“Sociology of religion in Europe”, in Koniordos, Kyrtsis (eds.), Routledge Handbook of European Sociology, Routledge, London-New York, 2014, pp. 158-71.

Roberto Cipriani

Sociology of religion in Europe

by Roberto Cipriani


At beginning of Fifties Mauss (1872-1950), Radcliffe Brown (1881-1955), van der Leeuwe (1890-1950), and Tawney (1882-1960) were still alive and influenced social sciences of religion in Europe. But the most influential impact was that exercised by Gabriel le Bras (1891-1970) in France namely. A more critical approach was stressed by so called Frankfurt School, with Adorno (1903-1969) and Horkheimer (1895-1973). Some European sociologists of religion have emigrated into the States: Berger (1929-) and Casanova (1951-). But Luckmann (1927-) and Robertson (1938-) have come back to Europe. At same time important streams continued to act in terms of theory and research: in France thanks to Desroche (1914-1994), Séguy (1925-2007), and Bourdieu (1930-2002) from another perspective, and in England because of Mary Douglas (1921-2007) from a socio-anthropological point of view. In France particularly some studies on laïcité by Baubérot (1941-) and on Protestantism by Willaime (1947-) deserve attention. At the moment new waves are also emerging to study Islam and new religions in Europe.

In the development of European Sociology of Religion there are two main steps: the first is based on a sociographic approach, the second appears more scientifically oriented in terms of theories and methods. However the beginning has been correctly situated in a reliable theoretical perspective, which is the case of Frankfurt School. But at the same time, in the Fifties first scholars in the field were inclined towards an empirical gathering of any kind of data without a suitable frame of analysis. The transition from a confessional sociology to an academic, and value-free study, was slow and very difficult because of many obstacles coming from hierarchical leadership of religions. First decades were characterized by a double track but at a certain point the scientific solution prevailed. Different national discourse opened the road to sociology of religion instead of religious sociology, and step by step the majority of European sociologists of religion changed mind, and ecclesiastic reference point. Sociology of religion began to be a legitimated discipline, and outside church control. Of course in France and Belgium the process was faster than in Italy. However international meetings helped a lot to have a common roof, at least at European level.   

The key role of Frankfurt School

The scholars of the Frankfurt school did not seem to favor the study of the religious factor, particularly after their ‘criti­cal theory of society’, and the ‘negative dialectic’.

Nevertheless, Adorno (1903-69) and especially Horkheimer (1895-1973) gave stimulating and original readings on religion. Their reflec­tions began with the Marxist perspective, and reached a position charged either with theological implications or, at least, dialogically open toward the most attentive intellectuals. The sociologists belonging to the Institut für Sozialforschung maintained an aversion toward metaphysics and consequently toward any religious ideology, because they were convinced that the churches made instrumental use of reason in order to enslave and tame the social subject in the name of supposedly higher motivations that have little to do with the actual indi­vidual’s desires.

According to Horkheimer and Adorno ([1947] 1997), even though the Enlightenment actively contributed to conquering theocracy, it neverthe­less favored the advent of antidemocratic and despotic solutions in the name of absolute rationalization.

Horkheimer’s attitude toward religion ‘is not of mere negation but, rather, reveals a cautious, unforeseen approach. He examines the various aspects of religious phenomena and freely expresses his opinion about them also employing, as is common for him, irony and sarcasm. He is convinced, however, of the relevant social role of various movements and religious beliefs’ (Cipriani 1986: 12).

There is in Horkheimer a ‘nostalgia for the Other,’ which remains unex­pressed or at least suspended. However, what he told on the occasion of the death of his friend and colleague Adorno remains unambiguous. Horkheimer maintained that Adorno always talked about the ‘nostalgia for the Other,’ but he never used words such as heaven, eternity, or beauty. How­ever, Horkheimer laid stress on the fact that while Adorno questioned him­self about the world, in the last analysis, he perceived the ‘Other.’ At the same time, he was convinced that it is impossible to understand this ‘Other’ through a mere description. Rather, it is possible only through interpretation of the world as it is, also hinting that the world is not the only place, the only destination in which our thoughts might rest (Horkheimer 1969: 108-9).

Horkheimer himself (1970), while showing some interest in Judaism and Christianity (without however abandoning his initial Marxist posi­tions), talked explicitly and at length about a ‘nostalgia for the totally Other.’

According to Adorno, death did not represent the globality of existence. Moreover, Adorno was convinced that the impossibility of thinking deeply about death did not protect thought from the unreliability of every metaphysical experience (Adorno [1966] 1990). Briefly, the other world was denied as a reality but continued to bear weight in philosophical and sociological reflection. Besides, metaphysical categories, now secularized, still act within the impulse called ‘the question of the sense of life’.

