Votes : 0

The Architecture of Silence and Post-Secularism

Luigi Territo, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, Feb 24th 2020


At the outset of Faith as an Option,[1] author Hans Joas questions the causal relationship between modernization and secularization.[2] According to many 20th-century philosophers and sociologists, modernization in the West would lead not only to a freeing of public conscience from the illiberal and obscurantist legacies of religions, but also to their complete disappearance. Today, sociological and statistical research conducted by the most important international research institutes describes a general and unexpected “return to the sacred”[3] and a renewed presence of religions in the public sphere. The theory of secularization is no longer able to reflect the multifaceted aspects of our contemporary societies. Today, we are instead witnessing a de-privatization of religion: “Religious traditions throughout the world refuse to accept the marginal and privatized role that the theories of secularization and modernity had reserved for them.”[4]

Religions return to the public arena to redefine the boundaries of influence in the relations between social duties and individual conscience, legality and morality, religious education and plurality. In the field of sociological research, it is increasingly common to define this orientation as a “post-secular religious condition.”

Post-secularism and religious identities

It is from this post-secular perspective that one can make a phenomenological reading of religious experience that is not exclusively limited to the observance of the process of de-privatization of religions, but orients its observations to the transformations that religions in general offer. In the last 30 years, in fact, it has become possible to recognize a change that highlights common features of different spiritual projects: “an exceptional pluralization and diversification of faith communities with regard to religious confessions of ancient tradition”[5]; the diffusion of new forms of trans-confessional religiosity based on inclusivism (a person can contemporaneously belong to a Christian Church, attend Buddhist temples, adhere to a New Age movement and practice Zen meditation); an emotional, anti-institutional preaching, centered on the individual and on psychophysical well-being; the low level of hierarchization of new religious organizations; the emergence of neo-fundamentalist or neo-integralist currents (also in the Western Christian context), which claim new certainties.

The adhesion to new forms of religiosity and the development of fundamentalism also place us before the development of original forms of worship that unite Adventist spiritualism with rigid moral concepts often developed from a fundamentalist and literal interpretation of the sacred texts.

There has emerged in many parts of the world a trans-religious approach that conveys a spirituality without God, or more precisely, a religion that has replaced a personal God with an impersonal divine milieu. This new wave of religious interest and practice, especially in the Western world, would seem to have definitively archived the secular era, but a careful hermeneutical analysis of our time has not demonstrated conclusively that the secular age has been replaced by a post-secular age.

The secularization described by Charles Taylor is an extremely important key to the interpretation and understanding of the relationship between the modern world and religiosity. After all, secularization not only produced fragmentation and a weakening of religious practice, but also innovation and emancipation of the sacred from traditional religions. “For historical religions, the post-secular condition is characterized by all the effects of secularization, but also by the new spiritual readiness that living in secularity causes.”[6]

 Rooms of silence and inter-confessional spaces

The post-secular experience has changed the relationship between people and the urban spaces where they socialize. To the identity-shaping places of the past (churches, political party offices, cultural circles, etc.) the post-secular person prefers the “third places”[7]: spaces of sociality and debate, places of leisure and intellectual sharing, metropolitan crossroads where they can experience forms of spontaneous belonging. This sense of belonging is favored by the design of easily accessible and comfortable spaces.[8]

The intuition of American sociologist, Ray Oldenburg, who became famous following the publication of his book The Great Good Place, led to the identification of intermediate locations between the familiarity of one’s own home and the workplace. These “intermediate spaces” are the cafes, bars, shopping centers, beauty salons or bookshops that serve as spaces for informal interaction. It is therefore no accident – according to Oldenburg – that “third places” become “anchors of community life,” aimed at facilitating wider integration and a growing desire for sharing.

Today, these places have often replaced the traditional spaces of aggregation; for example, places of worship and city squares. However, on closer inspection, even these contemporary places of worship have been transformed ad intra by the emerging perspective of post-secularity and the aspects described by Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place.

An evident effect of this emancipation of the sacred from places traditionally used for worship and socializing can be witnessed in the spread of inter-confessional “chapels” dedicated to meditation and recollection. Among the many examples of recent years, one type in particular seems to have attracted curiosity and interest: the “quiet rooms” often located in airports, hospitals, hotels and universities.

