process of secularization, provided there are no radical social revolutions. It predicts the complete disappearance of religion in modern societies. In the meantime the consequences of the encounter between religion and modernity are described in precise and subtle analyses. An inevitable and irreversible process of secularization is hardly assumed any more; one rather speaks of a general loss of importance. It is simply about the combination of established processes in the way that increasing secularization generally means a decline of religious vitality. Through those restrictions the theory lost some of its sharpness. This climb-down is understandable in view of the increasingly global perspective which more and more clarifies that the diversity of religious situations also in modern societies takes very different developments. Accordingly, the secularization theory for some time has been under fire from several directions.

Since about the early'90s of the last century sociology of religion increasingly focuses on the phenomenon of the privatization of religion, and an individualization thesis has been stated that contradicts the assumption of a general disappearance of religion. It assumes that the encounter with modernity has negative effects mainly upon the institutionalized religion, whereas in the individual area religiosity as always has high relevance. That means the decline in significance is only partial, to be precise, it applies only to the public sector.



In the train of those arguments in recent times one has often spoken of a religious renaissance.

Characteristic for the individualization theory is a highly enlarged concept of religion, which goes beyond the domains of pre-defined faith doctrine. The speech of "invisible religion" (Thomas Luckmann) and "heretical imperative" (Peter L. Berger) puts the religio-cultural pluralism into the centre, which is characterised by a tendency to de-institutionalization. The retreat of religion into private areas of life in that reading does not necessarily also mean a diminution of its vitality. The continued vitality of religion becomes apparent in the diversity of the new possibilities of expression, which to an increased extent get going just through the ending of institutional regulation. It is interesting that during the Congress in that context often the keyword "spirituality" was used for extra-institutional religiosity. The perception among sociologists of religion seems to be that spirituality and institution contradict each other.


Sociology of Religion from the Point of View of a Market Model

The line of argument of mainly American sociologists of religion who examine the field of religiosity with the help of a market model is almost opposite to the classical secularization thesis. In the background is the Rational Choice Theory (RCT), the theory of rational decision, an economic theory of action that was adapted to religio-sociological issues. In the following it will be dealt with more in detail, because at present it determines the religio-sociological discussion to a considerable extent.

The Rational Choice Theory develops a theory of religion which is based on the laws of the market as interplay of supply and demand. This orientation towards economic aspects involves that religious institutions are compared with secular participants in the economic exchange who are influenced by the forces of the market. The religious "providers" are like worldly producers motivated by self-interest and determine by the quality of their offer how much religion is in demand. The focus of consideration of that theory is the individual man, who "rationally" makes decisions, i.e. after balancing the costs and benefits and taking into account the guidelines. "Rational" is here not to be restricted to logical or reasonable but describes the focussing on cognitive aspects in decision-making.

The analysis of the market theorists shows that secularization involves an increasing pluralization. But this pluralization does not lead to a general relativization and thereby weakening but causes an increase of religious vitality, because the offers on the religious market become more varied, quite in the sense that increased competition stimulates the business.



Of central importance in that context is the idea of religious freedom, which has an effect in modern times and significantly changes the religious landscape. Due to the separation of church and State the market opens, so that the anti-competitive state monopoly is abolished. The prognosis of that perspective therefore reads: the pluralization beginning with the secularization of the religious market will sooner or later cause revitalization. That consequently means that modern societies and religion need not only contradict each other, but taking that into consideration secularization has even a positive effect on the development in the field of religion.

The concepts used here, such as cost, capital, supply and demand should not a priori lead to a negative judgment, because at first it is just about a theory model. The resulting alienation effect can help to discover new dimension. One achievement of that model is that not only the religious demand is in the centre but inevitably also the offer. This shift in perspective is in so far important as the question of religious needs can very quickly lead to a psychological way of looking at things, whereas the focusing on the "supply" above all the social dimension gives a chance. In fact, religious communities deal with the question of how they can win followers and how they convincingly present their message. The whole field of mission, which can be understood as competition event, is here of importance. But it is risky to assume that the increased competitive pressure is automatically accompanied by higher quality standards. You could rather talk of an intensified orientation towards the customers, which has not necessarily to do with quality yet.

At the Congress of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion in Leipzig that market model has repeatedly been criticised to the effect that the Rational Choice Theory which forms its background assumed complex social phenomena could simply be made accessible by grasping the individual acts on which they are based. Social behaviour is simply understood as composed of individual acts. Then the individual is motivated by the desire to satisfy its needs. In order to achieve the highest possible degree of satisfaction it must consider the guidelines and conditions. In this perspective a decision is based on a cost-benefit calculation, which weighs the stake needed to satisfy a need. In accordance with those premisses social behaviour too is understood as exchange process. Just as the exchange of goods and services takes place according to economic laws, social interactions are regulated by values and social recognition.

