Urlich Beck's recent book on religion and cosmopolitanism

Urlich Beck just published a new book : ''A God of One’s Own''


Here I present some of his ideas commented. Any other comments schould be welcome due of the importance of the anthropological issues he mentions. This presentation that I transfer here ,was made yesterday by a colleague anthropologist Allan Brill in his blog :




This is the one book to read this year about religion in the world. Ulrich Beck, an important German sociologist of globalization, cosmopolitanism, and secondary modernity has written a synthesis of the various works on post-secularism of the last decade. He integrates Habermas’ allowing religion into the public sphere, Jose Casanova’s critique and reformulation of secularization, the gang over at Immanent Frame (Charles Taylor, Talal Asad, Arjun Appadurai et al)along with the sociology of Zymunt Bauman, Anthony Giddens, and Pierre Bourdeau. This book is almost a summary study of the writings on religion of the last decades and into the future. Beck is interviewed often and has many quotable quotes. (There are many more interviews out there.)


Beck’s opening point is clear. Most sociology of religion has been functional and accepting. They explain why people have beliefs without judging the value of the beliefs. Sociologists are equally open- minded toward any manifestation of religion -new age, Evangelicals, revivalism, and magic. Beck argues that we need a sociology of the effect of religion on society and to examine the cultural productivity and destructiveness of religious beliefs. The contents of religious beliefs as an

“autonomous force and reality, their vision of a different humanity and their power to make whole worlds tremble, are so rarely exposed in their full ambivalence to the gaze of sociology.” Beck is a confirmed European secularist, yet he seeks to capture the power and hold that religion has today.

Beck’s conclusion about contemporary religion is that everyone has a” God of one’s own.” This God is not an omnipotent God, rather God needs mans help to be acknowledged and to make the world a better place. God himself is “impotent and helpless in an apocalyptic age” We turn to God to seek solace and dignity not safety or solutions.“We wish to chain our personal God to our own desires, traumas, hysterias, fears and hopes and at the same time, we want to keep these chains in our own hands.” (13)


Beck considers taking refuge in dogmas of faith that are incompatible with our “individualized experiences and ambivalent feelings” is a form of self-deception- it fails to acknowledge individualism. Rather one needs to recognize the empirical and historical fact that the God of one’s own correspond to the space of one’s own life and life of one’s space. Man is at the same time believer and God. Modern life is fragmented with an alterity of own’s own life. (15) One’s own life is another name for the contingent and reflexive nature of that life


Beck declares that the collapse of secularization theory is greater than fall of the Soviet Union (21). Heavily reliant of the essays that Habermas wrote in 2007 – 2008, Beck declares a post-secular age. orthodox and conservative religions are gaining ground everywhere. (24) The new religious movements are based on changing psychological schools cobbled together to form Gods of their own. Asian and archaic elements are accepted by even the most modernized people. (27)

The visit of Pope Benedict to the US or Britain was a mass media event of papacy- a cosmopolitan event. It filled no churches and does not stop decline but it becomes a major cultural event even for atheists. God in the age of technical reproduction is adapted for mass media- there is an aura given by the Pope (37-8)


Beck is one of the leading theoreticians of globalization. Habermas’ reflexive modernity (and Bauman’s liquid modernity) is defined by Beck as having three elements – risk society, individualization, and cosmopolitanism. Beck prefers the term cosmopolitanism to that of globalization since there is an erosion of clear boundaries, an involuntary confrontation with the

other, and a new need for a hermeneutic of the other. (67-8) This time it is a choice of enriching mutual recognition or violence.


Cosmopolitanism is defined as a product of powerful economic, political, and mass media developments at the start of the 21st century. There is a simultaneous abolishment of older boundaries between people and the creation of new ones. Erased are the old boundaries , the new overrides the pre-existing hierarchies of class, caste, exclusion. In turn, it creates new boundaries of violence and tolerance or new sets of competing religious universalism or a dualism of good and evil that withholds dignity to outsiders. (52-54).


Individualization does not mean Bellah’s individual, and egoistic choice, nor is it Enlightenment autonomy and it is not the market’s conscious choice or individual preference.(see Anthony Giddens and Zygmunt Bauman).Individualization is imposed on the individual. There are no more specific roles in a marriage, ways to act at work, or paths in life. Until recently, men

were the legal bread winner and women had to cook. Now that that is not legally mandated, Individualization is the process of deciding in a marriage of the routine of chores, roles, place to live, finances. A similar need for choice, negotiation, decision making applies to all aspects of our lives.


The third element risk society is to recognize that these changes are not better nor worse (Giddens vs Toraine), rather that we are forever seeking to minimize or deal with risk in our lives. Individualization creates risk. We live on a circus high wire act trying to balance marriage-divorce, several jobs over the course of a life, self-praise and marketing, the need to be flexible and resilient to change. We always have risk and are making decisions – evening meal, insurance, who takes out the trash, old age, medical decisions, university training, what house to buy, who to have as neighbors. There is a new immediacy to our lives and we need to make choices.  





