Individuals’ religion

Individuality is a key notion for contemporary views of religion in today’s societies. The individual’s exertion of choice with regard to their religious options is at the core of notions of modernity. Correspondingly, individuality is also the background against which scholars understand ‘retraditionalization’, the propagation and appropriation of normative religions that might contain elements of‘invented traditions' (Hobsbawm 1983) but which are essentially in accordance with (and sometimes even draw on) established narratives of these religions’ pasts. Given the methodological focus of this book and its attempt at a self-critical historicization of our methodological and conceptual tools, I will start by historically locating the concept of‘privatization’.

Privatization of religion

By the 1960s, industrialization and the spread of the welfare state, socialism, and democratization, along with decolonization and the arms race, were seen as hallmarks of the current era and as processes that would also continue into the future. What was the place of religion in this mix? With the coming of the post-colonial era and post-colonial thinking - 1960 was a prodigal year for the African continent due to the sheer number of states founded - members of elites around the world saw religion as playing an important role in ensuring the continuity of collective identities and cultural pride. Hindu nationalists, for instance, founded the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a ‘world council of Hindus’, in 1964 (Jaffrelot 2007). Sociology, however, still adhered to the paradigm of secularization, developed in the formative period of the discipline, according to which modernization and rationalization would leave less and less space for the phenomena and functions of religion (critically reviewed by Joas 2012).

Thomas Luckmann, born in Slovenia in 1927, pursued his initial studies in Vienna and began his teaching career in New York. But it was in Germany that he participated in empirical research and eventually, in 1965, made his academic home (in general, Schnettler 2006). His contributions are above all theoretical, but his experience of the very different roles, activities, and social bases of Christian churches in Europe and the USA were vital for his thinking

Individuals’ religion 25 and for his book on the problems of religion in modern society (hence the title of the original German edition published in 1963, Religion in moderner Gesellschaft). This work became famous in its English version as The Invisible Religion (Luckmann 1967) and was later republished in an enlarged German edition (Luckmann 1991).

Luckmann shows that an evolutionary perspective on religion that approaches its subject using the framework of Talcott Parsons’ theory of social differentiation necessarily leads to a paradox. On the one hand, religion is defined by its role in ensuring the integration of individuals into society. On the other hand, at least in Europe, religion had developed very special institutional forms - that is, churches - which were part of the process of differentiation but were able to offer little or no guidance for most areas of social action. To suppose on theoretical grounds that the ‘sacred cosmos’ as formulated by institutionalized religious reflection is the perfect blueprint of an individual’s ultimate meaning, thus enabling his or her full integration into society, flies in the face of the empirical evidence (Luckmann 1991. 119). Acting within the context of the many different and independent organizations to which the modern individual belongs is more and more irrelevant for the identity of the individual (ibid., 139), and the context of the traditional dogmatic church is no exception to this. Personal identity has become a private matter. Meaning as produced by the existing plurality of institutionalized religions is on offer and might or might not be utilized by individuals in their private forming of ultimate meanings for the ‘great transcendences’ they face (such as the interruption of one’s day-to-day routine through the development of views about the meaning of life as a whole in the face of death). However, according to Luckmann, the ‘smaller transcendences’ that take one beyond one’s daily routine are resolved by concepts such as ‘personal’ or ‘self-fulfilment’, and the ‘intermediate transcendences’ are engaged with by concepts like ‘nation’ or ‘humanity’, while the great transcendences are those which are countered by a ‘holy cosmos’ of specifically religious concepts. Institutionalized religion is, thus, either the (functional) remainder of rather peripheral and premodern groups (mainly in Europe) or the result of the new and voluntary less specialized forms of religious action (ibid., 143).

Given these conditions, the ‘privatization of religion’ has two dimensions. Religion of this sort is both a private activity and also solves problems that are mostly situated in the private sphere, beyond the internal rationalities of big institutions. In that sphere, many small and secondary institutions try to offer religious ideas as commodities, competing in an open market (Luckmann 1991, 147). Even subjective experiences need communicative reconstruction (ibid., 171). However, such communication need not be qualified as ‘religious’ by the subjects in the way that they are by observers. Still fulfilling the function of religion, i.e. integrating the intersubjectively constituted individual into society in order to allow him or her to act as a full member of society, these constructions of ultimate realities are no longer visible as religion - they are 'invisible religion.

Luckmann’s book merits this (summary) retelling because it serves as the foundational text for a large field of empirical research, even if the phenomenological breadth of his functional definition of religion has drawn some criticism. Privatization has extended the search for religious action and beliefs well beyond membership and participation in religious institutions. The notion of ‘spirituality’ follows Luckmann’s lead in definitively transcending ‘church sociology’ without giving up substantialist definitions of religion. It has come to characterize large areas of religious identities (e.g. Knoblauch 1999, 189-202; van der Veer 2008; Wilcox 2013; Woodhead and Heelas 2000) and it has come to serve as the most important counter-argument against the diagnosis of secularization (Aupers and Houtman 2008). Individual ‘bricolage’, spiritual self-empowerment in New Age figures of thought (Bochinger 1994; Hanegraaflf 2000; Woodhead 2009, 319-38), biographical production of meaning in narrating conversion (Oksanen 1994; more generally Somers 1994), or fragmented episodes of pilgrimage and tourism (see Bauman 1996, 25 with Stausberg 2010, 28-9), as well as the notion of sacralization of the self (Dawson 2006; see also Joas 2013), very different from the definition of sacralization given in Chapter 1, all illustrate this privatization.