Religion and Modernity

An International Comparison

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Detlef Pollack, Gergely Rosta
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     512 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Religion and Modernity: An International Comparison offers a multifaceted sociological investigation of some of the impacts of modernity upon religiosity and religious life. Authors Detlef Pollack and Gergely Rosta offer an alternative “empirical and historical” approach to what they see as overly “ideological” and “macrosociological” critiques of secularization theory (2-4, 19). Instead of predetermining answers to questions about the status of religion today, they offer an open-ended inquiry which asks basic and specific questions (e.g., do we know whatis meant, in the first place, by “tendencies of religious change” within modernity? and “are we in a position to explain these tendencies?”) (2-3). 

Setting out to address these questions, Pollack and Rosta adopt a threefold methodology by which the book is structured. First, the book develops a theoretical delimitation of terms (i.e., “religion” and “modernity”) and of parameters of inquiry, which it states are “derived from classical sociological theory” (26). 

Modernity is defined not historically or chronologically but by three social features: functional differentiation (26-29)increasingly diverging “social levels of constitution” (also called individualization) (29-31), and forums of competition (31-33)In modernity, “unlike in pre-modern societies,” different areas of society—law, economics, science, etc.—show an increased “internal momentum” and operate largely by their own “codes and institutions,” rather than socially comprehensive parameters (26). Moreover, “perpendicular to functional differentiation” in modern societies, the “vertical” spaces between individuals and various layers of society, are now expanded. Opportunities for intimate bonds between individual and community flourish, but they are more disentangled from the individual person, and occur on multiple layers, like interactions with technological experts, fast food workers, hospital staff, and so forth (29-30). Finally, modernity displays a heightened “performance ideology” (33), within which individuals and social institutions largely conform to the view that constant improvement is a virtue. Both others and one’s past self are seen as rivals to be outperformed, which leads to dynamism and “self-reflexive” review process within various layers of society (31). 

Religion is defined more minimalistically, but also compellingly if one considers the authors’s sensitivity to the slipperiness of such definitions. Aiming to be as comprehensive as possible, without making religion into anything and everything, Pollack and Rosta argue that religion can be defined neither exclusively by what it does (functionally), nor by its contents (substantively), but by a combination of both. The combined definition that they offer has two components. Functionally, religion is a response to “contingency;” the undetermined “horizon of future possibilities” within which all human experience is embedded, and which often generates fear and “insecurity” (44-45). However, religion is just one such response. Substantively, religions are distinguished from other attempts at contingency-response given that they “work with the distinction between immanence and transcendence,” and not only “relate to the transcendent,” but make it somehow “communicable” and accessible to a more immanent realm. This “leaves open what the transcendent comprises” across religions, whether it be “a supreme God, a multitude ... or a vaguer higher energy” (45-46). 

Second, Religion and Modernity then moves to specific case studies within European, South Atlantic, and North American nation states as well as South Korea and Russia. This richly evidenced section comprises the bulk of the book and its highly particular findings cannot be summarized here. The overall thrust of this section is to investigate how religion—construed as a transcendent-immanent relationality—interacts with the modern social features of functional differentiation, individualization, and forums for competition (56-57). 

An example of a noteworthy finding from this section is that the form which “decreased” religiosity takes—especially if one takes church participation or “churchliness” as an indicator—is usually not strident or antagonistic. In the authors’s words, many people “leave the church without a sound” due to the “opportunity structures” afforded by religion-unrelated activities are easily and repeatedly available. Thus “distraction” may be a more fitting description than conflict or opposition, in many cases of religion’s decreased social relevance (196-197). 

Finally, the last section of the book offers an abstraction of general trends and patterns from these empirical findings. The most striking argument here is that religion’s reliance on the contingency and vagueness of human experience entails that it likely ischallenged by the hyper-specification of modern functional differentiation and individualization (422-423). Religion and modernity “are certainly compatible,” but under these difficult conditions (435). Religion in the areas studied is most “successful” and socially relevant when it integrates and specifies itself within these differentiating social trends, but also when it does not over-integrate so as to be absorbed and lose its functional responsivity to contingencies (424). Modernity has certainly not erased the contingency of human life, but transformed the milieu for contingency-responses like religion. 

Two overarching critical questions that emerge while reading this illuminating study are: 1) all definitions of religion are likely inadequate, but the unexplored gap in the authors’s definition is whether, and how, “religion” construed in this way is at all distinct from art, literature, and other humanistic epistemologies. This dichotomy is not solved by the “substantive” side of the authors’s definition in that, if “the transcendent” is a placeholder for anything from a personal God to a “higher energy” or superimposed meaning, then science-fiction novels, and other aspects of popular culture, can be seen as also playing this role. 2) Although Religion and Modernity lives up to its subtitle (“an international comparison”)—as the geographical and religious landscape covered by Pollack and Rosta is indeed diverse—it would be more transparent for the authors to clarify at the outset that the focus of this study is largely on Western socio-political structures, and various Christian denominations. One imagines that such a study would look very different if focused primarily on, say, Islamic religiosity from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan to Malaysia. 

Overall, despite these limitations, this book is a jolting “must-read” for all students of religion, especially Religious Studies scholars. The broad lesson gleaned from Pollack and Rosta’s multi-layered study is that while we can and should subject theories of secularization to critical examination, findings on the ground keep suggesting that modernity brings with it great challenges to the relevance and vitality of religious life. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shifa Amina Noor is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
March 27, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Detlef Pollack is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Munster University. He is speaker of the Cluster of Excellence "Religion and Politics in Modern und Premodern Cultures" at Munster University. His research focuses on religious change in Western and Eastern Europe and in the US and political culture in Eastern and Central East Europe. His publications include The Role of Religion in Modern Societies (co-edited with Daniel V. A. Olson; Routledge, 2011) and Handbuch Religionssoziologie (Springer, 2017).

Gergely Rosta was Research Fellow at Munster University from 2009 to 2017. He is currently Associate Professor in Sociology at the Pazmany Peter Catholic University in Budapest. His research interests include religious change in Central and Eastern Europe, youth religiosity, and quantitative research methods.


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