Chapter 4: Perspectives on Religious Evolution

Rediscovering the Sacred: Perspectives on Religion in Contemporary Society
by Robert Wuthnow

Chapter 4: Perspectives on Religious Evolution

How do we assess the changes that are taking place in contemporary religion? Is it possible to see in these changes some broader patterns that conform to — or deviate from — the theories we have at our disposal for understanding modern religion?

There are theories — theories of religious and cultural evolution — that are relevant to these questions. Rather than depicting religious change as a simple decline in the importance of religion, these theories emphasize qualitative changes in the character of religion. They depict broad evolutionary stages in the development of modern religion and provide clues about the possible future of modern religion. These are, of course, speculative frameworks, based as much on stylized notions of intellectual currents as on factual evidence about either the past or the present. Nevertheless, they can be useful as a starting point for thinking about changes in contemporary religion from a broader perspective.

Evolutionary Patterns

One need not accept the strong statements that some theorists have made about cultural evolution (let alone "sociobiological" evolution) to find value in theories that have tried to organize what we know about historical development according to some broad evolutionary schema. The virtue of such theories is that they provide general frameworks that highlight certain aspects of the modern situation and permit comparisons to be made with earlier periods. In tracing broad processes of social and cultural change, these theories also offer some guidance in thinking about the possible direction of changes in the future.

It is, of course, necessary to recognize that such theories depend to a great extent on the kinds of values and presuppositions built into the larger cultural environment from which they emerge. One finds, for example, that the present period is often portrayed as an infinitely better arrangement than anything that has been experienced previously — or, in other cases, that the present period is fraught with deep crises that pose a dire threat to modern society but that new ideas are just now being formulated that will save humanity from sure destruction. We must recognize value judgments of this kind for what they are rather than confusing them with the historical record itself. In providing an Archimedes point from which to view the major contours of an entire cultural epoch, however, such theories can be enormously useful.

Many efforts have been made to describe modern religion in broad evolutionary terms. Indeed, the sociological study of religion came into being largely as a result of such efforts. Marx, Weber, and Durkheim all formulated implicit theories of the direction of modern religious evolution, not to mention the more explicit scenarios advanced by Comte, Tonnies, Spencer, and others. A more recent generation of social theorists — including Talcott Parsons, Marion Levy, Jr., E. 0. Wilson, Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, and Bryan Wilson, to name a few — also contributed to this literature. Rather than trying to bring this entire theoretical armamentarium to bear on the question of religious change, however, I will content myself with a brief foray into the ideas of three representative theorists whose work on modern religion is unrivaled in subtlety of argument and appreciation for the nuances of cultural analysis: Robert N. Bellah, Jurgen Habermas, and Niklas Luhmann. It will be helpful to have a brief overview of each theorist’s claims in mind before trying to consider contemporary religion in relation to these claims.

Robert N. Bellah’s theory of religious change was published as a brief article in the American Sociological Review in 1964. Although Bellah has elaborated on the initial framework (even to the point of repudiating some of it) in more recent lectures and publications, the original outline has remained a central and provocative feature of most theoretical treatments of modern religion. Cast in a broad evolutionary framework, Bellah’s outline distinguished five ideal-typical patterns of religion, each of which is a distinct stage or "relatively stable crystallization" in the development of religion from early societies to the present. Bellah labeled the five stages primitive, archaic, historic, early modern, and modern. The progression from each stage to the next involves a process "of increasing differentiation and complexity of organization that endows the organism, social system, or whatever the unit in question may be with greater capacity to adapt to its environment than . . . its less complex ancestors."1

Archaic religions, in BeIlah’s view, were more internally complex and differentiated than primitive religions in their view of the world and the kinds of religious action and organization they embodied; historic religions were more complex, in turn, than archaic religions, and so on. For our purposes, however, only the modern stage requires consideration, since Bellah traces its origins well back into the nineteenth century and argues for its prevalence, even at the popular level, in the contemporary United States.

Modern religion, Bellah asserts, is distinguished from all previous varieties by a "collapse of the dualism that was so crucial to all the historic religions." Instead of there being a sharp distinction between "this world" and some "other world" — between the natural and supernatural — modern religion tends to mix the sacred with the profane. Religious claims are grounded more in considerations of the human condition than in arguments about supernatural revelation. The "divine," in this sense, becomes more approachable, more imminent.

On the surface, this collapse of the supernatural into the natural would appear to represent a return to the more undifferentiated type of worldview evident in primitive or archaic religions. However, Bellah claims it actually consists of an increase in symbolic differentiation. Whereas reality was once perceived in dualistic terms, it now takes on a "multiplex" character. Religious symbols stand not so much in contradistinction to the secular world but as signals of deeper meaning. They point toward a form of transcendence that nevertheless penetrates everyday life.

According to Bellah, modern religious symbols are also held in a uniquely self-conscious manner. Rather than "looking through" symbols to the truths they convey, we "look at" symbols with greater appreciation of their capacity to shape reality. In Bellah’s view, this capacity to differentiate symbols from the truths they convey is a prime example of the more complex, more highly differentiated character of modern religion. There is, in a sense, a heightened capacity to work with symbols, to manipulate them to our advantage, to subject sacred symbols to textual criticism and yet to recognize them as truth, to distinguish myth from literal fact and at the same time to gain meaning from both. In other essays Bellah elaborates these points, both descriptively and normatively, by suggesting that modern culture develops an attitude of "symbolic realism" toward religion that recognizes the humanly constructed nature of religious symbolism and affirms the importance of such symbolism as a source of ultimate meaning and personal integration.

