Master narratives of individuality and individualization in thehistory of religion

It is my rather bold claim that, contrary to received preconceptions and common assumptions, ‘individualization’ offers a window not only into present societies but also into past societies and the history of religions in general. As often happens, problematic theoretical assumptions hide in established master narratives, a phenomenon that will become visible in this volume time and again. As 1 will demonstrate in more detail in Chapter 2, in the early 1960s the examination of empirical data in the context of his analysis of contemporary religion led Thomas Luckmann to reflect on the growth of American churched religion and to conceive of it as indicative of individualization (Luckmann 1967, 1991). This process was, according to him, quickly joined by a process of privatization of

A critical view of the concept of religion 5 religion, leading to a growing field of‘invisible religion. Many did not see such individualization as being restricted to religion. Instead, it was and is seen in sociological discourse as a distinguishing feature of the modem age and as one of the dominant characteristics of modernity. Even when one takes into account the fact that sociological theories of modernity differ with respect to the importance they assign to the dimension of individualization, it is clear that this feature can claim a central place in all classical sociological accounts of modernization. In such modelling, religion (regarded as a collective phenomenon) typically appears in an inversely proportional relationship to the process of individualization. This is evidently wrong, even for the special case of Europe (see Kippenberg, Riipke, and Stuckrad 2009). Recent work on the religion of premodern and pre-Christian antiquity, usually characterized as ‘collective’, has produced similar results. The extensive ancient discussions about religious deviance and attempts to legally standardize religious behaviour attest to the perception and acceptance of an extensive religious individuality practised in a variety of forms, often resembling those of ‘modern individuality' (Riipke 2013c, 2016).

From the perspective of the student of religion, it is worth taking a closer look at the narratives of historical processes, as these were thought to form the basis of the equation of individualization with modernity. These narratives take quite different forms. The Italian Renaissance of the 14th century was seen as a decisive stage; likewise the Reformation of the 16th century. The European focus of these narratives and the resulting self-image is further strengthened by the views of Europeans on the world beyond Europe and the Mediterranean as will be show in the chapter that follows.

The conceptual linking of the modern age with religious individuality has obstructed the study of comparable phenomena in earlier periods, so that individuality and individualization have played only a limited role in the examination of the dynamics of religion in history. Removing such bias has produced new perspectives, as two examples help to illustrate. Bhakti - a blanket term for a wide range of phenomena and age-old strands of thought in the South Asian history of religion - has come to be understood by scholars as allowing individual devotion; various forms of bhakti connect with a critique of both social and religious restrictions. For Mediterranean antiquity, the counter-stereotype of a premodem collectivity had also prevailed. In this vein, some concepts of polis religion or civic religion have claimed that the religious practices of the political elite and their definitions of legitimate religious actions were the only significant sector of religion in this polity (most prominently Scheid 2016). However, as I have shown in my Pantheon, a meaningful history of changes in ancient religion can be written from the point of view of religious individualization and the innovations of individuals (Riipke 2018a).

With regard to historical research, the identification of ‘religious individualization’ as a process in certain contexts, areas, and periods should not be treated as an end point but rather as a starting point for research that has thus far been neglected due to the dominance of a narrative that does not even look for such phenomena in such places. Guiding lines for pursuing this type of research have been summarized in the form of five key points (see Fuchs et al. 2019):

  • 1 Religious individualization is not just a phenomenon specific to modern Europe, it is also a useful heuristic category for the study of historical processes across very different religious and cultural contexts. Through the uncovering of other types or facets of religious individualization originating in other places, we were increasingly able to contextualize the kinds of individualizing processes that are more or less familiar to us and, consequently, to establish relationships among them with greater sensitivity.
  • 2 The investigation of the history of individualization in many cases is an investigation of the history of interconnections that looks into the different ways in which cultural boundaries have been crossed. Migrations of ideas as well as of practices, and the effects of both, created complex interactions with consequences for religion long before the great breakdowns of tradition within and outside Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  • 3 Individualization and de-individualization are in many cases intertwined. Institutional protection of individual practices creates at one and the same time an awareness of the possibilities for heteropraxy or heterodoxy and the tools to counteract these through standardization. Hence, even processes such as the creation of canons, traditions, or forms of fundamentalism can be rewardingly re-studied in the light and in the context of individualization processes, if one remains alert to the ambiguities involved in such processes.
  • 4 With regard to the ‘dividuality’ side of personhood, looking at religious individualization in the context of a broad socio-historical perspective helps to reveal concealed histories of dividualization, which run alongside individualization as its complement, and which, paradoxically, often facilitated individual and distinct standpoints by means of dividualizing strategies (e.g., pseudonyms, shared office, multiple identities).
  • 5 In the history of theory, the concept of individualization has mostly served as a Eurocentric strategy of exclusion. Likewise, the concept of religion has often turned ‘the collective’ into an absolute value that has been attributed especially to premodern or non-Western areas. If we question the master narrative of individualization, as I will do in Chapter 2, we also have to look at the standard concept of religion and develop an alternative, which will be sketched briefly here and then developed more fully in Chapter 3.