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Here you will find an overview of the journal articles and articles published in edited volumes by the research group and its members.

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Approaching Emptiness: Buddhist Pilgrimage in Japan

Katja Triplett

Pilgrimage to religious sites and secular travel culture have been closely linked for many centuries in Japan. Pilgrims in the Japanese Buddhist context usually visit a series of temples that form a fixed set or ‘circle’ of Buddhist sites thought to be miraculous. The circulatory Buddhist pilgrimage to thirty-three sites in and around the old capital of Kyoto – the Saikoku pilgrimage – is one of the most enduring complex religious institutions known. The article examines possible reasons for the undiminished success of the pilgrimage, highlighting the role of foundation legends and miracle tales in the management of memory. The narratives reveal bureaucratic site administration and are connected to the act of mapping of paths both through the physical and the spiritually endowed landscape.

Keywords: Japan; Buddhism; pilgrimage; mapping; memory; narratives

Triplett, Katja. “Approaching Emptiness: Buddhist Pilgrimage in Japan.” In Approaching the Sacred: Pilgrimage in Historical and Intercultural Perspective. Edited by Ute Luig, 59–89. Berlin: Edition Topoi, 2018.

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Religious Superdiversity and Urban Visibility in Barcelona and Turin

Marian Burchardt, Irene Becci, and Mariachiara Giorda

The links between religion and urban space have attracted the interest of an increasing number of sociologists over the last decade. Starting from a critique of the assumption that urbanization leads to the decline of established religions, scholars have focused on the vitality of urban religion spawned by religious innovations, urban religious events, and transnational migration (Hervieu-Leger 2002; Casanova 2013; Orsi 1999). In order to analyse this complex context of multiple urban diversities emerging from new waves· of immigration, scholars have drawn upon the concept of superdiversity, coined by Vertovec (2007). Starting from the observation that the number and type of religious communities settling in European cities after the Second World War have multiplied spectacularly, in this chapter we explore how in contemporary European cities, different historical memories, each storing a variety of collective religious and secular experiences, are layered upon one another: materially and symbolically in architecture, immaterially in urban religious imaginaries, and socially through the coexistence of multiple religious mobilizations and expressions.

Burchardt, Marian, Irene Becci, and Mariachiara Giorda. “Religious Superdiversity and Urban Visibility in Barcelona and Turin.” In Religious Pluralism and the City: Inquiries into Postsecular Urbanism. Edited by Helmuth Berking, Silke Steets and Jochen Schwenk, 83–103. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.


The Social Construction of Reality (1966) Revisited: Epistemology and Theorizing in the Study of Religion

Markus Dreßler

This paper takes the social constructivist approach, formulated by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, as a starting point for an investigation into epistemology and theorizing in the contemporary study of religion. It discusses various strands of scholarship in dialogue with social constructivism and questions in particular the reductionism of radical constructivist positions. Exploring the boundaries of the classical social constructivist paradigm, the article argues that students of religion should consider the implication of social, historical, embodied and material structures in the production of knowledge about religion. For that purpose, it draws on various soft realist approaches to stress the importance of remaining attentive to positionality (reflecting on the sites from where we theorize) and contextuality (reflecting on the inter-relation of discourse and materiality) in theorizing “religion”. Finally, the article suggests that soft realist positions can be integrated in a slightly broadened social constructivist framework for the study of religion.

Dressler, Markus. "The Social Construction of Reality (1966) Revisited: Epistemology and Theorizing in the Study of Religion." Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 2018: 1-32, doi:


Challenges for gender equality: Women’s religious circles in post-revolutionary Iran