It is no accident that Bellah perceives a close connection between religious symbolism and personal integration. The "self" occupies a role in modern culture that is not only prominent but problematic. Gradually becoming emancipated from all sustaining collectivities, it is free to determine its own destiny — even choose its own identity. But it is also shaped by a myriad of experiences that in a complex society render it fragile and in need of integration. In religious matters the frightening responsibility that grew out of the Reformation and, in Weber’s words, left the believer face to face with God has been greatly expanded. Now the individual must accept responsibility not only for the duties that God prescribes but also for the very choice of gods to worship. Creeds must not only be lived up to but also interpreted and selectively combined, modified, and personalized in a way that the individual finds meaningful. And because the self tends to be multidimensional, if not transformational, the process of choosing and adapting religious symbols may acquire the quality of a lifelong "journey" rather than a once-for-all decision, let alone an ascribed status.

Religious action and perforce religious organization, according to Bellah, become more open and flexible in the modern era. No longer can churches and other religious organizations maintain a monopoly over the individual’s relation to the ultimate. Membership standards become looser as emphasis shifts away from uniform codes of belief and moral conduct toward individual choice and freedom of conscience. At the same time, the definition of what it means to be "religious" or to have ultimate meaning expands, becoming in the process more a product of individual interpretation. As a result, ethical conduct in the secular world replaces narrow definitions of salvation, and a larger number of people pursue their salvation through specialized, short-term commitments outside of the church entirely. Bonhoeffer’s "religionless Christianity" provides a theoretical image of the potential outcome. And at the organizational level Bellah foresees the emergence of "an increasingly fluid type of organization in which many special purpose subgroups form and disband."

The process by which a thoroughly modernized form of religion makes headway is, in Bellah’s view, not accomplished strictly at the expense of more traditional variants of religious expression. Fundamentalist religions and authoritarian religious cults that seek to impose uniform orthodox beliefs and standards of membership on believers will continue and perhaps even experience periodic revivals as reactions to the ambiguities inherent in modern society. There will also be people for whom religious symbols become so thoroughly unsatisfactory that a purely secular worldview — one that denies the possibility of ultimate meaning — is sought as a replacement. In the long term, however, Bellah is doubtful that either the fundamentalist or the purely secular mode of accommodation to modernity is as viable as an open, multiplex version of the sacred.

Bellah’s description of modern religion is grounded in considerations about long-term social evolution, but these considerations remain largely implicit in his work. Since the publication of the original essay — which compressed those theories into single sentences — Belllah has written widely on modern religion but has never spelled out in sufficient detail the dynamics of the underlying evolutionary model. Indeed, he has at times appeared to abandon even the premises of progress and linear development on which evolutionary theories are based. It is, therefore, of some interest to turn to a second theorist who has also taken up the idea of religious evolution: Jurgen Habermas.2

Trained as a German social philosopher with intellectual roots in the Marxist tradition and in the Frankfurt school of critical theory, Habermas departs from Bellah in significant ways in his depiction of social evolution. For instance, Habermas pays more explicit attention to economic development and to the state, credits the social sciences with a more prominent role in cultural evolution, and stresses secular procedures as elements of legitimation rather than emphasizing sacred or religious values. Yet Habermas, like Bellah, is deeply indebted to Weber, Heidegger, and Parsons; he ultimately rejects the Marxist emphasis on historical materialism; and he seeks an evolutionary framework that provides not only a description but also a normative guide for the discussion of modern culture. Indeed, Habermas’s treatment of religion draws directly from Bellah, contributing to it mainly by recasting Bellah’s efforts into a somewhat more explicitly elaborated view of cultural evolution.

Habermas distinguishes four stages of cultural evolution: neolithic, archaic, developed, and modern. The first three correspond roughly to Bellah’s primitive, archaic, and historic stages; the last subsumes Bellah’s early modern and modern stages. In principle, Habermas distinguishes his stages from one another on the basis of different principles of institutional organization, different levels of productive capacity, and different capacities for societal adaptation to complex circumstances. In practice, the stages are distinguished mainly, as are Bellah’s, by ever-increasing levels of cultural complexity and differentiation.

Neolithic cultures manifest relatively low levels of cultural differentiation. Motives and behavioral consequences remain undifferentiated, as do actions and worldviews, human and divine events, natural and social phenomena, and tradition and myth. Archaic cultures make greater degrees of differentiation possible among all of these categories, thus permitting greater clarity about the linearity of history, greater opportunities for calculated action with respect to the control of nature, and expanded opportunities for the development of rational law and the state. Developed cultures contribute additional layers of differentiation, replacing myth and tradition with unified cosmologies and higher religions, articulating well-codified moral precepts, and positing universalistic principles as modes of legal and political legitimation.

Modern culture, which coincides in Habermas’s view with the period since the Reformation, is typified chiefly by an erosion of confidence in the validity of higher-order principles. Reason, as a process of systematic reflection, replaces absolute axiomatic laws as the basis on which cultural meaning and coherence rests. As a result, faith is no longer taken for granted but becomes objectified as a focus for the application of reason. With reason also comes a greater degree of self-consciousness about the procedures used to arrive at and test the validity of statements concerning religion, morality, and nature.

