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Study Notes

Postmodernism and Religion

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 17 Jul 2018

A number of the ideas considered above come under the broad heading of “postmodernism and religion” but it is useful to bring these together in one place in order to properly understand and analyse them

David Lyon explains the postmodern view of religion in his book Jesus in Disneyland (2000). In it, Lyon describes how religion has become disembedded in postmodern society: it is no longer embedded in religious organisations or in a particular country or culture and beliefs are not embedded in their original contexts. This allows people to pick and mix lots of bits of lots of belief systems: take what they like and reject what they don’t. And it finds religion appearing in unexpected places, for example, as in the title, in Disneyland. In this way religion becomes a matter of choice and therefore should be viewed not in terms of obligation (as much traditional religion was viewed) but of consumption. This fits in with the idea of the growth of the holistic milieu and the nature of New Age religious movements: these are increasingly like companies selling spirituality as a commodity. One major factor in all this is technology: television and now the internet has taken religion out of church buildings and onto television channels and websites. This also allows religion to become more privatised. This can be related to Grace Davie’s ideas about people “believing without belonging”.

These ideas about changes to religion have massive consequences for whether religion has any of the functions that Durkheim, Parsons or Marx or De Beauvoir claimed for it. If religion is not about a shared set of beliefs but instead a private individualised belief, then it cannot lead to a collective conscience. If religion is about meeting the individual’s needs and wants as a product to be consumed, rather than placing any obligations on the part of believers, then it will not ensure self-discipline and control. People worshipping an entirely individualised, privatised religion are not worshipping society itself (some might argue they are worshipping themselves!)

While the growth of fundamentalism might see like the absolute opposite of a pick and mix, mix and match approach to religion, there is one way in which they are related: the way religion is a source of identity. In a society where other sources of identity are breaking down – nationality, gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality are all fluid and fragmented identities according to postmodernists – religion can be an attractive source of identity and indeed that can become its primary function. A source of identity was never considered as a function for religion by Durkheim or Marx, because societies were assumed where most people were religious and most people believed in the same religion. In a diverse, pluralistic and globalised society, that is of course no longer the case and therefore religions new role is as a source of identity, sometimes furiously held and defended against perceived attack from other faiths or secularisation.

For Lyotard, rejecting metanarratives, like macro modernist theories like Marxism but also scientific theories, means that religion is just another narrative, competing with all the others. While, to the religious this seems to undermine and minimise religion, it is in fact a challenge to secularisation theory, because it is saying religious “truths” are as true as scientific ones. The idea that people can choose their own truth is another factor in a resacrilisation of society. Bauman argued that in modernity people were looking for theories that were always right: universal truths but in postmodernity people would find the belief, or theory, or truth that helped them at that time and in that place. All of this fits in well with the criticisms of secularisation theory that come from Berger, and the idea that sociologists need to practice more reflexivity in their study of religion. Researchers’ own beliefs – or absence of religious beliefs – must be reflected on when considering religion in contemporary society. As previously mentioned, Berger argued that a lack of reflexivity fed secularisation theory: because sociologists in university departments were occupying a secular universe, they assumed everyone else was too.

Evaluating postmodern views of religion

  • Berger was absolutely correct that secularisation theory is Eurocentric and religion is growing in other parts of the world. What many postmodernist sociologists neglect, however, is that for the vast majority of those religious people, religion is still largely traditional and carrying out its traditional functions. For Muslims across the Islamic world, for instance, Islam has not been disembedded from the mosque or from its traditional context. The same is true for many Christians in Africa and Latin America. Some argue that secularisation theory is wrong not because religion has changed, but actually that – in large parts of the world – it has stayed largely the same.
  • Similarly, while televangelism and preachers on Youtube are examples of religion changing, it is possible that Lyon overstates their significance. Most of the audience at home will also attend religious ceremonies as these things are marketed at a religious audience. Just as the arrival of public address systems meant that larger congregations and bigger churches could be addressed, so modern technology extends the possible reach of a religious message, but that does not necessarily change the fundamental nature of that message, or its meaning to the audience.
  • Furthermore, there is still quite a lot of evidence that, in western liberal democracies at least, secularisation theory is accurate. Although there has been a growth in New Age movements they do not come close to challenging the popularity of major religions or indeed atheism. Many of those who consume New Age ideas are happy to consider themselves Christian, etc. or indeed are clear that they have no religious faith. Those “believing without belonging” and worshipping vicariously through professional clergy might well, as Bruce suggests, not really believe very much at all.

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