Religion Today

Tr@nsit Online

What is the place of religion in today’s society? People vigorously debate the question, whether religion is “retreating”. or “returning”. But two impressions seeem to have gained wide currency: (1) that our North Atlantic world is and will continue to be more secular and neutral in its public life, that is, that the public sphere is and will have to be more and more “neutral”, and religion more and more a “private” affair; and (2) that this world is marked by a more and more pronounced individualism, in all spheres, including the religious; so that large, structured churches will lose members. and the gap will be filled by a less structured spirituality.

Now there is some truth to both of these surmises, but they also get things seriously wrong in important respects. I would like to start by commenting on each of these leading ideas.

1 Secularization of the public sphere

We used to live in societies in which the presence of God was unavoidable; authority itself was bound up with the divine, and various invocations of God were inseparable from public life. But there was more than one form of this in our past. Between the 16th and the 19th Centuries, we moved from an original model, which was alive in the Middle Ages, and in a number of non-Western cultures, to another very different one.

The earlier one was connected to what one might call an “enchanted world”. This is obviously borrowing from Max Weber, and introducing the antonym to his term “disenchanted”. In an enchanted world there is a strong contrast between sacred and profane. By the sacred, I mean certain places: like churches, certain times: high feasts, certain actions: saying the Mass, in which the divine or the holy is present. As against these, other places, times, actions count as profane.

In an enchanted world, there is an obvious way in which God can be present in society; in the loci of the sacred. And the political society can be closely connected to these, and can itself be thought to exist on a higher plane. Ernst Kantorowicz tells us that one of the first uses of the term `mystical body’ in European history referred to the French kingdom. The king himself could be one of the links between the planes, represented respectively by the king’s mortal and undying bodies.

Or to talk a slightly different language, in these earlier societies, the kingdom existed not only in ordinary, secular time, in which a strong transitivity rule held, but also existed in higher times. There are, of course, different kinds of higher times – Platonist eternity, where there is a level in which we are beyond the flux altogether; God’s eternity as understood in the Christian tradition, a kind of gathering of time together; and various times of origins, in Mircea Eliade’s sense.

Now with advancing disenchantment, especially in Protestant societies, another model took shape, with relation both to the cosmos and the polity. In this the notion of Design was crucial. To take the cosmos, there was a shift from the enchanted world to a cosmos conceived in conformity with post-Newtonian science, in which there is absolutely no question of higher meanings being expressed in the universe around us. But there is still, with someone like Newton himself, for instance, a strong sense that the universe declares the glory of God. This is evident in its Design, its beauty, its regularity, but also in its having evidently been shaped to conduce to the welfare of His creatures, particularly of ourselves, the superior creatures who cap it all off. Now the presence of God no longer lies in the sacred, because this category fades in a disenchanted world. But He can be thought to be no less powerfully present through His Design.

This presence of God in the cosmos is matched by another idea: His presence in the polity. Here an analogous change takes place. The divine isn’t there in a King who straddles the planes. But it can be present to the extent that we build a society which plainly follows God’s design. This can be filled in with an idea of moral order which is seen as established by God, in the way invoked, for instance, in the American Declaration of Independence: Men have been created equal, and have been endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.

The idea of moral order which is expressed in this Declaration, and which has since become dominant in our world is quite different from the orders which preceded it, because it starts from individuals, and doesn’t see these as set a priori within a hierarchical order, outside of which they wouldn’t be fully human agents. Its members are not agents who are essentially embedded in a society which in turn reflects and connects with the cosmos, but rather disembedded individuals who come to associate together. The design underlying the association is that each, in pursuing his or her own purposes in life, act to benefit others mutually. It calls for a society structured for mutual benefit, in which each respects the rights of others, and offers them mutual help of certain kinds. The most influential early articulator of this formula is John Locke, but the basic conception of such an order of mutual service has come down to us through a series of variants, including more radical ones, such as those presented by Rousseau and Marx.

But in the earlier days, when the plan was understood as Providential, and the order seen as Natural Law, which is the same as the law of God, building a society which fulfils these reqirements was seen as fulfilling the design of God. To live in such a society was to live in one where God was present, not at all in the way that belonged to the enchanted world, through the sacred, but because we were following His design. God is present as the designer of the way we live. We see ourselves, to quote a famous phrase, as “one people under God”.

