Interviews:

The view from Berlin: An interview with Hubert Knoblauch

posted by John D. Boy

Hubert Knoblauch is a professor of sociology at the Technical University of Berlin, where he specializes in general sociological theory, sociology of knowledge, and the sociology of religion. A student of Thomas Luckmann, he is among the most distinguished representatives of the sociology of religion in Germany today. This summer, we sat down together over some of Berlin’s famously bad Indian food to discuss the sociology of religion in Germany, the influence of Jürgen Habermas, the meaning of spirituality, and ways to quit smoking.

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JB: About fifteen years ago, you wrote that the distinctive contribution of German sociology of religion is theory, and that at times sociology of religion in Germany is even subsumed under “grand theory.” Is that still the case?

HK: Well, perhaps we now have to say that theory was the distinctive contribution of German sociology to the sociology of religion. I doubt one could still claim today that the distinguishing feature of German sociology is its theoretical contribution. This is in part connected to its international visibility: German sociology of religion does not particularly stand out at the international level. We are now talking about a time long after the formulation of the theoretical contributions of Niklas Luhmann, Jürgen Habermas, Thomas Luckmann, and others. Since then nobody has come forward with a distinct contribution on the international level.

However, in principle, German-language sociology of religion—I would include Switzerland here—still places high value on theory. The reason is—and I suspect this is a bit different than elsewhere—that it regards religion as part of general sociology. I believe that is a characteristic perspective that stands out in comparison to other national sociologies of religion and the International Society for the Sociology of Religion. Religion is treated as part of a broader concept of society, not just as the object of a subdiscipline.

Of course, we have subdisciplinary departments, but they are relatively few and relatively indistinct. Even in comparison to other European countries, the sociology of religion in Germany is very weakly institutionalized, but that is also a consequence of the principle that religion is regarded as a part of sociology and as a social phenomenon.

If you are asking what has happened since that time, what you find are continuations, further developments of existing approaches. Matthias Koenig builds on the work of Shmuel Eisenstadt; Detlef Pollack practices classical church sociology with the addition of some Luhmannian theory; Monika Wohlrab-Sahr is strongly in the line of Ulrich Oevermann; and I stand in the tradition of Thomas Luckmann. These are all connected to classical German grand theories that we, in the second or third generation, run through empirically. I think that is what sets the current generation apart. We don’t pursue grand theory as our main vocation. We have rolled up our sleeves and attempted to apply theory empirically in a number of different ways.

I would even go one step further and claim that our main contribution is our quite sophisticated methodological discussion. Methodology has become the focus of discussion. This debate has come quite far and has even been incorporated in religious studies (Religionswissenschaft).

JB: Does the sociology of religion in Germany have any input into issues that touch on religion that have high public visibility, such as the current debate around circumcision?

HK: [Laughs] German sociology of religion—well, perhaps I should first clarify what we are talking about here. We are talking about a mere handful of professorships that deal with religion among other areas. In other words, we are speaking of an institutional nullity compared to other countries. That has a lot to do with the fact that, in Germany, we have religious studies, which is far more institutionalized and also has a sociology wing, much like religious studies in the United States. But even religious studies is hardly present in public discourse.

Another factor is that the churches play a far different public role than in the United States. The churches are official interlocutors of the state and the public, and they fill this role using highly professional means. So no, the sociology of religion does not play any public role. We are a purely academic enterprise—though, considering how few of us there are, we are still amazingly effective.

JB: Your book on popular religion is written for a wider public audience. How do you view the potential public role of sociological research on religion?

HK: I had Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s book Religion as a Chain of Memory in mind as a kind of form to emulate, and I was surprised that my book wasn’t particularly noted by the public and that the public did not seem able to handle it. My book on near-death experiences, Reports from Beyond (Berichte aus dem Jenseits), got a much more popular reception, but I basically only slipped the sociological debates into it.

I assume that this has something to do with the role of religion as a public topic. In Germany, this topic is influenced much more by the interested parties than by scholarship (Wissenschaft). Scholarship on religion plays an astonishingly minor role. Similarly, religious education in public schools is not scholarly instruction; it is instruction by the actors, although it is still seen in connection with the state.

In summary, I don’t believe sociology of religion is a big topic in the German public. That was a bit of a surprise to me, because I know that the older church sociology often resonated with the wider public because it was seen to confirm the public’s prejudices about religion.

JB: Let me attempt a somewhat crude comparison of intellectual traditions in the sociology of religion. In France, for instance, the factor of integration has been very important since Durkheim, and we can see that as an expression of the French republican social model. In American sociology of religion, the main innovation has been the rational-choice approach, and we can read that, too, in parallel to the social model: live and let die. Would you say that in Germany there is a similar parallel between the theoretical approach and the social model?

HK: Roughly speaking, it is the model of secularization. Not only more recent scholarship in the sociology of religion, but Weberian and Simmelian sociology also asked what remains of religion after secularization, what secularization does to religion. Presumably, the answer is the expulsion (Austreibung) of religion from society.

