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Heavy Metal as Religion and Secularization as Ideology

Heavy metal as religion and secularization as ideology: a sociological approach

By Mohammad Magout, University of Leipzig, Germany

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 9 October 2013, in response to François Gauthier’s interview on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture (7 October 2013).

In this thought-provoking interview, Professor François Gauthier from the University of Fribourg gives his remarks on a variety of theoretical, methodological, and empirical issues in social sciences. It would be impossible to cover even a tenth of those issues within the limits of this brief article, so I will restrict my response to two themes only: defining religion and critiquing secularization theory and post-secularity.

Gauthier states at the beginning of the podcast that current social theory fails to explain some recent developments in the social world, particularly in reference to subcultures and popular protest movements. He specifically criticizes sociologists of religion for not recognizing certain cultural notions, practices, or movements as religious even when people involved declare them as such. He says that if ravers, for example, believe rave to be just as religious as Catholicism, then sociologists should adjust their definitions of religion in order to accommodate rave as a religious phenomenon.

While I acknowledge that in social research there is always the risk of imposing inadequate, external categories on meanings conveyed by informants, I do have considerable reservations about conflating informants’ self-descriptions with theoretical terms. By saying that rave culture is as religious as Catholicism, a raver might be, for example, making a statement of identity; that is, defining his/her identity as a raver against or in relation to a Catholic identity, which is, of course, a personal right that no one should deny him/her. From a scientific perspective, however, “religion” is a theoretical term that is used to categorize and analyze a specific class of social phenomena. If we were to leave it solely to informants to decide which theoretical concepts and categories apply to them, social research would become very fragmented and incomparable, because different people can and do use complicated terms such as “religion” in widely different ways. Of course, their perspective is important and one should always take it into consideration, but scientific research requires at least some minimum degree of uniformity and consistency in the application of terms and categories.

I am not very well-informed about rave culture, but I can say something about another music-based youth culture with which I am familiar—both as a researcher and as a member—namely, heavy metal. Heavy metal can be seen as one of the most “quasi-religious” youth cultures, not only because religious imagery and symbolism are embedded in heavy metal lyrically, sonically, and visually, but also because of the “striking resemblance” between many aspects of heavy metal (especially live concerts) and religious rituals (Weinstein 2000, p. 231-2). Heavy metal, in addition, defines itself explicitly against traditional religion (Christianity in particular), which in a few extreme cases has reached the level of waging an open war against it (as it was the case with some members of the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 1990’s who were involved in dozens of arson attacks against churches). Some people have even considered heavy metal to be their “religion.” There was a campaign in the United Kingdom to answer the question about religion in the 2011 census with “heavy metal,” which resulted in more people identifying their “religion” as “heavy metal” than Scientology, Baha’ism, or Taoism.

Even if we grant that some of those who reported their religion as “heavy metal” were serious about it, does that justify changing our definitions of religion, so that they can accommodate heavy metal together with Christianity, Hinduism, Shamanism, and ancient Egyptian religion in the same analytical category? I myself do not think so, and no one so far—to the best of my knowledge—has presented a convincing case of the conceptual and analytical utility of treating a youth culture such as heavy metal as some type of religion.[i]

Gauthier seems to justify his position by stating that religion in the past few decades has morphed into something different than it used to be. It is now more concerned with personal life-style, identity, and morality, rather than correct belief and clerical institutions. This perhaps makes religion (at least some forms of contemporary religion) closer to youth cultures than traditional or institutional religion, which may justify grouping them together in the same category. Still this is not enough to change our definitions of religion. I think social scientists need to be a bit “conservative” about their definitions and conceptual frameworks in order to maintain the consistency of their work and measure change when it occurs. As stated by Steve Bruce, “Fixity of definition is not a refusal to recognize change; it is essential to describing change” (2009, p. 9).

Gauthier concludes his interview by warning us not to repeat the failure of secularization theory by adopting post-secularity, which he refers to as “the greatest threat to sociology of religion today.” He says quite bluntly, “Let’s try not to be as stupid, as ideological.” Since I originally conceived my PhD research project in terms of secularization theory, and have now started to drift toward post-secularity, I felt somehow challenged by Gauthier’s strong words. My intention in this article, nevertheless, is not to present a defense of secularization and post-secularity—especially given that I acknowledge many of the criticisms of these concepts—but rather to problematize one particular critique, which is the claim that secularization and post-secularity are based on certain ideologies or philosophical ideas.

First of all, I would like to say that I do not disagree with this critique: yes, secularization theories often reflected a modernist understanding of history and social change, and post-secularity is a concept that emerged in philosophical and normative discussions of the role of religion in the public sphere in contemporary Western societies. The problem is that many social scientists, in dismissing these concepts as ideologically biased, tend to gloss over the ideologies behind them as sociologically irrelevant. The impact of ideologies on social theory might be something undesirable, albeit unavoidable, but their impact on society is of utmost importance to the social scientist.

