Public Religions in the Modern World

Public Religions in the Modern World

by José Casanova

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In a sweeping reconsideration of the relation between religion and modernity, Jose Casanova surveys the roles that religions may play in the public sphere of modern societies.

During the 1980s, religious traditions around the world, from Islamic fundamentalism to Catholic liberation theology, began making their way, often forcefully, out of the private sphere and into public life, causing the "deprivatization" of religion in contemporary life. No longer content merely to administer pastoral care to individual souls, religious institutions are challenging dominant political and social forces, raising questions about the claims of entities such as nations and markets to be "value neutral", and straining the traditional connections of private and public morality.

Casanova looks at five cases from two religious traditions (Catholicism and Protestantism) in four countries (Spain, Poland, Brazil, and the United States). These cases challenge postwar—and indeed post-Enlightenment—assumptions about the role of modernity and secularization in religious movements throughout the world.

This book expands our understanding of the increasingly significant role religion plays in the ongoing construction of the modern world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226190204
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/29/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 330
File size: 859 KB

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Public Religions in the Modern World

By José Casanova

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1994 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-19020-4


Secularization, Enlightenment, and Modern Religion

Who still believes in the myth of secularization? Recent debates within the sociology of religion would indicate this to be the appropriate question with which to start any current discussion of the theory of secularization. There are still a few "old believers," such as Bryan Wilson and Karel Dobbelaere, who insist, rightly, that the theory of secularization still has much explanatory value in attempting to account for modern historical processes. But the majority of sociologists of religion will not listen, for they have abandoned the paradigm with the same uncritical haste with which they previously embraced it. Indeed, some are mocking the rationalists, who made so many false prophecies about the future of religion, in the same way the philosophes before them mocked religious visionaries and obscurantist priests. Armed with "scientific" evidence, sociologists of religion now feel confident to predict bright futures for religion. The reversal is astounding when one thinks that only some twenty years ago practically nobody was ready to listen when, in the first "secularization debate," the first voices were raised by David Martin and Andrew Greeley questioning the concept and the empirical evidence, or lack thereof, behind the theory of secularization. But how could anybody listen attentively then, when even the theologians were proclaiming the death of God and celebrating the coming of the secular city?

How can one explain this reversal? How could there have been so much myth before and so much light now? It is true that much empirical counterevidence has been accumulated against the theory since the 1960s, but similar counterevidence had existed all along and yet the evidence remained unseen or was explained away as irrelevant. The answer has to be that it is not reality itself which has changed, as much as our perception of it, and that we must be witnessing a typical Kuhnian revolution in scientific paradigms. Some may object to the use of the word "scientific" in this particular context. But there can be no doubt that we are dealing with a radical change in intellectual climate and in the background worldviews which normally sustain much of our social-scientific consensus.

At the entrance to the field of secularization, there should always hang the sign "proceed at your own risk." Well aware of the traps, let me nonetheless proceed in the hope of introducing some analytical distinctions which, should they prove useful, may convince some of the unbelievers to take a second look before discarding a theory, some aspects of which may be not only salvable but necessary if we are to make sense of some important aspects of our past, of our present, and, I would say, even more, of our global future. Let me begin by introducing a distinction between the concept and the theory of secularization. Then I shall make a further distinction between three different moments of the theory which must be kept clearly apart.

Secularization as a Concept

The distinction between the concept "secular," or its derivation "secularization," and the sociological theory of secularization proper is important because the concept itself is so multidimensional, so ironically reversible in its contradictory connotations, and so loaded with the wide range of meanings it has accumulated through its history. Perhaps it would even be reasonable to abandon the concept, were it not for the fact that to do so would pose even greater problems for sociology. The concept's very range of meanings and contradictions makes it practically nonoperational for the dominant modes of empirical scientific analysis. Consequently, ahistorical positivist sociology has to reduce it to clear and testable hypotheses, easily verifiable through longitudinal surveys which try to count the heads, hearts, and minds of religious people. But to drop the concept altogether would lead to even greater conceptual impoverishment, for in such a case one would also lose the memory of the complex history accumulated within the concept, and we would be left without appropriate categories to chart and to understand this history. A sociology of religion self-engrossed in the present of American secular society could perhaps afford to eliminate the concept, but comparative-historical sociology cannot do so.

Let me recall only three historical moments of the concept to illustrate the way in which they are enmeshed with real historical processes of secularization. Looking at the concept's etymology, we learn that the medieval Latin word saeculum had three undifferentiated semantic connotations. The equivalent nouns in the Romance languages (secolo, sigh, siècle) have preserved those three meanings. The entry sigh in Cassell's Spanish dictionary reads "century; age; world." Yet, in the contemporary secular "age" and in the contemporary secular "world," only the first of the three connotations, "century," has preserved its usage in everyday life, since the differentiation of time and space into two different realities, a sacred one and a profane one, became truly meaningless long ago, even in Catholic Spain.

