Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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A concept introduced through the English title of Thomas Luckmann's first major publication, The Invisible Religion , which appeared in 1967 (Macmillan), four years after its publication in German (original title Das problem der Religion in der modernen Gesellschaft ).

The Invisible Religion has been a highly influential text, and also the concept that its title embodies. The theoretical context of the work provides its point of departure. It forms part of Luckmann's concerted effort to understand the locus of the individual in the modern world. Sociological approaches to religion, deriving from the sociological classics, form a central theme within this quest. Luckmann's essay aims to reestablish this connection, insisting that the problem of individual existence in society is essentially a "religious" one.

It is, precisely, the lack of theoretical reflection within the flourishing subdiscipline of the sociology of religion in the postwar period that concerns Luckmann. The association of religion with church has oriented a whole generation of scholars toward a relatively narrow field, the more so in that church-orientated religion has become a marginal phenomenon in modern societies. To redress this balance, Luckmann opts firmly for a functional definition of religion but differentiates this from the structural-functionalism prevalent in contemporary sociology. Luckmann regards as problematic what is taken for granted in sociological functionalism. His perspective is, essentially, an anthropological one.

The core of the argument can be summarized in the following extract from The Invisible Religion (pp. 48 f):

The organism—in isolation nothing but a separate pole of "meaningless" subjective processes—becomes a Self by embarking with others upon the construction of an "objective" and moral universe of meaning. Thereby the organization transcends its biological nature.

It is in keeping with an elementary sense of the concept of religion to call the transcendence of biological nature by the human organism a religious phenomenon. As we have tried to show, this phenomenon rests upon the functional relation of Self and society. We may, therefore, regard the social processes that lead to the formation of Self as fundamentally religious.

From the narrowly institutional, the notion of religion becomes quite simply part of being human; it is that which transcends biological nature.

The debate between substantive and functional definitions of religion continues within the subdiscipline of the sociology of religion. Hervieu-Léger's La religion pour mémoire (Cerf 1993) contains a recent discussion of the issues involved. Within this debate, Luckmann's notion of invisible religion stands at one extreme; it is the most inclusive of all definitions and will be favored by those who find functional approaches more satisfying than substantive ones. Luckmann's analysis itself, however, remains solid apart from the definitional debate: Out of basic human processes emerge the construction of objective worldviews, the articulation of sacred universes, and, in some situations, the institutional specializations of religion. What forms these take and how they emerge pose important empirical questions. The theoretical position remains, however, unaltered: Religion is present in nonspecific form in all societies and in all socialized individuals. It is part of the human condition.

See also Thomas Luckmann

Grace Davie

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