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

While these facts are not in dispute, a number of recent works in the
sociology of religion (notably in France, Britain, and Scandinavia)
have questioned the term "secularization" as applied to these
developments. There is now a body of data indicating strong survivals
of religion, most of it generally Christian in nature, despite the
widespread alienation from the organized churches. If the data hold
up to scrutiny, a shift in the institutional location of religion,
rather than secularization, would then be a more accurate description
of the European situation. All the same, Europe stands out as quite
different from other parts of the world. It certainly differs sharply
from the religious situation in the United States. One of the most
interesting puzzles in the sociology of religion is why Americans are
so much more religious as well as more churchly than Europeans.

The other exception to the desecularization thesis is less ambiguous:
There exists an international subculture composed of people with
Western-type higher education, especially in the humanities and
social sciences, which is indeed secularized by any measure. This
subculture is the principal "carrier" of progressive, Enlightenment
beliefs and values. While the people in this subculture are
relatively thin on the ground, they are very influential, as they
control the institutions that provide the "official" definitions of
reality (notably the educational system, the media of mass
communication, and the higher reaches of the legal system). They are
remarkably similar all over the world today as they have been for a
long time (though, as we have seen, there are also defectors from
this subculture, especially in the Muslim countries). Why it is that
people with this type of education should be so prone to
secularization is not entirely clear, but there is, without question,
a globalized elite culture. It follows, then, that in country after
country religious upsurges have a strongly populist character: Over
and beyond the purely religious motives, these are movements of
protest and resistance against a secular elite. The so-called
"culture war" in the United States emphatically shares this feature.

Questions and Answers

This somewhat breathless tour d'horizon of the global religious scene
raises several questions: What are the origins of the worldwide
resurgence of religion? What is the likely future course of this
religious resurgence? Do resurgent religions differ in their critique
of the secular order? How is religious resurgence related to a number
of issues not ordinarily linked to religion? Let us take these
questions in turn.

As to the origins of the worldwide resurgence of religion, two
possible answers have already been mentioned. The first is that
modernity tends to undermine the taken-for-granted certainties by
which people lived throughout most of history. This is an
uncomfortable state of affairs, for many an intolerable one, and
religious movements that claim to give certainty have great appeal by
easing that discomfort. The second is that a purely secular view of
reality has its principal social location in an elite culture that,
not surprisingly, is resented by large numbers of people who are not
part of it but who nevertheless feel its influence (most troublingly,
as their children are subjected to an education that ignores or even
directly attacks their own beliefs and values). Religious movements
with a strongly anti-secular bent can therefore appeal to people with
resentments that sometimes have quite non-religious sources.

But there is yet another answer, which recalls my opening story about
certain American foundation officials worrying about
"fundamentalism." In one sense, there is nothing to explain here.
Strongly felt religion has always been around: what needs explanation
is its absence rather than its presence. Modern secularity is a much
more puzzling phenomenon than all these religious explosions--and the
University of Chicago is a more interesting topic for the sociology
of religion than are the Islamic schools of Qom. In other words, at
one level the phenomena under consideration simply serve to
demonstrate continuity in the place of religion in human experience.

As to the likely future course of this religious resurgence, it would
make little sense to venture a prognosis with regard to the entire
global scene, given the considerable variety of important religious
movements in the contemporary world. Predictions, if one dares to
make them at all, will be more useful if applied to much narrower
situations. One, though, can be made with some assurance: There is no
reason to think that the world of the twenty-first century will be
any less religious than the world is today.

There is, it must be said, a minority of sociologists of religion who
have been trying to salvage the old secularization theory by what may
be called the last-gasp thesis: Modernization does secularize, and
movements like the Islamic and the Evangelical ones represent
last-ditch defenses by religion that cannot last. Eventually,
secularity will triumph--or, to put it less respectfully, eventually
Iranian mullahs, Pentecostal preachers, and Tibetan lamas will all
think and act like professors of literature at American universities.
This thesis is singularly unpersuasive.

Nonetheless, one will have to speculate very differently regarding
different sectors of the religious scene. For example, the most
militant Islamic movements will have difficulty maintaining their
present stance vis-Ã -vis modernity should they succeed in taking over
the governments of their countries (as, it seems, is already
happening in Iran). It is also unlikely that Pentecostalism, as it
exists today among mostly poor and uneducated people, will retain its
present religious and moral characteristics unchanged as many of
these people experience upward social mobility (this has already been
observed extensively in the United States). Generally, many of these
religious movements are linked to non-religious forces of one sort or
another, and the future course of the former will be at least
partially determined by the course of the latter. Thus in the United
States, for instance, the future course of militant Evangelicalism
will be different if some of its causes succeed--or continue to be
frustrated--in the political and legal arenas.

Finally, in religion as in every other area of human endeavor,
individual personalities play a much larger role than most social
scientists and historians are willing to concede. Thus there might
have been an Islamic revolution in Iran without the Ayatollah
Khomeini, but it would probably have looked quite different. No one
can predict the appearance of charismatic figures who will launch
powerful religious movements in places where no one expects them. Who
knows--perhaps the next religious upsurge in America will occur among
disenchanted postmodernist academics!

Do the resurgent religions differ in their critique of the secular
order? Yes, of course they do, depending on their respective belief
systems. Cardinal Ratzinger and the Dalai Lama will be troubled by
different aspects of contemporary secular culture. What both,
however, will agree upon is the shallowness of a culture that tries
to get by without any transcendent points of reference. And there,
certainly, they will have good reasons for criticism.

The religious impulse, the quest for meaning that transcends the
restricted space of empirical existence in this world, has been a
perennial feature of humanity. (This assertion is not a theological
statement but an anthropological one--an agnostic or even an atheist
philosopher may well agree with it.) It would require something close
to a mutation of the species to finally extinguish this impulse. The
more radical thinkers of the Enlightenment, and their more recent
intellectual descendants, hoped for something like such a mutation,
of course. Thus far this has not happened and it is unlikely to
happen anytime in the foreseeable future. The critique of secularity
common to all the resurgent movements is that human existence bereft
of transcendence is an impoverished and finally untenable condition.

To the extent that secularity today has a specifically modern form
(there were earlier forms, for example, in versions of Confucianism
and Hellenistic culture), the critique of secularity also entails a
critique of at least these aspects of modernity. Beyond that,
however, different religious movements differ in their relation to

As noted, an argument can be made that the Islamic resurgence has a
strong tendency toward a negative view of modernity; in places it is
downright anti-modern or counter-modernizing (as in its view on the
role of women). By contrast, the Evangelical resurgence is positively
modernizing in most places where it occurs, clearly so in Latin
America. The new Evangelicals throw aside many of the traditions that
have been obstacles to modernization (machismo, for one, also the
subservience to hierarchy that has been endemic to Iberian
Catholicism), and their churches encourage values and behavior
patterns that contribute to modernization. Just to take one important
case in point: In order to participate fully in the life of their
congregations, Evangelicals will want to read the Bible and to be
able to join in the discussion of congregational affairs that are
largely in the hands of lay persons (indeed, largely in the hands of
women). The desire to read the Bible encourages literacy, and, beyond
this, a positive attitude toward education and self-improvement. The
running of local churches by lay persons necessitates training in
various administrative skills, including the conduct of public
meetings and the keeping of financial accounts. It is not fanciful to
suggest that in this way Evangelical congregations serve
(inadvertently, to be sure) as schools for democracy and for social

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