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Whose Invisible Religion?

Luckmann Revisited ~
A n d r e w J. W e i g e r t
University of Notre Dame

An analysis of Thomas Luckmann's The Invisible Religion uncovers five meanings of the
term "religion." The primary meaning refers to the process of socialization whereby man

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transcends his biological nature; the second and third denote universal functional meaning
systems at the societal and personal levels; the fourth and fifth refer to specific substantive
meaning systems at the societal and personal levels. From this schema, Luckmann proceeds to
label "religion" any meaning system which in his judgment is a universal and functional or
specific and substantive meaning system for a society oran individual. Thus, the invisible
religion of modern man may befamilism, careerism, sex, mobility, etc. A critique of Luckmann's
'functional ipsative" definition of religion indicates the tenuous nature of such apriorismfor an
empirical sociology of religion which needs to begin with the meanings action hasf or the actors in
the society.

Thomas Luckmann's persuasive functional presentation (The Invisible Religion,
1967) of the nature of religion has quickly become a near classic statement in
contemporary sociology and even in socio-theology of religion. T h e reason may
lie in the fact that I~uckmann's statement answers c u r r e n t needs of some
sociologists and other students of religion: it puts religion, and thus the sociology
ofreligion, at the center of the question o f m a n and his location in society; it offers
an exciting alternative to the sociography of traditional religious institutions; and
it leads to theoretical reflection which frees sociologists from the ethnocentric
concern of Western institutional religion and may inspire more cross-cultural
research (a definite gap at present, Buehler, et al., 1972). By legitimating the
language of the sociology of religion for the investigation of all social phenomena,
Luckmann's statement is a handy tool for those alienated from traditional reli-
gious institutions, but still religiously concerned. This paper, however, argues that
Luckmann's approach is a theoretical cul de sac for the sociology of religion and
may lead to excessive conceptual confusion.
Among the difficuhies in formulating a useful definition, there are two gener-
ally accepted criteria for a successful concept: 1. at the level of theory, it should
contain logical characteristics which distinguish it from other concepts; 2. at the
level of observables, it should be operationalizable in such a way as to allow
phenomena to be named and classified in an orderly and unambiguous manner.

11 would like to thank C. Lincoln J o h n s o n , J o h n C. Gessner, and the discussants at a 1972 roundtable of
the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion for critical and stimulating reactions to ara earlier version
of this paper.


Luckmann's approach to and definition of religion rail, in m y j u d g m e n t , to meet

these criteria. His analysis is formal (in a Simmelian sense) in a reductively
functional way, and his application of the formal analysis to empirical data
proceeds by intuitivefiat rather than by standard rules of correspondence o r a
methodology of abstraction.
To situate these criticisms, let us review Luckmann's analysis. The central
argument relevant here is his presentation of the "senses" of religion. Hisfirst
assumption posits a universal anthropological condition of religion, viz., the social
dialectical processes by which the individual transcends biological nature (49-51:
all pagination refers to Luckmann, 1967). This condition repeats Durkheim's

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claim in the Elementary Forms of Religious Life that the original symbol system
whereby man emerged from the animal world was religious. Furthermore,
Luckmann totally identifies as religious the function of the dialectic of men and
society, which he posited with Berger in the Social Construction of Reality (1966).
Reasoning from the religious nature of h u m a n socialization, Luckmann posits
four derivative "forms" ofreligion. Thefirst is a universal and nonspecific elemen-
tary social forro which is an objective total worldview provŸ social meaning for
a society's existence. This universal nonspecific social forro is based on the as-
sumption that the worldview performs an essentially religious function and is part
of an objectivated social reality (53-56). Second is the specific institutional social
forro of religion constituted by configurations ofreligious representations form-
ing a sacred cosmos which is part of the worldview (60-61). This specific institu-
tional social form of religion may vary from a diffuse sacred cosmos in primitive
societies to institutionallly specialized "church religion" in modern pluralistic
societies. T h e third form of religion is a universal nonspecific form of individual
religiosity which is an internalized subjective system of relevance reflecting the
objectivated universal a n d nonspecific elementary social form of religion posited
above (69-70). This subjective system of relevance performs the essentially reli-
gious function of giving meaning to individual existence. The fourth form of
religion is a specific biographical forro ofreligiosity in individual consciousness.
This individual religiosity is constituted by an internalized sacred cosmos or
official church religion objectivated in the above-mentioned second form of
specific institutional social religion (71-72).
In summarizing his senses of religion, Luckmann insists on the universality both
of the anthropological condition of religion, viz., transcending biological nature,
a n d o f the two nonspecific forms of social and individual religion, viz., worldview
and identity. He concludes:
The statement that religion is present in nonspecific forro in all societies and all
"normal" (socialized) individuals is therefore axiomatic. It specifies a religious dimen-
sion in the "definition" of individual and society but is empty of specific empirical
content (78).
What has Luckmann accomplished by this argument? ~ It seems that his main

