Invisible Religion

views updated May 14 2018


INVISIBLE RELIGION . The term invisible religion was introduced by the German sociologist Thomas Luckmann and became widespread following the publication in 1963 of Das Problem der Religion in der modernen Gesellschaft, published in English as The Invisible Religion: The Transformation of Symbols in Industrial Society. The concept of invisible religion emerged from the difficulty of maintaining a traditional religious life in societies to which the industrial revolution brought radical differentiation processes, both in social structures and ways of living, as people were forced, in mounting progression, to change residences, workplaces, habits, and worldviews. Luckmann agrees with sociologists who consider the secularization trend, which they view as a crisis of ecclesiastic-oriented religion, as irreversible. On the other hand, and more importantly, Luckmann extends the significance of religion by arguing that one's worldview, as an objective social and historical reality, fulfills an essentially religious function. This "elementary social form of religion," according to Luckmann, is universal in human society.

In his book, Luckmann considers the notiondiffused in nineteenth-century philosophy and among the secularization theorists of the following centurythat modern life is without religion, if not essentially areligious; that is, that the "irrationality" of religion should yield precedence to the "rationality" of modern life. Luckmann argues that this idea is partially wrong. It is true that, unlike Australian aboriginal societies and those of ancient Egypt and medieval Europe, postindustrial societies seem secular and rationalistic. Their political and economic institutions no longer need traditional legitimizations, especially religious ones. Most people living in modern industrial societies do not consider themselves to be tied to each other by officially institutionalized religious communities, dogmas, and religious rituals. Taking all these circumstances into account, Luckmann agrees that modern social structures are "secular." Neverthelessand this is his central thesishuman beings in modern societies, no matter how much their lives differ from that in other cultures and societies, have not lost the "religiousness" that has characterized human life (as opposed to the lives of other species) since ancient times. Therefore, even the deep social and cultural changes that produced "modernity" have not changed the fundamentally religious nature of human existence.

In his analysis of the "religious nature of human existence," Luckmann refers to the writings of his mentor Alfred Schutz (18991959), particularly those dealing with the concepts of "appresentation" and "symbol/transcendence." Schutz claimed that when human beings perceive an object, they perceive directly only certain aspects of it, but other aspects that do not appear to them directly are immediately grasped as well. The directly perceived part of the object "appresents" the unseen part. Schutz also introduced a concept of transcendence that became important to Luckmann's concept of religion. In his essay "The Transcendence of Nature and Society: Symbols" (1932). Schutz argues that everything that surrounds human beings (e.g., the world, the cosmos) goes "beyond" their direct experience of time and space. The social environment in which people live refers to a horizon of potential social environments, just as in space there exists an infinity of objects that cannot be reduced to the human capacity for manipulation and controlthey are "beyond." Humans can only apply to them appresentative references of a higher order, the "transcendent." From this point Schulz tackles the issue of symbol, which he defines in the following way: "A symbol can be defined in first approximation as an appresentational object, fact, or event within the reality of our everyday life, whereas the other appresented member of the pair refers to an idea which transcends our experience of everyday life" (19621966, vol. 1, p. 331). Thus, the issue of transcendence is located, according to Schutz, in the appresentative relationship between two realities: fact, which is a part of everyday life; and idea, which transcends and refers to something other than everyday life.

The religious problem in Luckmann is based on this relationship, to which he confers a social dimension. Luckmann distinguishes the transcendent, which is such only in relation to what is referred as "immanent," from religion, which is normally seen as the whole of human experience made visible and localized in symbols, holy places, and holy temples, and the people and activities concerned with them. All this is evident, according to Luckmann, in the case of tribal religions, ancestral cults, universal religions (especially when institutionalized under the form of churches and sects), and so on. Furthermore, the historical institutionalization of the symbolic and sacred nucleus of a worldview is included in the specifics of a universally human social process. The fundamental function of religion is therefore to transform the members of the species Homo sapiens into actors belonging to a specific historical-social order. Any component of social reality that is essential to this function can be legitimately called religious, whether or not it refers to the supernatural explicitly or implicitly.