That is German sociology of religion’s main preoccupation, whether in the shape of a Luhmann’s theory of differentiation, Overmann’s secularization theory, or in Habermas’s work. That, in any case, was the big topic until the early 2000s. Since September 11, 2001, and its consequences, other aspects of religion have surfaced as public interest has turned. But throughout the twentieth century, secularization has been the keynote.

Religion was regarded as the Other of modern society, if you will, something that had to be kept in mind because of modernization. That’s the reason why those among us who theorized on the basis of the life-world—the anti-rationalist basis, so to speak—were among the few that were perceived as “pro-religious.” That applies to Luckmann as well.

Nobody ever doubted structural secularization, despite the considerable institutional presence of the churches, and I believe that is a unique trait of German society—a trait that is often overlooked.

JB: I would like us to return to the question of what has changed since 2001, but first could you tell me a bit more about the extent to which secularization theory is still accepted?

HK: That also has to do with the role of the sociology of religion. When I began working in this field in the 1980s and 1990s, the tenor in German society was that the churches would die out, that religion would phase out, and that negative growth would continue apace. When sociologists were asked, they just had to confirm the image of empty churches or, in our case, the reshaping of religion in a modern cast.

Since September 11—not any earlier—this has changed in an ambivalent manner. Since then, it’s not religion that is being taken note of, it is Islam. That was the “double shock” that happened in Germany. People started noticing the presence of a new, vital religion. Of course it was already there before, but the Twin Towers really raised awareness. It took a few years, but awareness of Islam and its establishment are now underway.

I think the perception of non-Islamic religion is a very different story. In Berlin you notice that religion is not seen as a considerable vital force, but in parts of west Germany that is markedly different. There, religion often has a direct, local influence.

When the pope was in Berlin we observed that he traveled between specially prepared islands, and the routes in between were heavily guarded, like when the president of the U.S. paid a visit in the cold war era. In Vienna, in contrast, the pope really was in the city.

Public discourse has changed considerably, however. Journalists and public opinion began recognizing religion and valuing it differently. Whereas before they perceived religion as the Other of modernity, now journalists are interested in what is happening in this area, and they are able to report on it in ways that are marketable.

The ambivalent thing is that, on the one hand, the belief based on modernization theory in religion’s expulsion continues to influence society as a whole—including the churches, which continue to shrink. On the other hand, it is evident that there is this dynamic—in Islam as well as in other religions—that is somewhat surprising, and in trying to name it, the concept of spirituality comes up. The concept has become established in a somewhat murky way as a stand-in to name something that has nothing to do with the established forms.

But the way these issues are represented in public has in fact turned around in a manner that probably is hardly understood in the U.S. because there is little awareness of the fact that the idea of secularization was backed by everyone, even the churches, into the late nineties.

JB: The manner in which religion is present in public has a lot to do with church–state relations, and I think many Americans are surprised to hear that in Germany we have religious education and church taxes.

KH: Yes, exactly. I cannot emphasize enough that we have one of the highest levels of institutionalization in our church structures, even when compared to other European countries. The hiring process for professorships at public universities, not just in theology but in sociology as well, involves bishops. We don’t see this state of affairs as a scourge, but I assume that elsewhere it is difficult to imagine that professors for secular subjects at public universities would be hired in this way. That’s just one example of this institutionalization. The concept of religion in Germany is strongly pegged to these enormously strong institutional structures.

JB: So the concept of spirituality enables one to say, there is religion, which is administered by the Roman-Catholic and Protestant churches, and then there is spirituality, which is anything else that is going on.

KH: Yes, precisely, and it has far-reaching ramifications. When I was conducting interviews on near-death experiences, many people denied that the experience had anything to do with religion. Religion is something that only has to do with churches, and they didn’t see any kind of connection. The word “spirituality” fills this void which we once referred to with the term “invisible religion.” It fills this void in a positive manner instead of leaving a negative absence. That’s one of the big changes, and I think from an American perspective it is difficult to understand.

JB: Let us get back to what has changed since 2001. To scholars of religion and public life, Habermas’s Peace Prize speech in October 2001 stands out. The speech is widely perceived to mark a turning point in Habermas’s œuvre: Ever since, religion has played a bigger role in his thinking. That is a dimension of his current work that is getting a lot of international attention as well.

HK: Yes, I agree. There was also his conversation with Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger.

JB: Perhaps you could say a few things from your vantage point about the impact his thinking is having here and about the research or public debates it has stimulated.

HK: Habermas is the leading intellectual at this juncture. Habermas is more of a symptom for a social development that he anticipated. I’m a bit ambivalent. Habermas has really gone through two turning points, and the most recent one that you refer to was the smaller of the two. In my view, the bigger one was his transformation from a sociologist into a philosopher—from the author of The Theory of Communicative Action seeking to describe social developments to the ethicist who wants to help shape social reality (though, I have to add, that was part of his ambition earlier as well). His most recent turn falls into this second phase in which Habermas is working as an ethicist and defines himself as such. The sociologist and the philosopher are two different Habermases, if you will, so I would first want to make that distinction.