In thus talking the United States as a paradigm case of this new idea of order, I am following Robert Bellah’s tremendously fertile idea of an American “civil religion”. Of course, the concept is understandably and rightly contested today, because some of the conditions of this religion are now being challenged, but there is no doubt that Bellah has captured something essential about American society, both at its inception, and for about two centuries thereafter.

The fundamental idea, that America had a vocation to carry our God’s purposes, which alone makes sense of the passages Bellah quotes, for instance, from Kennedy’s Inaugural address, and even more from Lincoln’s second Inaugural, and which can seem strange and threatening to many unbelievers in America today, has to be understood in relation to this conception of order of free, rights-bearing individuals. This was what was invoked in the Declaration of Independence, which appealed to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”. The rightness of these laws, for both Deists and Theists, was grounded in their being part of the Providential Design. What the activism of the American Revolutionaries added to this was a view of history as the theatre in which this Design was to be progressively realized, and of their own society as the place where this realization was to be consummated – what Lincoln will later refer to as “the last best hope on earth”. It was this notion of themselves as fulfilling Divine purposes which, along with the Biblical culture of Protestant America, facilitated the analogy with ancient Israel that often recurs in American official rhetoric of the early days.

The confusion today arises from the fact that there is both continuity and discontinuity. What continues is the importance of some form of the modern idea of moral order. It is this which gives the sense that Americans are still operating on the same principles as the Founders. The rift comes from the fact that what makes this order the right one is, for many though not by any means for all, no longer God’s Providence; the order is grounded in nature alone, or in some concept of civilization, or even in supposedly unchallengeable a priori principles, often inspired by Kant. So that some Americans want to rescue the Constitution from God, whereas others, with deeper historical roots, see this as doing violence to it. Hence the contemporary American Kulturkampf.

But the United States path to modernity, although considered paradigmatic by many Americans, is in fact rather exceptional. A secularization of the public sphere has come about in rather different ways elsewhere.

Thus in Catholic societies, the old model of presence lasted much longer. True, it was affected by disenchantment, and became more and more a compromise, in which the hierarchical order was in some sense treated as untouchable and the King as sacred, but in which also elements of functional justification began to creep in, where monarchical rule was argued to be indispensable for order, for example. We can think of this as the “baroque” compromise.

The path to what we are now living today passes out of both of these forms of divine presence in society into something different, which I want to define below. The path out of the Catholic “baroque” went through a catastrophic revolutionary overturn. But the “Protestant” one was smoother, and therefore harder in some ways to trace.

David Martin, in a number of insightful works, has developed an interesting account of the “Protestant”, more particularly “Anglophone” path. This comes about in societies in which the reigning forms of social imaginary centre more and more on the order of mutual benefit, and the “baroque” order is seen as distant and somewhat abhorrent, in short “Papist”.

In keeping with this outlook, it seems more and more evident in these cultures that valid religious adherence can only be voluntary. Forcing it has less and less legitimacy. And so popular alienation from élite-dominated religion can take the form of new voluntary associations, rather different from the earlier churches. The prototype of these is the Wesleyan Methodists, but the real explosion in such free churches occurs in the United States at the end of the 18th Century, and this transforms the face of American religion.

With the Methodists, we have something new, neither a church nor a sect, but a proto-form of what we now call a “denomination”. A “church” in this Troeltschian sense claims to gather within it all members of society; as with the Catholic church, it sees its vocation as being the church for everyone. Some of the main Reformation churches had the same aspiration, and often managed to take with them into dissidence whole societies, for instance, in Germany, Scandinavia, and initially England as well.

But even what we call “sects” after Troeltsch, which concentrated on the “saved”, those who really deserved to be members, were in a sense frustrated churches. That is, either like Presbyterians in England, they aspired to take over the one national church; or like some Anabaptists, they despaired of the larger society, but just for that reason tried to reduce their contacts with it to a minimum. They still tried to circumscribe a zone in which they defined religious life.

At its beginning, the Methodist movement didn’t aspire to churchhood, just to being a current within the national Church of England. They would practise their own kind of spirituality, but within a broader body which included others. Their desired status was analogous in some ways to that of religious orders in the Catholic Church. Something of this sense of legitimate difference carries over when they are forced out, and becomes the standard outlook which distinguishes the denomination, dominant on the US scene.

