Liquid Religion

Page author: Luke Burns

This page published on: 10/11/2020

Last modified: 10/11/2020

Perspectives

Table of Contents

Introduction

In looking at religion (or religioning) in the modern world, some scholars have argued that industrial nations have tended to become less religious and more secular. The so-called secularisation theory argues that this will continue, until religion drops off and is forgotten – the roles and purposes served by religion will eventually be replaced by communities or the larger nation state.

However, the secularisation theory seems to be proven false by the complexity of religious change in contemporary societies around the world – yes, larger organised religions have seen a drop in numbers, but people don’t seem to be less religious or spiritually inclined.

Liquid religion is one concept that helps to explain this, it is a metaphorical way to describe how religious activities change by suggesting that religion or religiosity ‘leaks’ from established traditional spaces into non-traditional, novel spaces, and undergoes change as a result. The rise of yoga and alternative therapies could be seen as part of this trend, with people undertaking daily practices that are presented as non-religious but still fulfil the same needs.

Whether Western nations are actually becoming less religious and more secular is up for debate, since it depends on how we classify these terms, and how we interpret other behaviour such as meditation, prayer, and private worship (as opposed to public worship that takes place in churches, gurdwaras, and temples, and often requires membership in a religious organisation).

Writing about changes to attitudes and beliefs in the UK, Linda Woodhead notes that:

As a society then, a majority have become increasingly hostile or indifferent to institutional forms of religion, whilst remaining open to faith, a spiritual realm, or just “something more.”

https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/news/blogs/linda-woodhead/why-no-religion-is-the-new-religion/

We often encounter interesting conflicts between the theory of a secularised public space in the West and the privilege that Christianity is given due to its heritage of power and significance. For instance, in August of 2018, Satanists protested the presence of a monument to the Ten Commandments in the public grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol by presenting their own statue of the winged, horned deity Baphomet, and asking that it also be installed (US News, 2018).

With Satanists, atheists and Christians among those in attendance, several speakers called for the removal of the Ten Commandments monument or for state government officials to install Baphomet as well. The Satanic Temple said the Ten Commandments monument violates constitutional freedom of religion rights and that installation of their statue will demonstrate religious tolerance.

https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/arkansas/articles/2018-08-16/satanic-temple-unveils-baphomet-statue-at-arkansas-capitol

The common understanding of religion, exemplified by the secularisation theory, is that religion is separate from culture, an optional extra that can (and for some commentators, should) be hidden from public view. What the Satanists (and notably some Christians and atheists) were contesting was the privileged position afforded to Christianity in a country that claims to promote freedom of religion (i.e. the state has no interest in promoting one religion over another).

The secularisation theory hinges on a simplified understanding of what religion is, and how it operates, but as we’ve seen things are more complicated, and in reality we are certainly witnessing changes to how people express their religious and spiritual impulses, but it’s not clear that these impulses have ceased.

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