CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


June 17-20, 2004 - Baylor University, Waco, Texas

Why Does "Self-Made Religion" Spread in Italy?

by Pino Lucà Trombetta (University of Bologna)
A paper presented at CESNUR 2004 international conference, Baylor University, Waco (Texas), June 18-20, 2004. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

The research on religiosity in Italy reveals that the main religion is not Catholicism as one could argue. Even if the Italians hardly give up to their Catholic identity, everybody lives a subjective religion which in many cases is far away from the Church doctrine (Garelli et al. 2003, 299). In this paper I argue that the subjective nature of the religion is worthy of studying on its own, but not, as it often happens, as a deviation from Church Religion.

A preliminary explanation of the self-made religion spreading out in Italy in the last decades can be obtained considering the “post-monopolistic” religious market in Italy dominated by the continuous influence of the Church in the society.

In this situation, although many people have needs which are in contrast with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, they prefer to maintain their Catholic identity, but integrate it with new elements.

Iannaccone has shown that the interest to differentiate the religious beliefs and acts derives from the implicit risk that what the religions promise for the after life is not hundred per cent sure.

The main advantage of the theoretical perspective of the religious market and “religious portfolio” is to consider the “Self-Made Religion” as a meaningful and rational strategy but not simply a deviation from the orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, I believe this analysis should be integrated with the study of the cognitive aspects of “Self-Made Religion”: I am fully convinced that “Self-Made Religion” is a remedy for the crisis caused by the modernity in relation to the religions discourse.

The first aspect of this crisis I will focus on, is the inter-religious dialogue, which is very popular in Italy. This attitude contrasts the exclusivity of religious faith (extra ecclesiam nulla salus!). To many it seems today that Catholicism is just one possible way of explaining the super-natural. Empirical research reveals, for istance, that for most of the Italians different religions are equally useful to obtain eternal life.

This point, very typical of “Self-Made Religion”, expresses a sort of “wild ecumenism.”

Nevertheless, this new tendency does not only mean, as many say, a deviation from the Roman Catholic Church, because it is also an effort to harmonize one’s own religious beliefs with the new conditions of the globalisation.

The second point concerns the crisis of the traditional super-natural representations of the body, health, sexuality. The secularisation of the society has caused the traditional religions to give up their direct influence on many aspects of the every day life, and various sciences such as medicine and psychology have substituted it.

For instance, the Church does not interfere any more on the sexual life and the fantasy of people as in the past when it had the authority to define the sexuality in a detailed way. The discourse on sexuality is now under the authority of the secular experts such as doctors and psychologists and spread out by mass media.

This new situation has inevitably caused a dramatic split between the experience related to secularised everyday life dominated by technology and the experience on the supernatural.

“Self-Made Religion” solves this problem by means of holistic meanings and by the belief in a cosmic divinity, which try to bridge the every day life with the super natural, turning the entire world into a sacred reality.

Also the recourse to yoga and meditation is a way of linking together physical health to psychological well-being and spiritual salvation.

The “Self-Made Religion” also solves the crisis of hierarchy in the Catholicism caused by today’s modern society where equality and free choice are particularly important.

The belief in re-incarnation, which is in the very heart of New Age spirituality, is aimed to diminish this tension, reconciling the immortality of the soul and the refusal of the authority.

In the popular religiosity, re-incarnation does not have the same pessimistic meaning as in the Hinduism. It is interpreted as a further opportunity to complete what was not possible to do in a single life. Consequently, rebirth is considered, by many, as a mechanism that makes futile the authority of God and Church and depends on the individual capacity for the self-salvation.

“Self-Made Religion” also determines new power relations in the Catholicism.

The pluralism emerging from the society modifies the relations between the religious hierarchy and layman as the latter now has the instruments to obtain more power than in the past.

On the one hand, the Church does not have the authority to silence the heretics and can not impede the existence of the competing Churches in the society.

On the other hand, if the layman does not agree with some aspects of the Church doctrine, he has two possibilities.

The first one is to convert into another religion, although it is morally impractical and therefore it is very rare in Italy. The second possibility, which is much more practical, reinterprets the various elements of the traditional religion, including new meanings and therefore satisfying the individual needs.

