Monday, March 3, 2008

The Secularization Thesis

Last week’s news included the release of a new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, heralded as a “landmark” study of “denominational demographics” in the United States (see The Lead). Of course, what everyone wanted to know first was who was up and down in the numbers and how those numbers should or could be interpreted. The initial focus seemed to be on shifting affiliations, rather than simply net losses, but lurking in the background were the usual questions about the extent to which religion in general and Christianity in particular is in decline in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West, and, if so, what if anything should done about it.

What such discussions usually fall back on are versions of what some have called “the secularization thesis.” The theory is that Europe-America has become so thoroughly secularized that public, and ultimately private, space for religious beliefs, practices, and ethical norms is shrinking rapidly. Depending on one’s point of view, this threatens not only the fate of organized religions, especially Christianity (from which secularization has been historically derived), but the fate of civilization or humanity as a whole. For some non-Westerners, it is seen as an opportunity for advancing other religions, cultures, and political systems that resist secularization and the vices it supposedly engenders.

In this climate, the notion that a secular society – i.e. one that is politically structured in such a way so as to prevent religious officials from governing but to allow religious freedom of belief for all citizens – is good and desirable is not a popular one, at least not among elites who are deeply committed to religious beliefs and the institutions that further them. The public at large may sometimes think differently, as evidenced by the Pew data of increasing “fluidity” in religious affiliations and by the recent backlash against the Archbishop of Canterbury’s suggestion that sharia law might have a place within British society and political culture. Nevertheless, even the popular view in the West is that we are now living in a “secular age” governed by “secular values,” which may variously mean declining morals, increased individualism, and decreased commitment to community and society at large.

My personal bias is in favor of political structures that keep religious officials from ruling, those who by the very nature of religious belief are prone to uncompromising points of view and to succumbing to the temptation of using the imprimatur of divine authority to obtain and hold power. At the same time, however, as a Christian believer I am both troubled by the possibility that my tradition is headed for extinction and frustrated by the actions of religious leaders who, with their obsession with growth, numbers, and decline, seem to be hastening the demise of the institutions and beliefs they seek to preserve.

These concerns have led me to some wide-ranging thoughts and readings, including review of some of what I learned in law school about legal history, political structures, and moral values, and a sampling of recent lectures and articles written by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It will be some time before I can pull together all my ideas on these subjects. However, I think a good starting point may be what I intuit is the source of many problems – the secularization thesis itself.

Much good discussion of secularity has been prompted by the recent publication of two books: Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (both the subject of a September 16, 2007 book review by Jack Miles in the L.A. Times). Extraordinary commentary on these on other works can be found at Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and the Public Sphere, a blog published by the SSCR (Social Science Research Council). I hope to discuss several essays from that site and ultimately (if my muses serve me well) synthesize some of the thoughts expressed there. But for now, let me just point out one that blows the entire question open of whether or how there is anything like secularity and religion in the first place -- Tomoko Masuzawa’s The burden of the great divide.

To be continued……..


Mary Clara said...

Klady, just so you know someone is paying attention -- I am following what you are doing here with interest. Thanks a lot for the link to 'Immanent Frame'. Will try to comment further in the next few days.

klady said...

Thanks so much, Mary Clara. I do read the Site Meter once in awhile and wonder who on earth is floating by, whether they are intrigued or horrified by my audacity (and more than occasional boring bits).

You inspire me to carry on with this topic, though it may take awhile (the day job takes up not only most of my time but much of my mental energies).

I'm feeling somewhat inadequate after looking at some of the writing at Immanent Frame and more recently, Simon Barrow, in his excellent essay, Redeeming Religion in the Public Sphere at Ekklesia, which I want to address as well. Nevertheless, I will slosh forward the best I can because, well, this is the kind of thinking and reading I love to do. Whether I can get to anywhere that adds anything to public discussion may be doubtful at this point in my life, but I cannot know where I will end up unless I try. So it goes....