Modernism, in its various manifestations (liberalism, communism, nationalism, colonialism, etc.), has transformed our world, including religion, irreversibly.[ii] Most modern states—together with their political, legal, educational, and economic systems—have more or less been established along the lines of some modernist ideology that may have actively sought to marginalize, control, or privatize religion.[iii] Of course, how this might have developed or to what extent it has worked out in different contexts is widely variable. What is certain, I think, is that these ideologies have shaped and continue to shape the world today, despite the fragmentation of their hegemony and the rise of alternative ideologies. It is therefore implausible to think they have hardly changed anything with regard to religion, as some staunch critics of secularization seem to imply (e.g. Stark 1999).

The question I am trying to frame is related to the more general issue of the complicated relationship between ideology and social theory. Social science, more than any other branch of science, is prone to the undesired influence of philosophical and ideological perspectives. The question is, then, how should social scientists deal with ideologically-infused theories without glossing over the ideologies behind them? I don’t have a straightforward answer to this question, but I can refer to Gauthier’s nuanced approach to studying neo-liberalism, which he outlines in his interview.

Gauthier criticizes rational-choice/market theories of religion for interpreting religion in economic terms, as if it were a commercial product. In doing so, these theories fail to understand and explain the relationship between religious change and neo-liberalism, which is not only a dominant economic theory or political ideology, Gauthier asserts, but also a “cultural ideology” that conditions our ways of thinking and behaving. He stresses that any examination of religion, politics, or social relations is not adequate without taking into consideration the impact of neo-liberalism and consumerism, which have become the “structuring” force of our societies. In other words, while Gauthier rejects rational-choice/market theories of religion, he does not dismiss neo-liberalism and emphasizes the importance of studying its impact on religion.

The same approach, in my opinion, should be applied to secularization theory and post-secularity. Criticisms of secularization as an ideologically-infused theory should not make us gloss over its constituting ideology and the concrete sociological implications of this ideology. Similarly, the philosophical origins of the concept of post-secularity do not mean that it is irrelevant for social scientists. One should remember that the boundaries between social theory and social philosophy are not clear-cut and that philosophers and theologians are playing an important role—perhaps more than sociologists—in setting the parameters for public debates about religion (Turner 2012, p. 649). This is not only a matter of intellectual debates, but also of policy-making. There are religious groups, public institutions, and political organizations which are adopting, in one way or another, a “post-secular perspective” toward religion and society and making their policies accordingly. One domain in which this current is becoming evident is academia as some earlier research (Schmalzbauer and Mahoney 2009) and also my ongoing research project on Ismaili institutions of higher education in London seem to suggest.

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.

References

  • Bruce, S. (2009) “The Importance of Social Science in the Study of Religion”, Fieldwork in Religion, Vol. 4 No. 1, pp. 7–28.
  • Casanova, J. (2012) “Are We Still Secular? Explorations on the Secular and the Post-Secular”, in Nynäs, P., Lassander, M. and Utriainen, T. (Eds.), Post-secular society, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N.J, pp. 27–46.
  • Moberg, M. (2012) “Religion in Popular Music or Popular Music as Religion? A Critical Review of Scholarly Writing on the Place of Religion in Metal Music and Culture”, Popular Music and Society, Vol. 35 No. 1, pp. 113–130.
  • Schmalzbauer, J. and Mahoney, K. (2009) “Religion and Knowledge in the Post-Secular Academy”, SSRC Working Papers. Available at http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/post-secular-academy.pdf (Accessed 6 June 2013)
  • Stark, R. (1999) “Secularization, R.I.P”, Sociology of Religion, Vol. 60 No. 3, pp. 249–273.
  • Turner, B.S. (2010) “Religion in a Post-secular Society”, in Turner, B.S. (Ed.), The new Blackwell companion to the sociology of religion, Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA, pp. 649–667.
  • Weinstein, D. (2000) Heavy metal: the music and its culture. New York: Da Capo Press.


[i] For a survey of literature on the relationship between heavy metal and religion, see Moberg (2012).

[ii] This is what José Casanova calls “secularism as stadial consciousness,” i.e. secularism as a philosophy of history, according to which humanity progressively “emancipates” itself from religion. Secularization thereby functions as a “self-fulfilling theory” (2012, p. 31-2).

[iii] Another common criticism of secularization theory is its Euro-centrism, which is true, but it is almost forgotten that not very long time ago European powers ruled most countries of the world, established their political systems, wrote their laws, educated their elites, and planned their economies. This certainly does not entail that these countries should follow the same trajectories of modernization followed earlier by European countries, but it does mean that European ideas, theories, and ideologies are very relevant to other countries too.

Historical Approaches to Studying Religion

As the RSP continues to grow, we’re going to be returning more frequently to topics and themes which have already been touched upon in previous podcasts and features. This week, we are pleased to bring you a double re-post in response to our double podcast with John Wolffe & Ronald Hutton on Historical Approaches to the Study of Religion.

First, in the following podcast – first ‘broadcast’ on 30 April 2012, and later selected as one of our editors’ picks the following summer – Louise Connelly introduces Chris’s interview with Professor Callum Brown. How can we use historical approaches in the study of religion? More specifically, can we use historical approaches to understand why people are losing it? Professor Callum Brown tells us why historical approaches have much to tell us about religious change.

 

Download.

