image of Interview Series Women at CERES #2: “Paradigms in the Sociology of Religion Predominantly Shaped by Men”

Interview Series Women at CERES #2: “Paradigms in the Sociology of Religion Predominantly Shaped by Men”

Three women have been appointed to the six professorships at the Center for Religious Studies (CERES) at RUB. The professorship for religious studies and the sociology of religion is currently also held by a woman on interim. The gender ratio among the academic mid-level staff is almost equal, with 17 female to 15 male academic staff members. There are more female students studying in the two study programs at CERES than male students in the student body.

Reason enough to give insights into the everyday research and teaching life of female professors, academic staff, and students through a series of interviews. Maren Freudenberg currently holds the professorship for religious studies and the sociology of religion on interim. She was the scientific coordinator of the Graduate School on Religious Plurality until the end of 2020. In her research, she investigates evangelical Christianity in the USA and neo-charismatic independent churches in Europe. From a theoretical perspective, she is interested in authority and institutionalization, the dynamics of communitization and societalization in various religious and social forms, and religious economy approaches.


Evangelical and charismatic Christianity is repeatedly praised as a model for success to the official churches in Germany: more emotion, more devotion, more spirituality, more freedom, more rock'n'roll. What aspects do you pay special attention to in your research?

I am particularly interested in communitization processes. How are close personal ties created and cultivated in charismatic independent churches so that people want to participate long-term in congregational life? It's more than rock'n'roll, although modern music and pop concert-like church services are an important piece. The missionary impulse to share one’s faith with others, so deeply anchored in Evangelicalism, is apparent in these churches’ openness to newcomers. On your first visit to a charismatic church, such as the International Christian Fellowship in Essen, you’ll be welcomed and asked about yourself, introduced to other members, and loosely integrated into the group from the start. This appeals to many people who are looking for community and friendship. At the same time, faith plays an important role in the lives of members and is a central community-building element. Newcomers may not describe themselves as Christian, but they quickly get to know the Christian faith in church services, small groups, in conversations with others. Evangelical-charismatic Christianity is thus experienced through close interpersonal relationships in which the individual sees him- or herself as an important and valued member of the community. In this intimate context, people are more willing to speak openly about their faith and celebrate worship with great devotion and emotion. Various aspects are important here: the large-scale Sunday church service with music, singing, and praise is supplemented by small group gatherings in which relationships can be nurtured. This takes a lot of time and energy but is worth it in the eyes of members. From this perspective, independent churches are “successful” in the sense that they manage to retain members sustainably through community-building dynamics.

Sociologist of religion Martin Riesebrodt claimed, over 20 years ago, that charismatic Christian fundamentalist movements, e.g., in Brazil, have managed to counter the machismo culture by modelling the ideal husband as a caring leader and head of the family, nevertheless affirming patriarchal community structures. Women find themselves in an ongoing conflict between emancipatory and traditional roles. What developments regarding gender roles can be observed in charismatic Christian groups over the past two decades?

Gender roles and ideas are generally still traditional in charismatic Christianity. In theory, women are responsible for the private sphere, household chores and child-rearing, while men are responsible for more public affairs, especially earning a living. In practice, however, this idea is often difficult to sustain, given increasingly high costs of living: many households are dependent on two incomes to maintain their living standard, or women have to step in as breadwinners if men are unable or unwilling to, e.g., due to illness, addiction, or imprisonment, but also if they leave the family. Although Riesebrodt and others have rightly stated that the explicit emphasis on the exemplary evangelical family father actually promoted an increased sense of responsibility on the part of evangelical men, the discrepancy between “ideal” gender concepts and actual gender roles becomes clear again and again and must continually be negotiated or adapted in evangelical Christianity.

But even in cases in which the traditional family model is maintained, new possibilities of the agency have opened up for women. For example, until well into the second half of the 20th century, women in American Evangelicalism were expected to submit fully to their husbands. Meanwhile, the prevailing view is that men and women “complement” each other and that both should submit equally to God. This development represented a crucial step in female emancipation in Evangelicalism and has drawn scholarly attention to women's self-empowerment in traditionally patriarchal evangelical structures over the last few decades.

Thanks to your initiative, we now have Safe Space CERES. Discrimination, be it sexist, racist, anti-semitic or against LGTBIQ +, is not tolerated and will be severely punished. For this purpose, you and your colleagues have set up an open consultation hour for confidential discussions, available to all students and employees. What other measures can the university take in this area?

We founded the Safe Space CERES initiative together with colleagues from teaching, the study coordinators at CERES and our equality officers to stand up against discrimination of any kind. From our perspective, it is important to take a stand – both in the virtual and in the physical world – to support each other so that nobody feels alone or ignored. This is particularly important in the ongoing pandemic situation, in which people feel even more isolated than before. We have set up a digital consultation hour for confidential conversations, and we continuously raise awareness for potential discrimination and strategies against it at various levels. This includes not only cultivating and maintaining our accepting and respectful environment but also the inclusion of alternative and marginalized perspectives in courses and discussions about different types and levels of discrimination.

