What to do with Davie’s ‘Vicarious Religion’?


Like with many of Grace Davie’s conceptualizations, the notion of “vicarious religion” is destined to garner much attention and debate. I must admit that when I first read about it, I rolled my eyes without really knowing why. Perhaps I predicted that the same puddle of ink would be spilt in debating the finer points of what was meant and what was actually meant by the new concept. The author would churn out countless articles explaining his or her new framework, which would invite responses from scholars pointing out missteps, which would in turn invite rejoinders from the author insisting that they had been misunderstood. This is how academia tends to work, and it may be why the general public is often vicariously exhausted by our efforts.

Academic self-deprecation aside, I was fascinated by the Religious Studies Project’s interview with Grace Davie. While many different topics are covered in the podcast, in the space I have available I want to focus particularly on her notion of vicarious religion, and examine some of the critique it has spawned, and explore the ways it has been useful for scholars in the sociology of religion.

Davie has in various places defined vicarious religion as “the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who (implicitly at least) not only understand, but, quite clearly, approve of what the minority is doing” (Davie 2007, 22). In the podcast, she notes that while church structures are no longer able to “discipline the behavior and beliefs” of Europeans, there is still some support for their “public utility.” As she points out, although relatively few people are attending these churches, “there is still a certain expectation that they would do things on behalf of a wide number of people when the need arises…For example, if you or I approached the clergy for a funeral of a family member, and that funeral was denied, we would feel somehow that the church had not done what it was there to do.” It is in a similar light that some scholars have seen religion as an “institution of oughts” (Christiano et al. 2008, 43).

According to Davie (2006, 25) religion can operate vicariously in several ways, from church leaders performing rituals and believing on behalf of others to embodying moral codes and offering a space for public debate. Interestingly, if we take seriously Jose Casanova’s (1994) argument that the secularization thesis consists of three different propositions – religious decline, differentiation, and privatization – Davie’s notion of vicarious religion does not challenge any one of them. Indeed, vicarious religion seems to be a theory that takes the differentiation thesis for granted when attempting to explain how religion (at least in Great Britain and perhaps Europe) functions in society. Even individuals vicariously practicing religion are acknowledging, when practicing it in such a way, that society is differentiated and the sphere of religion may have “utility” only for certain purposes.

One of the main critiques of the vicarious religion thesis was put forth by Steve Bruce and David Voas (2010). As they (2010, 245) point out, “Vicarious religion clearly exists; our objection is that it seems to be the exception in the contemporary world, while Davie claims that it is the rule in Europe.” To be fair, Davie suggests nothing of the sort. In fact, she (2010) has been quite clear that “vicarious religion”, as well as “believing without belonging” before it, should be viewed as tools in the sociologist of religion’s toolbox. They cannot be used to extract every nail or tighten every screw, but will likely be useful for some projects. In his most recent book, Bruce (2011, vi) expresses annoyance at scholars who “present a small case study as a rebuttal of a story about large-scale social change.” However, in his disagreement with Davie, it is Bruce who has perceived a large-scale argument when what is presented is “one factor among many in the continuing re-adjustment of religious life in modern Europe” (Davie 2010, 264).

Another major point of disagreement inevitably seems to lie with their differing definitions of religion. While Bruce begins his most recent book by arguing that “social scientists spend far too much time quibbling over words” – a statement that I tend to agree with – it is precisely because Bruce and Davie have different starting points that disagreement immediately follows. For Bruce (2011, 1), functional definitions of religion, those examining “the purposes it serves or the needs it meets” tend to “assume what ought to be demonstrated.” However, Davie is very much working from a functional perspective. Bruce (2011, 1) settles instead for a substantive definition “as beliefs, actions, and institutions based on the existence of supernatural entities with powers of agency or impersonal processes possessed of moral purpose that set the conditions of, or intervene in, human affairs.” Indeed, problems arising from these differing perspectives have “been there continuously, without those who hold to a substantive – or substantial – definition (associated with the substance of belief) and those who favour a functional one (which takes account of the functions of religion in social life) being able to agree and so transcend or resolve the difficulty” (Hervieu-Leger 2000, 32).

