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International Review of Sociology  Revue Internationale de Sociologie

Vol. 21, No. 1, March 2011, 191204

RESEARCH ARTICLE
The contextualization of definitions of religion
Karel Dobbelaere*

Centre for Sociological Research of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium
(Received October 2009; final version received September 2010)

The author insists on the need to take the social-structural context into account
to evaluate the existing types of definitions of religion. Proposing a definition for
the Western hemisphere, he then checks his definition against sociological studies
referring to ‘new types of religiosity’ and concludes that sociologists should
differentiate between meaning systems  of which religion is a sub-division  and
spiritualities. In a second step, he discusses two sociological theories about
religion and insists that sociologists should be more careful in using such theories
by taking into consideration the type of religion the theory is concerned with.
Finally, he suggests that rational choice theory and secularization theory might
well be integrated and applied in a European context if we move to the level of the
competing existing meaning systems.
Keywords: meaning systems; spirituality; new religious movements; secularization
theory; rational choice theory

Sociologists who study religion have been confronted with the difficult problem of
defining it. Explicitly, e.g. Émile Durkheim (1898, 1960, pp. 3166), or implicitly, e.g.
Max Weber (1963), they all have worked with a definition to structure their field.
Nearly 40 years ago, as a young professor, I struggled with that problem in my classes
on ‘Sociology of Religion’ and published an article written with my colleague
Jan Lauwers (1973). We insisted on the need to take the social-structural context into
account and I still do, but, I want to add in this reflection the need to take also the
theoretical context into account

The importance of the social-structural context
Types of definitions
In sociological textbooks, two types of definitions are prevalent: substantive and
functional definitions. Substantive definitions say what religion ‘is’. A good example
is Peter Berger’s definition (1967, pp. 2628, 176 and 178): ‘Religion is the human
enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established’. The differentia in this definition
is the category of the sacred, which he takes in the sense understood by the
Religionswissenschaft since Rudolf Otto. J. Milton Yinger (1957, p. 9) offers us a clear
example of a functional definition: ‘Religion, then, can be defined as a system of
beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with . . . ultimate
problems of human life. It is the refusal to capitulate to death, to give up in the face

*Email: dobbelaere.voye@skynet.be.
ISSN 0390-6701 print/ISSN 1469-9273 online
# 2011 University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’
DOI: 10.1080/03906701.2011.544199
http://www.informaworld.com

. Yinger adds an element other than functions to his definition: not every effort to struggle with the ultimate problems of human life is religion. 5) calls ‘the three brute facts of contingency .1 For her. . to allow hostility to tear apart one’s humans associations’. on experimentation. 121). More recently. Durkheim’s well-known definition (1960. p. . The content of the substantive component is not specified. ‘The ‘‘believing’’ is the belief and the acts. things set apart and forbidden (the substantive component. the particular referent of religion should be specified in a definition of religion. and more broadly.e. 65): ‘A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things. ‘If it can be shown that a given system of beliefs and practices that is generally thought to be . However. This poses an additional problem: who is going to specify that certain effort? An answer to this question seems to be given by him in answer to another problem concerning his functional definition. powerlessness . i. But the substantive component refers to ‘three elements that are firmly united together: the expression of a ‘‘believing’’. KD)  beliefs and practices which unite into a single moral community called a church (the functional component. The differentia in this type of definition is what the beliefs and practices ‘do’. the function of religion. to a tradition’ (p. KD). is the construction of a cohesive collectivity. for example. The functional component is similar to Durkheim’s. is integration. . 244). Durkheim says that the consequence. p. . She proposes to designate as religious ‘this particular modality of the ‘‘believing’’ which has the particularity to refer to the legitimating authority of a tradition’ (Hervieu- Léger 1993. 8). Danièle Hervieu-Léger has offered a new definition combining a substantive and a functional component. not all definitions are either substantive or functional: some are a combination of the two. 24). p. only ‘a certain kind of effort’ is religious (1957. In other words. Take. p. but which find their grounds for existence in that they give meaning and coherence to the subjective existence of those who adhere to them’. what Thomas O’Dea (1966. the qualifications are purely formal. frustration and depression)’ is to be considered a religion. . a problem emerges: how can we study ‘functional alternatives’ to religion if every possible ‘alternative’ performing the functions by which religion is defined must. by definition. all those who adhere to it’. any such system of beliefs and practices that struggles with. the memory of a continuity and the legitimating reference to an authorized version of this memory.192 K. The need to specify the socio-structural context The functional definitions With a functional definition. and scarcity (and consequently. that is to say. Dobbelaere of frustration. also be considered a religion? In his comments. p. 142). Hervieu-Léger adds this functional element: the religious gives rise to ‘religion’ if ‘the reference to tradition is capable to generate a social link . Conse- quently. The latter part specifies the function of the ‘believing’. And further in her analysis. on modes of recognition and control which characterizes knowledge. that a ‘believing’ community might be constituted’ (p. it is the lived belief’ which includes ‘the whole of the individual and collective convictions. Consequently. From this follows that many have underscored that the definition may be applied to ‘believings’ that are not religious (Lambert 2007. which are not based on verification.

