Ulrich Beck- A God of One’s Own

These are notes to myself on a new book that will be required in courses on the topic. If you have an interest n theory of relgion read on, if not wait for me to post a less academic post. Ulrich Beck offers a social definition of the changes of religion in the last decades. Why is it an era of post-secularization? And why does that make orthodoxies a good choice. Let me know what you think about his theories. I received a pre-publication copy and am still digesting it, so there will be more personal comments in an eventual part II. (I assume ej ordered a copy when I gave him advance notice in a comments thread.)

This is the one book to read this year about religion in the world. Ulrich Beck, an important German sociologist of globalization, cosmopolitanism, and secondary modernity has written a synthesis of the various works on post-secularism of the last decade. He integrates Habermas’ allowing religion into the public sphere, Jose Casanova’s critique and reformulation of secularization, the gang over at Immanent Frame (Charles Taylor, Talal Asad, Arjun Appadurai et al)along with the sociology of Zymunt Bauman, Anthony Giddens, and Pierre Bourdeau. This book is almost a summary study of the writings on religion of the last decades and into the future. Beck is interviewed often and has many quotable quotes. (There are many more interviews out there.)

Beck’s opening point is clear. Most sociology of religion has been functional and accepting. They explain why people have beliefs without judging the value of the beliefs. Sociologists are equally open- minded toward any manifestation of religion -new age, Evangelicals, revivalism, and magic. Beck argues that we need a sociology of the effect of religion on society and to examine the cultural productivity and destructiveness of religious beliefs. The contents of religious beliefs as an “autonomous force and reality, their vision of a different humanity and their power to make whole worlds tremble, are so rarely exposed in their full ambivalence to the gaze of sociology.” Beck is a confirmed European secularist, yet he seeks to capture the power and hold that religion has today.

Beck’s conclusion about contemporary religion is that everyone has a” God of one’s own.” This God is not an omnipotent God, rather God needs mans help to be acknowledged and to make the world a better place. God himself is “impotent and helpless in an apocalyptic age” We turn to God to seek solace and dignity not safety or solutions.“We wish to chain our personal God to our own desires, traumas, hysterias, fears and hopes and at the same time, we want to keep these chains in our own hands.” (13)

Beck considers taking refuge in dogmas of faith that are incompatible with our “individualized experiences and ambivalent feelings” is a form of self-deception- it fails to acknowledge individualism. Rather one needs to recognize the empirical and historical fact that the God of one’s own correspond to the space of one’s own life and life of one’s space. Man is at the same time believer and God. Modern life is fragmented with an alterity of own’s own life. (15) One’s own life is another name for the contingent and reflexive nature of that life

Beck declares that the collapse of secularization theory is greater than fall of the Soviet Union (21). Heavily reliant of the essays that Habermas wrote in 2007 – 2008, Beck declares a post-secular age. orthodox and conservative religions are gaining ground everywhere. (24) The new religious movements are based on changing psychological schools cobbled together to form Gods of their own. Asian and archaic elements are accepted by even the most modernized people. (27)

The visit of Pope Benedict to the US or Britain was a mass media event of papacy- a cosmopolitan event. It filled no churches and does not stop decline but it becomes a major cultural event even for atheists. God in the age of technical reproduction is adapted for mass media- there is an aura given by the Pope (37-8)

Beck is one of the leading theoreticians of globalization. Habermas’ reflexive modernity (and Bauman’s liquid modernity) is defined by Beck as having three elements – risk society, individualization, and cosmopolitanism. Beck prefers the term cosmopolitanism to that of globalization since there is an erosion of clear boundaries, an involuntary confrontation with the other, and a new need for a hermeneutic of the other. (67-8) This time it is a choice of enriching mutual recognition or violence.

Cosmopolitanism is defined as a product of powerful economic, political, and mass media developments at the start of the 21st century. There is a simultaneous abolishment of older boundaries between people and the creation of new ones. Erased are the old boundaries , the new overrides the pre-existing hierarchies of class, caste, exclusion. In turn, it creates new boundaries of violence and tolerance or new sets of competing religious universalism or a dualism of good and evil that withholds dignity to outsiders. (52-54)

Individualization does not mean Bellah’s individual, and egoistic choice, nor is it Enlightenment autonomy and it is not the market’s conscious choice or individual preference.(see Anthony Giddens and Zygmunt Bauman).Individualization is imposed on the individual. There are no more specific roles in a marriage, ways to act at work, or paths in life. Until recently, men were the legal bread winner and women had to cook. Now that that is not legally mandated, Individualization is the process of deciding in a marriage of the routine of chores, roles, place to live, finances. A similar need for choice, negotiation, decision making applies to all aspects of our lives.

