Religion and the West

Religion and the West

Mini Teaser: American religiosity and European secularity spring from the same source.

by Author(s): Peter L. Berger

The loss of the taken-for-granted status of religion in the consciousness of individuals means that they are forced to make choices--that is, to exercise their "preference." The choices can be secular. They can also be religious. As we have seen, Europeans make more secular choices, Americans more religious ones. But even an individual who declares adherence to a very conservative version of this or that religious tradition has chosen to do so and will be at least subliminally aware of the possibility of reversing that decision at some future time.

Furthermore, both in Europe and in America, there are large numbers of people who pick and choose from the religious traditions available on the market. Sociologists on both continents have noted and studied this phenomenon. Danièle Hervieu-Léger, who has worked mostly on French data, uses the term "bricollage"--loosely translatable as "tinkering", as when a child assembles and reassembles the pieces of a Lego set. Robert Wuthnow, who has analyzed a mass of American data, calls the same phenomenon "patchwork religion." There is a difference though. Europeans usually do their tinkering in an unorganized manner (that is, they don't join or create religious institutions that reflect their particular form of bricollage), whereas Americans, with their deep cultural propensity to form associations, are more likely to tinker within an organization and perhaps form another denomination. One reason for this may be that it is very easy to form a religious group in America, with tax-exempt status following from the simple act of incorporation. In many European countries, by contrast, there are more complicated legal procedures before a religious group is officially registered and entitled to certain privileges in terms of taxation, owning property and the like.

On both continents, there has occurred a proliferation of "spirituality" in recent years. People will say: "I am not religious. But I am spiritual." The meaning of such statements is not fixed. Quite often they indicate some sort of New Age faith or practice--believing in a continuity of personal and cosmic reality, reaching that reality by means of meditational exercises, finding one's true self by discovering the "child within." But quite often the meaning is simpler: "I am religious, but I cannot identify with any existing church or religious tradition." Needless to say, if such an act of non-identification has material advantages--no financial obligations to churches, no demands for volunteer services--this makes it all the more attractive.

British sociologist Grace Davie has described this attitude as "believing without belonging"--without, that is, belonging to any existing religious institution. It describes people on both continents. It is reasonable to suppose that the attitude of "believing without belonging" is more common in "blue" than in "red" states in America, though I am not aware of any studies to prove this. There are far fewer traffic jams in Massachusetts than in Texas on Sunday morning. Yet, the greater Boston area has an astonishing number of centers devoted to teaching meditation or providing "alternative" treatments for every conceivable disease.

But there is also a phenomenon, more common in Europe than America, that may be called "belonging without believing." Another sociologist, Jose Casanova, has described the continuing public role of religion even in countries with a high degree of secularization. In Germany, for example, there are no longer state churches, and there is complete religious freedom. But all religious institutions registered as "corporations of public law" (which includes all but the most minor ones) have certain legal privileges. Among these is the service by the state of collecting the (somewhat misnamed) "church tax." This amounts to eight percent of the individual's income tax--a considerable amount, depending on income. An individual who does not want to pay this tax can simply declare himself to be religiously unaffiliated (konfessionslos) and thus instantly save quite a bit of money. What is surprising is how many--indeed the majority at least in the western part of the country--have not done it. When asked why, they give different answers--because they might need the church at some point in their lives, because they want the church to give moral guidance for their children, because they see the church as important for the moral fabric of society. Davie has coined another apt term for this phenomenon--"vicarious religion." This means that one does not want to be personally involved with the church but wants it to be there for others or for the society as a whole. This attitude is rarer in America. But on both continents, as tax-funded social services are having increasing financial difficulties, people look to the churches to help provide such services.

A Religious Modernity?

Perceptions matter. Indeed, perceptions can be hardened into social realities. Modernization does not have to be inimical to religion. But if it is so perceived, conflict will necessarily result. Intellectuals are the primary definers of how reality is to be perceived. Thus, in comparing the different trajectories of modernity and religion on the two sides of the Atlantic, it is important to take into account the different roles of intellectuals.

Much of the way modern intellectuals think stems from questions first raised in the Enlightenment. Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb in her recent book, aptly entitled The Roads to Modernity (2004), actually distinguishes between three versions of the Enlightenment--the British (in England as well as Scotland), the French and the American. The sharpest contrast is between the latter two. (While the British Enlightenment was rather similar to the American one in its treatment of religion, the close relation between church and state in Britain led to a trajectory of secularization much closer to the development of continental Europe.) The French Enlightenment was sharply anti-clerical, in parts openly anti-Christian. Catholicism was an integral component of the ancien régime, and opposition to the latter naturally entailed opposition to the former. This was epitomized in Voltaire's famous cry, "Destroy the infamy"--the infamy being the Catholic Church. The French Revolution made a valiant effort to do so. It did not succeed, but what followed it was more than a century of struggle between two visions of France--one conservative and Catholic, the other progressive and anti-clerical. The latter won a decisive victory with the Law of 1905. Separation here meant something quite different from the prohibition of "establishment of religion" in the American Constitution. For the French, it meant the republic as "laïque", thoroughly cleansed of all religious symbolism. This ideal of "laïcité" influenced democratic thought and practice throughout continental Europe as well as Latin America. The republic now claimed the ideological monopoly previously held by the church.

The American Enlightenment was very different indeed. In Himmelfarb's words, it expressed "the politics of liberty", as against the French "ideology of reason." The authors and politicians of the American Enlightenment were not anti-clerical--in any case, there was no clergy to be against--and they were not anti-Christian. At most, they were only vaguely deist. With no ancien régime to overthrow and no state church to rail against, there was no perception in 18th-century America of religion and reason being antagonistic to each other. Thus, the American Enlightenment could not serve as a legitimation of secularity in either state or society. (It has only been since the middle of the 20th century that the federal judiciary has made decisions with a pronounced affinity with the French "ideology of reason.")

As an outgrowth of the French approach, European intellectuals have created a strongly secular "high culture." This has served as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, as more and more people outside the intelligentsia take their cultural cues from the it. Thus, to be modern in Europe, to be with the times and against backwardness, has come to mean being secular. This was not the case in America--at least not until recently. The "Europeanization" of the American intelligentsia should probably be dated from the 1950s and reached its full force in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today there is indeed an intelligentsia in America for whose members religion comes, if at all, in plain wrappers. It is now dominant in elite culture, in academia and in the mainstream media. In recent decades this intelligentsia has not only had to confront an increasingly vocal popular opposition, but also a self-consciously religious group of intellectuals at odds with elite secularity. (I must leave it to historians to trace the stages through which the American intelligentsia has become "Europeanized." Minimally, this development shows that America, despite its historical experience and its free market for religion, is not immune to secularization.)

Civil Society & Religion

As one seeks to understand the religious difference between the two continents, one must pay attention to the difference between the ways in which education is organized. In much of Europe, the educational system was, and still is, under centralized state control. France is the clearest case of this--with its curriculum controlled by the Ministry of Education in Paris and its teachers (significantly called the "corps of teachers") trained in state institutions before fanning out throughout the country. When primary and then secondary education became compulsory, these teachers had unprecedented power to inculcate children in Enlightened secularity. Unless there was a religious school nearby, parents were helpless in the face of this indoctrination.

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