José Casanova offering keynote at the Abraham Geiger Prize ceremony honoring Angela Merkel in 2015.

José Casanova: Profile of a Global Scholar

By: Micah Musser

July 8, 2019

In 1994, José Casanova published his now famous book Public Religions in the Modern World. Twenty-five years later, the book continues to be cited as a classic in the study of the sociology of religion and has launched a career that has taken Casanova around the world.

Before José Casanova published Public Religions in the Modern World, in 1994, he sent manuscripts of the book to the most prominent sociologists of religion in the country, "none of whom," he says, "had heard about me." He was up for tenure and needed prominent scholars to write reviews for him. But as someone who had taught for decades on secularization and modernization, slowly gaining a reputation as a careful thinker, he had no connections to speak of within the field of sociology of religion. Unsolicited requests for book reviews seemed like the only option available.

Some of the scholars who received a manuscript read it and were impressed. Very impressed. Martin Marty credited Casanova with coining the term "public religions." David Martin called the book a "first class contribution" and "an exemplary instance of how one kind of sociology of religion ought to be conducted." Not only did Casanova receive tenure from the New School of Social Research in 1995, so too did his book receive an award from the Association for the Sociology of Religion. By the year 2000, he was the association's president. Twenty-five years later, the book continues to be cited as a classic in the study of the sociology of religion, and in 2018 he was invited to address these topics in the prestigious Cadbury Lectures at the University of Birmingham. His work has created nothing less than a paradigm shift within the field, reframing the way that religion and secularization are regarded in the modern world.

This April, I sat down with Casanova to discuss his research and its development over his 50 years as a scholar who has crossed the fields of sociology, theology, and history.

Seeing Spain with New Eyes

Casanova was born in 1951 in a small village in lower Aragon, Spain. Before his birth, his village—which produced a disproportionately high number of priests and university students—had undergone several major shocks: first during the Civil War, when 13 priests were killed, and then under the Franco regime, which saw both political repression and economic backsliding. He recalls seeing hundreds of photographs from his parents' childhoods. But during his own childhood, there were no photos, because there were no cameras. They had disappeared or broken, and no one could afford to replace them.

View from the Church of Santa Barbara at Valdealgorfa, Spain. Photo by Sean Rowe, 2016.
View from the Church of Santa Barbara at Valdealgorfa, Spain. Photo by Sean Rowe, 2016.

For a time, he considered becoming a priest, and enrolled at a seminary. His younger brother would follow a similar route, and would end up becoming a famous historian in his own right. "When I'm in Spain," Casanova tells me, "everyone introduces me as Julian's brother." At the seminary, he became increasingly drawn to philosophy around the time that the Second Vatican Council began. At the council, Spain received another shock: The Spanish bishops travelled to Rome believing themselves to represent the ideal of a Catholic society, only to learn that Catholicism now supported democracies and that they were regressive figures. But in the aftermath of the council came a new wave of intellectual thought within Catholicism: Suddenly, "everything was thinkable and possible and readable."

Casanova seized on this intellectual openness and moved to Austria to study theology. He read Catholic theologians, Protestant theologians, and theologians of all degrees of radicalism, from liberation theologies to the death of God authors. He read social criticism, like that of the Frankfurt School, and he read it theologically. But at the same time that he was studying theology, he discovered sociology, and was drawn into the world of German sociology, whose main spokesman at the time was Jürgen Habermas. He considered going to Germany to study sociology, but was told to go instead to America, because the Germans would only teach him American sociologists but the Americans would be able to teach him Germans. So he enrolled at the New School for Social Research in New York and began work on a dissertation that would look at Spanish modernization under the Franco regime.

Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

What he found surprised him. To say that he set out to study Spanish modernization under Franco is misleading, for what he really set out to study was the absence of Spanish modernization under Franco. He had become to some extent a follower of Max Weber, who had argued that Protestantism created a sociological context that allowed capitalism and modernization. By analogy, he set out to examine the sociological context created by Opus Dei—a conservative Catholic organization that had come to flourish under Franco—and to study how this context had prevented modernization from occurring.

Traffic swirls around the Cybele's Fountain in central Madrid, 1950.

But Spain had been modernizing, just not quite in the way of other European societies. Where Protestant countries had developed liberal bourgeois capitalist institutions, Spain was developing a form of authoritarian technocratic capitalism. The two were distinct but not wholly dissimilar. And despite appearances, the aspiration to become modern had become pervasive in society. This desire to be modern and to be perceived as being modern would shape Spain after Franco fell. It is no coincidence that in 2005, Spain became the third country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.

The secularization theorists claimed that modernity was necessarily and inevitably accompanied by the differentiation of religious life from other elements in society.... Inevitably, of course, except in the United States.

