I have spent the last few years working toward a theory of pluralism, to replace the secularization theory which, I believe, has been empirically falsified. I have sketched the outline of such a theory in my book The Many Altars of Modernity (2014); a German translation has just been published (I will take the liberty of again quoting my favorite Zulu proverb: “If I don’t beat my drum, who will?”).
Actually, I like to speak of two pluralisms: The first is religious pluralism in the usual sense—a plurality of religions, worldviews and moral systems co-existing in the same society; the other refers to the co-existence of religion with a powerful secular discourse without which a modern society could not exist. That discourse is what Charles Taylor has ably described as the “secular frame” in his book A Secular Age (2007); but he exaggerated the degree of hegemony achieved by this discourse under modern conditions. This is indeed the basic error of all forms of secularization theory, made by both those who still adhere to that theory, and those who instead propose a re-sacralization of the world—nicely encapsulated in the assertion of “the return of the gods”. Except for a small portion of the world’s population (especially in Western Europe and in an international intelligentsia) the relation between religion and modernity is not a matter of either/or, but rather of “both/and”.
To help you start thinking in these terms, which for many of you are probably implausible, I invite you to come with me to central Texas, where I have periodically taught as a visiting professor at a conservative Baptist university. There, in one of the most religious and economically dynamic regions of the United States you can meet successful petroleum engineers, brain surgeons and computer specialists who believe that prayer can perform miracles of healing and some of whom believe that it can divert the course of a hurricane. If you want to follow up with two recent empirical studies of the Evangelical mind, I refer you to Tanya Luhrmann (anthropologist, Stanford) and Robert Wuthnow (sociologist, Princeton). It is not interesting to ask whether this co-existence is possible; we know that it is (it only takes about four hours to fly from Boston to Dallas). The interesting question is how this feat is achieved, and achieved by very intelligent people with graduate degrees in the natural sciences.
I now propose to look at how the two pluralisms occupy urban spaces today. They do so today in just about every country in the world beyond the level of modernity of, say, Amazonia. I start with America, because it is in the vanguard of both pluralisms—the most religious and religiously diverse country in the developed world (the comparison with Europe is most helpful here), and also the location of the most advanced science and technology (more Nobel prizes and international patents than anywhere else). Start in Washington: Go north on 16th Street, NW, from the White House toward Maryland. I have never found out why (probably zoning regulations), but this stretch of urban landscape is a veritable museum of comparative religion: different Protestant churches (including an African-American one, a big Catholic church, different denominations of American Judaism, a Greek Orthodox church, a Buddhist temple, a Baha’i center, and a building dedicated to one of the many syncretistic sects that sprouted in Vietnam. There is no mosque on 16th Street, when I last looked, but one of the biggest ones is one block away. I don’t know whether any formal interreligious dialogue is going on between these establishments (I would love to eavesdrop on a dialogue between Orthodox Jews and Buddhists). However, occasionally some of those who work in these places or who attend services there must be getting into informal conversation with each other (for instance, at big events they might negotiate over parking spaces). If these occasions occur repeatedly, even if theological topics are avoided, what is likely to occur is what I call “cognitive contamination”—when the beliefs and practices of these “others” begin to affect one’s own.
If you want to get out of Washington (an understandable urge these days), I can suggest a more relaxing excursion: Go to Honolulu and take the Pali Highway across the island of Oahu. Even before you leave the city limits, you can experience another orgy of religious pluralism. As one would expect, there is a stronger Asia presence—more Buddhists than Orthodox Jews (though you might come across a guitar strumming rabbi in an aloha shirt who practices Tantric meditation). Granted, few other countries can match the exuberant religious pluralism of America, but others are catching up. Some years ago I saw devotees of Krishna chanting and dancing in front of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, one of the monuments of European Christendom. And also some time ago I was at a party in Stuttgart, where I expressed the opinion that a media-savvy Hindu holy-man was probably a fraud. One of the other individuals there, who had been introduced as an engineer, took strong exception to my characterization. He said that he was a disciple of the guru; he spoke in a broad Swabian dialect.
