Religion and Civil Society

The following text outlines some of the central questions addressed under the heading "religion and civil society" between 2003 and 2005. Projects beginning in 2006 will extend this theme by focusing more closely on the subject of morality.

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.

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