Describing ‘religion’ in European History Needs a New Concept

— Jörg Rüpke

Religion has played an important role in European history in a number of ways. On the one hand, as a phenomenon it shaped individual regions as religious and cultural areas and often influenced the designation of larger territories (e. g. ‘Catholic Europe’) as well as individual regions or places determined by religious difference. Religious infrastructures such as monasteries, bishoprics or sanctuaries, but also ‘negative’ religious infrastructures such as the legal guarantee of asylum rights or religious freedom promoted the exchange of people, practices, objects, and ideas. ‘Religious’ persons in the sense of the Latin religiosi – whether as temporary (pilgrims) or full-time religious representatives (clerics, nuns, monks) – and religious objects such as relics, ritual implements or books became the moveable elements of these transfer processes. The spaces in which these movements took place did not remain constant; rather, they were transformed by the gain, loss, or encounter between and with such persons and objects. These processes were not particularly effective because of their scale, the number of people involved or the amount of mobile objects. Having a more lasting effect was the selectivity to which they were subject. Religion not only reinforced existing differences of a social, ethnic, or linguistic nature, but it also created new differences itself. These were manifested as differences of religious competence or different degrees of sacredness between individual persons and objects, which generated different impulses or opportunities for movement: priests held prominent positions, not laymen; ‘relics’ of saints wandered, not everyday objects. However, the differences created by religion could also create a difference of collective religious identities, differentiating majorities and minorities from each other and among themselves. The individual consequences were difficult to predict: Protestants sought out other Protestants, Jews sought out other Jews, in order – positively – to be able to use infrastructures of their own religious practice. Or, they sought out Muslim jurisdictions in order – negatively – to be sure of the toleration of their own construction of such infrastructures. Religion promoted, hindered, and channeled communication and exchange processes. The concept of religion itself is not only a present-day concept of observation of such phenomena (including processes), but had itself become long before the early modern era an object-language phenomenon of great historical significance.

In early modern and modern Europe, the concepts of religion, which were circulating and increasingly elaborated in scholarly terms, are characterized by a coincidence of two concepts that are not particularly prominent in non-European languages. Religion is understood, on the one hand, in an individual and at the same time generalizing way reflecting a ‘bond’ to the divine or as a ‘re-reading’ (also to be accomplished by individuals), i.e. careful observance, of divine prescriptions. Both concepts draw on ancient etymologies of religio as re-ligare or re-legere. In the transition from the 19th to the 20th century, humanities could very plausibly assume that every human being had a religion, as that corresponded to contemporary reality (e.g., in Germany, over 99 percent of the population were members of a confession). But even in late antiquity, religio was increasingly used to describe different conglomerations of religious practices and ideas, such as imputations of collective religious identities. This was connected with the implicit or explicit assumption that religion only exists in the form of religions. Such religions are understood as traditions of religious practices, beliefs, and institutions, possibly even organizations to which late Roman law ascribed the ability and task to regulate their own affairs in a legal manner. Narrative models for this were provided by the biblical conflicts of God’s people with iconolaters, whether they worshipped wooden pillars or star constellations. Late antique legal and literary texts place Jews, Manicheans, heretics, and finally those who practiced sacrifice and unlawful divination alongside orthodox Christians. Subsequently, these were summarized as Hellenistic or Greek/Roman religion, which dominates in the non-Christian texts and imagery, pagani in Latin texts, polytheists in Jewish and Muslim understanding. In this way, there is a mutual classification and a pattern of perception that can also classify marginal or non-European cultures. Only gradually do the ‘naked philosophers’ (yogis) of the ancient Indian discourse become their own ‘Indian’ religion.

In scientific terminology, ‘religions’ have been regarded as products of societies, of groups of people usually living together within a territory, who withhold the essence of their coexistence – their common orientation through the use of religious symbols – from the purview of everyday discussion. This results – so the logic of such argumentation – in a system of signs that is kept alive in the performance of rituals and is safeguarded by priests. In images, narratives, written texts or sophisticated doctrines, it seeks to explain the world and to determine actions in terms of ethical imperatives – sometimes with the help of an enforceable sanction mechanism (e.g., through state support), sometimes without the threat of sanctions.

