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

If one looks at the international religious scene objectively, that
of the Roman Catholics as well as virtually all others, one must
observe that it is conservative or orthodox or traditionalist
movements that are on the rise almost everywhere. These movements,
whatever adjective one may choose for them, are precisely those that
rejected an aggiornamento as defined by progressive intellectuals.
Conversely, religious movements and institutions that have made great
efforts to conform to a perceived modernity are almost everywhere on
the decline. In the United States this has been a much commented-upon
fact, exemplified by the decline of so-called mainline Protestantism
and the concomitant rise of Evangelicalism; but the United States is
by no means unusual in this. Nor is Protestantism.

The conservative thrust in the Roman Catholic church under John Paul
II has borne fruit in both the number of converts and in the renewed
enthusiasm among native Catholics, especially in non-Western
countries. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, too, there
occurred a remarkable revival of the Orthodox Church in Russia. The
most rapidly growing Jewish groups, both in Israel and in the
diaspora, are Orthodox groups. There have been similarly vigorous
upsurges of conservative religion in all the other major religious
communities--Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism--as well as revival movements
in smaller communities (such as Shinto in Japan and Sikhism in India).

Of course, these developments differ greatly, not only in religious
content (which is obvious), but in their social and political
implications. What they have in common, though, is their
unambiguously religious inspiration. In their aggregate they provide
a massive falsification of the idea that modernization and
secularization are cognate phenomena. Minimally, one must note that
counter-secularization is at least as important a phenomenon in the
contemporary world as secularization.

Two Revivals . . .

Both in the media and in scholarly publications these religious
movements are often subsumed under the category of "fundamentalism."
This is not a felicitous term, not only because it carries a
pejorative undertone, but because it derives from the history of
American Protestantism, where it has a specific reference that is
distortive if extended to other religious traditions. All the same,
the term has some suggestive use if one tries to explain the
aforementioned developments: It suggests a combination of several
features--great religious passion, a defiance of what others have
defined as the Zeitgeist, and a return to traditional sources of
religious authority. These are indeed common features across cultural
boundaries. And they do reflect the presence of secularizing forces,
since they must be understood as a reaction against them. (In that
sense, at least, something of the old secularization theory may be
said to hold up, albeit in a rather back-handed way.) Clearly, one of
the most important topics for a sociology of contemporary religion is
precisely this interplay of secularizing and counter-secularizing
forces. This is because modernity, for fully understandable reasons,
undermines all the old certainties; uncertainty, in turn is a
condition that many people find very hard to bear; therefore, any
movement (not only a religious one) that promises to provide or to
renew certainty has a ready market.

While the aforementioned common features are important, an analysis
of the social and political impact of the various religious upsurges
must take full account of their differences. This becomes clear when
one looks at what are arguably the two most dynamic religious
upsurges in the world today, the Islamic and the Evangelical ones.
Comparison also underlines the weakness of the category
"fundamentalism" as applied to both.

The Islamic upsurge, because of its more immediately obvious
political ramifications, is the better known of the two. Yet it would
be a serious error to see it only through a political lens. It is an
impressive revival of emphatically religious commitments. And it is
of vast geographical scope, affecting every Muslim country from North
Africa to Southeast Asia. It continues to gain converts, especially
in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is often in head-on competition with
Christianity. It is becoming very visible in the burgeoning Muslim
communities in Europe and, to a much lesser extent, in North America.
Everywhere it is bringing about a restoration not only of Islamic
beliefs, but of distinctively Islamic lifestyles, which in many ways
directly contradict modern ideas--such as the relation of religion
and the state, the role of women, moral codes of everyday behavior
and, last but not least, the boundaries of religious and moral

An important characteristic of the Islamic revival is that it is by
no means restricted to the less modernized or "backward" sectors of
society, as progressive intellectuals still like to think. On the
contrary, it is very strong in cities with a high degree of
modernization, and in a number of countries it is particularly
visible among people with Western-style higher education; in Egypt
and Turkey, for example, it is often the daughters of secularized
professionals who are putting on the veil and other accoutrements
expressing so-called Islamic modesty.