Sana Chavoshian

The agency of women in Islamicate societies is largely anchored in ideas over pious circles and gender-specific rituals. Recent studies attest religious modes of women’s presence in the public space a high significance. Taking the case of Iran, the urging question is how and to which extent religious agency within female pious circles – which were formed before the 1978/9 Revolution and fashioned after it – has been able to attain broader civil significance beyond these circles. This study explores the inner dynamics of female pious circles among women as related to structural power relations. It spells out the process of “self-spiritualization” to characterize interactions within the circles that act as a tool for self-elevation and self-authorization and as a mode of spiritually legitimated construction of hierarchies within the circles’ spiritual empowerment. It is argued that a type of pious competition between the women unfolds leading to an affirmation of gender segregation and concomitantly, of submission to institutionalized structures of masculine hierarchy and power. Finally, it pursues the effects of unfolding “self-spiritualization” through elevation, authenticity and self-authorization that might achieve a considerable degree of self-empowerment for negotiating gender roles and political life attitudes.

Keywords: women’s religious circle, self-spiritualization, Muslim’s piety, female empowerment, mothers of martyrs, dreams

Chavoshian, Sana. “Challenges for gender equality: Women’s religious circles in post-revolutionary Iran.” GENDER 9, no. 3 (2017): 117–32. doi:10.3224/gender.v9i3.09.


Judicial Reform vs Adjudication of Personal Law: View from a Muslim Ghetto in Kanpur

Chakrabarti, Anindita; Ghosh, Suchandra

A keen understanding of the intricacies of the procedural aspect of personal law and internal hierarchies/fi ssures within the community in question need to guide our vision of judicial reforms. Considering the bias that exists in terms of class, caste, gender and religion in the implementation of law, one wonders what would be the real gains of bringing personal law more and more within the purview of the policing system. This article looks at cases brought by Muslim women to the Kanpur darul qaza seeking maintenance and/or divorce and fi nds that these women do not lack agency. They also approach different legal forums to resolve their personal and domestic issues.

Chakrabarti, Anindita, and Suchandra Ghosh (2017). “Judicial Reform vs Adjudication of Personal Law: View from a Muslim Ghetto in Kanpur.” Economic & Political Weekly LII, no. 49: 12–14.

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Revisitando o secular: secularidades múltiplas e trajetórias para a modernidade

Monika Wohlrab-Sahr; Marian Burchardt

Scholarly debates about secularization and secularism have reached an unproductive impasse. Orthodox and neo-orthodox secularization theorists insist on the epistemological universality and global applicability of more or less uniform concepts of secularization. Postcolonial critics, by contrast, sought to provincialize the notion of the secular emphasizing its Western origin, its coimplication with the nation-state, violence, and colonialism. In this article, we critically engage with both of these approaches and suggest the concept of “multiple  secularities” as an alternative approach. Whereas both universalist and postcolonial approaches tend to reify and essentialize the secular we aim to historicize and culturalize secularity. We do so by arguing that secularity are culturally and symbolically anchored forms of distinguishing religious and non-religious social spheres and practices and that institutionalizations of such distinctions have served as ways of grappling with different kind of problems. Significantly, while recognizing the situated historicities of secularity our conceptualization frees secularity from its singular associations with the West and with modernity.

Keywords: Religion, Secularity, Secularization, Secularism, Multiple modernities

Wohlrab-Sahr, Monika, and Marian Burchardt (2017). “Revisitando o secular: Secularidades múltiplas e trajetórias para a modernidade.” Política & Sociedade 16/36: 174-173.

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Erdoğan und die "Fromme Generation". Religion und Politik in der Türkei

Markus Dreßler

Die Genese des türkischen Säkularismus führt bis in die erste Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts zurück. Schon vor der Etablierung eines säkularen Staates in der frühen Republik Türkei bewegte die Frage des Verhältnisses von Religion und Politik osmanische Staatsmänner und muslimische Intellektuelle. Im Folgenden werden die wesentlichen Stationen dieser Auseinandersetzung nachgezeichnet: von der Entstehung des türkischen Säkularismus über die Etablierung des kemalistischen Laizismus bis hin zur aktuellen Religionspolitik der Partei für Gerechtigkeit und Entwicklung (AKP), die anhand verschiedener aktueller Spannungsfelder verdeutlicht wird. So offenbaren sich trotz inhaltlicher Gegensätze zwischen der postkemalistischen jungen Republik Türkei und der AKP-Ära auch erstaunliche Parallelen.

