EM: Over the last couple of years you have been working on the question of religion from a series of perspectives: philosophical, political, sociological, moral, and cognitive. In your Yale lectures from the fall of 2008, you approached the challenge of the vitality and renewal of religion in world society in terms of the need to rethink the link between social theory and secularization theory. In those lectures, you suggest that we need to uncouple modernization theory from secularization theory. Does this mean that you are taking distance from the dominant trends in social theory in the West, which began with Pareto, continued through Durkheim, and reached their apogee in Weber, and thus also from its explicit and avowed Eurocentrism?
JH: We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The debate over the sociological thesis of secularization has led to a revision above all in respect to prognostic statements. On the one hand, the system of religion has become more differentiated and has limited itself to pastoral care, that is, it has largely lost other functions. On the other hand, there is no global connection between societal modernization and religion’s increasing loss of significance, a connection that would be so close that we could count on the disappearance of religion. In the still undecided dispute as to whether the religious USA or the largely secularized Western Europe is the exception to a general developmental trend, José Casanova for example has developed interesting new hypotheses. In any case, globally we have to count on the continuing vitality of world religions.
In view of the consequences of which you speak, I consider the program of the group around Shmuel Eisenstadt and its comparative research on civilizations promising and informative. In the emerging world society, and concerning the social infrastructure, there are, as it were, by now only modern societies, but these appear in the form of multiple modernities because the great world religions have had a great culture-forming power over the centuries, and they have not yet entirely lost this power. As in the West, these “strong” traditions paved the way in East Asia, in the Middle East, and even in Africa for the development of cultural structures that confront each other today—for example, in the dispute over the right interpretation of human rights. Our Western self-understanding of modernity emerged from the confrontation with our own traditions. The same dialectic between tradition and modernity repeats itself today in other parts of the world.