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Secularization Doesn't Just Happen

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

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"As society became more modern, it became more secular." That sentence has about it a certain "of courseness." It or its equivalent is to be found in numerous textbooks from grade school through graduate school. The connection between modernization and secularization is taken for granted. Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, challenges what everybody knows in an important new collection of essays by several sociologists and historians, The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life (University of California Press, 484 pp., $60). The challenge is not novel with Smith. Social scientists who had long propounded "secularization theory," Peter L. Berger very notably among them, have in recent years undergone a major change of mind. The contribution of Smith's big book is in his detailed analysis of the dubious (sometimes contrary to fact) assumptions underlying the theory, and in the case studies he and his colleagues present showing how various interest groups have employed the theory in the service of their own quest for power, usually at the expense of religion and religious institutions.

There are, writes Smith, seven crucial and related defects in conventional secularization theory. Over-abstraction: the literature of the theorists routinely spoke of "differentiation," "autonomization," "privatization," and other abstract, if not abstruse, dynamics disengaged from concrete factors of social change such as interests, ideologies, institutions, and power conflicts. Lack of human agency: the theory was big on process without protagonists. It depicted secularization without secularizers. According to the theory, secularization just happens. Overdeterministic inevitability: "Religion's marginalization from public life is portrayed as a natural or inevitable process like cell mitosis or adolescent puberty." Secularization theory reflects a view of linear social evolution in the tradition of Comte and Spencer. "If there is one truth that history teaches us beyond doubt," wrote the great Durkheim, "it is that religion tends to embrace a smaller and smaller portion of social life." Any questions, class?

Idealistintellectual history: here the history of ideas is determinative. Owen Chadwick's The Secularization of the European Mind (note the focus on the mind) puts the primary explanatory emphasis on the philosophy of liberalism, evolutionary theory, Marxist ideology, and so forth. Smith writes, "Culture, philosophy, and intellectual systems certainly matter. But they cannot be abstracted from the real historical, social, political, legal, and institutional dynamics through which they worked and were worked upon." Romanticized history: there was in the view of secularization theorists an "age of faith"--for instance, the thirteenth century--which was succeeded and displaced by the age of reason and modernity. Then everything was religious; now everything, or at least everything that matters in public, is secular. Against that view, anthropologist Mary Douglas writes: "Secularization is often treated as a modern trend. But the contrast of secular with religious has nothing whatsoever to do with the contrast of modern with traditional or primitive. The idea that primitive man is by nature deeply religious is nonsense. The truth is that all of the varieties of skepticism, materialism, and spiritual fervor are found in the range of tribal societies. They vary as much from one another on these lines as any chosen segment of London life."

An overemphasis on religious self-destruction: Berger's 1967 The Sacred Canopy suggested that the Judeo-Christian tradition "carried the seeds of secularization within itself." Ancient Israel's monotheism began the secularization process by historicizing and rationalizing ethics, a process which Catholicism temporarily restrained but which the Protestant Reformation returned to full force in bringing about a "disenchanted" (Weber) world. A host of theorists agreed that the Reformation and the cultural exhaustion following the "wars of religion" hastened the process of secularization. While not discounting such claims entirely, Smith writes, "What most versions of secularization theory overlook is the important role played by other, nonreligious and antireligious actors in the process of secularization. At the very least, our analytical framework should include room to account for all the players who may have been involved in a process of change."

Seventh and finally, underspecified causal mechanisms: the influential Bryan Wilson, for example, simply asserted the incompatibility of modernity and religion: "The moral intimations of Christianity do not belong to a world ordered by conveyor belts, time-and-motion studies, and bureaucratic organizations. The very thought processes which these devices demand of men leave little place for the operation of the divine." One is reminded of the "demythologizing" New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann and his dictum that a man who knows how to work a light switch cannot believe in divine causality. Again, it was Berger who wrote very persuasively, thirty and more years ago, about the powerful linkage between "social structure" and consciousness. To all this Smith responds: "But sociologists and historians give too little attention to explaining exactly how and why these social changes had their supposed detrimental effects on religion. Exactly why did urbanization or technological developments have to undermine religious authority? Exactly how did industrialization and immigration work to produce religious privatization? Why should we treat these as some kind of 'great gears of history' that inexorably grind their way toward religious privatization? Rather than all nodding our scholarly heads together in what could be premature analytical closure, we need to go back and force ourselves to answer these questions again."

The seven defects specified by Smith in an older secularization theory--a theory, be it noted, still espoused by many--are sometimes overlapping, and one cannot lightly dismiss elements of truth, or at least of suggestiveness, in that older theory. But Smith is certainly right in warning against "premature analytical closure" and in directing our attention to other factors in the exclusion of religion from public life. He lists a number of questions calling for further exploration. Who, in fact, were the actors who agitated for a naked public square, and what were the grievances or desired benefits that drove their activism? What ideologies were employed, and what institutional and political circumstances favored their success? On what material resources did they draw, and how did they frame arguments in a manner that served their cause? What organizational structures provided them with an identity and moral community in furthering the secularization they sought?

