Religious Pluralism and the City

Inquiries into Postsecular Urbanism

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Editor(s): 
Helmuth Berking, Silke Steets, Joschen Schwenk
Bloomsbury Studies in Religion, Space and Place
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , April
     2018.
     248 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781350037687.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Identifying and addressing a conceptual and empirical “void” between the city and religion, urban studies, and religious studies, the editors of Religious Pluralism and the City: Inquiries into Postsecular Urbanism have brought together a compelling collection of essays that effectively demonstrate the interconnectedness of religion and cities, both empirically and theoretically. 

The editors establish the connection between religious pluralism and the city in a generative and expansive manner. Closely following Peter Berger’s (re)formulation of two pluralisms, they posit that “it is the city where power struggles and conflicts concerning the right to religious practices and presentations are carried out, where new civilizational arrangements are made or opportunities to are squandered” (1). Evidently, this position does not imply that religious pluralism is not produced and contested elsewhere, in the outer city suburbs or the countryside for instance, but rather that it is within the unique conditions of the city, where diverse iterations of religiosity are densified, blended, negotiated, and transformed. 

The anthology is presented in four parts. Following the introduction, Berger’s contribution is optimally positioned as a singular article in the first part of the collection. The book is a powerful testimony to the influence of Berger’s consistent contribution to discourses of pluralism, secularization, and religion over the last half century.

In the second section, Berger’s characteristically optimistic tone and approach is challenged by Nezar AlSayyad’s notion of the “Fundamentalist City.” His explanation of the regulatory capacity of violently enforced homogeneity stands in stark contrast to the celebrated heterogeneity that Berger espouses. AlSayyad’s contribution is a haunting reminder that even low-level non-violent conflict and tensions should be paid serious social and academic attention, particularly in light of the potential consequences that might arise from escalation. Between these two conceptions of the relationships among religion and the city, a stand-out contribution by Stephen Lanz moves beyond the postsecular city and the fundamentalist city, and proposes an intriguing, explicitly post-colonial approach driven by the lived experiences of “religion in the city.” 

Whereas the first two sections of the book effectively chart the multiple and complex conceptual domains wherein the study of religions and cities are located, the third and fourth sections, respectively, empirically test the potential and limitations of these theoretical models and others. Certainly, this anthology has achieved what it set out to do, to place religion and urbanism side by side on the agendas of both disciplines, and to draw on the resources of each in order to thoroughly explore, excavate, and explain the multiple ways in which religions and cities are intertwined.

From the non-essentialist approach to defining the city and religion, to the reflexivity evident in the presentation of case-studies, the contributions are methodologically rich and theoretical rigorous. So much is done “right.” However, in addressing what is identified as a major void in the field, in spite of all its careful critique of Western-oriented theories and approaches, through the absence of a contribution centered on Africa, either empirically or theoretically, an additional void is produced and emphasized. Furthermore, given many cities in Africa’s status as sites of rapid urbanization and religious innovation, this void in the collection feels all the more gaping. For example, David Chidester’s account of the “urban political economy of the sacred” in the 2012 book Wild Religion (University of California Press), although grounded in the geographical and historical context of South Africa, drips with productive, innovative, and comparative analytical possibilities—an approach which could have further enhanced the complex discussions presented in this collection. 

Those teaching courses in the sociology of religion in general and religious diversity and religious pluralism in particular will find Religious Pluralism and the City: Inquiries into Postsecular Urbanism helpful for orientating students regarding the scope of the field and for scoping out its orientation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lee Scharnick-Udemanss is Senior Researcher at the Desmond Tutu Centre of Religionn and Social Justice, University of the Western Cape, South Africa.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Helmuth Berking is Professor of Sociology at TU Darmstadt, Germany.

Silke Steets is an independent researcher.

Jochen Schwenk is Lecturer and Post-doctoral Researcher at TU Darmstadt, Germany.

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