Second, Dr Tim Hutchings – who has also been an interviewee on the RSP, and participated in our ‘Religion in the News Panel Session’ – wrote the following response essay to Professor Brown’s interview. We ‘re-print’ it here in its entirety. We hope you enjoy these different takes on this week’s central theme. If you do, you can subscribe to receive our weekly podcast through iTunes and other portals. You can also use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us when buying your important books, clothes, diving equipment etc.


A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion

By Tim Hutchings, Durham University

In his new podcast for the Religious Studies Project, Callum Brown has given us an excellent introduction to the historical approach to the study of religion. In conversation with Christopher Cotter, Brown outlines rival traditions within the history of religion and demonstrates what each has contributed to our understanding of secularisation. Along the way, Brown summarises his research career and offers some tantalising hints about his current interview-based study of the life stories of people who have left religion. He also emphasises the value of demographics, arguing that sophisticated analyses of census data reveal that people develop ‘an entirely new sense of self’ when they leave religion.  This is a fascinating and challenging claim, but I have chosen to focus in this response on another of the main themes of this podcast: the relationship between history and sociology.

At the end of this interview, Brown distinguishes the history of religion sharply from sociology. According to Brown, there is a “huge gap” in method, approach and interests between the two disciplines. Sociologists, he argues, believe that the world is governed by rules. They undertake research to study the contemporary religious landscape, interpret this snapshot in time by framing it within a particular model of fixed, linear change, and then make predictions about the future. Historians, on the other hand, believe that nothing is inevitable and assume that “when” must be the first step in working out “why”. Instead of collecting snapshots, historians map change year-on-year, using that longitudinal data to establish the effects of key events.

My own field of research is digital religion, an area with a particularly troubled relationship to history. Scholars and commentators interested in digital culture and its significance for religion have struggled to distinguish what is truly new from what has come before, and continue to search for helpful ways to talk about change.

One classic strategy since the 1990s has been to contrast an anecdotal snapshot of contemporary life against visions of the near future and the recent past.  In the most common forms of this argument, the past is characterised by stable local communities, face-to-face relationships and a secure, unchanging personal identity. Contemporary digital technology challenges this stability by supporting fluid, self-determined, global communication networks, so the argument goes, and these changes will intensify in the near future. Different observers have interpreted this same basic approach in positive, neutral and negative ways, seeing technology as the route to new spiritual awareness (Cobb 1998), a powerful tool that can be used to promote an unchanging religious message to the new mission field of digital culture (Estes 2009, Sweet 2012), or a dangerous threat to church, character and society. Sherry Turkle’s recent declaration that social media is facilitating a “flight from conversation” is a good example of this third type (2012). Young people now use their phones a lot, she argues, and they previously spent time face-to-face, and this shift is very bad for everyone. Her argument is simple and intuitively appealing, contrasting a recognisable snapshot of everyday life with a widely-accepted vision of the recent past and calling for immediate action to rescue the future, and her article has provoked much discussion online in recent weeks.

Scholars of media and religion have tried to challenge this approach over the last decade by framing their observations within a more rigorous historical perspective. The forms of religious community observed online are not unique after all, they argue: they actually continue long-running trajectories of social change from groups to networks (Wellman 2012) or from stable to fluid religious identities (Wagner 2012). Heidi Campbell’s recent work (2010) focuses on the power of religious groups to construct and interpret the technology they use, a process that includes engagement with group history. For Campbell, contemporary religious uses of the internet must be interpreted in the context of the theology and values of particular communities, including how those communities have changed their approach to media over time.  Many other scholars have tried to complicate popular understandings of the past and present of media religion, undertaking detailed comparative studies to show that religious authority, community and identity have not changed in the ways some observers allege.

Listening to Callum Brown’s interview, it becomes clear that all of these scholarly approaches represent a distinctively sociological way of using history. These scholars analyse the past to identify long-term trajectories in social or religious change and use that model to interpret the present. “When” questions are rarely considered: the purpose of the exercise is to establish a tension between a stable (or predictably-changing) past and a snapshot of the present, to generate insights into continuity and change.

There is clear scope here for inter-disciplinary collaboration. Sociological interest in the history of religion and media has generated a space for interventions by historians, who can greatly benefit the study of digital culture by offering detailed critiques of our assumed trajectories of change. Recent examples include Jeremy Stolow’s keynote speech on the spirituality of the telegraph, delivered to the Digital Religion conference in Colorado earlier this year (see Stolow 2011), and Stefan Gelfgren’s work (2012) on the history of religious attitudes to media. Sociologists of digital religion are still not as interested in the connection between “when” and “why” as Callum Brown might like, but clear progress is being made to forge connections with historians. This podcast is an excellent provocation to think harder about the questions we overlook and the interdisciplinary conversations that might help us uncover them.

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.

Bibliography

  • Campbell, Heidi. When Religion Meets New Media. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010.
  • Cobb, Jennifer. CyberGrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. New York: Crown, 1998.
  • Estes, Douglas. SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
  • Gelfgren, Stefan. “Let there be digital networks and God will provide growth?” Comparing the aims and hopes of 19th-century and post-millenial Christianity. In Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren and Charles Ess (eds.), Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. p. 227-242.
  • Hogan, Bernie and Barry Wellman. The immanent internet redux. In Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren and Charles Ess (eds.), Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. p. 43-62.
  • Stolow, Jeremy. ‘Telegraph’, in freq.uenci.es: a collaborative genealogy of spirituality. September 7 2011. Available online: http://freq.uenci.es/2011/09/07/telegraph/.  Accessed May 2 2012.
  • Sweet, Leonard. Viral: How Social Networking is Poised to Ignite Revival. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2012.
  • Turkle, Sherry. The flight from conversation. New York Times, April 21 2012. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/the-flight-from-conversation.html. Accessed May 2 2012.
  • Wagner, Rachel. Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.

