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A Systems Theory of Religion

A Systems Theory of Religion

by Niklas Luhmann

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A Systems Theory of Religion, still unfinished at Niklas Luhmann's death in 1998, was first published in German two years later thanks to the editorial work of André Kieserling. One of Luhmann's most important projects, it exemplifies his later work while redefining the subject matter of the sociology of religion. Religion, for Luhmann, is one of the many


A Systems Theory of Religion, still unfinished at Niklas Luhmann's death in 1998, was first published in German two years later thanks to the editorial work of André Kieserling. One of Luhmann's most important projects, it exemplifies his later work while redefining the subject matter of the sociology of religion. Religion, for Luhmann, is one of the many functionally differentiated social systems that make up modern society. All such subsystems consist entirely of communications and all are "autopoietic," which is to say, self-organizing and self-generating. Here, Luhmann explains how religion provides a code for coping with the complexity, opacity, and uncontrollability of our world. Religion functions to make definite the indefinite, to reconcile the immanent and the transcendent.

Synthesizing approaches as disparate as the philosophy of language, historical linguistics, deconstruction, and formal systems theory/cybernetics, A Systems Theory of Religion takes on important topics that range from religion's meaning and evolution to secularization, turning decades of sociological assumptions on their head. It provides us with a fresh vocabulary and a fresh philosophical and sociological approach to one of society's most fundamental phenomena.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This posthumously published book by Niklas Luhmann is arguably one of the most important works in the sociology and philosophy of religion of the last hundred years. It can only be compared in significance and scope to the works of Rudolf Otto, Mary Douglas, René Girard, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. It is not just original, but also generative and indispensable: future discussions will have to refer to it, and it will become de rigueur and uncircumventable."—Eduardo Mendieta, Stony Brook University

"Don't be afraid: this book does not preach atheism. This book is not about the existential concerns of one individual. Rather, it approaches religion as a system as vital to society as those of the economy, law, and love. Luhmann shows what makes religion unique to society, its special capacity to guarantee meaning even when meaning defies obvious verification. This book is a further step in Luhmann's general theory of society, a theory that remains unsurpassed as an approach to our times."—Nikolaus Wegmann, Princeton University

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Stanford University Press
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Cultural Memory in the Present
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A Systems Theory of Religion

By Niklas Luhmann, André Kieserling, David A. Brenner, Adrian Hermann


Copyright © 2000 Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8793-2


Religion as a Form of Meaning


How does one identify certain social appearances as religion? That is the question one has to start with.

For a person of faith, this question may be meaningless. Such a person can say what he believes and abide by that. He may dispute whether calling it "religion" benefits him at all. He may even reject the designation, seeing it as classifying phenomena in a way that places him in a category with things he would reject as not worth believing. The idea of religion thus seems to be a cultural one, an idea that calls for a certain tolerance.

However, for those who do not believe what they might like to signify with the term "religion," the notion has its problems and limitations. And then there are those who might wish to communicate about religion without having to commit to a faith of their own. And those who wish to problematize the notion, or at least distinguish it from other ideas. Neither "ontological" nor "analytical" solutions are of any help these days. In the ontological tradition, no one should have a problem with this, for what that tradition holds to be religion emerges out of the essence of religion. If any mistakes were made, one would merely have to recognize them and clean them up—an attitude that itself approximates faith. By contrast, the analytical thinker claims he is free to determine the scope of his own thought. For him, only propositions can be true, not ideas. However, he is confronted with having to limit arbitrariness (a methodological concession), a problem that cannot be resolved (least of all "empirically"). If the ontologist is too close to religion, the analytic thinker is too far away from it. The worst thing to do would be to look for a (practical) solution somewhere in "the middle." These two solutions are unusable by us, leaving us without a principle to convey.

If looking for more concrete answers, one can differentiate between sociological (Emile Durkheim) and phenomenological ones (Rudolf Otto). At present, however, we are not interested in their content but in how they are derived.