Habermas is here alluding to more than simply the proverbial "warfare" between reason and faith that scholars since the Enlightenment have tended to emphasize. He is also asserting that faith itself increasingly becomes subject to tests of reason, logic, and even empirical procedure. As Bellah also observes, this process leads to greater self-awareness about "statements," as distinct from the meanings conveyed by these statements. Whereas Bellah sees a somewhat ready solution to the inherent tension between reason and faith, each maintaining its own validity within separate realms, Habermas sees greater evidence of tension between the two. His view suggests considerable, but by no means total, retreat on the part of religion against the onslaught of rationality.

But religion does have a continuing role to play, according to Habermas (here in agreement with Bellah), in providing personal integration, unity, subjective meaning, and a unified self-identity. Like Peter Berger, whom he quotes, Habermas perceives a requirement for some form of symbolic universe — a sheltering canopy — to integrate the various systems of action in which an individual engages. Religious worldviews played a prominent role in fulfilling this requirement in "developed" cultures. Greater differentiation of human action from nature allowed a greater sense of individual identity to develop; a unified picture of the forces governing the universe contributed to the internalization of a coherent set of moral principles which in turn facilitated greater unity of the self, and, as Weber observed, religious explanations for the misfortunes of nature helped individuals and collectivities to function more effectively in the face of risk, grief, and ultimate doubt. In the modern period religion continues to perform many of these traditional functions.

However, the role of religion in the modern period has, in Habermas’s view, become progressively restricted. With modernization has come greater control over the exigencies of nature, thus diminishing the need for religious explanations for these exigencies and increasing the importance of specialized knowledge devoted strictly to the empirical understanding of nature. Religion has accordingly come to focus less on metaphysical assertions about the world and more on exclusively subjective concerns about individual meaning and integration. In short, religion has been pushed increasingly into the realm of what Habermas calls "civil privatism."

The "privatization" of religion is an emphasis that Habermas shares, in some respects, with Bellah and indeed with many other observers of contemporary religion. But Habermas remains too concerned with social processes to perceive much value in a religion that merely gives interior solace to the individual. Like Bellah, he recognizes that much of the traditional importance of religion lies in its capacity to instill a sense of community and perform socially integrative functions. Bellah maintains that this function continues to be performed largely through the application of religious values — not through the institutionalized church but through the culturally differentiated set of religious symbols he calls the civil religion. For Habermas, however, the notion of civil religion seems to be an unworkable throwback to a less modernized set of values.

Perhaps because of his roots in the more thoroughly secularized setting of western Europe, Habermas sees little continuing significance in the role of traditional religious values as a means of social legitimation and integration. The social sciences, in his view, have seriously undermined the plausibility of such values, rendering them relativistic and secondary to a kind of technical reason devoted to the solution of social problems through the application of technical knowledge. Habermas admits that the social sciences have been relatively ineffective in actually resolving social problems, let alone providing substitutes for religious answers about death, grief, illness, and tragedy. Nevertheless, he maintains that by creating awareness of the social constructedness of religious symbols, the social sciences have made it impossible to rely on absolute religious claims for social integration. Instead, social integration will, for better or worse, depend chiefly on the rational-legal procedures that have been developed in modern societies for the conduct of business and government and for the resolution of disputes.

Still, Habermas does point out one function that religious symbols may be able to perform — the function of facilitating communication. This is at first glance an anomalous position to find Habermas taking, because he generally appears to be skeptical of religion, treating it as a form of ideology that systematically distorts communication by virtue of the fact that religious people generally seem to be unable to abandon their own suppositions long enough to truly consider the interests and values of others. Yet in a few scattered passages that remain largely undeveloped, he makes reference to the possibility that some understandings of modern religion seem to promote rather than inhibit communication. Noting the theological work of Metz and Pannenberg in particular, he argues that a new concept of God is evident in this work that recognizes the socially constructed character of all conceptions of the divine but nonetheless asserts the utility of such symbols because of their emphasis on community and reconciliation.

Like Bellah, Habermas perceives a serious degree of erosion associated with institutionalized religion — so much so in fact that he seldom bothers to discuss organized religion. In his evolutionary perspective, the growing differentiation of modern culture has placed religion in competition with reason, the natural sciences, and most recently the social sciences, all of which have taken over many of the topics on which religion traditionally spoke with authority. In addition, modern religion has become more internally differentiated such that religious knowledge has become more distinct from religious experience and meaning, religious techniques have become more distinct from religious values, and religious statements have become objectified over against the largely privatized meanings and interpretations they are given. Finally, growing awareness about the situational relativity of religious symbols, while reducing their absolute plausibility, has perhaps enhanced their role as objects and facilitators of communication about social values.

A third perspective on the evolution of modern religion has been provided by Niklas Luhmann, another leading German sociologist, often in critical debates with Habermas. A professor of sociology at the University of Bielefeld in West Germany, Luhmann has emerged as one of the major theorists in contemporary sociology. Known until recently only through his debates with Habermas, he has begun to attract considerable attention among American scholars in his own right. Like the classical theorists, he treats religion as a basic feature of modern society.

Luhmann is a systems theorist, somewhat in the same genre as Talcott Parsons, who understands social evolution chiefly in terms of social differentiation. Thus he contends that modern societies differ from traditional societies mainly in terms of having a greater number of clearly differentiated social spheres or subsystems. The basic institutional pattern of modern societies was laid down, in his view, between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries with the emergence of a relatively autonomous political system which was accompanied by increasingly autonomous systems in other realms as well, such as science, law, education, and art. In the process, religion gradually came to be viewed as just one sphere among many. Like Habermas, Luhmann believes that modern religion has largely lost its capacity to legitimate and unify the society as a whole. Religion is not likely to die out, he says; it may even flourish among reactionary groups critical of political and economic processes. But it must function increasingly without significant connections to other spheres of social action.