 

Religion, Secularism and the Chaplaincy

As Sullivan and other religious studies scholars complicate terms like religion and secularism, reducing these terms to near incoherence, and insist on the constant intermingling of the sacred and the secular, they leave jurists and legislators in a predicament with important practical consequences.

Religion, Secularism, and the Chaplaincy

By Dusty Hoesly, University of California, Santa Barbara

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Winnifred F. Sullivan on Religion and the Law (22 April 2013)

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Professor and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Indiana University, Bloomington, may be the supreme interpreter of the intersection of law and religion in American society today.  Each of her three books—Paying the Words Extra, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, and Prison Religion—treats individual legal cases both textually and anthropologically, examining their particular cultural and legal contexts as well as their wider import for discourse in American law and society generally.  Her work is attuned equally to debates within the field of religious studies, especially to how scholars of religion constitute the object of their study.

In this interview for The Religious Studies Project, Sullivan focuses on her latest project, which examines chaplaincy in secular settings, as well as on her larger body of work.  Her recent presentation, “Ministries of Presence: Chaplains as Priests of the Secular,” uses chaplaincy as a lens for thinking beyond her previous work in critiquing constitutional and legal protections for religious freedom, and arguing for the instability and incoherence of the category of religion as a basis for legal regulation.  Putting aside her study of the management of religion in constitutional settings, in this project Sullivan examines how religion and law shape each other on the ground.  She concludes that chaplains have come to serve a role of ministering to what is increasingly understood as a universal spiritual need, which she labels a “naturalization of religion.”

For Sullivan, the figure of the chaplain in Western Christendom has always been an ambiguous figure, a minister whose duties lie away from church authority or congregational demands.  In modern secular institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and the military, the chaplain’s role remains ambiguous since, unlike doctors, guards, or soldiers, the chaplain is an explicit broker between the sacred and the secular.  The chaplain is paid by secular institutions and beholden to secular authorities, despite the religious character of the chaplain’s work or the chaplain’s religious allegiance.  Chaplains may find themselves obliged to endorse secular missions, such as nationalism or militarism, that run contrary to the chaplain’s religious mission.

The role of the chaplain and the social perception of chaplaincy in America have both changed significantly since World War II, Sullivan argues.  In the mid-twentieth century, patients, inmates, and soldiers imagined that chaplains had specific ministerial resources that were particular to each denomination, such that Catholic priests, for example, could offer services that no other denomination’s chaplains could.  Today, however, chaplaincy is far more generalized and less identified with any particular tradition.  Contemporary chaplains practice a “ministry of presence,” a stripped-down form of witness (to use a Christian word) that is a “suffering with” those seeking spiritual guidance.  Chaplains are trained to de-emphasize their individual religious identities so that they can provide a non-imposing, non-coercive presence, letting clients instead take the lead in terms of any religious specificity.

In her presentation, Sullivan observes the rise of credentialing as a major shift in chaplaincies during the 20th century.   Credentialing, rather than mere religious training, is now required in order to serve as a chaplain.  Would-be chaplains must earn a Master of Divinity degree, intern with a clinical pastoral education program, and obtain an ecclesiastical endorsement, all of which must be accredited or recognized by the government.  These cooperative efforts between state and religion have resulted in the standardization and professionalization of the chaplaincy.  Anyone can be a chaplain today, Sullivan argues.  It becomes a white collar job, one requiring expensive educational training and a lengthy apprenticeship.  As Randall Collins has argued, the credential becomes symbolic of one’s ability to do the actual work.

For chaplains who must serve a diverse clientele, including Roman Catholics, Wiccans, Southern Baptists, and atheists, specific denominational beliefs and practices, as well as religion itself, become “cultural resources” (to use James Beckford’s term).  Religion loses its claim to be sui generis, instead revealing itself to be socially constructed according to the practical needs of the moment when a client requests the services of a chaplain.  This offering of non-denominational spiritual advice to any and all seekers is illustrative of the secularization and commoditization of the chaplaincy.

But the process is not complete and, therefore, neither is Sullivan’s analysis.  Atheists and secular humanists may be consumers of chaplaincy services, but they are not yet permitted by the government to serve as chaplains in hospitals, prisons, or the military.  Even if the credentialing process in theory is open to any person, from whatever background, as Sullivan claims, this does not mean that anyone can become a chaplain in actual practice.  Groups such as the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers are seeking recognition by the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, but they have been unsuccessful so far.  That said, many prisons now include yoga and meditation groups, blurring the boundary between secular and religious practices and challenging the role of prison chaplains as exclusive brokers between the sacred and the secular.  And some higher education institutions, including Harvard, Rutgers, Stanford, Columbia, and American University, now incorporate humanist chaplaincies, responding to a growing call for guidance that is explicitly secular.

