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Religion as an urbanizing factor

In the discourse on religion and urbanization, the potentially disruptive effects of religion have only very recently been addressed by noting that the close proximity of exclusivist groups could produce tension and cause division, and that religion might also reinforce other dimensions of difference.11 Failing to start, for instance, from the much more complex reconstruction offered by Fustel de Coulanges, sketched above, the focus has been on religion as a way of legitimizing power or increasing the sociability of people.12 As a tool for enlarging agency, both for holders of power and for marginalized or opposing agents, religious communication is to be found on both sides of the characteristic urban tension between trapping, ruling, and homogenizing, on the one hand, and stabilizing diversity and carving out individual space, on the other. Analyses of the relationship between religion and urbanization need to follow complex and conflicting lines, even when looking back into pre- and early urban settlement periods.

In many narratives, religion is used as a tool in the actual foundation of cities. From the point of view of a broader range of agents, much more important is another quality of religious practices, related to strategies of appropriating that sometimes involve marking or even sacralizing space. In the diversity and density of urban settlements, religious communication and its association with space and people supports the making of ‘places’ out of underdefined space.13 In ancient Rome, the separation of settlement space and tombs, enforced from an early date, drove the city’s ancestors and all the place-claiming strategies frequently related to funerary practices and ancestor cult out of the space within the walls. Here, perhaps, the conceptual separation of the Lares, a type of divine addressee found at hearth and home, from the ancestorial gods, a type of divine addressee typically associated with the ancestors’ tombs, enabled an appropriation of the domestic space. Given that the home could no longer be subjected to a religious place-making based around ancestor cult, as the tombs had been moved out of town, the space belonging to the living and the dead was clearly separated, opening up both a conceptual and a physical space for the divine protectors of the hearth (Riipke 2020).

To summarize the argument that is just hinted at above, I do not claim that religious practice was the prime factor in all or most urbanization processes. It was, however, an important factor from early on. As such, it was a factor in enabling, if not in the outright co-creation of, diversity and heterarchy in urban settlements:14 one could remain in the city and also remain different. This is not to deny that, in the history of urban settlements, religious practices may have shaped the urban topography, architecture, and even the atmosphere and the ‘branding’ of particular settlements in terms of memories and ‘heritage’ (Moser, 2013; on antiquity see Sulzbach 2015). But much more fundamentally, religion catered for urban aspiration and place-making just as much as it did for ruling and administration. We should thus employ the notion of religious agency in order to analyse the full range of urban and religious agents.

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