Taking a New Look at ‘Urban Religion’

In Religious Studies, the ‘spatial turn’ as advanced by Kim Knott has rapidly been taken up by other scholars who have given her ‘spatial analysis’ of ‘the location of religion’ a programmatic role. More recently, anthropologist Stephan Lanz has proposed a comprehensive definition of ‘urban religion’ as ‘a specific element of urbanisation and urban everyday life … intertwined with … urban lifestyles and imaginaries, infrastructure and materialities, cultures, politics and economies, forms of living and working, community formation, festivals and celebrations’ (Lanz 2014, 25). ‘Urban religion’ is further specified as ‘a continual process in which the urban and the religious reciprocally interact, mutually interlace, producing, transforming and defining each other’ (26). Lanz enlarges the class of agents that are of interest by invoking ‘subaltern urbanism’ and characterising religious practices as a ‘“prescriptive regime” (…), where technologies of power and technologies of the self intermesh in its practice of governmentality’ (28). The interest here is in practices involving the mediation of the urban and the religious, thus opposing the idea that the character of the city is principally secular.

Lanz’s definition is deictic rather than delineative. It draws attention to the thoroughness of the interaction between the urban and what people think of as religious actions. The object defined by ‘urban religion’ is a process in which these religious practices and the urban are both involved, a context in which religious actions take place, rather than an identifiable subset of ‘religion’ (or the ‘urban’). The boundaries of the object under scrutiny are only implicit in the framework of the ‘Global Prayers’ project in which Lanz is a leading participant. They are spelled out more clearly in a review of the field (Garbin and Strhan 2017, 6-11). Apart from older issues concerning, for example, the role of religion in welfare and justice, two further related, but not necessarily convergent, processes define urban religion. The first is the rise of the post-secular. Despite the range of scholarly perspectives on the recent developments in the variety of secular-religious divides and their associated regimes, all are in agreement that there has been a pluralisation of options, to the extent that religion is now regarded as a central element for the phenomenon of ‘super-’ or ‘hyper-diversity’. This diversity is the result of the crossing of many different dividing lines and of the complex processes of situational salience of one category or the other (Aspinall and Song 2013). On the other hand, globalisation is not only a major force for urbanisation and pluralisation by way of the many types of migration, but also in the presence of flows that involve and trans-localise cities. With regard to religion, trans-local contacts and the trans-local presence of an ever-growing number of ‘universal’ religions shape local religion – as much as cities – without denying the importance of locality. Here, we need to both accommodate and account for a multi-layered ‘glocalisation’ that shows very different and, at times, quite contrary effects, sometimes questioning and sometimes reinforcing local religious or urban power (Garbin and Strhan 2017, 15-18). Further, it is important that we not lose sight of the broad range of ‘deviant’ forms of religious practices and beliefs that are frequently set aside as mere ‘folk religion’.

The concept of ‘urban religion’ thus opens up a wide field of urgently needed research. Some qualifications are, however, necessary. We can summarise and enlarge upon the observations of Garbin and Strhan by identifying three important implications and consequences of the dominant use of ‘urban religion’.

  • First, the real object of study is not religion at all but globalisation, with ‘religion’ serving as a ‘lens’ through which to examine globalisation. This interlacing of globalisation, cities, and religion does not open up a space for historical research, even if historians of religion have been willing to employ this concept in examining specific premodern instances of translocality, universalisation, regionalisation, and localisation, as well as the interactions among them. The underlying theories of Modernity, even if non-Eurocentric, put a stop sign here as they condition the concept of ‘urban religion’ in such a way as to make it of only limited use for studying the pre-modern world.
  • This contemporary use of religion has a second implication. Religion is never closely defined in this context by reference to its spatial properties. Rather, it just happens to be confronted with, and has to employ tools to deal with, space. It is only in the discourse on ‘iconic religion’ that scholars have come closer to addressing this problem (Knott, Krech and Meyer 2016). The variability of post-secular religious pluralism seems to exclude the possibility of a more specific relationship between religious practices and the spaces within which they occur.
  • Finally, and rather surprisingly, ‘the city’ or ‘the urban’ is treated as a given by these scholars, unquestionable in the face of global megalopolises with their populations in excess of eight or ten million inhabitants. Cities are not regarded as culturally produced orders that construct differences – urban and non-urban, religious and secular – which ‘make a difference’.

