A Review of Thomas Luckmann's The Invisible Religion

    Posted by Kenneth Mackendrick, 7 years ago

    The Invisible Religion: The Transformation of Symbols in Industrial Society by Thomas Luckmann. Originally published as Das Problem der Religion in der Modernen Gesellschaft (1963). English Macmillan edition 1967.

    Thomas Luckmann, along with occasional co-author Peter Berger, is among the most well known sociologists of religion in the 20th century. Luckmann and Berger published The Social Construction of Reality in 1966, a text that has become a standard in its field. Similarly, Berger’s The Sacred Canopy also manages to remain influential and worth reading today. Both are indebted to the writings of Emile Durkheim, George H. Mead, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, and Alfred Schutz and so, as one might expect, Luckmann’s prose is inordinately specialized and unnecessarily opaque. I mention this because The Invisible Religion technically demanding and suffers from being overly abstract. What’s more, no attempt has been made to assist the reader with comprehending the material aside from a constant drone of summaries.

    In the broadest sense, Luckmann outlines a phenomenological approach to the study of religion with an emphasis on its sociological characteristics. The basic question is straightforward: how do we locate human beings in the social order? (9). This question is presented as a religious problem since the individual, according to Luckmann, cannot be conceived without reference to religion (12).

    Although Luckmann is critical of theological or confessional approaches to understanding modern identity, he posits that we can only understand secularization in the midst of our religiosity; and, since it is clear that secularization is pervasive and powerful force in society, it also holds that religion must be present in some form or another. From this insight he argues that religion is a substantial element of the anthropological condition of humankind: “Religious institutions are not universal; the phenomena underlying religious institutions or, to put it differently, performing analogous functions in the relation of the individual and the social order presumably are universal” (43). In this sense, religion pertains to the institutionalization of symbolic universes. What makes this process religious is that “symbolic universes are objectivated meaning-systems that relate the experiences of everyday life to a ‘transcendent’ layer of reality. Other systems of meaning do not point beyond the world of everyday life; that is, they do not contain a ‘transcendent’ reference” (44). Transcendental references have to do with symbol systems that transcend biological nature: freedom, society, culture, and so on. By definition, then, human society is always a religious society (48-49). As Luckmann puts it: “The transcendence of biological nature is a universal phenomenon of mankind [sic]” (49).

    While there is a certain value to seeing society as a striving against the supposed limits of biology and nature, a point the Frankfurt School interprets quite differently than Luckmann, I am altogether unclear about why this should ineluctably be identified as religious. Not all transcendence is usefully identified as religious transcendence. Might we not conceive the relation between nature and society as a dialectic – what Hans Joas in a different context calls the “creativity of action?” This question might also be addressed in terms of communicative action and how transcendence from within may, as Jürgen Habermas argues, admit not of religious transcendence as such but of the overcoming of the “causality of fate” through the linguistification and disenchantment of condensed symbolic systems. Simply, sometimes transcendence refers to our potential to transform our material conditions through communicative action and not to supernatural or cosmological entities.

    Lastly – Luckmann’s phenomenological approach leads him to see the institutionalization of religion as caused by the forces of socialization. This produces a particular bottleneck when it comes to assessing issues of agency. Luckmann leaves little or no room for meaning systems to be chosen. This is where a more creative and dialectic understanding of individuation and socialization would be helpful. To put it differently, whereas Luckmann draws on a more mechanical or historicizing model of understanding, what would a theory of religion look like if nature and society were approached with an organic or dialogical understanding of empowerment from?

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