The Challenge of Modernity/Post-Modernity to the Classical Heritage in Sociology of Religion

Ivan Varga. The International Handbook of Sociology. Editor: Stella R Quah & Arnaud Sales. 2000. Sage Publication.

The rapid changes that took place in the last decades of the 20th century had a deep impact on the religious landscape as well. The new phenomena present a double challenge to the sociology of religion: on the one hand, it has to review, refine and reinterpret the classical statements in order to assess their validity in contemporary society. On the other hand, it has to relate the changes in the religious situation to the overall transformations of society.

Transformations and Challenges

The classic theorists of the sociology of religion, in the first place Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, developed the fundamental categorical system for the sociological study of religion, and the system of categories elaborated by them constitutes the basic discourse in sociology of religion. However, these are increasingly becoming the subject of critical considerations. The main thrust of the critique is that the classical discourse represents a Western, Eurocentric bias, therefore cannot take into consideration the social, cultural and religious dynamics of non-Western societies. In particular, the secularization theory (and amongst the contemporary theories the rational choice theory of religion) are in the crossfire of critics.

However, even the critics operate with the same concepts as the classic theorists, at best there are efforts to reinterpret their content or demonstrate their restricted validity. The classics, indeed, used a vast material from pre-modern societies but their main concern was either to establish a general theory of religion (Durkheim) or analyze the role of religion in different societies (in particular, Weber). Their overall aim was to develop theoretical insights into the role of religion in society, into the interrelations between religion and society, especially in modernity. This is understandable because sociology as a distinct discipline within social sciences is, indeed, a product of modernity. This does not mean that certain assumptions of the classics (e.g. whether modernization and secularization are concomitant phenomena) cannot be questioned; others, however, are proven by empirical findings (e.g. the growing individualization of religion in modern societies). Yet others (e.g. the relationship between rationality and religiousness) require a more nuanced rethinking of the classics positions.

This essay attempts to assess the most relevant changes society underwent since the classics time as well as the developments in the post-classical sociology of religion with the aim to intimate at least the challenges contemporary society poses to this sub-discipline. Spatial restrictions do not allow us to review the classics contributions nor all efforts of modern sociologies of religion in explaining the new phenomena. I shall first give reasons why the concept “post-modernity” is applied; this will be followed by a discussion of some pertinent features of religion in post-modernity. Finally, some modern theories will be analyzed. As this essay does not aim at an all-encompassing analysis or even survey of the theories concerned, a selective approach will be applied.

Why Post-Modernity?

I have chosen the concept post-modernity rather reluctantly. There is no consensus amongst sociologists (and they are not the only ones) whether this term makes sense or is just a passing fad. In fact, there is a bewildering array of the interpretations of the concept, ranging from outright rejection to enthusiastic acceptance, and even those who use this concept, attach different interpretations to it. The discussions whether one can speak of post-modernity or rather of late modernity (cf. among others Hervieu-Léger, 1993; Gellner, 1992; Mestrovic, 1992; Touraine, 1995; Giddens, 1990; Habermas, 1997) are not revolving around terminological issues. Rather, the conceptual differences touch upon the problems of rationality and upon the (even partial) success or failure of the Enlightenment project, the problem of progress and the nature of history, the nature of humanism, the role of the subject, morality and ethics, fixity and relativism and, last but not least, the nature and social role of religion.

I suggest considering post-modernity and post modern culture as a distinct phase in history. Of course, modernity and post-modernity cannot be radically separated from one another, that is, post-modernity does not entirely negate modernity. It rather preserves in an exaggerated form certain features of modernity, and at the same time transcends them. Therefore one can conceptualize post-modernity as an excess of modernity and the cultural expression of its crisis. In that sense postmodernism could be viewed as a self-critique of modernity too.

Another argument for considering post-modernity not as a full break with modernity is that in modernity there were also counteracting tendencies to Enlightenment rationality. Wellmer (1985: 356) mentions the German Romantics, the young Hegel, Nietzsche, the early Marx, Adorno, the anarchists and a large part of modern art. However, the mature Hegel and Marx “prepare new triumphs for totalising reason” (1985: 356). Even more radical critics of postmodernism, like Alain Touraine (1995), acknowledge that it is the continuation of the devastating critique of the rationalizing model which begun with Marx, Nietzsche and Freud.

Still, it would be a simplification to view post-modernity as a mere enhancement of the features modernity developed. First of all, one ought to ask the question whether post-modernity is a rejection of (Western) rationality or rather the recognition of its limitations. The instrumental (purposive) rationality, as formulated by Weber, cannot be considered invalid, it did not disappear and cannot be eliminated from social life, mostly but not exclusively because of the preponderance of modern technology. It also permeated everyday life as well as interpersonal relations. However, as Weber foresaw it, instrumental rationality can turn against itself in everyday life, and there are signs that the proliferation of purposive rationality evokes a growing resentment and alienation. Later advances of technology elicit contradictory responses: on the one hand, it reinforces the feeling of powerlessness because technology becomes ever more reified and impervious to the average human being. This aspect has been emphasized by Heidegger (1977) who stated that technology reduces nature to an object of subordination and exploitation, and the consequences for the self-defining human being are detrimental. On the other hand, there is a belief that technology sooner or later will resolve the ills that befall on humanity or the individual; in other words, it assumes the role of a substitute religion.

