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SozSys 3 (1997), H.2


Soziale Systeme 3 (1997), H.2, S. 219-235

Religion, residual problems, and functional differentiation: an ambiguous relationship
Peter Beyer

Zusammenfassung: Der Artikel untersucht am Beispiel der modernen Religionen die fast paradoxe Beziehung zwischen Ausdifferenzierung (Systembildung) und Entdifferenzierung in der funktional differenzierten Weltgesellschaft. Die Kritik der Religionen an den typischen Folgeproblemen dieser Gesellschaft ist symptomatisch dafür, daß gerade in diesem Bereich eine Spannung herrscht zwischen Systembildung und Anti- oder Nicht-Systembildung. Die Religion besitzt eine Art "Wahlverwandtschaft" mit den Folgeproblemen der modernen Gesellschaft, und zwar aus zwei Gründen. Zum einen finden diese Probleme einen Widerhall in den Schwierigkeiten, Religion als ein funktionales System unter anderen zu konstruieren, und zum andern wegen der holistischen Perspektive der differenzierten Religion überhaupt. Die Probleme, die uns als charakteristische Folgen der Dominanz spezialisierter Technik erscheinen, verweisen auf die Ambivalenz, die sich aus der Umstrukturierung der Religion in eine spezialisierte Technik ergeben, und auf die Schwierigkeit, in der heutigen Gesellschaft diese Folgeprobleme auf einer anderen Basis als der technisch-funktionalen zu bewältigen.


World society today has, as its dominant structural form, the functional differentiation of its major subsystems. Most observers of global social reality would not state the matter in quite such Luhmannian terms; but notions which speak about the ascendancy of capitalism, a global state system, or simply technical rationality implicitly point in the same direction. Current discussions about globalization in fact show a prevalence of economic and political conceptions (for example, Shaw 1994; Thomas et al. 1987; Wallerstein 1995; cf. Waters 1995), with the addition of, broadly speaking, cultural perspectives that almost invariably assume a background of states, economy, and technique (Beck 1986; Featherstone 1995; Giddens 1990; Robertson 1992). These approaches continue and expand under the titles of globalization and its cognates what a vast social-scientific and philosophical tradition has analyzed as geographically more restricted and often state-centred modern societies.

One of the more striking features of quite a few of both the current and past efforts at describing modern and now global society is the degree to which these focus on what they deem to be negative results of the modernization and the globalization process (cf. Luhmann 1984; 1987a), on what I wish to call its residual problems. Such critique varies a great deal, both in content and severity. Yet among the concerns expressed in more recent theories, certain ones recur consistently and stand out as primary: globalization leads to the oppression of the majority of people by a minority (Holm/Sensen 1995; Wallerstein 1979); it homogenizes and restricts the possibilities for individual and collective human action in favour of the technically rational, the superficial, and even the "inhuman" (Bauman 1989; Ellul 1954; Ritzer 1996; Saul 1992); it destroys the physical and biological environment to the general detriment of life on earth (Rifkin 1991; Gordon/Suzuki 1991); and it addicts us to the futile quest for more and more control that also yields permanent crisis and constant insecurity (Beck 1986).

A remarkable feature of these critiques is that they accuse modern and global society of negating precisely those values that are actually most typical of it, ideals such as equality, freedom, tolerance, and progress. Underdevelopment, racism, sexism, the "iron cage", dependency, alienation, risk, imperialism, environmental degradation, totalitarianism, among other terms, all pass moral judgements on the basis of these motive forces, these characteristic ideals of the largest part of contemporary society. The critiques, therefore, are largely not those of an alternative vision let alone a rising class, like a liberal bourgeois critique of an aristocratic society. Rather, like romanticism, they correspond to bourgeois or modern society itself: they assume functionally differentiated society and espouse its characteristic values, even if they take the form of seemingly anti-systemic counter-images. What this means is that they do not point beyond themselves to a different form of dominant differentiation. At best, like the early Marx, they envision a society without differentiation or only segmentary differentiation; and these possibilities they leave in an evocative mist sometimes nostalgically described as "community" (cf. Morris 1996). To the degree that any solutions are even possible on the basis of such critiques, either they amount to a straightforward negation and refusal; or, much more typically, they end up resorting to those functionally systemic techniques that are at the root of the problems, especially the legal and the political.

