Religion is the human attribution of capabilities and agency to superhuman actors, which one tries to share with other humans but people also use to gain superiority over other humans and maybe their gods. In this way, in religious action people create a reality that allows for alternative experiences and interpretations of the everyday or even of the extra-ordinary. This opens a unique creativity. Nowhere else but in religion does human action create such different and diverse worlds (notwithstanding all those worlds of fantasy that often build on religious narratives and establish religious figures). Nowhere else do the formation of mutual trust even in large groups and radical isolation stand so close together. Religion is profoundly ambivalent: anchoring in the here and now and crossing borders, allowing recourse to the past and orientation toward the future, inviting rejection of the mundane and expressingto be overwhelmed by the world of the material and non-humanly created.

Human communication with super-human agents located beyond the here and now, but at the same time relevant for and powerful in the here and now is at the core of religion as defined here. Typically, the super-human agents are identified as gods, demons, dead ancestors and the like. Such communication is risky – with regards to the addressees (who might not hear) as much as with regard to the fellow-humans (who might deny the usefulness, legitimacy or relevance of this communication or even the existence or willingness of the addressees). Such risks can be overcome by giving that communication material form, by following established traditions, by impressive and highly affective (or, to the contrary, hidden) performances or by overwhelming everybody through monumentalized forms. This has been addressed with different accents as material religion, medialization or – focusing on group identities – mediation. If the focus is on the representation and ongoing construction of the divine addressees, the special, “sacred” character of the materials and objects involved should be stressed. In short, strategies of lasting sacralization accrue to ritual practices. Both, practices and sacralization become the object of reflection and systematization, thus producing religious knowledge on which a specific kind of authority can be built. 

Urbrel Application

Within research on the history of urbanization, religion as defined above is identified as a major factor for the development and permanent change of urbanities and, at the same time, a major object of urban practices, materializations, and discourses, and hence subject to change. In its broad and substantivist form, the definition allows for a cross-cultural and diachronical identification of comparable phenomena and processes. It is the very act of classing together a wealth of data through employment of such a generalized term that forces the researcher to look for the differences, local specifics, and historical developments. Thereby a lens onto changes of urbanity, too, is produced. Particular attention is given to the urban ambivalences thus created. It is in their specific forms that religious practices (and the imaginations implied or consciously expressed in them) turn out to be divisive or integrative, to create bonds and to produce family, neighborhood, association, city quarter or polity – or to draw boundary lines between the members of such groups or between groups.

With regard to the material dimension of practices of sacralization and the developments of religious knowledge and authority, the concepts of cospatiality and heterarchy are profitably used in connection with the grouping of data by the concept of religion.

General Application

As a concept developed out of the Latin term religio and intensively used within early modern European imperialism to conceptualize cultural phenomena beyond Christianities, Judaism, and ancient Mediterranean cultures, the term is highly debated. This is particularly true for South and East Asian cultural practices thus classified. Criticism, however, focuses on the conceptualization of certain sets of practices as ‘religions’ in the plural (like Hinduism or Shintoism), which disregards shared practices as much as the employment of tools from different such traditions by the same individual across different situations and for different purposes rather than on analyzing practices and institutions as ‘religious’. At the same time, the very term religion has globally spread as a term of self-interpretations and for the production of institutional isomorphy with regard to international governance. Thus, its usage as concept that does not allow to adequately describe local constellations and cultural assemblages in detail but allows to embrace and further analyze hugh masses of evidence for historical research it is frequently and successfully employed.

UrbRel Bibliography

Fuchs, Martin (2020). ‚Weltreligionen, Welteinstellungen, Zivilisationen: Max Webers vergleichende Religionssoziologie und die Analytik indischer Religiosität‘. In V. Krech, H. Tyrell (eds.), Religionssoziologie um 1900. Eine Fortsetzung (Religion in der Gesellschaft 48). Baden-Baden: Ergon,595-629.