A postmodern way of thinking about technology and the consequences of its increasing domination over the life-world does not reject the role of instrumental rationality but rather reveals its limitations. Postmodern philosophers emphasize the disappearing of the grand narratives, the universal discourses. These are the narratives that claim to explain nature, society and the subject. Religion, as a grand narrative retains its explanatory value but only for those who believe in it.

The demise of the grand narratives explains, among others, the enhanced plurality of world-views. This is not a uniquely postmodern phenomenon; it began with the advent of modernity. What is new, however, that followers of different ideas and world-views—even if their concepts stem from different, religious or this-wordly, subcultures—compete with one another and claim equal rights or general validity. The marketplace conquered the sphere of ideas as well. It would, however, be much too simplistic to focus exclusively on the marketplace in analyzing the consequences of pluralism brought about by modernity. As Peter Berger argued (1992: 67-70) pluralism has consequences for modern consciousness as well:

Cultural plurality is experienced by the individual, not as something external […] but as an internal reality, a set of options present in his mind […] The very phrase religious preference […] perfectly catches this fact: The individual’s religion is not irrevocably given, a datum […]; rather, religion becomes a choice, a product of the individual’s ongoing project of world- and self-construction. (1992: 67)

Choice gives freedom (or rather the illusion of freedom) for the individual. However, the limits of choice are often not recognized, and the individual frequently does not realize that he or she has to bear the onus of the consequences of a given choice. Nevertheless, there is a vast array of choices competing with one another. As a consequence, modern/postmodern identity becomes fluid, open-ended, incommensurably more than in earlier phases of modernity. The fleetingness mentioned by Baudelaire as well as by Marx (all that is solid melts in the air) has undergone a significant change in post-modernity: while in modernity it could still be claimed that there was a unity behind the fragmentation (Baudelaire still thought there was eternity behind fleetingness), postmodern societies celebrate diversity: in multiculturalism, plurality of religions, life-styles, identities, discourses. The fragmented group identity becomes the source of identity, and identities cut across customarily accepted lines. Thus, for example, ethnicity can become a more important determinant than class. Sexual orientation can clash with race, etc., etc. Therefore postmodern society could be analyzed more in clusters or matrix than in straight dividing lines.

Representations (and metaphors) became ever more partial or, to use Michel Maffesoli’s apt phrase, pulverized. Communities, in Tnnies’s meaning, have been eradicated by modernity, and in post-modernity became new tribes. The neo-tribalism, a term coined by Maffesoli, is a constant search for identity (cf. Maffesoli in Bauman, 1991: 248). The tribes of the contemporary world “[…] are formed—as concepts rather than integrated social bodies—by the multitude of individual acts of self-identification” (Bauman, 1991: 249). They are unstable because they depend on the individual’s decision to adhere, to remain or to quit. (Incidentally, this characterizes many New Religious Movements and to a certain extent even mainstream churches and denominations). This, coupled by the general uncertainty, is characteristic to post-modernity. Bauman (1991: 237) describes this uncertainty as follows:

It is an entire different matter to live with the postmodern awareness of no certain exit from uncertainty; of the escape from contingency being as contingent as the condition from which escape is being sought. The discomfort such awareness brings about is the source of specifically postmodern discontents: discontent against the condition fraught with ambivalence, against the contingency that refuses to go away… [People who live under these conditions] find difficult to accept […] that whatever they resolve to do would lack the comfort of having the truth, or the laws of history, or the unambiguous verdict of reason on its side.

The ambivalence, combined with the hitherto unknown acceleration of social processes—technological changes, social relationships, cultural mutations—puts the individual into a precarious position, namely, the loss of certainty is also felt as being in a constant upheaval fraught with risks over which the individual feels the loss of control. Ulrich Beck, who is not a postmodernist thinker, claims that risk is the most characteristic feature of contemporary society. He stated that “the calculus of risk exemplifies a type of ethics without morality, the mathematical ethics of the technological age” (1992: 99). Indeed, one can observe the spread of situational morality, that is, ethical justifications for a given behavior or decision based on pragmatic, practical considerations rather than on grounded principles.

Postmodern consciousness includes this uncertainty, ambivalence which is amplified by the fact that, as a consequence of the aforementioned factors, the personality can be more and more likened to a jigsaw puzzle whereby the individual has to carve out the pieces. Another feature of postmodern consciousness is the realization of crisis. The history of humankind was and is crisis ridden, and this is not a specificity of post-modernity. What is new and specific, is the consciousness of crisis, or at least a creeping, uncanny feeling (in the Freudian sense of Unbehagen)—a feeling of uncertainty.