This, at least, was Luhmann’s position until recently — a fairly pessimistic view of modern religion that did not differ substantially from that of many social theorists in the nineteenth century. But Luhmann’s broader framework has been in flux, and so have his views on religion. Like Habermas, he has immersed himself in the growing literature on language, discourse, and communication, coming increasingly to conceive of society itself as a vast system of communicative action, and this perspective has given him a number of novel ideas about the nature of religion.

At the 1984 meetings of the American Sociological Association Luhmann presented a paper entitled "Society, Meaning, Religion — Based on Self-Reference" in which he outlined the core of his ideas about modern religion. Building on his previous work, he continued to describe modern society as a product of evolutionary development, but he also suggested that a fundamental characteristic of modern society is its inevitable and enduring confrontation with paradox At one level, the basic paradox confronting modern society can be seen in the fact that there must be closure for communication to occur, yet there must also be openness in order to cope with the high degree of complexity and change in modern society. At another level, paradox is seen in the fact that any statement about the world implies that other possibilities were also available, thus rendering even definitive statements contingent. In short, Luhmann claims that we live in a world where, paradoxically, contingency is necessary. It is from this simple recognition of paradox that Luhmann develops his views of the functions of religion.

"The plentitude and void of a paradoxical world is the ultimate reality of religion," he writes. "The meaning of meaning is both richness of references and tautological circularity." Since modern society is both a closed system and yet inevitably constrained to remain open to unanticipated contingencies, it must cope with the paradoxical nature of its situation. Luhmann defines religion as the set of forms that society develops to "deparadoxize the world." Religious forms "absorb" paradox, resolving it by revealing that seeming opposites are really one and the same.

The essential insight here is seen most vividly in contrast with Weber’s description of the function of traditional religion. Weber argues that traditional religion serves to "make sense" of the universe by demonstrating that everything can be related to everything else, can be "unified" into a single whole. Thus good and evil, suffering and joy, life and death are all reconciled in a single overarching framework. But Luhmann’s argument is that even this framework cannot be accepted as final. It is a system that necessarily recognizes possibilities for meaning beyond itself. This is the paradoxical tension with which modern religion must always deal.

Any concrete religious symbol system or organization is thus inevitably precarious. It exists as a form that resolves ambiguity, and yet this form must always grant the reality of ambiguity. Religious systems therefore undergo nearly continuous transformations, both altering their social contexts and being altered by them. They are endangered by their own successes, resolving paradox to their long-term detriment and necessitating new conceptions of paradox itself. Luhmann thus conceives of religion as undergoing an evolutionary process but disagrees with Bellah and Habermas about whether this process can be reduced to a model of discrete stages.

Nevertheless, some significant landmarks in the evolution of modern religion can be identified. Since the paradoxes that religion deals with pertain, in Luhmann’s view, to the nature of communication, these landmarks have mostly to do with developments in the nature of communication. One was the invention of the alphabet. This invention led to the capacity to produce written religious texts which then, along with the gods and their utterances, became objects of religious reflection. No longer could priests and prophets simply offer their own renditions of the supernatural; they were now constrained by what the scriptures said. Luhmann suggests, not entirely facetiously, that the development of Christianity itself may be seen as a desperate attempt by religious specialists to survive the invention of the written word.

This of course happened centuries ago. It continues to affect the course of modern religion insofar as scripture and "the word" have remained to a high degree objects of self-conscious reflection in the Christian religion. As Luhmann notes, the New Testament canon itself seems to reflect a pattern of faith that is more closely circumscribed by religious texts than is the Old Testament. But none of this gets at the distinctive developments that have characterized religion in the twentieth century.

Luhmann’s depiction of contemporary religion includes many of the themes already noted in Bellah and Habermas — privatization, differentiation of beliefs from organizations, special purpose organizations, and a declining capacity to legitimate political and economic action. He also specifies Bellah’s notion of greater differentiation between the supernatural and natural realms by observing again the importance of communication: God remains an object with whom we can communicate; in contrast, we do not normally talk with nature. Most of these are, however, developments that Luhmann traces back as far as the origins of Christianity or even to the Greek city-states.

For the contemporary period, the main problem facing religion is, in Luhmann’s judgment, that of communicating with a god who has withdrawn into silence. Can we, given our own increasing awareness of the nature of symbols, realize the functions of our beliefs and yet hold firmly to them? Can paradox be resolved if we are aware that the role of our beliefs is to resolve paradox? His answer is that we probably cannot. Yet he also admits that this degree of self-reflectivity is probably limited mainly to the better educated segments of the population.

There is, however, a curious paradox within Luhmann’s own discussion of the paradoxical nature of religion. Recognizing both the value of the process of resolving paradox and the manner in whjch communication functions, we may be able to reconsecrate the churches for this very purpose. That is, the function that the churches may be best able to fulfill, even in modern society, is that of promoting communication with God. Within the insulated sphere that the churches provide, it may be possible to evoke a form of reality in which communication with an otherwise invisible deity makes sense. It may not be possible for such a reality to be constructed for everyone or on a broad scale, for communication with an invisible deity clearly runs counter to the norms of modern culture. Yet this contrast may be important in itself. As Luhmann argues, "churches seem to cultivate countermores, depending for their success on being different. Religion may have become counteradaptive, and this may be the very reason for its survival and for its recurrent revival as well. The church itself, by now, may have become a carnival, i.e. the reversal of normal order."