Denominations are like affinity groups. They don’t see their differences from (at least some) others as make-or-break, salvation-or-damnation issues. Their way is better for them, may even be seen as better tout court, but doesn’t cut them off from other recognized denominations. They thus exist in a space of other “churches”, such that in another, more general sense, the whole group of these make up “the church”. The injunction to worship in the church of your choice is an injunction to belong to the “church” in this broader sense, the limits of permitted choice defining its boundaries.

In earlier days on the American scene, Catholics were outside these limits, as they are still for many today. But for others, the limits have widened to include Jews as part of a common adhesion to Judaeo-Christian theism.

So it is a feature of denominationalism that, just because one’s own church does not include all the faithful, there is a sense of belonging to a wider, less structured whole which does. And this can find at least partial expression in the state. That is, the members of mutually recognizing denominations can form a people “under God”, with the sense of acting according to the demands of God in forming and maintaining their state, as in the case of the American “civil religion” alluded to above.Indeed, insofar as the divine Design includes freedom, this can be interpreted as calling for an openness to a plurality of denominations.

This sense of a providental political mission has been very strong among American Protestants, and remains alive till this day. But something analogous also developed in Britain. Linda Colley has claimed that a kind of British nationalism developed in the 18th Century, part of which formed around the sense of a shared Protestantism, which over-arched differences in actual confession. This built on a previous self-identification of Englishmen with the Protestant cause, in a world where the major threats to national security came from large “Papist” powers.

So in one way, a denominational identity tends to separate religion from the state. A denomination cannot be a national church, and its members can’t accept and join whatever claims to be the national church. Denominationalism implies that churches are all equally options, and thrives best in a régime of separation of church and state, de facto if not je jure. But on another level, the political entity can be identified with the broader, over-arching “church”, and this can be a crucial element in its patriotism.

This of course gives us a situation very different from the “Durkheimian” one prevailing in some Catholic countries, where the social sacred is defined and served by the Church. For one thing, in this disenchanted Protestant setting, there is no more sacred in the earlier sense, in which certain places, times, people, acts are distinguished as such from the profane. For another, no one church can uniquely define and celebrate the link of the political society and divine providence.

Of course, I am speaking here of an ideal type; one which in this regard is fully realized in the United States. The British situation is muddied by the continued existence of national churches, which in one case (the Anglican Church) goes on assuming a ceremonial role, which in type and even in many of its ritual details is a legacy of its Catholic, mediaeval past. But mass enjoyment of this ceremonial has long been unhooked from identification with this Church.

I will call this kind of link between religion and the state “neo-Durkheimian”, contrasting on the one hand to the “paleo-Durkheimian” mode of “baroque” Catholic societies, and on the other to more recent forms in which the spiritual dimension of existence is quite unhooked from the political. The “paleo” phase corresponds to a situation in which a sense of the ontic dependence of the state on God and higher times is still alive, even though it may be weakened by disenchantment and an instrumental spirit; whereas in “neo” societies, God is present because it is his Design around which society is organized. It is this which we concur on as the identifying common description of our society, what we could call its “political identity.”

Now if we look at this “Anglophone” trajectory, we can see that, unlike the “baroque” one, where the Church almost inevitably generated counter-forces, it can sustain a high level of religious belief and practice. Resentment at the power of élites, and estrangement from their spiritual style, can find expression in another mode of Christian life and worship. Popular groups can find and live by their own spiritual style, as the “enthusiastic” Methodists did in 18th Century England, and the Baptists did in the rural US, and Evangelicals and Pentacostals are doing today in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Alienation from a North-East dominated by genteel Episcopalians and Presbyterians can take the form of passionate born-again Evangelicalism in the South and West.

At the same time, belief is sustained by the “neo-Durkheimian” identification with the state. Over a long period, for many of the English, Christianity of a certain Protestant variety was identified with certain moral standards, often summed in the word “decency”, and England was thought to be the pre-eminent carrier of this variety on the world scene. This was what we could call the “established synthesis”. English patriotism was built for many around this complex of beliefs and norms. Many Protestant Americans, and latterly some Catholic ones, have thought that the USA has a providential mission to spread liberal democracy among the rest of humankind.