In seeing how the vicarious religion thesis has recently been operationalized, let us spend some time on the work of Peter Hemming (2011). Hemming finds some use for the concept in his study of religion and spirituality in a community primary school and a voluntary aided Roman Catholic primary school in the north of England. Some of the parents he interviewed were reliant on their children’s schools to teach and talk about religion. As Hemming (2011, 1072) writes, “Many of the comments were linked to the legacy of past practices and parents’ own schooling memories and experiences.” This is in line with Davie’s argument that the “old residual expectations are implicitly if not explicitly there” as well as Hervieu-Leger’s (2000) view of religion as a “chain of memory.” Hemming (2011, 1073) notes that there was a desire on the part of some parents for schools to “do religion” on their behalf.

A similarly interesting case was presented by Peter Berger when discussing the church tax system in Germany. In Germany, Berger argues, there are no longer any state churches, but religious institutions continue to benefit from certain legal privileges. The “church tax” – which is about eight or nine percent of people’s income – is collected by the state and given to the churches. As Christina Sticht (2004) has noted, many citizens are leaving the church partly because they cannot afford or no longer want to pay this fairly hefty tax (see also Barker 2004). As Berger (2005, 116) quite surprisingly points out:

An individual who does not want to pay this tax can simply declare himself to be religiously unaffiliated (konfessionslos) and thus instantly save quite a bit of money. What is surprising is how many – indeed the majority at least in the western part of the country – have not done it. When asked why, they give different answers – because they might need the church at some point in their lives, because they want the church to give moral guidance for their children, because they see the church as important for the moral fabric of society. Davie has coined another apt term for this phenomenon – ‘vicarious religion’.

As is evident, then, the notion of vicarious religion can indeed be a useful conceptual tool for shedding light on some religious activities. Davie, however, suggests that this is likely not going to survive into the next generation. She imagines vicarious religion as a kind of religio-cultural residue that coats the consciousness of older generations. It is this coating that enables traditional cultural as well as religious structures to have their affective effect. According to Davie, subsequent generations whose cultural context is more varied may find less significance in their ancestral traditions and, in many ways, will continue what Roof (1999, 171) has called a process of “retraditionalizing” were new ways of being may be infused with significance and perhaps even timelessness. As these changes continue, newer and more precise tools will be required to adequately understand the contemporary religious landscape.


Barker, Christine. 2004. “Church and State: Lessons from Germany.” The Political Quarterly. (75.2): 168-176.

Berger, Peter L. 2005. “Religion and the West.” The National Interest. (Summer): 112-119.

Bruce, Steve. 2011. Secularization: In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bruce, Steve and David Voas. 2010. “Vicarious Religion: An Examination and Critique. Journal of Contemporary Religion. (25.2): 243-259.

Casanova, Jose. 1994. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Christiano, Kevin J., William H. Swatos Jr., and Peter Kivisto. 2008. Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Davie, Grace. 2006. “Is Europe an Exceptional Case?” The Hedgehog Review (Spring and Summer): 23-34.

Davie, Grace. 2007. “Vicarious Religion: A Methodological Challenge.” In Nancy T. Ammerman, ed. Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, pp. 21-35. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davie, Grace. 2010. “Vicarious Religion: A Response.” Journal of Contemporary Religion. (25.2): 261-266.

Hemming, Peter. 2011. “The Place of Religion in Public Life: School Ethos as a Lens on Society.” Sociology. (45.6): 1061-1077.

Hervieu-Leger, Daniele. 2000. Religion as a Chain of Memory. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Roof, Wade Clark. 1999. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sticht, Christina. 2004. “The Role of the Churches in Germany.” May. Die Rolle Der Kirchen in Deutschland. Accessed February 18, 2012. Available at: