Centre for Advanced Study

at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

The Demise of Religions


Former 2018/2019 Humanities - Theology


Historiography tends to be a winners’ affair. The winners’ perspective is one factor that has occluded attention to the topic our group wishes to address: the demise (attrition, disappearance, disintegration, dissolution, death, collapse, dissolution, displacement, dwindling, downfall, eclipse, erosion, extinction) of religions. Another factor is the legacy of older evolutionary accounts. Yet another factor is the grand narrative of secularisation. Finally, another impediment in properly addressing our topic is the tendency to regard successful innovation and creativity as inherently more interesting than slow decline or apathy. These factors have effectively forestalled a general conversation about the fact that many religious groups and traditions have disappeared, in past as well as in present times.

Our group wishes to challenge this situation and provide a comparative analysis of the why and how of the decline of religions. Previous publications on this issue are quite limited. Our group aims to follow up on these initial attempts by providing a comparative, cross-cultural, and cross-historical analysis of processes of the demise of religions. The main shared research agenda of the group will be to develop an overarching analysis, typology, vocabulary, and theory of the demise of religion. The spectrum of cases ranges from religiocide -- the voluntary destruction or dismantling of religions, similar and often connected to genocide, cultural genocide, or cultural cleansing -- to the gradual attrition or creeping erosion of religions.

In order to get at a richer empirical basis, the group will also include cases of threatened or moribund religions. The theoretical agenda of the comparative design of the group will be to discuss and generalise processes, forms, structures, causes, and consequences of the demise of religions. Although this kind of work has been carried out for other cultural elements -- such as, e.g., the demise of specific languages -- it does not yet exist for the study of religion. Among other aspects of this project, we will seek to establish a workshop where we will try to disseminate our focus on the demise of religions to the demise of other cultural phenomena. Thereby we hope to make a cross-disciplinary impact.

End Report

The research conducted at CAS has taken several unexpected directions. This added new cases, materials and perspectives. During meetings in the initial stages of their stays, all fellows consulted with the group leader to fine-tune their individual work with the group. The shape of most individual projects was modified in many details during the period the fellows spent at CAS. Three book projects (monographs) that were not planned originally emerged. A new category of religiocide was also developed, namely deliberate attempts to uproot and destroy religions; a direction that was not anticipated. Time permitting; this could well become a topic for a new book project.

Some of the most important results, which will be unpacked in publications under preparation, include the following:

  • The group has developed a conceptual typology of demise, at least for the contemporary field
  • The different cases have identified various internal and external factors for demise
  • Demise must not necessarily be a passive process, but is often actively promoted, also by insiders
  • There are different strategies and tactics to disentangle a religious system
  • Religion have been often targeted for destruction, but some have shown remarkable resilience and quasi-demise can give way to resurgence
  • Contrary to today’s situation, there are few sources attesting an awareness of and resistance against looming demise in ancient cultures
  • Scenarios of looming demise can be denied or explained away
  • Explanations of demise of religions in previous scholarship has often been ideological
  • The category “religion” is not always helpful as an analytical tool
  • Demise of religious can often be redesribed as religious transformation
  • Comparisons with language death scholarship have a rather limited reach
  • Assessing contemporary cases of (claimed) demise raise ethical questions
  • There are cases of quasi-demise

Without CAS this project would never have come into existence. The research question and the form of collaboration would not have been feasible for any of the extant formats of research funding available in Norway at present.


  • Arp-Neumann, Janne
    Assistant Professor University of Göttingen 2018/2019
  • Baffelli, Erica
    Associate Professor University of Manchester 2018/2019
  • Bremmer, Jan Nicolaas
    Professor Em. University of Groningen 2018/2019
  • Bull, Christian Hervik
    Associate Professor MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society (MF) 2018/2019, 2020/2021
  • Cusack, Carole
    Professor University of Sydney 2018/2019
  • Feldt, Laura
    Associate Professor University of Southern Denmark 2018/2019
  • Lim, Richard
    Professor Smith College 2018/2019
  • Robbins, Joel
    Professor University of Cambridge 2018/2019
  • Rüpke, Jörg
    Professor University of Erfurt 2018/2019
  • Sundqvist, Olof
    Professor Stockholm University 2018/2019
  • Wright, Stuart A.
    Professor Lamar University 2018/2019
  • de Jong, Albert
    Professor Leiden University 2018/2019

Previous events


Group leader

  • James Lewis

    Title Professor Institution UiT The Arctic University of Norway (UiT) Year at CAS 2018/2019
  • Michael Stausberg

    Title Professor Institution University of Bergen (UiB) Year at CAS 2018/2019