Invisible Religion? Or just a load of hot air?

The question of what religion is, how we define it, where we find it, and how pervasive it is in people’s everyday lives is a question which plagues the discipline of Religious Studies. One interesting attempt to deal with this is set forth by Kelly Besecke in her 2005 Article “Seeing Invisible Religion: Religion as a Societal Conversation about Transcendent Meaning”. (Sociological Theory 23[2], June 2005, pp. 179-196). This post attempts to set forth her argument, contextualise it, and engage with some of the questions it raises.

The core of Besecke’s argument is that that “contemporary sociology conceptualises religion along two dimensions: the institutional and the individual” (Abstract), and this is a problem for her because the cultural dimension of religion is lost in this dichotomy.

She begins by illustrating the contemporary “religious conversation [occurring] in the United States”, and highlighting bestselling book titles, book clubs with names such as “Spiritual Pathways” and “Wisdom Tea”, talks & workshops, magazine articles and song lyrics which exemplify a “growing societal conversation about… “spiritual matters”” (179-80).

The point that she wishes to make from this initial depiction of the “milieu” is that we can

“look at such phenomena through a… lens… that highlights, instead of individuals and institutions, the important social role of interaction and communication. Seen through this “communicative” lens, the “spiritual matters” [sections of book stores look…] less like individualism in a narrow sense, and more like American society talking to itself about meaning” (181).

That, in a nutshell, is her theory.

She then proceeds to dissect and expand upon a work by Thomas Luckmann – The Invisible Religion – with which she generally agrees, but only up to a significant point. Luckmann importantly defines religion as primarily a meaning system or symbolic universe, and not as a social institution. (182-3):

“Symbolic universes are socially objectivated systems of meaning that refer, on the one hand, to the world of everyday life and point, on the other hand, to a world that is experienced as transcending everyday life.” (Luckmann, 1967:43)

In this sense it is easy to see how religion can be viewed as part of culture… which does indeed meet people in their daily life, but transcend it also.

  • Think of African Independent/Indigenous Churches, which are distinct entities in their own right, incorporating much of local culture, custom, rite and practice, and would potentially be denounced by many “orthodox” “Western” Christians, as un-Christian
  • But then think of Christianity as an overarching whole…

Besecke stakes her claim strongly:

“Religious meanings and other meanings are in the same general category – “meaning” – they are all symbolic representations, they are all culture. Religious meanings are a type of meaning; if culture is shared meanings and practices, then religion is shared meanings and practices that point people to a transcendent reality. In this sense, religion is to culture as Meaning is to meaning.” (184)

Here she is claiming, in line with Luckmann, that religious meanings, consisting of symbols such as God, Tao, Christ, Brahman etc are “the topmost layer of th[e] hierarchy of meanings that constitutes a society’s culture” (184).

At this point I couldn’t help but wonder: In what way are religious meanings the pinnacle of culture? I assume from the context in which she writes this that she means that conversations about ultimate concerns are the highest point of our cultural development, and in some way the most important questions for the vast majority of people… What about the scientific “worldview”, which many would see as a higher level of the hierarchy of meanings:

“I prefer to say that I believe in people [not God], and people, when given the right encouragement to think for themselves about all the information now available, very often turn out not to believe in God and to lead fulfilled and satisfied – indeed, liberated – lives.” Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion 2007 [2006])

A second important consequence of “religion’s cultural nature is what Luckmann calls its “objectivated” status” (184):

“By describing religious meanings [as] “objectivated”, Luckmann opens the way to understanding meaning as a public phenomenon; as something that is not just for individuals, but for societies. […] So religious meaning is not just an individual phenomenon; neither is it just an institutional phenomenon. […] Religion exists in the social world as culture exists in the social world – via shared meanings and practices.”

To me this rings very true, especially in contemporary Britain where most people won’t participate in any formal worship, or may not even give much thought to their own personal faith… but will still participate in the culturally normative religious practices… Christmas, funerals and weddings, memorial services, “praying” for success/people…

This idea can also be seen in contemporary critiques of religion as well… Here we see Stephen Fry divorcing religion from religious institution:

“I have no quarrel, and no argument, and I wish to express no contempt for individual devout and pious members of [The Catholic] Church. It would be impertinent and wrong of me to express any antagonism towards any individual who wishes to find salvation in whatever form they wish to express it. That to me is sacrosanct as much as any article of faith is sacrosanct to anyone of any church or of any faith in the world.”

Stephen Fry (Intelligence Square Debate on the motion “Is the Catholic Church a Force for Good in the World?”). Around 2mins in to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvDz9_5me74&feature=related

This is the point where Besecke leaves Luckmann’s argument behind. Luckmann argues that in late modernity, religion became increasingly privatised. However, whilst this is arguably the case, her problem is with his statement that “Religion today [is] essentially a phenomenon of the private sphere” (1967:103). She believes this characterisation has been picked up by almost all sociologists, but rarely challenged, with the notable exception of Jose Casanova’s Public Religions in the Modern World.

There are three tendencies of this characterisation:

  • The limitation of the public sphere to religious, political and economic institutions
  • The assumption that authority has moved from the institutions to the individual
  • “For many scholars, “private seems to be shorthand for “socially inconsequential” (186).

The problems are fairly easy to see here: what is it that people talk about, blog about, listen to, read, think… are these private or public? And who has authority? And in what way are they inconsequential?

Besecke and I agree here: “Much of the religion that has been interpreted as privatised religion or religious individualism is remarkably “public” in the more common-sense definition of the word” (187).