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There is a very interesting discussion of Beck's cosmopolitanism by Bruno Latour in a special issue (2004 10:3) of the journal Common Knowledge, devoted to proceedings of the symposium 'Talking Peace with Gods' (this issue also contains the paper by Beck to which Latour responds, and an article on related issues by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro). Beck's response to Latour is published in a later volume of the same journal (2005 11:1).
Thanks for posting this, Nikos. It's borderline whether this is a Forum or Blog post, but never mind. One of the problems here is that many people only ever look at the front page and don't explore further. I want to engage with the substance later, but before I do I would draw the attention of readers of this thread to Huon Wardle's OAC Press Working Paper, Cosmopolitics and Common Sense, which engages with Beck's cosmopolitan ideas specifically in the context of his debate with Bruno Latour. This provoked quite a full discussion in the OAC Press Group.

Since I doubt if many people will actually look up Huon's paper, I reproduce part of his argument here for easy reading:

Ulrich Beck has described extensively the crisis in ‘methodological nationalism’ that he sees at the centre of the fragmentation of latter-day social theory – and its cosmopolitanization (2002, 2004, 2006). The roots of this crisis lie in how the state has lost its metaphysical priority as the cause, frame and context for all the social phenomena that constitute it. There is an awareness that most of the stock concepts of Twentieth Century social science; the statistics that give mathematical meaning to state practices; society (understood as a synonym of the ‘national fallacy’ 2002:29); the family; the household; social class have become what Beck terms ‘zombie categories’ under current conditions (2002: 24). Taking their meaning each from the other, these concepts continue to do intellectual work even though the lived reality to which they refer no longer exists. The symptom of these developments, and in certain respects the cure, is the ‘clash of cultures and rationalities within one’s own life’ (2002:35). Insofar as the awareness of attachments across these supposedly bounded categories becomes an ethical project, it lends itself to acknowledging a sense of ‘global responsibility in a world risk society, in which there are “no others”’ (2002:35-36).

methodological cosmopolitanism implies a new politics of comparison… The monologic national imagination of the social sciences assumed that Western modernity is a universal formation and that the modernities of the non-Western others can be understood only in relation to the idealized Western model (2002:22).

In this new field, ‘there is not one language of cosmopolitanism, but many languages, tongues, grammars’ (2002:35). However, on this point Beck is wary of giving value to culturally relative ‘cosmopolitanisms’ since with this move we revert to the conspectus of multiculturalism in which each individual becomes ‘the product of the language, the traditions, the convictions, the customs and landscapes in which he came into the world’ (2002:35). In the specific intervention that becomes the object of Latour’s critique (2004), Beck argues that rather than positing multiple and incommensurable forms relative to one another, cosmopolitanism must be based on a type of contextualized universalism.

The true counterposition to incommensurability is: there are no separate worlds (our misunderstandings take place within a single world). The global context is varied, mixed, and jumbled—in it, mutual interference and dialogue (however problematic, incongruous, and risky) are inevitable and ongoing. The fake joys of incommensurability are escape routes leading nowhere, certainly not away from our intercultural destiny (2004:436).

It is this ‘single world’ cosmopolitanism that becomes the focus of Latour’s criticism. Beck, Latour argues, has taken his cosmopolitanism ‘off the shelf, from the stoics and Kant’ (2004:453). For Latour, Stoical and Kantian cosmopolitanism both imply an ‘already unified cosmos’ (Latour 2005:262,fn362). I will dispute this further on, but it is certainly true that this represents Beck’s stance – we have each internalized ‘jumbled’ versions of a single world (Beck 2004:436). Further, in Latour’s view, it is no use our continuing to say that if only we could agree about the one world we all inhabit then our problems could be resolved: we do not inhabit one world but instead a pluriverse of divergently mediated worlds (‘pluriverse’ being an adoption from William James, 1909). In the sense that people will not give up these multiple worlds without a fight, then they are incommensurable. In an ironic echo of Kant’s proposal that enlightenment consists in throwing off a ‘self-imposed immaturity’ (Kant 1983:41), Latour tells us that instead of continuing to appeal to a shared (human) nature, Westerners need to jettison the Eurocentric ‘exoticism they have imposed on themselves’ (2004b:43); that is to say, they need to join the others in recognising many, variably mediated, natures.
Just want to let you know that I have the book on order. Sounds fascinating, but first it has to get here. Then I have to find the time to read it. It is part of a growing stack of works that I haven't gotten around to yet.
the notion of methodological nationalism was first coined decades ago by Herminio Martins. Beck has taken it and then caused all sorts of confusion, basically by failing to distinguish between a methodological problem and a substantive one. The claim that the main concepts of the social sciences presuppose the state as the basic unit of analysis does not stand up - or at least it applies more to Durkheim than it does to Weber or Simmel or even Parsons - how did weber write the studies of the world religions on that basis? In what way do Weber's ideal types - asceticism and mysticism, church and sect, types of legitimate rule, open and closed relationships, imply a priority for the state, unless one is reading the first chapter of Economy and Society - which ends with the state - teleologically ? In any case, Beck is no guide at all to the methodological problems of the social sciences because he is interested in saying 'interesting things' 'about' the modern world. But he does so by using too many sweeping assertions concerning 'the way we live now'. And I never understand how he sees the relationship between cosmopolitanism as a political philosophy, as an objective state of affairs, and as a 'method'. Is he saying that we live in a cosmopolitan world and therefore need a sociology that is cosmopolitan? Why not say on the contrary that we live in a cosmopolitan world and that therefore we need a sociology that is not cosmopolitan and can provide us with a critical perspective on it? etc etc.

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