(Un)Believing in Modern Society

Religion, Spirituality, and Religious-Secular Competition

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Jörg Stolz, Judith Könemann, Mallory Schneuwly Purdie, Thomas Englberger, Michael Krüggeler
  • New York, NY : 
    , February
     314 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In (Un)Believing in Modern Society: Religion, Spirituality, and Religious-Secular Competition, J̦örg Stolz, Judith K̦önemann, Mallory Schneuwly Purdie, Thomas Englberger, and Michael Krüggeler attempt to explain the cause of secularization in Switzerland since the 1960s. In this new English translation of a study published previously in German (2014) and French (2015), the authors triangulate quantitative data on religious affiliation in Switzerland since the 1960s with qualitative data from individual questionnaires and interviews. The result is a compelling summary of the state of Christianity in Switzerland and a fruitful approach to the phenomena of secularization, individualization, and religious consumerism in the West. 

The authors begin by distinguishing their theory, which they call the “competition theory of religious and social change” (11), from secularization, individualization, and market theory. While the authors occasionally frame this new theory as a radical break from each of these regnant theories, they are usually careful to emphasize that their theory more often confirms the sociological facts of increased secularization of the public sphere, individualization of religious belief and practice, and consumerist attitudes toward religion. What competition theory brings to the table, then, is a theory for explaining these phenomena that more precisely points to a causal mechanism rooted in the behavior of human actors and concrete historical events. 

 The theory goes like this: collective and individual actors, both religious and secular, compete for three things—for societal power, for power at the level of groups, organizations, and milieus, and for individual demand. That is the simple insight of the theory on which the remainder of the book is built. By focusing on competition, the authors claim, we avoid losing sight of the qualitative dimension of the human actors who determine the demand side of the religious marketplace. We take better account of changes in external factors like technological and social innovations, major historical events, demographic shifts, and most importantly for the authors’ thesis, the “competition regime” that determines the legal channels and norms through which competition occurs. Finally, we are better able to account for variation and diversity, because competition breeds diverse outcomes—monopolies and cartels, individualization and collectivization, secularization and re-sacralization, and so forth—though it is important to note that the authors still confirm an overwhelming “secular drift” within Western societies. 

The central thesis of (Un)Believing is that the cultural revolution of the 1960s led to a change of competition regime in Switzerland. The crux of this revolution is the emergence of the “me-society” in which individualism triumphed over communal values. Here, the authors’ analysis stretches thin for a moment. The authors describe at length how during the 1950s and 1960s, society came to be seen as more pluralistic while religion came to be seen as increasingly private. But an underdeveloped question here is: why did the 1960s produce the “me-society?” The authors provide a characterization of the 1950s and 1960s as generating a paradox of values and economics that provoked a seismic cultural shift: just as a booming economy enabled youth culture to embrace individualism, the older generation was clinging to the conservative morality of the 1950s. Thus, religion became weaker in the background but stronger in the foreground, culminating in a cultural revolution that came as a striking blow to religion when the façade crumbled. The description is intriguing, but in a work of rigorous sociology, the important causative link between economic prosperity, anti-authoritarianism, and individualism is scantly justified, perhaps in part because it is intuitively compelling.

Put in terms of the theory of competition, it is important to note that the fact of religious-secular competition remained. What changed in the 1960s was the emphasis generated by the competition regime. In moving rapidly from “industrial-society” to “me-society,” the cultural revolution of the 1960s shifted all of the emphasis of religious-secular competition onto the question of individual demand. Now instead of competing for societal power or group ascendancy, religious and secular groups were first and foremost suppliers catering to the demand of individuals. The individualism and economic prosperity of the 1960s meant that religious groups faced unprecedented competition from suppliers offering secular alternatives, particularly in the contexts of leisure time, children’s upbringing, career choices, and life-cycle rituals.

The last major generalizable tool from (Un)Believing is a new typology for describing religious and nonreligious participation in Western societies. It is a typology structured along two axes. One axis spans “institutional religiosity”—the degree to which an individual participates in institutional Christian practice. The other axis positions “alternative spirituality,” indicating beliefs, practices, and experiences related to “alternative-spiritual” suppliers. The result is a heat map of four overlapping populations: the “institutional type” actively participate in institutional Christianity; the “distanced type” identify with one or another Christian church in little more than affiliation; the “secular type” actively oppose or are indifferent to all religion; and the “alternative type” embrace an oleo of Esoterism, New-Ageism and sociological miscellanea like Sheilaism (53, fig. 1).

The structure of this typology is somewhat inelegant. Alternative spirituality and institutional religion don’t seem necessarily diametric. And the map’s lack of both symmetry and detail raises typological questions: Is there a distanced and an institutional alternative type? Is there value in distinguishing between the highly distanced and the indifferent secular type? Despite spending most of the remainder of the book elaborating on the four types and their subtypes, these elaborations sometimes muddy the waters instead of clarifying them. And readers hoping to learn about “unbelief” (sansmisleading parentheses) may be disappointed to learn that the authors devote the least attention to articulating a clear understanding of the secular type, despite concluding that the secular type will have become the biggest type by 2030 (184-185).

The big question of (Un)Believing—whether it can fruitfully be applied outside of the Swiss context—is a question that the authors leave almost entirely to their readers, only briefly addressing the question in substance on the final page of the text. Regardless of whether the authors’ typology or sociological data would replicate in other contexts, the theory of religious-secular competition makes a valuable contribution to ongoing discussions over secularization theory and its alternatives.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric Chalfant is Instructor of Religion at Portland Community College.

Date of Review: 
July 3, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jörg Stolz is Professor of Sociology of Religion at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Substantively, he works on the description and explanation of different forms of religiosity, evangelicalism, secularization, and comparison of religious groups across religious traditions. 

Judith Könemann is Professor of Practical Theology in the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Münster, Germany. She works on the description and explanation of various forms of individual religiosity, and religion in the public sphere. 

Mallory Schneuwly Purdie holds a PhD in Sociology of Religion and Applied Study of Religion. She is a researcher at the Institute for the Social Sciences of Religions at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. 

Thomas Englberger has worked on the description of religiosity in Switzerland, especially on Roman Catholicism, and on the pluralisation of values and religiosity. 

Michael Krüggeler is a sociologist of religion who has worked both quantitatively and qualitatively on the secularization and individualization of religion.


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