In Minima moralia Adorno ([1951] 1993) attacked knowledge dominated by economic interests. The same thing occurs for religion. Adorno did not attack religion in the light of its primary essence, but criticized ideology that was available for uses of a capitalist kind. The violent criticism shown by Adorno against religion should be viewed as an attitude within the general picture of his vigorous attack against the whole of bourgeois society, namely in Europe. In fact, this approach was understandable within the general framework of Marxist analysis; more­over, Adorno did not spare Marxist analysis from some criticism. The final outcome was a rather pessimistic one. Adorno talked about hope but only within the historical dimension. As for salvation, he hinted that it repre­sented an opening toward hope but of a utopian kind (Cipriani 1986: 21).

The search for the ‘Other’ through the world, according to Hork­heimer’s interpretation of Adorno, was a final objective that could not be given up. In Adorno’s Negative Dialectics ([1966] 1990) there emerged a question about what could happen after Auschwitz. The main question was whether the death of innocent people should require a critical reflec­tion, and redemption as a last need for justice. If justice could not be found in the human world, the absence of any further hope – a divine justice that would give order to every element – would seem like an unexplainable monstrosity.

The starting point: Gabriel Le Bras (1891-1970)                                               Gabriel Le Bras, professor of canon law, promoted ‘religious sociology’ in France and elsewhere in Europe. He had a crucial role in the passage from a classi­cal sociology of religion to a better-implemented methodological approach, especially regarding the statistical dimension. In 1954 he founded the Group for the Sociology of Religion in Paris. He has been criticized for his exclusive attention to religious demogra­phy, to the data regarding religious practice, the number of religious believers who regularly attended mass, who attended the Easter services, and who confessed and took communion at least once a year. Actually, he explicitly affirmed that researching religious practices alone did not pro­vide enough data on ‘religious vitality.’ Notwithstanding this conviction, Le Bras’s research developed more in the direction of a census of the mul­tifaceted religious population rather than toward the sociological survey. He carried out his research mostly in France, and clearly stated in many of his essays (Le Bras 1955-56) his affilia­tion to Catholicism. His writings were published but always for Catholic journals, and in scientific symposiums in disciplines such as archaeology, history, and geography, as well as sociology. It was Le Bras’s conviction that research on religious practice was more accessible but was also more superficial. He was also well aware of the need for investigations into ‘the soul,’ more in-depth themes like the rea­sons for faith and religious feeling. In his view, such investigations should deal with the content and the intensity of beliefs within a specific envi­ronment, such as the parish, school, or workshop. Le Bras’s language (he talks about ‘souls’ instead of social individuals) revealed the perspective within which he moved. He was honest, however, about his intention to consider other important factors, besides mere practice, as religious indicators. Moreover, from the sociology of Catholicism he wanted to shift to a broader and more comprehensive sociology of religion. Le Bras wrote that he was conscious of the fact that sociology could stir feelings of enthusiasm as well as a great deal of suspicion among men of the church whether Catholic or Islamic.                                                                                                                         This eminent scholar of canon law was, however, able to obtain relevant scientific results as documented by a number of his contributions. In his essays he made extensive use of local studies, diocesan researches, university theses, and historical and sociological research projects. He was the organizer of so many scientific enterprises that his reservations about science seemed to fade away. Nevertheless, he tended more toward a religious sociology than to a sociology of religion or religions. Le Bras thought that research should be carried out in the ‘extraparish’ field rather than within the ecclesiastical experience. In the parish it was only possible to find the existence of tradition but not the evolution of religion. Le Bras was aware of faith as an interior phenomenon that escaped the possibility of research as such. He wrote that while it would be useless to attempt to establish a mathematical relation between external acts and consciousness, it would be senseless to deny a relationship that existed. Le Bras also established precise norms and methodological instructions aiming at a neutral research approach. He made suggestions on statistical procedures and warned against improper generalizations. Finally, Le Bras defined religious life as characterized by ‘beliefs, conducts and practices’.

A pioneer: Jacques Leclercq (1891-1971)                                                                 The history and the success of a social science discipline are not neces­sarily or exclusively linked to scholarly publication or to the amount and quality of research. Important or even more determining and contributing to the shaping and development of a discipline are factors such as scholar associations, changes in university regulations, the introduction of new teaching subjects, the setting up of research centers, the beginning of wide-ranging studies, the founding of journals, and publishing. All of these provided the new discipline with importance, visibility, and recognition both within and outside the university communities. They also brought in money and people, thus favoring the difficult task of establishing a new area of social science in Europe. It was well-known that, at least at the beginning, a new discipline is surrounded by doubts concerning its reliability and effectiveness.

This could well have been the case with sociology, and especially with sociology of religion. Notwithstanding the large number of European sociological works produced at the end of the nineteenth century and at the start of the twentieth, in many countries and universi­ties sociology did not have an easy life. These difficulties were not exclu­sively due to political reasons, as in the case of Italy (because of fascism). For example sociology arrived rather late in Belgium, notwithstanding its presence in neighboring countries like France, Germany, and England. In the Catholic University of Louvain, sociology was introduced thanks merely to Jacques Leclercq, an open-minded philosopher, who actively contributed to the overcoming of prejudices surrounding sociology’s presum­ably positivistic orientation.