How might these humanist movements complicate Sullivan’s analysis?  Sullivan argues that in contemporary American jurisprudence religion has become a universal human phenomenon, albeit one that takes many forms.  But in the instances noted above, we see people who reject religion and yet who desire counseling and meaningful ritual during difficult times in their lives.  These people feel that they are not being best served by the supposedly secularized chaplains which Sullivan describes.  They want a chaplain with a particularly secular worldview rather than a naturalized non-denominational Protestantism which they perceive as coercive and not representative of their beliefs.  While Sullivan maintains that today’s chaplains are priests of the secular, actual secular people are excluded from the chaplaincy.

As Sullivan and other religious studies scholars complicate terms like religion and secularism, reducing these terms to near incoherence, and insist on the constant intermingling of the sacred and the secular, they leave jurists and legislators in a predicament with important practical consequences.  If religion and secularism are unstable and interpenetrating categories in American law, as Sullivan has argued, how can bureaucratic functionaries or judges justify excluding secular humanists from the chaplaincy?  Despite Sullivan’s claims about the naturalization of religion and the homogenization of the chaplaincy, American law still recognizes distinctions between what is religious and what is secular, and so do the people who consume and seek to provide chaplaincy services.

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

Dusty Hoesly is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in Religions of North America.  His research focuses on religion and irreligion in the American West, specifically the values held by people who self-describe as not religious, how those values developed, how they translate into social or political action, and how irreligious people interpret experiences that stand apart from ordinary life.  Incorporating fieldwork, surveys, and historical and material culture research, this project will help explain the growth of religious “nones” in the U.S. and reexamine the categories of sacred and secular in contemporary society.  Other research interests include religion in the American West, comparative secularisms, liberal evangelicalism, and religion and politics. He has previously published The Last Best Hope of Earth? Bron Taylor and the Limits of Dark Green Religion for the Religious Studies Project.

Bibliography

  • Collins, Randall. The Credential Society: A Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. New York: Academic Press, 1979.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Paying the Words Extra: Religious Discourse in the Supreme Court of the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton             University Press, 2009.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. “We Are All Religious Now. Again.” Social Research 76.4 (2009): 1181-1198.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Religion and Globalization

Over the past few weeks we have been looking at ‘religion’ in a ‘global context’ – from Mark Juergensmeyer’s sociotheological approach to ‘cosmic war’, to Douglas Pratt’s discussion of the ‘persistence and problem’ of ‘religion’, and Ryan Cragun’s introduction and overview to Mormon demographics across the globe. The final interview in this series was recorded in Ottawa in November 2012, and features Chris speaking with Peter Beyer, Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa, who – as Chris has proudly stated ad nauseum – literally wrote the book on Religions in Global Society.

What do we mean by globalization? What does this concept have to say to the study of religion? How have religions been agents in the globalization process? What theoretical and methodological issues arise when trying to answer such questions? All of these questions and more are tackled in an interview which touches on post-colonialism, secularization theory, theodicy, Rational Choice Theory, and something called Post-Westphalianism. We hope you enjoy it!

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter. And if you want to support the RSP, you can click through to Amazon.co.uk through our affiliates link, and we will earn referral fees from any transactions during your visit.

In the earlier parts of his career, Peter Beyer focused his research primarily on sociological theory of religion and on themes in Canadian religious history, doing his doctoral dissertation on the Louis Riel and postdoctoral studies on 19th and 20th century French Canadian Roman Catholicism. Since the mid-1980s, however, his main interests have centred on the sociological understanding of the relations between religion and globalization and on religion in contemporary Canada. His current research focuses on religious diversity and multiculturalism in Canada, especially as concerns recent immigrants and the second generation of these immigrants. He is the author of Religion and Globalization, Religions in Global Society, and co-editor (with Lori Beaman) of Religion, Globalization, and Culture (International Studies in Religion and Society Series).

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

References

  • Bruce, S. (2011). Secularization: In defence of an unfashionable theory. USA: Oxford University Press.
  • Chaves, M. (1989). “Secularization and religious revival: Evidence from U.S. church attendance rates.” 1972-1986 Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28(4): pp. 464-477
  • Chaves, M. (1993). “Intraorganizational Power and Internal Secularization within Protestant Denominations.” American Journal of Sociology 99(1):1-48.
  • Chaves, M. (1994). “Secularization as declining religious authority.” Social Forces, 72(3), 749-774.
  • Gyatso, Tenzin HH. His holiness the Dalai Lama said secularism is the basis of all religions. (2006, November 26). Retrieved from http://tibet.net/2006/11/13/his-holiness-the-dalai-lama-said-secularism-is-the-basis-of-all-religions/
  • Oviedo, L. (2012). “Struggling with secularization.” Reviews in Religion and Theology,19(2), 188-199.
  • Paul, G. (2009). “The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional psychosociological conditions.” Evolutionary Psychology, 7(3), 399-441.
  • Robbins, M. (2012, February 17). “Christians should unite with atheists to defend secularism.” The Guardian, Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2012/feb/17/1
  • Voas, David and Abby Day. (2010). Recognizing secular Christians: Toward an unexcluded middle in the study of religion (ARDA Guiding Paper Series). State College, PA: The Association of Religion Data Archives at The Pennsylvania State University, from http://www.thearda.com/rrh/papers/guidingpapers.asp.
  • Zuckerman, P. (2006). “Atheism: Contemporary rates and patterns.” In M. Martin (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (pp. 47-68). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The ‘Persistence’ and ‘Problem’ of Religion