Durkheim views religion as a moral—and thus a social—fact. Through morality and religion, society makes itself the transcendence that God, whose facticity is now disputed, can no longer offer.

As a moral fact, religion is defined in two ways: by a moment of desire (désir), which appraises values, and by a moment of sanction that limits what is permitted (sacré). We can see that morality—and along with it, religion—emerges in a twofold process of expansion and contraction. It is based on a type of self-dissolution also linked to forms that operate as a unit, as a stabilized tension. These forms command our attention in the face of the unbearable possibility that their unity might again be dissolved into distinction. On this basis as well, religious forms are developed by further distinguishing between sacred and profane. While morality is defined by a distinction in which both sides claim one another, religion is characterized by a relationship of exclusion. In each of these cases, the aim is to understand society as a comprehensive system. This is also true of religion if one does not stop at the sacred as such but instead proceeds with the distinction between sacred and profane. Society thus distinguishes religion by marking off its domain as sacred against everything that cannot be signified the same way. Yet Durkheim does not see the form of religion in this distinction itself. Instead, he interrogates the domain of the sacred for specific religious forms (keep this in mind, because this is the point where we part ways with Durkheim).

Something similar is at work in Max Weber's sociology of religion. Weber avoids defining the essence of religion, saying he is merely interested in "the conditions and effects of a certain type of communal action." (Here he is only saying that one has to observe what people think religion is, rather than committing ourselves to an answer.) The problem for Weber was how human action could be given a cultural meaning. A related problem for him was how other orders of life, such as the economy or eroticism, might construct meaning in each of their respective domains. Religion itself assumes a distinction between everyday and extraordinary occurrences. It finds that the extraordinary ones need forms that give the world additional religious meanings, producing a need to rationalize these excesses. Georg Simmel, too, starts with a distinction between religious and religioid —a distinction that makes it possible for religion to develop enhanced forms. René Girard's theory of religion is also structured around expansion and contraction. It assumes desire itself is implicated in a conflict of imitation, hence activating religious prohibitions that appear to be religion because they are restrictive. The conflict of imitation itself, the dangerous paradox that people fight over the same desires, has to be represented symbolically. The imitation takes place in the form of a sacrifice intended to redeem something else.

In formulating this list (which is certainly not comprehensive), I am not merely surveying a few well-known ideas in the sociology of religion. Rather, I am still trying to make progress in answering the question of what lets us recognize religion. And in the cases examined there appears to be a specific dynamic at work: there are expansions that call for limitation and limits that make possible expansion. Hence, it would not be absurd when looking at religion to think about money as well. And that mysterious symbolic identity setting culture off against the spread of "materialism" would be termed "society."

Both Durkheim and Simmel use a more circumscribed idea of religion in which not everything sacred and every "religioid" relation to social life can be viewed as religion. For Durkheim, religion only emerges when faith becomes systematized. For Simmel, it only emerges in a clear, objectified consciousness of form, capable of critical judgment (but also subject to possible doubts). This distinction is significant and remains so, particularly in research on the evolution of religion, on how more demanding forms arise that (at first) seem improbable. The distinction, however, has been rejected or even forgotten in the more recent sociological research on the idea of religion. And more recent religious developments in this century cannot clearly be distinguished as religions. Nor can they be seen as establishing new forms of the sacred that are somehow free of religion.

While sociological approaches try hard to stay impartial about religious belief—and Durkheim explains this by examining primitive religions with no concept of divinity or mysteries—the phenomenological search for ideas uses the exact opposite approach. Phenomenology attempts to define religion by describing how meaningful content appears religious, that is, "holy." It assumes it is possible to have direct access to the "thing itself," a type of access that cannot be relativized by social conditions. The difficulty is how to get from there to the temporality and historicity of religion. (The way that Husserl analyzed the relationship of temporality to consciousness is simply not adequate in this case.)

