Historicizing the Secularization Debate
An Agenda for Research
Philip S. Gorski
The trends are quite clear: In most parts of the West, Christian belief and practice have declined significantly, at least since World War II, and probably for much longer (e.g., Ashford and Timms 1992; Davie 1999). The variations are also quite clear: In a few countries, such as Ireland and Poland, levels of belief and practice are still very high; in others, however, such as Sweden and Denmark, they are quite low.
But what do these trends and variations mean? And how might we explain them? Current thinking on these questions among sociologists of religion is dominated by two opposing positions. The first is classical secularization theory, which sees the recent decline of Christian religiosity as part of a general trend toward greater “secularity” and an inevitable consequence of “modernization.” The second is the “religious economies model.” It argues that transhistorical and cross-national variations in “religious vitality” are caused by differences in the structure of “religious markets, ” and, more specifically, that the freer religious markets are, the more vital religion will be.
Who is right? The diehard defenders of secularization theory? Or their upstart critics from the religious economies school? In my view, the answer is “probably neither.” I say “neither” because there is now a great deal of evidence which speaks against both of these theories – against the view that modernization inevitably undermines religion and against the view that “free markets” (in religion) generally promote it – evidence, moreover, which seems better accounted for by other theoretical perspectives that have been forgotten or ignored in the recent debate. But I would add the qualification “probably, ” because the accumulated evidence is still too thin historically and too narrow geographically to allow for any credible judgements: as sociologists of religion, we know a great deal about the twentieth-century West, but relatively little about anything else.
For those interested in advancing the current debate, then, two tasks would seem to be of especial importance. One is to revive and/or elaborate alternative theories of religious change. In what follows, I will discuss two perspectives that I regard as particularly promising: (a) a sociopolitical perspective, which focuses on conflict and competition between religious and nonreligious elites and movements; and (b) a religiocultural perspective, which focuses on the relationship between religious and nonreligious values and worldviews, both within different religious traditions, and across different stages of religious development. The second task is to contextualize the postwar developments,