A related but different semantic moment comes from Canon Law, where secularization refers to what could be called a "legal action" with real legal consequences for the individual. Secularization refers to the legal (canonical) process whereby a "religious" person left the cloister to return to the "world" and its temptations, becoming thereby a "secular" person. Canonically, priests could be both "religious" and "secular." Those priests who had decided to withdraw from the world (saeculum) to dedicate themselves to a life of perfection formed the religious clergy. Those priests who lived in the world formed the secular clergy. When Max Weber designates as secularization the process whereby the concept of "calling" moves or is relocated from the religious to the secular sphere to signify, now for the first time, the exercise of secular activities in the world, he is using as analogy the canonical meaning of the concept.

Finally, in reference to an actual historical process, the term "secularization" was first used to signify the massive expropriation and appropriation, usually by the state, of monasteries, landholdings, and the mortmain wealth of the church after the Protestant Reformation and the ensuing religious wars. Since then, secularization has come to designate the "passage," transfer, or relocation of persons, things, functions, meanings, and so forth, from their traditional location in the religious sphere to the secular spheres. Thus, it has become customary to designate as secularization the appropriation, whether forcible or by default, by secular institutions of functions that traditionally had been in the hands of ecclesiastical institutions.

These historically sedimented semantic moments of the term "secularization" only make sense if we accept the fact that, "once upon a time," much of reality in medieval Europe was actually structured through a system of classification which divided "this world" into two heterogeneous realms or spheres, "the religious" and "the secular." The separation between the two realms in this particular, and historically rather unusual, variant of the sacred-profane division was certainly not as heterogeneously absolute as Durkheim always thought it was. There was ample ambiguity, flexibility, permeability, and often outright confusion between the boundaries, military orders being a case in point. What is important to realize is that the dualism was institutionalized throughout society so that the social realm itself was dualistically structured.

The existence of "two swords," the spiritual and the temporal, both of them claiming to possess their own autonomous source of charisma—a kind of institutionalized dual sovereignty—necessarily had to be the source of much tension and open conflict, as well as of attempts to put an end to the dualism by subsuming one of the spheres under the other. The repeated "investiture" conflicts were the manifest expression of this ever-present tension. The theocratic claims of the church and spiritual rulers to possess primacy over the temporal rulers and, thus, ultimate supremacy and the right to rule over temporal affairs as well, were met with the caesaropapist claims of kings to embody sacred sovereignty by divine right and by the attempts of temporal rulers to incorporate the spiritual sphere into their temporal patrimony and vassalage.

A similar dualist structure, with the same room and propensity for intellectual tension and conflict, became institutionalized in the emerging medieval universities, where faith and reason became separate but parallel epistemological foundations, supposedly leading to the one single Truth: God. Here also the absolutist claims of theology set in motion the counterclaims first of self-assertive rational philosophy, which rejected its ancillary relationship to theology, and then of early modern science, which asserted its claims that the Book of Nature should rank along with the Book of Revelation as separate but equal epistemological ways to God.

This structured division of "this world" into two separate spheres, "the religious" and "the secular," has to be distinguished and kept separate from another division: that between "this world" and "the other world." To a large extent, it is the failure to keep these two distinctions separate that is the source of misunderstandings in discussions of secularization. One may say that, properly speaking, there were not two "worlds" but actually three. Spatially, there was "the other world" (heaven) and "this world" (earth). But "this world" was itself divided into the religious world (the church) and the secular world proper (saeculum). Temporally, we find the same tripartite division between the eternal age of God and the temporal-historical age, which is itself divided into the sacred-spiritual time of salvation, represented by the church's calendar, and the secular age proper (saeculum). Ecclesiologically, this tripartite division was expressed in the distinction between the eschatological "Invisible Church" (the Comtnunio Sanctorum), the "Visible Church" (the Una, Sancta, Catholica, Apostolica Roman church), and secular societies. Politically, there was the transcendental City of God (Heavenly Kingdom), its sacramental representation here on earth by the Church (the Papal Kingdom), and the City of Man proper (the Holy Roman Empire and all Christian Kingdoms). In modern secular categories, we would say that there was natural reality and supernatural reality. But the supernatural realm itself was divided between nonempirical supernatural reality proper and its symbolic, sacramental representation in empirical reality.

We may say, therefore, that premodern Western European Christendom was structured through a double dualist system of classification. There was, on the one hand, the dualism between "this world" and "the other world." There was, on the other hand, the dualism within "this world" between a "religious" and a "secular" sphere. Both dualisms were mediated, moreover, by the "sacramental" nature of the church, situated in the middle, simultaneously belonging to the two worlds, and, therefore, able to mediate sacramentally between the two. Such a system of classification, of course, rested solely on the claims of the church and was able to structure reality accordingly only as long as people took those claims for granted. Indeed, only the acceptance, for whatever reasons, of the claim of superiority of the religious realm over the secular realm could have maintained within bounds the conflicts inherent in such a dualist system.

