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International Journal of Urban and Regional Research

Volume 26.1

March 2002


Space and Religion: New Approaches to

Religious Spatiality in Modernity*

Three approaches to religious territoriality

Ever since they were constituted as such, the social sciences of the religious history,
historical anthropology, ethnology and sociology have accorded major importance to
the question of the relationship between religion and space. Looking just at the literature
dealing with the phenomenon of religion in western societies, it is possible to identify,
broadly, three registers within which this issue has commonly been situated.
The first register is that of the territorial modalities of the communalization of
religion: in other words, the study of the relations that each religious community
maintains with the space in which it has become established. The concrete form taken by
this territorial involvement depends on the juridico-political context that determines the
conditions for different communities to become established on the soil of a given society.
It is closely associated with the characteristics (ethnic, social, linguistic etc.) peculiar to a
particular community, and with the historical trajectory of its local establishment. It
crystallizes a relationship to the world theologically formalized to differing extents
which controls, in a very broad sense, the relationships that the religious group
maintains with its local environment. This local community involvement is the condensed
form varying according to the religious tradition in which the community concerned is
situated of a strategy for the territorial administration of the religious: its study gives
us a precise picture of the structure of power and the forms of division of religious labour
in a given tradition.
The second register is that of the geopolitics of the religious, which embraces the
history of religious conquests in all their forms, the study of how concrete forms of
pastorizing are implemented in territories gained (or remaining to be gained), the
analysis of the intercommunity conflicts and relationships generated by these movements,
the identification of forms of resistance, compromise and cohabitation that are aroused in
a given space by the distribution and restructuring of the balance of power between
religious groups and traditions, and the phenomena of exile, emigration, refuge and
dispersal into diaspora connected to religious conquests and so on. In all these aspects,
which closely intersect with religious, social, cultural and political issues, the question of
practical modalities of the distribution and occupation of spaces is central. It is, for
example, at the heart of many historical works on the epic journey of Christian missions
around the world, as well as literature relating to the history of Islamization (e.g.
Decobert, 2000). But it also concerns, very directly, socio-historical and sociological
* Translated from French by Karen George. The editors of IJURR would like to encourage more articles about
religion and cities.
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108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.


Danie`le Hervieu-Leger

research into regional differentiation of religious cultures, in one country or in a set of

The third register of exploration immensely vast, but no less susceptible to precise
empirical investigation than the two previous areas is that of religious symbolizations
of space. How does the religious imagination, with its dual components of memory and
utopia, understand places? From Maurice Halbwachs (1941) Topographie, through
Alphonse Dupronts (1997) analyses on forms of local inscription of the sacred, to studies
of the dream spaces of Messianisms and millenarianisms or of utopian cities, as illustrated
by Roger Bastide (1967) or Henri Desroche (1969), this question has fostered thinking
now classic about the way in which a set of issues relating to places (generally,
concrete practices of occupation and management of spaces) takes its place in the belief
system that organizes the relations of a given religious community to its past and to its
future. This approach cannot be separated from the study of modalities for incorporating
the spatial dimension into the religious experience itself and into different expressions of
this experience, both individual and collective. To illustrate this idea, one might think of
the link between the immense undertaking of land clearances by the Cistercian abbeys in
the twelfth and thirteenth centuries an undertaking that altered not only the landscapes
of Europe, but also the economy of the continent and the way the spiritual writings of
Saint Bernard established an analogy between the mystic battle and the daily struggle to
defend newly-conquered land against the permanent return of brambles and thorny
shrubs. But many examples can be mobilized in this area: from the inseparably symbolic
and social meanings of the gesture of pilgrimage (leaving ones own place to go to the
place where God lives and/or manifests his power), which is attested in all the religious
traditions, to the representations of the city associated at one and the same time with the
fulfilment of the Kingdom (in terms of the achievement of the City of God) and with the
threat that hangs over the community of believers from the impiety of the world (of which
the perdition of the city is the expression par excellence).1
In the practice of historical or sociological research on a particular case, the
interbreeding of these three registers is both necessary and continual. A perfect
demonstration of this is provided by the sociology of French Catholicism, as it developed
up to the 1960s from the impetus given to local studies of religious practice by Gabriel Le
Bras, doyen of the subject (Hervieu-Leger and Williams, 2001). The empirical study of
the modalities of communalization of Catholicism, founded mainly on a quantitative
geography of observances, derives meaning only from a historical approach to the
dynamics of Christianization, differentiated according to region. But overall, the data
provided by surveys can be interpreted only if it is reviewed in the light of the inseparably
political and religious utopian project that organized all Catholic pastoral strategies from
the Counter-Reformation onwards, and which was given new vigour by the effort of
resisting the irresistible advance of the secular Republic in the course of the nineteenth
century. For over a hundred years, this utopia of a parish civilization, completely
coextensive with the national space, represented an organizing mechanism for
intransigent belief in Catholicism and an axis of its struggle against the invasion of
secular modernity. The insistence on the sacramentalization of local communities by
believers, the development of parish missions, the pilgrimage movement and the
invention of major sites of devotion (chiefly, Lourdes)2 where the Catholic authorities
have applied a policy of running large gatherings: all these strategies for the reconquest of
1 This dramatized representation of the city as the space par excellence where religion is lost has existed in
the history of religion and, specifically, in the history of Catholicism, up to a very recent date. Godin and
Daniels (1943) famous work, La France, pays de mission?, provides an excellent example of this.
2 The British historian, Ruth Harris, whose work has recently appeared in French (2001), has, in particularly
lively fashion, restored the political and religious logic of this invention of centres of Catholic faith during
the last century.
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New approaches to religious spatiality in modernity


