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Silence, Power, and Religion


Silence, Power, and Religion

The powers of political secrecy and social spectacle have been taken to surreal extremes recently. Witness the twin terrors of a president who refuses to disclose dealings with foreign powers while the private data of ordinary citizens is stolen and marketed in order to manipulate consumer preferences and voting outcomes. We have become accustomed to thinking about secrecy in political terms and personal privacy terms. In this bracing, new work, Hugh Urban wants us to focus these same powers of observation on the role of secrecy in religion.

With Secrecy, Urban investigates several revealing instances of the power of secrecy in religion, including nineteenth-century Scottish Rite Freemasonry, the sexual magic of a Russian-born Parisian mystic; the white supremacist BrüderSchweigen or “Silent Brotherhood” movement of the 1980s, the Five Percenters, and the Church of Scientology. An electrifying read, Secrecy is the culmination of decades of Urban’s reflections on a vexed, ever-present subject.


"Although Urban is scholastic and analytical in style, the book cannot help but be enlivened by the characters behind the religious movements he highlights. The colourful Madame Blavatsky competes with the 19th-century guru of American Freemasonry, Albert Pike, once a sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite. He was a former brigadier general in the Confederate Army who suffered a humiliating scandal and exiled himself to the wilderness before emerging to write a massive tome on masonic practices."

Fortean Times

"Secrecy is an important text for scholars of religion. Historical, analytical, and innovative, Urban does the tremendous work of thinking across different esoteric movements to conceptualize the varied, and sometimes overlapping, workings of power and secrecy within these movements. Urban’s text leaves us pondering formative and critical methodological questions."

Pacific World

"An engaging and thought-provoking book that I highly recommend. Not only will it be of great interest to students of new religious movements, but I also believe it is destined to become a key text in the emerging field of secrecy studies."

Nova Religio

"The present work brings to life a side of modernity that is usually forgotten or kept secret, as the book’s title indicates. In day-to-day living, modern men and women tend to confirm Max Weber’s teaching that humans have demystified their lives and their world views. The truth, however, is more complex. As Urban shows, people live in a reality in which secrets and their dissemination have played, and continue to play, a significant role. . . . Recommended."


Secrecy is original, and the scholarship is rock solid—it is clear, to the point, and quite effective at what it sets out to do. The different aspects of secrecy are fascinating and the book’s engagement with issues such as race, capitalism, and power is unique. There is some classical sociological work on secrecy, and secrecy has been studied in specific religious traditions, but there is nothing else on this scale.”

Jason Ananda Josephson Storm, Williams College

“Urban is the most wide-ranging and prolific comparative scholar of religion working today. Secrecy brings critical theoretical frames to the politics of the present, as well as to vivid interpretations of little-understood nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century religious movements that remained on the edge of the public sphere, as secret movements, but nevertheless exerted considerable influence. The comparisons reveal how power is generated through secrecy, and how that power moves fluidly across the domains of religion and the political. Urban shows how the allegedly public sphere of governance is in fact ever more clouded by secrecy. This is urgent, troubling, necessary reading.”

Paul Christopher Johnson, author of Automatic Religion: Nearhuman Agents of Brazil and France and editor of Comparative Studies in Society and History

Table of Contents

Preface: Secrecy, the Human Dress

Introduction    The Vestment of Power

1    The Adornment of Silence: Secrecy and Symbolic Power in American Freemasonry

2    The Secret Doctrine: The Advertisement of the Secret in the Theosophical Society and the Esoteric Section

3    The Seduction of the Secret: Eros and Magic in Twentieth-Century Europe

4    Secrecy and Social Resistance: The Five-Percenters and the Arts of Subversive Bricolage

5    The Terror of Secrecy: Racism, Masculinity, and Violence in the late Brüder Schweigen

6    The Third Wall of Fire: Scientology and the Study of Religious Secrecy in the Twenty-First Century

Conclusions    The Science of the Hidden: Secrecy and the Critical Study of Religion in an Age of Surveillance

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