go home Humanism

Christianity Today 2002

The Real Story of Secularization
Is Europe a special case?
by Philip Jenkins

The idea of secularization is fundamental to contemporary debates over the sociology of religion. As sociologist Steve Bruce puts the issue succinctly, "The basic proposition is that modernization creates problems for religion"; or to quote the social anthropologist Anthony Wallace, "The evolutionary future of religion is extinction." To sketch the notion crudely, the Protestant Reformation created the social and economic conditions from which modern capitalism emerged. This in turn allowed the emergence of societies characterized by diversity, pluralism, individual choice, relativism, and an emphasis on scientific and technological ways of understanding the world. In this model, religion fares poorly, and religious adherence and practice decline precipitously. Very generally, "increasing prosperity reduces religious fervor." The whole process is epitomized by the evocative photograph on the cover of Bruce's new book, God Is Dead, depicting a once-grand British church now converted into "Mike's Carpet Stores--Discount Warehouse." Transitions of this sort are painfully commonplace across a rapidly de-Christianizing Europe. Of course, not all churches become warehouses: a fair number are now mosques.

A paradigm as important as secularization has not gone unchallenged. Since the 1980s, sociologists like Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge have fundamentally attacked the whole notion, charging for instance that the apparent decline of religion since the Middle Ages is far less than it seems, and that contemporary religion is much more vital than the prophets of secularization have claimed. The apparent trajectory of decline is thus exaggerated, or even illusory. It is in order to counter such criticism that Bruce has written God Is Dead, which among other things offers non-specialists a useful survey of some of the critical issues and debates in the contemporary sociology of religion.

Though the mechanisms of change are open to debate, the fact of a secularizing process is obvious enough, at least in Europe. The cultural and intellectual impact of the change is abundantly detailed in Edward Norman's succinct Secularisation, in which a traditional religious believer laments the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the retreating Sea of Faith. (Bruce, in contrast, is not only happy to stand on Dover Beach, but cheers heartily as the tide goes out.) As in much of his previous writing, Norman is less concerned with the evils of the secular world than with their penetration inside the walls of the City of God. In 1979, his Christianity and the World Order offered an acute and prophetic analysis of the baneful influence of secular and Marxist ideals on liberal Christianity through the vehicle of liberation theology. Now, he shows how

Secular Humanism, as an unconscious orientation of life and thought, and entertained in an inarticulate and unrecognized form...has with frightening frequency infiltrated the church members' perceptions of their own religion. Christianity is not being rejected in modern society--what is causing the decline of public support for the Church is the insistence of church leaders themselves in representing secular enthusiasm for humanity as core Christianity.

That Britain--along with most of Europe--has become thoroughly secularized is not open to serious question. The more important issue is whether the process is following some kind of sociological law of nature, which will ultimately take effect in all postmodern societies derived from European models, or whether "modernization" might have very different effects in different societies.

One big obstacle to seeing the secularization thesis as a universal rule is, of course, the United States. The point scarcely needs elaboration. If we imagine a decayed church building like that portrayed by Bruce but standing in an American city, it would almost certainly not be transformed into a warehouse, but would rather have been appropriated by some vibrant new Christian denomination, probably linked to a new immigrant group. Yet at the same time, older ethnic communities, white and black, assuredly have not abandoned religious practice. Driving around the suburbs of an American city, we see a striking amount of new church construction, generally the work of a conservative or fundamentalist group. If you want to amaze European visitors, just take them for a Sunday drive past a suburban church or two with their sprawling parking lots, those contemporary witnesses to soaring faith that might just be the unlovely modern counterparts of the Gothic spires of the Middle Ages.