After the Second World War, Leclercq’s aid to the development of soci­ology and of the sociology of religion was crucial both in Belgium and else­where. He founded the CISR – the Conférence Internationale de Sociologie Religieuse – of which he became the first president. The membership of CISR consists – till now – of both European and non-European sociologists, who meet every two years at a symposium to compare theories and research within the socio-religious realm. At first the CISR was ruled by a Catholic and chiefly European orientation. However, later (in 1989) the name was changed into the SISR – Société Internationale de Sociologie des Religions – thus losing its confessional and continental connotations. During the conferences English became the most used language, instead of French (for instance only 3 papers of Rome conference in 1969 were in French).

Leclercq’s approach was a rather empirical one as he was influenced by the North American sociological tradition, which favored a less specu­lative and less philosophical stance. In this Leclercq was close to Le Bras. However, he differed from the French scholar when he tried to unite the­ology and sociology, thus sociologizing theology. Leclercq wrote that he was not totally enthusiastic about the theology of sociology. He argued that it might be too soon to try this sort of synthesis. In the end, religious sociology as a method or field of investigation was just beginning (Leclercq 1955: 167): Leclercq was not giv­ing up his task, but was only postponing it.                                                                                  

The new wave: eclipse of the sacred in Acquaviva (1927-)

Sabino Acquaviva, a sociologist at the University of Padua, was among the first social scientists to write, in 1961, about the crisis of the sacred, using a statistical documentation of religious practice at the international level. From an early idea concerning the probable survival of religion in the future, the author of The Eclipse of the Holy in Industrial Society (Acquaviva 1979) has been gradually modifying his own statements, until he himself recognized in his book Fine di un’ideologia: la secolarizzazione (The End of an Ideology: Secularization): ‘roughly speaking the crisis of practice and the crisis of religion were almost coincidental: hence, the theory of the eclipse of the sacred in industrial civiliza­tion. … This theory was based on indicators used to measure the initial symptoms and the emergence of the crisis since the 16th century’ (Acqua­viva and Stella 1989: 7). However, ‘secularization as a process can by itself give rise to new ways of being religious. It is evident that if religion is robbed of its exterior forms, it allows in the end new ways of living the experience of the sacred precisely because the rules of the game change’ (Acqua­viva and Stella 1989: 9). Such an argument concerning the post-eclipse phase aims at emphasizing that ‘with secularization, religiosity, as well as religion, changes in quality and diminishes in intensity’ (Acqua­viva and Stella 1989: 11). In order to prove his point, Acquaviva created a neologism: he wrote that more than about secularization, it could be better to talk of ‘demagicalization’ (Acqua­viva and Stella 1989: 11). One should argue therefore that the eclipse of the sacred corresponded to the end of a magical use of the sacred. This interpretation of the socio-religious reality is not new, since in an earlier work he had written: ‘the magical use of the sacred is often tied up with popular and pagan religion, which in a Catholic milieu belongs to our past; this pagan religion somehow dis­solves after the decay of indulgences, of the use of sanctuaries and saints, and of the mythical image of the miracle as a potential factor of great turning points in our lives’ (Acquaviva 1979: 33).                                                                                   

The poser of secularization by David Martin (1929-)

David Martin, a British sociologist at the London School of Economics, has taken an openly polemical attitude to the poser of secularization, a peculiar  European concept: ‘I propose to consider the uses to which the term “secularization” has been put, and to show that those uses (or perhaps, more accurately, misuses) are a barrier to progress in the sociology of religion’ (Martin 1969: 9).

His radical critique (Martin 1967: 11) was expressed with strong persua­sion and passion. By comparing optimistic rationalism, Marxism, and existentialism, Martin reached the conclusion that the concept of secular­ization was subject to many ideological biases that led to superficial gen­eralizations. This was why he suggested deleting the idea of secularization from the sociological vocabulary. He examined the forms of secularization that have interested Christianity in connection with the development of scientific thought and proletarian alienation.

Martin has contested the utopian uses of secularization and stated the necessity of its correct use on the basis of classical sociological thinking. In fact, he has insisted that a wider critical approach be reached with contribution from the socio­logical community.

Martin again tackled the question of secularization in his book A General Theory of Secularization (1978), in which he suggested a survey of such phenomena, especially in Europe, and proposed his own theory. In his view, religion means the acceptance of a level of reality that goes beyond the knowledge of the world through science and also beyond the human dimension. At the same time, instead of insisting upon the rejec­tion of the term secularization, he maintained that it has a wide scope.

At the outset Martin clarified that it was not an abstract but an empirical theory, based on research data. It had an ethnocentric and mainly eurocentric outlook, as it concerned only the West; the author, however, was quite aware of this shortcoming.