The RUB has also started various initiatives, most notably “MeToo in Science”, which was critically discussed at a large event in June 2021. The International Office offers resources to increase cultural awareness on the part of students from other parts of the world who may not be familiar with the values and norms that are predominant in Germany, such as formal gender equality, acceptance of alternative lifestyles as well as sexual and gender identities, freedom of religion, homosexuality, etc. The student representatives from various equality bodies at RUB are also involved in working against discrimination. We are currently networking and exchanging ideas even more within the university to advocate protection against discrimination and equality for all structurally discriminated groups.

According to a database, there are almost 900 measures for gender equality at universities in North Rhine-Westphalia alone. Nonetheless, professorships are mostly held by men today. In Germany, only one in four professorships is held by a woman. What is the situation in the sociology of religion in Germany? What does this mean for the sociology of religion as a discipline? Are certain topics emphasized more while others take a back seat? To what extent do gender issues play a role - and who is working on them?

In the sociology of religion, gender issues are still mainly dealt with by women scientists - this asymmetry is also present in other humanities and social sciences. At the same time, studies with an explicit focus on men and masculinity - whether carried out by women or men - are still few and far between. Even in gender studies, men’s and masculinity studies have only been able to establish themselves slowly as a subdiscipline. While research on women was increasingly viewed as interesting and worthwhile, similar attention to the complexity of the male gender was a long time coming. This is slowly changing, including in the sociology of religion. Overall, however, it should be noted for our discipline that the German sociology of religion is significantly less dominated by men than e. g. the natural and engineering sciences. I am not aware of any specific statistical surveys, but women are well represented on professorships, in mid-level positions, on boards of associations, on editorial boards, etc. This has a noticeable effect on our disciplinary culture, even if there is still plenty of scope for further developments in the direction of equality.

In which thematic fields in the sociology of religion is there a rather little contact with gender perspectives? And what added value could a stronger focus on it have?

Larger paradigms in the sociology of religion, such as secularization theory or religious economy approaches, are predominantly male – both in the sense that their most important representatives are men and because the theories assume a male perspective. The secularization debate, for instance, generalizes the male experience regarding religious membership – namely, that men’s involvement in churches decreased as their work and other commitments took them outside of the home – to be representative for women as well, even though women remained highly active in churches until the 1960s when the number of female church members decreased rapidly in the course of various emancipation movements to overtake the number of male dissenters ultimately. This is taken into account in the more recent sociology of religion, e.g., in the work of Linda Woodhead.

The religious economy approach as a critique of the secularization debate is also male in a double sense: Its most important representatives are male scientists, not at least because of its quantitative and economic foundations, areas in which female scientists are still underrepresented. Furthermore, it does not assume a structural difference between male and female perspectives on religion but assumes the latent demand for religion as given regardless of gender. It is important to investigate to what extent differing religious supply creates gender-specific demand, and why, and which gender-specific religious interactions develop as a result. At CERES, we are currently working on a religious economy module in our teaching unit that pursues this focus, among others.

At this point, I would like to emphasize the dilemma in which gender perspectives find themselves again and again: They emphasize the difference between the sexes to create a more balanced perspective and more equal structures. At the same time, they inevitably and necessarily reproduce gender differences by this very emphasis, a fact that researchers are well aware of.

Finally, a brief reference to another paradigm of the sociology of religion, which, interestingly, is more feminine: the privatization of religion. Although this thesis - also a critical reaction to the secularization paradigm - goes back to Thomas Luckmann, a male researcher, a substantial part of research on the retreat of religion into the private sphere, on spirituality, esotericism, new religious movements, and the like, is being carried out by female researchers.

One final question: If we think ten years ahead, what will have changed based on today's developments in the area of equality, and what should have changed by then?

Many things must, and hopefully will, change in the next ten years. We must continue to work on raising awareness for disadvantaged and discriminated groups - here I am explicitly thinking not only of women, but also of people with migration backgrounds, people with low levels of education in the family education, people with disabilities, the LGBTQI + community, religious minorities, and others. We live in a “colourful” society, as the saying goes, and this is good and important - and at the same time, it is always challenging because many different perspectives and wishes need to be negotiated. This requires openness and the ability to deal with uncertainty when one's own view of the world is confronted with other ideas. However, awareness of discrimination and structural disadvantage alone is not enough; we also need specific instructions and objectives to structurally promote equality – including through quotas. Binding quantitative agreements are a key step in breaking down discriminatory structures and promoting a more equal society.

Interview by Ulf Plessentin