Religious individualization and a critical view of the concept of religion

Looking at religion

Religious Studies is a flourishing subject area in many academic cultures, as well as in the world beyond the university. Religion was clearly an important force in past societies, leaving its mark on almost all aspects of personal and collective life, from social and physical 'heritage' to the proliferation of battlefields marked out in wars fought over doctrine. Religious practices are widely visible even in today’s megacities. Religious identities are ever more frequently and forcefully used and ascribed in diverse and pluralistic societies to both individuals and collectives. Religious institutions are prominent as powerful non-governmental organizations and agents in international affairs. Religious agents are closely related to policy-makers and play influential roles behind the scenes, as well as on the public political stage, in a growing number of states across the globe. Religious agents, practices, and ideas are quickly adapting to a changing world. Understandably, then, the dynamics of religion have come to the fore in recent global research (Bochinger and Rupke 2016).

Yet can we really use the term ‘religion’ as if religion is simply ‘out there’? As is the case with most concepts - and in particular concepts that define academic disciplines, including 'history’ - 'religion' has a conceptual lineage that is characterized by historical contexts and biases. The very differentiation of religion and the secular, of religion and non-religion, is, without a doubt, a historical product and the outcome of specific interests enacted by specific historical agents.1 The making of such differences has been used as a tool in a variety of ways. For instance, political agents, in particular from the end of the 18th century ce onwards (Conrad 2016), have used this kind of differentiation in order to exclude people from decisions now reserved for 'politicians’ or the 'state’, while religious actors have sought to elevate people above criticism and protect property from the vagaries of commercial forces, as is attested as early as the first millennium все. (Historiography was far from being the least significant way of enacting such differences, as we will see later). Yet why should we want the discipline to restrict itself to the study of certain early modern and modern discourses (and to the practices related to those discourses) in the few languages that employ the term religion? And why would we want to theorize about such practices of classification (thus McCutcheon 2012, 88; productively applied by Klippenstein 2012, for example)? The answer is that the many different concepts of religion used in research do yield results, do identify or regroup evidence that would otherwise be lost in a myriad of undifferentiated cultural practices. The same holds true if we systematize and apply concepts such as dharma, sampradaya, or shiikyo (to name just a few from South and East Asia), at least so long as we do not treat them simply as synonyms of religion and instead use them to provide new perspectives on data included or excluded by this particular concept. But systematically enlarging our range of concepts beyond a few European languages (or just English) as a source of concepts is still far from a globally accepted practice. People do change objects - literally, stuff - by including them in specific practices, and such materialities (religious, from one perspective at least) change people (Berg 2019; Chidester 2018; Droogan 2013; Karstein and Schmidt-Lux 2017; Low 2016; Morgan 2010; Promey 2014). Even critics of the concept do implicitly, or even explicitly, rely on the notions of religion or religious in their own work (see Stausberg 2013).

Productive as the concept may be, it is not enough simply to stick to the established notion of religion. Nor is it sufficient to adhere to the methodological imperative of the ‘emptying of the religious object’, that is, to be aware that all those data selected by their analytical classification as religion must not be explained by reference to religion - a principle of the Italian schuola di Roma that has informed much of the continental European ‘science of religion’ (Religionswissenschaft) from the 1970s onwards (Sabbatucci 1990; see Bianchi 1986; Casadio 2002). As always, the devil is in the detail. This book was born out of a personal experience of confronting evidence that frustrated any reliance on vague, even if widely used, terms, such as the notion of ‘religions’, and their application to objects of research that have been aggregated at a very high level of generalization. Facing the task of understanding the religious transformations in the Mediterranean world from the late Bronze Age down into late antiquity, 1 could not content myself with any sort of vague concept of religion that perpetuates self-images of modernity. What can fruitfully be analysed as religion in antiquity, 1 realized, is not merely a collective phenomenon of shared notions and practices. The concept of religion (expressed by terms such as secta, hairesis, or religio) as it was understood and used by the people of the ancient Mediterranean region shifted dramatically in the Imperial period (1st to 4th centuries ce), with Christianity being a result of, rather than a dominating factor determining, this process (Riipke 2010, 2011a, 2011b, 2013a, 2014a). It was only during this period that religions as imagined communities and boundary-conscious units of semantic traditions came into being.