adapts itself by taking up newly developing religious modes. 46) definition is based on the typical function that defines the subsystem religion: ‘the problem of simultaneity of indefiniteness and certainty (or transcendence and immanence)’. Sociologists using such a definition rely on the Religionswissenschaft. The approach of sociologists using such a definition is culturally loaded and they try to exceed the socio-structural context.g. Its relations to the other social sub-systems are called ancillary functions (die Leistungsorientierung). p. Yinger is not talking exclusively about functions. International Review of Sociology  Revue Internationale de Sociologie 193 religion [italics mine] is not performing the functions by which religion is defined’ should we then declare that this system of beliefs and practices is not a religion? Such ‘error can be avoided by indicating that religion is an effort to perform certain functions for man’ (p. since. 25) position. Luhmann implicitly operates with a conventional definition of religion based on the type of problems traditional religion tries to solve. 8). Luhmann’s central system-hypothesis is ‘dass das Religionssystem sich als eine selbstsubstitutive Ordnung ausdifferenziert hat’ (1977. the substantive definition of religion? Such a definition searches for the essence of religion and defines it as ‘sacred’. could a newly developing mode imply a loss of transcendence? The substantive definitions How about the alternative type. according to him. Such a self-substituting system orients itself toward the social system. ‘set apart and forbidden’. And in fact Luhmann implicitly accepts this since he writes that religion. ‘opposed to chaos’ (Berger 1967. 48). They search for a general evolutionary scheme. p. to wit. This is similar to Freund’s (1984. This allows him also to continue to consider in a particular society a so-called religion that does not perform the functions by which religion has been defined as a religion. for whom the central fact around which religion emerges is death: humans are religious if they believe in a transcendent. those kinds of efforts that are not ‘generally thought to be religion’ in the community under study. the immortal soul or the resurrection of the dead). the other sub-systems. which is performed by the church through rituals (die Funktionsorientierung). 62). as an autonomous sub-system that reacts to its environment. examples are Thomas Luckmann (1967) and Robert Bellah . This is an example of a functional definition using substantive components based on a traditional context. for this problem no functional alternatives are available. a ‘mysterious and awesome power’. Should we then not define religion as ‘that which is called religion’ in a particular society or in certain parts of a society? Systems theorist Niklas Luhmann’s (1977. which has a universal approach to religious phenomenon. All three different functions have to be performed separately but combined together (p. Implicitly he adds substantive elements to his functional definition in order to be able to study ‘functional alternatives’ to religion. In fact. 2628). And reflexion on the religious system itself is the third type of function (die Theologie) (pp. In fact. It seems then that Yinger is specifying now this ‘certain kind of effort’ as being that which is ‘generally thought to be religious’ by society. Spiritual communication to the total system is the primary function. a hereafter (among others nirvana. p.. Will these new modes pattern themselves according to existing religions? And. Sacred is antonym to profane and specifications of this concept can only be made in formal terms: e. 5659). and itself. ‘sticking out’. pp.