This vision of "church as carnival" contrasts sharply with the ideas of either Bellah or Habermas. Starting from the same premises concerning social complexity and cultural differentiation, Luhmann nevertheless is led along a different route by his emphasis on the paradoxical nature of social relations. Although silent in this perspective, God has by no means collapsed into a monistic worldview or been replaced by secular-rational norms of discourse. Religion fails to provide a clear sense of broader societal integration in all three of the models, but in Luhmann’s the emphasis on communication tends to preserve the idea of religious community, if only as counterculture. He maintains that the churches have a lasting, albeit restricted, social function to fulfill.

These are of course broad theoretical visions not to be used, as Bellah reminds us, "as a procrustean bed into which the facts of history are to be forced but a theoretical construction against which historical facts may be illuminated." How well, then, do these theoretical constructions illuminate the historical facts of American religion in recent decades?

From Theory to Evidence

In varying ways Bellah, Habermas, and Luhmann all stress the importance of greater self-awareness with respect to symbolism — or to culture, we might say — as a feature of modern religion. There is, in fact, much evidence that religious culture has become increasingly objectified for self-reflection at least at some levels. Theological reflection has, for example, converged to a remarkable degree with some aspects of the social sciences in its concern for the symbolically constructed character of reality. Munich professor of theology Wolthart Pannenberg, sounding strikingly like a social scientist, has observed that "it is only by symbols and symbolic language that the larger community to which we belong is present in our experiences and activities."3 And he goes on to argue that the church not only uses symbols but is itself symbolic. In a similar manner, Yale theologian George A. Lindbeck has asserted that "a religion can be viewed as a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought."4 Both writers develop their arguments, as Bellah might have predicted, not from metaphysical first principles but from anthropological considerations of the nature of symbolism. In applications of discourse analysis and deconstructionism, other theologians have taken the investigation of religious symbols even further.5

At the popular level, evidence of greater self-consciousness about the nature of religious symbolism is naturally less apparent. To broach the subject of mythology or textual criticism remains a mark of extreme heresy among the third of the public who believes that the Bible is not only divinely inspired but to be taken literally. Yet there are also indications that a substantial number of believers have achieved some degree of mental differentiation between their faith and the symbols with which it is expressed. For example, among those who believe the Bible to be divinely inspired, only half regard it as absolutely free of errors. Or for another example, a study of Lutheran church members showed that only one member in three felt it possible to prove the existence of God, and of these only about half felt this could be done from evidence in the Bible.6

Studies of new religious movements are also replete with evidence of the self-conscious application and manipulation of symbols. Because many of these movements grew from small groups in which symbols were either invented or synthesized from other sources, members tend to be keenly aware of the power of symbols. Being in a position to remake their own rituals and ideologies, and seeing the immediate effect of these symbols on group life, they quickly develop a heightened sense of "symbolic consciousness." Movements that seek to block out the effects of axiomatic constructions of reality through meditation, drugs, or religious experiences also sharpen their members’ sensitivities to the nature of symbolism.

Bellah’s argument that greater self-consciousness about religious symbolism tends to be accompanied by a greater emphasis on personal interpretation and a decline in tacit acceptance of official creeds is also supported by a variety of evidence. In the Lutheran study mentioned previously, only half of the respondents felt that God has given clear, detailed rules for living that apply to everyone; most of the remainder felt that individuals have to figure out how to apply God’s rules to their own situations. The study also included an effort to determine how much agreement exists between individual members’ views and the official theological positions of the church, first by interviewing theologians to determine what the official positions were, then by surveying pastors to see if these positions were taught, and finally by surveying members about their own beliefs. The core theological tenets of the church, as described by its theologians, consisted chiefly of three simple propositions: that Christ was fully God and fully man, that Christ was crucified to forgive our sins, and that men and women are sinners whom God loves and is giving new life. These tenets were uniformly accepted by the clergy and, partly because of the prescribed schedule of sermon topics, emphasized from the pulpit. Yet the laity survey found that only one member in three affirmed all three of these propositions. On other teachings, such as the church’s views of baptism and communion, agreement was equally low. Given these tendencies, it may not be surprising that denominational boundaries seem to be weakening.

The evidence is less clear with respect to Bellah’s claim that modern religion is principally characterized by a collapse of the dualistic worldview that distinguishes God from man, the supernatural from the natural, this world from a world beyond. As Bellah himself observes, more than ninety percent of the American population affirms some belief in the existence of God. Such affirmation scarcely answers the question of whether there has been, as he puts it, "a massive reinterpretation" of the nature of God. But more refined questions suggest that a sizable number of Americans still express their faith in dualistic terms. For instance, nine persons in ten believe Jesus Christ actually lived, seven in ten believe he was truly God, and six in ten think one must believe in the divinity of Christ to be a Christian. The results of studies documenting consistently high levels of belief in life after death, heaven, and Christ’s presence in heaven also point to the survival of a strong element of religious dualism in American culture. Indeed, the persistence of these beliefs seems to be one of the more stable elements of American religious culture, in contrast with the serious restructuring that has taken place in many other beliefs and practices.

But if dualism continues, evidence also suggests that believers have, in a sense, "subjectivized" the divine rather than continuing to conceive of God as a metaphysical, transcendent, or omnipotent being. A study conducted in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s found, among persons who said they definitely believed in God, that eight out often believed in God’s influence on their personal lives, but only about half felt God influenced social events.7 In the Lutheran study, only three in ten believed that God "shapes events directly through nations and social affairs."