This left me with a considerable problem when it came to widening my focus to take in the preceding periods. What is history of religion before religion (cf. Nongbri 2013; Barton and Boyarin 2016)? The solution that 1 first tried to

A critical view of the concept of religion 3 implement - evolutionary theory of religion - enjoys a certain, although far from general, support today and has lately had a substantial revival (see e.g. Klostergaard Petersen et al. 2019; Krech 2018a, 2018b). 1 began with the notion of the ‘axial age’, conceptualizing ‘axial age religion’ as a consistent system of habits, thoughts, and practices that enabled the criticism of contemporary society from the viewpoint of a transcendent alternative. Karl Jaspers’ original, even if not unprecedented, formulation (Jaspers 1949) has been sociologically reformulated by Shmuel Eisenstadt (1986, 1979, 1987) and has more recently been historically revitalized by Robert Bellah.2 The concept of axial age religion was developed by Jaspers with a remarkable monotheistic bias on his behalf. For the Mediterranean region, the process has been identified with post-prophetic Judaism and Socratic philosophy, without adequately assessing the role of their respective historical contexts. As a consequence, neither the Eastern Mediterranean before Christianity and Islam - that is, the period of Hellenistic Greek religion - nor the Western Mediterranean and Roman religion came into view as axial cultures. Stausberg’s alternative evolutionary model of three phases of attributive differentiation (making things religious), structural differentiation (making institutions religious and thus creating religion), and functional differentiation (giving religion its place in ‘modernity’, Stausberg 2010, 361-3) is able to provide the necessary generalization, stressing semantics and communication for the earliest phase, but it does not produce further comparative perspectives with regard to the historical contexts.

The application of the set of questions implied in ‘axiality’ as a set of conditions enabling radical change (see Wittrock 2000. 2001, 2004) initially proved to be heuristically fruitful, as it allowed me to identify a long-durée process of rationalization and systematization even in the realm of the religious practices and concepts of the Roman republic (3rd to 1st centuries все) (Rüpke 2012). However, any larger evolutionary framework soon proved untenable, or at least only sustainable so long as local developments were simply pushed to one side. With regard to the Roman empire, the Republican axial impetus failed in the restoration of Augustus from the 30s все onwards (a similar story might be told about China). Traditional and dynastic legitimation overcame the knowledge-based reflection and innovation that had only just been established in tiny social islands. With regard to late antiquity, the structural differentiation fell far short of what some theologians and preachers claimed or sought (see Joas 2012). This holds true for Christian identities that were far from salient in the general populace (Rebillard 2012, 2015; Shaw 2011). It is also true in terms of a continuing stress on domestic religious practice by the rich (Bowes 2008; Brown 2012). The ‘Christianity’ that might count as ‘utopian religion’ (Smith 1990) soon developed into a locative religion in many places, thus de-differentiating, rather than differentiating, religion and politics.

It is contingency of this sort, rather than uni-linear evolution, that is characteristic of the earlier periods of Mediterranean history as well. The transfer of burial rites from individual graves to communal sanctuaries (van Rossenberg

2005, see also de Polignac 2009, 427) and - compared to Egyptian precedents -the chronologically late building of temples (Rathje 2005, 28) can be observed in Italy and Greece in the Early Iron Age during the first centuries of the first millennium все. These phenomena, when taken together, signal the emergence of religion in the public space. This development postdates by several centuries the construction of megalithic temples and the first cultural contacts between Italy and the Near Eastern empires (Thomas 2009, 33), for which the structurally massive presence of religion in governance economic redistribution had been a feature of the second millennium (Bietti Sestieri 2005). Even for the earlier period of the Western Bronze Age we cannot exclude the (temporary) differentiation of religious roles (namely, priests) and hence religious institutions. Probably, as in later periods, religious institutions variously formed and dissolved.

How can we deal with such observations? Several options that have been repeatedly proposed are not feasible, either in methodological or historical terms. Among these are (i) differentiating between religious (or spiritual) and religion, and (ii) replacing a concept of religion based on non-human addressees with a notion of ‘sacralization’ resting on some setting apart from human use.3 However, the biggest problem is the academic assumption described at the beginning of this chapter: premodern religion was collective; modern religion is (or should be) individual. As a consequence, I suggest a reformulation of religion in terms of ‘religious agency’, the argument for which forms the core of the first half of this book (Chapter 3). But in order to present this conceptual journey in an accessible introductory manner, 1 will not jump straight in. Concepts and definitions do not come about for no reason but, rather, serve a purpose. Thus, 1 will begin in this chapter with some detailed historical and historiographical observations on the topic of religious individualization, which will then be deepened in Chapter 2. These do not immediately translate into some theory, but they allow me (and indeed, from the biographical perspective, oblige me) to formulate a new and more adequate model and theory of religion, labelled here as religious agency.