A Conventional History of Individualization

The history of the development of “modern” religious individualization has been reconstructed and dated in very different ways, but the following points are generally made: according to the narrative current already in the nineteenth century, the individual is a product of the Renaissance, during which the revival of pre-Christian antiquity had made it possible for the first time to escape intentionally from one’s own tradition. Thus new and groundbreaking philosophical, aesthetic, linguistic, institutional, and religious alternatives laid open, or even organized and practiced, critical distance toward traditional society.[1] This entailed the renewed establishment of Platonism besides and above Aristotelianism, the upgrading of everyday languages, the vernaculars, to written languages (Italian in addition to Latin, for example), the foundation of academies, and the outlining of ideal states. If paganism became not just an aesthetic form but also a real religious alternative,[2] we could here identify a tradition of religious individualization that would be enlarged by late medieval practices of religious piety. Later, in the sixteenth century, the Reformation made religion definitively the object of individual choice (however sanctioned in practice) in parts of Europe (and later the Americas) and created space for the individual.

The following period displayed a paradox that is characteristic of the individualization processes: the institutionalization of religious individuality brought about new norms and limitations, brought about deindividualization. The two phenomena, individualization and institutionalization, are difficult to disentangle. Down into the eighteenth century the processes of confessionalization sharply defined group limits and assured the internalization of specific denominational norms; they did not create religious options freely available to any historical individual. Because of the interaction of individualization and institutionalization, the specification of religious individualization in a given period typically remains spongy for us, or it is based only on isolated textual evidence, for example, the descriptions of human rights in the philosophical discourse of the European Enlightenment, notoriously difficult to place in a history of religion of the last centuries.[3]

Facilitated by the normative idea of the individual, self-separation from other (particularly Asian) cultures has affected scholarship on the history of religion in a comparable way.[4] Admittedly, the French Indologist Louis Dumont rightly diagnosed Indian processes of religious individualization in the phenomenon of ascetic abnegation. His starting point was the assumption that in traditional societies individualism could appear only in a clear opposition to society. In India, this took the form of extraworldly oriented individuals.[5] However, pace Dumont, Indian individualism did not in the long run reshape society since it did not lead to theocratic radicaliza- tion of the social order, as in Europe. Here, religious authority (church and pope) initially superseded the more worldly powers. The later religious freedom of the individual was then established within the very institutions of a posttheocratic society.

Many other authors, by contrast to Dumont, have allowed their imaginations to be dominated by the Orientalist stereotype of Asian despotism and collective protagonists such as “castes.” This has even led to the insinuation that in certain non-European, contemporary, but so-called premodern cultures, individuals lack even the capacity for formulating any opposition of interests between “themselves” and “society.” This idea at least has been successfully criticized by anthropologists, who do not deny the phenomena of individual personhood.[6] Recent work on the religion of premodern and pre-Christian antiquity, usually characterized as “collective,” has produced similarly limited results. But extensive ancient discussions about religious deviance and attempts to legally standardize religious behavior attest to the perception and acknowledgment of pervasive religious individuality practiced in quite different forms.[7] It is on evidence such as this that I here intend to build.

  • [1] E.g., J. J. Martin 2004.
  • [2] This remains controversial; see Stausberg 2009.
  • [3] Cf. Joas 2013.
  • [4] Cf. Seiwert 2009, 106.
  • [5] Dumont 1986, 26.
  • [6] E.g., Spiro 1993; M. Fuchs 2015, 340.
  • [7] Rupke 2011c.
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