Religion and Society

Theoretical approaches to religious transformations in contemporary Central and Eastern Europe

Symposion on October 6, 2020 10am - 5pm

Organized and hosted by

Convivence - Religious Pluralism Research Group (Hungarian Academy of Science & University of Szeged

Department of the Study of Religions (University of Szeged)

Main focus

In recent decades, theories in social sciences analyzing contemporary societal transformations with respect to religious dimensions were almost all formulated in Western Europe or North America and were predominantly applied there.

The theories related to modernization, for instance Modernity (e.g. P. L. Berger), Postmodernity (e.g. Z. Bauman), Multiple Modernities (S. Eisenstadt) and connecting theories on religions such as Secularization versus Desecularization (e.g. M. Marty., Ch. Taylor, B. Wilson) or Public Religion (e. g. J. Casanova), have often been applied in sociological analysis of religious transformations.

Based on these theoretical approaches, researchers analyzing social transformations in Central and Eastern Europe concluded important and valuable results. However, due to the region’s geopolitical and geocultural specificities, the analytical potential of all the above mentioned theories is limited.

Therefore, there is an essential need for the application of theories primarily considering the region’s unique historical experiences and might lead to deeper and novel region-specific approaches. Recently, analytical attempts focusing on Central and Eastern Europe emerged within the theoretical frameworks of Postcolonial approaches, Ontological Security or Threatened Collective Identity. In his work Freiheit und Populismus Máté-Tóth created the concept of Wounded Collective Identity, an autopoietic theory for the investigation of the region.

The goal of this symposium is to discuss significant questions related to theoretical approaches and their applicability to social and religious transformations especially in Central and Eastern Europe.



10.00 Wounded collective identity: an autopoetic approach towards Central and Eastern Europe
Prof. Dr. András Máté-Tóth (MTA-SZTE ’Convivence’ Religious Pluralism Research Group)

11.00 Patterns and determining factors of religious change in modern societies: Towards a multi-paradigmatic theory
Prof. Dr. Detlef Pollack (Muenster University, Institute of Sociology and Cluster of Excellence "Religion and Politics")

12.00 Lunch break

13.00 Historical Memory as Political Religion: The Mnemonical Security Problem of Eastern Europe
Dr. Maria Mälksoo (University of Kent, Brussels School of International Studies)

14.00 No Soul, No Religion, Wrong God, Wrong Church – Religious Othering in the Making of Modernity/Coloniality/Inter-Imperiality
Prof. Dr. Manuela Boatcă (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Institut für Soziologie &Global Studies Programme)

15:00 Coffee break

15.30 Collective borderline syndrome: Central and Eastern Europe from a socio-psychological perspective
Dr. Réka Szilárdi, (MTA-SZTE ’Convivence’ Religious Pluralism Research Group)

16.30 – 17.00 Final remarks


Detlef Pollack

Patterns and determining factors of religious change in modern societies

Towards a multi-paradigmatic theory

A new discourse on religion in modern societies has established itself in the social sciences and humanities. It is no longer the master narrative claiming that religion is waning in significance that dominates the perspectives in the social sciences. The new key words are the return of the Gods (Friedrich Wilhelm Graf), de-privatization of religion (José Casanova) or de-secularization (Peter L. Berger).

The approach provided here does not assume that there is no strained relationship between religion and modernity: processes of modernization probably will have negative effects on the stability of religious identities, practices and convictions. At the same time, it acknowledges the resisting power and the dynamic potential of religious communities.

Functional differentiation as a key element of modern societies usually stands in tension with the integrational capacity of religious communities and churches. In contrast, if religious identities are linked with non-religious, for example national, political or economic interests, religion and church are strengthened. These positive effects of functional de-differentiation, however, have their limits. If church and politics are getting too close to each other, the capacity of religious communities to integrate people will be negatively affected. Then, religious identity can be absorbed by non-religious functions.

Individualization which is also characteristic of modern societies has as a rule negative effects on religion. The probability of being religious is increasing if an individual is part of a religious community, participates in church life and stands in close contact to people who share his or her religious beliefs. Believing without belonging is a rather rare phenomenon. If, however, social control carried out by the religious community becomes so high that individuals feel constrained in their autonomy, they very often tend to distance themselves from religion and church.

Religious pluralism – again typical for modern societies – does not foster, but diminish religious vitality. Under certain conditions, religious diversity, however, can fuel religious passions, then namely, when religious minorities feel threatened and challenged by majorities. Then minorities develop a sense of self-assertion.