souls are inseparable from practices for the reconquest of spaces of which both a
particular politics and a particular theology form intrinsic parts.

On Christian terrain: Church-type religious spatiality and secttype religious spatiality

The model of parish civilization on the Catholic terrain just mentioned corresponds, in an
ideal-typical sense, to an entire project to gain a hold over territory, of which the
expansion of Christianization is presupposed to be an intrinsic part a development
that in itself anticipates the eschatological achievement of the Kingdom of Heaven. Of
course, this ultimate fulfilment should not be completely confused with the territorial
expansion of the ecclesiastical institution: the Kingdom is extra-worldly in nature, not
directly accessible to human undertakings and, in strictly theological terms, a gift from
God. However, to the extent that the geographical spread of the Churchs influence
to the ends of the earth is supposed to demonstrate equally the truth of the message
and the holiness of the institution that is its agent, it really provides the best current
evidence of the nearness of the Kingdom. It is also the concrete means of achieving the
Kingdom (since access to salvation for each person comes through becoming part of the
Church), as well as the symbolic representation of the persons perfect advent to another
world. Church-type communalization of religion involves ideally an integration of
all human communities, as part of the concrete process by which religion encompasses
spaces. Similarly, as a result, any individual who is geographically a member of a given
community constitutes ipso facto a member (or, at least, a potential member) of the
religious society that covers in intention or in fact these spaces. Although the
encompassing parish civilization on Catholic terrain embodies the most systematically
administered form of this process, this type of relationship to space is also present in all
situations where Church-type religious societies have gained a monopoly foothold: from
this point of view, Lutheran societies in northern Europe provide just as significant an
example as societies in southern Europe, where Catholicism benefits from a situation of
massive dominance, or as eloquent an instance as the societies of eastern Europe, where
the Orthodox Church enjoys the privilege of near-exclusivity.
To the extent that religious coverage of spaces is never completely realized, this
model of Church-type religious spatiality can obviously never be absolutely pure, even
in cases where the social and cultural monopoly of a given denomination is imposed.
There is an even clearer deviation from it in situations of denominational pluralism,
which fuel local competition between churches. This competition, in principle, brings into
play the ability of different religious groups to attract and retain believers. It is
inseparable from their ability to impose their presence on a given territory and to assert
and extend their religious, social, cultural and even political hold over it. Whatever one
might think of Rodney Stark and Roger Finkers systematization of the effects produced
by this competition on the religious dynamic of communities, their historical study of
how Christian churches were set up in the United States provides a remarkable illustration
of the different issues at stake, intrinsic to and presented in the spatial relations
maintained by the different groups (Finke and Stark, 1992). We should note in passing
that this competition for presence in space extends to situations in which pluralism is no
longer merely religious, but also ideological: the confrontation between the Roman
Church and the Republic in nineteenth-century France was not played out solely on the
stage of politics and education. It was also revealed at the scale of local communities, in a
competition for symbolic control of spaces: Alain Corbins analysis of the battle of the
bells admirably illustrates these struggles for mastery of the soundscape, which typify
all rivalries for control of spaces that are, inseparably, both social and territorial (Corbin,
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Danie`le Hervieu-Leger

