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

By contrast, until very recently, the American educational system was under the exclusive control of local governments. If un-Enlightened parents did not like what teachers were telling their children, they could quite easily fire the teachers. This has changed somewhat, due to the increasing role of state government and the power of the teachers unions, but local government still controls most primary and secondary education in America. In any case, the effects of educational systems on secularization long antecede these recent developments in America. The 19th and early 20th centuries were probably the crucial period for these effects to occur on both continents. The centralized systems in Europe helped to exclude religion from the public square; the decentralized (ipso facto more democratic) American system allowed the wishes of religious parents to be honored. The dominant position of state churches in Europe has naturally provoked strong secularizing tendencies in politics. This first manifested itself in the growth of political parties and labor unions animated by various ideologies of the Left, most with a strong secular bent struggling against the alliance of throne and altar. There have been no analogues to this in American history.

Austria is a particularly clear case of this European phenomenon: The social-democratic Left built an entire subculture within which party members could live from kindergarten to old people's home. This subculture was self-consciously anti-clerical and indeed anti-Catholic. The conflict between a secular Left and a religious Right was strongest in Catholic countries in Europe, though there were less sharp Protestant analogues. Only after World War II did parallel processes of "secularization" on both Right and Left occur--the decline of the churches mirrored in the decline of an ideologically defined Left. But by then, as it were, the damage had been done.

It is interesting to note that the politicization of conservative religion in America was initially triggered by the 1963 Supreme Court decision banning prayer in the public schools. For large numbers of Americans it now seemed that the public schools would become agencies of secularization, and beyond that their very faith had become stigmatized by the most august institution in the society. Further perceived outrages against religious sensibilities, notably Roe v. Wade ten years later, built on this initial revulsion. Whether one shares these sensibilities or not, one can agree that what has been happening here is an offensive by a cultural elite to impose its views on the society. There is strong empirical evidence of the dominance of this secular elite in American academia. I don't know of data that would show whether the views on religion of this elite have filtered down to primary and secondary school teachers.

Modernity's Vanguard

America and Europe are, to paraphrase Talcott Parsons, the "vanguard societies" of Western modernity. But the differences between them make clear that there is no single paradigm of modernity--a matter of very great interest to non-Western societies on the path of modernization. The Israeli sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt has written extensively about what he calls "alternate modernities." Thus, for example, it is of very great interest in the Muslim world or in India if one can show that modernity can come in both secular and religious versions. The current debate over the place of Islam in the Iraqi constitution provides a particularly clear example of alternate possibilities in the establishment of a modern democracy. One side conceives of the state as rigorously neutral in matters of religion, relegating the latter to private life (on the French model); the other recognizes the primacy of a particular religious tradition while eschewing coercion by the state and respecting the rights of minority communities (which appears to be the model in the minds of leading Shi'a, resembling the views of conservative Christians in America). And Iraq is by no means the only case of such a debate in the Muslim world.

The much-vaunted U.S. public diplomacy would have some good talking-points in explaining the American experience of combining the separation of church and state with the vibrant presence of religion in public life--an alternate religious modernity of remarkable relevance in many non-Western societies today. In the Muslim world, as elsewhere in the non-Western world, there are many groups that would like to establish this or that religious tradition as the official religion of the state, often accompanied by coercion of non-believers and followers of minority religions. But the European experience argues against establishment as a way to enhance the public role of religion. Wherever religion is closely identified with the state, resentment of the latter almost inevitably comes to include the former. By contrast, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 19th century, the separation of church and state enshrined at the Founding of the American Republic allowed religion to flourish.

What of the future? Theoretically, it is possible to imagine dramatic changes in the place of religion on either continent or on both. History is full of unexpected religious upheavals. A time-travelling modern social scientist visiting the early 16th century, with all the research apparatus of his craft, would hardly have predicted the religious earthquake of the Reformation a few years down the line. All one can say is that, at present, there are no empirical indications that Europe is becoming more religious or America less so. There is at least an intimation of a change in Europe, due to the massive presence of large numbers of Muslims who are unwilling to play by the rules of laïcité. Conceivably this might lead to a reassessment in the majority population of the Christian roots of the much-vaunted "European values." But here, too, very different scenarios are possible.

Social trends do not occur in some inexorable way, independent of the ideas and actions of people. Modernity itself is not a force of nature, but is brought about by human beings thinking and acting in specific ways. It is not foreordained that modern societies must become secular. Whether they do or not depends on human agency--conscious choices by individual actors, sometimes by unintended consequences of these choices, by struggles for power and influence by mobilized individuals. Whether in America, Europe or the Middle East, there are choices to be made about the place of religion in society and in the state. For this reason it is important that alternate possibilities of choice be clearly understood.

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