Determining what is holy (or numinous) leads to a paradox if it becomes something binding for the observer. What is holy attracts us, leaving us awestruck. It exercises a horrifying fascination on us. At the same time, there are subtle differences one has to respect. Even if we are presupposing a god-oriented religion, the intention of the god is not to spread fear and terror but rather his holy essence. What is more, the deity is not the fear-arousing event itself; he is merely within it. In each case, it has to be accepted that a unity is at work (even if it is a paradoxical one). Salvation lies in danger, redemption in sin. Since the eighteenth century, the term "sublime" has been used to avoid conflict with a religion domesticated by theologians and their "good god." Whatever the case, paradox appears in the form of the holy.

It is striking that the transcendental theory underlying Husserl's phenomenology is simply overlooked in Schütz's social phenomenology, which does not even ask what the costs of doing without it would be. What Schütz is giving up is the super-distinction of empirical versus transcendental, as well as the analysis of consciousness (declared transcendental), that intentional processing of consciousness by which Husserl pointed out the unity of self-reference (noesis) and other-reference (noema). It no longer lets us hear Heidegger's warnings about reductive analyses that are anthropological, psychological, or even biological. Instead, the observer is merely being asked to stay "attuned." But what it misses out on is the justification for universality found in the transcendentality of consciousness, that possibility of making statements that are valid for every empirical consciousness. Now there may be good reasons to do without such universality, (precisely) from the viewpoint of sociologists but also from that of a language-oriented philosopher such as Jürgen Habermas. But it should not by any means lead people to repress the theory problem in favor of scrutinizing phenomena. The paradox of the holy is both the beginning and end of analysis, leaving us with the same problem, of how an observer can distinguish religion in a way that is valid for other observers and that could be distinguished—which is our main aim here (!)—from simple attitudes of faith.

In every respect, the traditional idea of religion, an idea sociology also uses, maintains a reference to one's personal existence. But if the scientific tradition does not wish be implausible or incomprehensible, it has to be linked to what otherwise (and elsewhere) is said about humanity. Or at least it has to retain some contact with it. This "humanistic" tradition is nonetheless endangered when it changes what it wishes to understand as "humanity," as well as when it has to deal with a number of very different exemplars of the category. And when forming such ideas, it is difficult to do justice to every single human being.

If, however, one questions this humanistic definition of religion, then one has to question the reduction of religion to a phenomenon of consciousness even more. Consciousness serves to externalize (hence the term " phenomenon") the results of neurobiological operations, thus introducing the distinction between other- and auto-reference to our understanding of human experience and activity. Yet even religion needs to ask about the meaning of this basic distinction or be able to grasp its unity as a source of its own production of meaning. Religion is not simply reflection performed by consciousness, because that would mean turning the "self" of consciousness into an "object" and treating it as a thing, with terms such as soul, spirit, and person. Religion cannot be adequately understood according to the schemas of consciousness (subject/object, observer/object) because it is located on both sides of the distinction between self- and other-reference.

The strong focus on humanity is likely why the classical sociology of religion does not deal with communication (or only in a very external sense). This deficit (assuming it is one) can provide a starting place for a new description of what newer sociological theories of religion should do. Put differently, the goal is to replace the idea of humanity with that of communication, thus replacing the traditional theory of religion centered on anthropology with a theory of religion centered on society. Just how productive this approach is will be the subject of detailed discussion in the chapters that follow. For now, it suffices to indicate how radical this shift in metaphors, this new description, is.

In previous attempts to answer what the essence of religion is, there is a tendency for fissures or aporias to become apparent, making those attempts "deconstructable," one might say (taking a cue from Jacques Derrida or Paul de Man). These are texts that undermine their own declared objectives, especially when one considers the classical instruments of logic and epistemology. The sociology of religion treats religions as social facts or forms, claiming that it is able to provide a "non-religious" description of them. Yet what are the status and truth of such a description in a society that frees religion from the frameworks of logic and epistemology, enabling religion to get a look at the generation of forms per se? The phenomenology of religion has to accept premises of transcendental theory, so it does not simply confuse "phenomena" with "facts" or misunderstand the paradox of "intersubjectivity" as "interobjectivity." In the same society, however, there are also religions that speak of the "subject" and question its transcendental self-certainty, attempting to respond to the self-un certainty by offering something meaningful.