My purpose in this article, however, is not to critique the critiques; nor is it to deny the problems attendant upon technically rational dominance. Rather I look more closely at the almost paradoxical relation between systemicity and anti-systemicity in global, functionally differentiated society. More specifically, I examine how contemporary religion points to and illustrates this ambiguity; how religious response to the characteristic problems of this society is itself symptomatic of a more general struggle within the religious sphere between systemicity and non-systemicity or anti-systemicity.(1) Religion, more than other domains of functional specialization (with the possible exception of art), has a kind of "elective affinity" with the residual problems of modern society because they resonate with the difficulties attendant upon constructing religion as a function system in the social context of a dominance of functional differentiation. The problems that appear to us to be the result of a dominance of specialized technique point to the ambivalence attendant upon forming religion as one specialized technique beside others.

Associating religion with non-technical, non-instrumental, or at least a different kind of reason is not particularly recent, especially in the Western cultural spheres of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. From Augustine to al-Ghazali to Maimonides, the question of the relation between "reason" and "revelation" has for some centuries been an important moment in the differentiation of religion in these areas, especially in Western European society. In recent times, however, the dominance of non-religious (that is, secularized) instrumental systems has led various religious observers to insist on a more radical difference between religion and other social forms. These efforts have often implied the de-differentiation of religion: religion is said to distinguish itself as that which cannot be differentiated. I refer, therefore, not to 19th century critiques of religion as irrational, illusory, or inferior; but to religious protests that reject the relegation of religion to one functional domain beside other, autonomous ones. Included under this heading would be the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX; declarations of such varied people as Swami Vivekananda, Angarika Dharmapala, and Liang Shu-ming that Hinduism, Buddhism, or Confucianism offer a necessary "spiritual" corrective to the "one-sided materialism" (read: technical dominance) of the West; the opposition of genuine "faith" to degenerated "religion" by such varied Christian thinkers as Jacques Ellul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Wilfrid Cantwell Smith; and the assertions by numerous Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and representatives of aboriginal religions that theirs is not a religion, but a (holistic) "way of life". In each of these cases, the basis of the protest is that we cannot and should not "reduce" religion to one (technical) domain beside others. What is at issue is the incorporation of religion into the logic of functional differentiation.

Religion, therefore, from these perspectives, offers an approach to the world that is much more than one specialized technique beside others. It represents not just another possibility, but the foundation of all possibilities. Religion, we are given to understand, is about the whole, about what makes the possible possible; and therefore cannot be compartmentalized. As a by now century long sociological tradition has argued, what we now call religion does seem to have some such foundational qualities. The question of religion’s general character, however, can only make sense in a particular social context in which we try to express that character. In the case of modern and by now global society, the dominance of functionally differentiated systems means that the social reality of religion as an autonomous modality of communication will depend significantly on how well we can imagine and reconstruct religion in the form of a function system. And this, in turn, depends on how well such a system can accommodate the holistic character of religion – its claim to provide access to the holistic foundations of reality – in the sort of technical, specialized, and in this sense partial form that these systems typically have developed in global society. The protests just mentioned point to a definite problem in this regard.

If we accept this diagnosis, then those same religious objections will also provide a fertile perspective from which to criticize functionally differentiated society as such, especially as manifest in its historically typical residual problems. As the consequences of functional differentiation, these can be treated as symptoms of religious failings. One possible formulation might run like this: by not giving religion its place, we are seduced to instrumental hubris and thus, to our peril, lose sight of the insufficiency of human endeavour and its need to be grounded in something beyond itself.