  • This brings to my mind the idea of New Ages seekers: the role of a seeker is embedded in social relationships – pairs, groups, audiences and networks…
  • To what extent could any religion be designated private? Even a hermit who had never had any contact with anyone… regardless of the fact that through our observation and/or questioning their religion would cease to be private… even if it could be observed without interfering, their religious ideas would have been based upon influences from the physical world… from outside…
  • However, there always is a private dimension… all Christians will have a different conception of Christianity… this may even be impossible to get at empirically as they may give identical answers to questions… so does this mean religion is inherently private?

Besecke then proceeds on a largely “common-sensical” description of how important communication is to culture, which I think you’ll appreciate during discussion. It is largely summed up by Bella et al (Habits, 1985:27): “Cultures are dramatic conversations about things that matter to their participants”. However, she importantly points out that “empirical studies of communication have focused almost exclusively on communication that takes place in church, in seminary, or in interviews with individuals who identify as members of a particular church”… sermons, statements by religious leaders, conversion tactics etc [see as Wood (1999) Lukenbill (1998) Wittberg (1997) Bouma and Clyne (1995) Caroll and Marler (1995), Wuthnow (1994)] … But these are completely missing the point!

She proposes a definition of religious culture as “a societal conversation about transcendent meanings” (190)

“Communication is what makes God socially real” (190)

A question I would throw out there at this point is that conversation implies something two way… if there is a seeker who is engaging with reading material, DVDs, CDs and attending lectures etc., but not talking to others, what is this? And on p. 192 there is another problem. Besecke’s fieldwork included a living room discussion event, The Mystic Heart, where a small group (50 or so) got together to talk generally about “mysticism”. In assessing this through her “communicative lens”, Besecke writes: It is religion, it is people talking with each other about transcendent meaning.” What about atheistic discourse? Pub chats? Philosophy? In all of these cases people can be talking about religion… about transcendent meaning… but in no sense of the word “religion” can they said to be in any way being “religious”.

It is true that Besecke has taken the burden off institutional religion: “they now can be understood as important interlocutors, perhaps important nodes or centres for a society-wide conversation about transcendent meanings, rather than bearing the burden of having to be religion in an otherwise secular society” (192). But it may possibly be too wide…

Importantly, for the secularisation/re-enchantment debate:

This allows religion to be found in a whole host of places where it would not normally be looked for, which definitely rescues religion from the Secularisation Thesis.

“if we… recognise the social power of communication, then the secularity of a society would be measured by the extent to which members of that society are communicating with each other about transcendent meaning. Put differently, […] religion can influence a society by permeating its social institutions, by shaping its individual members, and by influencing the character of its culture through communication.” (193)

This brings to mind Colin Campbell’s Toward a Sociology of Irreligion (1971). He proposes the idea that thorough irreligiosity leads to seeing religion as totally irrelevant… not even a conscious rejection (39). If society were totally secular, “the irreligious message would be ignored as much as the religious” (124)… this is clearly not the case…

Hopefully I have demonstrated that Besecke is clearly on to something here… but that whilst finding religion in conversations about “transcendent meaning” is sometimes possible, and certainly a worthwhile enterprise, these conversations are by no means sufficient to “be” religion, in any sense of the word, and that they sometime can be as far away from religion as Nick Clegg is from his pre-election promise to keep his promises.

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

2 responses to “Invisible Religion? Or just a load of hot air?”

  1. Niklas Luhmann says :

    Hi Chris,

    Just a few comments since I actually should do other things (less interesting thing I guess) (although I would give 100s of comments…. anyway)

    you wrote: “A question I would throw out there at this point is that conversation implies something two way… if there is a seeker who is engaging with reading material, DVDs, CDs and attending lectures etc., but not talking to others, what is this?”

    The answer here is I think obvious, and that is exactly her point I think: you ask ‘what is this’ – the answer is: socially irrelevant!
    Even if you could imagine someone who reads religious texts, watches DVDs attends lectures, etc. but doesn’t share any of his thought with anyone else – how could you observe it? And how should this become meaningful, socially creative, or in any way significant?
    Firstly, I would say, we can’t observe it, we would have no idea about it and there would be no way to study it.
    Secondly, what people think, believe, feel is completely irrelevant as long as it does not result in any kind of communication.

    Then you wrote: “And on p. 192 there is another problem. Besecke’s fieldwork included a living room discussion event, The Mystic Heart, where a small group (50 or so) got together to talk generally about “mysticism”. In assessing this through her “communicative lens”, Besecke writes: It is religion, it is people talking with each other about transcendent meaning.” What about atheistic discourse? Pub chats? Philosophy? In all of these cases people can be talking about religion… about transcendent meaning… but in no sense of the word “religion” can they said to be in any way being “religious”.”

    To “be” religion in a sociological sense does not necessarily mean to refer to “religious beings”, to humans who describe themselves as religious. And why should it be so? I mean, it is obvious that by this kind of discussions the socially shared “meaning” of religion becomes constructed: the very content of religion gets socially shaped (or even shapes society) exactly within these kind of discussion – no matter if the participants believe it, reject it (emphatically) or get bored by it. After a pub chat about religion, god, immortality of souls, rebirth, karma or what ever the terms in question got a “new”, or changed or a bit specified, different meaning and even if the discussion didn’t change anything of the terms’ meaning it then confirmed and condensed it.
    In following discussions, the participants can refer to this chat, tell others about it, mention it in their blogs, and the meaning spreads. That is exactly the way religion “IS”.
    I would say, even more contentiously, that is the ONLY way in which we can talk about religion to “BE”. Anything else is not observable, cannot be analysed, remains irrelevant… or is nothing else than merely few thoughts in humans’ minds. This is what I would call “invisible” – to call it religion, however, seems not very well justified and lacks of an empirical foundation.

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