Diffused Religion

Beyond Secularization

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Robert Cipriani
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , November
     276 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Roberto Cipriani’s Diffused Religion: Beyond Secularization revolves around a claim that looks deceptively simple. I make here an attempt to formulate it in my own words so that the critical comments that follow will be more comprehensible.

In order to diagnose the place of religion in today’s society, Cipriani assumes, we need a concept akin to Thomas Luckmann’s groundbreaking notion of an “invisible” religion. By this he means a form of religiosity that escapes the radar of conventional thought and goes undetected despite the fact that it continues to play a major role in people’s life. But why do we need another concept? Why is Luckmann’s theoretical framework insufficient for the purpose of understanding the current stage of religious evolution? If I am not mistaken, the problems arise in connection with the operationalization of the concept. By definition, if a religion is “invisible”, it can only be logically inferred from the context, but it cannot be empirically tested. Cipriani, on the contrary, has spent his whole life as a sociologist based in Rome trying to pinpoint the “real” religious change that took place in Italy from the 1960s onwards.

Italians, especially albeit not exclusively, share a clear sense of the ambiguity of the historical transition that goes under the name of “secularization”. Indeed, for people born and raised in post-war Italy, it is arduous to draw a neat boundary between continuity and discontinuity in people’s religious, moral or spiritual attitudes. The shift from “invisible” to “diffused” is the way out of this perplexity envisioned by Cipriani. What is happened to Catholicism in Italy is not so much that it became invisible, but that it morphed into a diluted, thinned religion. More precisely, a diffused religion is what is left of Luckmann’s “church religion” when the latter is dismembered by the converging action of secularism, consumerism and the new culture of authenticity. The leftovers are, surprisingly enough, vestiges of the experience of self-transcendence embodied and articulated in the old religious institutions and traditions. This now appears under the guise of felt values or, better, strong evaluations or, if you will, a dispersed sense of sacredness.

Why were established religions able to endure the blow struck by the rapidly changing external conditions? In a sense, it is just a matter of primary socialization. But the answer to this question must be qualified. The (anthropological) truth is that the basic value options (or life-changing experiences of the sacred) are limited even in modern times and are all made fragile by mutual cross-pressures. As a result, the thrust toward the “new” does not always have the upper hand. This virtual standoff, furthermore, is tilted in favor of continuity by the endurance of traditional religious agencies that often function as a shelter in hard times.

This is a plausible account of the ambivalences of the western secular age, as José Casanova remarks in his excellent Foreword. What remains unclear, however, is the actual epistemic gain of Cipriani’s change of metaphor. To what extent does seeing the current spiritual landscape as shaped by a process of dilution of the original religious substance help us better understand the present time (besides the peculiar Italian case)?

In what follows, I would like to measure this putative gain by focusing on the issue referred to in the book’s subtitle: the secularization process and its aftermath. Given the unsystematic nature of Cipriani’s argument, I will continue to paraphrase his claims in order to make my assessment more intelligible.

Now, what kind of general insight is the author trying to convey? On the whole, one gets the impression that, in the end, his long argument boils down to a sound warning concerning the inertia of history. Human nature is what it is and expecting exceptional breakthroughs or sudden leaps forward does not make much sense. This is a lesson that is commonly drawn from Italian history (and neatly encapsulated by Tomasi di Lampedusa’s celebrated motto: “Changing things so everything stays the same”) and can be legitimately applied to many other historical instances and contexts. But being sound does not always make for being explanatorily helpful.

Let us take a closer look at the issue of secularization. The problem of insisting on the inertia of human history and the unquestionable continuities between past and present is that this is done at the risk of leaving aside the key questions here. Let me clarify this point further. On the one hand, the standard secularization thesis (or “theorem”) has been discredited and refuted in theory and practice during the last decades. This is a fact. On the other hand, however, the refutation has brought to the fore an instructive epistemological “bug” affecting the view of religion underlying the obsolete paradigm. For the secularization thesis by and large rests on an understanding of religion as a historical “substance” that either melts into the air or metamorphoses into something else with the rise of the modern world. Another way of countering the standard thesis, therefore, is discarding this assumption and conceive of religion in terms of a field of “idées-forces” or spiritual options that help people make (not just intellectually or voluntaristically, but practically) sense of their coping with day-to-day challenges. Seen in this light, the kind of historical discontinuity that, from the nineteenth-century on, was written off as “secularization” can be understood as the reconfiguration of this spiritual field brought about by the rise and spread of the secular option. This historical innovation considerably affected the mutual relations between the options available to the agents involved and engaged in it and, as a result, their reflexivity and inventiveness.

Is resorting to the metaphor of a “diffused religion” the best way to capture the gist of this historical discontinuity? After closing the book, the reader is left with a lingering concern about its actual explanatory power. To begin with, on the notional side, also from the standpoint of a “religion of values”, religions seem to have been diffused since time immemorial. After all, the distinction between a center and a periphery of the religious field is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of human attitudes toward the sacred, the enchanted, the au-delà. On the empirical side, then, one feels the urge for subtler taxonomies in order to reliably map today’s spiritual landscape. Tentative markers such as “nones”, “neotraditionalists”, “resilient believers”, “religious tepids or non-enthusiasts” are all promising attempts to articulate the modern religious field and to offer a more nuanced account of its ambivalences. While not being opposed in principle to the idea of a “diffused religion”, they seem to be better equipped to deal with the consequences of the historical discontinuity caused by the rise of modern secularity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paolo Costa is Senior Researcher at the Center for Religious Studies of the Bruno Kessler Foundation in Trento, Italy.

Date of Review: 
October 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Roberto Cipriani is Senior and Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Rome 3, and National President of the Italian Association of University Teachers

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