We can look at this challenge to religion in a slightly different way in order to highlight how the problem for religion is at the same time one for functionally differentiated society as such. Religiousness is in modern and global circumstances under contextual pressure to form itself selectively as another instrumental system, which means as another technically rational system that focuses on the reproduction and increase of its characteristic communication. Among the essential symptoms of such systematization would be convergent centres of religious authority, expressly religious organizations (many with global extent or at least more than local range), articulated religious programmes elaborating clear religious binary codes, and the effective (self-) observation of these institutions explicitly as religion.(2)
Such systematization is by no means some sort of evolutionary necessity. Modern and global society could probably manage without a religious system, although that would not mean the elimination of religious communication. To the extent that religion does form as a system, however, it will present no better possibilities for addressing the typical residual problems of functionally differentiated society than other systems. For, if the dominance of functional differentiation is itself at the root of problems like inequality, insecurity, and environmental degradation; then functionally specialized religion will be just as susceptible as other, more powerful systems such as economy and science to being seen as part of the problem, not just as the source of solutions. And indeed, it is not unusual to hear religious critics of modern and global society target not just imperialists, capitalists, and technocrats, but also "conservative" religion and religious authorities.(3) To cite just two examples, Latin American liberationists have thus criticized Roman church authorities and burgeoning Pentecostalism for reinforcing the status quo; while Ali Shariati and his followers in pre-revolutionary Iran condemned "Safavid" ulama for being quiescent and thus aiding and abetting injustice (cf. Beyer 1994).

This said, the alternative for religion and its carriers is to avoid functionally specific systemization, to avoid extensive organization, orthodoxifications, and self-presentation as religion. We see evidence of such a desideratum in various religious manifestations like Western neo-paganism, New Age movements, and, ironically enough, Pentecostalism. All three of these eschew convergent systematization in principle, if not actually in practice. This direction, however, risks precisely the "invisibility" of religion which, as Luckmann (1963) notes, amounts to fairly radical secularization. A sort of middle ground offers itself in the form of the social (religious) movement; but this type of social system, although potentially quite effective for mobilizing religious resources toward specific problems, suffers from the disadvantage, like Weber’s charisma, of being inherently evanescent. Sooner or later, social movements have to transform into something else, or disappear. In consequence, we are likely to continue to witness religion expressing itself in all these possibilities: in a function system, in social movements, and in non-systemic forms. The latter two, at least, usually with a strong element of protest, of opposition to the dominant social structures, albeit very often in the name of the dominant value-orientations of global society and only sometimes against them.

These rather extended introductory remarks now require further elaboration. The remainder of this essay thus takes a few steps back to examine various key questions that the foregoing observations imply. Specifically, I look at aspects of the history of the functional differentiation of religion under modernizing and globalizing conditions. Questions of binary codings and the relation of religion to other instrumental systems are part of a presentation that seeks to isolate the specific character and peculiar problems of religion in modern society. On this basis, I then return to the question of how religion relates to the typical residual problems of global society.


Niklas Luhmann’s work on religion gives several useful starting points for a closer analysis of what religion has become in the modern era, and some of the consequences of these transformations.(4) Particularly fruitful is the idea of looking at the more recent history of religion precisely in terms of its functional differentiation; and, in that context, comparing the structures of the religious system to those of other function systems. The differentiation in the context of comparison is, of course, more than a question of scientific observation; it places the emphasis on religion’s position as one function system beside others, not merely on the possibilities for religious differentiation as such.

A discussion of the place of religion in modern and global society cannot confine itself to a discussion of Christianity; but for historical reasons, any analysis has to begin here. Following Luhmann’s analysis, but making various additions and emendations, the story begins effectively in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. In the wake of the gradually disappearing Roman world, the Christian church emerged for some time as the only overarching institution of the region, representing not only differentiated religion, but also preserving and carrying forward important portions of Greco-Roman culture that would later play a role in the emergence of a functionally differentiated society. The church was a religious institution with multifunctional characteristics. In the context of a society in which stratified differentiation dominated and no overpowering traditional political empire emerged, the church became the expression of a functional religious system of probably unparalleled contrast with the surrounding society.

