Ambivalences of Religion: The Constitutive Tensions within Religion in Urban Space

Organisers: Jörg Rüpke, Elisa Iori

15 - 17 November 2023, Erfurt

The 2023 annual conference of the research group Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations set out from an observation of a number of constitutive tensions observed for urbanity which might be summarised as “urban ambivalences”. The concept of ambivalence – in difference to diffusionism, historical dialectics, development, or progress – takes a synchronic stance and observes tensions and contradictions. It stresses conflict and constitutive ambiguity, bi-polar orders, bi-valence at any given moment. The opposition in a religious or urban ambivalence is neither dissolved in good and bad religion, good and bad urbanity. Nor are such ambivalences seen as ephemeral and transitory. Both religion and urbanity can be described by ambivalences.

Aiming at sharpening and perfecting a heuristic grid for the study of the mutual formation of religion and urbanity (Christ et al. 2022), the focus of the conference lies with concepts of religion that address material, socio-spatial, temporal, and power-related issues with a view on religious complexity in general and religious ambivalences in particular. The ultimate aim is to better grasp the entanglement between religion and urbanity and the ways urban and religious practices and ideas can change through the interferences of these internal tensions. With this in mind, the annual conference aims at bringing together theoretically minded scholars of Religious Studies and History of Religion who share an interest in integrating the notion of urbanity and its complexity into their theorising.


For the urban, the oppositions producing the ambivalences have been identified very differently, for example, as a tension between the high contact density in urban space and the compulsion to individualise (Georg Simmel). Ambivalence is produced by the necessity of competition and of communication (Robert Park). It might be produced by a tension between culturalization – the furthering of aesthetics, art, and entertainment on the one hand and economisation on the other hand (R. Sennett). Should one stress diversity or equivalence as an urbanite (R. Sennett, see Meier, Steets, Frers 2018)? There is a constitutive tension between formal and informal economy in successful urbanisation (López 2020: "dual urbanism"). Spatially, urban agents are torn between topophilia and heterophilia, between focusing and relating to one’s current location and what is associated with it on the one hand and the interest in connectivity beyond the city boundaries, in the exotic and including the world in one’s city (Bloomfield 2006). In a similar manner, on the social level, inclusion is in opposition to exclusion that is, between local rootedness, on the one hand, and the wish to extend networks and to travel, on the other; in other words, an "inclination towards similarity", which is accompanied by an interest in standardisation and administrability, is in tension with "inclination towards diversity", which focuses on complex division of labour and creativity. The complexity of urbanity from connotations of moral order, the necessity of politeness or friendliness and class consciousness for peaceful coexistence, the differentiation and diversity of the inhabitants and their life practices caused by densification processes, as well as their view beyond their own city, can be seen as constitutive of the ambivalences of the urban as a field of constitutive tensions that can be examined in terms of actors, positions, strategies and phenomena. 

            Religion can likewise be described by ambivalence. Topologically and spatially relevant ambivalences of religion have been described, for instance, by Jonathan Z. Smith with the conceptual pair of locative and utopian (Smith 1978, 1987), redefined-by Thomas Tweed (Tweed 2006; cf. also Tweed 2011) as dwelling and crossing, implied by Jeppe Jensen’s distinction between “i-religion” and “e-religion” (Jensen 2014), as well as by Jörg Rüpke via the constitutive interplay of (human) religious and divine agency in processes of traditionalization and de-traditionalization/individualization (Rüpke 2016, 2021). With regard to the research enterprise initiated by the KFG, further development of concepts of religion that allow for the complexity of and the interferences among such ambivalences and with urban ambivalences would be important for an adequate historical reconstruction. Even synchronously in individual actors' conceptions, both urbanity or religion are internally complex and charged with tension, and do not interact as two monoliths.

Table of Contents

  • Susanne Rau: Urban Ambivalences
  • Birgit Meyer: Mad ina: Thinking the Religion-Urbanity Nexus from the Interstice
  • Anne Murphy: Naming Sameness: The Ambivalence of Religious Difference and Identity in Early Modern South Asia
  • Emiliano R. Urciuoli: Locative, Utopian… and Urban: Ancient Christian Martyrdom as Urban Religious Insight into Incongruity
  • Anders Klostergaard Petersen: Urban Religion Moving Beyond Urbanity: From Urban Ethnic to Kosmos Trans-Ethnic Types of Religion
  • Elisa Iori: Material Ambivalences in Early Buddhism
  • Marian Burchardt: Religion, Ambivalence and Urban Insecurity in Cape Town's Urban Fringes
  • Jörg Rüpke: Religious Ambivalences in the Dimension of Spatiality, Temporality, Materiality, and Sociality
  • Volkhard Krech: The Religious Semiotization of Physical Space
  • Robert Yelle: Civil Religion and the Ambivalence of the Church-State Relation: A Constitutive Tension for Secularism
  • Katharina Waldner: The Ambivalence of Empire and the Trauma of (Religious) Intellectuals
  • Irene Becci: Urban Nature Between Enchantment and Valuation Under the Current Circumstances of Climate Change
  • Martin Fuchs: Ambivalence as Condition and Opportunity: Dharavi and the Relationality of Social Space

Further Information