Secularization as a concept refers to the actual historical process whereby this dualist system within "this world" and the sacramental structures of mediation between this world and the other world progressively break down until the entire medieval system of classification disappears, to be replaced by new systems of spatial structuration of the spheres. Max Weber's expressive image of the breaking of the monastery walls remains perhaps the best graphic expression of this radical spatial restructuration. The wall separating the religious and the secular realms within "this world" breaks down. The separation between "this world" and "the other world," for the time being at least, remains. But from now on, there will be only one single "this world," the secular one, within which religion will have to find its own place. If before, it was the religious realm which appeared to be the all-encompassing reality within which the secular realm found its proper place, now the secular sphere will be the all-encompassing reality, to which the religious sphere will have to adapt. To study what new systems of classification and differentiation emerge within this one secular world and what new place religion will have, if any, within the new differentiated system is precisely the analytical task of the theory of secularization.

So far, our analysis of religion has been solely spatial-structural, in terms of the location of religion within the system of classification that served to structure the social reality of medieval Christendom. Nothing has been said about the individuals living in this social space, about their religious beliefs, their religious practices, their religious experiences, that is, about the private dimensions of individual religiosity. We may speak with some confidence about two of the public dimensions of individual religiosity. Membership in the church was practically one hundred percent. With some exceptions, such as among the Jews and some Muslims who were permitted to live in their special enclaves within Christendom, membership in the church was compulsory and, therefore, in itself tells us little about individual religiosity. Everybody was a Christian. Even dissent and heresy, which encountered the same inhuman treatment they suffer in modern authoritarian states, were expressed regularly as a reformation of Christendom or as a sectarian return to the purity of origin, not as its rejection. Concerning the so-called religious factor or consequential dimension of religion—that is, the extent to which behavior in the secular realm was influenced by religion—we may also say that since life in the saeculum itself was regulated, at least officially, according to supposedly Christian principles, by definition Christians within Christendom led Christian lives.

Naturally, like every society, Christendom had its share of offenders. In fact, the official doctrine was that everybody was a sinner. There were the venial sinners, the capital sinners, those who lived in permanent sin, and those who lived beyond the pale and were excommunicated. There was, to be sure, differentiation and tension between Canon Law, Roman Law, and Common or Germanic Law. But the differentiation between religious sin, moral offense, and legal crime was not yet clear. In any case, about the statistical distribution of the various categories of sinners, or about the extension and intensity of their religious beliefs, practices, and experiences, we have scant reliable or generalizable data. Even when historians are able to determine with relative certainty the proportion of priests and religious persons within society, this statistic in itself tells us little about their actual religiosity. We have sufficient information about widespread corruption in the papal court, about rampant hedonism in the monasteries, and about simoniacal priests. If the religious virtuosi led such lives, there is no reason to believe that ordinary Christians led more virtuous lives. Indeed, precisely because the official Christian structure of society guaranteed that everybody was leading Christian lives, it was not so necessary to stress personal devotion. It was the structure itself that was religious, that is, Christian, not necessarily the personal lives that people lived within it. Within this structure, there was much room for fusion as well as fission between Christian and pagan, official and popular forms of religiosity. It is from the records of the conflicts between orthodoxy and heresy and the tensions between official and popular religion that ethnologists and social historians are extracting new revisionist perspectives on medieval and early modem religion.

Assuming that the ideal-typical characterization presented so far, as oversimplified as it may be, is nevertheless a fair one, we may say with certainty that the assumption that premodern Europeans were more religious than modern ones reveals itself precisely as that, as an assumption in need of confirmation. Those versions of the theory of secularization which begin precisely with such an unfounded assumption and conceive the process of secularization as the progressive decline of religious beliefs and practices in the modern world are indeed reproducing a myth that sees history as the progressive evolution of humanity from superstition to reason, from belief to unbelief, from religion to science. This mythical account of the process of secularization is indeed in need of "desacralization." But this does not mean that we ought to abandon altogether the theory of secularization. What the sociology of religion needs to do is to substitute for the mythical account of a universal process of secularization comparative sociological analyses of historical processes of secularization, if and when they take place.


Excerpted from Public Religions in the Modern World by José Casanova. Copyright © 1994 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

1: Secularization, Enlightenment, and Modern Religion
2: Private and Public Religions
3: Spain: From State Church to Disestablishment
4: Poland: From Church of the Nation to Civil Society
5: Brazil: From From Oligarchie Church to People's Church
6: Evangelical Protestantism: From Civil Religion to Fundamentalist Sect to New Christian Right
7: Catholicism in the United States: From Private to Public Denomination
8: The Deprivatization of Modern Religion

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