But even coming from The Theory of Communicative Action his turn toward religion is not a big stretch. He says so himself. He begins his reading of Durkheim recognizing that religion bears the resources of communicative action and that religion is a means to transcend the subject. By the way, my own stance is not very far from Habermas’s. I hold him in high regard, because I think that the work he is doing on the recognition of the other dovetails with a Schützian concept of transcendence. His belief in the rationality of language follows a thoroughly religious motif—a secularized, Greek-philosophical variant of religious conceptions.

Habermas doesn’t only think that we should be able to understand each other; he thinks we can understand each other. Our ability to understand resides in the rationality of language. As such, he has religious traits from the outset. If you read The Theory of Communicative Action and then his speech, you’ll find that, in his speech, he concedes what he previously only expounded in evolutionary terms. In other words, he weakens his modernization theory and concedes that religion plays a role that he ascribed to it all along.

The fact that he can do so “out loud,” and that he does so in 2001, is a symptom of the reversal in public debate. Religion isn’t just recognized as a public player in the sense that José Casanova meant, but as a modern contemporary. That’s the reversal in the German debate, and Habermas is an expression of it—possibly even the first noticeable expression, and possibly even somebody who carried this reorientation forward.

In 2001, Habermas was the intellectual of the Federal Republic, much in the same way Adorno was in the 1960s. Habermas is one of the few to epitomize the classical image of the intellectual, that is, somebody who doesn’t just appear as an antitype, but as a representative. As such, he is a symptom. His debate with Benedict was a logical consequence.

JB: And then they “agree in operational terms,” or how did they put it?

HK: Yes, I think their premises are similar because they are both based on special forms of communication—the “mysterium fidei” in the case of Benedict—except that Habermas thinks that it is built into  linguistic communication.

JB: You said that Habermas’s position likely was a symptom of changes that were already underway rather than something that stimulated change. Even so, has his position stimulated debate, whether in the wider public or in more specialized circles?

HK: I’m not sure Habermas had that kind of effect. It’s clear that the terms of debate have shifted. Something has indeed happened, and Habermas signals it as a symptom: It is possible now to talk about religion and to take it seriously, not merely—as Casanova sees it—as a voice in the public canon, because that is a role the church in the Federal Republic has played since the days of Adenauer, but as something that impacts present-day society.

Habermas insists we refer to present-day society as “modern,” not “postmodern.” But it is a different modernity from the one he describes. So postsecularism was a kind of attempt to do something with “post” after all. He rejects postmodernity, so he has to introduce a different “post.” He sees religion as a sign of modernity. But I feel I must point out—and this is where the “provinciality” of the Habermasian debate becomes apparent—the notion that religion is a force of modernity is a theoretical line that I was already acquainted with by way of Berger and Luckmann’s work from the 1960s. They always emphasized the productivity of religion for modern society, albeit in a transformed shape. In any case, all this was certainly a novelty for the public-critical discourse that was long dominant in Germany, by which I mean the critical theory-influenced discourse. In fact, the religious situation in Germany isn’t what has changed—it actually remains largely unchanged, religion hasn’t become any more fashionable—but public discourse has changed. The fact that one of Germany’s leading intellectuals raised his voice to acknowledge religion certainly played a big role in this. There’s no doubt about that.

Habermas is not a critical theorist, or only to a degree, so that may be why he was able to make his most recent turn rather easily.

JB: Often the first turning point in Habermas’s work is seen to be his transformation from critic to state-supporting (staatstragend) thinker.

HK: Yes, but that was already Adorno’s function in the 1960s. You will hardly find anybody who was more present on public television than Adorno, who served as the Federal Republic’s conscience. The Federal Republic had to put its conscience on display. Habermas is also present in this function, as the intellectual who epitomizes this good conscience on an international scale, the sincere German, morally unencumbered in a way that Arnold Gehlen and others were not. That’s the role Habermas plays, and that is the source of his high national and international visibility.

JB: In the case of Berger, many speak of a turning point as well—between 1969, when he published The Sacred Canopy and was a clear defender of secularization theory, and the late nineties, when he recanted.

HK: Yes, Berger undoubtedly had to change his views, but Luckmann wrote an essay about the “myth” of secularization as early as 1969, and The Invisible Religion goes a different path and asserts the productivity of religion. By the way, it’s not a coincidence that The Invisible Religion has not been reissued in English for several decades. It’s an argument that works better in the continental European context—the book is still very successful in Poland, for example, though not in France.

In part 2 of the interview, Professor Knoblauch will talk about his own work on popular religion and spirituality, as well as his relationship with smoking.—ed.

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