The third element risk society is to recognize that these changes are not better nor worse (Giddens vs Toraine), rather that we are forever seeking to minimize or deal with risk in our lives. Individualization creates risk. We live on a circus high wire act trying to balance marriage-divorce, several jobs over the course of a life, self-praise and marketing, the need to be flexible and resilient to change. We always have risk and are making decisions – evening meal, insurance, who takes out the trash, old age, medical decisions, university training, what house to buy, who to have as neighbors. There is a new immediacy to our lives and we need to make choices
Here is where religion comes in—submission to orthodoxy is part of a strategy of decreasing risk- The effect of religion in the public sphere is to help mediate risk society.

Beck’s core thesis about religion in an age of cosmopolitanism: 1] religious belief spreads in proportion to insecurity 2] religious subjective anarchy of new age, spirituality, pop psych– churches have made their peace with it 3] Religion is similar to individualization of family and social classes 4] Religion has broken away from an elite or priestly model -people write the religion in their own words 5] It is a fallacy to link declining membership and lack of commitment to any form of decline in relgion or secularization. People are interested in religion in their own terms, even without membership or commitment. (85ff)

Individualization creates a God of one’s vision outside of church- against the secure backdrop of the welfare state and modern technology. Religion is an empowering of the believing individual who with the aid of doctrine creates commonality with others that creates new borders.

Authority is based on personal commitment. But the asking for individual commitment blurs lines of church and self. (The old kehilah system or even the synagogue system of the 1950’s no one asked if you wanted to join or for any personal commitment).

Originally, we had doctrines, rules and rites and then we asked a second order question who is a Christian? Doctrines were universals, differences of individuals were not considered. Now in the age of cosmopolitanism, we ask who is a Christian? and then what are the doctrines and rites?

[For a Jewish equivalent, we used to ask what does Judaism say or require? Then ask who buys into it? Individual lack of commitment did not play a great role. Now we ask Who is Orthodox? And then determine the lines of the doctrines and practices. Commitment comes before the system. There used to be starting universals like peoplehood, yiddishkeit, or even to follow torah and mizvos, now we start with particulars.]

And now that everything is a matter of personal commitment then we deny dignity to others who don’t share our belief. If I believe then you are wrong, then there is no philosophy, institution, or universal that transcends my belief. Religions today are more exclusive specifically because they are more personal and based on commitment.

Thirty years ago, people thought that religion was certain knowledge against the egoistic individualism of what Bellah called “Sheilaism.” Now, from a post-secular perspective, all the individual commitments to Evangelicalism, Orthodox Judaism, revivalism, and spirituality are all forms of personalized commitment similar in content to Sheilaism, but good for risk management in an age of forced individualism.

To be continued in part II with tolerance and the political elements of religion.

In the meantime any thoughts?

5 responses to “Ulrich Beck- A God of One’s Own

  1. maybe i missed something, but… what’s the name of the book?

    apart from that, of course katonti etc’, but i simply don’t see some of the things Beck says. like “religious subjective anarchy of new age, spirituality, pop psych– churches have made their piece with it”. i think definitely not. here is a recent example: http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/09/20/the-subtle-body-should-christians-practice-yoga/

    and “Religions today are more exclusive specifically”??? what about Peter Berger’s consistant talk about religious people having to be pluralists since they meet the neighbor and discover that although he does not worship the same god, shucks, he’s a really nice guy? i’m with Berger in this one: it’s the belief that counts, and that’s why it’s not who you believe in that matters.

    and a question: i could not understand this (i feel) important paragraph:
    “[For a Jewish equivalent, we used to ask what does Judaism say or require? Then ask who buys into it? Individual lack of commitment did not play a great role. Now we ask Who is Orthodox? And then determine the lines of the doctrines and practices. Commitment comes before the system. There used to be starting universals like peoplehood, yiddishkeit, or even to follow torah and mizvos, now we start with particulars.]”
    could you explain?

    • maybe i missed something, but… what’s the name of the book?

      A God of One’s Own.

      i simply don’t see some of the things Beck says. like “religious subjective anarchy of new age, spirituality, pop psych– churches have made their peace with it”. i think definitely not. here is a recent example: http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/09/20/the-subtle-body-should-christians-practice-yoga/

      Evangelical rhetoric is entirely subjective and has the same subjective qualities as new age-even if they are calling the new age pagan. Mohler is at this point the exception that proves the rule. Mohler is about the only religious leader in the US who has not even made his peace with Jewish-Christian dialogue. But that is why Mohler gets all the press these days, the newspapers can always count on him the say something opposite and opposed to whatever they are writing about. Mohler states that he received a thousand calls an hour from those who combine Evangelical belief and Yoga, so he has hit a nerve in the flock. Even when opposing it his own Christianity is pretty subjective. Personally, I liked his essay on Yoga. I dont think it is value neutral.

      and “Religions today are more exclusive specifically”??? what about Peter Berger’s consistant talk about religious people having to be pluralists since they meet the neighbor and discover that although he does not worship the same god, shucks, he’s a really nice guy? i’m with Berger in this one: it’s the belief that counts, and that’s why it’s not who you believe in that matters.

