JANUARY 2, 2003
The Future of Secularization Theory
-- Richard V. Pierard
The assumptions of academics and social commentators about the certain decline of Christianity in the West were challenged at a international conference on the future of Christianity in the West at the University of Otago in New Zealand this past December.
In his keynote address, sociologist David Martin from the University of London pointed out that many understandings of secularization rested on a master narrative that both described and prescribed what was happening in the world. Not only did such writers see religion growing here and declining there at specific places and times, but they also went beyond the descriptive to invoke the spectre of "inevitable" decline. Those who "leaped beyond what could be inferred from observation" ended up being deceived by their own theories. A more historically informed view revealed religious growth and decline occurring in overlapping cycles with that of secularization.
Robert Wuthnow from Princeton University brought out that while overt religious practice in Britain has sharply declined, the dynamic of religion in the United States continues to confound secularization theorists. Religious practice here has remained stable for as long as polling data has been available. Wuthnow explained that secularization does not mean that people abandon faith, but that they adopt differing ways of expressing it.
Various speakers showed that Pentecostal and charismatic churches in the two-thirds world were more successful in providing a cultural cover (institution building and social services) than in the first world where more competition existed. Yet religious movements in both places absorbed the culture; evangelicalism reinvented itself as a consumer religion while other people continued to believe in God and practice a wide variety of spiritualities.
The University of Wisconsin's Ronald Numbers showed that scientists have a high level of religiosity -- the latest surveys reveal that 40 percent believe God answers prayers -- while British sociologist Bernice Martin demonstrated that in Christian Britain, where faith is allegedly "dead," the churches radicalized by liberal theology had actually squeezed out the nominal or "folk" Christians who were their main sources of growth. They won the church but lost the culture, even while the culture maintained the Christian values of the dignity of the individual, enlarging human happiness, and affirming the value of ordinary life.
New Zealand legal scholar Niri Pillay reasoned that human rights reflected a westernized appropriation of Christian values, but that Hobbesian political theory broke the tie between rights and duties, resulting in everyone having the right to everything.
An interesting finding was that although church attendance had fallen off, many took up theological education to promote personal growth, and in New Zealand enrollments in the 1990s grew at a higher rate than in other higher education sectors.
Symptomatic of the crisis of secularism was New Zealand's action of subsidizing Catholic schools and incorporating Maori religious rites in public ceremonies. The spread of Pentecostalism and prevalence of civil religion, particularly in the United States but in other countries as well, reflected an ongoing interest in belief.
In short, the conferees found that religion is alive and well, even if it is in non-traditional forms. The triumph of secularism is far from complete.
Richard V. Pierard is Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana State University and currently a Scholar in Residence at Gordon College.