For the other pluralism we might as well take Boston. Someone has once described it, as not so much a city as a federation of campuses and medical centers. Its top universities, notably Harvard and MIT, calmly assume that they constitute the navel, the mythical omphalos, of the intellectual universe (I’m sure that this is an exaggeration, but myths often have long lives—to paraphrase W. I. Thomas, the co-author of The Polish Peasant, definitions of reality, if held by elites, have a way of becoming reality.) As to medical centers, if you intend to become seriously ill and have the required insurance, it is a good idea to do so in Boston.
At the research center I used to direct at Boston University I recently organized a conference on the hospital as an interface between modernity and religion. Every hospital is a temple to the spirit of modernity: The therapy dispensed there is to be based exclusively on scientific knowledge and the most advanced technology is applied in its service. However, the organization of a hospital resembles that of a religious hierarchy. All doctors wear long white robes, and the top doctors, surrounded by acolytes, occasionally descend from the heights and pronounce judgments. Lesser medical personnel, nurses and technicians wear less sacred uniforms. The patients, upon whom this entire hierarchy is imposed, go around in demeaning clothing (like the so-called “johnnies” favored in American hospitals, the buttocks exposed to public view and every part of the body easily accessible to the clerisy in charge). They must wait until sentence is pronounced from on high; they hope a merciful one.
Of course such temples of modernity do not exist in less developed situations—say, in a rather primitive African hinterland. But even there one will encounter agents or consumers of modernity, such as scouts for multinational corporations looking for untapped natural resources, or eco-tourists looking for communion with unspoiled nature; these two cordially dislike each other. But, minimally, there will be three modern outposts sent into this remote territory by the national government—a police station, a primary school, and a clinic. But here too religion will interact with these modern intrusions. There will be traditional actors, such as tribal chiefs trying to preserve the old family virtues (there will probably be no television yet, but other immoral communications will have reached, possibly by way of sexually liberated eco-tourists); the tribal chiefs will also resent the authority of the police station, as indigenous healers (aka witch-doctors) will compete with the clinic. But there will very likely be religious impinging from the outside, some from very modern origins—such as the powerful Pentecostal movement which has been sweeping throughout sub-Saharan Africa. And here too there will be both conflict and collusion between modernity and religion.
But back to Boston: The hospital, flying the banners of modernity, is ongoingly invaded by religion. Some of it is on the formal level. Large hospitals in Boston employ a multireligious group of chaplains. Some are sent in by outside religious bodies, some are actually on the hospital’s own payroll. Both groups very commonly go through a program that began many years ago under the heading “clinical training”, intended to teach aspiring chaplains basic techniques of “counseling” (a kind of psychotherapy 101). Wendy Cadge (sociologist, Brandeis) has written a very impressive study of hospital chaplains, Paging God (2012). One of her findings is that these chaplains prefer to describe their message as “spirituality”, rather than “religion”. This allows them to fit more easily into the discourse of the medical hierarchy, including doing entries into patients’ charts—a “spirituality” index being potentially added to all the other data: blood pressure, sugar levels, X-ray pictures, and so on. Cadge does not use this term, but what she describes is a process of secularization; she also found that Catholic hospital chaplains are most resistant to this process, because their ministry is largely sacramental (including the sacrament that used to be called “extreme unction”, though it is now named in such a way as not to suggest to anxious patients that they are about to die).
