Secularization thesis

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Alister McGrath points out that many atheists/agnostics were angry that the secularization thesis failed because religion was "supposed to" disappear.[1]

According to the Religious Studies Project:

The secularisation thesis – the idea that traditional religions are in terminal decline in the industrialised world – was perhaps the central debate in the sociology of religion in the second half of the 20th century. Scholars such as Steve Bruce, Rodney Stark and Charles Taylor argued whether religion was becoming less important to individuals, or that only the authority of religions in the public sphere was declining. Data from the US and South America, however, began to challenge many of their basic assumptions.

The secularisation thesis is probably the biggest central theme and certainly the most hotly debated in the sociology of religion, certainly since the 1960’s. [2]

A 2003 paper published by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University entitled The Secularization Debate indicates:

The seminal social 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. They were far from alone; ever since the Age of the Enlightenment, leading figures in philosophy, anthropology, and psychology have postulated that theological superstitions, symbolic liturgical rituals, and sacred practices are the product of the past that will be outgrown in the modern era. The death of religion was the conventional wisdom in the social sciences during most of the twentieth century; indeed it has been regarded as the master model of sociological inquiry, where secularization was ranked with bureaucratization, rationalization, and urbanization as the key historical revolutions transforming medieval agrarian societies into modern industrial nations. As C. Wright Mills summarized this process: “Once the world was filled with the sacred – in thought, practice, and institutional form. After the Reformation and the Renaissance, the forces of modernization swept across the globe and secularization, a corollary historical process, loosened the dominance of the sacred. In due course, the sacred shall disappear altogether except, possibly, in the private realm.”

During the last decade, however, this thesis of the slow and steady death of religion has come under growing criticism; indeed secularization theory is currently experiencing the most sustained challenge in its long history. Critics point to multiple indicators of religious health and vitality today, ranging from the continued popularity of churchgoing in the United States to the emergence of New Age spirituality in Western Europe, the growth in fundamentalist movements and religious parties in the Muslim world, the evangelical revival sweeping through Latin America, and the upsurge of ethno-religious conflict in international affairs3. After reviewing these developments, Peter L. Berger, one of the foremost advocates of secularization during the 1960s, recanted his earlier claims: “The world today, with some exceptions…is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labeled ‘secularization theory’ is essentially mistaken.” In a fierce and sustained critique, Rodney Stark and Roger Finke suggest it is time to bury the secularization thesis: “After nearly three centuries of utterly failed prophesies and misrepresentations of both present and past, it seems time to carry the secularization doctrine to the graveyard of failed theories, and there to whisper ‘requiescat in pace.’”[3]

Harvard University's Samuel Huntington observed: "The late 20th century has seen the global resurgence of religions around the world" (The Clash of Civilizations, p. 64).[4]

Alister McGrath points out that many atheists/agnostics were angry that the secularization thesis failed because religion was "supposed to" disappear.[5] Peter Berger said that the religiosity of the United States was a big exception to the secularization theory that should have caused social scientists to question the theory.[6] See also: Atheists and the endurance of religion

Failed assumptions and the shock of secular social scientists to a failed theory

Peter L. Berger said that the religiosity of the United States was a big exception to the secularization theory that should have caused social scientists to question the theory.[7]

Douglas S. Winnail wrote:

Secular leaders and scholars have been surprised by the resurgence of religion, because they put their faith in the assumption that modernization would lead to secularization and to the decline of religion. This idea—the so-called "secularization theory"—is widely accepted in academic and political circles. It assumes that as societies modernize and become more secular, religion will wither away as an archaic and useless branch of knowledge. Their assumption was that if religion became irrelevant, and human beings became more reasonable, they would dwell together in peace and happiness in a modernized world.

However, human history did not follow this "reasonable" path to a secular utopia. The closing decades of the 20th century "provide a massive falsification of the idea" that modernization and secularization will lead to a decline in religion. Instead, we are witnessing a massive upsurge in religion around the world (The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, Berger, p. 6). This resurgence of religion has also played a part in an increasing number of violent conflicts around the world. Secular intellectuals and elites have been shocked by this development, because it is proving that their fundamental assumptions about human beings and human society are absolutely wrong! The modern secular notion that religion is archaic and irrelevant has caused many to overlook the importance of religion in human affairs. As a result, they have been taken by surprise by the return of religion. As Peter Berger, one of the world's leading sociologists of religion, wrote: "Those who neglect religion in their analysis of contemporary affairs do so at great peril" (Berger, p. 18). But what has spawned the modern revival of religion, and the spreading rejection of secular society?[8]

Failed predictions of the demise of religion

See also: Failed predictions of the demise of religion

Dr. Rodney Stark's in his book The Triumph of Faith wrote:

People want to know why the universe exists, not that it exists for no reason, and they don't want their lives to be pointless. Only religion provides credible and satisfactory answers to the great existential questions. The most ardent wishes of the secularization faithful will never change that.