The sharpest criticism is directed against that parallelization of social interaction and economic activity, because the action of a person is not exclusively motivated by reward or cost.



It cannot simply be assumed that individuals always "rationally" weigh. That fixing to market laws neglects especially in the religious area that decisions are made not only "rationally" but also "habitually". Religious people refer for example also to traditions and habits, quite apart from emotional aspects.

In addition the Rational Choice Theory is found fault with because the established "methodological individualism" means that collective action, social norms and social structures are not adequately grasped. For individuals do not calculate only according to their own interests but orient toward social groups and corporations, which likewise take part in the social interactions. Questions arising in that context - e.g. the materialisation of social norms which take recourse to reciprocity, altruism and trust refer to inherent laws of social action.

The Rational Choice Theory generally counts among the most influential approaches of sociology in the United States, and by transferring it to the sociology of religion big expectations were attached to it. It is therefore not surprising that the religious situation in the United States, which hardly knows market regulations by the State, is the milieu of origin of that theory. For that reason alone its representatives should not be reproached, for also a theory developed on a special background is valid as long as it is not falsified. But on closer examination you cannot refrain from the impression that the Rational Choice Theory is not only tailored to the religious situation of the United States, but in particular to a Christianity of American style, which is distinguished by its "congregational" form.

Not institutions, places or hierarchies are at the centre but associations representing the "assembly" of the faithful. It is therefore also easy for it to compare religious organizations with groups of companies with which it is also about staff units. A high-quality supply situation will then be equated with a widest possible assortment, which is provided in the United States by the many religious communities. By that fixation the perspective is narrowed, what is also reflected in the applicability of the theory.

Admittedly, to support their arguments the "market theorists" point for example to the Scandinavian countries, for which they can quite plausibly explain the scarcely existing religious practice of the population by the government-supported monopoly of the Protestant Lutheran Church. But for their opponents it is easy to counter, referring to Catholic countries like Ireland and Poland, where despite support by the State a relatively high level of religious participation exists.



At the latest at that point the Rational Choice Theory must include further points of view (history, socio-political realities) in its argumentation. But thus the much vaunted simplicity of the explanatory model gets lost, and it turns out that a simple reduction to the market model does no justice to the complexity of social religious relationships.

The fact that many religious communities define themselves through local affiliation is not taken into consideration in that perspective, and accordingly, "popular religious" phenomena receive too little attention. In addition, studies presented at the congress in Leipzig have shown that religious scenarios outside the Christian context cause further difficulties. In that conception the lack of the interreligious perspective has a big influence, and that weighs heavy in view of the increasing need for a global examination of religious phenomena.


Theories under the Microscope of Empirical Research

With that reference to the religious situations in specific countries and studies on specific fields of phenomena, which are given either to substantiate or to refute statements, another important branch of sociological work is mentioned. Apart from forming theories the empirical research belongs to sociology, and it is always an exciting venture when theoretical statements are confronted with empirical data. As regards the methods of data collection one differentiates between empirical-qualitative and empirical-quantitative surveys. Theoretically empirical-quantative approaches are more committed to the ideal of scientific methods whereas qualitative methods developed from a hermeneutic tradition. Quantitative studies provide the results of general accounts in the form of surveys, whereas qualitative studies at first make statements which are related to certain areas which are e.g. based on the analysis and evaluation of interviews.

Empirical surveys can be used to verify theories, or they are seen as material out of which theories are developed with the help of special analytical methods. For it in the quantitative procedure first categories are set up, in order to question the empirical field with a view to them. In comparison the qualitative approach develops the categories only from the collected data. Quantitative surveys were for a long time predominant over the qualitative approaches, which one reproached with lack of inter-subjective verifiability. Conversely, the Survey Research was criticized that it only did positivist description. This dispute over methods, which in the second half of the 20th century in the social sciences was led very controversially has largely been settled. It is now general conviction that the two procedures are complementary.



That became also apparent at the Leipzig Congress, which perhaps also for that reason offered few news in the field of theories. Both methods, applied to various fields, were represented by the studies presented.

As an example of a quantitative-empirical research a recent study on the religious development in Europe may serve. With it it is about a project of comparative cultural sociology at the University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder, which is promoted by the Volkswagen Foundation. I refer to the analysis by Detlef Pollack, who on the basis of the results also evaluates the theories above presented {1}.

He chooses for his investigation of the religious situation the three aspects membership, practice and convictions. To them he relates the correlating survey moments denominational affiliation, church attendance and belief in God. Since those indicators apparently refer to established Christian ideas, he adds the area of "astrology, spiritism, occultism" in order also to cover a religiosity that does not depend on institutions. The results are given proportionally to years of birth (cohorts) that correspond to a division according to generations. The benchmark "age of the respondents" is not irrelevant to the outcome, since it must be taken into account with its interpretation, whether it is about continuing developments overlapping the generations or about temporary trends related to the different relevance of religion in the individual life cycle. Constant developments can ultimately be found out only with the help of long-term studies.

