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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Is Secularization Inevitable?


As it is generally understood, secularization theory argues that as societies become increasingly modernized (e.g., more education, technology, democracy, etc.), religion will become less and less important. Some go so far as to argue that it will completely disappear. And if one were to look only at Western Europe, one might conclude that secularization theory has merit since religious attendance in most Western European countries is currently quite low. This, however, assumes that religious attendance now is substantially lower than it was then, but that is highly debatable. Indeed, there appears to have been periods when medieval Europeans seldom darkened the door of a church.

Consider, for instance, the 13th century when the Catholic Church's Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 passed a series of reforms that sought to require that the laity confess and take communion once a year. Not once a week. Not once a month. But once a year, and it is unlikely that the Church wouldn't have passed such reforms if Western Europe was characterized by widespread piety.

Similarly, a lack of piety, among both the laity and the clergy, was one of the motivating forces lying behind the Protestant Reformation, but it didn't seem to have much of an effect. Fourteen years after Luther nailed his 95 theses on the Wittenberg Door, not much had changed. In fact, Luther openly lamented the the impiety of the masses:
Dear God, help us!... The common man, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about Christian doctrine; and indeed many pastors are in effect unfit and incompetent to teach. Yet they all are called Christians, are baptized, and enjoy the holy sacraments--even though they cannot recite either the Lord's Prayer, the Creed or the Commandments. They live just like animals (cited in Gerald Strauss, "Success and Failure in the German Reformation." Past and Present, p. 3063).
Late medieval Britain appears to have been equally impious. The British historian Keith Thomas (Religion and the Decline of Magic) noted that it's questionable whether certain sections of the British population had any religion at all, and those that did go to church appeared to go reluctantly. When they did show up (probably because the authorities compelled them), they often misbehaved: they “jostled for pews, nudged their neighbors, hawked and spat, knitted, made coarse remarks, told jokes, fell asleep and even let off guns.” Church records also tell of a man who, in 1598, was charged with misbehaving in church after his “most loathsome farting, striking, and scoffing speeches” resulted in “the great offense of the good and the great rejoicing of the bad” (Thomas, pp. 161, 162).

Church attendance rates in England during the 18th century tell a similar story. One diocesan visitation report reports that in 1738, 30 parishes in Oxfordshire drew a combined total of 911 people at the four major Christian festivals – Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and Christmas – less than 5% of the total population in those 30 parishes. That assumes, of course, that no one attended more than one of the four services (a problematic assumption to say the least). Moreover, according to calculations by Rodney Stark and Larry Iannaccone ("A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the Secularization of Europe"):
  • In 1800, 11.5% of the British population belonged to a church
  • In 1850, 16.7% of the British population belonged to a church
  • In 1900, 18.6% of the British population belonged to a church
  • In 1980, 15.2% of the British population belonged to a church
  • In 2000, 10.0% of the British population belonged to a church
This is not to suggest that medieval Europeans were unbelievers. They almost certainly were. The philosopher Charles Taylor (A Secular Age) argues that they lived in an "enchanted" world in which they believed spirits, demons, and moral forces, and it's likely that the Christian God functioned as something of a unifying factor of those beliefs. What's unclear, however, is how orthodox their beliefs were and what impact their beliefs had on their behavior (e.g, following Christian teachings, attending worship, etc.). In short, the evidence suggests that an "age of faith" it probably was not, at least not how it's generally understood.

But medieval Europe is not the only piece of evidence that calls into question the standard secularization story. For example, both contemporary Russia and China are experiencing religious revivals. As the sociologist Paul Froese has documented in his book, The Plot to Kill God, the Soviet Union's attempt to stamp out belief failed miserably. Religion is alive and well in Russian and former Soviet republics. And in China, Christians now outnumber communists ("Cracks in the Atheist Edifice") and are growing at "alarming" rates (alarming for secularists, that is)--see the graphic below (from The Economist):


Then, of course, there is the United States where a higher percentage of people are affiliated with communities of faith today than there were 200 years ago (see the graph below): In 1776 the church adherence rate was approximately 17%. It has grown steadily since, reaching a peak of 60% in 1980, a level at which it has remained.


But you may be wondering, "What about the 20% of Americans who say they have no religion?" While some have seized on this fact as empirical vindication of secularization theory, it’s a mistake to equate “no religion” with irreligiosity. In fact, of those who say they have no religion, 
  • 18% consider themselves religious 
  • 30% have had a religious or mystical experience 
  • 33% believe that religion is somewhat or very important 
  • 37% consider themselves spiritual but not religious 
  • 41% pray weekly or more, and 
  • 68% believe in God 
I’m unsure how to categorize such folks, but “irreligious” and “secular” aren’t terms that jump to mind. 

A better take on the future of religion is that there is (and probably always will be) upper and lower bounds of religious belief and practice. Cognitive scientists of religion, such as Justin Barrett ("Why Would Anyone Believe in God?"), Jesse Bering ("The Belief Instinct"), Pascal Boyer ("Religion Explained'), Robert McCauley ("Why Religion is Natural and Science Is Not"), and Scott Atran ("In Gods We Trust"), have noted that believing in God, gods, or some higher power is something that comes natural (easy) to human beings, similar to learning a language (FYI: Bering and Atran are non-believers).

This suggests that there will always be a proportion of the population inclined toward things religious. Whether this manifests itself in attendance at temple, synagogue, or church will depend on other factors (e.g., how compelling worship services are at local congregations, the level of religious freedom, the demands and/or pull of other activities, such as club sports that play on Sundays, and so on), but the "demand" for religion will remain relatively constant. Put differently, the future of religious practice will be one of variation, fluctuation. There will be periods of time when it will be quite high and times when it will be quite low. But it won't be going away any time soon.

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