1994). But, even in these competitive situations, theological representations of the

religious community bear the traces of an ideal relationship to the space, postulating a
stable, durable correspondence between the religious groups hold over territory and the
permeation of consciousnesses by the message it carries. Thus, highly enhancing the
value of a groups local roots and magnifying the depth and great age of its connections
with an area of land or a region can help to transmit the fiction of being all-encompassing
that is characteristic of the relations of Church-type religious groups to space.
Things are completely different for Christian groups that, in the classic typology
developed by Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, fall under the heading of sect. The sect,
in the technical sense that applies here, in fact brings together qualified believers who
personally and explicitly undertake their own religious involvement. There is no question
in these cases of baptising babies, incapable of professing their faith themselves, under
the pretext that their parents are members of the community. Nor is there any question of
looking at all the residents of a given space as de facto members of a religious society that
claims its potential hold over everyone, even though it cannot draw them in directly.
Within the sectarian perspective, a religious group is a gathering of people brought
together voluntarily by their shared faith, to the exclusion of any other earthly bond, even
the community of belonging to a territory. Thus, the set of questions that the sect
addresses intensively, which counters point by point the expanding questions addressed
by the church, offers a radical way of resolving the relations of the religious group to any
given territory. To the sect, the conversion of individuals alone signifies the advance of
the Kingdom: the latter cannot be represented in any way by a religious administration
taking spaces in hand. However, beyond the indifference to spatial environment that is
postulated by the strictly voluntary bond uniting individuals in faith, the local gathering of
believers, who have been regenerated by conversion, is presumed to manifest the current
presence of the Kingdom, as such, in the world. The refusal of any compromise with the
earthly environment cultural or political may, at its most radical, be expressed
through rigorous isolationism, which also takes a spatial form: the community of Saints
(like the monastery, which Troeltsch defined as an ecclesified sect) is constituted as an
island of the saved or the pure, placed, one might say, in a situation of ultra-localized
extraterritoriality, in an environment that ignores or modifies the radical nature of
religious involvement.
Although it is important to emphasize these diverse and visible tensions between
territorialization, deterritorialization, extraterritorialization and the paradoxical relocalizations of the religious group (here considered through the typical opposition of Church
and sect on Christian terrain), it must be remembered that they are equally to be found, in
different forms, in other religious traditions and that they do not primarily represent a
specific feature of religious modernity. It is tempting (and common) to set up an
unimaginative contrast between the supposed territorial stability of religious societies in
the past and the deterritorialization that, in modernity, is said to accompany the
dislocation of so-called natural communities, the affirmation of individual forms of
autonomy and the general trend towards mobility. These tensions, in reality, have
coexisted with the history of Christianity since its beginnings, and they are also
characteristic, in specific forms, of the Jewish and Muslim traditions. Let us leave aside
here the way that, throughout history, religious groups have been wrenched out of
territory by the political or the symbolic balance of power, imposing exile or even forcing
them to wander from place to place. The typical opposition between Church-type
religious spatiality and sect-type religious spatiality enables us to point up a structural
contradiction, internal to the socio-religious bond itself (at least as far as the three
monotheistic religions are concerned): a contradiction that is being played out between
the dynamic of territorialization, which is the theological and practical basis for the
legitimacy of assigning land to each community on account of the ability of its message to
organize the social, and the dynamic of deterritorialization, which marks the dual purpose
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New approaches to religious spatiality in modernity