By the High Middle Ages, we can justifiably speak of an "age of faith", not because Europeans were so exceptionally pious, but because the religious system through the church and its professional, often monastic, representatives was so prominent. The medieval "explosion of sin" in the context of a "scarcity of salvation" documented by Delumeau (1983; cf. Luhmann 1989) was the obverse face of an exceptional increase in the pastoral techniques and resources whose purpose was to deal with these problems. The church had other important roles beside the religious, yet at the core of all these endeavours was the pursuit of faith, the increase and elaboration of religious communication and religious consciousness.

Two aspects of this medieval European story are of particular importance for our purposes here. First is that reflexivity and closure of this religious system centred around the two binary codes of salvation/damnation and the moral good/bad (Luhmann 1987b; 1989). People engaged in religious activity for the sake of salvation, a scarce quality which it was impossible to attain without the help of the church’s resources because of the severity of sin, that is, human moral weakness. An elaborated and, from the perspective of the religious system, unified moral code connected virtually all human social activity to the quest for salvation and the real possibility of damnation. In a society where stratified differentiation dominated and so much of the most important communication happened in face-to-face interactions, moral coding could and did provide a solid connection between differentiated religious concerns and the rest of social life. Second, with the addition of its, strictly speaking, non-religious functions, the church, as the institutional incarnation of the religious system, was not only a very salient and powerful presence in this society. As far as functionally specialized institutions were concerned, it had for a time no real competitors. Other functional institutions, notably the political, were comparatively weak. In retrospect, we can see that the almost hyper-development of the religious system in the absence of the serious political counterweight that characterized most other civilizations with differentiated religion was one of the prime conditions for the eventual shift to a dominance of functional differentiation in Western society. That transformation, once it was seriously under way in the later medieval period, led to the further differentiation of the religious system, but now increasingly in a context of competition from other rising function systems, above all the political/legal, the economic, and the scientific; and also eventually, perhaps even more critically, the health, the educational, the artistic, and that for mass information media. In these circumstances, religion fared reasonably well for quite some time. The comparative weaknesses that it showed after the 18th century have to be seen against the background of its previous exceptional prominence and of the greater capacity for instrumental specialization of at least some of its systemic competitors. To a certain extent, religion weakened in the West because it had once been so strong; but only to a certain extent.

The Reformation and its aftermath illustrate some of the key dynamics involved. The root impulse of most reformers was to purify religion, which would seem to mean to enhance its differentiation. Yet what they reacted against was the instrumentality of the church, its elaborate technicization as a specialized institution centred around the salvation/ damnation code. Less directly at issue, but also of importance, was the multifunctionality of the church, its wealth, its political power especially. At least for the dominant Lutheran, Calvinist, and Zwinglian movements, the solution, as Luhmann points out (1989), was to insert grace as a code in between salvation/damnation and good/bad. This emphasis on "faith" rather than "works" tended to differentiate religion even more from other domains of human activity. It aimed at increasing the recursiveness of religious communication, so that only "religious" criteria would be relevant. The resulting devaluation of any technical means to gain salvation, however, points to the tendency of highly differentiated religion to disconnect from "worldly" or "profane" social life. Unlike the today more dominant functional domains such as law, politics, economy, science, and health; but like art, religion, it would seem, becomes less instrumental at high levels of differentiation. This difference is borne out in other religions as well, such as in the Zen notion of "sudden" enlightenment and the Daoist idea of non-action. In general, it seems that pure religion tends toward "other-worldliness" at the level of its more primary codings, making secondary codings such as a moral code all the more important if religion is to have direct social relevance.

In the Protestant case, the "faith only" or radical predestinarian directions were never successfully pursued: they would have subjectivized the code too much or simply put it beyond human disposition. Instead, we see a rather rapid return to some form of ecclesiastical and ritual instrumentalization and to a continuing emphasis on morality for connecting the possibility of salvation or damnation to life "in the world". Justification by faith, no less than Catholic sacramental mediation of grace, needed to find a way of reconnecting to other social systems of meaning. The moral code was and remains even today the dominant way of doing this, at least in Christianity. That dependency, however, also points to certain important disadvantages for this religion in the modernizing context.