2Luckmann (1971) repeats his argument in a slightlydifferent and summary fashion in his position
paper in Caporale and Grurnelli.

thrust is to locate the primary predicative meaning of religion in the social process
whereby man becomes human, i.e., in the emergence of the self, or in socializa-
tion. Socialization in both the ontogenetic and phylogenetic sense is the an-
thropologically necessary and essentially religious process which grounds h u m a n
existence. An immediate deduction from this assumption is that the socially
objectivated meaning system, or worldview (Berger and Luckmann, 1966), which
is constitutive of the socialization process, and the individually internalized rele-
vance system which is constitutive of personal identity, are, anthropologically,
both derivatively and necessarily religious. But worldview and identity are
sociologically the elementary, universal, and nonspecific forms of religion which
are taken as axiomatic. T h e sociologically derivative forms of religion, then, are
the specific, empirical, and non-universal contents of particular historical or

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biographical religions. This schema is summarized in Figure 1,

Sense and F o r m s of " R e l i g i o n " A c c o r d i n g to L u c k m a n n ( I 9 6 7 )

Universal Anthropological Condition of Religion

Primary Sense: The socialization process by which mala transcends biological nature

Sociological Forms of Religion

Social (Objective) Individual (Subjective)

Secondary Sense: Universal, functional 1) Worldview 2) Identity
Tertiary Sense: Specific, substantive 3) 4)

3) From Sacred Cosmoi to Institutionally Specialized Religion

4) From Internalized Sacred Cosmoi to Internalized Official Institutional Religiosity

With these senses of religion, Luckmann can complete his critique of contem-
porary work in the sociology of religion. Sociologists mainly study the tertiary
senses of religion, viz., specific and substantive forms such as the "Church." This
undue restriction of the form of religion according to Luckmann, leads to eth-
nocentrism, mere sociography, and erroneously formulated debates, e.g., the
issue of secularization (23). Since, for Luckmann, it is axiomatic that man is
everywhere and always religious to the extent that he is h u m a n (i.e., socialized and
normal), the question, "Is man religious?" and the myriad questions from history
and quantitative research such as, "Is man or society more or less religious now
than in the past?," or "Is the disinherited class more or less religious than the white
collar class?," are otiose or even erroneous. Luckmann insists that the only real
question is a qualitative one, viz., "How is man religious?" (cf. Yinger, 1970:33, for
a similar functional question), since the "Is" question is answered axiomatically,
and the comparative, substantive questions are in principle unaskable, because by
definition all normal functioning societies and socialized individuals are essen-
tially religious. Thus, the central empirical task is the search for qualitative themes
which constitute the universal and necessary anthropological process of socializa-

tion, and which p e r f o r m the universal a n d elementary functions of supplying

socially objectivated m e a n i n g systems a n d individually "subjectivated" inter-
nalized identities. L u c k m a n n u n d e r t a k e s this enterprise toward the e n d of the
book by classifying such themes as personal autonomy, familism, sex, mobility,
etc., as representations of a d o m i n a n t m o d e r n and "invisible religion" (109;
Let me begin where L u c k m a n n ends. N o w h e r e in bis discussion of m o d e r n
invisible religion does L u c k m a n n suggest a methodology for knowing w h e t h e r a
particular qualitative theme performs the religious functions o f a worldview or
identity. Question: W h a t is religion? Functional answer: T h e functions of