It is telling that in Castelgandolfo—in the papal summer residence, with the attendance of John-Paul II—in the mid-1980s one of the annual conferences was devoted to the problem of crisis. Noted philosophers and historians (among others Paul Ricoeur, Leszek Koakowski, Reinhard Koselleck) exchanged their views on the crisis. Ricoeur in his paper “Is Crisis a Specifically Modern Phenomenon?” emphasized that the crisis of contemporary society is not a crisis of history but rather of a socioeconomic system and emphasized that beyond the sphere of economy, ideology as well as the political system are in crisis. (Ricoeur, 1986: 39 and 48.)

The crisis of ideology, which can be extended to the field of culture, consists mainly of the distortion of value-structures or the hierarchy of values, by the proliferation of market ideology (Ricoeur, 1986: 53). He added that the crisis consists of a dysfunction of the normally existing relationships between expectation and experience (1986: 57). Thus the taken-for-grantedness of the life-world becomes vulnerable and ever more questioned. It is therefore quite natural that the growing sense of crisis in people’s consciousness, the quest for stability, solidity, for the unchangeable is also growing.

Nietzsche stressed the loss of values, the devaluation of highest values, i.e. as Ricoeur interprets it, values linked to Christianity (1986: 61). He also denounced a-religious humanism as well because for Nietzsche it originated from the same values he himself intended to fight. Thus, Ricoeur concludes, “[A]s soon as modernity is equated with this humanism, ready to perish [untergangsreif], the modern crisis will be nothing else but the crisis of modernity itself (1986: 60).

Ricoeur’s diagnosis, which is close to Bauman’s analysis, gives at least a partial explanation to the growth of evangelical, fundamentalist tendencies, spirituality and New Religious Movements, and the uncanny, diffused feeling of the crisis contributes to the spread of esoteric cults and movements, like ESP, New Age, satanism, wikka. As the 20th century came to its close, momentous changes took place in the socio-economic sphere that had important impacts on the cultural and religious field as well. The first such change to be mentioned is globalization. It does not occur amongst equal partners, contains and expresses unequal power relationships, both in economics and politics but also in culture. Albeit its influence in the cognitive and religious sphere is much discussed (cf. later in this chapter) globalization is undeniably a most important factor in contemporary society.

The collapse of the Soviet type societies and of the Soviet empire signalled a new historical phase, because it has repercussions for the entire world and not only for the countries that once belonged to the Soviet orbit. It stands to reason to say that the world has entered the period of post-communism. Within the ex-communist countries the restoration of the freedom of conscience and religion led to a revitalization of religion, albeit with different results and magnitude. One of the most unfortunate outcomes is an increasing identification of ethnicity and religion.

A further event, which has far-reaching consequences, is the entering of the developing societies as active, self-asserting players in the world arena. They are undergoing a more or less rapid process of modernization, and at the same time insist on keeping and strengthening their cultural and religious identity and resisting the incursions of Western, mainly American, culture. This, of course, has important implications for the religious landscape too.

Modernity has been accompanied by increasing individualization that is only amplified in post-modernity. This affects the religious field too, as can be seen for instance in the so-called do-it-yourself religiosity, the believing without belonging phenomenon, etc. The weakening of traditional bonds (affiliation with traditional churches) can be observed also in the spread of New Religious Movements, in the growth of evangelical Protestantism in traditionally Catholic countries (e.g. in Latin America), in the incursion of Western Christian churches and sects into traditionally Orthodox territory (e.g. Russia), in the decline of mainstream Protestant churches in America and last but not least in the expansion of Islam in areas that formerly did not belong to its sphere of influence (e.g. Black Muslims in the USA).

Religion in Post-Modernity

It is generally acknowledged amongst sociologists of religion that an observable revitalization of religion – or spirituality – is taking place. The phenomenal growth of evangelical Protestantism, in particular Pentecostalism, and of Islam is well known and documented. (It is perhaps less known that various fundamentalist groups, oriental religions and New Religious Movements are growing in the ex-Soviet countries as well.) The spread of New Religious Movements and New Age movements, the persistence of popular religion in many parts of the world, preoccupation with the self leading to the increasing interest in spirituality—these are all signs that the modern rationality, the disenchantment are not dominant features of the postmodern consciousness.

The Italian philosopher, Gianni Vattimo, a noted representative of postmodern philosophy, has this to say about the above mentioned phenomenon:

the return of religion, very manifest in the common culture (as a demand, the new vitality of the churches and sects, as a search for parallel doctrines and practices: the fashion of the oriental religions, etc.), is basically motivated by the threat of certain general risks that seems to be new and without precedent in the history of humanity. (1996: 88)

In this context he also speaks of the “loss of the meaning (sense) of existence that seems inevitably to accompany the frantic consumption” (1996: 89). Vattimo spells out the sentiment shared by many contemporary sociologists as well. Kieran Flanagan, in the “Introduction” to Postmodernity, Sociology and Religion (1996) echoes similar themes. He emphasizes the worries, the “cultural angst, the ambiguity that are characteristic to our epoch”, to post-modernity.