rejecting the notion of supernatural that is typical of a particular social context. but continues ‘to be one of the sources contributing to the thematic assortment of the modern sacred cosmos’ (1967. Durkheim tried to define religion as a universal phenomenon. sociological studies on religion have references to ‘new types’ of religion. 11). among others invisible religion. which has lost its social impact and individual adherence. Luckmann describes an emerging ‘institutionally non-specialized social form of religion’. 107). These major themes are surrounded by subordinate. however. 113). p. the so-called church. new religious movements (NRM) and spirituality. The dominant themes of the emerging new sacred cosmos are difficult to define and to describe according to him. which has been called ‘Invisible Religion’. p. religion is ‘a system of beliefs and rituals relative to the supernatural. he did not even differentiate the religious community. which ‘represents an expansion of the ‘private sphere’ beyond the confines of the solitary individual’ (1967. Does all that is called ‘religion’ in Western societies have a supernatural referent? After this partial review of the literature. less important topics. but he underlines some: individual autonomy. do we then have to decide that in our Western societies of to-day. the concept ‘sacred’ does not refer exclusively to religious phenomena and has a much broader meaning. in other words. historically following an ‘institutionally specialized social form of religion’. Concrete sociological research is only possible if one drops this global approach and studies what is called ‘sacred’ in a concrete socio-structural context. which refer to the sacrifices of the First World War. Dobbelaere (1964). in casu our socio-structural context. looking for what we can ‘safely and profitably use to distinguish the religious from the nonreligious’. which unite into a single moral community all those who adhere to it’?2 Since the seventies. diffused religion. concludes that: ‘The least constricting terms our vocabulary provides to enable us to set off the realm of religions from the rest of culture are the natural and the super-natural’. Durkheim (1960. Institutionally specialized religion has become a secondary institution. from the society. p. ‘la voie sacrée’ (the sacred road) and the ‘lieu sacré de Douaumont’ (the sacred place of Douaumont). Consequently. 41) rejected that position since the idea of the supernatural presupposes the contrary idea of the natural order. veneration and respect. familism. p. which articulate themselves specifically in the mobility ethos and the liberalization of sexuality from external control. In the context of our Western society the term ‘sacred’ is used to stimulate in people attitudes of awe. implicit religion. ‘which are not selected as the cornerstones in the construction of subjective systems of ‘‘ultimate’’ significance’. grosso modo church religion. ‘this idea is not at all primitive’. Do these fit the definition we arrived at? Invisible religion In the fourth evolutionary phase of religion. In fact. Edward Norbeck (1961. and ‘they originate in the traditional Christian cosmos or in the secular ideologies of the eighteenth and .194 K. these would never be considered ‘religious’. However. which expresses itself in self- realization and self-expression. In his study of the Australian totemic system. Examples of this are shown near Verdun (France). its decline in modern Western societies expresses secularization.