Let me put the change starkly: Ministry to the dying, once called ars moriendi/”the art of dying”, was intended to reconcile the patient with God while there is still time; the secularized ministry is intended to reconcile patients with unresolved feelings toward parents, spouses and other “significant others”. But even on the formal level there is a two-way traffic going on. I recently met the Buddhist chaplain of an originally Jewish hospital in Boston. We had an interesting conversation. I asked him whether there were many Buddhist patients. No, hardly any, he replied. Does he then teach Buddhism? No, he wouldn’t be allowed to do this, he said. Then what does he talk with patients about? Well, he will talk about anything they want to talk about; but also he talks about some Buddhist concepts without identifying them as such. Which ones? He mentioned three: “attentiveness”, “non-self” and “patience”. These are traditional precepts, helpful in the quest for enlightenment, but it is open to question whether this secularization does indeed, as he seems to intend, smuggle in Buddhist contents under cover of a secular discourse, or whether it is an abandonment of the Noble Eight-Fold Path that was originally meant to release from the horror of endless reincarnations. Be this as it may, while hospital chaplains (at least non-Catholic ones) translate ministry into psychotherapy, medical faculties develop an interest in exploring “traditional ways of healing”, including forms of Asian meditation (a conspiracy of neuroscientists and witch-doctors?). In other words, while the discourse of modern medicine, exemplified in the institution of the hospital, is very powerful indeed (and, let me hasten to say, does indeed heal and prolong life) there seems to be “mutual cognitive contamination” at work here.
In addition to these formal interactions, there are numerous informal religious incursions, by visiting family and friends of the patient, by home clergy and pastoral visitors, and even by medical staff. Three episodes from my own experience (all in Boston):
- About eight years ago I was seriously ill and had to spend three weeks in the hospital (I subsequently recovered very well—no extreme unction required, not even a Lutheran one!) During one of the worst periods a young intern came to my room; I had never seen him before, I think he came about some medication. Out of the blue, just before leaving, he said: “I want you to know that some of us have been praying for you. I think this is important.”
A little later a middle-aged cleaning women came into the room. She was a Latina, and I knew that she was Pentecostal (a faith that I, as incurably Lutheran, have never found appealing). She was sobbing, told me that her mother had died yesterday. I spontaneously took her hands in mine and said “somos todos en los manos del Senor”/”we are all in the hands of the Lord”. For a moment we had sacralized this space.
3. Much more recently, after an accident, I was in physical therapy. A woman I didn’t know phoned me. She had heard from a colleague about this, she is an occupational therapist, and she wonders whether I could use her services. I thanked her, but no—I only needed my head for my occupation, and it was fine. She said something friendly, then added before hanging up: “and have a blessed Ash Wednesday”. I was a bit startled; not being very attentive to the church calendar, I had not remembered that it was Ash Wednesday. But then I wondered: Did she think that I am Catholic? If so, why? But then more interesting: Does she wish everybody, whether thought to be Catholic or not, a blessed Ash Wednesday? If so, she had switched from a conversation of medical relevance to a religious one (be it with pastoral or missionary intent).
The contemporary American or European city has clearly designated religious and secular spaces: think St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Coney Island amusement park; or Notre Dame and what used to be the red-light district of Montmartre. And then, in both countries with a separation of church and state, secular political spaces with religious undertones: the Arc de Triomphe and the Statue of Liberty. They tend to overlap, which is generally accepted by most citizens, except for ideological zealots (latter-day Jacobins who want to ban religion from all public spaces such as ACLU lawyers in America offended by Christmas creches in public parks). Airport and military chapels in America have learned how to change symbols to convert these places from one denominational space to another:remove the crucifix and substitute a menorah, and the Catholic sanctuary has become a synagogue pro tem. Scholars of religion use the concept of landnama rituals, a Viking term meaning the ceremonial appropriation of space under a new sovereignty, as when the Spanish conquerors placed a cross and a royal banner on top of an Aztec temple to signify to whom this land now belongs. Call what happens now “pluralist landnama”. (Sort of like another contemporary institution: “serial monogamy”!)
A concept coined by Alfred Schutz (1900-1959) is useful in describing the religious and secular spaces in a modern city: the concept of relevance structure. Some spaces are clearly marked as religious or secular spaces—prayer is in the relevance structure of a church, aesthetic experience in that of a museum. This becomes very clear when either relevance structure is deliberately violated (“transgressed”).
