Implicit Religion

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IMPLICIT RELIGION . In the age of secularization and debate within the social sciences on how to approach the religious factor, two trends have intersected. One proclaims a progressive disenchantment with a decline of the religious factor's role and plausibility; within a wide range of social attitudes, religion seems destined to social irrelevance or to occupying a purely personal dimension. The second trend of thought sees a recovery and renewal of the role of religion in contemporary society, after a period of neglect, with particular reference to ancient religions.

The concept and problem of implicit religion is situated within a different perspective. Beyond the oppositions that locate the religious factor amongst those "religious" institutions balanced between death and resurrection, this concept initiates the observation that there is a widespread separation between believing and belonging, and in particular between the numerous paths of existentialism within a culture and the dimensions of daily life with specific intentionality and therefore specific dimensions of ultimate meaning.

The concept of implicit religion is recent, and arose as a result of semantic difficulties related to reflection on the meaning and value of religiousness itself. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, during his imprisonment, proposed that a supernatural deviation of the spiritualistic tendencies of Catholicism and Protestantism usually results in a tendency to make sacred the world. Both Catholicism and Protestantism achieve the same result, that is, conceiving Christian life as based on the idea of a separation from the world. Bonhoeffer's proposal becomes dramatic when he reaches the conviction that there exists an insurmountable incompatibility between faith and religion.

The evocation of implicit religion is therefore not merely an academic expedient or a pleonastic concept. It is rather an analytical occasion, an instrument of the less visible and differentiated layers of the radical demand for meaning that exists in human life. Nor can it be interpreted as an indirect proof within the line of the resurgence of the religious factor.

The term implicit religion is one among a number of terms that have become familiar in the literature of sociology of religion, including invisible religion (Luckmann, 1967) common religion (Towler, 1974, pp. 145162), surrogate religion (Robertson, 1970), quasi-religion, and para-religion (Greil, 1993). These terms have been introduced to help scholars deal with that which appears to be like religion, but is not actually religion, as well as that which does not appear to be religion, but actually is religion. Another such concept is civil religion, which refers primarily to a more integrated set of values and symbols that is, to some degree, actually held in common by a group of people (Bellah, 1970).

The concept of implicit religion, according to Edward Bailey, refers to people's commitments, whether or not they take a religious form. The study of implicit religion began in earnest in 1968, in the context of debate about secularization, and concentrated upon the spirituality and ethos of secular expression. This focus was determined because religious studies already generally concentrated on organized forms of religious belief, ritual, and community. In his conclusion to three studies on implicit religion in contemporary society, Bailey wrote:

Implicit religion which largely includes the empirical Christianity as well as the secular face of contemporary society, unlike archaic religion, is neither ecstatic nor corporate; and unlike historical religion, it is neither segmented nor visionary. So for most men, religion in general, and implicit in particular, is, and is likely to remain, dimensional in character, with extensive influence, rather than relational, with specific power. Yet moderation, or even inertia, can be held to as doggedly as apocalyptic or eschatology is preached or conversions are pursued. Belief may be fanatical, although still implicit (Bailey, 1983, p. 81).

Through the discussion of these relationships a number of questions relating to the meaning and application of the term implicit religion are raised. Wilhelm Dupré discusses various areas in which the critical potential of implicit religion becomes obvious (Dupré, 1991). These areas appear in situations in which developments in implicit religion account for considerable modifications in both the explicit religion and the cultural environment, and they extend as far as the many instances in which the concept of implicit religion has a critical impact on the perception of reality. Through a consideration of the main criteria used to define such concepts, a systematic but tentative typology is suggested.

In attempting to locate implicit religion within this typology, it has been found that it might be equivalent to: (1) a nonreligious meaning system; or (2) Thomas Luckmann's invisible religion; or it may include (3) generically both a nonreligious meaning system and invisible religion; or (4) even more generically nonreligious meaning systems, invisible religion, para-religion, and quasi-religion. Some scholars have appealed for a more appropriate conceptual tool kit and terminology to deal with this range of phenomena (Hamilton, 2001, pp. 513). To this end, the 1980s saw the appearance of sociologist Arnaldo Nesti's Il religioso implicito (1985) and the first issue of the journal Religioni e Società, both focusing on issues of implicit religion in society.

Although the notion of implicit religion is recent, one can find traces of it within the traditional social sciences. Even though the term itself and its exact references are not used in the socioreligious sphere, the problem and the dynamics from which its meaning and form derive are perceivable (Weber, 19201921; Schutz, 1932).