Consequently. or with general predilections. and occasionally solemnizing them with religious rituals. ‘managing by oneself’ and ‘earning a lot’  are combined with universal values  ‘honesty. well-being. ‘friendship. they acquired a sacred aura. 1718) adds two more definitions: ‘integrating foci’  which ‘directs attention to the whole width of possible forms of sociality’ (Bailey 2009. the gospels. solidarity between social classes with special attention to marginal people. It is clear that. Laermans 1992. i. even if some subordinate themes may have a religious background. 68. that are not themselves of serious import’ (Bailey 1997. 114). God. For the sake of illustration he mentions ‘getting along with others’. ‘having a clear consciousness’. replacing the Catholic canon. according to him. Karel Dobbelaere. ‘in terms of the practice of core intentions’ and the qualifier implicitly refers to ‘the presence of the commitment of any kind’ (Bailey 1998. It is clear that the study of implicit religion is much broader than the object of the study of . p. Diffused religion is similar to the changes that Jaak Billiet. and ‘togetherness’. Implicit religion Edward Bailey is the founding father of the study of implicit religion which he started in 1968 under the name ‘secular religion’. that are not otherwise influential. 802)  and ‘intensive concerns with extensive effects’  ‘this dual measure of commitment prevents its confusion with momentary (even if repeated) passions. ‘Socio-cultural Christianity’. ‘respect for others’. charity’ (Cipriani 2001). pp. there is no supernatural referent present nor is even death a topic. according to Freund (see above). and Gemeinschaftlichkeit. is the theme around which traditionally religion emerged. It refers to so-called typical values of the gospel such as social justice. pp. the latter being considered to have a more restricted appeal and to be more confining (Billiet and Dobbelaere 1976. ‘faith in God’. solidarity’. p. probity’. referring to Christian. functions there now as the sacred canopy for the segmented Catholic world of olden days. The term religion must here be understood. which was changed to ‘implicit religion’ in 1976. Luckmann further- more underscores that ‘death’ and ‘old age’ do not appear even in the subordinate topics (1967. 204214). May we then call it an invisible religion? Diffused religion Roberto Cipriani has written extensively on this topic. ‘a fair shake for all’. ‘good use of money’. pp. Rudi Laermans and Liliane Voyé have described in the collective conscience of the Catholic pillar3 in Belgium. and which are not specifically Christian. This new collective consciousness is still symbolized by a ‘C’. ‘love of one’s children’.e. 9). ‘adjustment’. Dobbelaere and Voyé 1990. International Review of Sociology  Revue Internationale de Sociologie 195 nineteenth centuries’. by backing them up with a religious source. the first definition of implicit religion is ‘commitment(s)’ and Bailey (1998. especially in relation to religious practices. the gospels. It is a form of cultural Catholicism whose particularistic values  ‘attachment to the family’. These are values that have a universal appeal. Here there is a supernatural referent. a humane approach toward people. 13). which. instead of to the Catholic canon. but it is a definition that describes changes in church religiosity in a segment of the Catholic world in Italy which is distancing itself from the Church. ‘attachment to work’. p. ‘being content with little’ and ‘generosity. p. However.

Dobbelaere religion we arrived at. are seen as examples of ‘great transcendences’. Consequently. However. schools and hospitals.g. In some societies such groups are called ‘cults’ or ‘sects’ (e. by contrast. as its lowest common multiple. the concept of religion is expanding. They bridge time and space. better demonstrated. claim to be spiritual rather than religious movements. self-sacrifice. pp. They offer their members esoteric means for attaining immediate and automatic assertiveness. the vast majority of NRMs are of another type. In a synthesis of the first three empirical studies. the Family. the economy. must apply or go to court (Beckford and Richardson 2007. However. which majority religions have. as its infinite extrapolation.g. and even the polity. the sacredness of other Selves. heightened spirituality. while Elan Vital offers the knowledge revealed by Maharaji or one of his appointed instructors. notwithstanding the fact that they have been and continue to be involved. and indulge in. e. than described. What we register in many NRMs is a change in references: the ultimate has become ‘this-worldly’. There are two typical reactions towards this. 271) describes the continually emerging threads in these studies: ‘As a system. however. it is the study of personal commitments which may. New religious movements (NRMs) Some NRMs. want to re- sacralize the secularized world and its institutions by bringing God (Krishna) back in the different groups operating in the societal sub-systems such as the family. but remain at the immanent level of everyday reality. referring to something other than everyday reality. 403406). in Belgium and France) and. and ISKCON. It is. as its highest common factor. attested by the organizational structures that they established. they have become ‘this-worldly’ or mundane. Conversely. by its willingness to pursue. Since Scientology ‘has been perhaps the most litigious religious group in modern history’. recovery. Soka Gakkai promotes chanting of an invocation in front of a mandala. Mahikari provides an ‘omitama’ or amulet. success and a clear mind. the Gohonzon. their reference remains transcendental. for the sake of the Self itself’. its court cases allow us to denote the two issues NRMs are facing to get such privileges: ‘to define and defend itself as a genuine religion’ and apply for . for success in examinations or work. transcendental meditation (TM) a personal mantra for meditation. although to a lesser extent. Scientology auditing with an e-meter. or for ‘une âme soeur’. Consequently. seeking legal status and equal access to public funds and other privileges. like TM. such as the Unification Church. in mundane or ‘this-worldly’ affairs. e. promote inter-subjective communication. however. its implicit religion can be described as involving the sacredness of the Self.196 K. encounter groups or alternative health and spiritual centres. they are ‘world affirming’. Luckmann (1990) has rightly argued that in many NRMs the level of transce- ndence has been lowered. minority religions and notably NRMs.g. Most world- affirming NRMs appear to reach only the level of ‘intermediate transcendences’. The historical religions. some. p. Roy Wallis (1984) has called these ‘world rejecting new religions’. the incantations for healing. include some supernatural views. and the sacredness of relationships with other Selves. human potential movements offer therapies. in Belgium (1979) a Parliamentarian Research Commission was installed to elaborate a policy to fight against illegal practices of sects and against the dangers they are supposed to represent for society and individuals. Bailey (1997.

