Collective concepts of religion versus individual action

The unequal perception and thematization of religious phenomena within the framework of cultural and social science memory research points towards a problem with the underlying concept of religion that has been at issue right from the beginning of this book. Since the 19th century, religion has been understood more and more in terms of ‘positive religion’, and thus in term of the plural ‘religions’, i.e. as traditions of religious practices, ideas, and institutions, and possibly even organizations as well. These are social products (to use the terminology of the sociologist Émile Durkheim (2008) of groups of people who usually live together on a territory and who withdraw the core of their coexistence - their common orientation, in the form of religious symbols - from the grasp of everyday discussion. The result is a system of signs that is kept present in the performance of rituals, that can be experienced emotionally, and that thus becomes binding. In pictures, stories, written texts, or even sophisticated teachings, this system seeks to explain the world and determine actions through the identification of ethical imperatives, often with the help of an effective sanctioning apparatus (e.g. state support) but sometimes without the threat of sanctions at all. The contents of the collective memory that is generated and supported are accordingly directly related to the supporting group or society, and, in the case of a progressive differentiation of religions, are also related to the particular religious tradition or organization in question. Memory is thus collective memory and is easily associated with a narrow concept of identity. The analogy of the transfer of memory and identity from human individuals to collectives takes on a life of its own: the collective is essentialized, while the individual actors are overlooked.

The three examples mentioned above suggest that when religion is viewed in the context of the field of tension between individual and structure, i.e. with a view to religious agency, it can now be grasped from the perspective of the first pole. Accordingly, religion should be defined as the situational inclusion of actors (whether they are called divine or gods, demons or angels, dead or immortals) who are superior in certain respects. Above all, however, their presence, their participation, their significance for the particular situation is not simply unquestionably given. Instead, they might also be regarded by other human participants in the situation as invisible, dumb, not acting, or simply absent, perhaps even non-existent. In short, religious action takes place when and where at least one individual in a situation involves such actors in his or her communication with other people, whether he or she

Religion and memory 105 merely refers to them or calls on them directly. Such a strategy of communication or action is not simply a matter of course. Under contemporary conditions, the assertion that transcendent actors are involved or are to be involved will often meet with very significant reservations from others, in many parts of Europe, at least. As such, it will not seem plausible to many.

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