Manuela Boătca

No Soul, No Religion, Wrong God, Wrong Church

Religious Othering in the Making of Modernity/Coloniality/Inter-Imperiality

The rise in geopolitical importance experienced by Western Christianity in and around Europe at the end of the 15th century has prompted Occidentalist discourses of difference centered on religious identities. The resulting patterns of religious Othering and their entanglements with patterns of racialized and gendered exclusion have been primarily analyzed by postcolonial and decolonial approaches focused on Europe’s Atlantic expansion:

Christians defined themselves as people with the “right” religion, while Jews and Moors were gradually racialized from a Western Christian point of view as people of the “wrong” faith. At the same time, the indigenous populations in the West Indies, displaying no religious allegiance known to the Christian colonizers, were classified as “people with no religion”, a type of tabula rasa in terms of subjectivity, on which any religious outlook could be inscribed. The enslavement of Africans for the European transatlantic trade involved instead the claim that they lacked a soul altogether, such that their probable death was not a sin. Drawing both on decolonial literature and on a previously developed concept of multiple and unequal Europes, the paper argues that, in East and Central Europe, inter-imperiality precedes coloniality and co-exists with it, shaping both the patterns of religious othering and racial/ethnic othering at the intersection of Christianities, Judaism and Islam until well into the twentieth century. Using the example of Transylvania as a paradigmatically inter-imperial space situated at the crossroads of the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian, and the Ottoman Empires, the paper illustrates the dynamics of religious othering leading to the crystallization of “national” religions in the twentieth century.

Maria Mälksoo

Historical Memory as Political Religion

The Mnemonical Security Problem of Eastern Europe

Central and East European ‘memory wars’ in the post-communist era have been underpinned by competing status anxieties of the regional states’ mnemonical standing in various orders of remembrance. The manifold ‘memory laws’ in the region have consequently ascribed redemptive qualities to historical memory. Legislations such as Poland’s endeavour to criminalise the attribution of wartime German Nazi crimes to the Polish state or nation (2018), Russian legislation protecting Stalinist narratives about the Second World War through criminal measures (2014), Ukraine’s contested decommunisation laws (2015), and Hungary’s mnemonic constitutionalism (since 2011) have sought to manage the ontological anxieties and insecurities of Central and East European states in multifarious ways. Oftentimes, a mnemonical security-orientation to dealing with the past has entailed radical othering of alternative mnemonical accounts, both in the region and beyond. Seeking to ‘fix’ the past could be read as a symptom of ontological insecurity – a state of uncertainty about one’s identity and place in the world, a lack of a sense of confidence or trust about the basic existential parameters of self and social identity, leading to an upset sense of agency. Legalising the preferable version of the past by criminalising and/or penalising others accordingly emerges as a coordinated state-level attempt at bolstering a state’s stable sense of self, underpinning and enabling its political agency. This keynote examines the political implications and ethical pitfalls of militant memocracy (or government by memory), based on the illustration of the recent developments in Central and Eastern Europe (particularly in the Poland-Ukraine-Russia triangle). I explore the sacralisation of historical memory and the role of ritualised remembrance of the past in enabling actors to cope with critical situations, reaffirm identities and consolidate political communities. Is there an ethical way to pursue memory politics in relation to massive human rights violations, past dictatorships, and international wrongdoings?

Réka Szilárdi

Collective borderline syndrome

Central and Eastern Europe from a socio-psychological perspective

This paper presents a thought experiment aimed primarily at a metaphorical collective interpretation of the clinical symptoms and the personality psychological aspects of borderline personality disorder (BPD) in the identity patterns of Central and Eastern European societies. First, the definition of the region and its main approaches are discussed by incorporating relevant social scientific theories. The common motif can be grasped in a kind of geopolitical and geocultural liminality and in-betweenness. Second, I list the characteristics of borderline personality disorder, which is a syndrome of uncertainties arising from a kind of liminal self-interpretation of the individual. Finally, I try to argue that the most fundamental determinants of the societies of the region can be best interpreted as a kind of borderline social disorder.

András Máté-Tóth

Wounded collective identity

An autopoetic approach towards Central and Eastern Europe

The European sub-region called Central and Eastern Europe is understood and analyzed mostly through social scientific theories and models which have a Western European or North American origin. The region is often observed from the outside, and many interpretations of regional transformation are based on codes and categories of these external perspectives, which I will call heteropoiesis. I try to argue for an autopoietic approach from the opposite direction, from the inside. In my approach, I focus, first of all, on the historical and contemporary social experiences of the societies of the region. After authoring many theoretical and analytical works on it, I have come to believe that the key characteristic of the region is its wounded collective identity. The main narrative in the region is backward-looking and nostalgic, also characterized by a feeling of victimhood and revenge feelings. Nationalism and xenophobia in the region are consequences of this traumatized self-understanding. To understand Central and Eastern Europe one must understand the wounds of history and the role of the trauma-centered narratives of today.