Luckmann insists that the fundamental function of religionthat is, the transformation of the members of a species into morally responsible actors within a social orderis motivated by historical deposits of social interaction: "The objectivation of a symbolic universe as a system of meaning presupposes that the subjective experiences entering into its construction be meaningful. The meaningful quality of subjective experience, however, is a product of social processes" (1967, pp. 4445). This meaningfulness is a "quality," so "it is inkeeping with an elementary sense of the concept of religion to call the transcendence of biological nature by the human organism a religious phenomenon.We may, therefore, regard the social processes that lead to the formation of Self as fundamentally religious" (p. 49).

Here Luckmann's approach diverges from that of Schutz. The concept of transcendence in Schutz is born from the experience of going beyond the contingent that every person experiences everyday. Thus, the present natural and social environment refers to a horizon of potential natural and social environments, and an opening is made manifest to a double transcendent infinity of the natural world and the social world. Transcendence, according to Schultz, marks the expressive limits and the limits of movement of human beings, while it also enables people to construct a complex net of socially approved terminals between significants and meanings. This "net" constitutes the symbolic activity of humans. The symbol, being a typically human construction, is a link between the two poles: (1) a fact or an event within the reality of everyday life, and (2) an idea that transcends everyday experience.

In accordance with the research of anthropologists, ethnologists, and historians of religion, Schutz considered hierogenetic and mythopoetic activities to be typical activities of the human mind. The framework in which Luckmann locates the notion of transcendence is more radical. He strongly emphasizes its social construction as the giver of meaning to the symbolic process because "it is true that a genuinely isolated subjective process is inconceivable" (1967, p. 45). He also recovers the terms religion and religious, qualifying them as intrinsic modalities to the self's transcendent process and to the world belonging to the symbolic-cognitive aspects of the human species. Such a process presents a twofold modality: (1) an organism becomes a self when devoting itself with others to the construction of a universe of objective and moral significance; and (2) transcendence of biologic nature is a universal phenomenon of humankind. Luckmann identifies in the formation of consciousness and conscience "the universal yet specific anthropological condition of religion" (1967, p. 49).

According to Luckmann, the worldview as an "objective and historical social reality performs an essentially religious function and can be defined as an elementary form of religion " (1967, p. 53). In turn, religion as traditionally intended can be defined as a worldview with "social, objective, and historical reality." Religion manifests itself in particular social institutions that are the product of the articulation of a sacred cosmos within the worldview, which is in turn constituted by a set of representations that refer "to a domain of reality that is set apart from the world of everyday life" (1967, p. 61). According to this perspective, religious representations constitute a sacred universe definable as a specific and historical form of religion.

Throughout history there have existed societies characterized by a diffusion of religious ceremonies that were expressed through experience and the acknowledgment of the extraordinary. But the boundary between everyday life and the extraordinary is far from clear-cut; therefore, theoretical elaboration of the sacred did not occur. Societies belonging to this type (especially the simpler and more primitive forms of social organization, such as societies of hunters and gatherers) show a remarkable variety of cultural content, in spite of their basic similarities in social structure and in their social, "diffused" form of religion. According to Luckmann, a transformation of great importance in the social form of religion is an element of the framework of socio-structural "adaptations" of the so-called agricultural revolution. Sedentary life, high population density, urbanization, and the institutionalization of power are associated with a marked growth in the institutionalization of religious ceremonies, which, in relation to centralized power and the canonization of sacred life, could lead to a high level of stability in the theocratic variants of ancient hydraulic civilizations. In the West, the next great transformation consisted in the complete specialization of religious ceremony, and eventually in the appearance of the problems associated with pluralism and secularization.

In The Invisible Religion, Luckmann examines some of the most important conditions characterizing the institutionalization of religion in the post-Constantine church. Such a process constitutes the background of what was his main interest: the raising of a new, "privatized" social form of religion in the industrial societies of the West. As for the relationship between individual religiosity and social forms of religion, Luckmann maintains that in tribal societies an individual religiosity is modeled exclusively by the social form of religion relatively diffused, whereas in societies characterized by the presence of a "theocratic" institutionalization of religious and political forms, the modeling of individual religiosity by the social form of the prevailing religion remains similar, despite a more complex stratification of society. Churches present the individual with "official" models. But other models begin to enter into competitionand when conditions of pluralism are established for economic and political reasons, the circumstances under which full institutional specialization can succeed cease to exist.