A good deal of speculation — and some research — has also suggested that God is relevant to contemporary Americans mainly because the sense of God’s presence is subjectively comforting — that is, religion solves personal problems rather than addressing broader questions. This is perhaps especially true among evangelicals: historically evangelicals have tended to emphasize God’s sovereignty in all things, but more recently much of their literature focuses on emotional and psychological concerns.8

While it may be, then, that a high degree of supernaturalism remains in American religion as a formal tenet, the operational relevance of the supernatural may have largely collapsed into the interior concerns of the self. This conclusion tends to be supported by the high degree of interest that surveys have documented in questions of personal meaning and purpose and in the number of quasi-religious self-help movements that have developed since the 1960s.

At the level of religious organization there is also much to support Bellah’s contention that religious expression has become increasingly differentiated from traditional religious institutions. High rates of denominational switching and interdenominational marriage, reduced levels of denominational identity and cross-denominational tensions, and pervasive contacts across denominational lines all point toward a declining monopoly of specific religious traditions over the securement of religious convictions. Evidence on the numbers of individuals who consider themselves religious or who hold certain tenets of faith and yet do not belong to religious organizations or attend religious services regularly point in a similar direction. The idea of "special purpose groups" also gains confirmation from the evidence on rising numbers of such groups and the extent of participation in these groups.

At the most general levels of societal integration and legitimation, the evidence, while subject to various interpretations, suggests the continuing relevance of religiously inspired ethical concerns but also reveals the diminishing weight of religious arguments as such, relative to the weight these arguments carry at the individual level. In many respects, the most obvious religious development with respect to societal integration has been the rise of the New Christian Right. On the surface this movement — and the countermovements it has provoked — suggests a continuing tendency for religious values to find their way into the public domain as a part of debates over societal goals. Liberals and conservatives alike have resorted to religious arguments in defense of claims about public morality and the role of the state in defending public morality. Yet the very dissension that has been produced by the religious right points up the difficulties of gaining any kind of broad consensus on the basis of traditional religious values. Where tacit agreement has been achieved, it has been achieved mostly with respect to the underlying rational-legal procedures to which political action must pay heed. Moreover, secular myths having to do with individual freedom, material success, and perhaps especially the wonders of technology may be an even more powerful source of societal legitimation than, traditional religious arguments by virtue of being grounded in many assumptions that are virtually axiomatic in the culture.

Habermas’s assertions overlap considerably with those of Bellah, especially with regard to the privatization of religious expression, the decline of religious orthodoxy, and the erosion of religious institutions. Thus his claims illuminate many of the same bits of evidence as those just considered. His general emphasis, however, tends to suggest that rationality, natural science, and the social sciences have an even more pervasive effect on religion. The evidence suggests that all of these influences have indeed exercised a negative effect on traditional religious beliefs and practices. Not only do scientists — and especially social scientists — demonstrate radically low levels of religious commitment, but scientific and social scientific meaning systems appear to operate as functional alternatives to traditional theistic ideas for a number of people, and technical rationality plays an increasingly important legitimating function in the wider society. Highly publicized reactions to science and social science on the part of religious conservatives, as evidenced by lawsuits concerning the teaching of evolution in public schools and court cases challenging the influence of "secular humanism" on school textbooks, suggest that Habermas’s forces of "secular rationality" have by no means carried the day. And yet, the very grounds on which these controversies have been fought — arguing for the "scientific" basis of creationism, making use of the "rational-legal" procedures supplied by the modern court system, and drawing on social scientists for "expert testimony" — all point to the considerable degree to which even religious conservatives have accommodated to the norms of secular rationality.

At the same time, a clear case cannot be made in support of Habermas’s claim that the sciences have so reduced the physical and social contingencies of modern life as to make religious worldviews largely irrelevant. To the contrary, the sciences seem only to have contributed to a greater degree of sensitivity about the contingencies of life. Indeed, Luhmann’s suggestion that modern society is inevitably confronted with the paradoxes of its own contingency seems to be more applicable. Thus the concerns that continue to inspire deep religious discussion, such as the prospect of nuclear annihilation, the rights of the unborn, euthanasia, world hunger, Third World dependence, and so on, are clearly evidence of lingering contingencies in a technologized world.

At a more theological or philosophical level there is, however, a very significant development that Habermas’s discussion helps to illuminate: the manner in which religion itself has been redefined in the face of advances in the realm of natural reason. Modern definitions of religion, as Bellah suggests, have come to focus increasingly on symbolism and meaning. Writers such as Clifford Geertz, Peter Berger, and Bellah himself conceive of religion as a special kind of symbol system that evokes a sense of ultimate, transcendent, encompassing meaning. Drawing on the social sciences, this conception actually manages to save religion from the onslaught of post-Enlightenment positivism. It accomplishes this feat by positing religion as a type of symbolism concerned with the meaning of the whole of life. The meanings of anything less — of selected aspects of the world — can be identified by the contexts or frameworks in which those aspects are located. But the meaning of the whole lies beyond any specific context. As Wittgenstein observed, "the meaning of the world lies outside of the world."9 Thus the "world of facts" with which the empirical sciences deal must be seen ultimately in another context — a context given meaning by religious symbols — which is beyond the scope of the empirical sciences.

