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Remembering Martin Riesebrodt

posted by Loren D. Lybarger and Kelly H. Chong

On December 6, 2014, influential sociologist of religion Martin Riesebrodt died at the age of 66. Professor Riesebrodt was the author of two groundbreaking comparative studies: Pious Passion: The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran (1993), and The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion (2010).

Pious Passion explores the phenomenon of contemporary religious fundamentalism, focusing particularly on the relationship between religious fundamentalisms and the structures and ideology of patriarchy. Riesebrodt argues that fundamentalism in post-revolution Iran and among early twentieth-century Protestants in the United States represented a form of patriarchal traditionalism that, as a result of urbanization and state-driven secularization, had become reflexive and politically mobilized. Driving this reflexive turn was a perceived moral crisis within the wider culture that threatened traditionalists’ very capacity to transmit their value orientations to the next generation. This sense of crisis coincided with structural changes that had depersonalized political and economic institutions and transformed gender relations within the family. In response, fundamentalist intellectuals and activists advocated for a return to a legal-rational, “book-centered” religious order that would renew patriarchal controls on women and revive paternalistic authority in politics and the economy.

In summary, fundamentalism in Iran and in the United States was “directed primarily against the dissolution of personalistic, patriarchal notions of order and social relations and their replacement by depersonalized principles” (9). It was a radicalized patriarchalism that critiqued the “antagonistic interests and class conflict” of contemporary society from a perspective that emphasized “the ideal of religiously and morally integrated society” (207-208). Ultimately, Riesebrodt argued, the comparative sociology of fundamentalism revealed the limits and unforeseen consequences of the processes that had produced the secular-bureaucratic nation-state. The state was not a neutral force. Its modernizing interventions could marginalize traditionalist milieus; and this marginalization could generate a radical fundamentalist response. Historian of religions Bruce Lincoln described Pious Passion as “the best study of fundamentalism that’s ever been produced.” Riesebrodt would later expand his explorations of “the return of religion” in the form of fundamentalism and culture wars in a second book, Die Rückkehr der Religionen und der “Kampf der Kulturen.”

In a third book, The Promise of Salvation, Riesebrodt sought to construct—through a wide-ranging and thorough comparison of different religious traditions—a definitive, practice-based theory of religion, in order to explain religion’s persistence throughout history and the modern world. In insisting on comparison, Riesebrodt countered prevailing postmodern and post-colonialist approaches that had sought to “provincialize” Western categories of analysis and thereby argue for the impossibility of universal definitions. Such notions were nonsensical, Riesebrodt asserted, because understanding of particularities was impossible without comparison. Moreover, as the historical study of religious polemics revealed, individuals and groups had always sensed continuities in practices across cultures. Even if religious practitioners may not have shared a common word or notion for “religion” they nevertheless perceived shared assumptions concerning superhuman powers across their social and cultural boundaries. There was, therefore, what Riesebrodt termed a “relational justification” for theorizing religion transhistorically and transculturally.

The core of Riesebrodt’s theory is a definition of religion that makes “interventionist practices” the center of analysis. Interventionist practices comprise any type of practice that “aim[s] at establishing contact with superhuman powers” with the objective of averting or mitigating misfortune and securing salvation in areas of existence—individual, social, and in the natural environment—that exceed “direct human control” (75). Other religious practices—second-order discursive or behavior-regulating ones, for example—”logically, systematically, and pragmatically…presuppose the existence of interventionist practices.” Interventionist practices “ground and strengthen the experience of religious reality emotionally and cognitively” by dramatizing “the existence of superhuman powers and their accessibility.” The legitimacy and effectiveness of discursive or ethical practices flow from the prior existence of these interventionist techniques and the “aura of factuality” they instill within practitioners. Methodologically, too, interventionist practices “offer the clearest and strongest basis” for transhistorical and cross-cultural comparison because they “are much more strictly regulated and fixed in their liturgical meaning” (86-87). With this definition of religion and practice-centered method in place, Riesebrodt proceeds to demonstrate the validity and utility of his theory by examining a range of empirical examples spanning diverse religious traditions.

The Promise of Salvation concludes by arguing that precisely because technological means will likely fail to resolve the uncertainties of human life—and indeed produce new uncertainties, as climate change demonstrates—religions will persist as cultural resources for rendering crisis and suffering comprehensible and thus emotionally manageable. Indeed, groups that believe seriously in their religious premises and advocate for them convincingly may very well thrive in moments of heightened unpredictability and precariousness. Such insight raises a range of questions for our understanding of secularism and secularization. In his most recent remarks on this subject, an April 2014 talk on religion and empirical research, Riesebrodt probed these implications, arguing for the need to conceive of secularization and religious revitalization as interlinked processes.

Further Reading:

Konieczny, Mary Ellen, Loren D. Lybarger, and Kelly H. Chong. “Theory as a Tool in the Social Scientific Study of Religion and Martin Riesebrodt’s The Promise of Salvation.” The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51 (September,2012): 397-411.

Riesebrodt, Martin. “Fundamentalism and the Resurgence of Religion.” Numen 47 (2000): 266-287.

__________. Pious Passion: The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran. Translated by Don Reneau. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993. [Published originally as Fundamentalismus als patriarchalische Protestbewegung: amerikanische Protestanten (1910-28) und iranische Schiiten (1961-79) im Vergleich. Tübingen : J.C.B. Mohr, 1990.]

__________. The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion. Translated by Steven Rendall. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010. [Published originally as Cultus und Heilsversprechen: eine Theorie der Religionen. München: Beck, 2007.]

__________. Die Rückkehr der Religionen : Fundamentalismus und der “Kampf der Kulturen.” München : Beck, 2000.

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