Casanova recalls his confusion at his findings. "At the time, modernization was supposed to be a good thing and Opus Dei was meant to be the bad guys. How can the bad guys be the carriers of a good thing?" When he finished his dissertation, he took it to Spain and showed it to a prominent academic, who told him that the scholarship was impeccable but that the timing was terrible. The intellectuals were still engaged in an existential struggle against the regime. It was not the time to acknowledge the benefits of Opus Dei. That could come later, once the regime had fallen.
Opus Dei's Shrine of Torreciudad in Aragon, Spain. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user Millars, 2006.
Opus Dei's Shrine of Torreciudad in Aragon, Spain. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user Millars, 2006.

So Casanova returned to the New School to teach and began focusing his attention on secularization theory, which formed a core element of German sociology in the 1960s. The secularization theorists claimed that modernity was necessarily and inevitably accompanied by the differentiation of religious life from other elements in society, a privatization of religious belief, and a gradual loss of religiosity. Inevitably, of course, except in the United States, where modernization had not been accompanied by any major loss of religiosity. But the United States was an exception; one could see the inevitability if one simply looked at Europe and avoided looking too closely at the places where the inevitable had been evaded.

Challenging the Secularization Thesis

Portrait of Max Weber in 1894.
Portrait of Max Weber in 1894.

The secularization thesis did not emerge in the 1960s. Some form of it dates back to the eighteenth century, when figures like Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and August Comte began to argue that religion was constraining and restrictive, a mode of thought appropriate to an immature civilization but one to be outgrown by later generations. They predicted that Enlightenment would bring secularity, and that perhaps one day religious belief would stop altogether. Complaints about the theory of secularization did not emerge in the twentieth century either. "The philosophers of the eighteenth century," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1840, "explained the gradual weakening of beliefs in an altogether simple fashion. Religious zeal, they said, will be extinguished as freedom and enlightenment increase. It is unfortunate that the facts do not accord with this theory."

Portrait of Emile Durkheim.
Portrait of Emile Durkheim.

The twentieth century, however, did see the rise of sociology as a formalized field, which brought a new confidence to the proponents of secularism. The two founders of the field—Max Weber and Émile Durkheim—both predicted that modernization would lead to declining religiosity, despite offering markedly different definitions of "religion" and "religiosity." But these predictions were no longer based on the moral hope of the French rationalists. They now had the support of the scientific study of sociology, which was able to systematically demonstrate that certain cross-cultural patterns of modernization are shared, and that in every European society, religiosity was empirically being eroded everywhere that industrialization and education were rising. Since these trends were irreversible, so too was the loss of religion. By the 1960s, the secularization thesis was orthodox doctrine, confirmed by the evidence everywhere (or nearly everywhere, if one ignored America).

Row of men holding Khomeini's photo as part of a protest linked to the Iranian Revolution.

Then came 1979, and religion stopped obeying the theorists.

Mural in Ostrowiec Swietokrzyski of priest Jerzy Popiełuszko. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user Krugerr, 2010.

In the space of a single year, Iranian revolutionaries overthrew a monarch and instituted an Islamic theocracy, and Solidarity was founded in Poland to resist the Soviet Union's repression of Catholicism.

Poster with the figure of Carlos Fonseca of the Sandinista Movement.

Sandinista revolutionaries in Nicaragua were publicly supported by priests who grounded themselves in liberation theology, and the rise of the Moral Majority in the United States led to the election of Ronald Reagan. Religion had begun to resurge.

President Ronald Reagan shakes hands with Reverend Jerry Falwell at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in 1984.

Problems emerged within the field of sociology too: Newer studies began to reveal that the developing world was not following the course of Europe, and that although modernization was causing a rise in religious pluralism, religion itself was not disappearing from the public sphere. By the 1990s, scholarly consensus had begun to shift. Perhaps—it was thought—Europe is not, after all, the model of modernity which the rest of the world must imitate. Perhaps Europe is the exception to the rule, and not the rule itself—in which case, of course, the United States was the rule. There had to be a rule; the older theorists had simply been confused about where to find it.

Book cover of Public Religions in the Modern World, published in 1994.
Book cover of Public Religions in the Modern World, published in 1994.

It was in this context that Casanova set to work on Public Religions in the Modern World. Religion had begun to reenter conversation among serious academics. He recalls being brought onto the left-wing journal Telos, where "the return of the sacred" and the emancipatory potential of religion were being discussed. But after so long dismissing religion, few scholars seemed to have a coherent grasp on what it even was. Sociology of religion, so consumed with finding the true and singular model of modernization, could offer few productive contributions. "Americans didn't know Europe," he says, "so they could not understand what secularization meant, and Europeans didn't know America, so every European who came to America, the first thing they did was to point out how religious this society is. How can it be both so modern and so religious?"

