Secularism as Christianity in Disguise: The Secularization Myth Revisited

By Nelson, Robert H. | Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Secularism as Christianity in Disguise: The Secularization Myth Revisited


Nelson, Robert H., Journal of Markets & Morality


This article examines recent developments in the study of implicit religion and applies these insights to the secularization thesis in sociology. Secularization, rather than being opposed to religion, actually manifests itself as an implicit religion, carrying marks of the previously dominant religious tradition in any given society. Thus, where various Christian traditions were once dominant, one may speak of "secular Protestantism," "secular Catholicism," or "secular Orthodoxy." Secular religion is not as secular as most social scientists once expected. The idea of secularization itself may even be classed as an aspiration of secular religion's faith in progress. The article concludes by way of example with an examination of modern environmentalism as a form of implicit Calvinism.

Introduction

As the American social scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart recently observed, "The seminal thinkers of the nineteenth century--Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud--all believed that religion would gradually fade in importance and cease to be significant with the advent of industrial society." (1) Freud, for example, wrote that religion is a great "illusion" that is "comparable to a childhood neurosis." Seen from a scientific perspective, he wrote that we must now "view religious teachings, as it were, as neurotic relics, and we may now argue that the time has probably come... for replacing the [religious] effects of [psychological] repression by the results of the rational operation of the intellect." (2) Such negative views about the future of religion seemed for many to be confirmed in the twentieth century as "the death of religion became the conventional wisdom in the social sciences." (3) One result was that the serious study of religion in such circles faded.

By some measures Freud and other social scientists who doubted that religion had much of a future proved prophetic. (4) The current state of religion in the United States was described in a 2012 report of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, based on a recent religious survey of the American public. (5) The most striking finding was that the number of people who said they had "no religious affiliation" rose from 15 percent of Americans in 2007 to 20 percent in 2012, a remarkably rapid and large shift for such a short time period (among those in the eighteen through twenty-nine age category, the unaffiliated by 2012 had reached 32 percent). Such "nones" had become the second largest religious category in the United States, surpassing both mainline Protestants and evangelical Protestants, trailing only Roman Catholics (many of whom continue to identify themselves as Catholic even as they participate minimally in church activities).

Self-identified Protestants (of all kinds) in the United States declined from 62 percent in 1972 to 48 percent in 2012, while Catholics declined over this period from 26 to 22 percent. Once the dominant religious group in the United States, the largest Protestant declines occurred among "mainline" Protestant churches--according to one estimate, from 31 million members of such churches (Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational, and others) in 1965 to 25 million members in 1988, and further still to 21 million in 2005. (6) If showing a less severe long-term decline in such absolute numbers (estimates of totals of people with particular religious affiliations are not an exact science), the 2012 Pew report found that this mainline Protestant free fall has continued with its share of the American population down to 18 percent in 2007 and then a mere 15 percent in 2012.

Thus, at least as judged by trends in mainline Protestantism, whose origins lie in the historically most influential religions of the United States (Congregationalism was derived from the original Puritan churches in New England; Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were all founded as Calvinist religious institutions), the common social science prediction of the twentieth century of a sharp and continuing decline of religion has in fact been confirmed by the data. …

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