Heavy metal as religion and secularization as ideology: a sociological approach


A promotional T-Shirt for the “Heavy Metal As A Religion Census Campaign” by British heavy metal magazine Metal Hammer.
Credit: facebook page of the campaign

This is an article that I wrote for the Religious Studies Project in response to their interview with Professor François Gauthier from the University of Fribourg.

Link to original article: http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/2013/10/09/heavy-metal-as-religion-and-secularization-as-ideology-by-mohammad-magout/

Heavy metal as religion and secularization as ideology: a sociological approach

By Mohammad Magout, University of Leipzig, Germany

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 9 October 2013, in response to François Gauthier’s interview on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture (7 October 2013).

In this thought-provoking interview, Professor François Gauthier from the University of Fribourg gives his remarks on a variety of theoretical, methodological, and empirical issues in social sciences. It would be impossible to cover even a tenth of those issues within the limits of this brief article, so I will restrict my response to two themes only: defining religion and critiquing secularization theory and post-secularity.

Gauthier states at the beginning of the podcast that current social theory fails to explain some recent developments in the social world, particularly in reference to subcultures and popular protest movements. He specifically criticizes sociologists of religion for not recognizing certain cultural notions, practices, or movements as religious even when people involved declare them as such. He says that if ravers, for example, believe rave to be just as religious as Catholicism, then sociologists should adjust their definitions of religion in order to accommodate rave as a religious phenomenon.

While I acknowledge that in social research there is always the risk of imposing inadequate, external categories on meanings conveyed by informants, I do have considerable reservations about conflating informants’ self-descriptions with theoretical terms. By saying that rave culture is as religious as Catholicism, a raver might be, for example, making a statement of identity; that is, defining his/her identity as a raver against or in relation to a Catholic identity, which is, of course, a personal right that no one should deny him/her. From a scientific perspective, however, “religion” is a theoretical term that is used to categorize and analyze a specific class of social phenomena. If we were to leave it solely to informants to decide which theoretical concepts and categories apply to them, social research would become very fragmented and incomparable, because different people can and do use complicated terms such as “religion” in widely different ways. Of course, their perspective is important and one should always take it into consideration, but scientific research requires at least some minimum degree of uniformity and consistency in the application of terms and categories.

I am not very well-informed about rave culture, but I can say something about another music-based youth culture with which I am familiar—both as a researcher and as a member—namely, heavy metal. Heavy metal can be seen as one of the most “quasi-religious” youth cultures, not only because religious imagery and symbolism are embedded in heavy metal lyrically, sonically, and visually, but also because of the “striking resemblance” between many aspects of heavy metal (especially live concerts) and religious rituals (Weinstein 2000, p. 231-2). Heavy metal, in addition, defines itself explicitly against traditional religion (Christianity in particular), which in a few extreme cases has reached the level of waging an open war against it (as it was the case with some members of the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 1990’s who were involved in dozens of arson attacks against churches). Some people have even considered heavy metal to be their “religion.” There was a campaign in the United Kingdom to answer the question about religion in the 2011 census with “heavy metal,” which resulted in more people identifying their “religion” as “heavy metal” than Scientology, Baha’ism, or Taoism.

Even if we grant that some of those who reported their religion as “heavy metal” were serious about it, does that justify changing our definitions of religion, so that they can accommodate heavy metal together with Christianity, Hinduism, Shamanism, and ancient Egyptian religion in the same analytical category? I myself do not think so, and no one so far—to the best of my knowledge—has presented a convincing case of the conceptual and analytical utility of treating a youth culture such as heavy metal as some type of religion.[1]

Gauthier seems to justify his position by stating that religion in the past few decades has morphed into something different than it used to be. It is now more concerned with personal life-style, identity, and morality, rather than correct belief and clerical institutions. This perhaps makes religion (at least some forms of contemporary religion) closer to youth cultures than traditional or institutional religion, which may justify grouping them together in the same category. Still this is not enough to change our definitions of religion. I think social scientists need to be a bit “conservative” about their definitions and conceptual frameworks in order to maintain the consistency of their work and measure change when it occurs. As stated by Steve Bruce, “Fixity of definition is not a refusal to recognize change; it is essential to describing change” (2009, p. 9).

Gauthier concludes his interview by warning us not to repeat the failure of secularization theory by adopting post-secularity, which he refers to as “the greatest threat to sociology of religion today.” He says quite bluntly, “Let’s try not to be as stupid, as ideological.” Since I originally conceived my PhD research project in terms of secularization theory, and have now started to drift toward post-secularity, I felt somehow challenged by Gauthier’s strong words. My intention in this article, nevertheless, is not to present a defense of secularization and post-secularity—especially given that I acknowledge many of the criticisms of these concepts—but rather to problematize one particular critique, which is the claim that secularization and post-secularity are based on certain ideologies or philosophical ideas.

First of all, I would like to say that I do not disagree with this critique: yes, secularization theories often reflected a modernist understanding of history and social change, and post-secularity is a concept that emerged in philosophical and normative discussions of the role of religion in the public sphere in contemporary Western societies. The problem is that many social scientists, in dismissing these concepts as ideologically biased, tend to gloss over the ideologies behind them as sociologically irrelevant. The impact of ideologies on social theory might be something undesirable, albeit unavoidable, but their impact on society is of utmost importance to the social scientist.