According to Luckmann, if at least one religion is accessible in the condition of "diffused" politico-religious and specialized institutionalization, the individual can deviate from such forms of religion for merely contingent reasons. But if other models are in competition, various systematic types of individual religious development are possible: fundamentalism, syncretism, new religious movements, a return to traditional devotion, or detachment from any form of religion. In the case of institutional specialization, orthodox and heterodox models are in competition. The privatized social form of religion is characterized by the fact thatfrom a sociological point of viewtalking of orthodox and heterodox models makes little sense. In fact, in an interview granted to the Italian journal Religioni e Società in 1986, Luckmann stated that:

A wide range of different actors are involved on the social scene in the social constructions of several kinds of transcendence. The fundamental structure of the process is the one of a "market." There are mass media and there are Christian churches that, in addition to being monuments to a former period characterized by institutional specialization of religion and despite some restoring and fundamentalist tendencies, are trying to reinsert in the processes of modern social constructions of transcendence. Moreover sub-institutional communities have emerged, more or less recent and religious (in the traditional sense), which are trying to play an important part in this process. (Prandi, 1986, p. 37)

Luckmann's complex theory thus comes to the idea that, in modern life, social structure has ceased to mediate coherently between subjective conscience and its experiences of transcendence, and between the communicative reconstruction of such experiences and the competing social constructions of the "sacred universes." At any rate, the present co-location of religion in societythat is, its privatizationis not characterized by something that is, but rather by something that is not. It is characterized by the absence of compulsory social models, generally plausible with regard to persistent universal human experiences of transcendence.

See Also

Implicit Religion; Secularization; Society and Religion; Sociology, article on Sociology of Religion; Study of Religion.


Beyer, Peter. "Secularization from the Perspective of Globalization: A Response to Dobbelaere." Sociology of Religion 60, no. 3 (1999): 289301.

Dobbelaere, Karel. "Towards an Integrated Perspective of the Processes Related to the Descriptive Concept of Secularization." Sociology of Religion 60, no. 3 (1999): 229247.

Grassi, Piergiorgio. "Sulla religione invisibile." In La religione nella costruzione sociale, pp. 111124. Urbino, Italy, 1980; 2d ed., 1989.

Luckmann, Thomas. Das Problem der Religion in der modernen Gesellschaft. Freiburg, Germany, 1963. Translated by Luckman as The Invisible Religion: The Transformation of Symbols in Industrial Society (New York, 1967).

Prandi, Carlo. "La religione invisibile: Un riesame del contributo di Thomas Luckmann." Religioni e Società 1 (1986): 4048.

Schutz, Alfred. Collected Paper, 3 vols. Vol. 1: The Problem of Social Reality, edited by Maurice Natanson; Vol. 2: Studies in Social Theory, edited by Arvid Brodersen; Vol. 3: Studies in Phenomenological Philosophy, edited by I. Schutz. The Hague, 19621966.

Swatos, William H., Jr., and Kevin J. Christiano. "Secularization Theory: The Course of a Concept." Sociology of Religion 60, no. 3 (1999): 209228.

Carlo Prandi (2005)

Invisible religion

views updated May 14 2018

Invisible religion. Religious beliefs and practices which are held in parallel with (or in association with) those of the official religion to which the person concerned belongs: it is thus closely associated with non-official religion. They include such items as superstition and the paranormal. More broadly, the ‘Invisible Religion thesis’ is the argument of T. Luckmann (in the book of that title in its Eng. tr., 1967) that Durkheim and Weber were correct in identifying religion as the key to understanding society and the place of individuals in society. In his definition, religion is that which enables individuals to transcend their biological nature, thus making religion virtually synonymous with culture.

invisible religion

views updated Jun 11 2018

invisible religion This concept, which is associated with Thomas Luckmann (The Invisible Religion, 1963), involves the notion that religion is still an important feature of modern society, but it should not be defined narrowly as church-going behaviour. Religion involves the creation of meaning, which becomes objective in culture, and thereby transcends immediate experience. See also SECULARIZATION.

religion, invisible

views updated May 29 2018

religion, invisible See INVISIBLE RELIGION.