«Religion, Collective Identity and the Public Sphere after Socialism (Giessen GCSC Keynote Lecture, 27th January 2015) ...»
Religion, Collective Identity and the Public Sphere after Socialism
(Giessen GCSC Keynote Lecture, 27th January 2015)
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I Introduction (thanks to hosts, etc)
This is of course a highly interdisciplinary field in which a social anthropologist has much to
learn from specialists in Religious Studies, in Area Studies, in history, sociology and so on.
Tonight I want to focus on sociological theorizing. I view the dominant schools in this discipline as intimately bound up with the history of Western industrial societies. This bias must never be forgotten. But it can still be instructive to look at sociological theorizing about religion and about secularization in the West, as a foil for exploring the very different situation in the East. So, this is what I shall do, paying particular attention in the first part of the lecture to my native Britain. I shall leaven this sociological analysis with some ethnographic materials at the end, from Hungary. Before I get there I want to sketch some of the results of the work undertaken in Halle where we had a Focus Group between 2003 and 2010 (this worked in two phases, initially “civil society” and then “morality”; the basic idea to create this Schwerpunkt dated back to the EASA meeting in Cracow in 2000, where it was generally agreed among participants – in the city of Karol Wojtyła – that religion had not been as prominent as it deserved to be in the first decade of anthropological work in the former Marxist-Leninist societies of the Soviet bloc, many of which had only opened up to Western researchers after 1990; and even in the more liberal states which had welcomed researchers, such as Hungary and Poland, where I worked myself from the 1970s, topics pertaining to religion were particularly sensitive).
II Secularization in the West This is a complex story that often gets bowdlerized under concepts such as modernity and modernization, or rationality and rationalization. It moves forward ineluctably on many levels, including that of intellectual elites, where the impact of the Enlightenment and an even earlier scientific revolution is decisive, but also among the masses, where it is tightly linked to processes of industrialization and urbanization. There are glitches in the narrative because neither the cotton workers of Manchester nor the coal workers of South Wales gave up religion when they took up new ways of making a living – on the contrary, these regions experienced an efflorescence of religious belief and practice in the early industrial era.
Nonetheless the general trend seemed clear and it was confirmed in numerous sociological works in the third quarter of the 20th century. By now, religion was established by the systems theorists as just another sub-system in a functionally differentiated modern Gesellschaft, in contrast with an earlier era of Gemeinschaft in which religion had not just 1 held local rural communities together but provided the unreflected backcloth to the entirety of social existence. Despite diverse historical forms of state-church relations, there were common strands that included a marked shift towards private, individual faith as well as institutional differentiation. Where religion persisted, it became “invisible” in the formulation of Peter Berger. In Britain, Bryan Wilson was the most influential representative of what we might call “orthodox” secularization theory. Religion by no means disappeared from modern British society, but the emergence of a plurality of sects and New Age Spirituality confirmed that the society as a whole was now working according to new secular norms of individual choice. David Martin provided a more elaborate historical framework for the analysis of secularization in 1978, in which he emphasized differentiation of the religions sphere while stressing that the ideal type of a purely rational, purely secular polity and society would never be approximated in any concrete case. He drew attention to blips and “contingencies” in the orthodox narrative, without denying its basic force. In recent years Steve Bruce (2011) has been the most trenchant advocate of this orthodox secularization school – while at the same time polemicising against approaches to religion based on a “market” model that privileges individual choice.
In the last 20 years this body of theory has been attacked – to the extent that many would say it needs to be significantly modified. José Casanova’s 1994 book was undoubtedly a milestone. It marked the obvious (renewed) visibility of religion in many pubic spheres around the world and followed Martin in distinguishing more carefully between the privatization of faith and societal differentiation. Peter Berger was convinced by now that processes of deprivatization and de-differentiation were both gaining strength. In this climate, though without bothering much with nitty-gritty sociological evidence, Western philosophers previously perceived as staunch defenders of Enlightenment rationality, notably Jürgen Habermas, began to deploy notions of the “post-secular”.
These developments need to be placed in wider contexts – the political economy of globalization and ensuing problems concerning social integration, especially of Muslims in the Western societies which need their labour, but also the intellectual rejection of “grand narratives” in the social sciences, including the Durkheimian paradigm in the social sciences.
In this context, religion was reassessed by one influential specialist Danièle Hervieu-Léger in terms of its continuing contribution to the social “chain of memory”. In Britain, the works of Grace Davie have been especially influential. Her notion of “believing without belonging” draws attention to the fact that formal membership of a parish and attendance at services can be a very poor guide to belief in God. With the related notion of “vicarious religion” she points out that many ostensibly secular British people still look to their Anglican ecclesiastical dignitaries to speak up on moral issues, and thus to undertake a key role in the reproduction of a collective identity, which nowadays is of course thoroughly ecumenical. By undertaking this role, the established church creates the space in which other faith communities of all kinds can flourish. This element, though not the collective identity element, is consistent with the position of David Martin, who argues that the future of Christianity lies in a voluntarist, religiously plural landscape of civil society. Catholics and Protestants alike compete for followers all over the world on this basis. However, Martin
I am no expert on Britain, but I do visit regularly and am not entirely convinced that there is any general retrenchment of religion, or spirituality, or enchantment – and certainly not of the historic Christian churches. The anthropologist Matthew Engelke has recently investigated the efforts of the British and Foreign Bible Society, a rather mainstream evangelical organization, to rejuvenate Christianity in urban Britain (Engelke 2013). However, his account demonstrates that explicit attempts to bring religion back into the public sphere are rather unsuccessful. In Swindon the goal was to mount elaborate angels in public space in the run-up to Christmas, but the municipal authorities prohibited any proseltyzing and the design adopted for the angels was Japanese Buddhist rather than Christian. If there was any net gain in enchantment through these decorations, it really had nothing to do with the spread of religious meanings into public space. On the contrary, rather than blurring the line between spheres, such initiatives reinforce a sharp divide between the secular state and religion, to keep the latter in its place. In today’s Britain it seems that few citizens actually recognize religious markers when publicly displayed, e.g. in advertising. The goal of producing “ambient faith” (Engelke) is not met, because neither in state schools nor in most families do children receive enough basic information to be able to recognize religious stimuli.
