Bryan Turner’s Review: “Religion and modern society. Citizenship, secularization and the State” Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011

By on May 16, 2013

Religion has not declined in the way that
modern sociologists expected; their dominant presupposition that
“secularisation is uniform and an inevitable feature of modernity” (p. 73) has
been undoubtedly disproved since the Iranian Revolution – the pivotal event
which “offered a singular example of the mobilisation of the masses in the name
of religion renewal” (p. 104) – while dramatically collapsing after the events
of 9/11. In his recent book Religion and
modern society: citizenship, secularization and the State
Cambridge University Press, 2011), Bryan Turner fully embraces much of the considerable
criticism the secularization thesis has come to face in light of the highly
debated issue of the return of religion to the international stage as a driving
force in society. Indeed, since the publication of José Casanova’s Public religions in the modern world
(1994), a number of sociologists have deeply revised a theory that has proven a
lack of any empirical evidence, thereby admitting its mythical overtones and
historical embeddedness. In this sense, as Turner puts it, a Durkheimian
Talcott Parsons “did not accept the secularization thesis that became the
hallmark of much European sociology”, insofar as American liberal democracy – as
“an institutional and cultural realisation of (Protestant) Christianity” (p.
73) – could reveal an alternative development.

Nonetheless, in Turner’s view, that theory still
retains a crucial role in a globalized world. Indeed, although comparative
researches on a global scale have made it necessary to overcome a narrow-minded
approach to the study of the multiple sides of the interaction between religion
and society – beyond the narrative frame of a secular Europe and of a
profoundly religious North America – according to the Author the secularization
thesis has not to be dismantled “too profoundly” (p. 149). By contrast, it
still affects religious beliefs worldwide in what he calls “commodification” or
“low intensity religion”: religious faiths and practices, being enmeshed in “a
secular commercial culture”, cannot but compete with secular lifestyles in the
delivery of commercial goods. The setting up of “mega-churches, drive-in
confessionals, buy-a-prayer, popular religious films, religious shopping
outlets (…)” (p. 150) are but a few examples of a phenomenon where religion
appears to be “merely a set of rituals for bringing good fortune and good
health”. Within this frame, the Weberian idea of religion – “an ethical
activity of self-creation” – has completely disappeared, for religion, in order
to be “a radical faith of transformation”, has “to be concerned” – in Weber’s
interpretation – “not with Glück but with Leid” (p. 58).

From this perspective, Habermas’ basic
assumptions on post-secular societies need to be redirected, as far as Turner’s
opinion is espoused. While the German philosopher, debating with former Pope
Benedict XVI his in-depth investigation into the “post-secular”, has
reconsidered his earlier conceptions on the place of religion in modernity, for
religious beliefs – “against the German background of Kulturprotestantismus” (p. 105) – can still be important sources of
meaning, identity and solidarity, Turner believes their enduring vitality in
the modern public domain cannot be explained without grasping the huge transformations
within religion’s “traditional forms of authority” the secular has produced (p.
210). More precisely, the Author refers to the paradoxical effects of the use
of the Internet “in preserving social and cultural connections” among diasporic
communities worldwide; indeed, if it is true world religions could arguably not
succeed in keeping their faithfuls’ conscience alive without it, the building
of such a global network technology unfolds “democratic characteristics that
are also corrosive of religious authority” (p. xviii). Thus, well-established definitions
of Islamic holy law – following “Weber’s account of the irrational
characteristics of Shari’a (p. 152) –
that made it in principle a frozen set of religious norms, “closed to further
interpretation”, cannot be applied anymore to the contemporary period. Since
modern Muslim migrants living in Western societies found it necessary to
develop new forms of communal consensus “outside the normal or traditional
framework” (p. 155), in Turner’s view any inquiry into Muslim belief system has
not to be conducted via the reading
of official texts or stereotyped sociological constructions; it rather implies
the observance of “actual Muslim practice”. This is the other side of the afore
mentioned phenomenon of “low intensity religion”: “in the age of ubiquitous
media” religious faiths are challenged by the growth of diverse centres of
interpretation and, therefore, authority, rather than being hierarchical and
unitary, “rests in the local” (p. 203). Processes of hybridity and of borrowing
from different religious traditions are the result of the establishment of a global
religious market (p. 205). According to this viewpoint, talking about
secularization today means recognizing that “religion no longer has a major
impact on the dominant structures of culture and society, because religion is
increasingly part and parcel of the market. It does not, in Weber’s terms, play
a role in ‘world mastery’”; contrary to any generalized notion of “re-sacralization”
(Peter Berger, 1999), Turner suggests it is society that determines religion
and not, “pace Durkheim”, religion
that produces society (pp. 274-275). In this sense, it could be argued that former
pope Benedict XVI’s unexpected resignation has certainly proven secularization
– once cast out from most conservative Catholics as a profoundly biased
narrative on the role of religion in modern societies – has now emerged at the
very centre and head of the Catholic Church. A pope can now step down as a
properly secular political figure, while showing that “charisma” – a concept
that for Weber found its traditional basis in sacred religion – has been inevitably
downgraded to the modern discourse of celebrity leaders, both political and
religious ones (see Whimster, Editorial, “Charisma after Weber”, Max Weber Studies, Vol. 12.2, July 2012).
In Turner’s opinion conventional research
strategies of comparative religion should thus be reshaped, so as to identify
“social trends and movements that are genuinely global and common to a variety
of religious traditions” (p. 278). According to this analysis, those phenomena
such as fundamentalism, female piety and revivalism, should not be read through
the Weberian lens, i.e. as “religious
rejections of the world”; while they arguably encompass a strong “reaction to
modernisation (including commercialism, sexual liberation and secularization)”
(p. 229), they do not necessarily have to be considered as backward and
traditional strategies against modernisation; they are rather “different, that
is ‘glocal’, religious accomodations to the world” (p. 293).

However, although admitting that in our
contemporary societies “religion has become a set of institutions that function
to support the secular world”, the Author is not willing to yield to the gloomy
image of a social which is completely conceived of as an entirely secular
arrangement; indeed, “neither religion nor society can survive indefinitely
without some regeneration of the creative impulse of the sacred and the social”
(p. 31). In his concluding remarks, looking at the steady “rise of
low-intensity religion (…) as a death-work signalling” (p. 208) that the
passive citizen and modern spirituality are two sides of the very same coin, Turner
warns over the risk of “the end of the social” brought about by “globalization
in the shape of commercialization and commodification” (pp. 296-297), reminding
us that “which binds people together into powerful, typically emotional groups,
are religious forces” (p. 296). Thus, Durkheim’s lesson still seems to be