Religion and Civil Society

Der folgende Text skizziert einige der zentralen Fragen unter dem Titel "Religion und Zivilgesellschaft" zwischen 2003 und 2006. Die 2006 beginnenden Projekte erweitern dieses Thema, indem sie sich intensiver mit dem Bereich der Moral beschäftigen.

What is the significance of religion in human societies? How does it change in modern conditions, i.e. with more complex divisions of labour and representative forms of government? The former question has traditionally been the preserve of philosophers and theologians. The latter has been a central theme for the social sciences since their inception, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's outline of a "civil religion" in the eighteenth century to Thomas Luckmann's notion of "invisible religion" two centuries later. Contrary to the dominant trends in social science theorizing, epitomized in the concept of secularization, scholars have in recent decades been obliged to recognize that religion has remained a force in the public sphere; in the countries that concern us, it has returned to public prominence after many generations of being confined to the private sphere and, in extreme cases, abolished altogether.

Anthropologists have contributed to the scholarly literature in a variety of ways. First, they have asked searching questions about the very definition of religion. It turns out to be very hard to pin down criteria with universal validity. Some anthropologists favour a looser understanding, perhaps still using the Durkheimian opposition between sacred and profane, but prepared to allow non-supernatural persons and things to enter the category of the sacred. This move may allow the identification of "secular religions", a frame of analysis that is potentially useful in dealing both with modern nationalisms and with the various forms of socialist ideology.

Most anthropological studies of religion have concentrated on people remote from the modern Western World, whether in time, in place, or both. More recent work has, however, tried to overcome this distancing. Contemporary studies may address religious dynamics anywhere in the world; and often pay particular attention to issues of increasing interconnectedness: e.g. the spread of charismatic Christianity, facilitated by modern communication technologies, to almost all parts of the globe.

Our main focus theme for the years 2003-2005 (and possibly beyond) concerns the dynamics of changing beliefs and practices in the postsocialist countries of Eurasia. It is unnecessary to list here all the reasons why this field has been relatively neglected to date. In the socialist period, access to these countries for Western anthropologists was difficult. Studies of contemporary practices (as distinct from "folk beliefs" and mythology) were virtually unthinkable for foreign and native researchers alike, given that socialist states were ideologically committed to combating the forces of traditional religion.

As a consequence, the entire field has been largely left to the ideologically committed on all sides, and we have rather little knowledge of what was really happening to beliefs and practices under socialism. Research conditions have improved in most countries since the collapse of the classical forms of socialism (including Maoism), but the absence of a strong research tradition and the continuing practical obstacles (English and other Western European languages are insufficient to get started in these countries) are among the reasons for the continuing gap in the literature.
The scientific puzzles are legion. Socialism was a massive experiment in directing social change - social engineering on a scale not previously known in human history. But how far could planners and ideologists modify people's most basic convictions about the cosmos, substitute secular alternatives for life-cycle rituals, and provide a new basis of morality for sustaining trust and social cohesion?

The challenge becomes even more exciting when we turn to the second rupture, namely the abandonment of a secular doctrine of "salvation here on this earth" and its ostensible replacement by a return to older forms. How are we to explain a strong reassertion of religion in the public sphere in countries that had repressed religion for three generations, while in some others with a shorter period of socialist rule the effects of secularization seem to be more far-reaching? Apart from such "internal" comparisons, it will sometimes be instructive to look at other modern states, for the relation between church and state varies enormously even within Western Europe. "Laicist" France has struggled hardest to sustain a strict "enlightenment" separation of church and state, while in England the Monarch is head of the dominant church and in Germany the state collects church taxes for the main Christian denominations. Large Muslim minorities regularly allege discrimination in all three states, and controversies concerning the headscarf and swimming lessons do not go away.
Perhaps one should not be surprised that, following the sudden collapse of socialist power, the older forms of organized religion, previously repressed, surged back into prominence. Is this perhaps only a temporary blip, or are there signs that the older religions are entrenching themselves in new ways? Are they establishing new sources of authority, and finding new means to disseminate and transmit their faith to new generations? How are they dealing with competition on the "religious marketplace"? Sometimes due to pressure from powerful states in the West or from human rights NGOs, many postsocialist countries have formally proclaimed religious freedoms that must apply "across the board". But can one really expect of new political elites, or of the mass of ordinary citizens, that they should treat new sectarian groupings promoted by foreigners on a par with a church that has played a conspicuous role in the life of a nation? What factors are at work in promoting conversions, or a re-embracing of the old religion after a long period of atheism?

