Secularism in Retreat

Secularism in Retreat

Mini Teaser: The world today, with some exceptions, is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.

by Author(s): Peter L. Berger

A few years ago the first volume coming out of the Fundamentalism
Project landed on my desk. The Fundamentalism Project was generously
funded by the MacArthur Foundation and chaired by Martin Marty, the
distinguished church historian at the University of Chicago. While a
number of very reputable scholars took part in it, and although the
published results are of generally excellent quality, my
contemplation of this first volume evoked in me what has been called
an Aha! experience.

Now, the book was very big. Sitting there on my desk, massively, it
was of the "book-weapon" type, the kind with which one could do
serious injury. So I asked myself: Why would the MacArthur Foundation
pay out several million dollars to support an international study of
religious fundamentalists? Two answers came to mind. The first was
obvious and not very interesting: The MacArthur Foundation is a very
progressive outfit; it understands fundamentalists to be
anti-progressive; the Project, then, was a matter of knowing one's
enemies. The second was a more interesting answer: So-called
fundamentalism was assumed to be a strange, difficult-to-understand
phenomenon; the purpose of the Project was to delve into this alien
world and make it more understandable.

But here came another question: Who finds this world strange, and to
whom must it be made understandable? The answer to that question was
easy: people to whom the officials of the MacArthur Foundation
normally talk, such as professors at American elite universities. And
with this came the Aha! experience: The concern that must have led to
this Project was based on an upside-down perception of the world. The
notion here was that so-called fundamentalism (which, when all is
said and done, usually refers to any sort of passionate religious
movement) is a rare, hard-to-explain thing. But in fact it is not
rare at all, neither if one looks at history, nor if one looks around
the contemporary world. On the contrary, what is rare is people who
think otherwise. Put simply: The difficult-to-understand phenomenon
is not Iranian mullahs but American university professors. (Would it,
perhaps, be worth a multi-million-dollar project to try to explain
the latter group?)

The point of this little story is that the assumption that we live in
a secularized world is false: The world today, with some exceptions
attended to below, is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in
some places more so than ever. This means that a whole body of
literature written by historians and social scientists over the
course of the 1950s and '60s, loosely labeled as "secularization
theory", was essentially mistaken. In my early work I contributed to
this literature and was in good company so doing--most sociologists
of religion had similar views. There were good reasons for holding
these views at the time, and some of these writings still stand up.
But the core premise does not.

The key idea of secularization theory is simple and can be traced to
the Enlightenment: Modernization necessarily leads to a decline of
religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals. It is
precisely this key idea that has turned out to be wrong. To be sure,
modernization has had some secularizing effects, more in some places
than in others. But it has also provoked powerful movements of
counter-secularization. Also, secularization on the societal level is
not necessarily linked to secularization on the level of individual
consciousness. Thus, certain religious institutions have lost power
and influence in many societies, but both old and new religious
beliefs and practices have nevertheless continued in the lives of
individuals, sometimes taking new institutional forms and sometimes
leading to great explosions of religious fervor. Conversely,
religiously-identified institutions can play social or political
roles even when very few people believe or practice the religion
supposedly represented by these institutions. To say the least, the
relation between religion and modernity is rather complicated.

Rejection and Adaptation

The proposition that modernity necessarily leads to a decline of
religion is, in principle, "value-free." That is, it can be affirmed
both by people who think it is good news and by people who think that
it is very bad news indeed. Most Enlightenment thinkers and most
progressive-minded people ever since have tended toward the idea that
secularization is a good thing, at least insofar as it does away with
religious phenomena that are "backward", "superstitious", or
"reactionary" (a religious residue purged of these negative
characteristics may still be deemed acceptable). But religious
people, including those with very traditional or orthodox beliefs,
have also affirmed the modernity/secularity linkage, and have greatly
bemoaned it. Some have defined modernity as the enemy, to be fought
whenever possible. Others have, on the contrary, seen modernity as an
invincible worldview to which religious beliefs and practices should
adapt themselves. In other words, rejection and adaptation are two
strategies open to religious communities in a world understood to be
secularized. As is always the case when strategies are based on
mistaken perception of the terrain, both strategies have had very
doubtful results.

It is possible, of course, to reject any number of modern ideas and
values theoretically, but to make this rejection stick in the lives
of people is much more difficult. To do that, one can try to take
over society as a whole and make one's counter-modern religion
obligatory for everyone--a difficult enterprise in most countries in
the contemporary world. Franco tried in Spain, and failed; the
mullahs are still at it in Iran and a couple of other places; in most
of the world such exercises in religious conquest are unlikely to
succeed. And this unlikelihood does have to do with modernization,
which brings about very heterogeneous societies and a quantum leap in
intercultural communication, two factors favoring pluralism and not
favoring the establishment (or re-establishment) of religious
monopolies. Another form of rejection strategy is to create religious
subcultures so designed as to exclude the influences of the outside
society. That is a more promising exercise than religious revolution,
but it too is fraught with difficulty. Where it has taken root,
modern culture is a very powerful force, and an immense effort is
required to maintain enclaves with an airtight defense system. Ask
the Amish in eastern Pennsylvania, or a Hasidic rabbi in the
Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

Notwithstanding the apparent power of modern secular culture,
secularization theory has been falsified even more dramatically by
the results of adaptation strategies attempted by religious
institutions. If we really lived in a highly secularized world, then
religious institutions could be expected to survive to the degree
that they manage to adapt to secularity. That, indeed, has been the
empirical assumption of adaptation strategies. What has in fact
occurred is that, by and large, religious communities have survived
and indeed flourished to the degree that they have not tried to adapt
themselves to the alleged requirements of a secularized world. Put
simply, experiments with secularized religion have generally failed;
religious movements with beliefs and practices dripping with
"reactionary supernaturalism" (the kind utterly beyond the pale at
self-respecting faculty parties) have widely succeeded.

The struggle with modernity in the Roman Catholic Church nicely
illustrates the difficulties of various rejection and adaptation
strategies. In the wake of the Enlightenment and its multiple
revolutions, the initial response by the Church was militant and then
defiant rejection. Perhaps the most magnificent moment of that
defiance came in 1870, when the First Vatican Council solemnly
proclaimed the infallibility of the Pope and the immaculate
conception of Mary, literally in the face of the Enlightenment about
to occupy Rome in the shape of the army of Victor Emmanuel I. The
disdain was mutual: The Roman monument to the Bersaglieri, the elite
army units thatoccupied the Eternal City in the name of the Italian
Risorgimento, places the heroic figure in his Bersaglieri uniform so
that he is positioned with his behind pointing exactly toward the
Vatican. The Second Vatican Council, almost a hundred years later,
considerably modified this rejectionist stance, guided as it was by
the notion of aggiornamento--literally, bringing the church
"up-to-date" with the modern world. (I remember a conversation I had
with a Protestant theologian, whom I asked what he thought would
happen at the Council, this before it had actually convened; he
replied that he didn't know, but that he was sure that they would not
read the minutes of the first Council meeting.)

The Second Vatican Council was supposed to open windows, specifically
the windows of the anti-secular Catholic subculture that had been
constructed when it became clear that the overall society could not
be reconquered. (In the United States this Catholic subculture was
quite impressive right up to the very recent past.) The trouble with
opening windows is that you cannot control what comes in through
them, and a lot has come in--indeed, the whole turbulent world of
modern culture--that has been very troubling to the Church. Under the
current pontificate the Church has been steering a nuanced course in
between rejection and adaptation, with mixed results in different

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