As with most academic traditions, and especially those that are viewed as soft, there are orthodoxies and fashions, and sometimes sudden turns, that are conventionally described--following Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions of almost half a century ago--as paradigm shifts. Sociology is generally seen as one of those soft disciplines. From its once enormous popularity in the academy, it has in recent decades fallen upon hard times. As Peter Berger and others have argued, sociology did itself in by, among other things, its reckless abandonment of the intellectual discipline appropriate to being a discipline and its eagerness to make itself useful to sundry ideological and social causes. (See Berger's "Whatever Happened to Sociology?" in the October 2002 issue of FIRST THINGS.)
Now a funny thing may be happening on the long road from the work of nineteenth-century Auguste Comte, commonly called the father of sociology. Comte envisioned a progression of three stages of history-from the theological to the metaphysical to the scientific. He left little doubt that these transitions were more or less inevitable and certainly the story of progress. If sociology was always a soft discipline compared to the hard sciences that it sought to emulate, the softest of the soft was the sociology of religion. There was a strong tendency to view religion as something vestigial, prescientific, and therefore premodern. Enter the well-known "secularization theory" that reigned almost unchallenged until the 1970s. In perhaps its most influential form, it was propounded by Max Weber (1864-1920) and, to put it too simply, claimed that there is a necessary connection between modernity and religion: As modernity advances, religion retreats. This near-inexorable process is called secularization.
As frequently discussed in these pages, secularization theory is now challenged on many fronts, and not least of all by Peter Berger, once one of its most influential proponents. The advocates of secularization theory had over many decades referred to "American exceptionalism." This reflected the awareness that, if modernity necessarily entails secularization, it is something of a puzzle as to why the most modern of societies is also so vibrantly religious. Hundreds of books have been written in an attempt to explain American exceptionalism. In recent years, however, the table has been turned, and the question of increasingly intense interest is "European exceptionalism," meaning especially western and northern European secularity. Viewed in global terms, the American mix of modernity and religion seems to be the normal pattern. The interesting question is not why America is so religious but why Europe is so secular.
Here are at least some parts of the answer: the historical and current relationships between church and state, the impact of social pluralism, radically different understandings of the Enlightenment, different understandings of what it means to be an intellectual, different institutional configurations for maintaining an intellectual tradition, and different ways in which the institutions of religion relate to factors such as class and ethnicity.
Let it readily be admitted that these ways of discussing the question can easily get mired in the gobbledygook of sociology talk. Some might feel more at home in addressing the differences between Europe and America in terms of the latter's providential purpose, and a good case can be made for doing so, but sociology doesn't do Divine Providence, which is just as well.
The new thinking about secularization does not reduce everything to an analysis of class or ethnic struggles, power rivalries, or economic dynamics. In her 2004 book The Roads to Modernity, for instance, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb examines how the Enlightenment meant very different things in Europe and America. In America it was understood to be religion friendly, …