Some fifty years ago scholars claimed the end of religion was nigh.  More recently some at the fringe of the Christian religion have touted the imminent end of the world. But the world is still here; and so is religion, although religion could rarely be described as unproblematic. In this interview with Chris, Douglas Pratt – Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Waikato, New Zealand – asks:  ‘Why is religion so persistent?’ What are we to make of contemporary problematic issues, such as extremism and terrorism, often associated with religion? What might the Taliban in Afghanistan, Anders Breivik in Norway, and the Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand, have in common, for instance? And why should scholars care?

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In this interview, Professor Pratt outlines a model for understanding the nature of the ‘persistence’ of religion, paying particular attention to three interwoven dimensions: narrative, ethical, and metaphysical. He also discusses, in the light of this model, the contemporary ‘problem’ of exclusivism and extremism which arguably arise from the lack of an adequate conceptual mechanism for coping with religious diversity. This interview was based on Professor Pratt’s keynote lecture, of the same title, at the 2012 BASR Annual Conference in Winchester, UK.

Douglas Pratt is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Waikato, New Zealand. His research interests focus on aspects of Christianity, Islam, Christian-Muslim relations, interreligious dialogue, and contemporary religious issues such as pluralism, fundamentalism and extremism. He is currently the President of the Australian Association for the Study of Religion (AASR). He has previously studied and taught at the Universities of Oxford and Birmingham, UK, University of Heidelberg, Germany, and has been a visiting scholar at the International Islamic University, Malaysia, and the Pontifical Institute for the Study of Arabic and Islam, Rome. Professor Pratt is a co-editor of a major re-publication series of classic texts in the field of Islamic Studies – Exploring the House of Islam: Perceptions of Islam in the Period of Western Ascendancy 1800-1945 – published by Gorgias Press, New Jersey, USA, and a co-editor and contributor to a major book, Understanding Interreligious Relations, to be published by OUP in 2013. He is a member of the international research leadership team on a major 4-year UK AHRC funded project Christian-Muslim Relations 1500-1900 commencing late 2012.

Mormonism, Growth and Decline

Mormonism – or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) – exploded onto the scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States of America, and has courted controversy ever since. From the recent upsurge in worldwide visibility of Mormonism due to the widespread attention given to the religious identity of Mitt Romney (the Republican Candidate in the 2012 US Presidential elections), to the huge success of the Southpark creators’ hit musical The Book of Mormon, there is no shortage of ill-informed opinion surrounding this group. Unsurprisingly, the academic study of religion has its own questions about Mormonism: can it be described as a New Religious Movement? Is there a unified phenomenon which can be classified as Mormonism? Is Mormonism to be considered as a form of Christianity? This week, Chris is joined by Ryan Cragun – Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida – to discuss not only these conceptual issues, but issues relating specifically to quantitative research, Mormon demographics, and the worldwide growth and decline of the LDS Church.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter.

What numbers should a quantitative scholar use when ‘counting’ Mormonism? Who does the categorization? Is Mormonism outside of the US different? In what ways? And what about Mormonism in the ‘heartland’ of Utah? These are just some of the questions which come up in the interview, and Professor Cragun provides a great introduction not only to Mormonism and quantitative research, but also to Mormon growth and decline in the context of the secularization thesis, and to the intricate relationships and correlations which can be observed between LDS membership and factors such as gender, employment, education, and ethnicity.

A number of papers are referred to in this interview, including Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses, The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists, and The Price of Free Inquiry in Mormonism, all of which can be accessed on Ryan’s personal website. Ryan Cragun is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida. He is author and co-author of many peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Contemporary Relgiion, Sociology of Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and more, and is the co-author (with Rick Phillips) of Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion (2012), and author of the forthcoming What You Don’t Know About Religion (but Should).

This interview was recorded in the business centre at the Lord Elgin Hotel, Ottawa during the Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts Conference. We are grateful to everyone who facilitated the recording in any way.

Secular Sacreds and the Sacred Secular

In recent years, the centrality of ‘the sacred’ to the academic study of religion has come under sustained attack in recent years due to the apparent (un)conscious assumption amongst its advocates of an ‘ontological phenomenon that transcends signification’ (Lynch 2012, 15). It is against this backdrop that Gordon Lynch sets out – in his recent book, The Sacred in the Modern World, and in his interview with Jonathan Tuckett – to rehabilitate the ‘sacred’ as a viable academic concept, to map out a cultural sociology of the sacred, and to ‘conceptualise the focus of [the sociology of religion…] beyond the study of traditional, institutional forms of religion’ (2012, 3).

In this response I shall utilise a case study amongst notionally ‘nonreligious’ undergraduate students (Cotter 2011), in combination with my engagement with Lynch’s book (which I would thoroughly recommend), as a springboard to suggestively open up the complex relationship between the concepts religion, nonreligion and the secular.