Thus it is not irrelevant to Habermas’s argument that modern religion tends to be defined the way it is. Not only has there been a greater degree of differentiation between symbols and truth in modern religion but there has also been an increasing degree of differentiation among kinds of symbols. As a result religious symbols have been put beyond the reach of rational and empirical criticism to the extent that they have been identified with a different type of reality construction. It should be noted that Habermas himself has contributed to this development by identifying different types of validity claims that may be embodied in ordinary discourse — some of which can be subjected to empirical criticism, others of which remain matters of nonempirical metaphysical or philosophical reflection. Some of the difference evident in American society between religious liberals and religious conservatives can be understandable in these terms, especially if some part of the more liberal population can be assumed to have differentiated in their religious discourse between symbolism oriented toward holistic meanings and symbolism subject to empirical criticism.

Luhmann’s discussion, lastly, raises distinct questions mostly in relation to his ideas about communication with God and the role of the church as carnival. Although he recognizes the precariousness of efforts to communicate with an invisible, silent God, the abiding paradox of living in a world that recognizes its own contingency forces him to concede that such communication will likely continue as a feature of modern life. Much evidence in fact suggests that, despite considerable erosion of religious practices in other areas, attempts to communicate with the divine remain strikingly prominent. Prayer in particular seems to have remained a strong feature of contemporary life in comparison with other kinds of religious behavior. For example, one of the Gallup surveys mentioned earlier showed that 60 percent of the American public personally considered prayer to be very important and another 22 percent regarded it as fairly important; by comparison, only 39 percent thought that reading the Bible is very important, 38 percent thought that attending religious services is very important, and 28 percent thought that being part of a close religious fellowship group is very important. Other surveys have documented high levels of interest and involvement in prayer, a high degree of belief in the efficacy of prayer, and a strong tendency to regard prayer as actual communication with God.

Apart from prayer, evidence also suggests that many people continue to value highly their sense of a relationship with God, and many feel they are close to God. The Gallup survey showed that "growing into a deeper relationship with God" was considered very important by 56 percent of the public and fairly important by an additional 26 percent. In another Gallup survey, 64 percent of the public indicated that their relationship to God was very important to their own sense of self-worth, and nine out of ten expressed satisfaction with this relationship.

Luhmann observes with some interest that modern religion seems to depict God chiefly as an all-loving being, thus reducing much of the motivation for salvation that has historically been associated with Christianity (viz., to avoid damnation). This depiction may in fact serve a positive role in sustaining the plausibility of communication with an invisible God in the modern era: communication may be easier to sustain when God is envisioned not as distant judge but as a loving friend, an intimate "God within." At any rate, there are clear indications that contemporary imagery envisions God in such terms. Eight of every nine persons say they feel that God loves them, 80 percent say they feel close to God, and only 16 percent say they have ever felt afraid of God.10 In the Lutheran study cited earlier, nine in ten said God loved them and was giving them new life; only a quarter felt they were sinners under the wrath and judgment of God. And evidence from a 1984 National Opinion Research Center survey indicates that, although images of God as judge and king persist, substantial numbers of Americans lean toward more intimate images such as lover and spouse.10

Luhmann’s idea of the church as a kind of counterculture devoted to maintaining the plausibility of communication with God also appears consistent with a variety of evidence. Although this is by no means a new role for the church to fulfill, it is a role that the church seems to have carried on with surprising success as the culture has become increasingly secularized. To be sure, the religionless Christianity of humanistic ethicalism that Bellah speaks of is evident in many mainline churches. But the importance of the religious community gathered for worship and fellowship with God is also strikingly evident. Protestants and Catholics alike have shown increasing interest in liturgy as the heart of such communal activity. Pannenberg has suggested that "the rediscovery of the Eucharist may prove to be the most important event in Christian spirituality of our time, of more revolutionary importance than even the liturgical renewal of our time."12 As the sense of guilt and sin that became prominent in the teachings of the Protestant Reformers erodes, he suggests, the church will increasingly find its reason for existing is to serve as a symbol of wholeness in a broken world. This is the purpose of the eucharist: to dramatize communion with God and to evoke the healing presence of God in the world. Moreover, in an argument with which both Habermas and Luhmann have shown familiarity, he suggests that the eucharist can be interpreted in distinctly modern terms as a symbol that dramatizes freedom by casting ossified structures in doubt and that enhances adaptiveness and communication by emphasizing openness and provisionality: "the human predicament of social life is not ultimately realized in the present political order of society, but is celebrated in the worship of the church, if only in the form of the symbolic presence of the kingdom to come."

The typical congregant may well not participate in "the worship of the church" with the sense of sophistication that Pannenberg suggests. Yet in some form the church — whether liberal or conservative — does continue to attract participation largely as a place in which to experience the closeness of God and the communion of fellow worshipers. Among the gratifications from church mentioned most often in a national survey of regular church attenders, for example, were feeling close to God (77 percent), the experience of worshiping God (60 percent), and a sense of companionship or fellowship (54 percent).


If the foregoing is any indication, American religion demonstrates many of the characteristics that theorists have identified with modern culture. Many religious beliefs and practices remain much in evidence, contrary to simpler predictions that have envisioned a simple decline in religious vitality. These beliefs and practices may have retained their vitality through accommodations to the contemporary cultural situation. In becoming more oriented to the self, in paying more explicit attention to symbolism, in developing a more flexible organizational style, and in nurturing specialized worship experiences, American religion has become more complex, more internally differentiated, and thus more adaptable to a complex, differentiated society.

For several reasons this is a fairly speculative conclusion, however. In the first place it has to be defended largely without comparable evidence from other times or places. Some of the characteristics of American religion that bear directly on the theories of Bellah, Habermas, and Luhmann can be shown to have intensified even in recent decades. But it can legitimately be asked whether many of these characteristics are unique to the modern period, whether they are intensifying, or whether they might not also have characterized Western religion a century or even a millennium ago.