As long as morality occupied a relatively central and unifying role within European society, respecifying the religious code through a moral code could be and was quite effective. With the rise of other function systems and the decline of the more morally dependent stratified systems, however, morality gradually lost that centrality. The different rising systems generated their own independent, different, and not infrequently, from the perspective of the prevailing religio-moral code, immoral criteria for action. As these became more dominant, morality became one regulator of social action beside other more and more prevalent considerations of functional or technical efficacy. Moreover, given that religion was itself a highly developed function system with its own "raison d’église", it could also become the subject of moral evaluation and critique (cf. Luhmann 1989, 307). Here we have at least one of the reasons that contemporary religious criticism of functional differentiation and its consequences will tend to include criticism of religion to the extent that it presents itself as just another functionally specialized institution. The decentralization or deprivileging of morality because of the rise of other function systems not dependent on moral regulation did not, however, mean that moral questions were no longer important. Far from it. What it did mean was that religion, as one function system beside others, could no longer as self-evidently claim moral questions as its own; and that moral considerations were, from the perspective of society as a whole, less determinative.

Another critical aspect of these transformations for which the Reformation and its aftermath provide good illustration concerns the pluralization of religion into religions. Here the rapidly rising prominence of the political system of states played a key role. The confessional splits that resulted from the Reformation expressed religious differences, but these would in all likelihood not have broken the organizational and theological unity of the Western Christian church if rising political powers had not used the opportunity to free themselves more effectively from ecclesiastical tutelage. The Westphalian formula tended to identify states with either the Catholic or one of the Protestant churches. But far from being simply a reformulation along national lines of what had existed before across state boundaries before, it expressed rather the superiority of political over religious power. The English Reformation is the clearest example, but the situation was not that much different even in Catholic countries.
It is in this context of rough and temporary coordination of political and religious boundaries that we see arise conceptualizations of religion and religions that parallel the distinctions between the state and states or, eventually, nations. Much as the state became a common political form which could only exist concretely as a plurality of states, so European observers, beginning in the 17th century, began to treat religion as a generic form for which there were a plurality of concrete manifestations: not simply Protestantism and Catholicism, for these were versions of Christianity; but, in the light of the beginning parallel expansion of European power to all corners of the world, also other religions, initially Islam, Judaism, and "paganism"; and then in the 18th and 19th centuries, the other "world religions" (see Almond 1988; Harrison 1990; Marshall 1970; Smith 1964). It must be stressed, however, that what we do not have here is a sort of ecumenic discovery and tolerance of religious diversity; that would in all likelihood have discouraged the new notions because it would encourage a blurring of boundaries. Rather European religious conflict, predicated on an intolerant exclusivism and on political and economic competition between states, was a condition for the possibility of seeing religions as discrete and more or less mutually exclusive systems of belief and practice.

This pluralization did not remain at the level of (European) observers’ suggestions. The modelling of religions that emerged was approximately parallel to that of the emerging nations in the sense that there has been a tendency to see and organize religions as aspects of national cultures. And we can see that the global imagining and reconstruction of these religions has very often been closely associated with the emergence of nationalisms. Yet religion in the West was not just an undifferentiated aspect of culture or society. It was also, and more importantly, a differentiated function system. As Westerners effectively spread the other function systems to the rest of the world, they tried to do this with religion as well; not only in the sense of spreading Christianity, but also in the sense of encouraging other people to reimagine and reconstruct their religious traditions as religions. Both efforts achieved a modest amount of success. Nonetheless, the spread and appropriation by non-Westerners of the model of the nation and the political system of the modern state has been far less problematic than has been the spread and appropriation of the model of religion. The reasons for this difference bring us back to the internal recursive structures of functionally specialized religion more generally, and once again to the context of a dominance of functionally differentiation. The particular pattern that the West followed turns out to have more general application.

When discussing the binary code of religion more generally, Luhmann consistently favours the distinction between transcendent and immanent (e.g. Luhmann 1986, 183-192; 1989; 1991). As an overall observation about religion, this is a defensible description, even if no religions actually operate with this code directly. Its usefulness in the present context is that it points to the holism of religion. Various sociological definitions of religion try to focus on the same feature with words like supra-empirical and ultimate. Luhmann himself puts it in terms of the meaning of meaning (1996). What is at issue is the aim of religion to structure its communication in terms of some sort of final ground for the possibility of anything: how is the possible possible?