We, contemporaries, witness a curious development: on the one hand, the incertitude, the ambiguity, the openness, the fluidity, and as a reaction to all these, a search for the stable, the predictable, something that is beyond this fickle world—be it the spirit or God. On the other hand, we are surrounded by technology, rational-bureaucratic organizations, experience the influence of forces (this-wordly ones) over which we feel we have no control and find oppressive and stifling. But we use the technology and, as mentioned, often expect redemption from it. We want to assert our individuality, our self, but live under ever more standardized conditions. We want to escape the chaos and return to the cosmos—to the order, the stable meanings but also want to have a say in defining that meaning.

The traditional religion that claims to represent the truth, is still attractive to a great many people, but many others want to have a say in defining the truth for themselves. This, however, weakens the hold (or monopoly) of church-based religion. Thomas Luckmann, in his paper “The Privatization of Religion and Morality” talks of the end of the “institutionally specialized religion[s] monopolies or oligopolies in the production, distribution and maintenance of sacralized, transcendent universes” (1996: 72-3). But he adds: “The traditional religious orientations (at whose centre are social constructions of the great transcendences) have not disappeared. But their social distribution has become narrower […]” (1996: 74).

We have an extremely ambiguous relationship to traditions: want them and reject them. The postmodern world is largely a de-traditionalized world but at the same time it experiences a large-scale resurgence of fundamentalism.


Contemporary societies experience the resurrection of fundamentalist tendencies and movements. They expanded in all areas of the world, penetrated all religions, and some of its variations, e.g. Pentecostalism, are conquering large populations. The growth of Islamic, Jewish, Hindu and Christian fundamentalist movements are well documented, and the number of books on fundamentalism are multiplying. Many of the writings emphasize their political role in ethnic and global conflicts.

The political role and impact of fundamentalism cannot be underestimated; however, it cannot be reduced to politics. Fundamentalism is a cultural phenomenon as well. It is at the same time traditional and postmodern. Traditional, because its reference point is the holy text of the given religion, and their goal is to transform society according to the principles laid down in those texts. It is also postmodern because it is a reaction to the ambiguity and displacements caused by postmodern conditions, in particular by the relativization of normative contents of consciousness (cf. Berger, 1992: 68) and the spread of situational ethics. Nevertheless, it would be a simplification to hold all fundamentalist movements reactionary (in the literary sense of the word) or anti-modernizing. David Martin, in his book Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America (1990), calls the attention to the fact that many Pentecostalists are engaged in the modern(izing) sectors, and that their behaviour and values include elements of what Weber called Protestant ethic. Harvey Cox, in Fire from Heaven (1995) calls Pentecostalism a typically urban phenomenon, both in the USA and in Latin America. Vittorio Lanternari, in Di Profeti Contadini (Gods, Prophets, Peasants, 1988), based on his research in Ghana, emphasizes that Pentecostalists turn against African traditions by forbidding polygamy and participation in traditional festivities.

None the less, fundamentalist movements reinforce traditions, thus counteract the de-traditionalization, so characteristic to modernity. In that, they fall in line with the postmodern backlash to modernity.

Globalization and Religion

The postmodern world is increasingly a globalized one. Apart from the already mentioned characteristics of globalization (unequal distribution of knowledge, power and wealth as well as increasing cultural domination), it also means that products of other cultures find their way to societies which did not give rise to them. But there is also the reality and perception of crisis that is increasingly worrying an ever larger circle of people. In particular, ecological issues, the danger to the environment, become more a global concern. Because of the ethical implications, e.g. which values should prevail: short or long term benefits (jobs now or sustainable development, sharing or profiting, etc.) they can, and do, preoccupy theologians (e.g. Hans Kng), and raise the questions whether religion can contribute to the solution of the problems.

Another problem is, whether there is a religious globalization, whether a global religion is emerging. Richard Roberts in his account on the second Parliament of World Religions, held in Chicago in 1993, suggests that “religion can be understood as a differentiated global resource, an ambiguous, yet dynamic form of cultural capital of vital import in an era of post-materialist value formation” (Roberts, 1995: 122).

This understanding of religion as global resource ought to be distinguished from global religion insofar as it assumes the common interests and eventual collaboration of religions stemming from very different societies and representing a multitude of beliefs and institutions, from historical, mainstream churches in East and West alike, through New Religious Movements to native religions. This development, as Roberts emphasizes, has important consequences for a sociological understanding of religion’s role and place in the postmodern world (e.g. for the assessment of the secularization thesis). However, it does not account for the existence of a global religion or religious globalization.

Cultural globalization has been widely discussed in the recent years. The pioneering works of Roland Robertson, in particular Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture (1992), Featherstone’s Undoing Culture: Globalization, Postmodernism and Identity (1995), Featherstone-Lash-Robertson (eds.) Global Modernities (1995), the special issue of Theory, Culture & Society, published in book form as Featherstone (ed.), Global Culture: Nationalism, Globalization and Modernity (1990) are just a few examples. Without going into any details of these works, it is clear that globalizing culture evokes a localizing tendency as well, that is the assertion of the indigenous culture. This dichotomy has been expressed by Robertson in his neologism: “glocalization”.

But the problem remains, namely, whether the ideas, signs and symbols that are globally distributed—the so-called “macdonaldization”—do carry the same meanings for different cultures or else, is there a cognitive distance, cognitive discrepancy, which allows different interpretations of the same ideas, signs and symbols. My opinion is that so far (and this leaves open future changes) the cognitive distance remains, and it diminishes only if and when the recipient societies approach the structure and culture of modernity.