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worldview or identity are religion. Yes, but what is religion in this society or for this
individual? No society a n d no individual have a universal and nonspecific func-
tional form of religion empty of all content, but always a specific a n d substantive
"form" of religion. A n d this substantive forro is that which functions a s a social
worldview or a personal identity. Who decides which specific and substantive
f o r m functions as religion? In a sociology of religion built on L u c k m a n n ' s ap-
proach, it is the sociologist who a priori predicates the term religion, a n d who
labels specific social a n d individual m e a n i n g systems as religion. T h e risks of such
an approach are evident in the absence o f a discussion ofdysfunctions ofreligion.
An empirical discipline cannot be constructed, we submit, on a model which
axiomatically a s s u m e s t h a t all societies a n d individuals have religion in nonspecific
form, and that the specific and substantive f o r m is known by what may be t e r m e d a
"functional ipsative definition ''3 posited by the investigator according to his own
intuition. A functional ipsative definition is one in which the specificity, substan-
tive content, and label for a social p h e n o m e n o n are predicated on the basis o f a
f u n c t i o n identified a n d categorized by the investigator. T h e investigator
categorizes and labels a function, and the function "ipsatizes" the labeling of the
p h e n o m e n o n . T h u s , for L u c k m a n n , a function of religion is to enable m a n to
transcend biological n a t u r e by providing a socially objectivated worldview a n d a
personally subjectivated identity. Thus, whatever spedfic substantive content the
investigator locates as p e r f o r m i n g that function is religion.
T o e x p a n d the options, let us suggest that there are three sources 4 for the
predication, labeling and defining of a p h e n o m e n o n as religion: thefunctional
ipsative p r o c e d u r e o f the investigator; the social objectivated meanings of the
society; the personal subjectivated m e a n i n g s of the actor (see B e r g e r and Luck-
mann, 1966; Schutz, 1962). For example, L u c k m a n n may define wife-swapping as
a m o d e r n invisible religion theme; the societal carriers of the socially objectivated

3Th phrase, "functional ipsative definition" is coined by analogy with ipsative procedures in measure-
ment, viz., measures which are not independent within individual respondents (cf. Rokeach,
1973:42-3). Functional ipsative procedures construct definitions in a way which is not independent
within the investigator, i.e., the investigator decides what phenomena belong in which category with
only one criterion: bis perception of its function. Contrast this with an investigator who first
categorizes phenomena according to substantive c¡ and subsequenfly analyzes the functions of
these phenomena.
4We are excluding purely operational "definitions" from the discussion. Operationalism presents us
with another set of issues.

meanings may define it as immoral, criminal, swinging, or avant-garde secularity;

and the individuals involved may define it as an anti-religious search for sexual
liberation from restrictive religious norms, o r a n amoral escape from intolerable
ennui. In this situation how does the sociologist proceed? What theoretical model
can legitimately warrant an empirical sociologist defining a phenomenon contrary
both to socially objectivated meaning and to personally subjectivated meaning? If,
furthermore, an individual or society defines action, e.g., personal autonomy or
social revolution, not only as not rbligion but in addition as precisely the deliber-
ate overthrow ofwhat is understood by the actors as religion, by whatjustification is
this action transmogrified into a representation of a religious universal? The
logical application of Luckmann's model would seem to contradict the definition
of socially constructed reality as objectivated and realized knowledge which he

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espoused with Berger (1966). In a word, if in society a socio-cultural object is now
known as religion, or if in personal identity a psychobiographical object is now
known as religion, how may the sociologist define the phenomenon as religion? In
our view, the only empirical sources of the predication of the term religion are the
socially objectivated meanings of a society or the personally subjectivated mean-
ings of an actor--but not the apriorism of the investigator.
This critique does not deny that a sociologist may adopt models from the study
of religion and fruitfully apply them to other substantive areas. Such heuristic and
often illuminating application is legitimate as long as Ÿ remains self conscious, i.e.,
the investigator is aware that he is engaging in analogy and simile. Thus, the
prophet may assert that man's bel!y is his god, and business his religion. So too a
social scientist may assert that baseball is an American religion, and the flag is
America's god. In the latter case, however, the analyst is speaking in the mode of
"as if," i.e., by analogy and simile. Ifthe analyst goes further and says that baseball
/s religion for this society or individual, contrary to the social and personal
definitions, and in the same sense in which Baha'i/s religion, then he is going
beyond the predication of "as if," and from our perspective he is in error.
Functional ipsative definitions of the primary subject matter of sociology may
lead to confusion in both cross-sectional and longitudinal comparative analysis.
Consider the issue of secularization. Luckmann argues that modern man is not
becoming less religious, but is merely changing the specific substantive content of
religion to "invisible religion" themes like autonomy, familism, etc. Thus an
interpretation of secularization using a definition of religion which would lead to
the possible conclusion that there is an historical process of change in, usually a
lessening of, the influence of religion in society, is a priori and axiomatically
inadmissable (cf. the inclination ofother functionists such as Bellah and Parsons to
argue this way in Caporale and Grumelli, 1971). Luckmann would argue that even
if religion asa socio-cultural or psychological substantive object ceased to be part
of the constructed reality of society or the individual, yet the society and the
individual remain formally and functionally religious. Such reasoning and con-
clusions can be labeled sociological only by defining sociology as a reductively
formal and ahistorical metaphysic, and by making the object of sociology a set of a
priori philosophical constructs (cf. Dewey's similar argument, 1934). Sociology
would cease to be an empirical discipline. In this philosophical sense, Luckmann
may correctly argue that secularization cannot mean the demise of religion, since
religion is an axiomatic, socio,psychological universal.