Max Weber's contributions, particularly regarding the polytheism of values, include the topic of intentionality in Edmund Husserl, the social character of Lebenswelt in Alfred Schutz (1932), and lessons connected to the dark side of personality in C. G. Jung. As an example, it is advisable to remember that the "polytheism of values" implies that the antagonism between different divinities has become "an everyday reality," depriving itself from any residual fascination coming from the myth. "To know how to face such an everyday life" is the difficult duty of modern humans, in opposition between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility. For Weber, the meaning of the polytheistic experience marks the descending course of Jewish-Christian monotheism and implies a viewpoint including the subject's act, whose meaning cannot be traced back to an exclusive theodicy (Weber, 19201921, pp. 264265).

According to Nesti, implicit religion is a phenomenon, an analytical cipher of the difficulties of existential independence and of the symbolic-prescriptive transignification in progress in contemporary society, particularly in Western Christianity. The extent of such religiousness involves three factors. The first factor is connected to symbols and beliefs and rules and practices characteristic of the explicit "religious factor." Between the explicit morphology and the meaning dimension correlated to it, a level that is in itself ambivalent is wedged in: consider silence and voice phenomenology, as well as the symbolicity of ritual dynamics.

The second factor must be traced among the "topoi" critical to the Christian "religious system" as a source of plausibility. Thus, an implicit religiousness can be traced in: (1) Christianity without faith; (2) Christianity without church; and (3) Christianity from an esoteric approach. A third factor must be reconstructed outside and in contrast to the "religious system" itself. There is, thus, an implicit hidden religiousness outside the "sacred fence." In particular, such an implicitness is acquired in: (1) agnosticism; (2) skepticism characterized by the art of living in the uncertainty of the present; and (3) atheism as metaphor provided with a radical meaning.

The specific nature of implicit religion lies in the attempt to override prejudices and stereotypes with the mechanism of forced repetition, so as to understand life and the world as experienced by people in the process of living. It is necessary to go beyond such common schemes as the identification of the religious with churches, sects, and institutions, or the dichotomy of secular and sacred, as well the antonyms visible and invisible, sacred and profane.

The outlined survey, in all its diversity, refers to a presence, to a unifying principle. Even if the word and the exact reference is missing within the socioreligious tradition, the perception of its issues and of the dynamic from which its meaning derives, is not absent. By applying the concept of implicit religion, we are induced to pass beyond conventional representations of religion to a concept of religion that begins with the experience of the subject, and thus to a new reading of the religious within the objective religious pluriverse.

See Also

Invisible Religion; Popular Religion; Secularization; Society and Religion.


Bailey, Edward. "The Implicit Religion of Contemporary Society: An Orientation and Plea for Its Study." Religion 13 (1983): 6983.

Bailey, Edward. "The Implicit Religion of Contemporary Society: Some Studies and Reflections." Social Compass 37, no. 4 (1990): 483498.

Bailey, Edward. Implicit Religion in Contemporary Society. Kampen, Netherlands, 1997.

Bellah, Robert N. Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World. New York, 1970.

Cipriani, Roberto, and Arnaldo Nesti. "Due interventi sul religioso implicito." Religioni e Società 14 (1992): 7792.

Dupré, Wilhelm. "Implicit Religion and the Meaning of the Religious Dialogue." Studies in Interreligious Dialogue I, no. 2 (1991): 129145.

Greil, Arthur L. "Exploration along the Sacred Frontier: Notes on Para-Religions, Quasi-Religions, and Other Boundary Phenomena." In The Handbook on Cults and Sects in America, edited by David G. Bromley and Jeffrey K. Hadden. Greenwich, Conn., 1993.

Hamilton, Malcolm. "Implicit Religion and Related Concepts: Seeing Precisions." Implicit Religion 4 (2001): 513.

Luckmann, Thomas. The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society. New York, 1967.

Nesti, Arnaldo. Il religioso implicito. Rome, 1985.

Nesti, Arnaldo. "Lo religioso hoy: Arquitectura de un Labirinto. Primeros Apuntes." Universidad de Mexico no. 610 (2002): 1122.

Nesti, Arnaldo, ed. La religione implicita: Sociologi e teologi a confronto. Bologna, Italy, 1994.

Robertson, Roland. The Sociological Interpretation of Religion. Oxford, 1970.

Schutz, Alfred. Der Sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt: Eine Einleitung in die Verstehende Sociologie. Vienna, 1932.

Towler, Robert. Homo Religiosus: Sociological Problems in the Study of Religion. London, 1974.

Weber, Max. Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religions-soziologie. Tübingen, Germany, 19201921.

Arnaldo Nesti (2005)