"Secularists have been predicting the imminent demise of religion for centuries. They have always been wrong—and their claims today are no different. It is their unshakable faith in secularization that may be the most "irrational" of all beliefs." (p. 212).[9]

Stark wrote in his book Acts of Faith:

For nearly three centuries social scientists and assorted Western intellectuals have been promising the end of religion. Each generation has been confident that within another few decades, or possibly a bit longer, humans will 'outgrow' belief in the supernatural. This proposition soon came to be known as the secularization thesis.[10]

A 2003 paper published by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University entitled The Secularization Debate indicates:

The seminal social 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. They were far from alone; ever since the Age of the Enlightenment, leading figures in philosophy, anthropology, and psychology have postulated that theological superstitions, symbolic liturgical rituals, and sacred practices are the product of the past that will be outgrown in the modern era. The death of religion was the conventional wisdom in the social sciences during most of the twentieth century; indeed it has been regarded as the master model of sociological inquiry, where secularization was ranked with bureaucratization, rationalization, and urbanization as the key historical revolutions transforming medieval agrarian societies into modern industrial nations. As C. Wright Mills summarized this process: “Once the world was filled with the sacred – in thought, practice, and institutional form. After the Reformation and the Renaissance, the forces of modernization swept across the globe and secularization, a corollary historical process, loosened the dominance of the sacred. In due course, the sacred shall disappear altogether except, possibly, in the private realm.”

During the last decade, however, this thesis of the slow and steady death of religion has come under growing criticism; indeed secularization theory is currently experiencing the most sustained challenge in its long history. Critics point to multiple indicators of religious health and vitality today, ranging from the continued popularity of churchgoing in the United States to the emergence of New Age spirituality in Western Europe, the growth in fundamentalist movements and religious parties in the Muslim world, the evangelical revival sweeping through Latin America, and the upsurge of ethno-religious conflict in international affairs3. After reviewing these developments, Peter L. Berger, one of the foremost advocates of secularization during the 1960s, recanted his earlier claims: “The world today, with some exceptions…is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labeled ‘secularization theory’ is essentially mistaken.” In a fierce and sustained critique, Rodney Stark and Roger Finke suggest it is time to bury the secularization thesis: “After nearly three centuries of utterly failed prophesies and misrepresentations of both present and past, it seems time to carry the secularization doctrine to the graveyard of failed theories, and there to whisper ‘requiescat in pace.’”[11]

Emergence of new religions and religious expressions

Toby Lester wrote in The Atlantic:

In 1851 the French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan announced to the world that Islam was "the last religious creation of humanity." He was more than a bit premature. At about the time he was writing, the Bahai faith, Christian Science, Mormonism, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and a major Japanese religious movement known as Tenrikyo were all just coming to life. Falun Gong and Pentecostalism—both of which now have millions and millions of members—had yet to emerge. Whoops.[12]

Peter Berger's abandonment of the secular thesis

In 1968, the American sociologist and author Peter L. Berger told the New York Times that by "the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture."[13]

Berger introduced the concept of desecularization in 1999.[14][15] According to Berger, "One can say with some confidence that modern Pentecostalism must be the fastest growing religion in human history."[16]

Niles Frasier: The secularization thesis is a myth

Giles Frasier

Giles Frasier wrote in The Guardian:

In 1900, the year that Nietzsche died, there were 8 million Christians in Africa. Now there are 335 million. And the growth rate continues to accelerate. God wasn’t dead. God was reborn. Indeed, far from being the century in which religion went away, for both Christianity and Islam, the 20th century was numerically the most successful century since Christ was crucified and Muhammad gave his farewell sermon on Mount Arafat. By 2010, there were 2.2 billion Christians in the world and 1.6 billion Muslims, 31% and 23% of the world population respectively. The secularisation hypothesis is a European myth, a piece of myopic parochialism that shows how narrow our worldview continues to be.[17]