Traditions and Delusions

Smith cites Edward Shils, who wrote that Western intellectuals have generally moved within one of four intellectual traditions: scientism, romanticism, apocalypticism, or populism. American intellectuals have worked mainly in the first two traditions. The meaning of scientism may seem self-evident, but Shils on the romantic tradition deserves a quotation at length:

The romantic tradition appears at first sight to be in irreconcilable opposition to the tradition of scientism. . . . In many important respects, however, they share fundamental features. Romanticism starts with the appreciation of the spontaneous manifestations of the essence of concrete individuality. Hence, it values originality, i.e., the unique, that which is produced from the genius of the individual, in contrast with the stereotyped and traditional action of the philistine. . . . Institutions which have rules and which prescribe the conduct of the individual members by conventions and commands are likewise viewed as life-destroying. The bourgeois family, mercantile activity, the market, indeed civil society in general, with its curb on enthusiasm and its sober acceptance of obligation, are repugnant to the romantic tradition--all are the enemies of spontaneity and genuineness; they impose a role on the individual and do not permit him to be himself. The affinities of the romantic tradition to the revolutionary criticism of the established order are obvious. It, too [along with scientism], is one of the most explosive antiauthoritarian powers of modern intellectual life.

In the early twentieth century, the aggressive secularizers found an important ally in the leaders of liberal Protestantism, says Smith. "Liberal Protestant clergy were important players in the secularization struggles. But the liberal Protestant capitulation was a response to something. It was a (not very successful) survival strategy in relation to an external challenge." The secularizing activists would, in time, dispense with their liberal Protestant allies when they were no longer needed in advancing the cause. William James foresaw the new circumstance in a speech to a college audience in 1907: "We alumni and alumnae of the colleges are the only permanent presence [in America] that corresponds to the aristocracy in older countries. We have continuous traditions, as they have; our motto, too, is noblesse oblige; and, unlike them, we stand for ideal interests solely, for we have no corporate selfishness and wield no powers of corruption. We ought to have our own class-consciousness. Les Intellectuels! What prouder club name could there be than this one?" Almost a century later, as incredible as it may seem, that is precisely how many in the academy see themselves.

As I have had occasion to write elsewhere, even as liberal Protestantism was capitulating to the secularizers, it exhibited an overweening self-confidence about its cultural hegemony. Smith provides delicious quotes. Methodist Bishop Edward Thompson in 1870 told an audience that he foresaw in the not-too-distant future an America that would be "without an adulterer, or a swearer, or a Sabbath-breaker, or an ingrate, or an apostate, or a backslider, or a slanderer; hundreds of thousands of homes without a prodigal, a quarrel or heartburn, or a bitter tear." Thirty years later, the head of the American Board for Foreign Missions declared that "Christianity is the religion of the dominant nations of the earth. Nor is it rash to prophesy that in due time it will be the only religion in the world." Northern Baptist leader Samuel Batten wrote in 1909 that, of the three "great facts" of modern society--Christianity, the state, and democracy--Christianity was "the most potent force in our modern civilization."And so it went. Even as aggressive secularizers were bringing the public potency of religion down around their ears, religious leaders were incapable of seeing what was happening. As I have also had occasion to write, in an exercise of cultural catch-up not a few Catholic leaders today seem incapable of understanding what is happening to Catholicism in this country. With serene self-confidence, they speak of making progressive accommodations as they progressively capitulate. But that is a story for another time.

In framing the public argument, says Smith, the secularizers succeeded brilliantly in defining religion as "sectarian." "Having once been a tool in the hands of dominant Protestants to exclude versions of faith that did not serve their purposes, the term sectarian was commandeered by rising secularizers to expurgate religion per se from the public sphere." In the past half century, one notes, the term "sectarian" has been regularly used by the courts to that end. The late John Rawls prescribed that "comprehensive accounts" of reality--e.g., religious accounts--are disqualified as legitimate "public discourse." They are sectarian. Smith usefully describes how corporate capitalism and its related philanthropies were, in the first part of the twentieth century, employed very overtly to exclude religious institutions of higher education and to exclude religion from those that were not expressly religious. This supplements the thesis of James Burtchaell's masterful The Dying of the Light, in which he carefully documents the often subtle ways in which religious leadership surrendered colleges and universities to secularist orthodoxy.

Revolutions and Counterrevolutions

The Secular Revolution includes chapters by various authors on the success of the secularizers in public schools, in turning back the politics of moral reform, in shaping jurisprudence, and in the ascendancy of a self-consciously secular media. On the last, Richard Flory nicely documents the ways in which journalistic "professionalization" went hand in hand with secularization. According to the doctrine of the professionalizers, journalism was uniquely essential to civilization; the evolution from primitive to professional journalism was inevitable; journalism was the "educator" of the masses; religion was reduced to morality and ethics, and all religions were to be treated equally; professional journalism was the functional equivalent of and successor to religion. As Flory shows, journalists were very explicitly instructed in these doctrines, and he illustrates the effectiveness of the instruction in the treatment of religion in the New York Times over the past century.

The several chapters are of uneven quality, some claiming to prove too much and others missing obvious instances that support their argument. Not all the other authors are as astute as Christian Smith in recognizing that the secularizing activists did have legitimate grievances against the liberal Protestant hegemony. My impression is that Smith understands that this "revolution," like most revolutions, sometimes had commendable goals which were perverted by the obtuseness of the establishment against which it was revolting.

The Secular Revolution is of great value for two reasons. It effectively debunks secularization theories based upon abstract and impersonal forces that presumably make the triumph of secularism inevitable. And it restores the human dimension of secularization. It returns the subject of secularization to history, with all its conflicts, rivalries, ambitions, grievances, and political strategies. Secularization did not just happen. The naked public square was not predetermined. The naked public square is precisely what many people in positions of influence wanted, and it is what they largely achieved. Successful revolutions are vulnerable to, and sometimes provoke, counterrevolutions. Whether the counterrevolution is now underway is also a question for another time.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus is editor of First Things.

Copyright (c) 2005 First Things 151 (March 2005): 58-76.

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Posted: 07-Apr-05

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