Anthony Giddens argues that the shift to late modern society results in religion becoming more popular.
Giddens is one of four ‘sociologists of postmodernity’, all of whom argue that postmodernisation results in the nature of religion changing, but not necessarily declining in importance.
NB – see this post (forthcoming) on how to avoid getting confused over the terms ‘postmodernism/ late modernism etc…
Anthony Giddens: late modernity and religion
Giddens recognizes that ‘religious cosmology’ is undermined by the increasing importance of scientific knowledge in late modern society. However, he argues that is traditional ways of life rather than religious beliefs and practices which are more profoundly affected by this shift.
In Modernity and Self Identity, Giddens argues that the conditions of late modernity actually lay the foundations for a resurgence of religion.
Giddens argues that as tradition loses its grip on individuals, they become increasingly reflexive: they increasingly question what they should be doing with their lives, and are required to find their own way in life, rather than this being laid down by tradition.
However, individuals face problems in constructing their own, individual self-identities for two main reasons:
- Competing experts provide different advice – scientific knowledge may have taken over from religion, but different scientific experts provided different, and often conflicting advice on ‘how to live’.
- Existential questions become separated from every day life – according to Giddens, the seriously ill and dying and the mad are separated out from ordinary every day life and hidden from view in institutions. These are precisely the kind of people which would make us confront the big questions of existence, but in late modernity society is structured in such a way as to stop us thinking about the ‘big existential questions’.
The institutions of modernity thus fail to provide sufficient structure to guide people through life, and people’s lives are lived in a moral vacuum with a sense of personal meaninglessness the norm. People en mass suffer from what Giddens calls ontological security – they don’t really know who they are, or what to do with their lives.
It is in such a situation that religion can perform a vital function – by providing a sense of moral purpose, as well as answers to the big existential questions of life.
However, unlike modern or pre-modern societies, individuals now have to choose for themselves which religion to follow…. an this might be anything from New Age religions to one of the various strains of religious fundamentalism…