Peter Beyer, in his pioneering work, Religion and Globalization (1994) states that “[globalization […] is more than the spread of one historically existing culture at the expense of all others. It is also the creation of a new global culture with its attendant social structures, one which increasingly becomes the broader social context of all particular cultures in the world, including those of the West, and that the emergent global culture cannot itself become a new overarching particularism because it would then be subject to the same relativization as its predecessors.”(1994: 9). Beyer (following Niklas Luhmann’s approach) applies the religious dichotomy: immanence/transcendence for explaining global religion as a forceful means to counteract the globalized totalizing power. He also questions whether the thesis of privatized religion could be fully applied to modern conditions, and concludes that the public functions of religion cannot be disregarded. This leads to the problem of secularization, a concept that has been under attack for a long time.

The Dilemma of Secularization

“In my view, secularization theory has been bankrupt for a long time” says Jeffrey Hadden in his Foreword to the new edition of Rodney Stark’s and W.S. Bainbridge’s book, A Theory of Religion (1996:7). The theory could, indeed, be declared bankrupt, would one conceive of it as a rectilinear process that accompanies modernization, that is, the abandonment of religion, at least in its institutionalized form.

The concept is contested, and contemporary sociologists of religion in their majority tend to abandon or reject the secularization thesis. James Beckford, for instance, emphasizes rather the secularization-sacralization dichotomy, thus accepting that religion lost many functions, at least in the public sphere but it does not exclude the possibility of a revival of religion albeit in changed forms and functions. However, one ought to consider, to what extent does religion maintain in a modern, increasingly pluralistic society the functions and the integrative role that it performed in pre-modern societies. Bryan Wilson, who is one of the staunchest defenders of the secularization theory, states that “[secularization relates to the diminution of the social significance of religion, and secularization means that process by which religious institutions, actions, and consciousness, lose their social significance” (1982: 149). Hence, secularization does not mean the disappearance of religion and while religion may not be significant in the working of the social order, “there might be other non-religious constraints which operate to hold men to religious institutions and to persuade them to go through the motions of religious rituals” (1982: 150.)

French sociologists of religion, following de Certeau’s distinction between religion and belief (croire) introduced a useful refinement to the problem. Danile Hervieu-Léger considers the discussion on secularization already obsolete. She acknowledges the domination of formal rationality in modernity that crystallizes the essentially material and obliterates from society the “ideal interests, specific to religion” (1993: 187 ff.) Weber’s position, says Hervieu-Léger, overcomes the narrowly rationalist point of view which in a mechanistic way links the end of religion to the unfolding of scientific and technological modernity. In principle it allows us to avoid entirely to confuse the reality of the decline of religious institutions in modern societies, and the elimination of religion as such from society. (1993: 188).

The decline of the institutionalized religion leads to the emergence and spread of a diffused religion—a theme explored by the Italian sociologist Roberto Cipriani. Diffused religion can be interpreted in two ways: literally, as a non-systematized, mostly vague set of beliefs, derived from traditional teachings which, however, in the mind of the believer does not correspond to the doctrinal body of the church into which they have been inducted. Diffused religion does not necessarily influence the believer’s political, economic or, in many instances, moral values. On the other hand, diffused religion expresses church inspired value-orientation amongst many individuals, mainly due to “the structures and unceasing capillary activities [of churches] which guarantee continuity and flexibility in such a way as to leave an unmistakable mark on the years following contact with the church structure” (1991: 36). Cipriani widely quotes from sociological research carried out in Italy, mostly in the 1980s, which show that in the sphere of values “religious elements are being taken up within new social, political and lay functions” (1991: 42) and that in spite of the decline in religious practice, the majority of the population maintained their beliefs without practicing them. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority in the subjects found meaning in religion for their own existence, even though their beliefs did not necessarily influence their political preference or voting behavior.

The believing without belonging phenomenon (cf. Davie, 1994; Hornsby-Smith, 1992) is in essence a sub-case of the first category of diffused religion because it denotes a system of beliefs (often but not always corresponding to a church’s main doctrines) without the accompanying religious behavior or strong feeling to of adherence to a religious group. Needless to say, socioeconomic, historical and cultural factors, such as class position, mobility, urban or rural residence, age, gender, majority or minority status as well as the given church’s historical place in society all play a significant role.

Hervieu-Léger’s position is somewhat similar to the idea about diffused religion. She, however, frames the problem by linking collective memory and religion. Modern societies create a structural contradiction, nay, incompatibility between their mode of operation and traditional religion. However, the collective memory—the carrier of religion—maintains, often underneath the surface, if not the institutionalized religion but rather the sacred. Hervieu-Léger’s aim is to demonstrate that neither the classical explanations of religion (beliefs in a supernatural being or forces) nor the efforts to call religious such manifestations which in their substance have nothing to do with religion (e.g. mass sport or pop culture) are satisfactory to explain the return of a certain religious effervescence. Her main point is that at the present historical moment the parallel processes of decomposition and recomposition of religion are taking place. The modalities of belief (or believing, croire) are best expressed in “an authorized” memory, that is a reference to a tradition that is eroded by modernity, nevertheless reconstituted by reference to a collective memory carried rather by groups than religious institutions. Her point can be corroborated by the growth of such groups as the Taizé, or The Family—evangelical Christian groups that do not maintain formal links with established churches.

