Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Seven Narratives of Religion: A Framework for Engaging Contemporary Research

Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Seven Narratives of Religion: A Framework for Engaging Contemporary Research

Article excerpt

The Theory of Secularization

The theory of secularization involves three basic claims about the relationship between modernity and religion. First, it argues that modernity removes religion from the social-foundational role that it played during pre-modernity and forces religion to become but one sphere of endeavor among others (e.g., science, politics, and economics). Second, it contends that the cultural, political, and intellectual influence of religion will dwindle as the forces of modernity advance. And third, secularization theory claims that, whatever influence modern religion retains will be increasingly resigned to the private sphere (Casanova 19-20). Advocates of secularization theory generali)' locate these dynamics within a broader narrative perspective, arguing, for example, that religion initially arose as a way of coping with the ignorance and powerlessness that plagued early human existence, but must now be abandoned in order for humanity to follow the more mature path of secular modernity (see, for example, Dennett).

The theory of secularization was originally advanced by Enlightenment thinkers who felt that modern Europe was the pinnacle of human civilization and that the rest of humanity would become more like Europeans as it continued to advance (Comte; Hume). This theory was later systematized and refined by the likes of Emile Dürkheim and Max Weber, two founding fathers of modern social science (Dürkheim; Hughey). It achieved a paradigmatic status within modern social science during the first twothirds of the twentieth century, when numerous states began aggressively curtailing religion's ability to influence the public sphere throughout the world.1 Even those who did not predict religion's marginalization and decline were influenced by secularization theory, as academic methods increasingly demanded that apparently religious forces be reduced to a conjunction of cultural, ethical, political, psychological, and economic concerns (Philpott).

However, secularization theory has fallen on hard times in recent decades. This shift has been primarily stimulated by a recognition of the central role that religious considerations have played in a number of prominent instances of political conflict and revolution (e.g., the Six Day War between Israel and Egypt, the Iranian revolution, the development of Hindu nationalism in India and Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka, the role of Catholicism in overthrowing communism in Eastern Europe, religious nonviolent civil disobedience movements, the rise of Evangelical politics in the United States, and the attacks of 9/ll). Recent demographic studies have also been significant, showing that the overwhelming majority of the world's population remains just as religious as ever before, if not more so. For example, the World Values Survey, carried out across fifty-six countries form the 1980s to the early 2000s, found that levels of religious belief increased from 80% to 83% of the world's population during this period. The only region where levels decreased was Western Europe, and still only from 81% to 78%. Levels of religious belief alternately increased in Eastern Europe from 68% to 78%, while the percentage of Chinese who cited "religion" as a major influence in their life grew from 22% to 36% (Philpott 191). Other studies have undermined the idea that modernity and religion are somehow at odds by showing how religion has played an important role in encouraging many non-Western peoples to accept modern science, modern medicine, and democratic politics (Micklethwait and Wooldridge; van der Veer). Indeed, the theory of secularization has been challenged in so many ways that numerous prominent thinkers are beginning to claim that it has been falsified outright (Berger; Dreyfus and Kelly; Taylor, A Secular Age).

Nevertheless, researchers have not yet reached consensus about how to alternately narrate religious history. Certainly, it is clear that religion has evolved from its tribal beginnings through the archaic, axial, and medieval periods, up into modernity and the current global age. …

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