The point here can perhaps be generalized. In the course of modern history, confessional allegiances have come to be woven into the sense of identity of certain ethnic, national, class or regional groups. Britain and the USA are powerful, independent nations. But this kind of identification often happens with marginal or oppressed populations. The Polish and Irish Catholic identities are well-known cases in point. The erstwhile French-Canadian one is another.

The link here between group and confession is not the paleo-Durkheimian one of the “baroque” hierarchy, even though it is the same Catholic Church which is involved. Throne and altar can’t be allied, because the throne is alien, not just when it is Lutheran, Anglican or Orthodox, but even where it is Catholic (Vienna). Resentment at élites becomes marginal to the extent that these élites lose power and privilege. But the sense of national domination and oppression, the sense of virtue in suffering and struggle is deeply interwoven with the religious belief and allegiance – even to the point of such rhetorical excesses as the depiction of Poland as “Christ crucified among the nations”. The result is what I’m calling a “neo-Durkheimian” effect, where the senses of belonging to group and confession are fused, and the moral issues of the group’s history tend to be coded in religious categories. (The rival language for oppressed people was always that of the French Revolution. This had its moments in each of the subaltern nations mentioned here: the United Irish, Papineau’s rebellion in 1837, Dabrowski’s legion; but in each case, the Catholic coding later took the upper hand.)

Where this effect takes hold, a potental decline in belief and practice is retarded or fails to occur. This easily gives rise to a misunderstanding in the climate of contemporary sociology with its rather “secular” mind-set. One is tempted to say of these situations, as well as the Anglophone nations above, that religion is performing an “integrating function”. The slide is easy to the thesis that religious belief is the dependent variable here, its integrative function being the explanatory factor.

But I think it would be less distortive to say that the religious language is the one in which people find it meaningful to code their strong moral and political experience, either of oppression or of successful state building around certain moral principles. The point of citing the different predicaments of Polish or Irish peasants or workers, on one hand, and their Spanish or French counterparts on the other, is that the first offered inducements and little resistance to coding in a Catholic language, whereas life in a “baroque” régime generates experiences which are strong deterrents to doing so.

2 The new individualism

There are interesting issues here, but I want to hasten on to our contemporary predicament. Because something has happened in the last half-century, perhaps even less, which has profoundly altered the conditions of belief in our societies. We are now at a rather new phase of religious life.

I believe, along with many others, that our North Atlantic civilization has been undergoing a cultural revolution in recent decades. The 60s provide perhaps the hinge moment, at least symbolically. It is on one hand an individuating revolution, which may sound strange, because our modern age was already based on a certain individualism. But this has shifted on to a new axis, without deserting the others. As well as moral/spiritual, and instrumental individualisms, we now have a widespread “expressive” individualism. This is, of course, not totally new. Expressivism was the invention of the Romantic period in the late 18th Century. Intellectual and artistic élites have been searching for the authentic way of living or expressing themselves throughout the 19th Century. What is new is that this kind of self-orientation seems to have become a mass phenomenon.

Its most obvious external manifestation has perhaps been the consumer revolution. With post-War affluence, and the diffusion of what many had considered luxuries before, came a new concentration on private space, and the means to fill it, which began distending the relations of previously close-knit working-class or peasant communities, even of extended families. Modes of mutual help dropped off, perhaps partly because of the receding of dire necessity. People concentrated more on their own lives, and that of their nuclear families. They moved to new towns or suburbs, lived more on their own, tried to make a life out of the ever-growing gamut of new goods and services on offer, from washing-machines to packaged holidays, and the freer individual life-styles they facilitated. The “pursuit of happiness” took on new, more immediate meaning, with a growing range of easily available means. And in this newly individuated space, the customer was encouraged more and more to express her taste, furnishing her space according to her own needs and affinities, as only the rich had been able to do in previous eras.

One important facet of this new consumer culture was the creation of a special youth market, with a flood of new goods, from clothes to records, aimed at an age bracket which ranged over adolescents and young adults. The advertising deployed to sell these goods in symbiosis with the youth culture which develops helped create a new kind of consciousness of youth as a stage in life, between childhood and an adulthood tied down by responsibility. This was not, of course, without precedent. Many earlier societies had marked out such a stage in the life cycle, with its own special groupings and rituals; and upper class youth had enjoyed their student days and (sometimes) fraternities. Indeed, with the expansion of urban life and the consolidation of national cultures, upper- and middle-class youth began to become conscious of itself as a social reality towards the end of the 19th Century. Youth even becomes a political reference point, or a basis of mobilization, as one sees with the German Jugendbewegung, and later with Fascist invocation of “Giovinezza” in their famous marching song. But this self-demarcation of youth was a break with the working class culture of the 19th and early 20th Century, where the necessities of life seemed to exclude such a time out after childhood and before the serious business of earning began.