The study refers to Europe. Thus it becomes clear that quantitative research can really give an overview of extensive religious landscapes. The crux, however, is the selection and formulation of categories, for the larger the field which has to be covered the simpler the categories must be, so that the data remain manageable. That means it must be kept in mind that the field includes very different regional situations which cannot be dealt with in a comparative survey. That can be illustrated through the attendance at church, which obviously in a predominantly Catholic country like Italy is of a different importance than in a mixed-denominational country like Germany. But to take account of the denominational situation alone is not sufficient in order to explain the different religious character of Italy and Poland, although both are countries with a Catholic majority.

Here only some selected results of the study may be mentioned. It turns out that "attendance at church" and "faith in God" are declining, except in some Eastern European situations, which are, however, in the overall consideration of no noticeably consequence. An increase can be established in non-ecclesial religiosity, especially among the younger cohorts.



Nevertheless that does not allow the conclusion that the decline of traditional (institutionalized) religiosity with a simultaneous increase of extra-ecclesial practice results in a constant or increasing religious individualization. It is rather so that the loss of traditional forms is even higher where alternative practices occur. Accordingly Pollack agrees with the representatives of the individualization thesis that not simply a decline takes place but in addition a radical change in the forms practised.

But for him this observation of individualization theorists does not contradict the secularization theory, he rather sees in it a complementary aspect. That can be seen with the help of the belief in God, which increasingly undergoes a shift from personal to non-personal ideas. Admittedly, religion does not necessarily decline through those modifications, but the point Pollack has in mind is that a lower level of commitment in the religious practice is connected with it. His closest attention is directed just at that loss of social significance of religion. In his opinion it can still be explained most plausibly through the secularization theory, whereas the individualization theory does not suffice completely to integrate the results. Through the analysis of his study the market model can register least evidence for itself.

It is informative to read as a check now the religious phenomena against the background of an empirical-qualitative study which has been carried out by Monika Wohlrab-Sahr at the Institute for Cultural Studies in Leipzig. She examines the current religious situation in Eastern Germany and explains the continuing low level of religiousness through the deliberate creation of conflict situations by the socialist system during the GDR period {2}. She makes out three conflicts: religious versus secular ethics, religious versus scientific explanation of the world, loyalty to the church versus loyalty to the State.

Since after the ending of state repressions people hardly felt the need to orientate anew within the religious area, it seems that the fields of conflicts have not been created by the socialist dictatorship; its propaganda had only to formulate the existing ideological controversies in such a way that they no longer allowed compromises. This becomes even more evident when one considers that the Protestant Church as a bastion of resistance was of great importance in the run-up to the turn ("Wende"). At least some of the conflicts mentioned must therefore be more deeply rooted in people's awareness, otherwise it could not be explained why a certain social significance is attributed to the church although the individual life draft of a majority of East Germans seems to manage quite well without religious dimensions.

With the help of family interviews Wohlrab-Sahr could simultaneously cover and compare three generations: The first generation was before the socialism mostly still traditionally committed to its denomination and gave up the attachment to the church during the GDR-time.



The second generation grew up during GDR times without religious contents and points of contact. And finally, the turn-generation, which too has no religious tradition but is - in contrast to the previous ones - not confronted with the aforementioned conflicts.

Wohlrab-Sahr notes that in this third generation traditional religious questions about the sense of life and death become significant again. Since the answers are far from the church-Christian statements about these issues, she speaks of an "agnostic spirituality", which is characterised by the fact that traditional forms and church dogmatic formulations are totally unimportant {3}. With the latest generation religious allusions occur only in the context of general questions of Weltanschauung and can cautiously be interpreted as the beginning of a religious re-vitalization. Her résumé therefore reads that the end of secularization is not yet in sight.

Those recent results admit that various approaches are right, and at the same time contradict them: the confrontation between modernity and religion, which happened here in a quite intensive manner, seems to support the secularization thesis. The individualization thesis is conditionally given a chance with the pointed out statements of the latest generation. But you have to wonder why during the time of the GDR religion was only to a small degree privatized. It shows that de-institutionalization and privatization do not necessarily correlate. Only the phenomenon of agnostic spirituality points to first signs of a new individualization. As for the economic explanatory model, it can be said that the beginning competition of the religions after the "Wende" has up to now borne no significant fruits in Eastern Germany. However, the new spiritual beginnings could in the sense of the market theory be interpreted to the effect that the demand for religion only partially and temporarily disappears or can be satisfied by a pseudo-materialistic scientism.