Dreßler, Markus (2017). "Erdoğan und die "Fromme Generation". Religion und Politik in der Türkei." Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 9-10: 23-9.

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The Dynamics of Religions and Cultural Evolution: Worshipping Fuxi in Contemporary China

Hubert Seiwert

The paper discusses the theme of the congress ‘Dynamics of Religions’ in the theoretical context of cultural evolution. In contrast to the prevailing progression model of culturalevolution, it proposes adiversification model thatallows for consideringthe dynamics of religions on the micro-level. In this view,a central element of cultural evolution is the dialectical relationship between cultural production and culturalenvironment,which is the outcome of culturalproduction and at the sametime enables and restricts further production. The approach is exemplified by the religious dynamics in contemporary China focusing on the worship of Fuxi in popularand state rituals. The example also serves to illustrate divergent views of what counts as religion.

Keywords: cultural evolution, religious dynamics, China, Fuxi, popular religion, state rituals, ancestor worship

Seiwert, Hubert (2017). “The Dynamics of Religions and Cultural Evolution: Worshipping Fuxi in Contemporary China.” In Dynamics of Religion: Past and Present. Edited by Christoph Bochinger, and Jörg Rüpke, 9–30. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. 10.1515/9783110450934-002 .

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Religious vs secular nationhood: ‘Multiple secularities’ in post-Soviet Armenia

Burchardt, Marian; Hovhannisyan, Hovhannes

This article draws on the notion of ‘cultural defense’ to examine how nationalism shapes contemporary contestations around religion and secularity in Armenia. While clearly relevant, this framework has rarely been used for the analysis of religious change in the Caucasus region as part of the broader post-Soviet space. This article fills this lacuna. Simultaneously, it moves beyond the relatively narrow interest in the degree of secularization or reinforced religious nationalism as social outcomes of cultural defense situations. Instead, we are interested in how boundaries between religion and secular spheres in society are drawn in particular ways, how the resulting religious – secular configurations have evolved since the end of the Soviet Union – of which Armenia was a part – and how concepts of nationhood and nationalist mobilizations have shaped this process.

Keywords: Armenia, cultural defense, nationalism, religious minorities, secularity

Burchardt, Marian; Hovhannisyan, Hovhannes (2016): Religious vs secular nationhood. 'Multiple secularities' in post-Soviet Armenia. In: Social Compass 63(4), S. 427–443.

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Niklas Luhmann und die Religionswissenschaft: Geht das zusammen

Christoph Kleine

This article discusses the usefulness of Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory for the study of religion. Postcolonial deconstructivism, sometimes labelled ‘critical religion’, in the style of R. McCutcheon, T. Fitzgerald, and others doubts the applicability of this highly complex and abstract theory as such. Their proponents argue that the idea of an ‘autopoietic’ social system called ‘religion’ is a genuinely modern Western concept by which ‘religion’, as a generic term, is inappropriately projected or imposed onto non-Western and premodern cultures. Furthermore, they claim that Luhmann proposes a sui generis concept of religion. While due to a lack of shared theoretical premises, it seems to be all but impossible to reconcile a systems-theoretical approach to the study of religion with this strand of a radical postcolonial deconstructivism, other critiques of Luhmann’s concept of religion deserve a closer look.