this-worldly activism and pragmatism. autonomy. And is the term meaning system not the more general term which implies religion as a specific form? The fact that Hamberg feels the need to call the recent use of spirituality ‘unchurched spirituality’. and he describes some themes that are part of the modern sacred cosmos as we have seen. p. Would it not be more fitting to call this so-called sacred cosmos a ‘meaning system’ consisting of values and themes. the ‘inner life of spirituality’ is ‘bringing ‘‘life’’ to life’. individual as well as collective energies’ (p. 750). 759). 39) himself points out the closeness of the two concepts. religions and spiritualities It is clear that the variety of studies in the field of sociology of religion calls for a differentiation in the field. engaging the whole person activating. to differentiate it from spiritualities in the religions itself. Referring to McGuire. but on experience. not without’ (p. that a large majority of Catholics have arrived at in the Western hemisphere. taking away the transcendent God of theism leaves the heart of spiritualities of life intact’ (Heelas 2009. what Eva Hamberg (2009. 746) calls ‘unchurched spirituality’. primacy is placed not on reason or inherited faith. or reactivating. In fact it analyses a type of belonging. indicates that sociologists and other social scientists are looking for a term to point . apprecia- tion of materiality. In a reference to Roof. Hamberg (2009) cites the following features: ‘holism. p. we are not concerned about spirituality within Christianity. p. and blurring of boundaries between sacred and profane’. or anticipation of experience. tolerance. some inherited from Christianity. from the idea that humans are by nature spiritual beings. has often been noted as an aspect of contemporary spirituality’ (p. But the use of the term system suggests merely a hypothesis: to study how well integrated the individual and social core values are. according to Paul Heelas. In her analysis of the concept of ‘spirituality’. Spiritualities Here. a ‘religion à la carte’. The need for differentiation: meaning systems. Finally she stresses individualism as a characteristic: ‘a focus on the ‘self’. ‘Diffused religion’ fits the substantive definition we arrived at. The Invisible Religion (1967) is the title of the English version of the book Das Problem der Religion in der Modernen Gesellschaft (1963) in which Luckmann describes the evolution of social forms of religion. 748) points out that it is used in different senses by scholars. eclecticism. It is a belief in the ‘God within. Why not call both research projects studies of individual and collective ‘meaning systems’? I know that the use of the term ‘systems’ may suggest that they are well integrated. ‘Involving as it does inner sources of authority and significance. International Review of Sociology  Revue Internationale de Sociologie 197 ‘registration as a religious group’ in countries demanding such a status for achieving tax exemption and other privileges (Richardson 2009. she underscores that he puts emphasis on experience: ‘Generally. Hamberg (2009. p. 751). pp. Spirituality starts. Accordingly. 777). that give ‘ultimate significance’ to individuals and legitimate their priorities? And is that not also the research topic of Bailey’s Implicit Religion: the search for the core commitments. but in spirituality outside it. which integrate the lives of individuals? Bailey (1997. but tends to have important themes in common. The modern or fourth form is the ‘institutionally non-specialized social form of religion’. 5051).