The present youth culture is defined, both by the way advertising is pitched at it, and to a great degree autonomously, as expressivist. The styles of dress adopted, the kinds of music listened to, give expression to the personality, to the affinities of the chooser, within a wide space of fashion in which one’s choice could align one with thousands, even millions of others.

If we move from these external facts about post-war consumerism to the self-understandings that went along with them, we see a steady spread of what I have called the culture of “authenticity”. I mean the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late-18th Century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.

This had been the standpoint of many intellectuals and artists during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. One can trace the strengthening, even radicalization of this ethos among some cultural élites throughout this period, a growing sense of the right, even duty, to resist “bourgeois” or established codes and standards, to declare openly for the art and the mode of life that they felt inspired to create and live. The defining of its own ethos by the Bloomsbury milieu was an important stage on this road in early 20th Century England, and the sense of the epochal change is reflected in the famous phrase of Virginia Woolf: “On or about December 1910, human nature changed”. A somewhat parallel moment comes with André Gide’s “coming out” as a homosexual in the 1920s, a move in which desire, morality, and a sense of integrity came together. It is not just that Gide no longer feels the need to maintain a false front; it is that after a long struggle he sees this front as a wrong that he is inflicting on himself, and on others who labour under similar disguises.

But it is only in the era after the Second World War, that this ethic of authenticity begins to shape the outlook of society in general. Expressions like “do your own thing” become current; a beer commercial of the early 70s enjoined us to “be yourselves in the world of today”. A simplified expressivism infiltrates everywhere. Therapies multiply which promise to help you find yourself, realize yourself, release your true self, and so on.

And so the new more individualised pursuit of happiness, loosening some of the ties and common life-ways of the past, the spread of expressive individualism and the culture of authenticity, the increased importance of these spaces of mutual display, all these seem to point to a new way of being together in society. This expressive individualism, which has been growing since the war, is obviously stronger in some milieux than others, stronger among youth than among older people, stronger among those who were formed in the 60s and 70s; but over-all it seems steadily to advance.

I leave aside the pros and cons here to concentrate on what is relevant to our purposes, which we could describe as the imagined place of the sacred, in the widest sense. Drawing an ideal type of this new social imaginary of expressive individualism, we could say that it was quite non-Durkheimian.

Under the paleo-Durkheimian dispensation, my connection to the sacred entailed my belonging to a church, in principle co-extensive with society, although in fact there were perhaps tolerated outsiders, and as yet undisciplined heretics. The neo-Durkheimian dispensation saw me enter the denomination of my choice, but that in turn connected me to a broader, more elusive “church”, and more importantly, to a political entity with a providential role to play. In both these cases, there was a link between adhering to God and belonging to the state – hence my epithet “Durkheimian”.

The neo-Durkheimian mode involves an important step towards the individual and the right of choice. One joins a denomination because it seems right to one. And indeed, it now comes to seem that there is no way of being in the “church” except through such a choice. Where under paleo-Durkheimian rules one can – and did – demand that people be forcibly integrated, be rightly connected with God against their will, this now makes no sense. Coercion comes to seem not only wrong, but absurd and thus obscene. We saw an important watershed in the development of this consciousness in the reaction of educated Europe to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Even the Pope thought it was a mistake.

But the expressivist outlook takes this a stage farther. The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this. This takes us farther. The choice of denomination was understood to take place within a fixed cadre, say that of the apostles’ creed, the faith of the broader “church”. Within this framework of belief, I choose the church in which I feel most comfortable. But if the focus is going now to be on my spiritual path, thus on what insights come to me in the subtler languages that I find meaningful, then maintaining this or any other framework becomes increasingly difficult.

But this means that my placing in the broader “church” may not be that relevant for me, and along with this, my placing in the “people under God”, or other such political agency with a providential role. In the new expressivist dispensation, there is no necessary embedding of our link to the sacred in any particular broader framework, whether “church” or state.