Ellis, Hoskin, Dutton and Nyborg: Fertility and secularization thesis

See also: Atheism and fertility rates

The abstract for the journal article The Future of Secularism: a Biologically Informed Theory Supplemented with Cross-Cultural Evidence indicates:

For over a century, social scientists have predicted declines in religious beliefs and their replacement with more scientific/naturalistic outlooks, a prediction known as the secularization hypothesis. However, skepticism surrounding this hypothesis has been expressed by some researchers in recent decades. After reviewing the pertinent evidence and arguments, we examined some aspects of the secularization hypothesis from what is termed a biologically informed perspective. After reviewing the pertinent evidence and arguments, we examined some aspects of the secularization hypothesis from what is termed a biologically informed perspective. Based on large samples of college students in Malaysia and the USA, religiosity, religious affiliation, and parental fertility were measured using self-reports. Three religiosity indicators were factor analyzed, resulting in an index for religiosity. Results reveal that average parental fertility varied considerably according to religious groups, with Muslims being the most religious and the most fertile and Jews and Buddhists being the least. Within most religious groupings, religiosity was positively associated with parental fertility. While cross-sectional in nature, when our results are combined with evidence that both religiosity and fertility are substantially heritable traits, findings are consistent with view that earlier trends toward secularization ...are currently being counter-balanced by genetic and reproductive forces. ... secularism is likely to undergo a decline throughout the remainder of the twenty-first century, including Europe and other industrial societies.[18]

For additional information, please see: Ellis, Hoskin, Dutton and Nyborg journal article on fertility and secularism

New Atheism as a reaction to the failure of the secularization thesis

Richard Dawkins
The atheist philosopher Dr. Michael Ruse declared concerning new atheist Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion: "The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist."[19]

Richard Osling wrote about the book The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement published by the Oxford University Press:

The tables are turned in a new book, “The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement” (Oxford University Press). Journalists: It’s heady stuff to be a hook for news treatment, but worth the effort.

The book analyzes atheistic causes in North America over the past century, including its internal schisms and contradictions. The work is based on Canadian author Stephen LeDrew’s doctoral dissertation at York University in Ontario and post-doctoral study in Sweden at Uppsala University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society...

Social scientists long embraced the “secularization thesis,” according to which religion will inevitably decline as modern science advances. But now, says LeDrew, many acknowledge that scenario was “a product of ideology” rather than empirical fact. Thus, the New Atheism could be seen as a promotional effort to defend against “a perceived failure of secularism in practice in late modern society.”... When examined closely, he sees the New Atheism as “secular fundamentalism, a modern utopian ideology” that’s “essentially political.”...

To LeDrew, current atheism is much more than a mere critique of religious faith or absence of belief. It “ignores the reservoirs of knowledge offered by the social sciences, which add complexities to our understanding of religion that the New Atheists prefer to ignore, indulging in the kind of willful ignorance that they disparage religion for promoting.”[20]

Vox Day's book The Irrational atheist found multiple errors in reasoning and factual errors when it came to the works of new atheist authors.[21]

Limits to secularization

In the Europe of tomorrow, immigration and religious fertility will increase the proportion of committed Christians in Europe, many from the developing world.[22]

John Coffee writing the failure of the secularization theory wrote:

It has long been believed that secularisation is the inevitable by-product of Modernisation, and that the rise of modern science, pluralism, and consumerism is sure to usher in the decline of religion. This secularisation myth has functioned as a ‘master narrative’, shaping the way we look at the world. It has boosted the self-confidence of generations of non-believers and left believers feeling doomed and outdated. However, in recent years, sociologists of religion have become increasingly sceptical about traditional secularisation theory...

Yet despite the rapid dechristianisation of Europe, the late twentieth century witnessed a dramatic resurgence of religion in many other parts of the world. Ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and various forms of religious nationalism have been recognised as a major factor in global politics. In the United States, evangelical Protestants re-emerged as a significant force in the 1970s, and the Religious Right has played a leading role in national politics.[7] In the former USSR and in China, decades of officially imposed secularism were followed by significant desecularisation in the 1980s and 1990s. Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, traditional Chinese religion, and Evangelical Protestantism flourished as atheistic Marxism declined. And although it rarely registered with the press, the big story in twentieth-century Christianity was Pentecostalism, which from the humblest of beginnings in the first decade of the century grew explosively to become a worldwide movement of perhaps a quarter of a billion people.