Some Terms

The academic study of religion and related categories is populated with reified, mutually constitutive dichotomies – religion/secular, sacred/profane, religion/nonreligion, sacred/secular for example. However, I suggest that it is generally unhelpful to speak of rigid dichotomies when considering these terms, and in some contexts it makes sense to refer to two triads – sacred/mundane/profane and religion/secular/nonreligion – from which terms can be combined to provide compound designations which apply to distinct real-world phenomena.

Let us defer to Lynch for an understanding of the first of these triads. He defines the sacred as ‘what people collectively experience as absolute, non-contingent realities which present normative claims over the meanings and conduct of social life’ (2012, 29). Against this backdrop, the profane is defined as ‘the evil that threatens this sacred form and pollutes whatever it comes into contact with’ whilst the mundane constitutes ‘the logics, practices, and spaces of everyday life’ (2012, 26). There are a number of things which I find compelling about this account: firstly, this makes no ‘claim that there is an actual ontological referent for sacred forms (ibid, 15). Secondly, it provides a space for the mundane, and allows us to potentially conceptualise degrees of sacredness/profanity and commitments to multiple sacred forms. Finally, as Lynch effectively demonstrates in the interview, this account shows that the sacred is not an exclusively religious category. As Kim Knott (2013) writes, citing Viekko Antonnen:

The ‘sacred’ (or its equivalent in other languages) can be attributed by people in non-theological as well as theological contexts, irrespective of the nature of their belief systems: ‘It is not a uniquely religious category…’ (Anttonen 2000, 274)

Turning to religion/secular/nonreligion, I take Lois Lee’s definition of non-religion, as ‘anything which is primarily defined by a relationship of difference to religion’(2012a, 131), and the secular as a space where ‘religion is not the primary or immediate reference point’ (Lee 2011, 3). From this it is clear that nonreligion’ does not simply refer to everything which is not explicitly ‘religious’. It is also clear that the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘nonreligion’ are, ‘semantically parasitic categories’ (Fitzgerald 2007, 54). This also enables me to run away from the problem of defining religion until another time, because in the context of the examples below, definitions of ‘religion’ (and its semantically parasitic other, ‘nonreligion’) were left open to the interpretation of my research participants

With these basic and brief understandings of these terms in mind, it makes a great deal of sense for Kim Knott to write that:

“… those forging social identities in secular contexts – who draw on non-religious commitments and beliefs including atheism, humanism and secularism – mark as ‘sacred’ those occasions (such as marriage), persons (a lover), things (a ring), places (a registry office) and principles (equality and justice) that they value above all others, and that they see as set apart and inviolable: those things that may be deemed to be both secular and sacred.” (2013)

A Scottish Example

My study – which will only be given the briefest of introductions now – involved engaging with the narratives of undergraduate students at the University of Edinburgh via electronic questionnaires and semi-structured interviews, taking Abby Day’s ‘researching belief without asking religious questions’ (2009) approach as a basic model. Ultimately, the students were classified into a ideal-typical five-fold typology of naturalistic, humanistic, spiritual, familial and philosophical, with a key outcome being that these types were ‘independent of religious categories’ (Quack 2011, 2) . Full details of results, sampling strategy, methods, interview schedules etc can be found in my dissertation.

Secular Sacreds

In terms of beliefs and self-identification, many of the students were what could be described as substantively nonreligious i.e. the terms with which they described themselves, and their reported beliefs, stood in contradistinction to what they understood to be ‘religion’ (for a rigorous and in-depth treatment of substantive nonreligiosity, see Lee (2012b)). This nonreligiosity manifested itself in diverse ways which were always linked to particular ‘secular sacreds’, which corresponded to my five types. To take the example of Courtney – a 21 year-old ‘humanistic’ student from the US – discourse became noticeably hostile when ‘religion’ was considered in conjunction with ‘sacred’ humanitarian values (in this instance, when the topic of ‘Faith Schools’ was raised):

Eugh. I don’t… I just… ew it, it [the term] gives me a visceral reaction because I believe so strongly that if… due to my own experience of, you know, if you don’t tell a kid about religion they’ll turn out atheist because everyone’s born an atheist, like I… I truly believe that and I just, I mean it’s… I hesitate to use such a… like a militant sounding phrase but it’s indoctrination of children and it just… it makes me very uneasy…

Then we have Niamh, a 19 year-old student from England, who is an example of what I would term a ‘familial’ student. For these students, beliefs, faith and values were frequently located in the ‘sacred’ family unit. In the following section of interview, Niamh has just described how her Protestant grandmother disowned Niamh’s father when he married her Catholic mother. Her father then went through a particularly traumatic emotional period after his own father died, since he had effectively been ostracised from the family:

