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Catholic Youth Initiatives in Germany: Change through Atmosphere?

It is well established in the research on religious traditions that architecture has the function to make available the transcendent with immanent means. Built places, however, do not do so ‘on their own’ but only through atmospheres – this is the basic hypothesis of this project.

Atmospheres, in a preliminary definition, are the realized semantic potential of socio-spatial arrangements which includes the meaning, agency, and sensory perception of physical space and which enables and restricts communication and ritual. This is based on the assumption that socio-spatial arrangements bear a semantic potential to realize different atmospheres.

The connections between spatial semantics, atmospheres, and transcendence/immanence have not been studied systematically from a religious studies perspective so far. In neighbouring disciplines however, the concept of atmospheres has already been discussed. In addition, the recent turns in the social studies and humanities (spatial, somatic, material turn) have addressed aspects of what constitutes atmospheres.

These considerations are embedded in an empirical study on Catholic youth initiatives in Germany which take a position in the face of traditional Catholic liturgy. This position is largely constituted by atmospheric factors, such as the design of space and ritual in church buildings. In this sense, we are dealing here with a form of intra-religious contact: The atmosphere of these places can – in the emic perspective – be “inviting” or “excluding.” The dynamics of intra-religious contact are decisively – but usually implicitly – influenced by atmospheres. To understand these processes better, the project takes a step towards a theoretically precise and methodically operational concept of atmospheres.