Paleo-, neo-, post-Durkheimian describe ideal types. My claim is not that any of these provides the total description, but that our history has moved through these dispensations, and that the latter has come to colour more and more our age.

That the new dispensation doesn’t provide the whole story is readily evident from the struggles in contemporary society. In a sense, part of what drove the Moral Majority and motivates the Christian Right in the USA is an aspiration to re-establish something of the fractured neo-Durkheimian understanding that used to define the nation, where being American would once more have a connection with theism, with being “one people under God”, or at least with the ethic which was interwoven with this. Similarly, much of the leadership of the Catholic Church, led by the Vatican, is trying to resist the challenge to monolithic authority which is implicit in the new expressivist understanding of spirituality. And the Catholic Church in the US frequently lines up with the Christian Right in attempts to re-establish earlier versions of the moral consensus which enjoyed in their day neo-Durkheimian religious grounding.

But the very embattled nature of these attempts shows how we have slid out of the old dispensation. This shift goes a long way to explain the conditions of belief in our day.

While in the original paleo-Durkheimian dispensation, people could easily feel that they had to obey the command to abandon their own religious instincts, because these being at variance with orthodoxy must be heretical or at least inferior; while those inhabiting a neo-Durkheimian world felt that their choice had to conform to the over-all framework of the “church” or favoured nation, so that even Unitarians and ethical societies presented themselves as denominations with services and sermons on Sunday; in the post-Durkheimian age many people are uncomprehending in face of the demand to conform. Just as in the neo-Durkheimian world, joining a church you don’t believe in seems not just wrong, but absurd, contradictory, so in the post-Durkheimian age seems the idea of adhering to a spirituality which doesn’t present itself as your path, the one which moves and inspires you. For many people today, to set aside their own path in order to conform to some external authority just doesn’t seem comprehensible as a form of spiritual life. The injunction is, in the words of a speaker at a New Age festival: “Only accept what rings true to your own inner Self”.

My hypothesis is that the post-War slide in our social imaginary more and more into a post-Durkheimian age has destabilized and undermined the various Durkheimian dispensations. This has had the effect of either gradually releasing people to be recruited into the fractured culture, or in the case where the new consumer culture has quite dislocated the earlier outlook, of explosively expelling people into this fractured world.

The measurable, external results are as we might expect: first, a rise in the number of those who state themselves to be atheists, agnostics, or to have no religion, in many countries, including Britain, France, the US, and Australia. But beyond this, the gamut of intermediate positions greatly widens: many people drop out of active practice while still declaring themselves as belonging to some confession, or believing in God. On another dimension, the gamut of beliefs in something beyond widens, less declaring belief in a personal God, while more hold to something like an impersonal force; in other words a wider range of people express religious beliefs which move outside Christian orthodoxy. Following in this line is the growth of non-Christian religions, particularly those originating in the Orient, and the proliferation of New Age modes of practice, of views which bridge the humanist/spiritual boundary, of practices which link spirituality and therapy. On top of this more and more people adopt what would earlier have been seen as untenable positions, e.g., they consider themselves Catholic while not accepting many crucial dogmas, or they combine Christianity with Buddhism, or they pray while not being certain they believe. This is not to say that people didn’t occupy positions like this in the past. Just that now it seems to be easier to be upfront about it. In reaction to all this, Christian faith is in the process of redefining and recomposing itself in various ways, from Vatican II to the charismatic movements. All this represents the consequence of expressivist culture as it impacts on our world. It has created a quite new predicament.


So what should we make of the two common surmises, with which we began this discussion?

1) It is clear that the retreat of religion from the public sphere can’t simply be identified with a “privatization” of religion. This was perhaps the fate which a certain anti-religious liberalism foresaw for it, that it should shrink to an unobtrusive private allegiance. But we can see now that the coming of a dominantly post-Durkheimian age doesn’t in any way mean that religious or religion-inspired issues will disappear from the public sphere. We need think only of those who identify strongly with a neo-Durkheimian dispensation agaianst the expanding post-Durkheimian climate. But there are many other issues from which people cannot abstract their spiritual commitments. The expanding field of genetic manipulation will obvious throw up more and more of these.

2) But perhaps the greatest misapprehensions cluster around the meaning of modern individualism. The picture is often that of individuals who make what they can of their “religious experience”, or whatever it is which gives some meaning to their lives, without too much concern for how it all fits together on the level of society, or how it affects the fate of different churches. But we can see how inadequate a picture this is, if we look at three key phenomena today, which we might miss if we fall prey to this too simple notion.