Martin conceived a stratification of the various types of societies: monopolistic, typical of Catholic nations; ‘duopolistic,’ with a Protestant church as a majority partner; pluralistic as in England, with a state religion and other fragmentary forms of dissent; plu­ralistic in the Scandinavian sense, with a central role for the Protestant Lutheran churches; monopolistic in the sense of Christian orthodoxy, with a strong convergence between state and church in Eastern Europe. There are, however, exceptions both in the Catholic religion as well as in other confessions. A mixed model, formed by competitive religions in a specific context, for example, in the Swiss cantons, is also indicated. On the oppo­site side, Martin analyzed the model of the secular monopoly exemplified by the Soviet Union. In another chapter he addressed the model of reactive organicism, especially in postwar Spain with its cultural Catholicism, lim­ited dissent, high religious practice (with some differences: it was very low in Andalusia). A sociological remark was devoted to the crisis of the priest­hood. In essence Martin’s general theory of secularization was constructed on the basis of analytical categories derived from various cultural contexts.

A pioneer of sociology of religion in Europe: Bryan Wilson (1926-2004)

Together with David Martin, but even before him, Bryan Wilson must be considered a pioneer of European sociology of religion. He tackled a wide variety of topics with an unusual commitment.

His best-known work dealt with sects (Wilson 1961), and one of his pre­ferred topics was secularization (Wilson 1976).

The phenomenon of sects is a well-researched subject, which, however, is often affected by conceptual limitations and value judgments. For this reason Wilson tried to define rigorously the concept of sects and the typol­ogy that he derived from it.

According to Wilson, sects are voluntary organizations in the sense that freedom to choose to join them is almost total. Equally free, however, is the will on the part of the older members to accept or reject new applicants. A prospective applicant must pass a test in order to be part of the ‘we’ with which the sect identifies itself, as it considers itself an elite and imposes spe­cific rules for its members. The individual who does not obey is expelled. From this, a strong awareness of one’s commitment to the sect becomes apparent. An ideological legitimization covers each member and each activity.

The ways in which sects interact with the world are numerous: some sects accept the world, while other sects reject it. The various attitudes and reactions toward the world can be classified as follows: conversion (the aim is an inner personal change because the world is bad); revolution (a supernatural change can transform the world, which is wicked); introversion (salvation is outside society and for this reason it is necessary to withdraw from it); manipulation (salvation is possible in the world, but to achieve it the use of unusual instruments such as occultism, esotericism, physical strength, and money is necessary); thaumaturgy (the world is full of evils, and supernatural forces are nec­essary to escape the world and its normal laws); reformation (the evil is here, but one can remedy it with adequate interventions, to be suggested at a divine level); utopia (the world must be totally reshaped on the basis of religious principle).

This complex typology does not exhaust all the possible forms of ‘unorthodox reaction to the world,’ but it is certainly useful for a socio­logical understanding and interpretation of the contemporary develop­ment of sects.

The map of the American sects in Europe described by Wilson is also very helpful. These sects are characterized by a strong proselytism, e.g., with the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Pentecostals. Wilson studied their developments from their birth, and showed, for instance, how the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been able to transform themselves since World War II from a type of traditional sect into a genuine mass movement. Finally, despite external appearances, according to Wilson sects are communities of love. They live with the ten­sions of their conditions. As soon as these tensions decline, the desire to join other confessional groups is to be expected.

The relationship between religion and society presents itself as crucial when dealing with secularization. In Wilson’s view, secularization is not only a change in society, but also a change of society in its basic organiza­tion (Wilson 1982). In particular, this change conveys a reduction of the power of religions and an expropriation of ecclesiastical properties. The reference to the supernatural also diminishes, and in this way religion itself loses importance. For Wilson as for Martin, secularization is a lengthy process, which is subject to changes that took many of religion’s functions away.

Secularization is not only a factual condition, but it is part of the pro­found beliefs of the social agents: ‘Not only are men disposed to give less credence to the supernatural, and particularly in its conventionally received Christian formulations, but they are now – and this is a relatively recent change – strongly convinced that religion has diminishing impor­tance in the social order’ (Wilson 1976: 15). The data on religious practice confirm this orientation. The decline appears evident: conventional faith is no longer the same.

Ferrarotti’s (1926-) trilogy on dynamics of secularization

Franco Ferrarotti has analyzed the contemporary dynamics of secular­ization. He stated explicitly in A Theology for Non-Believers: ‘the present book is concerned with some of the discussions on which sociological dis­course has concentrated in recent years with important, sociological if con­troversial, results: from Robert N. Bellah’s ‘civil religion’ to Thomas Luckmann’s ‘invisible religion’ and finally to the somewhat myth-mak­ing theory of “secularization” by Peter L. Berger’ (Ferrarotti 1987: V). However, an incentive to discussion comes from the Italian context also, especially regarding the hypothesis of the Acquaviva’s (1979) ‘eclipse of the sacred.’ Fer­rarotti states his intent as follows: ‘far from witnessing an utter eclipse of the sacred, as some have incautiously announced, we are seeing a return to the sacred, experienced as a renuncia­tion of human reason, which has disappointed, and as a reversion to the irra­tional, to pure feeling as a source of satisfaction and to the primacy of absurdity, misty and suggestive at one and the same time…. [Moreover] the need is to rebuild a postrationalist rationality: one no longer dichotomous, based on the rational-irrational dilemma, but instead one able to take into account the arational and metarational impulses that are part of and even enter as decisive elements into human experience.’ (Ferrarotti 1987: 22)