Even in Europe, the heartland of secularisation, religion refused to do the decent thing and wilt away without a fuss. Pope John Paul II and the Roman Catholic Church played a critical role in the collapse of the Communist regime in Poland, an event that produced a domino effect across Eastern Europe. Communism had set out to supplant Christianity; but the churches were having the last laugh. Even more problematic for secular liberals were the new immigrant communities – Turks, Indians, Pakistanis, North Africans – who failed to see why they should stop taking their religion seriously in order to be good Europeans.

Political theorists, a pretty secular bunch, found themselves discussing Islamic headscarves, blasphemy laws, and religious education. Western governments, despairing at their inability to tackle chronic social problems of crime and drug abuse, discovered a new enthusiasm for faith-based charities and community programmes.[23]

For more information, please see: Growth of Evangelical Christianity in secular Europe

Atheist philosopher John Gray on what scares the New Atheists

See also: Desecularization and Global atheism

The economist Tomáš Sedláček (left) and the atheist philosopher John Gray (right) at ZURICH.MINDS 2012

John Gray in his Guardian article entitled What scares the new atheists? wrote:

The rise of violent jihadism is only the most obvious example of a rejection of secular life. Jihadist thinking comes in numerous varieties, mixing strands from 20th century ideologies, such as Nazism and Leninism, with elements deriving from the 18th century Wahhabist Islamic fundamentalist movement. What all Islamist movements have in common is a categorical rejection of any secular realm. But the ongoing reversal in secularisation is not a peculiarly Islamic phenomenon.

The resurgence of religion is a worldwide development. Russian Orthodoxy is stronger than it has been for over a century, while China is the scene of a reawakening of its indigenous faiths and of underground movements that could make it the largest Christian country in the world by the end of this century. Despite tentative shifts in opinion that have been hailed as evidence it is becoming less pious, the US remains massively and pervasively religious – it’s inconceivable that a professed unbeliever could become president, for example. It’s inconceivable that a professed unbeliever could become president of the United States

For secular thinkers, the continuing vitality of religion calls into question the belief that history underpins their values. To be sure, there is disagreement as to the nature of these values. But pretty well all secular thinkers now take for granted that modern societies must in the end converge on some version of liberalism. Never well founded, this assumption is today clearly unreasonable.[24]

See also

External links

References

  1. 'Why God Won't Go Away' by Alister McGrath
  2. The Secularisation Thesis, Religious Studies Project
  3. The Secularization Debate
  4. The Return of Religion
  5. 'Why God Won't Go Away' by Alister McGrath
  6. Professor Peter Berger on Resurgence of Religion and Decline of Secularization Theory
  7. Professor Peter Berger on Resurgence of Religion and Decline of Secularization Theory
  8. The Return of Religion
  9. Despite What You've Heard, World Is More Religious Than Ever, Christian Post
  10. Oh, Gods! by Toby Lester, The Atlantic
  11. The Secularization Debate
  12. Oh, Gods! by Toby Lester, The Atlantic
  13. Oh, Gods! by Toby Lester, The Atlantic
  14. Journal of Church and State, Desecularization: A Conceptual Framework by Vyacheslav Karpov, 2010
  15. Peter L. Berger, “The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview,” in The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, ed. Peter L. Berger (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999)
  16. Pentecostalism – Protestant Ethic or Cargo Cult?, Peter Berger, July 29, 2010
  17. The world is getting more religious, because the poor go for God by Nile Frasier, The Guardian
  18. The Future of Secularism: a Biologically Informed Theory Supplemented with Cross-Cultural Evidence by Lee Ellis, Anthony W. Hoskin, Edward Dutton and Helmuth Nyborg,Evolutionary Psychological Science 08 March 2017, pp 1–19
  19. http://www.alternet.org/media/47052?page=entire
  20. This just in from Oxford Press: Turning the intellectual tables on 'New Atheists' by Richard Osling
  21. Excellent refutation of ‘new atheists’ flawed by heterodox open theism, A review of The Irrational Atheist: Dissecting the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens by Vox Day, Benbella Books, Dallas, TX, 2008, reviewed by Lita Cosner
  22. Shall the Righteous Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century by Eric Kaufmann
  23. Secularisation: is it inevitable? by John Coffey
  24. What scares the new atheists by John Gray, The Guardian