universal and individual of this message itself. This contradiction ties in, at least
partly, with the tension that has grown up between the imperative to affirm the singular
identity of the religious community and the imperative to show the universal significance
of the truth it declares itself to be carrying: the tension between the already there of the
Church and the not yet of the Kingdom on Christian terrain, or the tension, in the
Muslim context, between the earthly Korans given to different communities and the
heavenly Koran that is valid for the umma, or, in Judaism, the tension between the
Torah (given to the People for a time in history) and the universal purpose of the Law
(represented by the Law of Noah, imposed henceforth on all humanity). This fundamental
contradiction between involvement in a community (local involvement, therefore) by the
religious and its universal aim (which no visible space can enclose) determines all the
paradoxes of the relationship of religion to space, paradoxes that are variously expressed,
but especially in the gap that has become permanently established between the political
claim to the territorial stability of the community (a land for the people of God) and
enhancing the spiritual value of movement (not to settle in one place) evidenced, for
example, in the universal practice of pilgrimage.

Delocalization of communities and the mobility of individual

believers in religious modernity: a new questioning of relations
between religion and space
Before reflecting on the deterritorializing effects involved in modernity for all
communities, and especially for religious communities, we should emphasize that the
tension between territorialization and deterritorialization constitutes one of the modalities
in which a structural tension in the religious itself between particular and universal,
between affirmation of the singularity of a community and the logic of social and cultural
diffusion is concretely realized (although, obviously, varying according to the
historical and cultural context). It remains the case that religious modernity
characterized by the individualization and the subjectivization of belief and the
dismantling of traditional bonds between belief and belonging to a local community,
but also by the intensive moving around of individuals and the explosion of various
means of worldwide communication is leading to the emergence, through novel forms
of religious sociability, of new configurations of this tension.
The exploration of these configurations does not constitute an absolutely new theme
for the sociology of religions. The German sociologist Ernst Troeltsch, for example,
opened a road in that direction at the beginning of the century by introducing, alongside
the classic types of Church and sect, another form of Christian sociation, typical
according to him of modernity: that of the mystic network (Spiritualismus). Its
exclusive element lies in its embodiment of the features of religious modernity that lead
most directly to the delocalization of the social and religious bond: individualization and
subjectivization of religious choices, primacy of the spiritual, interpersonal relationship
over any form of collective validation of belief or institutional mediation, insistence
placed on the exchange of spiritual experiences within fluid and continually reshaped
networks etc. (Troeltsch, 1965). On the same lines, present-day researchers working on
new religious movements or on Christian or non-Christian terrains are examining closely
the relational forms of a communalization of religion into networks, which is now
imposing itself as one of the chief modalities of a deterritorialized spatialization of the
religious. More broadly, new data on religious mobility, viewed from three angles
religious movements resulting from the phenomena of migration, the successive
movements of individuals between communities they choose themselves (Hervieu-Leger,
1999) and the internationalization of the market in symbolic goods (Futuribles, 2001)
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Danie`le Hervieu-Leger

