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Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia

Book Review by Grace Davie (Department of Sociology, University of Exeter, UK)

Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2002, pp. 133-135

Aficionados of the CESNUR (Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni) website will already know that this encyclopedia has been published and will have been able to peruse its extensive and admirably organised contents on line. The volume itself is even more impressive. With well over 1,000 pages, it contains entries on more than 600 religious and spiritual groups currently active in Italy, each of which contains information on the history and doctrine of the group in question, a short bibliography, and full contact details (including a website).

Quite apart from the entries themselves, the book as a whole presents a map of the religious scene in Italy. The entries are grouped into 38 different subject areas ranging from Judaism to the New Age, each of which is broken down into different sub-sections. Sections and sub-sections start with an introductory paragraph (or more) defining the terms in question. We can take the sections on Protestantism as an example. The initial section contains a short introduction to Protestantism itself, followed by a list of Protestant umbrella organisations. The subsequent sections continue as follows: Protestantism I (the historic Protestant churches—notably the Waldensians), Protestantism II (Baptists and Methodists), the Restoration movement (Church of Christ), Protestantism III (various free churches and the holiness movement), Pentecostalism (divided into four ‘waves’, which between them produce 95 separate entries), para-church movements (to do with mission, social and diaconal work, youth work, publishing and the media, etc.), radical Protestantism (Mennonites, Hutterites, Quakers, etc.), Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, metaphysical and healing movements (including Christian Science), Restorationist currents (the Mormons and neo-apostolic communities), and finally prophetic and messianic movements of Christian origin (a range of movements from The Family to examples of Afro-Brazilian groups). Working through these, the reader learns that Protestantism is not only very small in Italy, but inherently fissiparous. The multiplicity of groups that emerge, however, form distinct theological and sociological patterns. The list is by no means random—indeed it becomes a tool of analysis in itself.

There is in addition a 70-page alphabetical index of names for the encyclopedia as a whole, meaning that any group can be looked up, even if the reader is unclear where to find this in the thematically organised contents. There is lastly a short introduction to the volume as whole, containing among other things outline statistics. From these we discover that there are just over one million non-Catholics among Italian citizens (a tiny percentage overall)—within this group, the Protestants count 363,000 (250,000 of which are Pentecostals) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses 400,000. Among the immigrant population (estimated at 1.5 million), the proportion of non-Catholics is of course very much larger, a category which includes nearly 600,000 Muslims.

The introduction contains further useful information, not least a short section on ‘believing without belonging’ which undoubtedly exists in Italy, but resonates rather differently compared with the situation in Northern Europe in view of the relatively high (and growing) levels of religious practice in Italy. Around 40% of ltalians (taking all religions together) practise regularly—an unusually high figure for West Europe.

The discussion, finally, of the definition of religion has important implications for the volume as a whole. The working definition is broad-inclusive rather than exclusive. The intention in this respect has been to include as much information as possible about the religious scene in Italy. It should not be inferred, however, that everything included should necessarily be regarded as ‘religious’, either in terms of the self-perception of the group in question or in terms of the legal consequences of the term. Indeed, following the conclusion of an international project on defining religion conducted at the University of Leiden in the mid-1990s (in which Introvigne took part), the introduction underlines the fact that definitions of religion are necessarily contingent; there is no universally agreed understanding of the term. It follows that the definition useful to the compilers of an encyclopedia is not necessarily that which is useful in a court of law. There are limits however, even to the broadest definition: an Appendix to the volume contains the groups definitely excluded from the category of religion: i.e. Free Masonry and the various associations of free thinkers.

The primary intention of the encyclopedia is to map the religious scene in Italy. In so doing, Introvigne and his team have set a high standard for others to follow. In my view, this publication merits a place in any institution interested in the evolution of religion in modern Western societies. For the Italian specialist it will be indispensable.

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