February 15, 2010
— Martin E. Marty
“Sightings” in the past week included numerous stories on “secularization” and “religious decline” in the United States. Catholics and leaders in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities debate in print: Do their higher academies help students climb to richer levels of faith commitment, or set them on a “slippery slope” toward more secularization? The answer: Yes. Yes, depending upon the ideologies of some analysts or on what diverse scholars read in diverse collections of data. More on the colleges in a future Sightings. Today, here is a little essay on secularization. This column regularly notices an increase in religious interest and, at the same time, an increase in decline. What gives?
My own early work on the subject produced three scholarly ruts in which I still groove. That work appeared in a book so long out of print that this risky mention can’t look like a self-serving sales pitch. The book was The Modern Schism: Three Paths to the Secular (Harper and Row, 1969! Forty-one–41–XLI years ago!). My reading of 19th and 20th century North Atlantic cultures suggested these paths: 1) “Towards Utter Secularity: A Clash of Doctrines on the European Continent” – the ideological path in France, Germany, et cetera. 2) “Towards Mere Secularity: ‘Everydayishness’ in England; and 3) “Towards Controlled Secularity: Transformed Symbols in America.”
The first of these three was and is in many dimensions obvious. The third is more subtle, but true to the history and the data: North Americans developed a new social contract which left religious institutions surviving, if sometimes weakened and always changed, along with prospering civil religion, especially “religious nationalism.” It needs no help to continue prospering, especially in wartime, which is almost always. In the U.K., the “middle path” saw decline – drastically stepped up these forty-one years – without much ideology or control. “God-killers,” powerful on the continent, did not produce the major changes there any more than “the New Atheism” does in the United States and Canada today. Instead, notice “everydayishness,” a coinage of H. G. Wells that comes to new currency. It results from thousands of practical changes in habits, customs, practices, and ways of living, which distract those who were once attentive to religious versions of these and detract from reviving them.
Take Catholicism. Richard P. McBrien in the February 5th National Catholic Reporter reckons that 10 percent of all Americans today are former Catholics; they’d make up the second-largest religious body in the U.S. today – if they remained a body. The growth in immigrant (especially Latin American) populations masks the decline, as these add millions to the ranks. For now. Manya A. Brachear in the February 11th Chicago Tribune cites efforts by Catholics to win some back to Mass through mass media appeals. Lots of luck! Brachear’s graph lines show Mass attendance in the Archdiocese of Chicago declining from 572,000 weekly in 2001, down to 463,000 in 2009 (out of 2.3 million estimated Catholics in the region). A low percentage slides lower.
The story is the same among most Protestant denominations, many kinds of evangelicals and African-American churches being partial exceptions. What’s happening? Have New Atheists scored? Hardly. The “everydayishness” that goes with neglect of worship and other practices (thanks to Sunday soccer, marathons, et cetera) has more to do with decline in participation – every day, and especially on weekends.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.