This root form of religion has consequences, especially in functionally differentiated society. The more "pure" religious determinations are, the less they will be connected to "phenomenal" reality: the Protestant Reformers could not insist on "faith alone". The high gods of many small-scale societies are too remote to concern themselves much with human affairs, but they are responsible for the fact that anything exists at all. Ultimately, even nirvana has no own-being and therefore one can say neither that it is nor that it is not, nor both, and so forth. Put in terms of the transcendent/immanent code, religion can and at times does strive toward the singularity of the transcendent (the sacred as Otto (1936) and Eliade (1959) put it) to escape the limitations of the polarity.(5) In light of this feature, highly differentiated religion, not just in the modern West, will constantly have to face the problem of respecifying itself into more "compromising" terms. Religion may be that which deals with the whole, but that, to use a typically Luhmannian formulation, is an identity that must become a difference in order to make a difference. Yet such compromise, such distinction is not restricted by anything inherently religious; it can happen in an almost infinite variety of ways. As Durkheim (1937) pointed out, any thing can be sacred because the sacred cannot be anything in particular. Religion, especially in its differentiated forms, is therefore susceptible at least as much to pluralization as to convergence, and this not just accidentally. In a Hindu formulation, Brahman is singular, but then again there are also 330 million deities.

There are, of course, ways of controlling this pluralization, but these all involve reconnection to and involvement in, functionally speaking, non-religious social structures. The consequences of holism will accordingly depend on the socio-structural context of religion. In societal situations where functional differentiation does not dominate, the flexibility that the holistic penchant of religion implies can and has been an advantage: religion and religious specialists, as an expression of their concern with religious questions, could fulfil all sorts of non-religious functions in the name of religion. We saw a very clear example of this in the above discussion of the European Middle Ages. When various other function systems rise to prominence, however, the challenge for religion is that most of the more powerful ways of reconnecting will become the specializations of the other systems. Technical specialization leads to the elaboration of highly improbable but empirically very effective means. Religious specialists, with their focus on the transcendent as ground of the immanent, are thereby not specialists in immanent, empirically effective means. At best, their efforts in this direction will appear supplemental, to be used in addition or when all else fails: If I am sick, I will go to a doctor; I may also pray. If threatened, I may call upon the gods to destroy my enemy; but the police or the army would be so much more effective.

From a slightly different perspective, one can use the Parsonian concept of "real assets" (Parsons 1963) or its Luhmannian version, "symbiotic mechanisms" (Luhmann 1974), to make the same point. As long as other function systems have not claimed the most universal biological factors of human social existence – perception, physical force, sexuality, nourishment, illness, child-rearing, shelter – religion can respecify itself through all of these, directly or indirectly. But once systems for science, politics, law, family, economy, health, and education have crystallized around these, holistic religion, while certainly not irrelevant, will have to compete with or otherwise influence systemic partners that refer primarily to one asset or another, but not all of them. Religion, in such a situation, may well be left with whatever remains, above all individual and communal integration – which points again to moral codings – and "ecstatic" (that is, unusual) perception; and even in these realms, other systems, such as the political (above all through the idea of the nation), the legal, the familial, the medical, and most especially the artistic, offer a certain amount of competition. In this context, religion becomes a broadly present type of communication, but one that at the level of society as a whole has difficulty becoming a clearly convergent function system like the others because other systems have limited the possibilities for the technical instrumentalization of religion, that is, its demonstrable capacity to have immanent effect. The result is at best a pluralized or multi-centred system: if it were not for the modern reconstruction of the various religions, there would be no religious system at all (see Beyer 1997).

This profound ambiguity in the situation of religion in modern and global society is at the root of why religion and religions have established a special resonance with the typical problems generated by a dominance of functional differentiation. It also helps to explain why the religiously-based responses to those problems are themselves so ambiguous. It remains in a final section to take a closer look at the nature of those responses and what they tell us about functionally differentiated global society more generally.


