In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Survival of Religion
  • Adam Y. Stern (bio)

Axiom 1

"A major problem in modern thought is … the survival of religion" (Firth 1996, 1).


The question of survival has woven itself into the rhetorical fabric of debates surrounding the history of secularization and has, in turn, become an almost inescapable issue for those concerned with the meaning and end of religion. Scholars ask: Does religion survive? Must it survive? If so, how? By what contingencies, strategies, or duplicities has the survival of religion been made possible? If not, where has religion gone? Why has it failed to survive? And is it coming back? "In the modern era can religious concepts survive or are they irrevocably lost?" (Gordon 2020, 2). [End Page 19]

First Proof

According to Marcel Gauchet's well-known argument, we are heirs to a millennium-long process of disenchantment that has gradually led to the disappearance and systematic exhaustion of religion as the governing force of the social order. However, Gauchet insists, the structural demise of religion does not mean "its survival [survie] is necessarily compromised" (1985, iii). There is a residue, a lingering and inextricable religious element, that lives on in the private sphere. As Charles Taylor puts it in a proximate context, "obviously something has survived into the present that people call 'religion,' namely personal faith and the collective practices it inspires" (1997, xiii).

Second Proof

One could remain skeptical about this presentation of things or, at the very least, question the confidence of those who openly declare that the "age of religion is over in the West" and that only "private faith survives" (Lilla 2007, 305). Arvind-Pal Mandair reminds us of the tendency among "secularists and the secular state alike" to acknowledge "the survival of religion and religious communities in a world that is becoming more and more disenchanted, more and more secular" (2009, 46).

Third Proof

Consider also the broader formulation of the secularization hypothesis suggested by Judith Butler, which argues that secularization itself may simply be "a fugitive way for religion to survive" (2011, 72). After all, she says, "there may be other ways of belonging that do not require belief" (72). For example: "Secularization may well be one way that Jewish life continues as Jewish" (72).


We will have to attend further to the apparent exemplarity of the Jewish case. Is it just one among many instances of survival? Or does it have special salience for the survival of religion? [End Page 20]

Fourth Proof

The various struggles to determine the role of religion in a secularizing world have led Hent de Vries to observe that religion "survives 'the death of a thousand qualifications'" (1999, 3). He adds: "The endless, if also inevitably limited, refutations of religion's truth-claims are so many reaffirmations of its ever-provisional survival, ad infinitum. In religion's perpetual agony lies its philosophical and theoretical relevance. As it dies an ever more secure and serial death, it is increasingly certain to come back to life, in its present guise or in another" (3).


When it comes to religion, there seems to be no avoiding the question of survival. And this is true even for those who have attempted to voice their protestations. Nancy Levene asks scholars of religion to recognize the possibility that "religion is not an elementary form" and that, for this reason, "does not necessarily survive" (2017, 115). J. Z. Smith, for his part, has bemoaned the "anthropological or quasi-biological" endeavor to identify "the propensity of religion to 'survive,' to persist in what is, at times, perceived as a hostile or indifferent environment" (1982, 38). That some vague and undetermined thing—some "it"—"persists in a 'modern' or 'secular age,'" he claims, says nothing in itself," especially when we do not know or have not yet managed to define exactly what "it" is (38).


  1. 1. Strictly speaking, the geometrical method of philosophical argumentation should begin here, that is, with a set of definitions from which one could derive a series of axioms, propositions, and postulates. This is something that Smith more or less assumes...


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