Hervieu-Léger’s position, indeed, warrants her rejection of the secularization thesis. She, of course, acknowledges the decline of the traditional religiosity as a result of the emergence of modernity in Western societies, but sees in the new forms of religiosity the reassertion of traditions.

There are, however, several problems concerning the importance of collective memory and traditions. Apart from the fact that traditions play an ever smaller role in the economy, policy and culture of modern societies, collective memory is fragmented, can be manipulated and re/constituted (or, with Eric Hobsbawm’s expression, invented) according to the interests or perceptions of particular groups, be they religious or secular. A good example would be the reconstitution of traditions by communist ideology which reinvented and rewrote the traditions.

The more pluralistic society becomes, the more the fragmentation becomes perceptible. Albeit the de-traditionalization process is far from complete, and it cannot be absolutely complete (otherwise societies would lose the anchoring points in their history, as if they would undergo a collective lobotomy which was unsuccessful even under totalitarian regimes), modernity, indeed, did diminish the role of traditions. Individualization brought about a culture where contingency and individual preference prevailed.

Many contributions to the conference on “Detraditionalization: Authority and Self in an Age of Cultural Uncertainty”, organized by Lancaster University in 1993 (cf. Heelas et al., 1996), emphasized the ever growing role of the individual in constructing his or her morality, beliefs, priorities and values. Others, however, maintained that modern societies preserve at least elements of traditions, and that tradition is never an a priori givennes. Indeed, there are restrictions that prevent the realization of a fully individualized society (e.g. the role of authority in companies, in state and other bureaucracies, in churches and religious organizations, in bonds of ethnicity, and for many in their values and cherished ideals), thus even in largely de-traditionalized conditions an element of tradition persists.

The role of tradition is eminently important in assessing the persistence and change in religion under contemporary conditions; collective memory cannot exist without them. But post-modernity changes their role and ways of re/constructing. Thomas Luckmann for instance talked about the shift “of intersubjective reconstructions” and social constructions away from the great other-wordly transcendences to the intermediate and, more and more, minimal transcendences of modern solipsism, which is not the direct consequence of the structural privatization of individual life in modern society. However, an elective affinity does seem to obtain between the latter and the sacralization of subjectivity that is celebrated in much of modern mass culture (Luckmann, 1996: 74).

Even such a fragmentary review reveals that, in spite of conceptual disagreements amongst contemporary sociologists of religion concerning the problem of secularization and rationalization in modernity, there is a largely shared opinion that the classics of sociology of religion envisioned rather a linear development. However, in post-modernity the rationality of the social is questioned, not only by theoreticians but also—perhaps even first and foremost—by an increasing number of people. Paraphrasing Max Weber, one could speak at least of the iron cage of irrationality, in the minds of many.

It is therefore not surprising that in the quest for values and spirituality, often as protest against the postmodern conditions of life and as an expression of dissatisfaction with the practice and doctrines of the established churches and mainline denominations, and with the availability of alternative sources of values and perspectives, an increasing number of people turn to new forms for realizing their emotional and spiritual needs.

The New: New Religious Movements and New Age

New Religious Movements present a new challenge to sociology of religion insofar as classical theories provide an incomplete explanation for their spread. Earlier in this article the consciousness of the crisis and the individualization of contemporary culture were mentioned as characteristic features of modern and postmodern culture. One could add to it that the tension between the desires for autonomy of the individual as well as the dislocations caused by the weakening of traditional authority structures (but strengthening of the bureaucratic—state and corporate—ones) are strong factors for the growth of New Religious Movements.

The recomposition of the religious field seems to follow along two paths: the attraction of New Religious Movements and the growth of charismatic, evangelical trends within the established churches. In a way this is an expression of the disintegration-reintegration dialectic.

The French sociologist, Franoise Champion has the following to say about the explosion of New Religious Movements, especially the New Age movements: they express “the growing submission of the spiritual interests to the modern culture of the individual and as such [constitute] a paradoxical manifestation of the modern direction towards the simple magic, the psychological or else, towards a search for a new humanism” (Champion in Hervieu-Léger, 1993: 203).

It is the choice, the rupture with tradition that is new in the spiritual renewal. It is left to the individual whether he or she joins or not a religious or spiritual movement, community, congregation or synagogue. As Wade Clark Roof remarked (1993: 4-5)

Religious and spiritual themes are surfacing in a rich variety of ways—in Eastern religions, in evangelical and fundamentalist teachings, in mysticism and New Age movements, in Goddess worship and other religious rituals, in the mainline churches and synagogues, in Twelve-Step recovery groups, in concern about the environment, in holistic health, and in personal and social transformation. Many within [the baby boomers] generation who dropped out of churches and synagogues years ago are now shopping around for a congregation. They move freely in and out, across religious boundaries; many combine elements from various traditions to create their own personal, tailor-made meaning systems. Choice, so much a part of this generation, now expresses itself in a dynamic and fluid religious style.