Our projects will address questions such as these through long-term fieldwork in local communities. Detailed ethnographic reporting is likely to go against the grain both of dogmatic powerholders who assert the primacy of a single "national church", and of the religious human rights lawyers with their unrealistic calls for the creation of a "level playing field" between every possible kind of religious community.
We use the term civil society in order to highlight our interest in how religious beliefs and practices resonate in society generally. How are social relations affected by changing religious dynamics, and vice-versa? These questions can be explored at all levels, beginning within the family and culminating in new ideologies of state and national identity.

By civil society we thus mean more than the currently fashionable usage, which associates it with the world of NGOs, or the "voluntary" or "third" sector. Rather, it seems time to return to earlier, pre-Hegelian usage, in which civil society does not stand in opposition to the state. One key element in the traditional meaning of civil is the element of tolerance (associated in particular with John Locke). We are interested, in the course of these projects, in establishing whether and how changing religious dynamics are contributing to greater civility and tolerance: not just of rival organized religious communities, but of other groups in society generally. What is the local understanding of tolerance?

As social scientists, it is not our job to evaluate the policies, activities and concrete human agents that we study. Our job is to describe them, to understand or interpret them, and also to explain as best as we can why things happen in the way they do. We do not expect to be drawing up policy recommendations at the end of these projects. We do, however, expect to come up with fresh anthropological accounts of the "postsocialist religious question", which we hope will also be of interest to many outside our discipline.
This focus theme consists of nine individual projects, listed separately on this website. They are divided into two main clusters, one working in Central Asia and the other in East-Central Europe. Within each of these clusters there are more specific links, intended to optimize comparative outcomes (e.g. between the two PhD students working on Greek Catholics). In addition we have a number of "affiliated projects", also listed separately elsewhere. Finally, we hope in the course of fieldwork in 2003-4 and during the analysis phase in 2004-5 to expand our contacts with other scholars working on similar issues; we are particularly keen to forge close links with scholars based in the countries where we work.

To facilitate comparison and contribute to an overall picture of the postsocialist religious landscape, all researchers are expected, in addition to the specific concerns of their own project, to gather at least basic data on the following subjects:

Religious practices in the socialist period - how are they remembered, for different periods and for different social groups?
Recent legislative changes - what is the legal status of religious congregations? Are they all treated alike? Is it necessary to register? What exactly are the criteria applied?
International aspects - do people look abroad for their models of proper religious practice? What new religious currents have appeared on the national scene in the postsocialist period? How do people perceive them, and explain their relative success or failure?
How far can religious observances of all kinds be linked to changing socio-economic conditions? Which marginalized elements take refuge in organized religion? Do they also have more diffuse recourse to religion outside organized congregations?
Is religion in general, a force promoting positive or at least negative tolerance in postsocialist societies? Are some of its organized currents more conductive to 'civil society' than others?

Whereas data on this last topic may be pertinent to several projects under way in Department I of this Institute ("Integration and Conflict"), the data on the legal status will be pertinent to work in the project group on legal pluralism. In the latter case we do not assume that changes in state law have necessarily worked through to other levels; several of our projects will investigate how local officials, both religious and secular, may counter or undermine the ideals, in both religious and secular law, which they are formally required to support and enforce.
In addition to contributing to postsocialist studies and several branches of anthropology, these projects will address numerous issues of still wider concern in the social and political sciences, among them how to define "civil society" and "public sphere"; and how to reconcile religious human rights with respect for traditions and the need to maintain social cohesion. Finally, the postsocialist countries may be an instructive setting in which to revisit the concept of "civil religion".

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