Certainly, it would also be worthwhile to focus on the role of the religious providers as regards their reaction to that aggressive confrontation with "modern" ideas. On the basis of the different conditions of the major denominations alone - the Protestant church's position of monopoly and resulting from it the Diaspora situation of the Catholic Church - interesting comparisons could be drawn in this regard.


Interculturality as a Permanent Challenge to Forming Theories

These two studies alone show already: The individual theories tend to underestimate the complexity of the religious situation. But they are not worthless for that reason, on the contrary, through the creative survey of their assumptions a higher degree of integration of the results of empirical research could be achieved.



That will be all the more necessary when another cultural matrix too comes into play. As it is now easy with the help of Google Earth to zoom any conceivable place of this earth on the computer screen, so the wealth of information about religious phenomena of all cultural fields too is enormous and easily accessible. The problem is the communication in the absence of appropriate teaching tools. Not virtuoso neologisms of concepts (such as "liquid religion") provide a remedy but their systematization. In the workshops of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion it turned out time and again that the ideas about the indicators of religious vitality widely diverge.

If, e.g. the frequency of baptisms is related to the number of Catholics in various countries, then for Latin America less religious vitality can be claimed than for the "secular" Europe. But that point of view would at once provoke the objection that, e.g. baptism in Poland was a cultural phenomenon and had nothing to do with the actual religious commitment. That shows that vitality is regarded from quite different viewpoints.

The same applies to the talking about "secularization", which contains different connotations in the different cultural contexts. In the Indian context one associates with it not primarily a loss of importance of religion but first and foremost a welcome attitude of the State, which concedes the same rights to all religious traditions, as Badrinath Rao from Kettering University in Flint / USA made clear in a plenary lecture at the congress.

The phenomenon of "vicarious religion" puts forward further terminological clarification. With that term one tries to grasp the situation that within the private sector hardly any significant religious practice exists, whereas in the public sector religious values, rites and symbols are absolutely supported. For Western Europe, for instance, you can speak of a diffusion of Judeo-Christian values which find broad acceptance, whereas the institutions of those religions increasingly lose their influence. That means you have also to differentiate between privatisation and individualisation, because individualization points to acquisition and practice outside institutions, whereas privatization only describes the aspect of de-institutionalisation. Consequently the theoretical discussion must make it clear in advance whether it focuses on the public institutional area or on the private aspects of religion.

Therefore, it is quite sensible to talk of different "moments of secularization": Depending on the context must be asked whether it is about the process of institutional differentiation between religion and politics, the general decline of religious practice and organisation, or religion's retreat into the private sphere {4}. But finally the term 'religion' itself too must be differentiated.



I therefore propose systematization with the help of cosmologies in which a particular religious world view is mirrored, though at this point I must content myself with a proposal {5}. Religious expressions pointing to mythological, polytheistic, monotheistic interpretations of reality - about the classification and the naming one can hold different opinions - relate to different modes of implementation, carriers, motives and functions of religion, and the effects of the encounter with modernity prove to be accordingly divergent.

It is therefore easy to see that against the background of an enlightened, civic Protestantism the question of secularization means something fundamentally different than the trend to individualization within an Indian caste under the hybrid conditions of Hinduism. Rationalisation has different consequences for Buddhist thought radically stressing transcendency than for religious magic against the background of a sacral monism. Add to it that in many religious phenomena several cosmologies appear merged with each other or side by side. By that differentiated approach then also the fact that for instance religions with a rather dualistic interpretation of reality themselves trigger secularization processes can get a sensible explanation.

In summa: In each case, the discussion with sociology of religion is instructive and inspiring when it is one's aim to examine the self-perception within one's own religious tradition. At the same time it offers at present a public platform which is in an agreeable way hardly dominated by ideologies - so my impression of the Congress. And of course, it should not be underestimated that its influence on the views about religion reaches far beyond the professional circles.



{1} See D. Pollack, Religious Change in Europe: Theoretical Considerations and Empirical Findings. Unpublished Handout of the lecture at the ISSR's opening general meeting in 2007 in Leipzig.

{2} See M. Wohlrab-Sahr, Secularization as Conflict. Unveröffentlichtes Handout des Vortrags zur Eröffnungsvollversammlung beim ISSR 2007 in Leipzig.

{3} See M. Wohlrab-Sahr and others, "Ich würdí mir das offen lassen". Agnostische Spiritualität als Annäherung an die "große Transzendenz" eines Lebens nach dem Tode, in: Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft 13 (2005) 153ff.

{4} See J. Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago 1994) 11ff.

{5} See the development of that systematization with regard to Hinduism: M. Luber, Devîs Geschichte. Ein empirisch-qualitatives Forschungsprojekt zum Phänomen der Göttin im Hinduismus (Bonn 2007) 180ff.


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