Secularization Doesn't Just Happen

By Neuhaus, Richard | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, March 2005 | Go to article overview
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Secularization Doesn't Just Happen


Neuhaus, Richard, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


"As society became more modern, it became more secular." That sentence has about it a certain "of courseness." It or its equivalent is to be found in numerous textbooks from grade school through graduate school. The connection between modernization and secularization is taken for granted. Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, challenges what everybody knows in an important new collection of essays by several sociologists and historians, The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life (University of California Press, 484 pp., $60). The challenge is not novel with Smith. Social scientists who had long propounded "secularization theory," Peter L. Berger very notably among them, have in recent years undergone a major change of mind. The contribution of Smith's big book is in his detailed analysis of the dubious (sometimes contrary to fact) assumptions underlying the theory, and in the case studies he and his colleagues present showing how various interest groups have employed the theory in the service of their own quest for power, usually at the expense of religion and religious institutions.

There are, writes Smith, seven crucial and related defects in conventional secularization theory. Over-abstraction: the literature of the theorists routinely spoke of "differentiation," "autonomization," "privatization," and other abstract, if not abstruse, dynamics disengaged from concrete factors of social change such as interests, ideologies, institutions, and power conflicts. Lack of human agency: the theory was big on process without protagonists. It depicted secularization without secularizers. According to the theory, secularization just happens. Overdeterministic inevitability: "Religion's marginalization from public life is portrayed as a natural or inevitable process like cell mitosis or adolescent puberty." Secularization theory reflects a view of linear social evolution in the tradition of Comte and Spencer. "If there is one truth that history teaches us beyond doubt," wrote the great Durkheim, "it is that religion tends to embrace a smaller and smaller portion of social life." Any questions, class?

Idealist intellectual history: here the history of ideas is determinative. Owen Chadwick's The Secularization of the European Mind (note the focus on the mind) puts the primary explanatory emphasis on the philosophy of liberalism, evolutionary theory, Marxist ideology, and so forth. Smith writes, "Culture, philosophy, and intellectual systems certainly matter. But they cannot be abstracted from the real historical, social, political, legal, and institutional dynamics through which they worked and were worked upon." Romanticized history: there was in the view of secularization theorists an "age of faith"--for instance, the thirteenth century--which was succeeded and displaced by the age of reason and modernity. Then everything was religious; now everything, or at least everything that matters in public, is secular. Against that view, anthropologist Mary Douglas writes: "Secularization is often treated as a modern trend. But the contrast of secular with religious has nothing whatsoever to do with the contrast of modern with traditional or primitive. The idea that primitive man is by nature deeply religious is nonsense. The truth is that all of the varieties of skepticism, materialism, and spiritual fervor are found in the range of tribal societies. They vary as much from one another on these lines as any chosen segment of London life."

An overemphasis on religious self-destruction: Berger's 1967 The Sacred Canopy suggested that the Judeo-Christian tradition "carried the seeds of secularization within itself." Ancient Israel's monotheism began the secularization process by historicizing and rationalizing ethics, a process which Catholicism temporarily restrained but which the Protestant Reformation returned to full force in bringing about a "disenchanted" (Weber) world.

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