Religion and Urbanity: A Brief Introduction

Religion has led to dramatic developments in the history of cities, such as foundations, waves of immigration, transformations, (re-) ghettoization and genocide. But what is the specific urban quality of religious ideas, practices and institutions? What was their role in the production of urban space? More than half of the world’s population is living in cities and urbanization affects even the most distant corners of the world. The result is that the social and ecological problems of urban density accompanying the productive and innovative roles of metropolises become ever more evident. Yet the interest in religion and city remains concentrated on contemporary issues, especially  in the “global South.”

Against this background the DFG-funded Research Group “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (FOR 2779) investigates the historical contribution of religion to urbanization and the long-term evolution of religion and the urban. What role has religion played in urbanization? How has urbanity changed religion, and how do they continually influence one another? By focusing on religion, our goal is to gain insights into the formation of human settlements and thereby to describe different paths of urbanization and their inter-relationships with the development of religion.

We proceed from the assumption that religious practices and conceptions together with their expressions in institutions, texts (narratives) and objects have been of great importance in the formation of urbanity. Religion and urbanity have continually shaped each other – and continue to do so to this day. In order to help meet the challenges of living in situations of urban density, religion has developed and continues to develop practices, conceptions and institutions both to connect individuals with space as well as to help shape and appropriate it. The complexity of overlapping spaces means that varying temporal orders can be present in differing rituals. The circulation of objects has created and continues to produce spatiotemporal modalities (see also:https://www.uni-erfurt.de/en/philosophische-fakultaet/spatio-temporal-studies/ ) . At the same time, reference to (divine) power extending beyond its respective space furnishes spaces and temporal practices with an agency which requires cohesiveness or coordination of rulers and turns sacralisation into long-term and persistent topographical elements which produce and maintain historical identity. Conversely, the localization in the city, the communicative and ritual production of urban centers as well as the appropriation of urban aspirations and ways of life have had a significant influence on the formation of religion and religious traditions.

Erfurt viewed from the Petersberg (2010)

Consequences include small-scale spatialization of rituals, such as conceptions of the divine (and thus stabilization of polytheism), professionalization in condensed division of labor and self-historization through the above-mentioned long-lived spatialization, specific architectures and the taking up of urban imaginaries (for example, “the heavenly Jerusalem”).

With Max Weber, we are looking at the city and religion for actors and groups of actors (S. Rau, J. Rüpke ). But this cocnept also extends beyond human agency (B. Latour). With more recent social geography and spatial sociology (for example H. Lefebvre, E. Soja, M. Löw, B. Werlen and F. de Boeck), we see that urbanity is chractertized by spatiality, practices, representations, atmospheric affects, as well as practices of time (S. Rau et al.).

In light of these considerations, the reciprocal formation of religion and urbanity can not be described by way of the classical parameters of city types such as the sacred center, the city of exiles, the harbor or the agricultural city, or as instances of “Christianization” or “Islamization”. The variety of paths to urbanization must be examined through reconstructing constellations of space, time and practice and by offering a nuanced description of incremental changes in practices, conceptions, architectures, and institutions.

This also requires new concepts.

So our starting points pose research questions concerning the formation of different forms as well as changes in and new constitutions of urbanity and religion in all their diversity in different epochs and spaces. We ask:

  1.  What role does religion play for urbanization?
  2. How does urbanity affect religion? 
  3. What influence does the continuous interaction and the consolidation of heterogeneous practices have on the formation of Religion and urbanity?

Interesting phenomena include the production and alteration of space (topography, buildings, theaters, memorials), changes in spatial and temporal practices (rhythms, cycles, calendar and clock usage, rituals, processions) as well as changes in society (shifts of power, migration, formation of expertise). People migrating to a city have a means to “arrive” in a new urban community by joining a religious group, for example. Some religious experts, to name another example, aim to instiutionalise certain social milieus and try to anchor religious hopes and norms in the forms of immigration. Spaces formed by sanctuary or cemetery architecture become elements of urban religion and change the urban topography and its user flows. The establishment of central sanctuaries, the closure of neighbourhoods by the formation of dead-ends in ancient or Islamic cities or the presence of rulers in temples or cathedrals are all examples.

Hindutempel and market in Chennai (India)

The formation of new forms of the urban public changes or evokes religious spatial practices, for example the establishment of theaters in antiquity, the conversion of churchyards into squares in the 16th century and the uses of cinemas and other spaces of entertainment in North American evangelical churches in the 21st century. The appropriation of spaces by different groups of actors (political, economic, religious, spatial builders/observers) reveal specific regulations: not everywhere is prayer or sacrifice legitimate. We refer to religious practices and notions not primarily to marginal or subcultural “heterotopias” (M. Foucault) and “Thirdspaces” (Ed. Soja), but to the goal of building urban spaces with its growing contact surfaces (H. Berking) in order to live and to realize urbanity.

Many of the processes we are interested in, are particularly visible during phases of changes, such as contractions of cities in Mediterranean late antiquity, the wave of European-medieval urban creations, demographic changes in 18th-century Europe or the rise of colonial-era urban foundations in the Indian area. In addition, expansion of individual cities or networks of cities, shrinkage processes including those leading to the extinction of people and the erasure of spaces, phases of religious pluralization will form a Focus of our research. By investigatign the reciprocal formation of religion and urbanity, our research addresses a central issue which also has important consequences for today’s world.  

— Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke

The Roman Forum


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