Two examples from post-Soviet Russia: In 2012 a feminist punk rock band called Pussy Riot invaded the liturgy in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. They staged an obscene dance, with a libretto denouncing the Putin regime and its close alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church. The desecration was especially transgressive; there had been an earlier church in that location, razed under Stalin to be replaced by a swimming pool. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the Cathedral was splendidly rebuilt, to celebrate the survival and renewed public status of the Church.
The counter-example of reconsecration was told to me by an American scholar of Russia with a special interest in religion. The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg was founded by Catherine the Great in 1764 and opened to the public in mid-19th century. Among other treasures it holds the largest collection of icons in the world. Ever since its opening it has been visited by many thousands of tourists, right through the Soviet period (even atheistic Marxists could visit the collection for purely aesthetic pleasure, also for scholarly or historical reasons). Around the time of Pussy Riot a group of Orthodox believers visited the exhibit. They stood before it with lit candles and incense, sang hymns, kissed the icons and prayed to them. The administrators of the Museum threw them out, not because of old-time atheism, but because the behavior of the believers was inappropriate—it transgressed the relevance structure of an urban museum. The administrators of the Metropolitan Museum or the Louvre would also have been annoyed (though hardly as shocked as the worshippers in the Cathedral in Moscow). The Hermitage was the scene of a dramatic instance of landnama: For a short time this secular space had become a sanctuary for Orthodox worship.
Alfred Schutz was not much interested in religion, but his idea of relevance structures is very well suited to help us understand how secularity and religion can co-exist, both in society and in the minds of individuals. It has always been possible to switch relevance structures. Some individuals whom Max Weber would have categorized as “religious virtuosi” can do this, and so can ordinary believers. St. Teresa of Avila, one of the greatest Catholic mystics, fell into ecstasies that filled her with the presence of God; along with her friend St. John of the Cross she also reformed the Carmelite Order in 16th-century Spain. In the latter capacity she had to inspect many convents of Carmelite nuns. I think you have to switch off the relevance structure of monastic administration while in a state of ecstasty, and vice versa. And a good Catholic layman devotedly attending Mass, may occasionally engage in a bit of flirtation with a charming senorita in an adjoining pew. Nothing new here. But a modern society (not least because of the two pluralisms) is enormously complex, forcing its members to learn how to switch relevance structures from early on.
In conclusion, I want to make a more personal observation: I have long thought of the big city as a place of mystery. Vienna, the city of my childhood, was reasonably big (already then with about two million inhabitants), but my movements through the city were obviously rather limited. My first really big city was Paris, where I lived for a few months as a very young man, and through which I roamed on the Metro and on foot. All these many buildings, their interiors hidden from sight: what secrets could they hide?
Years later I took a course at the New School of Social Research under Albert Salomon entitled “Balzac as a Sociologist”. I sensed that Balzac’s novels conveyed the same experience of Paris, all its secrets hidden behind closed doors. What could be going on behind this particular door: a religious cult (Balzac was curious about esoteric cults), a great crime, an orgy, or a political conspiracy? During my student days I roamed endlessly through New York; since I was already obsessed with religion (as a friend of mine once put it, rather pejoratively, “once a godder, always a godder”), I visited every sort of religious space—not only regular Christian churches and different synagogues, but any manner of what for me were esoterica: a brand-new Zen center, the Anthroposophical Society and its cultic offspring, the so-called Christian Community (where one could attend a quasi-Gnostic ceremony in 20th-century America), a Mormon church, Pentecostal storefronts in Puerto Rican East Harlem (about which I wrote my M.A. thesis, my hands “dirty with research”), and the Baha’i (about which faith I wrote my doctoral dissertation). I could go on. But enough. I will observe that mystery is always, minimally, akin to the core of religious experience which Rudolf Otto (in my opinion the greatest 20th-century scholar of religion) called the mysterium tremendum. Thus it should not be a surprise that cities have typically been places of religious innovation (Pentecostalism, the biggest religious explosion of our time, mainly flourishes in the intensely pluralistic mega-cities of the Global South).