article is an attempt to articulate a concept of religion that is analytically independent
of specialized social institutions. noninstitutional religion is equivalent to private religion.
Luckmann understood his theory of religious transformation to be a theory of religious privatization,
A central argument in Thomas Luckmann’s thin book The Invisible Religion is that
religion is not the same as church. Luckmann charged contemporary sociologists of
religion with identifying religion as a concept with a uniquely Western institutional
expression of Judaism and Christianity. Furthermore, Luckmann argued that institutional
specialization itself is a unique social form of religion and that the religion
concept should be understood much more generally. ‘‘The identification of church and
religion,’’ according to Luckmann, ‘‘fits into the dominant view of sociology as the
science of social institutions—the latter term understood narrowly’’ (1967:22).
Luckmann’s own theory, by contrast, highlights the primary role of noninstitutional
religion in modern societies.
In The Invisible Religion, Luckmann has two overarching concerns, both stemming
from his goal of analytically separating religion from church. First, he offers a
definition of religion that releases it from identification with any particular social
form. Religion, for Luckmann, is not primarily a differentiated social institution.
Rather, religion is primarily a meaning system.2 This separation of religion from its
social forms opens up for empirical and theoretical inquiry the question: If religion is
a meaning system and not a social institution, what social forms has it taken? What
social relationships have mediated people’s engagement with this symbolic system?
Answering this question is Luckmann’s second concern: he offers a history, a story of
religious transformation, culminating in a theory of religious modernity
Luckmann described his theory of religious transformation as a theory of privatization.
Luckmann’s definition of religion is a distinctly cultural one.
Luckmann’s assessment of
what religion is primarily about—what it most centrally is—is meaning. Specifically,
religion is a system of transcendent meanings; meanings that point people to a context
that transcends everyday life. Luckmann calls these meanings ‘‘symbolic universes’’:
The familiar forms of religion known to us as tribal religion, ancestor cult,
church, sect, and so forth are specific historical institutionalizations of symbolic
universes. Symbolic universes are socially objectivated systems of meaning that
refer, on the one hand, to the world of everyday life and point, on the other hand,
to a world that is experienced as transcending everyday life. (1967:43)
What religion most centrally is, then, is not an organization or a social form or a
social relationship; what religion most centrally is is a system of symbols that meets
people in the terms of their everyday life and points them to a realm of significance
that goes beyond—‘‘transcends’’—those terms. Internally, then, religion is cultural in
that religion is meaning.
In Luckmann’s definition, religion is also cultural ‘‘externally’’; that is, religion
exists in the social world in the way that culture exists in the social world. To get at
this idea, it is best to think visually. For Luckmann, culture consists of layered sets of
meanings arranged in a nested hierarchy of significance, complexity, and abstraction.
For Luckmann, religion is the topmost layer of this hierarchy of meanings that
constitutes a society’s culture. This layer is made up of meanings that transcend
everyday life; it consists of symbols such as God, Nirvana, Tao, Brahman, Allah,
Christ, and Unity Consciousness. These symbols, these meanings, Luckmann calls
‘‘the sacred cosmos’’ (1967:61).
This understanding of religion as a topmost layer of culture has a couple of
A second implication of religion’s cultural nature is what Luckmann calls its
‘‘objectivated’’ status. As he puts it: ‘‘The sacred cosmos forms part of the objective
social reality without requiring a distinct and specialized institutional basis’’
Luckmann’s characterization of contemporary religion as privatized is pivotal in
the sociology of religion; it has been picked up by just about everyone and challenged
by almost no one.5 Indeed, The Invisible Religion is often read as primarily a theory of
religion privatization, rather than more generally as a theory of religious transformation.
This excerpt, however, suggests that the diagnosis of ‘‘privatization’’ is premature,
because this diagnosis is based on an identification of public with institutional
Private religion, in this
view, is religion that is located within individual psyches, in close relationships, or in
leisure time, ‘‘leisure’’ presumably acting as a catch-all category for all social activities
that are neither economic nor political. In this view, then, what counts as public is
politics and paid work; everything else is private (e.g., Bellah et al. 1985; Tamney
1992; Berger 1967).