procreation and mutual support. This indicates that it is built on ongoing experiences. I want to add that in studies of the sociology of religion one has not only to take into account the definition of religion and the connected fields of spiritualities and meaning systems.g. Hamberg (2009. however. etc. But if we study religion as it is lived by people. a fundament for the actual vision of individuals who do not refer to the ‘God without’ but to the ‘God within’. In the introduction I added that it is also important to take the theoretical context of our research into account. pp.198 K. science. it is important to define not only the levels of analysis but also religion or religiousness.). . they have an established orthodoxy and an authority which claims to have the right to define the correct content of the beliefs. 747748) rightfully stressed that. but to the sacredness of life itself. In a study to evaluate the level of secularization of Western societies in connection with the rise and spread of NRMs. polity. 262265) and have developed different sub-systems (e. In her study of ‘unchurched spiritualities’. industrialization.g. economy. let us concentrate on a sociological theory closely related to religion. but also the types of religion the theory is concerned with. Modern societies are primarily differentiated along functional lines that overlay the prior forms of segmentary and social class differentiation (Luhmann 1982. 230231). reference was made to ‘conventional secularization’ and ‘traditional secularization theory’ without any serious analysis of the theoretically grounded predictions of secularization theory itself (Robbins and Lucas 2007. communism for example. it is not much more systematized than the lived spirituality is. Religions have been systematized by specialists (e. theologians). For sure there are other meaning systems that are also authoritatively defined. a big difference between religions and other meaning systems. however. There is. To explain secularization. education etc. In order to test theories with the available empirical data we should analyse our data on the basis of the predictions of the theory taking the types of religion the theory is concerned with seriously. that is a multidimensional concept which implies many processes such as urbanization. and the consecrated forms of the rituals. pp. These sub-systems perform their own particular function (production and distribution of goods and services. rationalization. To guarantee these functions and to communicate with their environment. which is not systematized either. like the suggestion of TM. Others do not have such reference and might better be called spiritual movements. To make my point. taking binding decisions. What is then the difference with religion? That it does not refer to the sacred supernatural. the moral principles and deduced norms. which does not (not yet?) have an authoritative leadership. production of valid knowledge. It is a holistic vision based on experience. one often refers to modernization. The theoretical context In the first part of this article I have analysed the definitions of religion employed in the sociology of religion taking the social-structural context into account. A theory should be more specific (Dobbelaere 2002). in order to evaluate the level of secularization in Europe in connection with these emerging spiritualities. teaching). migration. family. And what about the so-called NRMs? Some have a reference towards the supernatural and may be called religion even if they are mostly mundane in offering so-called sacred means to be ‘successful’ in life. Dobbelaere out a basis. pp.