These inter-confessional “chapels” came about thanks to an initiative of Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat, and the UN general secretary from 1953 to 1961. Moved by a profound evangelical faith, in 1957 Hammarskjöld wanted to establish a “room of silence” in the UN General Assembly Headquarters in New York. As he himself explained at the opening ceremony, in a building “completely dedicated to work and debate there has to be a room dedicated to silence, in the exterior sense, and to the quiet in the inner sense,”[9] a space open to every person, believer or non-believer, a place for reflection and prayer. This would be a room without religious symbols, because “it is the task of those who enter to fill the void with what is at the center of their inner stillness.”[10]

The Swedish diplomat directed the project personally: he wanted a bare space limited to essentials, full of peace. This included a trapezoidal geometric shape with an altar-block of magnetite in the center, and a geometric mural on the wall. A six-meter-long dark corridor and a crystal door mark the boundary between the UN’s frenetic activity and the “quiet” room. In the center, the heavy block of ferrous material represents silently the stabilitas in the changeable movement of time. The bare altar placed in the center of the small room, in the intentions of the Swedish diplomat, was not impersonal, “because there is no single God, it is not … an altar to an unknown God, but … it is dedicated to the God whom people adore under many names and in many forms.”[11]

The UN “quiet room” soon inspired the spread of new meditation spaces not connected to one single confession. Today, in the United States, there are numerous universities, airports and hospitals that have incorporated places of silence, and throughout the world there are countless architectural interventions that recall the essential elements of that first room at the UN. These places are characterized by an explicit non-denominationality, where minimalism and the lack of icons (“aniconism”) mark the bare lines of the space offered to the multiplicity of religious beliefs. The luminous creations, abstract decorations and essential furnishings signal the attributes of these quiet spaces, where men and women of different creeds (or non-believers) can be present and each stand before God and their conscience.

These “quiet rooms” are not spaces for dialogue, that is, a dialogue understood in an explicit sense, but rather places that promote spiritual coexistence and respect for different religious identities. We could call them “non-confessional, a-liturgical, non-iconic chapels,” but we would be wrong if we characterized them in the light of that negative prefix, which seems to place an accent on absence and deprivation. They are not only places of silence, but of listening. They are not only empty spaces, but emptied, to give voice to silent, broken, interrupted words.[12]

The construction of these rooms in many hospitals in countries throughout the world has been accompanied with a convergence of interest in different religious institutions. In Italy, after the first “quiet room” was built in 2009 (at the Molinette hospital in Turin), other quiet places have opened in recent years; for example, in the Ospedale Maggiore in Parma, the Careggi in Florence, the San Giovanni Bosco and the Mauritian in Turin, at Santa Lucia and San Camillo in Rome, to name just a few.

Among the most famous “quiet rooms,” the first ones to come to mind are the Rothko Chapel in Houston (Texas, USA), designed and painted by the Latvian-American artist Mark Rotkho; the House of Silence (Bet Dumia – Bet as-Sakina), commissioned by Bruno Hussar in the Palestinian village of Neve Shalom; the Sala de reflexió, by the Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies, in the new Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, ??inaugurated in 1996.

Among the most recent spaces to be opened, one in particular stands out for its extraordinary location, namely, the “silent room” located in the north wing of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. We must recall that the Brandenburg Gate is one of the German capital’s most important monuments. It was considered the symbol of the division of the city up until recently. It was from this monument, in fact, that one could look beyond the wall that divided East and West Berlin. According to the “Silent Environment Promotion Association in Berlin,” which was committed to the realization of this space, there are two aims for the quiet room: 1) “to give the possibility to anyone, regardless of origin, color, ideology, religion or physical condition, to enter and linger in silence … to reflect, to meditate, to pray in that historical place full of sad memories, but also rich in hope”; 2) “the quiet room constitutes a permanent invitation to tolerance and brotherhood among people, between nationalities and ideologies and a continuous exhortation against violence and racism.”[13]

At universities, too, it is more and more common to find rooms used as inter-religious chapels, or spaces for worship by different religions. For example, in the heart of Greenwich Village, amid New York University (NYU) buildings, a quiet room was opened in 2012, and several rooms were reserved for students to celebrate their rites. Five years ago, at NYU, the Global Spiritual Center was founded, after a study revealed that 70 percent of the reservations for the university’s common rooms were made for religious activities.


