Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Secularization Falsified

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Secularization Falsified

Article excerpt

It has been more than a century since Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God. The prophecy was widely accepted as referring to an alleged fact about increasing disbelief in religion, both by those who rejoiced in it and those who deplored it. As the twentieth century proceeded, however, the alleged fact became increasingly dubious. And it is very dubious indeed as a description of our point in time at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Religion has not been declining. On the contrary, in much of the world there has been a veritable explosion of religious faith.

Ever since the Enlightenment intellectuals of every stripe have believed that the inevitable consequence of modernity is the decline of religion. The reason was supposed to be the progress of science and its concomitant rationality, replacing the irrationality and superstition of religion. Not only Nietzsche but other seminal modern thinkers thought so-notably Marx (religion as opiate of the masses) and Freud (religion as illusion).

So did the two great figures of classical sociology. Emile Durkheim explained religion as nothing but a metaphor of social order. Max Weber believed that what he called "rationalization"-the increasing dominance of a scientific mindset-would destroy the "magical garden" of premodern worldviews. To be sure, the two had different attitudes toward this alleged insight. Durkheim, an Enlightened atheist saw modern secularity as progress. Weber was not happy about what he saw-ostensibly the imprisonment of modern man in the "iron cage" of rationality. But happily or nostalgically, both agreed on what was supposedly happening.

Not to put too fine a point on it they were mistaken. Modernity is not intrinsically secularizing, though it has been so in particular cases (one of which, as I will argue in a moment is very relevant for the phenomenon of secularism).

The mistake, I think, can be described as a confusion of categories: Modernity is not necessarily secularizing; it is necessarily pluralizing. Modernity is characterized by an increasing plurality, within the same society, of different beliefs, values, and worldviews. Plurality does indeed pose a challenge to all religious traditions-each one must cope with the fact that there are "all these others," not just in a faraway country but right next door. This challenge, however, is not the one assumed by secularization theory.

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 exacdy 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 mtensifying ever since. …

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