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Paradoxes: individualization and de-individualization

Evidently, different types of individuality are associated with different types of individualization processes. Pragmatic individuality is only rarely accompanied by a growing tradition of reflexivity, the latter being the typical standard for acknowledging the existence of a process of individualization in modernization theory. Competitive individuality presupposes a social environment of shared values in a group or entire society, but the uniform applicability of these values must be at least indirectly questioned by expressive individuality. Without the support of individual choices by institutionalized practices or beliefs, or even by full-grown organizations, explicit religion might become implicit religion, and visible religion invisible religion. And for the most part, the opposite happens when there is such support. Processes of individualization in their various forms are reversible, potentially following or being followed by processes of de-individualization.

The relationship between individualization and de-individualization is, however, even more complicated. Periods and regions that could be regarded as being characterized by a variety of individualization processes could also be seen as seedbeds of religious traditions, even organizations, in short what we are used to call ‘religions’. The Mediterranean world in late antiquity is the birthplace of what has been called the first autobiography, Augustine of

Hippo’s ‘Confessions’ at the end of the 4th century, and of monastic and ascetic virtuosi in the preceding century. And yet Augustine was the powerful head of the Catholic ‘church’ of Carthage, fighting the widespread Donatist movements. Many ascetics and hermits grouped together as cenobites in monasteries, where their ‘fathers’, the abbots, started to write monastic rules. The idea of the loving relationship to a god introduced earlier as bhakti, historically elaborated from the Puranic period, roughly the 3rd century ce onwards, quickly led to the formation of religions of sampradayas, or sects, focusing the religious practices on specific deities. The middle European Reformation of the early 16th century propagated individual belief and the idea of a personal salvation which is dependent on God's grace instead of ritual services provided by the Christian Church. However, different theologies and alliances organized themselves in ever closer ways, including through political structures. The ‘new religious movements’ in the era of New Age spirituality attest to a wide differentiation of worldviews and religious practices, but they are not only indicators of individual options and choices made. At the same time, they also attest to loose and tight networks, practices of bonding and even the punishing of disloyalty.

These observations can be generalized. Individual behaviour that might be judged deviant, or at least non-conformist, from the point of view of the majority or religious mainstream is precarious and threatened. Consequently, it is safeguarded and institutionalized in the form of minority groups (at least in the beginning). The paradox takes its point of departure from here. A bundle of factors and motifs lead to the encaging of those who group together to defend their religious individuality. In order to define their boundaries, groups dogmatize their norms and denounce outsiders, as well as exclude internally deviant members. Systematization of belief and the attempt to gain political support produce rigidity or compromises that turn away other members. Professional leaders judge the power of their institution by its influence on the behaviour of people who judge themselves members or are ascribed membership. The conviction or practice safeguarded by the institution might be enforced rigidly among its members. By the 4th century ce, Christian bishops had achieved juridical power, granted by the Roman emperor; ‘heretics’, ‘followers’ of (just another) sect, had been banned earlier but could now be sanctioned with public support. Manicheans and heretics feared for their careers and indeed their lives at times. Even if the question of whether Muhammad’s Islam was just a new heresy or an independent ‘religion’ of its own was discussed by Christian observers far into the Middle Ages, in hindsight we can classify this culmination of individualization processes as a period of ‘religionification’, of the rise of religions (Riipke 2010). In Europe, a comparable process can be observed in the early modem period. Throughout the 18th century, the processes of confessi onalization - the development of different ‘confessions’ (Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed) - sharply defined group limits, formalized standards of belief and behaviour, and assured the internalization of specific denominational norms that led to lasting habits, social and economic behaviour, and intellectual

Individuals’ religion 35 orientation. Only for a few did such confessions offer practically achievable options. Despite the existence of religious pluralism from a bird’s eye perspective, for any particular historical individual the exercise of choice was extremely restricted. In many instances, this stimulated internal differentiation rather than a costly switching of allegiances.

To sum up, as has been noted and criticized in the case of the concept of the privatization of religion, processes of religious individualization are frequently paradoxical. As a research concept, individualization, like privatization, offers a lens through which to examine processes that have been neglected due to a governing conviction on the part of many scholars of the Western world: the belief that individuality is inseparably tied to the notion of modernity. Removing this prejudice opens up a fruitful field of comparative research. However, focusing our gaze through this lens provides gains that come with costs. Discarding the nexus of individualization and modernity also means setting aside the idea of a trans-historical process. It demands that we take into account the broad context of the phenomena under scrutiny. The historical evidence sketched briefly above, and not least the relationship of privatization and de-privatization in the 1960s, encourages us to pay attention to the entanglement of processes of individualization and de-individualization.


1 Colpe and Habermehl (1996); on ancient Greek Orphic gold lamellae accompanying the dead, see de Jauregui (2011); Faraone (2011).


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3 Religious agency, identity, and communication

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