Religion and the modern city, 1865–1945

Robert A Orsi*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Moral philosophers, theologians, scholars of religion, and historians until recently have traced the trajectory of modern urban religious history as a tragic story of decline and loss. To cite a prominent and influential example of this way of thinking, conservative Christian moralist Alasdair MacIntyre writes. When the working class were gathered from the countryside into the industrial cities, they were finally torn from a form of community in which it could be intelligibly and credibly claimed that the norms which govern social life had universal and cosmic significance, and were God-given. They were planted [botanical metaphors are common in discussions of religion and immigration] instead in a form of community in which the officially endorsed norms so clearly are of utility only to certain partial and partisan human interests that it is impossible to clothe them with universal and cosmic significance. Viewed from the perspective of antiurban moralists, modern cities are great engines of secularization. They give us urban religious history as sacred noir, with God's body outlined in yellow police chalk on a city sidewalk. The great historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, likewise thought that all that remained of humankind's great religious traditions in modern cities were degraded and decadent survivals. Life in the city is about speed, efficiency, function, and novelty, Eliade and others following his lead believed; caught up in this frenzy of over-stimulation, city people are disconnected from the ontological grounds of human experience, alienated from being itself, as being is revealed in nature, in the rhythms of the moon, the cycles of the seasons, and the pulse of the oceans.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of Religions in America
Subtitle of host publicationVolume II 1790 to 1945
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781139195423
ISBN (Print)9780521871099
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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