Yet there are also very great differences. Even within the Middle
East, the Islamic heartland, there are both religiously and
politically important distinctions to be made between Sunni and Shi'a
revivals--Islamic conservatism means very different things in, say,
Saudi Arabia and Iran. As one moves away from the Middle East, the
differences become even greater. Thus in Indonesia, the most populous
Muslim country in the world, a very powerful revival movement, the
Nahdatul-Ulama, is avowedly pro-democracy and pro-pluralism, the very
opposite of what is commonly viewed as Muslim "fundamentalism." Where
the political circumstances allow it, there is a lively discussion
about the relationship of Islam to various modern realities, and
there are sharp disagreements between individuals who are equally
committed to a revitalized Islam. Still, for reasons deeply grounded
in the core of the tradition, it is probably fair to say that, on the
whole, Islam has had a difficult time coming to terms with key modern
institutions--such as pluralism, democracy, and the market economy.

The Evangelical upsurge is just as breathtaking in scope.
Geographically that scope is even wider than that of the Islamic
revival. It has gained huge numbers of converts in East Asia--in all
the Chinese communities (including, despite severe persecution, in
mainland China) and in South Korea, the Philippines, across the South
Pacific, throughout sub-Saharan Africa (where it is often synthesized
with elements of traditional African religion), and apparently in
parts of ex-communist Europe. But the most remarkable success has
occurred in Latin America; it is estimated that there are now between
forty and fifty million Evangelical Protestants south of the U.S.
border, the great majority of them first-generation Protestants.

The most numerous component within the Evangelical upsurge is
Pentecostal, combining Biblical orthodoxy and a rigorous morality
with an ecstatic form of worship and an emphasis on spiritual
healing. Especially in Latin America, conversion to Protestantism
brings about a cultural transformation--new attitudes toward work and
consumption, a new educational ethos, a violent rejection of
traditional machismo (women play a key role in the Evangelical
churches). The origins of this worldwide Evangelical upsurge are in
the United States, from where the missionaries were first dispatched.
But it is very important to understand that virtually everywhere, and
emphatically in Latin America, the new Evangelicalism is thoroughly
indigenous and is no longer dependent on support from U.S.
fellow-believers. Indeed, Latin American Evangelicals have been
sending missionaries to the Hispanic community in this country, where
there has been a comparable flurry of conversions.

Needless to say, the religious contents of the Islamic and
Evangelical revivals are totally different. So are the social and
political consequences (of which more below). But the two
developments also differ in that the Islamic movement is occurring
primarily in countries that are already Muslim or among Muslim
emigrants (as in Europe); by contrast, the Evangelical movement is
growing dramatically throughout the world in countries where this
type of religion was previously unknown or very marginal.

. . . And Two Exceptions

The world today, then, is massively religious, and it is anything but
the secularized world that had been predicted (be it joyfully or
despondently) by so many analysts of modernity. There are two
exceptions to this proposition, one somewhat unclear, the other very

The first apparent exception is in Western Europe, where, if nowhere
else, the old secularization theory seems to hold. With increasing
modernization there has been an increase in the key indicators of
secularization: on the level of expressed beliefs (especially such as
could be called orthodox in Protestant or Catholic terms), and
dramatically on the level of church-related behavior (attendance at
services of worship, adherence to church-dictated codes of personal
behavior--especially with regard to sexuality, reproduction, and
marriage), and finally, with respect to recruitment to the clergy.
These phenomena had been observed for a long time in the northern
countries of the continent; since the Second World War they have
quickly engulfed the south. Thus Italy and Spain have experienced a
rapid decline in church-related religion--as has Greece (thus
undercutting the claim of Catholic conservatives that Vatican II is
to be blamed for the decline). There is now a massively secular
Euro-culture and what has happened in the south can be simply
described (though not thereby explained) as the invasion of these
countries by that culture. It is not fanciful to predict that there
will be similar developments in Eastern Europe, precisely to the
degree that these countries too will be integrated into the new

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