Postcolonial criticism accuses this concept of religion of being too narrowly oriented towards ‘Western’, above all Christian, history of religion and concepts, which for instance could not be applied to Asian cultures. However, the presented variant of the concept is already insufficient for the European subject matter. With regard to the second, individual conceptual strand, religious affiliation is understood as being singular and exclusive. Beyond the normative and mostly institutionally secured core lie divergences in the form of systematized heresies or folk or popular religious practices and ideas. This could be evaluated positively, either critical of rationality or for the purpose of the formation of national or ethnic identities, and preserved by research or museumization. The spectrum can range from academic constructions of ethnic and religious continuity, for instance ‘Germanic‘ or ‘Aryan religiosity’ (e.g. in the ancestral heritage of the SS) or in countless collections of ‘ex votos’. It is here, precisely in the context of the imperial European expansion, that the roots are found of the scientific discipline of the history of religion. In addition, a second narrative emerged that confronted religion with increasing individualization, which was brought about and in turn promoted by modernization. This view was linked to the assumption that earlier societies and their religions must have been characterized by a high degree of collectivism. The point of radical departure was sought precisely in one’s own particular past after the ‘Dark Ages’ of the European medieval period. According to the image devised already in the 19th century, the individual is a product of the Renaissance, which for the first time, with recourse to pre-Christian antiquity, made it possible to step outside one’s own tradition. In the critical space thus opened up, it was possible to formulate, organize, and practice fundamental philosophical, aesthetic, linguistic, institutional, and even religious alternatives. If, at this point, one already sees paganism – and this remains disputed – not only as aesthetic form, but as religious alternative, then the result would be a strand of religious individualization that would find further room for maneuver in high and late medieval practices of piety. Indeed, this would be before the Reformation in the 16th century made religion the principle object of individual choice and opened up corresponding latitude for the individual. Since the 1960s, an intensification of this process has been observed in the ‘West’ (and thus only parts of Europe), which is moreover interpreted as a complete dissolution of traditional bonds and the gradual invisibilizing of religion. This development goes hand in hand with the suppression of collective religion in favor of individual spirituality.

These trends – themselves thwarted by counter-movements in the 21st century – question the religion qua religions concept precisely because they can be generalized by various pre-early modern and non-European phenomena, especially in the dialectics of individualization processes. The safeguarding of religious individuality through its institutionalization generated new norms and restrictions; denominationalization processes established group boundaries and ensured the internalization of specific confessional norms. They did not provide religious options that could be freely chosen anywhere.

A concept of religion has therefore been proposed as an appropriate analytical term that makes it possible to grasp precisely the individual practice and meaning of religion in the context of social and cultural contexts. Lived religion thus becomes tangible as a phenomenon of recognition of cultural artifacts and traditions. But even the latter are not simply given. Traditions are themselves the situation-specific products (or reproduction) of cultural actors; they can be shaped by local power relations as well as transregional exchange processes. In such complex situations, religious communications then include ‘divine’ addressees of varying quality (gods, demons, angels, the deceased) that transcend the situation, attributing agency to them and endowing the actors themselves specific religious authority. The connection to long-lasting sacralizations of places, times, objects or role bearers (for Christian denominations such as churches, feast days, relics, clerics) make such actions plausible and can in turn make them permanent in ‘votives’ or donations. From this perspective, what is now comprehensively referred to as ‘religion’ can take on very different forms of institutionalization and self-reflective systematization; it can even become involved in very different ways in practices of individual and collective “meaning-making” and take on highly diverse functions.

Jörg Rüpke is a scholar of religion, focusing on the ancient world. He is the one of the spokespersons of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”.


The full text of these reflections is published open access in English and German: Rüpke, Jörg: Religion, in: Europäische Geschichte Online (EGO), hg. vom Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte (IEG), Mainz 2020-09-08. URL: http://www.ieg-ego.eu/ruepkej-2020-de URN: urn:nbn:de:0159-2020062408 .


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