power. the Catholic pillar begun to ‘totter’ (Coleman 1978. p. Since in the process of manifestly secularizing society during the communist regimes. Each organization also functions according to the values of the sub-system (competition and success. reliability and validity. This occurred in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe. International Review of Sociology  Revue Internationale de Sociologie 199 organizations have been established (enterprises. these organizations claim their autonomy and reject religiously prescribed rules. the emancipation of education from ecclesiastical authority. This process started a long time ago and is still going on. Religion seems to be the best solution in this respect’. communication is based on the medium of the sub-system (money. information and know-how). Thus. Consequently. 131). secularization describes the effects of functional differentiation for the religious sub-system and its organizations. they also lost it over the Catholic organizational structures they had initiated at the end of the nineteenth century to protect their flock from the secularization tendencies in society (Righart 1986). families. As the religious authorities have lost control over the so-called secular sub- systems. laws on divorce and on ‘same-sex marriages’. education was an important means. in Romania (Flora and Szilagyi 2005. in the Netherlands. p. separation of powers. the re-introduction of religious classes in the curricula was used to de-secularize society. Zrinscak 1999. these organizations were integrated in an organizational complex which is called a pillar (Righart 1986). 133134) and in Poland (Mach and Mach 1999. the Catholic pillar survived organizationally but changed its collective consciousness . the churches. the sociological explanation of secularization starts with the process of functional differentiation: religion becomes a sub-system alongside other subsystems and in this process the religious organizations lose their overarching claims over the autonomous secular sub-systems. Regarding religion. pp. In each sub-system and in its relations with the environment. primacy of love. Thurlings 1978). For example. the development of science as an autonomous secular perspective. Churchly norms lose their effect upon the functioning of these sub-systems.e. pp. research centres. 9) points out: ‘A new power’ had to be devised ‘to serve as a substitute for the communist ideology in order to integrate the society. We should also be aware that there are reversals. Belgium. examples in the medical sub-system are the laws on abortion and euthanasia and. i. the rejection of church proscriptions about birth control. schools and universities). 1617. political parties. indeed laws on euthanasia or ‘same-sex marriages’ for example have not been passed in all Western countries. 407408 and 410). the separation of church and state. Diagnosing the loss of religion’s influence on the secular sub-systems. Austria. in the family. e.e.g. knowledge. However. Other reversals occurred in the legislation concerning the family on divorce and contraception and in medicine on abortion and euthanasia (Borowik 1999. indeed it should be noted that governments can re-sacralize society or sub-systems of society. In Belgium. and the rejection of religious control over arts and literature. we may define secularization as the process by which religious authorities lost control over the secular sub-systems. pp. the Netherlands and Switzerland. In certain countries. As Irena Borowik (1999. i. religious authorities were the first to talk about the emancipation of the secular. In other words. the autonomization of the so-called secular sub- systems. truth) and its specific norms. studies have demonstrated that about a century after its emergence. love.

At the same time. picking from the churchly offers that which (s)he can accept. Dobbelaere as I have already described (see section ‘Diffused religion’ above). More. 6489. practices and moral norms of the faithful. 465485). how do we have to interpret the rise of ‘unchurched spiritualities’? They are. the vast majority are of another type. 468). Those NRMs which Wallis (1984) has called ‘world rejecting new religions’ may be considered as religions according to our definition. The Western European percentage of unchurched was 24% according to EVS in 1999. they and they alone had the authority to define the religious doctrine based on the scriptures and the tradition. This is what is called individual secularization: the individual defines his own religion. also called a religion ‘à la carte’. a Belgian bishop stated in a long interview in the press that ‘a religion à la carte’ was unacceptable for the Catholic authorities. pp. the religious authorities lost control over the beliefs. . to the contrary they confirm individual secularization. pp. incorporating also certain beliefs and practices from other religions such as reincarnation. being replaced by a new religionless meaning system? Or is it the beginning of a overwhelmingly religionless society? Only the future will be able to answer this. However. not without’ and primacy is given to personal experience not to inherited faith or reason. A large number of former members of the churches even left them. Finally. a belief alien to Christianity. a religion ‘à la carte’ developed (Norris and Inglehart 2004. This means that they do not fit the definition of religion we arrived at and consequently they also cannot be used to invalidate the secularization theory I have presented. Individual secularization is thus the rejection by the individual of the set practices. p. Is the rise of ‘unchurched spiritualities’. norms and beliefs of the authorities of the churches. 8387). and the core values were grounded in the gospels rather than in the teachings of the Catholic Church (Dobbelaere 1988. or what is called so. the omen of the disappearance of the traditional religions. The emergence and the spread of new religious movements since the four last decades of the twentieth century are related to the process of globalization and intercontinental mobility. in 1981 this was still 72% of the population. Moreover the numbers of the members of religious NRMs are too small to compensate for the losses of the major religions. Notwith- standing this claim of the authorities. Decades ago. Thus the NRMs largely confirm individual secularization. A ‘pick and choose religion’ developed. a term I used suggesting that the set menu was no longer taken but that the individual believer chooses the beliefs (s)he can accept. as we have seen.200 K. The reference was changed: Catholic norms were considered to be too confining. for example in Belgium only 50% called themselves Catholic. basically focused on the self: the central belief is the ‘god within. about 60% of the Belgian population less than 45 years old called themselves unchurched in 2009 (EVS). according to the European Values Study (EVS) of 2009. selects his/her ritual practices and follows the ethical norms (s)he could agree with. which Wallis called ‘world affirming’ NRMs. Bréchon 2007. varying from 54% in the Netherlands to 9 and 3% in Ireland and Greece (Bréchon 2007. and only some would fit our definition of religion (see section ‘New religious movements’ above). and yoga. the ‘C’ in the acronym no longer meant Catholic but Christian. pp. but also to the process of individual secularization that opened a market.