But after so long dismissing religion, few scholars seemed to have a coherent grasp on what it even was.

The book did not set out to find a single narrative about modernity. It did not argue whether religion was being eroded by modernization or not. Rather, it argued that religion was being reshaped. Modernization did not bring secularity per se, but it did bring a differentiation of social spheres so that no one religion could pervade all elements of social life. In Europe, differentiation simply meant the displacement of the church, which led to a decline in religion. But in America, and in much of the developing world, differentiation came with increased pluralism, and religions began to coexist and compete with one another for believers. The result was the rise of "public religions": religions that had become privatized in a context where the state was increasingly separated from belief, but that reentered the public sphere to actively and vigorously shape political life.

Modernization did not bring secularity per se, but it did bring a differentiation of social spheres so that no one religion could pervade all elements of social life.

Casanova compares the thesis to the way that Habermas and feminist activists were discussing the public sphere at the time. In order to become a public citizen, it was first necessary to have the protections of privacy and of individual autonomy. But a formal guarantee of these individual rights and a sphere of autonomy were not the goals of political reform in the way that some liberal theorists—from John Stuart Mill to John Rawls—had appeared to suggest. The point of privacy was that one could reenter the public sphere as a full and equal citizen with an assurance of one's independence. The personal was political, and the personal mattered because it made possible the political. In the same way, religion had to become privatized in order to reenter the public, now as one actor among many equal faiths, all competing to claim adherents and shape politics. Religion had become private, yes, but then it turned around and became public again. It refused to learn its place.

José Casanova and Jürgen Habermas converse after a 2011 Habermas lecture at Georgetown.
José Casanova and Jürgen Habermas converse after a 2011 Habermas lecture at Georgetown.

Grappling with Critique

Public Religions received glowing praise, especially from Casanova's colleagues at the New School. But there was one exception. Talal Asad, a close colleague of Casanova's—in fact, one who had co-taught a seminar on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam with him—wrote a sharply critical response in his own book, Formations of the Secular. Public Religions, he argued, was deeply indebted to a Western frame of reference: not only did it only use variants of Christianity for its case studies, but it also improperly assumed the nation-state as the sole political reality of modernity and depended deeply on Westernized concepts of the "religious" and the "secular."

José Casanova: Challenging the Secularization Thesis

Casanova took these criticisms seriously. In his scholarly work, he reframed much of his focus from the Western world to the developing world, and started examining the rise of transnational religious movements. If the differentiation of modernization decoupled religion from the nation-state, after all, then it simultaneously empowered religion to reach across borders. And indeed, the past few decades have seen flourishing transnational religious movements, including, as just one major example, the rapid rise of global Pentecostalism. Casanova also helped pioneer research into the "multiple modernities" and the various types of secularisms that were arising around the world, challenging on a fundamental level the notion that any true narrative of modernization could be found.

But there were also limits on the extent to which he could endorse Asad's criticisms. Asad, after all, was mounting an avowed postmodernist critique of his work, and Casanova was not a postmodernist. Of his exchanges with Asad, Casanova tells me, "I realized that universalism is an aim, not a reality. I never gave up the universalist aim, but I realized the need to be more critical of Western rationalism and the Western paradigms."

José Casanova and Talal Asad at a 2009 Berkley Center event.
José Casanova and Talal Asad at a 2009 Berkley Center event.

At the same time, Casanova became more willing over time to see how his own perspectives had shaped his work, to discuss the impossibility of finding universal narratives. "Public Religions is a book that could only have been written by a Catholic sociologist," he tells me. "I didn't recognize it at the time I did it, but later upon reflection it became obvious that it was my own autobiographical experience as a Catholic thinker that made it possible to have these insights." He speaks proudly of the way that Peter Berger, a major sociologist of religion in the twentieth century, described him as always wearing two hats: one as a sociologist, and one as a theologian. He has sought to overcome what Asad characterized as a somewhat unreflective Eurocentrism, but to a certain extent this is ineradicable. He has lived in Spain, in Austria, and in America, and his wife is Ukrainian. He knows the West best through his own experience, and he draws on his experience when he writes about sociology.

A good sociologist must draw from experience, Casanova tells me, and so a good sociologist must have multiple experiences. "If you want to be a good sociologist, you have to know at least two languages, and two societies very well. And two main sociologists; I don't care which ones. Otherwise, basically you are generalizing from your own experience, and you take for granted what you see as the norm."

The good sociologist is also primarily a theorist. Casanova is resistant to attempts to make sociology a hard science; he does not believe that the subject matter is suited to overly scientific approaches. He describes sociology as a theory of the present with practical intent. When I push him to elaborate, he explains: "The intent is not to accumulate scientific knowledge, but to help us humans understand ourselves better. Sociology cannot tell you what to do. But it tells you what the options are. So it has to be precisely a science that illuminates the actors, so it helps them act. But they make the decisions, sociologists do not make the decisions for them."