As Leon Battista Alberti once said, “being together generates form.” The examples quoted above are certainly a positive attempt to rethink ourselves “together” as part of a common human family. Therefore, religious architecture can become an environment capable of generating communion, a pedagogical place that expresses the reality of community through spaces of mutual acceptance.

How can these places be created without giving in to a naive syncretism, or a simple physical juxtaposition of different religious contexts? It is not a question of designing interreligious temples, however fascinating the idea may seem, which would end up generating confusion and ambiguity, but rather of thinking of places of proximity where people with different beliefs can converge and meet without confusion. The “Third Places” are characterized by silence and the desire for communion that precedes our words and our search for meaning: rooms of silence, hermitages for citizens, interreligious chapels located in work and leisure areas, testifying to the legitimacy and proximity of different spiritual quests, the attention to the contemplative dimension of life, the need for recollection; temporary pausing places that refer believers to their own places of worship, all well aware that each of us wants to give a face and a voice to that shared silence.In this time we are living in, religions and people of faith have a precious task to fulfill: to give voice to the deep roots of spiritual experience.

Therefore, the emancipation of the sacred from the forms of traditional religiosity should not be demonized. The desire to have spaces for meditation and silence should not be rejected a priori as an ambiguous product of post-secular relativism, but directed toward a spiritual quest that can be evangelized.

The spiritual experience can then be an authentic meeting place. Only an authentic and sympathetic dialogue between us will open up unprecedented possibilities for understanding God’s work in cultures, religions and people, generating a necessary immune system against fundamentalisms and a dangerous return to extremisms.

[1] See H. Joas, La fede come opzione. Possibilità di futuro per il cristianesimo, Brescia, Queriniana, 2013.

[2] Hans Joas uses the definition of secularization which Charles Taylor summarizes according to three categories: “Public spaces … have been emptied of God or any reference to ultimate reality… Secularization consists in diminishing belief and religious practice… Faith, even for the most devoted believer, is only one possibility among others” (C. Taylor, L’età secolare, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2009, 12-14).

[3] In 2015, the sociologist Rodney Stark published important sociological research on religion, comparing data from 163 different countries. After over a million interviews, the American sociologist stated that 81 percent of the world’s population identifies with a religion, 74 percent consider religion to be important, and only 5 percent consider themselves atheistic or agnostic: see R. Stark, The Global Religious Awakening. Faith Triumphs over Secularity, Wilmington, ISI Books, 2015. This data varies widely between continents; figures show that in European countries, religious practice has decreased – 18 percent in Italy – and of Italians under 30 years of age, statistics show a figure around 7 percent: see M. Introvigne – P. Zoccatelli, La Messa è finita?, Caltanissetta – Rome, Sciascia, 2010.

[4] J. Casanova, Oltre la secolarizzazione. Le religioni alla riconquista della sfera pubblica, Bologna, il Mulino, 2000, 11.

[5] V. Rosito, “Post-secolarismo. Le condizioni del credere oggi,” in Il Regno – Attualità 6/2016, 157.

[6] L. Berzano, “Religioni nell’epoca postsecolare,” in Sociologia e politiche sociali 52 (2/2009) 13.

[7] See R. Oldenburg, The Great Good Place. Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, New York, Marlowe & Company, 1989.

[8] Here, what comes to mind is the Starbucks coffee chain, which offers armchairs, Wi-Fi and welcoming places for sharing; or the renewal of McDonald’s, created as fast food places and increasingly transformed into afternoon places to meet; or the multiplex cinema chains, which have now become actual shopping centers, with restaurants and clubs where you can share impressions and comments on the films shown.

[9] “Discorso del Segretario dell’Onu Dag Hammarskjöld sul senso della sala di meditazione,” in

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] These rooms were often built in prisons and hospitals, places where reflection on pain is imposed with dramatic evidence.

[13] “Silenzio nella porta di Brandeburgo,” in

share :
tags icon tags :
comments icon Without comments


write comment
Please enter the letters as they are shown in the image above.