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How “Modern” are We? Religion, Secularism, and Multiple Modernities in Europe

Date:28 July 2014
Author:Religion Factor
An image from the Redeemed Christian Church of God outlining their mission strategy
An image from the Redeemed Christian Church of God outlining their mission strategy

On 13 June 2014, esteemed sociologist of religion Professor Jose Casanova received an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen. During his visit, the Faculty hosted a roundtable discussion on conceptions of religion, secularism and modernity in contemporary European identity, raising questions over exactly what it means to be “modern”, “secular”, “religious” and “European”.

The idea of being modern has long been associated, at least in Europe, with the gradual separation of religion from public life, its privatization, decline, and eventual disappearance. Yet since the end of the Cold War, it has become increasingly accepted that religion is not disappearing or declining and may even be deprivatizing and re-entering the public sphere. These events are occurring all over the ‘Western’ world, not limited to the United States, which has arguably always had elements of the religious in its public sphere. Such developments speak to the very essence of European identity, which has for a long time been considered to be the pinnacle of secularization and modernization. What does the return of religion to public life mean for secular modern Europe? Does being modern require being secular? Is religion really as antithetical to modernization as we have assumed it to be? What does it even mean to be ‘modern,’ ‘secular,’ ‘Enlightened,’ and ‘religious’?

In the next few days, The Religion Factor will be publishing pieces from the panelists who participated in the event, providing their own provocative perspectives on religion, secularism and modernity in Europe. These include Dr. Kim Knibbe, Lecturer in Sociology and Anthropology of Religion, Dr. Christoph Jedan, Associate Professor of Ethics and Philosophy, and Prof. Herman Paul (secularization studies). We hope you enjoy reading their reflections.

In the first contribution to our series on multiple modernities in Europe, following our panel discussion last month, Dr Kim Knibbe gives her view on this question based on her research on Nigerian-initiated Pentecostal churches in Europe.[1]

A first consideration to address when attempting the question ‘ how modern we are’ is ‘ who are the ‘ we’ that are claiming to be modern?

Since 2007 I have been following the spread of Nigerian-initiated Pentecostal churches in Europe. Nigeria has become a sending country for missionaries, exemplifying the famous ‘reverse mission’ that seems to turn geographies as we are used to them upside down[2]. In 2007, my colleagues and I attended a Holy Ghost Night on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway at the Redemption Camp of the Redeemed Christian Church of God. These all-night vigils are held once a month, and once a month people come from all over Nigeria, Africa and the US to join the service for a night of praise and worship, intense prayer and dramatic altar calls led by “Daddy G.O.” (General Overseer), the leader of the RCCG, Enoch Adejare Adeboye.

Reliable data are hard to come by, but church leaders claim that around half a million people join these monthly services. Other (yearly) events might attract crowds of over a million. This is clearly a very modern church, targeting young successful professionals and joined by many who aspire to this status, creating narratives and examples of success in a globalized world. Constant movement and travel, especially by men, is seen as an important indicator of success. Joining this church is part of a life path that promises to lead to becoming a modern citizen of the world, disentangling oneself from the bonds of tradition, poverty, locality and the dismal state of affairs in Nigeria. Part of the narrative of success of this church is that it now has parishes in most countries across the globes, and it is still expanding rapidly, winning the world for Jesus. In short: this is a church that embodies global modernity.

This self-conception is in sharp contrast to the way the missionary aspirations of the RCCG are viewed by ‘native’ Dutch people, inhabitants of what is known as one of the most secular societies in the world. Generally, they are entirely unaware of being the object of mission. When talking about my research topic, first reactions were always incredulous: this seems to be history repeating itself! ‘We’ used to go there to convert them to Christianity, and now ‘ they’ come here to convert us! Social scientists often find these churches interesting not in the first place because of their missionary aspirations, but to discuss the merits of ‘ bonding’ social capital versus ‘ bridging’ social capital. Do ‘ migrant churches (as they are then called) help or hinder ‘ integration’? On the one hand, they might provide a safe haven in the scary and unfamiliar world of the receiving country, on the other hand they might foster enclaves within the host society, inhibiting the need to learn the language and ways of their new place of residence.

Theologians, although fascinated by the ‘vibrancy’ of African dominated churches will nevertheless point out that the theology of these churches needs an update, : they ‘ still’ take the Bible literally. Trying to explain this difference, some theologians maintain that ‘their’ faith has not yet been tested by enlightenment, by secularization, in short, by those processes that have made ‘us’ modern.

Both the narratives of the RCCG and the Dutch reactions to the missionary aspirations of this church and reverse mission generally show markedly different ideas of history, of the unfolding of history, as well as different ways of opposing tradition, religion and modernity. The narrative of the RCCG links global modernity to a lifestyle governed by both holiness and prosperity teaching, in short a thoroughly religious lifestyle. The ‘ Dutch’ narratives, both in popular discourse and in academic discourses, view this as a throw-back, as representing an earlier phase of history that they have left behind, implying that there is an inevitable unfolding of history that will lead to secularity and a ‘second naivety’: religion as a choice, within a secular framework. Both however, claim to be modern.

What does it mean then to be modern? Whose claims should we believe: those of secular Dutch, who see missionaries from the past as a strange repetition of history, or at best a useful safe haven from the insecurities of a migrant existence, implying that they are ‘ lagging behind’, or the claims of the very successful Pentecostal churches in the Global South, sending out missionaries to the rest of the world?

In fact, the sociology of religion has contributed to the claims to modernity by secular Dutch, by creating the narrative of the inevitability of secularization that accompanies modernization. However, these narratives, although still dominant in many other fields, do not have many supporters anymore in the sociology of religion, in Religious Studies and never had much credibility in the anthropology of religion.

Rather than harnessing the sociology of religion to the task of legitimizing either of these claims, I think it is more fruitful to study the claims themselves, compare them, see how they interact and frame each other. In this I follow the insight of Geschiere, Meyer and Pels[3] that modernity is always a relational term, each modernity frames others as ‘ not yet’ modern, for various reasons.

We can understand each of these claims to modernity as the outcome of different historical trajectories. Interestingly, these trajectories are also entwined through colonialism and mission. However, these moments of entanglement are remembered in very different ways, as we saw before, and they fulfill almost opposite roles in creating oppositions between tradition and modernity.

When missionaries travel from Nigeria to Europe to evangelize, a meeting of modernities takes place. This means that from an academic view, modernity is understood not as having a particular substance, a set of benchmarks and achievements, but as involving particular kinds of claims. Each claim involves a politics of time as Butler has argued.[4] We can then conclude that claiming modernity, whether religious or secular, always implies a way of ‘othering’ that makes the pre-modern others a target for efforts at conversion, to bring them into one’s own time.

[1] Kim Knibbe, “Nigerian Missionaries in Europe: History Repeating Itself or a Meeting of Modernities?,” Journal of Religion in Europe 4, no. 3 (2011): 471–87, doi:10.1163/187489211X592085.

[2] Rebecca Alice Catto, “From the Rest to the West : Exploring Reversal in Christian Mission in Twenty-First Century Britain” (Ph.D., University of Exeter, 2008),; Philip Jenkins, The next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2007).

[3] Peter Geschiere, Birgit Meyer, and Peter Pels, Readings in Modernity in Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 2008).

[4] Judith Butler, “Sexual Politics, Torture, and Secular Time,” The British Journal of Sociology 59, no. 1 (2008): 1–23, doi:10.1111/j.1468-4446.2007.00176.x.


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