Fuchs, Martin et al. (2019). General introduction. In: M. Fuchs et al (eds.), Religious Individualisations: Historical Dimensions and Comparative Perspectives. Berlin: de Gruyter1-31.

Fuchs, Martin and Rüpke, Jörg (2015). Religion: Versuch einer Begriffsbestimmung. In: C. Bultmann and A. Linkenbach (eds.), Religionen übersetzen: Klischees und Vorurteile im Religionsdiskurs. Vorlesungen des Interdisziplinären Forums Religion der Universität Erfurt 11. Münster: Aschendorff17-22.

Rau, Susanne and Schwerhoff, Gerd (eds.) (2008). Topographien des Sakralen: Religion und Raumordnung in der Vormoderne. München: Dölling und Galitz.

Rüpke, Jörg (2015). Religious Agency, Identity, and Communication: Reflecting on History and Theory of Religion, Religion 45 (3), 344-366. doi: DOI:10.1080/0048721X.2015.1024040.

Rüpke, Jörg (2016). Ein neuer Religionsbegriff für die Analyse antiker Religion unter der Perspektive von Weltbeziehungen, Keryx 4, 21-35.

Rüpke, Jörg (2017). Crafting complex place: Religion, antiquarianism, and urban development in late republican Rome, Historia Religionum 9, 109-117.

Rüpke, Jörg (2018). Theorising Religion for the Individual. In: V. Gasparini and R. Veymiers (eds.), Individuals and Materials in the Greco-Roman Cults of Isis: Agents, Images, and Practices: Proceedings of the VIth International Conference of Isis Studies (Erfurt, May 6-8, 2013 – Liège, September 23-24, 2013). Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 187. Leiden: Brill. 1,61-73.

Rüpke, Jörg (2019a). Religion als Urbanität: Ein anderer Blick auf Stadtreligion, Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft 27 (1), 174-195.

Rüpke, Jörg (2019b). Urban Space and Urban Religion: Looking for urbanizing and Urbanized Religion in Ancient Rome, Historia religionum 11, 65-77. doi: 10.19272/201904901005.

Rüpke, Jörg (2020a). Religion. In: European History Online. Mainz: Institute of European History.

Rüpke, Jörg (2020b) “Religion and the Urban.” Religion and urbanity online 2020, Online-Ressource 10.1515/urbrel.11276467: 10.1515/urbrel.11276467

Rüpke, Jörg (2021b). Urban religion: Religion and the city in historical perspective, Journal of the Interdisciplinary Study of Monotheistic Religions (JISMOR) 16, 56-76.

Urciuoli, Emiliano and Rüpke, Jörg (2018). Urban Religion in Mediterranean Antiquity: Relocating Religious Change, Mythos 12, 117-135. doi: 10.4000/mythos.341.

General References

Barton, Carlin A. and Boyarin, Daniel 2016. Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities, New York: Fordham Univ. Press.

Masuzawa, Tomoko (2005). The invention of world religions: Or, how European universalism was preserved in the language of pluralism. Chicago Univ. of Chicago Press.

Mulsow, Martin (2001). John Seldens De Diis Syris: Idolatriekritik und vergleichende Religionsgeschichte im 17. Jahrhundert, Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 3, 1-24.

Orsi, Robert A. (1999). Gods of the city: Religion and the American urban landscape. Religion in North America Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana Univ. Press.

Riesebrodt, Martin (2010). The promise of salvation: A theory of religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rüpke, Jörg (2021a). Religion and Its History: A Critical Inquiry. London: Routledge.

Taves, Ann (2015). Reverse Engineering Complex Cultural Concepts: Identifying Building Blocks of “Religion”, Journal of Cognition and Culture 15, 191-216.

See also the entries on co-spatiality (Elisa Iori) and heterarchy (Simone Wagner):

Cite this blog post
Jörg Rüpke (2023, April 25). Religion. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from

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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