One concerns the significance of the post-Durkheimian world itself. It means, as I said above that our relation to the spiritual is being more and more unhooked from our relation to our political societies. But that by itself doesn’t say anything about whether or how our relation to the sacred will be mediated by collective connections. A thoroughly post-Durkheimian society would be one in which our religious belonging would be unconnected to our national identity. It will almost certainly be one in which the gamut of such religious allegiances will be wide and varied. It will also almost certainly have lots of people who are following a religious life centred on personal experience. But it doesn’t follow that everyone, or even that most people will be doing this. Many people will find their spiritual home in churches, for instance, including the Catholic Church. In a post-Durkheimian world, this allegiance will be unhooked from that to a sacralized society (paleo-style), or some national identity (neo-style); bt it will still be a collective connection.

These connections, sacramental or through a way of life, are obviously still powerful in the modern world. We have to avoid an easy error here; that of confusing the new place of religion in our personal and social lives, the framework understanding that we should be following our own spiritual sense, from the issue of what paths we will follow. The new framework has a strongly individualist component, but this will not necessarily mean that the content will be individuating. Many people will find themselves joining extremely powerful religious communities. Because that’s where many people’s sense of the spiritual will lead them.

Of course, they won’t necessarily sit easily in these communities as their forbears did. And in particular, a post-Durkheimian age may mean a much lower rate of inter-generational continuity of religious allegiance. But the strongly collective options will not lose adherents. Perhaps even the contrary trend might declare itself.

This is not to say that there is no connection between a post-Durkheimian dispensation, on one hand, and the tendency to an individualized experience of the spiritual which often slides towards the feel-good and the superficial. For clearly, this kind of undemanding spirituality is what a lot of people will understand as following their own way. Clearly, if one could in some way leap back to some earlier century, the number of self-indulgent seekers would radically decline. But all this is no excuse for repeating their mistake and just identifying the injunction to follow one’s own spiritual path with the more flaccid and superficial options.

Some conservative souls feel that it is sufficient to condemn this age to note that it has led great numbers into modes of free floating not very exigent spirituality. But they should ask themselves two questions: First, is it conceivable that one could return to a paleo- or even neo-Durkheimian dispensation? But secondly, and more profoundly, doesn’t every dispensation have its own favoured forms of deviation? If ours tends to multiply somewhat shallow and undemanding spiritual options, we shouldn’t forget the spiritual costs of various kinds of forced conformity: hypocrisy, spiritual stultification, inner revolt against the Gospel, the confusion of faith and power, and even worse. Even if we had a choice, I’m not sure we wouldn’t be wiser to stick with the present dispensation.

The second point that one might miss is the continuing importance of the neo-Durkheimian identities I alluded to above. In some societies these are in a quasi-agonistic relation to the post-Durkheimian climate. Think for instance of the United States, and certain demands of the Christian Right, for e.g., school prayer. But these identities are perhaps even more in evidence among groups which feels suppressed or threatened (perhaps also the case of the Christian Right?), and often people of a certain ethnic or historical identity will look to some religious marker to gather around. I mentioned, e.g., the Poles and Irish above. These were peoples cast into the modern political form because they were mobilized to attain their independence or establish their integrity, in the context of being ruled from outside and sometimes being very heavily oppressed. They therefore took on the modern language and the modern conceptions of a political entity; they became in a modern sense peoples. And modern peoples, that is collectivities that strive to be agents in history, need some understanding of what they’re about, what I’m calling political identity. In the two cases mentioned, being Catholic was an important part of that identity.

This phenomenon remains important in the modern world, although from a faith perspective one might be ambivalent about it. Because there are a gamut of cases, from a deeply felt religious allegiance, all the way to situations in which the religious marker is cynically manipulated in order to mobilize people. Think of Miloshevic, and the BJP. But whatever one’s ethical judgments, this is a powerful reality in today’s world, and one that is not about to disappear.

