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Interpreting Form and Forms of Religion: Dialogue of Social Systems Theory and the Scientific Study of Religion

Panel Chair: Moritz Klenk | Monday, August 24, 1:30-3 p.m. | Venue

In the past few years, the scientific study of religions shows a growing interest in social systems theory (SST). Recent translations of several of Luhmann's books into English further revealed that this interest can be understood as a global fascination for strong theories in the field of the study of religions. Expanding on the results of a conference that will be held in May 2015 in Zurich, this panel reflects on the possible synergy between the scientific study of religions and SST. The papers address both classic receptions and recent developments of the theory, chasing up the most controversial questions of the contentious relationship between SST and the study of religion.

Rafael Walthert

Systems Theory and the Representation of Religion

Due to Geertz' notion of religion as a »cultural system«, systems theory can be placed at the very core of the Study of Religions. His definition of religion is based on concepts of system and function that were initially developed by Talcott Parsons, although this remains mostly unacknowledged. A more recent proponent of systems theory, the sociologist Niklas Luhmann, explicitly refers to Parsons but introduces a few decisive modifications to Parsons' model: The idea of functional prerequisites as well as the analytical distinction between cultural and social systems is abandoned and religion is seen as a »system of communication« rather than a »symbol system«. This paper discusses these shifts and points to the possibilities such a reconceptualised version of systems theory may open up for the representation and interpretation of religion in the Study of Religions.

Andrea Rota

Religion as communication: the concepts of communication by Luhmann and Searle and their relevance for the scientific study of religion

Following the reception of the linguistic turn within the scientific study of religion, several authors understand religion as a particular form of communication (Tyrell and al. 1998). Within this framework, this paper explores the potential of John Searle’s philosophy of language and society for this discipline. Searle’s theory of speech acts, meaning and communication provide fundamental insight regarding the role of language in the constitution of social, institutional reality. However, it falls short of a criterion to characterize communication forms defining different social spheres. To solve this difficulty, the paper explores the possibility of combining Searle’s perspective with the social systems theory of Niklas Luhmann, who conceives religious communication in functional terms as a means to cope with the fundamentally contingent nature of communication itself. Drawing on this comparison, the paper discusses epistemological and methodological consequences for the scientific study of religion.

Moritz Klenk

Recent developments in Social Systems Theory (SST) and their possible implications for the study of religion

The recent interest in Social Systems Theory (SST) within the discipline of the study of religion does not conceal the fact that our discipline has long been struggling with such strong theoretical approaches. This lead to a wider ignorance against the recent developments of the theory. Today, long standing pillars of SST are challenged, with far reaching theoretical implications for further theoretical developments. ”Is there still something that could be called society?“ (Maren Lehmann) ”Do social systems really exist?“ (Dirk Baecker) ”Are social and psychic systems really that independent when it comes to the medium of meaning?“ (Peter Fuchs) - It might turn out that not only the ideological suspicion against SST loses ground due to SST’s recent developments, but also that the study of religion can both profit from and contribute SST, as it continues to be under ’heavy construction‘.


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