As is well known, Luhmann defines religion as one social sub-system among others (such as politics, economy, sport, law, family, art). Social systems, he claims, are constituted, upheld, and reproduced by communication which demarcates the borders of the respective system and thus generates a system environment. Communication is possible only between the elements within a given system but not between the elements of different systems. Accordingly, Luhmann defines social systems as self-generating, or ‘autopoietic’. Social systems are operationally closed but cognitively open as they perceive irritations from their environment and react to them. Each social system, according to Luhmann, has its own binary code along which all communication within the system is structured. In the case of religion this code is transcendence/immanence. Furthermore, in modern society, Luhmann claims, social systems are primarily differentiated in accordance with their specific functions for society as a whole. The function of religion is to transfer indeterminability (transcendence) into determinability (immanence).
Some sociologists, such as Rudi Laermans and Gert Verschraegen (2001), as well as scholars of religion, such as Peter Beyer (2001, 2006) have criticized Luhmann for defining transcendence/immanence as the religious code. Laermans and Verschraegen accuse Luhmann’s view of religion of being “all too obviously based on the theological self-observations – or the self-descriptions – of (Christian!) religion”. From a somewhat different perspective, Peter Beyer also blames Luhmann’s approach for being deductive and “theological”. He proposes to replace the code transcendence/immanence with the code blessed/damned or salvation/damnation.
In my view both Laermans/Verschraegen and Beyer miss the point because they misinterpret Luhmann’s concept of ‘transcendence’. Not only is Beyer’s code ‘blessed/damned’ much more ‘theologically’ charged than the code ‘transcendence/immanence’. Luhmann repeatedly notes that he uses ‘transcendence’ in a non-theological way, entirely disconnected from religious semantics. ‘Transcendence’ in his theory is simply the horizon of an appresented indeterminability that emerges as soon as communication takes place. Because every communication in every social system by necessity selects between what is chosen (presented) and what is rejected or ignored (but still appresented), it produces an indeterminable remainder, causing uncertainty and irritation. The special social function of the religious system is to deal with this fundamental communicative operation of differentiating between the presented and the appresented. Therefore, to dismiss or replace the binary code transcendence/ immanence means to deprive the religious system of its social function. In my view Luhmann’s functional theory of religion can only work as long as the fundamental premise of transcendence/immanence being the religious code is maintained.
Even though Luhmann’s critics – in my view – clearly misinterpret his theory, it cannot be denied that the application of systems theory in the study of religion poses some serious problems. These problems largely result from the high degree of abstraction of Luhmann’s theory which makes it difficult to relate it to real people. On the other hand, viewed from the perspective of historical discourse analysis, which is based on the assumption that there is no way to go behind the discourse anyway, systems theory may provide valuable heuristic tools and concepts for analyzing emic negotiations regarding the boundary between ‘religion’ and ‘the secular,’ irrespective of the actual usage of the term ‘religion’ in the emic discourses. This is what distinguishes a historical discourse analysis informed by Luhmann’s systems theory from recently proposed approaches of a ‘discursive study of religion’.

Keywords: Luhmann, systems theory, historical discourse analysis, transcendence/immanence function of religion

Kleine, Christoph (2016). “Niklas Luhmann und die Religionswissenschaft: Geht das zusammen?” Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft 24/1: 47–82. doi:10.1515/zfr-2016-0005 .


Ancestor Worship and State Rituals in Contemporary China: Fading Boundaries between Religious and Secular

Hubert Seiwert

The paper argues that the distinction between religious and secular realms of society is not as clear-cut in modern societies as it appears in theories of functional and institutional differentiation. The data used are mainly from China with a short excursion to the United States. The starting point is ancestor worship, which is a central element of traditional Chinese religion. The significance of ancestor worship in Chinese history and culture is briefly explained to illustrate on the one hand its central importance as a ritual practice and on the other hand the ambiguities of interpretation. On this basis, some theoretical considerations about the existence of ancestors are presented. This is followed by a report on contemporary temple festivals focusing on the worship of Fuxi, a mythic figure considered to be the first ancestor of the Chinese people. The next step is the description of official state rituals devoted to the worship of the very same mythological hero in contemporary China. Against this backdrop, the last part of the paper discusses the theoretical questions of classification and distinguishing between the religious and the secular.

Keywords: Secularity, ancestor worship, China, state rituals, Fuxi

Seiwert, Hubert (2016). “Ancestor Worship and State Rituals in Contemporary China: Fading Boundaries between Religious and Secular.” Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft 24/2: 127–52. doi:10.1515/zfr-2016-0013.

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