      This is where Beck adds to Berger. It is not just he is a nice guy and we all picked our religious paths so we know it is contingent and provisional. No, because people speak of commitment, becoming a BT, letting God in their heart then they become justified exclusivists. Their own emotions and volition provides an absolute truth that negates the truth of others.

      and a question: i could not understand this (i feel) important paragraph:
      “[For a Jewish equivalent, we used to ask what does Judaism say or require? Then ask who buys into it? Individual lack of commitment did not play a great role. Now we ask Who is Orthodox? And then determine the lines of the doctrines and practices. Commitment comes before the system. There used to be starting universals like peoplehood, yiddishkeit, or even to follow torah and mizvos, now we start with particulars.]”
      could you explain?

      Becks point is that we used to define our religion based on the group, the tradition, doctrine and other universals that transcend the self. For example, the synagogue and rabbi are Orthodox- then with that objective standard in place I identify with it. But my own beliefs and practices are secondary to that of the external group. Someone belongs to the group, if they accept the external universal. Now, people make personal commitments which are private and subjective and then and only then look to the the dogma and rites which I personally affirm. It is like someone committing to become a Baal Teshuvah or to become Orthodox and then defining the religion and definitions based on the personal experience of commitment.
      In the Certau sense- relgion is first a private language and then an external doctrine or practice. Or in the Foucault sense, religion used to be without an author. Now every religious doctrine, law, ritual, or practice has an author.

      • I’m sorry, but I have to say I don’t agree that the CHURCHES have made peace with New-Age etc’. The people have made peace with it, about that I agree with you. That’s true, and that fits what I said “it’s the belief that counts, and that’s why it’s not who you believe in that matters”.

        That’s also why I don’t agree that “because people speak of commitment, becoming a BT, letting God in their heart then they become justified exclusivists”. Quite the contrary, at least many times. I mean, is it not strange that they have become justified exclusivists when they want to combine Christ and Yoga? If the former, Mohler would not have received a thousand calls an hour from those who combine Evangelical belief and Yoga.

        And thanks for the explanation of the final paragraph.

  2. I did buy the book, thank you very much. I just don’t know enough to fully appreciate what’s going on. Here is my first impressionistic take away on Beck and the Jewish Problem. Beck’s descriptions of individualism –personal God either already exist (Liberal Judaism) or are unacceptable(Orthodoxy). Halacha, ask a ruv, group conformity take away much of the alleged difficulty in creating an autonomous self. More important for the Jewish world is his idea that religions must/will become cosmopolitan, and accept gracefully living in one space with others who have different conceptions of value and morality, all the while not succumbing to an all embracing relativism. The Pope has expressed similar sentiments.
    What happens then when we transpose this theme to intra-Jewish conflicts? We Jews are flirting with a full schism between those who are Orthodox and those who are otherwise. Even the most radical charedi knows life would become much more difficult should the secular disappear. If we are not to schism, the question then becomes how can we create a cosmopolitan Jewish world? How can we create a civil, accepting, open society, though with different religious beliefs? To preach as Beck does that it is happening everywhere is not a prescription what to do when it is vehemently rejected by the Orthodox and in a way by secular Jewish society as well .
    A second application is the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Even if we accept Beck’s main thesis that nations are soo yesterday, what follows? It’s really a variation of the EU argument…we are trying to break down national barriers, so why can’t the Israelis follow? The idea is a non starter. Perhaps Beck might be useful in thinking about partial one state solutions. Suppose there is no Palestinian state, all negotiations fail. Is it possible to create some in-between fractal state, that would improve the position of the Palestinians while not traumatizing the Jews. Imagine Bernard Avishai’s vision of two city states building vertically, but now only Jews have a vote on national issues. Add to this undemocratic situation a free market in land and real estate. Both Palestinians and Jews can live anywhere they so please, and let the market work it all out. We now have a non- democratic but also a non- apartheid state, with the economic freedoms that would exist in a full democracy. The EU countries have not merged in all respects. They have one currency, but other policy variables are still run by the individual nations. What they have are open borders. Maybe a Beckish solution would be to stop thinking exclusively about territory and start thinking about integrating functions.

  3. EJ- I have another post on Beck’s call for co-existence and the need to live in one space. I saved the political elements for a second post.

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