Urban and religious change: A comparative perspective

Inspired by the “Religion and Urbanity” approach, recent research has fruitfully combined data and perspectives from Urban History with approaches developed under the heading of spatial studies in general and studies in religious space and urban religion in particular. A recent review of results produced so far (Christ et al. 2023) has demonstrated the fruitfulness of such undertakings. Without doubt, religious change and changes of urbanity (summarizing urban practices and reflexive urban imaginations) must be analysed in their mutual dependency to give better accounts of both, urban history and religious history. Many crucial developments in local and trans-local religion and religions need to be reviewed with regard to their specifically urban conditionality. At the same time, such urban conditions and the very discourses and practices that defined conditions as urban have not been “independent variables” for religious change but are themselves in part the outcome of religious practices and agents.

It is obvious that in many (even if certainly not all) constellations urban societies were the most dynamic places for social, cultural, and technological changes. Religious practices and ideas would hardly have been exempted. Yet, why should such religious actions imprint on urban space? The most plausible hypothesis is that it is the spatial character of religious practices and ideas and the material presence in space that is the relevant factor in the link.

Building on many discussions in the research group “Religion and Urbanity”, a recent article has built on this hypothesis and attempted to identify eight processes to which both types of practices and reflections contribute and undergo considerable change as a consequence. Despite the very different trajectories of urbanisation and religious developments and the different constellations of both in different regions and periods, the claim is forwarded and plausibilised that these processes are of high importance in most cases. The processes thus identified and briefly presented comprise: the monumentalization of urban space and the gods; the display and theatricalization of communication with God and gods; the imaginative and increasingly widespread use of scripture in religious activity and thought; the increasing division of labour and professionalisation; the individualisation of urban actors who do not remain mere descendants of their ancestors; the formation of religious groups; the religious structuring of time and the temporal structuring of religious ideas and practices; and finally the imagination of alternatives to the city, the religious exaggeration of the rural and natural environment.

Evidently, these processes are not able to include and classify all attested cases of mutual formation. Yet, they provide a well-argued grid for planning an investigation or for contextualizing more specific findings. In particular, they provide an access that does not build on well established narratives of the European, the Islamic or the Chinese city. Instead of such attempts of highly abstract and generalized types to confirm cultural boundaries and deny possibilities of comparison, the present proposal invites comparison in much more nuanced ways to investigate patterns and differences with regard to phenomena, constellations, and trajectories of change.

The article is open access.

Such a cursory review of religious changes in urban contexts and the resulting changes in urbanism could not ascertain any specific claim about such developments but the combined evidence demonstrates the fruitfulness of the approach presented.

Christ, Martin et al. (2023), ‘Entangling Urban and Religious History: A New Methodology’, Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 21. 1-72. doi: doi:10.1515/arege-2023-0001.

Rüpke, Jörg (2023a), ‘Toward a Mutual Change of Religion and Urban Space: A Comparative Perspective’, Wawasan: Jurnal Ilmiah Agama dan Sosial Budaya (Insight: Scientific Journal of Religion and Socio-Culture) 8 (1). 1-18. doi: 10.15575/jw.v8i1.20139.

— (2023b), ‘Religionen in der Stadt: Eine Einführung’, in Nina Gellion ; Johannes Lipps (eds.), Beten in Mainz: Religion als Herausforderung in der Geschichte der Stadt (Urban challenges 1), Oppenheim. 21-42.

— (2024), Religion und Urbanität: Neue Blicke auf das alte Erfurt, Norderstedt.

Cite this blog post
Jörg Rüpke (2024, April 15). Urban and religious change: A comparative perspective. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w855

Jörg Rüpke

Jörg Rüpke is Fellow in Religious Studies and Vice-director of the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies of the University of Erfurt, Germany. His research interest focus on ritual, religion and urbanity. Recent publications include: Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion (Princeton, 2018); Urban Religion: A Historical Approach to Urban Growth and Religious Change (Berlin, 2020); Religion and its History: A Critical Inquiry (London, 2021); Ritual als Resonanzerfahrung (Stuttgart, 2021).

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