February 6, 2013

The Secular Reality

If, as [Douglas Pratt] is contending, we don’t want the “metaphysical dimension” and “stories” of religion at the personal as well as societal level, this is not persistence; this is a new phenomenon altering centuries of evolving theological trajectory.

The Secular Reality: A Response to Pratt’s “Durkheimian Dread”

By Thomas J. Coleman III, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 6 February 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Douglass Pratt on the Persistence and Problem of Religion (4 February 2013).

Douglas Pratt presents us with a most noble and worthwhile endeavor in his Religious Studies Project podcast entitled, The Persistence and Problem of Religion. It is clear that he is interested in easing tensions that exist between various religions throughout the world. However, a call for clarification is needed with regards to “persistence” and there are several contentious points that should be addressed. As a scholar specializing in religious concerns relating to Christian-Muslim relations, Pratt seems to be arguing against Secularization from an activist’s position.  Within the same podcast, Pratt labels the more conservative fundamentalist viewpoint as “nonsensical” and calls the secular stance “crazy”. This leads the listener to perceive a paradox. In one sense, Pratt appears to be a post-modernist advocating for religious freedom and expression of individual belief yet he wants to limit some forms religious expression, for example fundamentalism. Moreover he does not seem to understand the theoretical complexities and benefits of the secularization paradigm as proposed within sociology of religion. Within this paradigm religion certainly is slowly dissolving from within public sphere yet at the same time multi-cultural and religious values are equal. Secular space ensures that no one religion has dominance over another. Hence the paradox of Pratt’s view, why argue against an obvious benefit of secularization while also limiting certain types of religious forms which, in his argument, is what secularization does. As Pratt attempts to cut through the secularization hypothesis, he, perhaps unknowingly, lends it overwhelming support with his own inconsistent viewpoint. This paper will provide a point-by-point analysis of Pratt’s view as noted within the podcast.

The Problem of Persistence

First, Pratt fails to adequately define what is meant by persistence. Persistence is a highly ambiguous term as used in the podcast. In what form, and where do we really have a “persistence of religion”? Is persistence directly related to the institution of religion? Is persistence the theological continuation within a religion? Is persistence an issue of church attendance or religious self-identity? His initial remarks state, “There has been a resurgence of religious phenomena…and religion in the news”. The end of the interview sheds no more light as to what sort of persistence religion has seen, we are only left with the indubitable point that religion exists as a declarative fact. The decline of religion in Europe and many other developed countries has even been termed “apparently unstoppable” by other theologians (Oviedo, 2012). It is unclear how Pratt would address an apparent decline in many westernized nations. Either way, the term persistence evades us as Pratt acknowledges that many people “don’t want the narratives”. If, as he is contending, we don’t want the “metaphysical dimension” and “stories” of religion at the personal as well as societal level, this is not persistence; this is a new phenomenon altering centuries of evolving theological trajectory.

What about Secularization?

Pratt implies that the sixties and seventies forced the secularization thesis out the door of the social sciences. His talking points, and comments throughout lend nothing short of support toward this “out-going theory”. Sociologist Mark Chaves whose research on secularization spans just over two decades (1989, 1993,1994, 2011), declared in his 2011 ARDA Guiding Paper that, “no indicator of traditional religious belief or practice is increasing”.

 “Secularization is most productively understood not as declining religion, but as the declining scope of religious authority” –Chaves 1994

Chaves view is supported by other established researchers and historians such as Steve Bruce (2011) who argue that while various differences exist within the secularization paradigm (e.g. cyclical, linear, situational/geographical, etc.) a social shift is occurring but it is not addressed in any type of detail within the podcast by Pratt. The first half of the interview, Pratt repeatedly supports two main tenets of the secularization thesis, the first being that Government and public life has become/is becoming more secular. He even states that religious expressions of narrative are being “eliminated” and “pushed out of the public realm altogether”. He goes on to give us multiple examples of such from around the world. The second blessing of support Pratt gives secularization is reflected in comments such as, “the expressions of religion that relate to the narrative, are being, as it were eliminated, or pushed to one side”. If he is correct, and people are casting the underlying narratives and myths that religion has been built upon aside or directing their efforts in another form, religion in its traditional sense may indeed be falling victim to secularization. Secularization may remove religion from the public sphere of influence such as governmental recognition or funding but it certainly does not appear that there is an active effort to control or remove religions from their own sacred spaces. In other words, communism attempted to control religion through a variety of methods. It just does not appear this is happening in Western Europe or North America.

Points of Contention

“In terms of modern western history…yes society needs the values of religion, but we don’t want the stories.”  – Pratt

Pratt seems to hold what I will coin as “Durkheimian dread” for the persistence of secularization; whereby society has no replacement for, and is lost without, traditional religion. It is clear that many in today’s world may feel similar. However, research has shown that this presumed societal need for religious glue seems to be nothing more than an unsupported position (Zuckerman, 2006; Paul, 2009). Paul’s findings indicate a strong correlation between the “most successful societies” and the most secular societies. It follows from this, that the role of religion as playing an important role in the structural functionalism of today’s world is certainly in question.

“Secularist, anti-religious…”  -Pratt

The terms “secularist” and “anti-religious” are conflagulated both explicitly and implicitly throughout the podcast. Many people who identify as religious consider themselves secularists and even donate time and money towards ensuring governments and public spaces remain secular. Ascribing to a faith tradition and supporting the secularity of public spaces are in no way mutually exclusive, and should never be confused (Robbins, 2012; Voas & Day, 2010). This is the problem with gross overgeneralizations about people; they typically ignore the complexity of the human landscape – secular or religious.

Towards the end of the interview Pratt seems to advocate controlling the comprehension and transformative direction that religious narratives can and do take. He puts forth the idea that if we do not prevent more fundamentalist understandings of faith (which he describes as “narrow”) from growing, then the scope of religious studies will henceforth be more narrow, we will not have as much to study. It is hard not to picture Pratt’s argument as wild and theoretically porous, stigmatizing and complicating the religious and irreligious minorities as he attempts to kill the ills of religious conflicts in our world. Unfortunately in this most noble endeavor, he ends up demonizing what many would see as the most promising remedy for increasing religious tension in the world, a secular government. In the words of His Holiness the Dali Lama,

“Secularism does not mean rejection of all religions. It means respect for all religions and human beings including non-believers,” (Gyatso, Tenzin HH. Dalai Lama, 2006)


This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Thomas J. Coleman III is an undergraduate student in psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is one of the few undergraduates at the university to conduct research alongside graduate and post graduate students. He holds the Assistant Project Manager Position on the Bielefeld International Spirituality Research Study and is the Project Manager for the UT Chattanooga study of non-belief in America exploring the complexities of self-identity adjectives in how atheist and agnostic participants self-describe. Currently Mr. Coleman is overseeing and developing a research project on the domain intersections within Horizontal/Vertical Transcendence and interrelated correlates. His email address is Thomas-J-Coleman@mocs.utc.edu


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