The intent is not to accumulate scientific knowledge, but to help us humans understand ourselves better. Sociology cannot tell you what to do. But it tells you what the options are.

Public Religions in the Modern World established Casanova as a good sociologist by any definition of the term, and Casanova enjoyed the prestige. But over time, he became restless. Though still interested in secularization, his developing research in transnational religions was drawing him towards the topic of globalization, which he could not study well within his role as a sociologist of religion. Within the first few years of the new century, he had begun to feel constrained within his field.

Journey to Georgetown

In 2005, Casanova came to Georgetown to participate in a conference on democracy and the new religious pluralism. At the conference, he met Tom Banchoff, vice president for global engagement at Georgetown, who at the moment was working towards the creation of what would become the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. The two hit it off immediately. Once the Berkley Center was established, Banchoff called Casanova and asked him to help find scholars for the center. Or, Banchoff suggested, perhaps he himself could come to Georgetown.

José Casanova: A Remarkable Colleague

What was a recruitment for intellectual and institution building reasons really became a community building recruitment.

At the time, Casanova could not imagine leaving the New School for Social Research. He did think he wanted to be spending more time training young sociologists, but that was a minor quibble, and besides, the New School had promised that he would be the chair of sociology the following year, and he did not want to abandon that responsibility. But then the university reneged on its promise. Irritated, Casanova called Banchoff to discuss the possibility of becoming a fellow at the Berkley Center. He freely admits he did it initially as a ploy to negotiate with the New School. In talking about the possibility, however, he had a change of heart. He was getting bored in sociology of religion, and he wanted to turn his attention to the study of globalization. "This was for me completely, precisely what I needed," he eventually concluded. "A place where I could free myself from the discipline of sociology and become undisciplined. To think freely on the global issues I wanted to study."

José Casanova: Exploring the Role of Jesuits in Globalization

President John J. DeGioia shakes hands with José Casanova after the 2012 Berkley Center Lecture.

In 2008, Casanova joined the Berkley Center as a senior fellow. He immediately made an impact. Of his effect on the center, Banchoff says that "what was a recruitment for intellectual and institution building reasons really became a community building recruitment." Casanova could connect with colleagues from a half dozen disciplines, and could contribute productively to all of them.

José Casanova presents on a panel at the Jesuits and Globalization capstone event in Rome.

He currently holds a joint appointment in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown and publishes on a wide variety of topics. In 2016, he and Banchoff published an edited volume titled The Jesuits and Globalization, which examined how the Jesuit order laid the groundwork of globalization in the seventeenth century and how the order continues to impact global dynamics today.

José Casanova teaches at Georgetown.

Last year, he delivered the prestigious Cadbury Lectures at the University of Birmingham, which he has called his last word on secularization. He has said everything he has to say on the topic and would far rather pursue new topics than become repetitive.

Casanova's career has had a transformative impact on much of the field of sociology. Public Religions changed the paradigm for understanding secularization. His work with and in response to Talal Asad helped develop the field's understanding of "multiple modernities" and the different forms of secularism that exist around the world. For the next five years, he hopes to make a similar impact on our understanding of globalization, starting with his volume on the Jesuits. Then, perhaps, he will retire.

"But then, of course," he tells me, as though worried that his talk of retirement sounds as though he plans to relax one day, "some people still write their best books when they are 80 or 90."


People walking in front of a red double-decker bus

July 4, 2019

In his "last word on secularization" José Casanova offers a global historical perspective that integrates European theories of modern secularization and competing theories of global religious revival as interrelated dynamics. The essay was originally published in the inaugural edition of Brill Research Perspectives in Religion and Politics.

related | Essay Overview on the Berkley Forum

Book cover for "Public Religions in the Modern World"

June 30, 2019

José Casanova's landmark book Public Religions in the Modern World celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2019. The book reevaluates the theory of secularization in light of the global resurgence of religion during the four decades prior to 1994, focusing on the phenomenon of “deprivatization,” or religious re-engagement in the public sphere.

José Casanova

June 18, 2019

Berkley Center Senior Fellow José Casanova offered a keynote lecture on "The Jesuits, Globalization, and Our Historical Juncture" at a May 24 conference in Rome on the past and future of Jesuit global engagement, held to celebrate the centennial of Georgetown's Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Antique globe on wooden stand

December 14, 2014

A three-year project led by José Casanova and Tom Banchoff examined the historical impact of the Society of Jesus and its contributions in an increasingly global era. Leading scholars and practitioners explored Jesuit innovations and legacies in the areas of mission, education, and justice. 

related | Interview Series