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  Written by
  Martin Riesebrodt

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A University's Lexicon


The revival of religion in times of change
>>Sociologist of religion Martin Riesebrodt

Processes of globalization-understood here as the worldwide expansion of Western economic, political, and cultural institutions often beyond the control of states and governments-have had an impact on the study of religion in at least two respects. First, they have contributed to an unexpected resurgence of religious movements. This resurgence, in turn, has called into question conventional understandings of religion and expectations of secularization.

The unexpected emergence of religious movements and groups is often a direct response to the uncertainties and crises inherent in globalization processes. The capitalist transformation of an economy has a major impact on social mobility, often threatening the structure and moral fabric of the family. The dissemination of Western mass media can have a dramatic impact on local cultures and religious traditions. Moreover, such processes are often implemented by secularist governments and agencies which have drastically limited the power of religious authorities and ideologies.

Religious, especially "fundamentalist," movements can be seen as major carriers of the protest against these changes. Across traditions, fundamentalist movements react to comparable social experiences and as a result develop similar social criticisms and countervisions of a better society. As the only resolution to crises of modernity they all tend to demand the restoration of patriarchal principles of authority and morality and emphasize notions of social relations, time, work, consumption, and principles of social solidarity different from those in the modern West. Sometimes such demands are combined with nativistic ethnic or nationalistic claims.

This resurgence of religion has caught by surprise scholars of religion who tended to firmly believe in a continuous, universal trend towards secularization and privatization of religion. The most typical reactions of social theorists to cope with their own cognitive dissonance were denial, instant conversion, and a "scientific-fundamentalist" essentialization of religion as the core of civilizations. Some authors have insisted that these religious revivals are still part of an ongoing modernizing process. Accordingly, they have found analogies to the "Protestant Ethic" in such movements, such as a "Puritan spirit" or an "inner-worldly asceticism." Other scholars have chosen the opposite route of instant conversion by denying any trend towards secularization inscribed into the Western modernizing project. According to this view, secularization has occurred only where religious monopolies have prevented religious markets from stimulating demand. And finally, some scholars have claimed that the resurgence of religious movements expresses primordial civilizational differences-ultimately rooted in religion-which had been covered up by the cold war.

Perhaps these answers are too simplistic. Instead of explaining away the apparent contradiction between processes of secularization and of religious resurgence, the study of religion is confronted with the task of understanding and explaining why these processes occur simultaneously and how they might be interrelated. This requires a basic rethinking of our theoretical assumptions. Religious revivals neither represent the realization of the religious "essence" of any "civilization," nor are they momentary aberrations from a predestined path toward secularism. Instead, secularism and religious revivalism constitute each other socially and ideologically. Therefore, they are and will remain a recurring historical phenomenon, even in the modern world.

Martin Riesebrodt is associate professor in the Divinity School and the Department of Sociology. He is author of Pious Passion: The Emergence of Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran (California, 1993) and Die Rückkehr Religionen: Fundamentalismus und der 'Kampf der Kulturen' (C. H. Beck, 2000).


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