If religion in turn constitutes forms by means of limitation and exclusion, is not every explanation of religion religious, since it is falling back on a method of limitation and exclusion? Or, asking the question differently: can there be a scientific description of religion if religion claims that it can justify the exclusionary power of forms (as "this and not that")? Can we then still proceed according to the science of causation, or do we have to fall back on cybernetic theories, which have a preference for circular explanations (based on an operative self-limitation of the circle)? And if religion is a paradoxical mode of observation, how does one explain the generating of forms (= distinctions) to which further observations are connected? And aren't both these questions asking the same thing, how one might deal with circular, self-referential relationships?

As soon as someone thinks they can say what religion is and how the religious can be distinguished from the non-religious, another can come and negate this criterion by making reference (for example) to an existing God, precisely in that way making use of a religious quality. For what else can it be (besides religious) whenever someone negates what someone else thinks is religion? The problem does not lie (as Wittgensteinians might think) in a gradual expansion of "family resemblances." Nor is the problem (as was Wittgenstein's point of departure) the impossibility of defining something adequately. Rather, even though we can only present it as an assumption at this point, it appears that religion is one of many things that signifies itself and is capable of giving itself a form. But that also means that religion determines itself and excludes everything that is incompatible. Yet how does it do so if there are (for instance) other religions, heathens, the civitas terrena [secular society, viz., Augustine's City of Man, as opposed to the City of God (Civitas Dei)], or evil? Religion can only be the subject of itself if it includes what is being excluded, if it is assisted by a negative correlate. The system is only autonomous if it is able to monitor what it is not. In this light, religion can only (externally) be defined in the mode of a second-order observation, as an observation of its own self-observation—and not by the dictates of some external essence.


The most general untranscendable medium for constructing every form that can be used by psychic and social systems we call "meaning." For more than a century, the term "meaning" has been used vaguely and for many things—pollachos legomenon, we might say with Aristotle. It seems clear that the idea of meaning cannot be applied to things. (It makes no sense to ask about the meaning of a frog.) Seen in historical perspective, the semantics of meaning suggest that the ontological description of the world has been subjected to a new description. But this still does not explain what might be meant by "meaning." We want to try to remedy this multivalence by resorting to a distinction, specifically the distinction between medium and form. Such a distinction might let us disregard the inadequately formulated question of "what meaning means."

The notion of medium makes "meaning" something that cannot be observed—just as little as light can be. In fact, observations assume distinguishable forms, forms that can only be formed in a medium and only so that other possibilities of forming forms are excluded from consideration in that moment. Hence, the unobservability of meaning also gives us a first indication that this all might have something to do with religion.

All psychic and social systems determine and reproduce their operations exclusively in this medium of meaning. There may well be some "meaningless" disruptions, but even for them semantic forms can be sought and immediately found. Otherwise, such forms might be forgotten or used to link up with other operations. The universality of a medium that constitutes its own system is the other dimension of systems theory's insight that systems can only operate with their own operations (and not somehow in their environment). Or put another way, that the system is an operatively closed system. One can encounter the limits of the medium from within, but these limits do not take the form of a line that can be crossed; rather, they take the form of a horizon (to use Husserl's excellent metaphor). And thus the world is accessible to systems that process meaning only as a horizon—clearly not as a distinct line somehow drawn but instead as the implication of every single operation's recursivity, of the operation's ability to be identified.


Excerpted from A Systems Theory of Religion by Niklas Luhmann, André Kieserling, David A. Brenner, Adrian Hermann. Copyright © 2000 Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), Professor of Sociology at the University of Bielefeld, was one of the most eminent social theorists of the last decades of the twentieth century. Stanford University Press has published a number of his books: Social Systems (1995), Observations on Modernity (1998), Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy (1998), Art as a Social System (2000), The Reality of the Mass Media (2000), Theories of Distinction: Redescribing the Descriptions of Modernity (2002), and Theory of Society, Volume 1 (2012).

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