March 10, 2008


Secularization Falsified (Peter L. Berger, February 2008, First Things)

Looked at globally, there are two particularly powerful religious explosions—resurgent Islam and dynamic evangelical Protestantism. Passionate Islamic movements are on the rise throughout the Muslim world, from the Atlantic Ocean to the China Sea, and in the Muslim diaspora in the West. The rise of evangelical Protestantism has been less noticed by intellectuals, the media, and the general public in Western countries, partly because nowhere is it associated with violence and partly because it more directly challenges the assumptions of established elite opinion: David Martin, a leading British sociologist of religion, has called it a “revolution that was not supposed to happen.” Yet it has spread more rapidly and over a larger geographical area than resurgent Islam. What is more, the Islamic growth has occurred mostly in populations that were already Muslim—a revitalization rather than a conversion. By contrast, evangelical Protestantism has been penetrating parts of the world in which this form of religion was hitherto unknown. And it has done so by means of mass conversions.

By far the most numerous and dynamic segment of what I am calling this evangelical diffusion has been Pentecostalism. It began almost exactly one hundred years ago in a number of locations in the United States, as small groups of people began to speak in tongues and experience miraculous healing. From its beginning, Pentecostalism was actively proselytizing, mostly in America (though there were early outposts abroad—even, curiously enough, in Sweden). But the big Pentecostal explosion began in the 1950s, especially in the developing countries, and it has been intensifying ever since. The boundaries of Pentecostalism are somewhat vague: It is a multidimensional phenomenon, with explicitly Pentecostal denominations, local Pentecostal congregations with no denominational affiliations, and Pentecostal-like eruptions within mainline Protestant and Catholic churches. If one subsumes these groups under the general heading of charismatics, there are four hundred million of them, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center.

Religious dynamism is not confined to Islam and Pentecostalism. The Catholic Church, in trouble in Europe, has been doing well in the Global South. There is a revival of the Orthodox Church in Russia. Orthodox Judaism has been rapidly growing in America and in Israel. Both Hinduism and Buddhism have experienced revivals, and the latter has had some successes in proselytizing in America and Europe.

Simply put: Modernity is not characterized by the absence of God but by the presence of many gods—with two exceptions to this picture of a furiously religious world. One is geographical: Western and Central Europe. The causes and present shape of what one may call Eurosecularity constitute one of the most interesting problems in the sociology of contemporary religion. The other exception is perhaps even more relevant to the question of secularization, for it is constituted by an international cultural elite, essentially a globalization of the Enlightened intelligentsia of Europe. It is everywhere a minority of the population—but a very influential one.

Secularism thus finds itself in a global context of dynamic religiosity, which means that it faces some serious challenges. We might distinguish three versions of secularism.

First, the term may refer to accepting the consequences for religion of the institutional differentiation that is a crucial feature of modernity. Social activities that were undertaken in premodern societies within a unified institutional context are now dispersed among several institutions.

The education of children, for example, used to occur within the family or tribe, but it is now handled by specialized institutions. Educational personnel, who used to be family members with no special training, must now be specially trained to undertake their task in teacher-training institutions, which in turn spout further institutions, such as state certification agencies and teachers’ unions.

Religion has gone through a comparable process of differentiation—what used to be an activity of the entire community is now organized in specialized institutions. The Christian Church, long before the advent of modernity, provided a prototype of religious specialization—the realm of Caesar separated from that of God. What modernity does is to make the differentiation much more ample and ­diffused.

One path for this development is the denominational system typical of American religion, with a plurality of separate religious institutions available on a free market. The American case makes clear that secularism, as an ideology that accepts the institutional specialization of religion, need not imply an antireligious animus. This moderate attitude toward religion is then expressed in a moderate understanding of the separation of church and state. The state is not hostile to ­religion but draws back from direct involvement in religious matters and recognizes the autonomy of ­religious institutions.

The second type of secularism, however, is characterized precisely by antireligious animus, at least as far as the public role of religion is concerned. The French understanding of the state originated in the anti-Christian animus of the continental Enlightenment and was politically established by the French Revolution.

This second type of secularism, with religion considered a strictly private matter, can be relatively benign, as it is in contemporary France. Religious symbols or actions are rigorously barred from political life, but privatized religion is protected by law.

The third type of secularism is anything but benign, as in the practice of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes. But what characterizes both the benign and the malevolent versions of laïcité is that religion is evicted from public life and confined to private space. There have been tendencies in America toward a French version of secularism, located in such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union or Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. What may be called the ACLU viewpoint is pithily captured in an old Jewish joke: A man tries to enter a synagogue during the High Holidays. The usher stops the man and says that only people with reserved seats may enter. “But it is a matter of life and death,” says the man. “I must speak to Mr. Shapiro—his wife has been taken to the hospital.” “All right,” says the usher, “you can go in. But don’t let me catch you praying.” The punch line accurately describes the ACLU’s position on any provision of public services (from school buses to medical facilities) to faith-based institutions.

All typologies oversimplify social reality, but it is useful to think here of a spectrum of secularisms: There is the moderate version, typified by the traditional American view of church-state separation. Then there is the more radical version, typified by French laïcité and more recently by the ACLU, in which religion is both confined to the private sphere and protected by legally enforced freedom of religion. And then there is, as in the Soviet case, a secularism that privatizes religion and seeks to repress it. Its adherents can be as fanatical as any religious fundamentalists.

To some considerable degree, American pre-eminence in the Modern World is explained by our avoidance of the Enlightenment.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 10, 2008 7:16 AM

We didn't entirely avoid the Enlightenment. But we also didn't participate in the religious wars that did so much to discredit Christianity in Europe.

Posted by: Brandon at March 10, 2008 12:29 PM

we fought the holy wars of the 20th century in europe

Posted by: oj at March 10, 2008 3:18 PM

We fought a holy war in the Pacific as well, and won that one also.

Posted by: Lou Gots at March 10, 2008 7:19 PM