Ferrarotti’s interests are not confined to the field of sociology of religion but extended to philosophy as well as sociology, from Kant, Marx, and Niet­zsche to Comte, Durkheim, and Weber. In this respect, Chapter 7 of a The­ology for Non-Believers is particularly relevant. Here Ferrarotti formulated a bold proposal for a sociology capable of reversing, as it were, theology, in such a way as to become ‘the basic instrument for linking ethical principles and social practice, or as the essential bearer of a historically rooted ethic, not merely abstractly, sterilely, preached’ (Ferrarotti 1987: 161). It seems that the author went beyond a purely sociological analysis or, to put it more precisely, he used sociological insights in order to elaborate a far-reaching project that become apparent in his concluding remarks: ‘not God, there­fore, but the mystery of God: the awareness and respect for the shadowy area that makes man – every man, every woman – inexhaustible, cog­nizant of the fascination of the irrational, recalling the movable horizon of the possible; beyond the push toward acquisition and utilitarian logic – a calm scrutiny of men and things’ (Ferrarotti 1987: 169).

Ferrarotti made a further development in his studies of the rela­tionship between religion and technology in ‘The Paradox of the Sacred’ (Ferrarotti 1984). While A Theology for Non-Believers faced philosophical and theological thinking about present-day issues, the author returned to philosophical considerations. This is the reason why the research began with observations concerning the crisis of rationality, the hunger for the sacred, the presence of the devil, and the industrial world. The character of the second volume of the trilogy was strongly critical and paved the way for the third volume, which was initially entitled After the Christianity of Constantine, but was finally entitled A Faith Without Dogma (Ferrarotti 1993), which was adapted from a statement by Simon Weil that ‘dogmas should never be affirmed.’

In ‘The Paradox of the Sacred’ Ferrarotti argued that it was a mistake on the part of sociologists of religion to fail to draw a distinction between religion and religiosity: ‘the confusion between church religion and religiosity as a deep, de-bureau­cratized personal experience hindered a recognition that not only was the supposed “eclipse of the sacred” not taking place, but that there was, rather, an undoubted growth of the need for religion and community, and that now we are witnessing the flourishing and growing “social production of the sacred”’ (Ferrarotti 1984: 19).

After stating that the ‘eclipse of the sacred’ was an ‘unfounded’ hypothesis, the author then presented his own perspective: ‘religion, the sacred, and the divine do not point to the same realities. They move on different levels and obey incompatible logics. In its hierocratic form, religion is the expression of the administration of the sacred. The sacred is contrasted to the profane, but it does not necessarily have need of the divine. One might say that the more religion gains as a structure of power and center of economic interests and socio-political influence, the more the area of the sacred contracts. The field of the religious and the field of the sacred do not necessarily coincide. With good evidence, one probably could maintain that when the need, or the “hunger,” for the sacred increases, then organized religion declines. The paradox is that organized religion is inti­mately desacralizing and that the pure experience of the sacred, even in its relation with the divine, is blocked rather than helped by the religious hierocracy. One would need hypothetically to conclude that there is not an eclipse of the sacred but of religion, more precisely of church religion’ (Ferrarotti 1984: 37).

There is, however, another paradox that must be considered: ‘the “sacred” is the metahuman, which is required most of all for human coex­istence, to avoid the flattening-out of living, the obscuring of the parame­ter or point of reference against which to measure oneself, the loss of the “sense of the problem,” the risk of the loss of what is really uniquely human in man’ (Ferrarotti 1984: 83).

In A Faith Without Dogma (Ferrarotti 1993) many of the notions and sug­gestions appearing in the first two books are re-discussed and further deepened. From the ‘wind of the spirit’ to the problems of theology, from the myth of development as a good in itself to the excesses of mechanistic rationalism, from the ambivalence of the sacred to Satanism and to the sociology of evil. In this work Ferrarotti took stock and used the empirical evidence from fieldwork conducted and dealt with in previous works, especially in Toward a Social Production of the Sacred (Ferrarotti 1970), and Comte and Durkheim dealing with the issue of religion. He was skeptical about the possibility of ‘civil religion’ (Bellah 1967) in Italy. In that country ‘the weakness of the theoretical, conceptual apparatus of Italian positivism is obvious, but the difficulties for “civil religion” in Italy, did not arise only from philosophical deficiencies. From its unification in 1860, Italy lacked a profound national experience, shared by all citizens, which would consoli­date its basic cohesion…. [In Italy] “civil religion” seems destined to have a difficult life and little capacity for obtaining that “interior disposition” to service for the common good that today seems to present itself as a basic pre­condition for the orderly progress of civil society’ (Ferrarotti 1993: 118-20).