Modernism, in its various manifestations (liberalism, communism, nationalism, colonialism, etc.), has transformed our world, including religion, irreversibly.[2] Most modern states—together with their political, legal, educational, and economic systems—have more or less been established along the lines of some modernist ideology that may have actively sought to marginalize, control, or privatize religion.[3] Of course, how this might have developed or to what extent it has worked out in different contexts is widely variable. What is certain, I think, is that these ideologies have shaped and continue to shape the world today, despite the fragmentation of their hegemony and the rise of alternative ideologies. It is therefore implausible to think they have hardly changed anything with regard to religion, as some staunch critics of secularization seem to imply (e.g. Stark 1999).

The question I am trying to frame is related to the more general issue of the complicated relationship between ideology and social theory. Social science, more than any other branch of science, is prone to the undesired influence of philosophical and ideological perspectives. The question is, then, how should social scientists deal with ideologically-infused theories without glossing over the ideologies behind them? I don’t have a straightforward answer to this question, but I can refer to Gauthier’s nuanced approach to studying neo-liberalism, which he outlines in his interview.

Gauthier criticizes rational-choice/market theories of religion for interpreting religion in economic terms, as if it were a commercial product. In doing so, these theories fail to understand and explain the relationship between religious change and neo-liberalism, which is not only a dominant economic theory or political ideology, Gauthier asserts, but also a “cultural ideology” that conditions our ways of thinking and behaving. He stresses that any examination of religion, politics, or social relations is not adequate without taking into consideration the impact of neo-liberalism and consumerism, which have become the “structuring” force of our societies. In other words, while Gauthier rejects rational-choice/market theories of religion, he does not dismiss neo-liberalism and emphasizes the importance of studying its impact on religion.

The same approach, in my opinion, should be applied to secularization theory and post-secularity. Criticisms of secularization as an ideologically-infused theory should not make us gloss over its constituting ideology and the concrete sociological implications of this ideology. Similarly, the philosophical origins of the concept of post-secularity do not mean that it is irrelevant for social scientists. One should remember that the boundaries between social theory and social philosophy are not clear-cut and that philosophers and theologians are playing an important role—perhaps more than sociologists—in setting the parameters for public debates about religion (Turner 2012, p. 649). This is not only a matter of intellectual debates, but also of policy-making. There are religious groups, public institutions, and political organizations which are adopting, in one way or another, a “post-secular perspective” toward religion and society and making their policies accordingly. One domain in which this current is becoming evident is academia as some earlier research (Schmalzbauer and Mahoney 2009) and also my ongoing research project on Ismaili institutions of higher education in London seem to suggest.


  • Bruce, S. (2009) “The Importance of Social Science in the Study of Religion”, Fieldwork in Religion, Vol. 4 No. 1, pp. 7–28.
  • Casanova, J. (2012) “Are We Still Secular? Explorations on the Secular and the Post-Secular”, in Nynäs, P., Lassander, M. and Utriainen, T. (Eds.), Post-secular society, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N.J, pp. 27–46.
  • Moberg, M. (2012) “Religion in Popular Music or Popular Music as Religion? A Critical Review of Scholarly Writing on the Place of Religion in Metal Music and Culture”, Popular Music and Society, Vol. 35 No. 1, pp. 113–130.
  • Schmalzbauer, J. and Mahoney, K. (2009) “Religion and Knowledge in the Post-Secular Academy”, SSRC Working Papers. Available at http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/post-secular-academy.pdf (Accessed 6 June 2013)
  • Stark, R. (1999) “Secularization, R.I.P”, Sociology of Religion, Vol. 60 No. 3, pp. 249–273.
  • Turner, B.S. (2010) “Religion in a Post-secular Society”, in Turner, B.S. (Ed.), The new Blackwell companion to the sociology of religion, Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA, pp. 649–667.
  • Weinstein, D. (2000) Heavy metal: the music and its culture. New York: Da Capo Press.

[1] For a survey of literature on the relationship between heavy metal and religion, see Moberg (2012).

[2] This is what José Casanova calls “secularism as stadial consciousness,” i.e. secularism as a philosophy of history, according to which humanity progressively “emancipates” itself from religion. Secularization thereby functions as a “self-fulfilling theory” (2012, p. 31-2).

[3] Another common criticism of secularization theory is its Euro-centrism, which is true, but it is almost forgotten that not very long time ago European powers ruled most countries of the world, established their political systems, wrote their laws, educated their elites, and planned their economies. This certainly does not entail that these countries should follow the same trajectories of modernization followed earlier by European countries, but it does mean that European ideas, theories, and ideologies are very relevant to other countries too.

About The Religious Studies Project

The Religious Studies Project (RSP) is an international collaborative enterprise producing weekly podcasts with leading scholars on the social-scientific study of religion. Since January 2012 we have released over 60 interviews (of around 30 minutes) on cutting-edge theoretical, methodological and empirical issues, which is available through the website,iTunes and other portals. In addition to the podcasts, the website also features weekly essays, roundtable discussions, book reviewsresources, and conference reports, plus ourweekly digest of opportunities (jobs, journals, conferences, etc). Find out more aboutour international team here.

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