Luckmann rejects attempts to find a universal specific and substantive defini-

tion; since these definitions cannot be defined empirically, nor do they serve his
theoretical purpose. Sociologists have not shown much interest in the question of
the "universal essence" of religion, whether it be ultimacy, spiritual beings, or the
sacred (see Yinger's discussion, 1970). If sociologists, however, reject the univer-
sality of any specific and substantive forro of religion, why risk introducing
conceptual and terminological confusion by speaking of nonspecific andfunc-
tional universalforms of religion? From the perspective of this paper, sociologists
may legitimately address the question of the universality of empirical, socially
constructed reality, social phenomena, or social action. Arguing from a volun-
taristic model of sociaIaction and an interpretive sociology, the sociologist may, Ÿ
fact, speak only of conditional universals (see Weigert and Thomas, 1971, for the

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issue of family as a universal). Even granting, ex hypothesi, adequate knowledge
(diachronic and synchronic), were a sociologist to assert that an empirical form of
religion is and has been universal, the propositi0n would be true only because of
the voluntaristic social interaction of competent members of the society, not
because of a formal axiomatic identification of religion with socialization,
worldview, or identity. Furthermore, the argument for absolute universality
w0uld have to project the necessity of religion into all future societies: a formida-
ble task for any theoretical model, and one which is in principle illicit from a
voluntaristic model of rnan.
A major theoretical question for a fuhctional ipsative definition, however, is
posed by the realization that a function is a theoretical construct anchored in
empirically substantive and historically specific structure. For example, how does
an empirical discipline in the first instance apply a category or class name to a
phenomenon which the investigator wishes to "know" asa function? We suggest
this is done by first taking the name or label of the specific, historical, objectivated
institution or structure which performs the function which the investigator wants
to know, and then applying the specific name or label of the structure to the
function. The investigator, in the first moment of theoretical development, de-
scription, is bound inextricably by the socially constructed definitions of members
of the society (Schutz, 1962). No society or individual lives in a nonspecific, formal,
functional ipsative reality. Thus, an investigator would have to assume that in the
first instance, the function of worldvŸ identity, and t h e transcendence of
biological nature was performed by the socially and/or personally defined institu-
tion or structure of religion. Therefore, these functions are labeled by the inves-
tigator as religious functions. Had they been performed in the first instance by
kinship, economic, or political institutions, they would have been labeled family,
economic, or political functions. The genetic fallacy of the functional ipsative
definition is now clear. T o assert that because the worldview is religious at time 1,
then the function of worldview is a religious function at time 1, is now made roto a
reversible ahistorical proposition. Its obverse is asserted to be true at any time.
Thus, whatever institution or specific historical struCture performs the function
which was labeled religious at time 1, is from a genetic argument axiomatically
religion--even though the original epigonic institution may no longer exist (see
Bellah and other's awareness of this illicit tautology in Caporale and Grumelli,
More specifically, the assertion that the "phylogenesis" of human beings oc-

curred by means of symbols and processes which some theorists identify as religious
does notjustify the inference that the subsequent socialization or "ontogenesis" of
each h u m a n also occurs by means of symbols, and processes which are "religious."
Even if the origin of h u m a n identity was a religious p h e n o m e n o n (an untestable
proposition), it does not follow that every subsequent acquisition of h u m a n
identity is also a religious p h e n o m e n o n . Social ontogeny does not necessarily
recapitulate assumed social phylogeny, in spite of Luckmann's assertion that
"socialization... is fundamentally religious" (51).
F u r t h e r m o r e , for comparative longitudinal purposes, an investigator relies on
the structure or institution as the historical referent of predication, e.g., such
statements as: religious institutions or the family are losing their functions to
educational or political institutions. We do not ordinarily say, " T h e function is