These remarks are not incompatible with the positions elaborated by other scholars of secularization: ‘the sacred points to and presupposes a community link. In its external, rit­ualistic aspect, this link is the religious bond, the community of the faithful, the Church. But precisely for this reason, sacred and religious must not be confused. They are two realities that should not be hastily conjoined, even if in everyday language they are often used as synonyms. The fact is that the idea of the sacred precedes the very idea of God, and that the religious is probably none other than the administrative arm of the sacred, a power structure that continually runs the risk – diabolically – of replacing the sacred while proclaiming itself at its service’ (Ferrarotti 1993: 144-45).

History and sociology in Europe: Poulat (1920-)

Émile Poulat, Directeur d’Études at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sci­ences Sociales and Directeur de Recherche at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, is one of the few European sociologists of religion suf­ficiently known throughout the world. He can be considered one of the most important contributors to the Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions (before 1973 called Archives de Sociologie des Religions) if for no other reason than his detailed reviews of books and for his collaboration in the publi­cation of the journal as well as being a member of its reading committee.

His familiarity with other disciplinary sectors (through the jurist Le Bras), and especially with histori­ans, has also earned him great appreciation outside the sociological milieu. His way of conducting research in the field of sociology of religion is very original. A great specialist in Catholicism, he uses sociological instruments for detailed and persuasive analyses of phenomena, those belonging to both the present-day and the past. He moves with ease among different fields: Fourier’s utopian socialism (Poulat 1957), the Jesuit Bremond’s spir­itualism (Poulat 1972), modernism (Poulat 1962, 1982), the worker priests (Poulat 1961b, 1965), integralism (Poulat 1969), and from the problems of democracy to those of lay groups (Poulat 1987).

According to Poulat (1986: 260), there is a ‘Ecclesiosphere’ as we have a ‘Sovietsphere.’ The Ecclesiosphere is for Poulat a ‘sphere of influence of the Roman Catholic Church that forces the other spheres but also other countries to come to terms with it.’ Moreover, Poulat maintains that the ‘sphere of the church goes well beyond the church itself as outlined in Canon Law; it can no longer be identified with the people of God, a doctrinal notion which is based on faith’ (Poulat 1986: 267).

As is perhaps to be expected, Poulat centers his attention on France (but not only). From this social laboratory he opens up to other contexts in order to reach conclusions that would be applicable to the wider Catholic world. He studies the origins of modern freedoms, of republican laypeople, and of the scientific culture, which are not favorable to religion (Poulat 1987). What he says about the two French worlds, the lay and the Catholic, is that there is a confrontation between them. This issue is very much alive in other European countries. His conclusion is that none of the reali­ties of conscience, church and state, has the means to remain self-enclosed. When one of the three elements is too invasive, oppressive, or threatening, it might happen that the other two make an alliance against it. Within human soci­eties, between tyranny and anarchy, freedom points to a narrow path; it is a permanent invention, a fragile enterprise, but also a tremendous force (Poulat 1986: 435).

A similar question concerns religion in Europe, which cannot only be a domain reserved to the churches. It is, in fact, also a question of the state, of the European states, although they conceive of themselves as being liberal and lay. They share the same conception of the state based on the rule of law and of freedom. This puts them up against a paradox: on the one hand, nothing can escape the law, not even freedom, on the other hand, they are all far from having an identical conception of law and of freedom (Poulat 1993: 408).

Poulat is also a scholar who loves to do research in the archives, in which he finds key documents of the relationship between state and church, precious and enlightening letters, personal data (Poulat 1961a), unpublished texts (Poulat 1957), or little known works (Poulat 1972).

His knowledge of the European Catholic world, its clergy, and the religious intel­lectuals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries turns his publications into a gold mine of historical-sociological information and interpretations. Writing about the spiritual powers, Poulat defines the Holy See as a ‘power that is denied but recognized. Historians can tell us how, being practically excluded from political power at the time of Comte, the church has been able progressively to reenter the international scene, causing sur­prise on the part of many outside the church and scandal on the part of some inside the church’ (Poulat 1988: 53).

Regarding the present-day socioreligious situation (with respect to France) Poulat’s perception appears to be well balanced between the atti­tudes of the laity and of religion as a private, personal experience. In this way private values are being negotiated and evaluated in the social world almost as in some sort of stock market. But the signs of religious crisis are there.

Emotions and religion. Hervieu-Léger (1947-)

Danièle Hervieu-Léger has been a teacher in Paris at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sci­ences Sociales, and a member of the Centre d’Études Interdisciplinaire des Faits Religieux, and has also been chief editor of the Archives de Sci­ences Sociales des Religions. Hervieu-Léger has made some innovative con­tributions to sociology of religion and has published some works with Françoise Champion (Champion, Hervieu-Léger 1990; Hervieu-Léger, Champion 1986).