One key domain in which to assess recent trends is that of welfare provision. This was central to the strength of religion in Britain in the 19th century. But by the time I grew up in South Wales, the old chapel life was dying, along with the mining communities. It seemed very apposite that one of the closest nonconformist chapels to my family home in Pontnewydd was converted after the Second World War to serve as an employment exchange. (Of course, many other church buildings have been deconsecrated to serve as places of profane entertainment.) The rise of the welfare state dramatically changed the role of faith communities in the provision of social support. It is true that “faith-based organizations” have become more prominent in recent decades than they were before the age of Margaret Thatcher. But when one looks more closely, the FBOs operate under strict secular controls.
They are not allowed to propagate a religious message when they take responsibility for, say, a Community Centre on an urban estate. Because they are subject to the same rigorous “audit culture” as non-religious service-providers, they undergo processes of bureaucratization or “internal secularization”. In short, the greater visibility of angels in December and of FBOs on proletarian housing states is a very superficial phenomenon. The name outside the Centre may be nominally religious, but the norms and content of its activities do not refute the diagnosis of a society in a condition not of “post-secularity” but of “advanced secularization” (Wood, forthcoming).
Here I am following the work, to be published later this year, of Belfast-based sociologist Matthew Wood. Rather than any resurgence of Christianity in contemporary Britain, he argues that the micro-level secularism prevailing among individual citizens is reinforced at the meso-level by the ways in which FBOs interact with the institutional machinery of the modern state. However, Wood does not fully refute the force of Davie’s analysis of
III Religion after Socialism So far I have concentrated on a European country that has not experienced major political ruptures in its recent history. I think it is fair to say that the experience of the former socialist world has not been paid much attention in the Western sociological theorizing. Casanova has written about Poland and David Martin about eastern Germany, but in general eastern Europe is cast as an aberrant story. Martin in his latest book takes it for granted that processes of resacralization or desecularization are underway throughout the former Soviet bloc, comparable to the Muslim world. Of course, few of the leading theoreticians in the West have the requisite knowledge of Slavic and other “eastern” languages – this increases the likelihood of stereotypes, of a kind that resemble orientalism – as a result, the east is easily exoticised as a realm of stagnant ritualism. Socialism is generally classified as a “failed modernity” which everywhere promoted a “forced secularity”.
Of course, the persistence or otherwise of religious beliefs was greatly constrained by wider institutional developments and the political climate. Contrary to popular stereotypes, the picture is extraordinarily diverse. A few regions, notably in eastern Germany but also in Silesia and Bohemia, were highly industrialised before they became socialist, and this is reflected in variable patterns of secularization which also antedated socialism. Elsewhere, agrarian societies were subjected to a much more sudden process of transition to industrialization, typically involving commuting on a large scale because the cities were not ready to house the new workers, let alone construct places of worship for them.
Within eastern Europe only Albania dared to abolish religion in its constitution: with little success, as we now know. Elsewhere, religious behavior was tightly linked to political protest, above all in Poland. But satisfying studies of religion and secularization are almost as rare now as they were in the socialist decades, when Marxist sociologists such as Edward Ciupak took statistics of church attendance (or, when these remained high, conformity to Christian precepts in economic or family life) in order to argue that secularization was proceeding apace. In a recent collection of historical studies (Berglund and Porter-Szűcs 2010), James Bjork identifies a “strange convergence” between Catholic sociologists of religion and their Marxist opponents concerning the basic contours of secularization in Poland. Neither was willing to recognize considerable regional differences dating back to the partition era. Poland did not become clearly distinct from Catholic countries of the West until quite recently: the solid foundations of Karol Wojtyła’s united Catholic nation were laid above all by Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński’s “ideological project” of the Great Novena (1957-1966).
4 The life of Karol Wojtyła and his elevation to the papacy was obviously an inspiration to millions inside and outside Poland, and so this country deserves the rich chapter it has in Casanova’s 1994 book. But did Poland remain a special case after the collapse of socialist power, when the dominant church was no longer an oppositional force but restored to its rightful place in the collective life of the nation? The paradox is that victory over the atheist enemy could have negative consequences of various kinds; the Church inevitably lost its unsullied moral stance as it became drawn into extravagant commercial enterprises, such as construction of the cathedral at Lichen; conservative Bishops were felt to be out of touch with the consumerist lifestyles to which the vast majority of the population aspired.
I worked as an anthropologist in South-East Poland both during and after the socialist era.
Here, in a region which had been characterized by ethnic and religious diversity for centuries, some viewed the dominant Church with suspicion. They even preferred the hegemony of a weak socialist state to that of nationalist state wedded in constitutional alliance to the Vatican.