The arguments that I have presented thus far may make it seem that we are living in an inevitably secularizing society, and that the ability of religion to respond to the residual problems of functional differentiation is quite limited. In a sense, that is what I am suggesting, except that nothing is inevitable, and secularization does not mean the powerlessness, let alone the disappearance, of religion. In fact, given religion’s penchant for claiming to render access to the meaning of the whole, and that moral codings still constitute one of the most important secondary codings for most religions; it would seem to be a very suitable perspective from which to criticize global society as a whole, and therefore, as a whole, a society that features a dominance of functional differentiation. The ambiguity of religion, to use theological language, its tendency to be "in the world, but not of it", suits this type of social communication to articulating the problems that seem to be attendant upon functional differentiation itself. In consequence, we might expect the representatives of religion to be a prime source for such criticism. Perhaps just as importantly, we should expect those critical descriptions that see the problems in the nature of functional differentiation or technical rationality itself to take on religious colouring. Because religion takes the paradoxical perspective of the whole, holistic perspectives will tend to have a religious look about them.

On the basis of this diagnosis, what is perhaps surprising is that religious protest of this nature is only somewhat present in contemporary global society, and not more so. By far the largest part of what religious institutions and religious people do today is straightforward religious communication: the recursive reproduction of religion, more often than not within the functionally systemic framework of a particular religion. There are, to be sure, emanating from different religions, various protest movements of the sort the above analysis suggests. One thinks, for instance, of Christian liberation theology and militant neo-traditionalist Islam with their characteristic vilification of capitalism and Western imperialism under such moral headings as social justice and global arrogance. Catholic bishops and the pope regularly issue statements lamenting injustice, insecurity, and environmental degradation as essentially the consequences of religious and moral failing in global society. The World Council of Churches has its Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation programme which does something similar (see Beyer 1994 for a more complete analysis). And the list could go on to include the Dalai Lama, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Soka Gakkai International, the Unification Church, to name but a few. Taken together, however, all these manifestations come to very little when one considers how much protest comes from non-religious sources.

In this regard, beside the critiques emanating from traditional religious sources, some but only some, of the more "secular" movements dedicated to addressing the residual problems of global society also exhibit religious qualities in that they seek a solution to the problems in dedifferentiation in favour of a "communal" or "natural" whole. Examples include socialist and communist movements which have envisioned a classless society usually projected onto an eschatological future; and ecological movements such as deep ecology and eco-feminism that seek to retreat to the local and face-to-face in an effort to escape the deleterious effects of social differentiation.

With both sorts of protest manifestation, the most important issues in the present context are not just their presence and even their frequency. At least as significant, and probably more so, are their social form and their social effect. The form that they take and which of them have had the greatest influence in contemporary society tell us something about religion and about the power of functional differentiation within global society.

It should surprise no one that the dominant form for these protests is and has been the social movement. Here we have a social system that centres precisely around mobilization toward specific goals (see Ahlemeyer 1989). Social movements are well suited to protest against the dominant societal systems because they can to a large extent escape the limitations of the recursive communication within these systems, and in so doing highlight and construct the problems that the dominant systems generate but do not solve. They are well-suited to thematizing that which the structures of these systems exclude through the selectivity of their own operations. By comparison to those systems, the possibilities for social movements are less limited because they can move in anti-structural ways; and this applies to all societies, not just one dominated by functional differentiation. Accordingly, the history of new religious and new political movements is replete with those that appear "new" by reversing what seems to be taken for granted in the dominant structures: we have egalitarian movements in stratified societies, unifying movements in tribal societies, communalizing movements in functionally differentiated societies, and so forth. Yet, in all cases, the social movement form also has at least one serious disadvantage, and that is its instability or even evanescence: a system characterized by mobilization must either continue to mobilize or cease to exist as that form of system; much like an interaction system cannot tolerate too long an interruption of interaction. For social movements, that means disappearance or the translation of the movement’s impulse into the idioms of the dominant systems: the millenarian and anti-imperial religious movement becomes the imperial religion; the anti-caste movement becomes another caste; the radical religious brotherhood founds the next imperial dynasty. Occasionally, however, social movements are the harbingers of a more radical shift in societal structures, in dominant forms of societal differentiation; but this, historically speaking, is rare. We can, of course, ask whether perhaps contemporary protest movements, especially religious or quasi-religious ones, contain the seeds of such rare transformation. That, indirectly, is to ask the question of efficacy. Which of the protesting movements, including the expressly religious, has had the most effect; and how have they had that effect?