These words, indeed, describe the post-modern characteristic of religiosity. Roof mentions that there is an observable pastiche-type of spirituality (1993: 245), and pastiche is a typical feature of post-modernity. New Religious Movements in advanced industrial societies are products of post-modernity, not only because of the pastiche character of spirituality but also because they express the cultural mixture in postmodern society. They are not only protests against doctrinal and practical authority of mainstream religions (and often of society at large) but in their origin are manifestations of various countercultures.

New Religious Movements are not products of Western societies only. It is well documented that they have spread in India, Southeast Asia, Japan, the Caribbean, Latin America and within Islam too (cf. among others, Beckford, 1996). Their social grounding is partly similar to those in the West, that is, an element of protest. However, their specific features include also a protest against the Western culture as well as inclusion of elements of indigenous religions. New Age movements, as Paul Heelas argued (1995, 1996) are not movements in the sense that they would be built around a central authority; they are rather networks. Their focus is the self but this self is not seen as socially constructed selfhood; it is rather selfhood from within, i.e. achieved by contacting a moral source that leads to spiritual fulfillment and wholeness.

Heelas summarizes three elements of the New Age: “It explains why life—as conventionally experienced—is not what it should be; it provides an account of what it is to find perfection; and it provides the means for obtaining salvation” (1996: 18). He calls the Self-spirituality “the essential lingua franca of New Age”. In different forms New Age groups lay the emphasis on self-perfection which can be achieved only by overcoming the detrimental effects of socialization. Society, including the religious institutions, oppresses the individual and prevents him/her to realize his or her inherent possibilities. Therefore the individual has to discover the inner life which is essentially spiritual. This would lead the individual out of and beyond the socialized ego, towards the discovery of God or Goddess in the Self. Consequently, the individual has to move beyond the socialized self—known as the ego, lower self, intellect or mind.

New Age has antecedents in the long history of Western culture, from Judeo-Christian mysticism to romanticism, but Eastern influences, especially since the late 19th century also had an important influence. We cannot trace here the history of spiritualism in Western culture; suffice it to mention occult societies, theosophy, the influence of Gourdjieff and Carl Jung. From the 1960s and early 1970s, however, a new pattern has developed (Heelas, 1995: 147). Young people, students, hippies and seekers of the spiritual—adherents of the counterculture—in a growing number opted out from society, i.e. refused to adapt to the mainstream.

Even though the counterculture of the 1970s faded away, the attraction of spirituality and search for self-realization did not. The earlier diffuse, spontaneous search for the inner Self, often induced by psychedelic drugs, has been replaced in the 1980s by structured, organized activities, such as the Erhard Seminars Training, therapeutic movements, emphasis on healing. The number of New Age groups has increased. Stark and Bainbridge (1987: 171-2) described how some groups or movements that did not have a religious origin, gradually transformed themselves to religious ones. Synanon, an organization that originally aimed at curing drug addiction, ended up in mystical experimentation and encounter sessions. Scientology began as a therapy group. Dianetics that attracted a large number of followers by promising to erase psychological scars and blocks, and enable people to achieve superhuman powers—e.g. total recall of memory, freedom from diseases, even from common cold—and the like. Many New Age groups traveled the opposite road: corporations began to use their resources and techniques. Thus, at least some New Age groups turned from protest against restrictive, authoritarian structures and institutions into their tools. Why? My suggestion is to see the fragility of New Age groups in the extreme subjectivity and withdrawal from society. (This latter ought to be qualified: it is not a total withdrawal because most members of New Age groups actively participate in the workforce, unlike the hippies of the 1950s-1960s, or members of some religious communities.)

New Religious Movements as well as New Age groups have their own dynamic, that is, with their maturation or aging the role of the erstwhile charismatic leader is diminished or faded, groups that have previously been rather amorphous begin to develop authority structures.

Homo Oeconomico-Religiosus?: The Rational Choice Theory in Sociology of Religion

Rational choice theory makes inroads in sociology of religion as well. It is considered by many as a new paradigm that is capable to construct an empirically grounded general theory of religion. However, as many critics remarked, rational choice theory—in general as well as in sociology of religion—assumes that “people approach all actions in the same way, evaluating all costs and benefits and acting so as to maximize their net benefits. Hence people choose what religion, if any, they will accept and how extensively they will participate in it” (Iannaccone in Young, 1997: 27). In my view, rational choice theory is the theoretical formulation of a market modeled perception of human actions, and its application to sociology of religion cannot contain the rich variety of religious experience, the socio-cultural and even individual-psychological components of past and present religiosity, religious movements and especially not their mutual relationship to society.

Rational choice theory assumes that people, no matter in what society they live, act according to utilitarian principles. It does not make distinctions amongst different types of society, therefore it posits that people in all societies always make rational choices. What is the choice of, say, a Nuer warrior in maximizing his net benefits by following the traditional religion of his society? How do people in traditional societies evaluate all costs and benefits?

