Has Western Culture Secularized?
Has Western Culture Secularized?

"As societies modernize, they become less religious." This is the "secularization thesis." Its roots go back to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. It was developed by the first sociologists in the nineteenth century. It has been hotly debated by sociologists, historians, theologians, philosophers, and other scholars for several decades. It probably passed its peak about fifteen years ago, but it still has its champions.

The discussions can be complicated. But let me reduce the thesis to three forms.

The retreat of Christendom

The first form tells us that religion has lost its prominence among modern social institutions. Church attendance has shrunk. The profession of clergy is no longer prestigious. The pronouncements of church dignitaries no longer shake politics. Schools, hospitals, and social services, once the domain of churches, are now mainly the domain of government.

There’s some truth in this form of the thesis. TST’s Phyllis Airhart, in her Church with the Soul of a Nation (McGill-Queen’s, 2013) has examined some of what this means for Canada. When it was founded in 1925, the United Church of Canada was to be a kind of spiritual expression of Canada. By the 1960s, such a project was impossible.

But religion certainly hasn’t lost its influence. We can hardly pick up a newspaper or read an Internet newsfeed without noting the political and cultural clout of “the religious right” in the Republican Party in the USA, the National Front in France, the PVV in the Netherlands, and various political movements in the post-Communist countries of central Europe.

The rise of individualism

The second form tells us that religion in traditional societies is communitarian and creates fundamental social bonds. But modernity involves industrialization and urbanization, which disintegrate social bonds. What results is individualism (and loneliness). In such a milieu, traditional religion struggles to survive.

This view was developed by Emile Durkheim (d. 1917), sometimes described as the very first sociologist of religion. David Brooks, the conservative syndicated columnist for the New York Times, is an influential exponent today.

A difference between them is that Durkheim, a secularist, welcomed this development. Brooks, who has personally reclaimed the Judaism of his heritage, regrets it. He lists some of the consequences of American individualism: "the decline of social trust, the breakdown of family life, the polarization of national life, the spread of tribal mentalities, the rise of narcissism, the decline of social capital, the rising alienation from institutions, … the decline of citizenship and neighbourliness."

But surely there’s lots of religion in the USA? Brooks' argument rests on a distinction between true religion, which I think he’d see as a faith rooted in an encounter with the holy, and religion as a badge of identity politics. "Being an evangelical used to mean practicing a certain form of faith," he writes. But "evangelical" has become "a simplistic tribal identity that commands Republican affiliation." Something similar could be said about religious expressions tied to left-wing political causes.

There are some nuggets of wisdom in this approach. But I think that the "us versus them" dimension of religious identities precedes modernity by several thousand years. Yes, religion has given us social bonds, but it has also given us social divisions.

Also, the impersonality of the modern city makes the church’s role more important, not less. My experience of my own parish church is that it’s a gift of community, in a totally non-exclusive sort of way.

The triumph of scientific rationality

The third form of the secularization thesis tells us that modern thinking doesn’t explain things with categories like God, grace, or providence. In modernity, explanations are built on scientific rationality.

Now, in the kind of public discourse that we know in the mainstream media, the halls of government, and most of academia, it's true that there’s not much appeal to theological tradition and Scriptural exegesis. At its best, the appeal is to quantitative and qualitative research. But that may not be because God has been eclipsed from everyone’s view. It may be because modernity accommodates diversity by using common vocabularies.

But in everyday life, who really prioritizes their values or makes personal decisions on the basis of 'scientific rationality'? What’s rational about falling in love, and that feeling that 'this person was meant for me'? What’s rational about caring for children? For that matter, how rationally are people acting, millions and millions of them, when their loneliness or pain or despair lead them into various addictions?

This form of the thesis suggests that religious longing depends on cultural factors. But some neuroscientific research finds that human beings, just as a matter of biology, are primed to believe. That’s a scientific way of saying that "our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you, O Lord."

And even in our own modern culture, polls suggest that the vast majority of people believe in God and value what might be called spirituality. Some psychological studies suggest that people look for signs in everyday life that point to hidden meanings, even intelligent design. The popularity of movies, television programs, and books with supernatural themes suggest not just an openness to realities beyond the reach of scientific rationalism, but even a hunger for them. And a recent article in the Atlantic describes a huge revival of interest in astrology.

But my biggest objection to this form of the secularization thesis is that it opposes rationality to religion. Theological schools are here to say that those aren't contradictory ways of understanding the world.

The challenge for people of faith

Charles Taylor, the McGill philosopher, reoriented the conversation on secularization in his massive and very highly regarded A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007). Secularization, he suggested, should not be regarded 'subtractively,' as a process by which religion is taken away, but as an additional option created by Christianity itself.

What’s Taylor's take on religion and modernity? First, modernity closes the frame for viewing the world. Its frame is "immanentist," here-and-now. But people like to break out of closed frames.

Second, modernity is more egalitarian than hierarchical. That dislodges priestly authority, but invites exploration.

So secularization doesn’t mean excluding religion, but changing how we seek God. "Our age is very far from settling into a comfortable unbelief," Taylor writes. "We are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can foresee."

This searching is part of what I believe the Toronto School of Theology is here to do.

~ Alan L. Hayes