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losing its structure," unless we are willing to hypostatize function completely. We
can conceive of structure A losing function Xa, but r e m a i n i n g the "same" struc-
ture A , b e c a u s e the function is merely a consequence of that structure. We cannot
in the same sense conceive o f a n outcome or function Xa losing its structure A yet
remaining the "same" function Xa,i because it must b e c o m e the function of
another structure Xb, and the classification and n a m i n g of functions are derived
from the structure or carrying institution. Afunctional ipsative definition leads to
the loss of empirical criteria for classifying a n d defining p h e n o m e n a by introduc-
ing equivocation in comparative longitudinal research t h r o u g h the substitution of
the investigator's own schema for that of the society or actors he is studying: Thus,
for L u c k m a n n , secularization is both occurring in an empirical sense and not
occurring in an axiomatic sense; an individual or society may be both non-
religious in their own a p p r o p r i a t e d social or biographical sense, and religious in
Luckmann's formal sense.

If the cogency of this critique 5 of L u c k m a n n ' s position is granted, what conclu-
sions would be d r a w n concerning his five forms (see Figure 1). F r o m the perspec-
tive of an interpretive sociology the universal process of socialization may be
defined as a symbolic process investing value (worldvŸ and identity (Weigert
and T h o m a s , 1971). T h e r e is no theoretical necessity or empi¡ for
defining socialization as an essentially "religious" process. Similarly, L u c k m a n n ' s
universal a n d nonspecific forms of religion, viz., worldview and identity, may be
labeled with formal terms such as value orientations (Glock a n d Stark, 1965:7ff),
or relevance structures (Schutz, 1970). T h e labelof religion would be reserved for
substantive types of religion (in L u c k m a n n ' s tertiary sense o f the term), which are
e i t h e r socially o b j e c t i v a t e d or p e r s o n a l l y a p p r o p r i a t e d o r b o t h ( B e r g e r ,
1967:175-177). Thus, such issues as secularization and comparative studies of
religion r e - e m e r g e more clearly as empirical historical questions. Likewise, the
universality ofreligion is no longer axiomatic for society o r a n individual, but must
be formulated a n d a r g u e d empirically.
T h e sociologist of religion faces the possibility that in a particular society or era

5Berger (1967:177-178) briefly adumbrates many of the points made here. We do not, however, agree
with his dismissal of definitional issues as merely "deg~stibus," though it is possible to have too much of
even a tasty issue.

the subject matter of one's discipline may indeed be peripheral to the society and
its members, and therefore to the profession of sociology which studies the society
and its members. No axiomatic assertionsjustify locating religion as a central issue
in society, in biography, or in the individual's place in society without regard to
empirical evidence. To argue that the founders of sociology, Weber and Durk-
heim, saw religion as central is not to say that were they alive today they would not
be arguing for the centrality of ideology, nationalism, technocracy, science, etc.,
and for the peripherality of religion. The founders did not, it seems, deny the
historicity of their subject matter, nor were they primarily interested in religion as
a putative universal, but rather as an historically important creator and carrier of
The argument of the present paper suggests a label such as "Sociology of

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Values" as the axiomatically designated generic area for the study of value orien-
tations, identity themes, relevance structures, and worldviews. Luckmann's (and
perhaps Bellah, 1970; Geertz, 1966)functional ipsative definition could legiti-
mately refer to values, and investigators may then study the themes, location, and
hierarchy of values (Rokeach, 1973). Value would serve as an ultimate, content-
free, formal and primitive (see Glock and Stark, 1965; Zetterberg, 1965) term for
analytical purposes. Religious institutions would be studied as possible carriers of
values in a society or biography. The centrality and viability of religion vis-91
other value carriers can then be studied as an empirical question. In this way, we
may perhaps speak of invisible values, but not of invisible religion.

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