have instigated attempts to account for the insecure, temporary and continually
restructured forms of contemporary religious spatialization. A bottom-up and top-down
type of spatialization, brought into play both by local mass gatherings and the spread of
individual believers and by mobilization of the most modern communication technologies
(even extending as far as the creation of virtual communities, completely detached from
any form of local integration) and networking between dense cores of community, which
is weaving new patterns of religion in space. Literature relating to the development of
megachurches in the United States offers a particularly effective illustration of the
dialectic of large gatherings that are not part of any overall plan and of the way proximity
is being framed, thus organizing an emergent form of spatialization of the religious
typical, it seems, of advanced modernity (Miller, 1997).3 Varied research relating to the
distribution of Pentecostal churches on the world scale is bringing elements into the
situation that are rejuvenating the classical approaches of territorialization-deterritorialization of the religious (see the case recounted in Willaime, 1999).
The articles brought together in this symposium all aim to contribute to advancing
these forms of thinking, by moving away from a focus on western Christian terrains,
which, up to now, have provided the main empirical subject-matter of literature on the
relations of the religious to space. The three authors devote themselves specifically to the
logics of transnationalization of phenomena, through which the structural tension,
peculiar to the spatialization of the religious, between the universal (religion without
borders) and the particular (local religion) is being reshaped. Andre Mary does this by
showing, using the case of the Celestial Church of Christ in Benin and Nigeria, how the
modalities of Pentecostal transnationalization at work in this church (as evidenced by the
large gatherings of the evangelization campaigns) combine with a strategy of
territorializing religious identity within an enlarged space. This strategy offers believers
both an intense local parish life, strongly framed and structured, and a practice of
pilgrimage that combines the initiatory dimension of the journey and the reaffirmation of
identity through an umbilical bond to a motherland that has been idealized in the
experience of being uprooted by migration. Erwan Dianteill devotes himself to the
paradoxes of deterritorialization and reterritorialization that have accompanied and
continue to accompany the transplantations of a religion, that of the Yoruba of the Oyo
empire in West Africa. Originally directly associated with a territorialized political and
lineage-based form of organization, local orisha cults, transplanted to Cuba by the slave
trade, became a slave religion, gradually losing their ethnic nature and combining
syncretically with local Catholicism. This Cuban Santeria has been exported by Cuban
immigrants to the United States, where it has found new forms of territorial inscription
through ecclesiogenesis and has also acted as an aid to the imagination in reshaping neoAfrican identities, thus mounting a reverse challenge to the acclimatization of Catholic
and Christian references into orisha worship. This twofold movement detachment from
concrete territorial inscription, brought about by migration, and mobilization of an
idealized territoriality that provides the raw material for reconstructing identity, where
geographical, social and family roots have been lost is also presented, in a more
systematically theorized form, in Chantal Saint-Blancats reflections, developed from the
case of Muslim diasporas in Europe. She shows, in particular, how the construction of
diaspora identities comes about through invoking an imaginary elsewhere, which at
the same time justifies a pragmatic, evolutionary form of integration into the concrete
social and spatial environment offered by different European societies. In this way, the
management of the relationship to space is becoming part of the process of the plural (and
modern) redefinition of Muslim identities.

3 In addition, on this question of new forms of communalization, including large gatherings and the dense
proliferation of neighbourhood groups, see Chapter 5 of Hervieu-Leger (2001).
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New approaches to religious spatiality in modernity


These three cases offer three convergent ways in to a new type of questioning about
how the religious relates to space, a questioning in which the issue of (actual or idealized)
territorialization/deterritorialization of religious groups ties in directly with that of the
formation of individual and collective identities in modernity. What is at stake in this
questioning obviously goes beyond the interests and efforts of sociologists and
anthropologists of the religious alone.
Danie`le Hervieu-Leger (, Centre dEtudes Interdisciplinaires des Faits Religieux, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 54
Boulevard Raspail, 75006 Paris, France.

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Corbin, A. (1994) Les cloches de la terre. Paysage sonore et culture sensible dans les campagnes
au XIXe sie`cle. Albin Michel, Paris.
Decobert, C. (ed.) (2000) Valeur et distance. Identites et societes en Egypte. Maisonneuve et
Larose, Paris.
Desroche, H. (1969) Dieux dhommes: dictionnaire des Messianismes et millenarismes de le`re
chretienne. Mouton, Paris.
Dupront, A. (1997) Le mythe de croisade. Gallimard, Paris.
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New Brunswick, NJ.
Futuribles (2001) Lunivers des croyances. Special issue 260, January.
Godin, H. and Y. Daniel (1943) La France, pays de mission? Les Editions du Cerf, Paris.
Halbwachs, M. (1941) [1972 edn.] Topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte. PUF,
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J.C. Latte`s, Paris.
Hervieu-Leger, D. (1999) Le pe`lerin et le converti. Religion in movement. Flammarion, Paris.
(2001) La religion en miettes ou la question des sectes. Calmann-Levy, Paris.
and J.P. Williams (2001) Sociologies et religion. Approches classiques. PUF, Paris.
Miller, D.E. (1997) Reinventing American Protestantism. Christianity in the New Millennium.
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Troeltsch, E. (1965) Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen (1922). Scientia
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