As a result of this new situation, we can understand better these common phenomena such as the negation of hell, unbelief in the judgement of the soul after death, the denial of traditional prohibitions of the Church: divorce, abortion, euthanasia, pre-marital sexuality.

In this way, the believer gets rid of the doctrines of the sin and guilt and lives his or her religion beyond the orthodoxy and institutional control of the Church.

Therefore, this religious subjectivism is a strategy to reacquire symbolic power, by which a large number of layman and a marginal portion of clergy affirm the right to define what is true or false, or what is good or bad, adjusting the doctrine to their needs.

In this way, they re-define their position within the Church and maintain intact their feeling of belonging to it, though they seldom go to worship and do not respect the prohibitions established by the Church.

We may conclude that this religious syncretism has the function to mend those aspects of an explicative system on supernatural, that does not satisfy the new needs any more, using what is available in the spiritual domain. (Bastide, 1970).

In Italy, for instance, there is a large number of people, who manifest a growing trust in a Church with traditional moral values. However, a large part of this same people does not accept that the Church has the authority to interfere into personal choices, mainly in the sexual issues (Abbruzese, 1995, 167; Diamanti, 2003).

The position of the Church on the sexual issues contrasts with the leading values of the society, according to which every person should be free to take his or her own decisions. As a result of this loss of credibility of the official discourse of the Church, many people prefer to modify its doctrine individually, rather than accepting the demoralizing condition of the sinner.

Consequently, the traditionally condemned behaviour becomes acceptable within a new ethics in which traditional values, like the authority of the Church, are reconciled with the contemporary mythologies as the priority of the individual choices.

In this new original setting, the Church preserves its role to establish the rules, but it is the individual who has the ultimate power to take the decisions (Cesareo et al., 1995, 261).

I believe that to explain this we should analyse the problem from another perspective as it otherwise might seem the result of opportunistic reasons related to sexual life.

I argue that these re-interpretations of the role of the Church aim to solve the contradiction between the subjectivity that characterizes the modern religiosity and the interest of the inividual to preserve the cultural and religious inheritances (Hervièu Leger, 1996, 69).

On the one hand, the believers maintain their feelings of belonging to an institution that should be strong and capable to contrast the moral relativism in the contemporary society. On the other hand, they do not give up their subjective way of living the faith.

There is no contradiction in such a behaviour. The contradiction will only appear if we totally depend on theological and even sociological classifications based on oppositions.

However, the “Self-Made Religion” is determined by a “practical logic” as illustrated by Pierre Bourdieu (1980). The one who creates his or her individual religion always acts in compliance with his or her specific needs, although he or she acts within a system of oppositions.

Therefore, the above described behaviour of many Catholics should be considered as an effort to adjust the catholic religious code and as a desire to make it to function better, but not, as many say, a lack of interest for the religion.


In other cases, the “Self-Made Religion” apparently does not adjust the catholic code, but produces something that does not exist yet. The following diagram – taken from a recent research (Lucà Trombetta 2004) – shows the two above described manifestations of the “Self-Made Religion” (adjustment and production). 

Tendency to accept 3, 2, 1, no “alternative believes” (Cosmology, re-incarnation, esotericism) in different styles of perceiving and living religion in Italy.


From this diagram emerges that the Catholics are less involved in alternative believes. If they are involved in them, we may argue that they tend to adjust the traditional Catholic code.

The more the believers loose their link to the Churched Religion the higher is the interest for cosmology, re-incarnation and esotericism. Such an interest reaches the maximum level in believers who do not consider themselves as Catholics and in the “non-believers.” We cannot say that these people tend to adjust the traditional code and we should conclude that they tend to produce something new that they need.

In conclusion, I argue that the study of “Self-Made Religion” is useful to understand the ideological role of the religion in contemporary Italy.

This role does not come out from the research already carried out on the Churched religion since this kind of research reveals the diminishing influence of the Church on the society.

However, the end of the domination of a single Church does not mean that the religion does not have a role of justification in the symbolic structure of the society.

That is why we need to study “Self-Made Religion” which represents the religion of the majority of the Italians.


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