The Making of Religion in Modern Societies

Location: Veranstaltungszentrum room 3


Dialectics Between Language and Institutionalization 


Conference of the Käte-Hamburger-Kolleg,

to be held in February 2011 at Bochum-University


The emergence of the modern notion of religion is part of the transformation of religions in modern societies. Due to the claim of the modern state – since the French Revolution – to be sovereign over the whole of society and all its citizens, religions had to reinvent themselves as institutions within society. Some religious groups did this by resisting and rejecting the state’s claims, while others presented themselves as the avant-garde of this evolution, and as models of moral communities.

Today, people, especially those familiar with religious studies, find ‘religion’ and ‘religions’ all over the world and everywhere in history. Even those who would reject such an identification, such as Confucianists or Socialists, are included into the big family of religions by others. The same mechanism works for ‘religious’ concepts: despite their multivalent semantics they are usually subsumed within a religious vocabulary, which is supposed to be coherent and conceptually independent. Take for instance the concepts of ‘piety’ and ‘fate’, which have – despite of their “secular” usage – been incorporated in religious discourses, as referring to ‘religious’ practices, rituals and conceptions.

Actually, the concept of religion in this general, globally and historically wide-extended sense, is pretty young and regionally limited: it is, basically, an offspring of certain strands within the West-European Enlightenment of the 18th century. It was – and is – not a neutral analytical category, but also a linguistic instrument for classifying, subsuming, comparing and regulating various social, political and intellectual phenomena. Looked at from a pragmatic understanding of language the concept may be taken as an argument or weapon in cultural dialogues, social conflicts, or political struggles. This is how we take it in this conference.

However, if religions cannot be simply identified, are not simply ‘out there’, but have to be perceived and identified by contemporary agents, the question arises how this was done in the first place: how where phenomena perceived and labelled as being ‘religious’? A second question immediately follows: what consequences did this labelling have for the institutionalisation of religion within societies? Labelling directs the perception of people, gives coherence to social actions, prepares the ground for rules and laws, opens up fields of action and makes possible new practices. In short, it redefines the social practice of religion.

Following the scope and program of our research group we study the linguistic formation and institutionalisation of religions in modern societies. Our efforts concentrate on European and Asian societies from the 18th to the 20th centuries, the diffusion of religious concepts within and between them, with a special focus on the concept religion itself. Under the conditions of the discursive and legal separation of political and religious power religious communities in modern societies were increasingly obliged to legitimize their own traditions, practices and conceptions in terms that non-believers could understand and accept.

We have chosen four fields of study:

-          Religious Membership and Statistics: What did membership mean to different religious groups? How were membership and other forms of belonging defined, both from within the group and from without? Which efforts were undertaken by state authorities to count religious membership and bring the results together in national statistics? Who started to count religious groups and for what purposes? How was the concept of ‘religion’ used and made applicable in these statistics? What consequences did this counting and the resulting numerical self-awareness have for the self-understanding, practices and policies of the various religious groups?

-          Teaching Religion at School: Modern states made an enormous effort to educate their subjects and turn them into moral citizens. How was this instruction conceptualized, and how was ‘religion’ distinguished from, or integrated within, this project of moral transformation? Did the state use, co-opt, regulate or exclude particular religious groups or concepts in building up this moral economy of public education? Did religious groups oppose or support this attempt to turn ‘religious’ subjects into loyal, committed and disciplined citizens?

-          The Scientification of Religious Language and Religious Concepts:  How were religious concepts/religious languages defined in relation to non-religious languages and concepts? The new or re-defined ‘religious’ concepts transcended traditional specific religious discourses, and could thus be used by secular people as well. This could lead religious groups to a critical self-reflection by means of discussions with the sciences (Western religion in the 19th century is the prime example). Is this the general trend? Or are there other ways in which religious groups could either appropriate or radically reject the new discourse on ‘religion’?

-          Religious Freedom: The establishment of modern states goes together with a constitutional definition of the place - rights and restrictions - of religion within society. By this means traditional ‘religious’ beliefs, holidays, associations, institutions, properties and many other things were either regulated and protected, or forbidden, suppressed or destroyed. A new configuration of possible fields of action for religious groups emerged. Has the spread of constitutions and legal systems of a Western type, defining religion as a separate sphere, transferred the Western definition of religion all over the world as well?


Photograph of Prof. Dr. Lucian Hölscher

Prof. Dr. Lucian Hölscher

Universitätsstr. 90a
44789  Bochum
Office 3.14
+49 234 32-24691