The third important thing that we often under-rate in our talk of contemporary individualism is the way in which our response to our original spiitual intuitions may continue into formal spiritual practices. Here’s where the foregrounding of feeling, and the moment of conversion and inspiration, may make us fail to notice the kind of religious life which may start in a moment of blinding insight, but then continues through some, perhaps very demanding spiritual discipline. It can be in meditation; it can be prayer. One develops a religious life. Arguably this kind of path is becoming more and more prominent and widespread in our (largely) post-Durkheimian age. Many people are not satisfied with a momentary sense of wow! They wasn’t to take it further, and they’re looking for ways of doing so. 

The place of religion has certainly changed in our contemporary world, but many of its oldest forms are finding a new place in this altered universe. The danger is that we be so focussed on their previous forms that we fail to see the most important developments of our time.

Transit online, Nr. 19/2000
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Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies, Princeton University Press, 1997. 

See Robert Bellah “Civil Religion in America”, in Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World,New York: Harper & Row, 1970, chapter 9.

E.g., Tongues of Fire, Oxford: Blackwell 1990, and A General Theory of Secularization, Oxford: Blackwell 1978. 

Linda Colley, Britons, Yale U.P. 1992. 

The connection of Christianity with decency in England has been noted by David Martin, Dilemmas of contemporary Religion, Oxford: Blackwell 1978, p. 122. 

Cf Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, London: Chatto & Windus 1957. 

Cf. Yves Lambert, Dieu Change en Bretagne, Paris: Cerf 1985. 

See The Malaise of Modernity, Toronto: Anansi 1991. 

Quoted from Samuel Hynes, The Edwardian Turn of Mind, Princeton University Press 1968, p. 325. 

Michel Winock, Le Siècle des Intellectuels, Paris: Seuil 1997, chap 17. 

The excellent book by José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World, University of Chicago Press 1994, shows how diverse our religious predicament is. If we ever came to live in a predicament totally defined by the post-Durkheimian understanding, there would probably be no further space for religion in the public sphere. Spiritual life would be entirely privatized, in keeping with the norms of a certain procedural liberalism which is very widespread today. But Casanova traces in fact a “deprivatization” of religion, that is, an attempt by churches and religious bodies to intervene again in the political life of their societies. Instances are the Christian Right and the Catholic bishops’ letters in the USA, which I have just mentioned. It is unlikely (and also undesirable) that this kind of thing ever cease. But the situation in which these interventions take place is defined by the end of a uniform Durkheimian dispensation, and the growing acceptance among many people of a post-Durkheimian understanding. 

Luc Ferry in his very interesting L’Homme-Dieu ou le sens de la vie, Paris: Grasset 1996, chapter 1, picks up on this phenomenon under the title “le refus de l’Autorité”. I agree with much of what he says, but I think he over-intellectualizes this reaction by relating it directly to Descartes, instead of seeing its expressivist roots. 

Sir George Trevelyan, in a lecture at the Festival for Mind, Body and Spirit, quoted in Paul Heelas, The New Age Movement, Oxford: Blackwell’s 1996, p. 21. The injunction, one might say, represents only a New Age outlook. But in this respect, the various New Age movements accentuate much more widely held attitudes, as Heelas argues in Chapter 6. In 1978, for instance, a Gallup poll found that 80% of Americans agreed that “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues.” Heelas, p. 164; also cited in Robert Bellah et al, Habits of the Heart, Berkeley: Univ of California Press 1985, p. 228. 

See Steve Bruce, Religion in the Modern World, Oxford University Press 1996, pp 33, 137ff; Sylvie Denèfle, Sociologie de la Sécularisation, Paris: L’Harmatan 1997. 

For instance, the Gallup Political & Economic Index (394, June 1993) reports that in Britain 40% believe in “some sort of spirit or lifeforce”, as opposed to 30% who have faith in a “personal God”; cited in Paul Heelas, op. cit., p. 166. 

The move of many Western societies into what I have been calling a “post-Durkheimian” dispensation has obviously facilitated their move towards “multi-culturalism, at the same time as this has become a more urgent issue because of the increasing diversity of their populations. But multi-culturalism has also produced strains, which are often exacerbated by the continuing hold of one or other “Durkheimian” understanding on important segments of the population. Christian conservatives are made edgy by rampant expressivism in the USA; and many French people find it hard to see their country as containing an important Muslim component, so long have they related to it as an essentially Catholic country, or one defined by the constitutive tension between Catholicism and “laîcité”. 

See the very interesting discussion in Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven, chapter 7 “The Practice of Spirituality”.