She must be credited with a revision of the concept of secularization, which is to be understood not only as a crisis of religious institutions that are unable to have an impact on contemporary societies. In fact, these soci­eties themselves are at present capable of producing some alternative ways of socializing through diversified forms of experience, such as the new religious movements.

The contradictory symptoms of a sacred in crisis and at the same time of new religious enthusiasm calls the relationship between religion and modernity to the attention of Danièle Hervieu-Léger. The problem is to understand, between decline and renewal, what religious dynamic is at present developing, after ‘the disappearance of the practicing believers’ (Hervieu-Léger, Champion 1986) and following the ‘de-Catholicization’ and the end of ‘parish culture’ and ‘civilization’. The conclusion is that the accent on the affective relationship with God, as a source of personal fulfillment and of enrichment of relationships with oth­ers, tends to move the practicing Catholic toward a transcendent human­ism that seems to jeopardize an ethical affective conception of salvation with a dominant worldly characterization (Hervieu-Léger, Cham­pion 1986).

After having considered separately the future perspectives of Protes­tantism and of Catholicism, Hervieu-Léger argues that a new Christianity consisting of ‘emotional communities’ is on the rise. This is a religion com­posed of voluntary groups in which one becomes a member on the basis of an explicit choice. This strongly personalized choice creates a very intense bond between the community and each of its members (Hervieu-Léger, Champion 1986). These militant members distance themselves from the most observant believers. In the last analysis, Hervieu-Léger maintains that the expansion of religion based on ‘emotional communities’ corresponds to the quest for a new type of compromise, in terms of self-real­ization between Christianity and a modernity that has broken up its con­tacts with the Christian eschatology (Hervieu-Léger, Champion 1986). In the end religion becomes some sort of ‘authorized collective memory’ based on the recognition of its values.

Hervieu-Léger defines religion as a way of believing with a constant reference to the authority of a tradition and to the continuity of a family of believers, or ‘believing descendency.’ By the term ‘believing’ Hervieu-Léger means a totality of individual and collective persuasions, which do not depend on empirical verification and, in general, on recognized methods of scientific control. On the contrary, these persuasions find their justification in the fact that they give coherence and meaning to the subjective experience of those who believe. It is ‘believing’ rather than faith: this is due to the fact of including, besides the usual persuasions, all those practices, lan­guages, gestures, spontaneous automatism through which beliefs manifest themselves (Hervieu-Léger 1993).

Luhmann (1927-1998) and religion as function

German sociologist Niklas Luhmann was a coherent systemic functionalist who wrote about religion. Luhmann recalled that, for his late wife (and also for himself), religion’s meaning went beyond whatever a theory could say (Luhmann 1977).

Luhmann’s essay on the function of religion was not born out of a unified project, nor was it part of an intellectual plan especially dedicated to the study of religious phenomena. The five chapters of Luh­mann’s volume dealt with different questions: the social function of reli­gion, religious dogma and social evolution, contingency transformations in the social systems of religion, secularization, and organization. The second chapter, the longest, is a discussion directed to theologians. Quite a few insights do not belong to a purely sociological domain and amount to a call for specific activities in the religious field (in the first place in the theological one). One must add that Luhmann’s contribution was part of his theory of functional differen­tiation, which he applied to many other fields, from politics to law. It is somewhat difficult to understand his reasoning completely, especially because of his concise conceptual definitions.

His main point is that religion, as a social system, regulates the rela­tionships of people with the world in a comprehensive and ultimate mean­ing. Naturally, society is the essential condition for being in the world in a meaningful way. With the concept of system the difference between inter­nal and external, between environment and system is introduced in the analysis. This difference can be illustrated as a difference in complexity so that the environment is always more complex than the system itself. In practice a society is a social (external) system that aims to reg­ulate the environment (internal). The system serves to reduce the com­plexity of the environment. For this reason the former is always less complex than the latter.

At the same time it should be kept in mind that the environment is external with respect to the system, which is that whole mechanism of elaboration that answers to the enormous and infinite variability of the environment. It is necessary, at this point, to take into account the fact that society as a system means for Luhmann that it is essential to imagine it as an entirety of subsystems, each keeping under control a portion of the external environment. There are, of course, various subsystems, or partial systems (politics, law, religion, and so forth). Finally, it should be remem­bered that individuals with their various forms of living, desiring, behav­ing, and believing constitute a vast, unpredictable series of social models and actions: hence, the complexity of the social environment (Acquaviva, Pace 1996: 45). The function of each system consists in reducing the dif­ferentiation through subsystems or partial systems that provide rules and procedures for better communication.