Even a cursory glance at the anti-systemic movements of the last century shows that the most effective and powerful ones have been those that translated their impulses into the idioms of certain of the dominant function systems, above all the political, which is to say the modern state. Socialist movements, for instance, translated into the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China; Islamist movements have more recently brought us the Islamic Republic of Iran; non-Western anti-imperial indigenous movements have produced a host of new nation-states; environmental, labour, and equal rights movements have seen their concerns translated into a host of laws and political decisions. Other systems have also been involved to a lesser degree, notably in the ecological case, the science and health systems. In many cases, movements have left behind, often international, non-governmental organizations, many of which address the residual problems on a regular basis, but have lost most of their anti-systemicity and their holism in the process.

The result of almost all of the protest movements has been to reproduce and perhaps even strengthen the dominant function systems. Protest has produced above all more political, legal, educational, scientific, health, artistic, and news media communication. Even the capitalist economic system, often the prime systemic symbol of what is wrong with modern society, has benefitted through the new range of commodifiable products and services that protest has engendered. Like the anti-structural ritual that Victor Turner (1969) analyzed in his famous work, modern anti-systemic movements, in order to have an effect, have, if anything, enhanced the systems that they target. Visions of a better, a utopian world, need to find the means, the worldly instruments, to realize themselves. In the current societal context, the most powerful such means take the form of at least certain of the dominant function systems. That observation brings back the question of the role of religion.

In a sense, the religious system is the odd one out in this circumstance. One would be hard-pressed to show that global society has become a more religious place in the last number of decades. One could in fact, just as easily argue the reverse. With one or two notable exceptions, growth in religious communication has happened away from the movements of protest, in spite of them rather than because of them. The growth areas in Christianity are among the Pentecostals and the Evangelical churches, and liberation theology or new Christian rightism in the United States have had no noticeable effect on that trend at all. Rather these latter movements have attracted so much attention precisely because of their politicized character, because they have taken the form of social movements whose goals have led them into the political arena. Their relation with the religious institutions themselves has always been ambiguous (cf. Beyer 1994). Similar observations apply to the growth of Orthodox Judaism and to politicizing developments in Hinduism and Buddhism. The possible exceptions appear in Islam, where politicization as a consequence of protest does seem to have enhanced the power and presence of the religious institution and its characteristic communication. Here, however, what is most likely at work is the advantage that this religion gains through its tradition of using a legal code, rather than just a moral code, as its main secondary coding (see Beyer 1998b).

The upshot of the foregoing is that the fate of religion in modern global society has at least as much, and probably more, to do with its ability to reproduce itself as a series of religions, subsystems of a global religious system, as it does with its "prophetic" capacities. To be sure, the critiques, the protests, the religio-political movements are a notable feature of our world; and I have argued elsewhere that they will likely continue precisely because they offer religion and its representatives a way of having noticeable public influence (Beyer 1994). Yet, given the prevalence of function as an organizing principle, the "application" of religion to residual problems depends on the continued reproduction and growth of religious institutions as religious institutions: "applied" religion presumes "pure" religion at least as much, if not more, than the reverse. The continued development of a global function system for religion, in large measure for reasons such as I have analyzed in this article, is, however, an open question for the future. The formation and reproduction of religions, self-identified and observed as such, will probably continue and serve as the resource base for protest movements against the residual problems of a functionally differentiated society. Some sort of secularization in the radical sense of that word seems unlikely, even in Western Europe. Nonetheless, from a sociological perspective, a global function system for religion is not necessary; and religion, like morality, could eventually lose its presence as an observable societal system.

Prof. Peter Beyer, Department of Classics and Religious Studies
University of Ottawa, 70 Laurier Street East
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 6N5


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