Another difficulty is that evolutionary theories tend to be cast in such broad terms that essentially ambiguous data can be readily manipulated to support them. It often seems less than clear what counts as evidence of increasing differentiation and what might be regarded as counterevidence. Habermas has argued specifically against trying to make such connections with concrete historical examples, suggesting that evolutionary theories are better viewed as normative guides toward the future than as testable theories. Thus it may be that American religion only seems to have accommodated itself to modernity because of a selective interpretation of the facts.

This criticism, however, should not overshadow the positive role that evolutionary perspectives can play. If we admit that their purpose is not to provide us with testable hypotheses, then we can make use of them, as suggested earlier, to illuminate what might otherwise seem to be disparate or insignificant developments. We are led to think about the possibility that what appear to be signs of decay in contemporary religion may actually have beneficial consequences for its survival over a longer period. For example, the decline of orthodoxy may beassociated with a rise in personalized religious interpretations that make religion more adaptable to changing circumstances. We are also led to think about the relations among certain developments and the significance of these developments in a broader context. If it is true that religion is becoming more highly differentiated, then it may be especially important to develop greater effectiveness in dealing with new distinctions, with new understandings of symbolism, and with new kinds of religious organizations.

The more serious limitation of existing evolutionary approaches to religion is that they fail to illuminate much about the relations between religion and the broader social environment. Bellah, Habermas, and Luhmann all relate religious evolution to the growth of complexity and subsystem differentiation in the larger society. But none of the three draws explicit connections between these two levels of development of the kind that would indicate how a particular form of religious differentiation might be related to a specific example of societal complexity. And since all three leave open possibilities for maladaptive reactions, it becomes exceedingly difficult to pin down what constitutes complexity and what the effects of complexity may be.

Beyond this general problem, Bellah, Habermas, and Luhmann seldom identify the mechanisms of cultural change. At times it appears that each theorist regards religious evolution, like other dimensions of cultural evolution, as resulting from its own internal dynamics. This seems to suggest that previous symbolic structures set the constraints and provide the opportunities for new cultural developments. Thus one is forced to look mainly at the internal logic of Christianity, the legacy of Reformation Protestantism, and theological debates of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to understand what has shaped the character of American religion. Implicit in this approach is the view that institutional differentiation has progressed to such a high degree that religion is no longer significantly affected by anything other than developments within the religious institution itself.

Habermas himself, though, has openly challenged this view in some of his more recent work. Although he believes that the general patterns of cultural evolution are internally determined, he observes that other aspects of social structure are likely to be particularly influential during the transition from one general phase to another. He specifically mentions protest groups and religious movements as examples of mechanisms that may play a critical role in times of transition.

In the American case, evolutionary theories are most deficient in interpreting religious characteristics in relation to elements of the broader social fabric. Most of the empirical characteristics that fit in one way or another with these theories do not apply uniformly to the entire population. Many of them pertain most clearly to the young and to the better educated — factors that suggest the growing prominence of these characteristics. But the theories provide little help in explaining why education is a factor, and why now. Nor do they cast into sharp relief, except in very general statements about adaptation and reaction, the kinds of conflict that have emerged between religious liberals and religious conservatives. The assertion that differentiation marches forward may be an accurate appraisal of long-term tendencies, but the apparent inevitability with which this process is portrayed fails to account for either the more specific tensions that develop in the short run or the precipitating events that engender these tensions. Greater differentiation between values and behavior or between the kingdom of God and institutional programs, for example, can scarcely be understood in any kind of adequate way apart from the specific societal pressures that reinforce these changes.

What we need to complement highly abstract evolutionary theories are concrete historical comparisons from which to gain a sense of the kind of environmental factors — as well as the kinds of internal institutional responses — that may result in religious restructuring. The recent period has been fraught with rapid changes in education, technology, and the character of the state. To understand how these developments have affected religion in the past, and how they may shape religion in the foreseeable future, we need comparisons drawn from concrete historical material.


  1. All references and quotations are from a reprint of the original article that appears in Bellah’s Bryond Belief Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), pp. 20-50.
  2. The essays of Habermas that deal most specifically with religious evolution include Communication and the Evolution of Society (Boston: Beacon, 1979) and "History and Evolution," Telos 39 (1979): 5-44.
  3. Pannenberg, Christian Spirituality (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), p. 35.
  4. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), p. 33.
  5. For example, see Vincent Brummer, Theology and Philosophical Inquiry (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982); and Mark C. Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern A-Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).
  6. See my article, "Religious Beliefs and Experiences: Basic Patterns," in Views from the Pews: Christian Beliefs and Attitudes, ed. Roger A. Johnson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), pp. 10-32.
  7. Thomas Piazza and Charles Y. Glock, "Images of God and Their Social Meanings,’ in The Religious Dimension, ed. Robert Wuthnow (New York: Academic Press, 1979), pp. 69-92.
  8. See James Davison Hunter, American Evangelicalism (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983), pp. 91-99.
  9. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1974).
  10. The figures cited in this section are from two studies conducted by the Gallup Organization: Jesus Christ in the Lives of Americans Tod4y (1983) and How Can Christian Liberals and Conservatives Be Brought Together? (1984). Some of the results of the first study have been published in George Gallup, Jr., Who Do Americans Say That I Am? (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986).
  11. Andrew M. Greeley, "Religious Imagery as a Predictor Variable in the General Social Survey," paper presented at a plenary session of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Chicago, 1984.
  12. Pannenberg, Christian Spirituality, p. 47.