If functional systemic logic is applied to religion, one finds that reli­gion fulfills for the social system the function of transforming the indeter­minate world, in the sense that it was not possible to limit it toward the external (environment) and towards the internal (system), in a deter­minable world in which system and environment can have a relationship which excluded both from arbitrary change.

The distinction is also evident, together with the correlation, between religion (of a social context) and the religiosity of an individual character. In fact, there are personal as well as social sources of religiosity. Being united for the other environment of the system, they depend on one another without being, however, reducible to one another.

Reli­gion produces its own communications that do not have, however, a meaning for the whole social complex. This, also, is a sign of secularization because the religious subsystem is only one among the many possible sub­systems. It gives a meaning, it determines a sense, but with a limited valid­ity. Despite this fact, Luhmann maintained that the function of religion is no longer integrative but interpretative. That is to say, for the individual it represents a resource of meanings that allows one to imagine as united what is in reality divided, as absolute what is relative.

Luhmann thought that religion is called upon to develop the function of representing the non-representable. In other words, religion has the functional task of representing, that is, specifying, determining or rendering at least determinable, what is not presentable and determinable: the world, the whole. The prob­lem consists in transforming complexity from indeterminate to determi­nate: religion has to do, in the last analysis, with the contingency of the world.


Sociology of religion in Europe has a strong tradition because of its  classical roots linked to Durkheim, Weber, Simmel and many others. Today the presence of sociologists of religion in Eastern and Western countries is diffused enough, and the number of investigations is conspicuous. Hundreds and hundreds of European scholars participate in international conferences every other year: this is the result of more than fifty years of organization and scientific work which started on the 3rd of April 1948 in Belgium as Conférence Internationale de Sociologie Religieuse (CISR).

Some relevant journals in the field are published in Europe: Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions, founded in 1956 as Archives de Sociologie des Religions (http://assr.revues.org); Implicit Religion, published by Centre for the Study of Implicit Religion and Contemporary Spirituality (www.equinoxpub.com); Journal of Contemporary Religion, published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group (http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/13537903.asp); Religioni e Società. Rivista di scienze sociali della religione, published by Firenze University Press, and directed by Arnaldo Nesti (http://epress.unifi.it/riviste/); Social Compass. International Review of Sociology of Religion. Revue Internationale de Sociologie de la Religion, published by Sage, also on line, founded in 1953 and from 1960 official journal of Fédération Internationale des Instituts de Recherches Sociales et Socio-Religieuses (http://scp.sagepub.com); Religion and Society in Central and Eastern Europe, official journal of International Study of Religion in Central and Eastern Europe Association (ISORECEA) (http://www.rascee.net/index.php/rascee/issue/view/5/showToc).

Many activities characterize centers and research groups like Centre interdisciplinaire d’étude des religions et de la laïcité (CIERL), Université Libre de Bruxelles (http://www.ulb.ac.be/philo/cierl/); Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni (CESNUR), directed by Massimo Introvigne (http://www.cesnur.org/); Faculty of Religious StudiesUniversity of Leiden (http://www.religion.leiden.edu); Groupe Sociétés, Religions, LaïcitésConseil National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris  (http://www.gsrl.cnrs.fr/head.htm); Institut d’Études de l’Islam et des Sociétés du Monde MusulmanÉcole de Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris (http://www.ehess.fr/centres/institut); Institut Européen en Sciences des Religions (IESR) in Paris, directed by Jean-Paul Willaime (http://www.iesr.ephe.sorbonne.fr/); Politique, Religion, Institutions et Sociétés: Mutations Européennes (PRISME) at University of Strasbourg (http://prisme.u-strasb.fr/site10).

Scientific associations too play a key role: Associazione Italiana di Sociologia – Sezione Sociologia della Religione, founded in 1983 (http://www.sociologiadellareligione.it/); British Sociological Association – Sociology of Religion Study Group, founded in 1975 (http://www.socrel.org.uk/); Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sociologie – Sektion Religionssoziologie (http://dgs.iz-soz.de/index.php?id=103);  International Study of Religion in Central and Eastern Europe Association (ISORECEA) (http://www.isorecea.net/isorecea/).

Finally Eurel is a reliable data bank for information concerning European socio-religious issues: http://www.eurel.info/EN/.

Of course the list of main sociologists of religion in Europe could be very long. Let’s quote just a few of them: in past years Silvano Burgalassi (1921-2004) in Italy, and Yves Lambert (1946-2006) in France; at present François Houtart (1925-), Jean Rémy (1928-), Karel Dobbelaere (1933-) and Liliane Voyé (1938) in Belgium, François-André Isambert (1924-) in France, Eileen Barker (1938-), Jim Beckford (1942-), Grace Davie (1946-), and Steve Bruce (1954-) in United Kingdom, Arnaldo Nesti (1932-), Enzo Pace (1944-), and Franco Garelli (1945-) in Italy.

To draw a conclusion: sociology of religion in Europe looks well established, and scientifically appreciated, with a promising future for new generations of scholars.


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