I suggest, however, to focus interest on religion and on religious transformations. It is the historical dimension of religious, rather than urban, transformations that has been overlooked in considerations of their mutual entanglement.

‘Religion’ is not a given but is, rather, construed as both the theoretical object that underlies empirical historical research as proposed here, following Jonathan Z. Smith’s conception: ‘The generic category supplies the field with a theoretical object of study, different from, but complimentary to their particular subject matters’ (Smith 2001, 142). The research briefly reviewed above, with its interest in the relationship between religion and the urban, suggests that the concept of ‘urban religion’ should provide a useful starting point, even if it is in need of considerable modification. As is the case with ‘visible religion’, ‘material religion’, or ‘iconic religion’, the language of ‘urban religion’ preconditions an approach to religion from a particular angle. As we have seen, urban religion does not focus on the aesthetic or, in terms of practice, on the media properties of religion but, rather, on a specific spatial setting, namely religion in the city and, in particular, post-secular religion in the contemporary globalised city. 

‘Urban religion’ offers a loose umbrella term that may be helpful in connecting an almost exclusively presentist line of research with much longer-term processes. However, if it is to be used as an analytical instrument of a contingent constellation (religion that happens to be urban religion) rather than as a theorised concept of religion (religion if seen as urban religion), this approach needs to be supplemented by a more fundamental reflection on religion as a spatial practice. Only on such a basis can it be put to use in a search for the most fruitful perspective from which to approach religion and ‘the city’.

And such an approach promises results. When viewed from a historical perspective, religion can be seen to have been responsible for dramatic developments in the history of cities, playing important roles in waves of immigration, transformation, and ghettoisation, as well as in the founding and destruction of cities. We can say with certainty that religion has been a decisive factor in the development of the concept of citizenship, as well as in justifying the expulsion of large groups. It has also contributed to the monumentalisation of city centres and has given importance to places outside the centre. And yet, even when pursuing this type of historical research, little attention has been paid to the urban character of religious ideas, practices, and institutions, or to the role of urban space in shaping this very ‘religion’. It is exactly this shift in perspective, this double focus on the reciprocal formation of religion and urbanity that is suggested by our new take on ‘urban religion’.


Aspinall, P. J. and Song, M. 2013, ‘Is race a ‘salient…’ or ‘dominant identity’ in the early 21st century: The evidence of UK survey data on respondents’ sense of who they are’, Soc Sci Res 42 (2), 547-61.

Garbin, David and Strhan, Anna (eds.) 2017, Religion and the Global City (Bloomsbury Studies in Religion, Space and Place), New York: Bloomsbury.

Knott, Kim, Krech, Volkhard and Meyer, Birgit 2016, ‘Iconic Religion in Urban Space’, Material Religion 12 (2), 123-36.

Lanz, Stephan 2014, ‘Assembling Global Prayers in the City: An Attempt to Repopulate Urban Theory with Religion’, in Jochen Becker et al. (eds.), Global prayers: Contemporary manifestations of the religious in the city (MetroZones 13), Zürich: Müller. 16-47.

Smith, Jonathan Z 2001, ‘The History of the History of Religions’ History’, Numen 48 (2), 131-46.

The text is based on the introduction to my book “Urban religion: A historical approach to urban growth and religious change”, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2020.

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

Cite this blog post
Jörg Rüpke (2020, May 19). Taking a New Look at ‘Urban Religion’. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/v3cj

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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