4041). for example in Belgium and France. The competition in Europe is more between religious meaning systems and non-religious meaning systems. among others hedonism. religious firms are ‘lazy’ (Stark and Iannaccone. 32). p. between religious and a. Orthodox and Protestant churches ‘to renounce all competitive evangeliza- tion which might express a spirit of competition between them’ (Willaime 2004. p. but stressed the social context in which we have worked. there is no opposition between secularization theory and RCT. we came to the conclusion that we have to distinguish spiritualities and secular meaning systems from religion. Analysing the extensions of religion by adding epithets to the term. This theory makes three important points. the proposal to . the competition between so-called religious firms is limited to sects and new religious movements (NRM) themselves and between them and the Christian churches. In Spain. which unite into a single moral community all those who adhere to it’. Do we have then to conclude that the RCT is not applicable in Europe? I do not think so.or anti-religious meaning systems. However. Stated this way. It is a particular meaning system since it has a supernatural referent. as in our example. and the anti-sect witch-hunt in the media (also in Belgium and especially France). p. suppressing or subsidizing religions (Finke 1997. Consequently. In fact religion is only a sub-category of the more general concept ‘meaning system’. there is no fair competition. this is only possible in a pluralistic religious situation where religious firms compete for customers and to the extent that the supply side is not limited by state regulations. Catholic. materialism and individualism. All these precautions should allow us to come to valid conclusions within the limits that we have set ourselves. Finally. RCT only works in states that are secularized on the societal level. in the opposite case. we should apply the steps that were pointed out in our analysis and extend the notion of religion on the supply side of the RCT and move to a more general concept that includes religion. 17). pp. The problem in applying RCT in Europe is that competition between ‘Christian churches’ is limited by an agreement between the representatives of the Anglican. to evaluate the validity of a theory we can neither loosely use the theory nor refer to it. However. more particularly. as the ‘conventional’ or ‘traditional’ secularization theory. 8) that should become manifest by active competition between religious firms on the supply side (Stark 1997. International Review of Sociology  Revue Internationale de Sociologie 201 By way of conclusion In an overview of definitions of religion. In a second step. We did not propose this definition as a universal definition. due to state regulations. 5051. we came to the conclusion that in the Western context: ‘Religion is a system of beliefs and rituals relative to the supernatural. Does this analysis help us to integrate rational choice theory (RCT) and secularization theory and adapt it to the (West) European context? RCT holds that a religious pluralistic situation may promote church commit- ment. RCT postulates a latent religiosity on the demand side (Stark 1997. we stressed that a strict definition of religion is needed to come to valid conclusions in sociological research and that we also have to take into account the types of religion that the theory is concerned with: this sets the limits of its applicability. To give some examples: the laicization or manifest process of societal secularization attests to that. There are alongside religion other meaning systems. Consequently. pp. Iannaccone 1997. 1994) since there is no need for competition. State and religion should be de-regulated to allow competition between religious firms.

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