November 27, 2002
OR IS "THE STATE" DYING INSTEAD?:
The Real Story of Secularization: Is Europe a special case?
: a review of God is Dead by Steve Bruce (Philip Jenkins, November/December 2002, Books & Culture)
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. [...]
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.
The failure to reckon with the American experience is particularly important because it suggests that it is not religion but secularization that is an evolutionary dead end, in the most Darwinian sense of the word "evolution". The declining populations of Europe suggest that natural selection has adjudged the secular European to be a failed species. If the past of Europe was a church and the present is a discount warehouse, the future is indeed a mosque.
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 27, 2002 10:12 AM
So why is America, just as secular and for even longer, not on the demographic toboggan run?
I don't know how you factor out the social insurance aspect of having many children if you're poor, a phenomenon noticed all over the world. Birth rates start falling when people get rich, even in such non-secular places as India.
America is the least secularized society in the West, present company excluded.
America also, probably not coincidentally, has rising birthrates.
It's a puzzle. America is least secularized -- you say -- but has no clerical political party.
Religious liberty is a tenet
of Christianity. Therefore there cannot be a clerical party in genuinely Christian countries. The absence of a clerical party is evidence for America's religious seriousness.
Look at it this way, Harry. America is founded on the idea that religion is too important to be left to government.
The assertion that religious liberty is a tenet of Christianity, given the history of Christian countries, empires, and principalities down the ages, is rather bizarre. I think that one forgets the extraordinary "battles" that had to be waged against "clerical" Christianity (of both Catholic and Protestant varieties)--perhaps more precisely, religious authorities that clung to temporal powers--to get where the US is today--the skepticism, anti-scholasticism, scientific inquiry, liberal principles of liberty, and most markedly, the revolutionary principle of separation of church and state (not forgetting the ideal of the pursuit of happiness).
The founding fathers, wedding their enlightened upbringing to a belief in God, though without the coercive and therefore corrupting consequences of state-sanctioned faith, came up with a formula that somehow encouraged humans' strengths and managed its weaknesses, and, which more importantly, was able to perpetuate itself.
To say that liberty is a tenet of Christianity is
bizarre. What do you think the Inquisition
Equally bizarre, but nicer, was the American
Revolution, in which a nation of Christians, for
the first time, decided to allow freedom of
conscience. This was NOT welcomed by
the churches, as a review of sermons from
that time will show.
By the same standard democracies aren't democratic because they wage war against anti-democratic powers. That's a risible notion.
The churches were of course fine with it since the Constitution permitted them to maintain their established churches and even to be funded by tax dollars in the individual states.
The history of the Enlightenment is too long to review in this comment's 2500 word limit, but suffice it to say that the heaviest lifting was done by Christians searching for a way that was both faithful to Biblical teachings and which worked in the real world. A few French atheists have been given a great deal of undeserved credit, but when their ideas were put into action they produced the Reign of Terror and a long train of tyrannies.
The Inquisition was of course a betrayal of Christianity, and enough such betrayals led to war of Christian against Christian, and it was faced with the horrors of such wars that the great principles of democratic liberalism were worked out -- by Christians.
How can the Inquisition be a betrayal of
Christianity? Isn't the pope Catholic?
I picked Inquistion because it's one of the few
events in church history people think they
recognize. I could as easily, and with even
more cogency, have cited the events in
3rd and 4th century Alexandria, where
Christianity was reinvented.
Tolerance and liberty have never been a tenet
of any Christianity that I know about.
It is hilarious of Orrin, who dislikes almost
all forms of government, to applaud a policy
that mulcts one group to enrich another. Orrin,
you sound like one uh them durn effete
eastern liberals today. Happy Thanksgiving,
"Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, render unto God that which is God's..."
Could that be a Biblical justification for religious liberty?
The Pope is of course Catholic, but papal behavior does not always accord with Catholic principles -- just as the behavior of American bishops in regard to child molesters has not accorded with Catholic principles. But these failures to do what is right do cause us to revisit fundamental principles and re-affirm our commitment to the moral truths implied by those principles. This pope has apologized for the sins of the Inquisition and asked for the world's forgiveness. Is this Pope not Catholic?