So what is happening here? Bruce replies that a counter-example here or there doesn't undermine the paradigm. And in any case, he adds, he and the scholars upon whose work he is building never said that secularization was a universal process; rather, it applies "to religion in western Europe (and its North American and Australasian offshoots) since the Reformation." Yet the seemingly massive exception of the American "offshoot" really does seem to pose insurmountable problems, which Bruce tries heroically to confront. He asserts that, all appearances to the contrary, the United States has experienced secularization on European lines. In order to prove this, he makes some statements that initially sound outrageous: "there is ample evidence of Christianity in the USA losing power, prestige and popularity"; "there has been no significant reversal of the major trend of religion becoming marginal to the operation of the social system"; and what differences do exist can be explained in ways consistent with the secularization paradigm. "The mainstream Christian churches are declining in popularity, and the conservative Protestant churches are losing their doctrinal and behavioral distinctiveness."

Bruce makes the best case possible for what is probably an unwinnable argument. For instance, he reasonably points to recent debates over statistics for church attendance in the United States, contending that sociologists like Andrew Greeley have uncritically accepted self-report data: in reality, fewer Americans go to church regularly than they claim. Yet having said this, his thesis really cannot be sustained because of a repeated failure to ask the crucial historical question, "compared to what?"

The more we look at American history, we can see that throughout the 19th century especially, religion was strongly characterized by the kind of "privatization, individualism, and relativism" that he regards as potent new forces emerging only in recent years. Comparing American religion in 2002 with, say, 1852, many of us would be struck by the growth of religious practice and church membership over that period, and the consistency of small sects and cult-like movements that reflect a high degree of privatized and individual faith.

Indeed, if we were to look in detail at the religious backgrounds of Americans serving on either side in the Civil War, we might be surprised how few of them had any formal affiliation with regular churches, as opposed to a general commitment to Christianity and the Bible (often interpreted very idiosyncratically). A great many would also at some stage in their lives have passed through some kind of fringe or esoteric group, or spent time in religious communes. (They would have felt so at home in California circa 1975.) In the United States, and especially in some regions, the "fringe" has often been more like a mainstream.

Bruce is absolutely not a stranger to the American scene--he has published on American fundamentalism and the Religious Right, for example--but I think he simply misses the utterly different feel of religious discourse in the United States as opposed to Europe, a distinction that emerges in everyday conversation. I do not claim this work as in any sense scientifically representative, but there is a richly illustrative moment in the 1988 British film High Hopes (directed by Mike Leigh), in which a working-class British woman asks "So what can we do today? I mean, it's Sunday," to which her friend replies "We could go to church." From the context, the remark is obviously an outrageous joke rather than a serious suggestion. Real people just don't do that sort of thing (well, not white people anyway). An exchange of that kind would have nothing like the same significance in the United States.

Similarly, in a dispute some years ago over using faith-based charities to provide social welfare, prominent Labor Party politician Roy Hattersly protested that "This is an agnostic nation. People don't take [religion] seriously." It is a stunning illustration of the cultural and religious gulf separating the United States and Britain that no public voice in the United Kingdom regarded his remarks as controversial. In the United States, such a statement would have been politically suicidal. For all the book's virtues, Bruce's argument runs aground on the American experience. To accept his explaining away of that exception requires, well, an act of faith.

Yet in some crucial areas, we can indeed observe the secularization process at work in the United States, and many of Norman's comments in particular ring true. The crucial difference is that the changes he and Bruce are describing for the whole of British society apply across the Atlantic only at an élite level. Broadly, American élites have secularized, while religious commitments have remained firm outside those circles, and away from the social and geographical centers of élite power.

Once we take that division into account, Norman's Secularisation can be read from a whole new perspective. For instance, he comments on the failure of secularized Europe to understand religious motivation in political conflicts globally: religion is just not something that educated people take seriously, and if they claim to, they must be either deranged or hypocritical. While the same point holds true for American policy-makers, we also see a similar lack of comprehension when élites encounter the religious motivations of American citizens themselves. It may be a truism, but the American media do an abysmally poor job of reflecting the religious outlook of a very large part of their audience. This public affectation of secularism masks a vast and steadily growing cultural and intellectual chasm between Europeans and Americans, between the secular and the decidedly nonsecular.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and the author most recently of The Next Christendom: The Coming Global Christianity (Oxford Univ. Press).