Another assumption of rational choice theory is that the “ultimate preferences or (needs) that individuals use to assess costs and benefits tend not to vary much from person to person or time to time” (Iannaccone in Young, 1997: 27). This statement assumes that people have all the time, in all societies the same, almost immutable needs, that needs are not socially constructed.

In brief, rational choice theory applies a supply-side, market model for the explanation of a phenomenon which is cognitively but first and foremost emotionally shaped. It disregards the role of race, gender and class in making religious choices and especially, establishing or joining (or abandoning) religious groups or communities. Rational choice theorists claim that their approach provides the adequate explanation for religious conversion, mainly because the convert makes his or her decision by calculating the costs and benefits for achieving salvation. However, studies of conversion indicate that the motivations for conversion (or for leaving a church or a sect) are much more complex, involving personal life history, personality, family relations, etc., etc., and cannot be reduced to cost-benefit calculations. Studies of popular religions do not support, rather refute the claims of rational choice theory applied to religion, and show the Western, ethnocentric bias of that theory.

Popular Religions

Writings on popular religion usually concentrate on the peasant religions in the developing societies. However, studies on European popular religions (e.g. Albert-Llorca 1996; Hervieu-Léger and Champion, 1987) show that this type of religiosity is much more widespread, and is present in modern societies as well. Pilgrimages, ftes of saints, penitents associations, etc. witness the presence of popular religions in the modern world. They are part and parcel of European religious history and, to use Lanternari’s expression, they “expressed the religiosity of the most disfavoured layers of society” (Lanternari, 1982: 128).

Nonetheless, popular religion today is the most widespread in the so-called Third World. Cristin Parker’s study (1998: 195-212) emphasizes their vitality and force in Latin America, in the urban setting as well. Popular religion is, so to say, an intermediary between official and indigenous religions; it serves the construction of meaning for the popular masses. It is a powerful means for constructing and maintaining identity, especially in face of the globalizing culture. In this sense, emphasizes Parker, it has the potential for protest and resistance. Modern popular religions exist in the conditions of post-modernity, with its inherent incertitude and as a countervailing factor provide “meaningful links that integrate the community and collective representations that furnish actors with collective meaning” (Parker, 1998: 199).

Popular religions, with their life-affirming content provide people with hope in face of destitution, poverty and exploitation. In an urban setting, where often displaced persons, former peasants, eke out a living, they serve as community creating and reinforcing factors. Parker (1998: 203) also emphasizes that popular religions affirm the woman and the feminine viewpoint by the Marian faith and by stressing the role of women as “healer, blesser, midwife”. They, in a syncretistic way, include adoration of saints and other mediators whose icons are worshipped, and represent “concrete symbols of a transcendent reality” (1998: 204.) Popular religion affirms the “festive and carnivalesque”, thus counteracts the ascetic and rigid ethical religions. Its affirmation of the transcendent in the face of the mainstream, modern, rationalizing, culture endows popular religion with the character of a counterculture.

The relationship of popular religions to modernization is ambivalent: on the one hand they accept modernity, with the hope (and occasionally reality) of better living conditions and improvement in social development but at the same time they represent a countervailing force to instrumental rationality, a protest to domination and unfettered consumerism.

What is important, as Parker stresses, is that today there is no “traditional” popular religion anymore. Parker’s theoretical contribution to the understanding of this widespread phenomenon is significant. He emphasizes that popular religion cannot be perceived as the Marxian statement of religion being the “sigh of the oppressed creature”, it does not condemn people to passivity, and could serve as a vehicle for protest. And contrary to Weber’s contention that “the more a culture is inclined towards a peasant traditional culture, the more withdrawn popular piety is from any ethical rationalization”; rather, studies on Latin American popular religion show that “even in the case of maximal expression of utilitarian magic—the problem of meaning (the ways of salvation as substantive demands of the masses) is present” (1998: 209.)

Both studies that were referred to show that the unilinear image of secularization is incorrect, and the homogenization of culture and religion does not take place. In that, the study of popular religions raises important questions about cultural globalization as well. A further study of popular religions in non-Christian parts of the world would certainly contribute to our understanding of the religious and cultural dynamics of modernity and post-modernity.

These considerations could not give full justice to the developments in contemporary religion nor to the later efforts and achievements of sociology of religion. For instance I could not discuss feminist theories and critiques, not because I would not find them worth while for a critical review and analysis. Spatial restrictions would have allowed only a superficial review, the more so because those critiques are intrinsically related to feminist theological theories. Such a discussion, however, would have required a lengthy essay. For the same reason I could not dwell upon the problem whether classics of sociology of religion represented an ethnocentric stand or rather tried to elaborate universalistic theories which could find application—even with certain modifications or precision—to the contemporary situation and to non-Western societies.

There is one encouraging development in contemporary sociology of religion, and it is that the discipline gains greater relevance for the analysis and critique of contemporary society and culture. Later theories seem to have overcome the isolation and self-containment of sociology of religion that has been mentioned by James Beckford (1992: xi) and could contribute to the general sociological understanding of our world.