…but after all of that with my mum and dad I just stopped going [to church] altogether… like I’d been quite religious before that but I just stopped… like… partly because I was too busy trying to get my mother out of bed, but partly because I just didn’t… I just thought it was a pile of crap basically, like… em… and, yeah that kind of… because up until then I suppose I had quite an easy life, like we’d never had a lot of money but I’d always had… emotionally there’d always been everything there, eh, and then suddenly there wasn’t and I had to sort… I suppose it made me like… because now if my … my mum stuck by my dad through everything, and that kind of made me feel like now I have to… you know you don’t give up on relationships even if… even if they’re going to shit you don’t… you don’t give up, you stick by people because if you don’t they might be in a mess, like my dad basically said if my mum had left him he’d have sh’… he’d have killed himself, so like now I like sort of have this view that you stick by people through as long as you can bear to, you know, and I guess that affects a lot…

I’m not saying that these are the only sacreds in their lives but that through their narratives they were the primary sacreds by which they were classified in my typology. If it comes down to the wire, to use a phrase from Kim Knott’s forthcoming chapter, these ‘trump’ other sacred values. Niamh actually placed a great deal of importance on her former religion but was willing to abandon it because of what it had done to her relationships: ‘it [religion] was always about family relationships and politics, basically, it was never about faith’. Courtney seemed to really value her nonreligiosity, but was willing to set it to the side when humanitarian issues were at stake: ‘I’d prefer if [charities] were secular, but I’m not going to quibble when you’re doing charity’. Although religion and nonreligion were referred to in both quotations, they were of secondary importance to the sacred values concerned, which could be described as their secular sacreds. Therefore, in this situation we have substantively nonreligious students, whose lives are oriented around a number of secular sacreds with different degrees of sacredness and which trump both religion and nonreligion.

This understanding of secular sacreds should not be seen as implying that these sacreds are solely the domain of secular individuals, and although I can understand Lynch’s uneasiness about the term, I agree with Knott (2013) that the addition of ‘secular’ is necessary at this stage, due to the uncritical conflation of ‘sacred’ with ‘religious’ in much prior scholarship.

The Sacred Secular

In terms of the relative importance (‘salience’ – see Day 2011) and practice of religion, many of these students appeared functionally secular, i.e. ‘being nonreligious’ was generally unimportant and had little impact upon day-to-day life. Few were members of ‘nonreligious’ organisations, and some participated in religious activities for the sake of relatives, or persisted in communal religious worship regardless of disagreements with many fundamental aspects of the religion’s teaching or personal crises of faith. Although I don’t have space to go into my deliberations here, evidence such as this led me to conclude that ‘being nonreligious’ does not play a major part in most of these students’ lives.

However, stating that one aspect of a person’s life is not the most important does not imply that this aspect is unimportant. Most claimed that their nonreligiosity came to the fore when challenged by particular situations – particularly when their sacred values are challenged.

‘The “sacred” can be located in reversible category positions, whether in things pure or impure, licit or forbidden (taboo), fixed or unfixed, violable or sacrosanct.’ (Anttonen 2005, 198) Various things, places and people are set apart according to time and context. The boundaries that become the focus of sacred-making discourse and activities have the potential to erupt as sites of struggle but for much of the time lie dormant and, as such, invisible. (Knott 2013)

At such moments of eruption, the interaction of religion with personal sacreds precipitated the recognition and reaffirmation of subjective nonreligiosity. In fact, in some cases, the sacred in question was the ‘secular’ itself, which was profaned by the incursion of religion into individual narratives. For instance:

…everyone’s always talking about like religious tolerance and that. I’m definitely tolerant towards people of all religions and no more so to like one than any other, um, but I’m not really tolerant of like public religion. I really dislike public religion and the fact that we’ve got an established church [in the UK … and that] everything’s allowed to be sort of quietly… quietly influenced by religion, and that annoys me.  (Harriet, 19, F)

There is a lot here which I think could be developed, and which I intend to develop during the course of my PhD, but basically what I wanted to suggest was that nonreligion is a complex substantive phenomenon characterised by a relationship of difference to prevailing religion, and the adoption of secular sacreds by individuals and, perhaps, sacralising the secular itself. Reframing understandings of (non)religion according to types of sacred which are independent of religious categories, allows (non)religious identities to be conceptualised to acknowledge the simultaneous intersection of multiple subjectively compatible (yet seemingly contradictory) religious and/or nonreligious identities, and paves the way for scholars to take religion seriously whilst avoiding unwarranted reverence. Paradoxically, if it provides robust models which work regardless of individual self-descriptions, it could also add to the growing critique of the usefulness of ‘religion’ as an analytic category.

[NB – This response is based on a presentation given at the BASR conference in Winchester, September 2012.]

References

  • Anttonen, Veikko. 2000. ‘Sacred’. In Guide to the Study of Religion, ed. Willi Braun and Russell T McCutcheon, 271–282. London: Cassell.
  • ———. 2005. ‘Space, Body and the Notion of Boundary: A Category-Theoretical Approach to Religion’. Temenos: Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion 41 (2): 185–201.
  • Cotter, Christopher R. 2011. ‘Toward a Typology of “Nonreligion”: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Unpublished MSc by Research Dissertation, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. http://www.academia.edu/1329691/Toward_a_Typology_of_Nonreligion_A_Qualitative_Analysis_of_Everyday_Narratives_of_Scottish_University_Students.
  • ———. 2012. ‘Scottish Students, Their Secular Sacreds, and the Sacred Secular: Borders, Boundaries and Transgressions in the Study of “Nonreligion”’. In  University of Winchester.
  • Day, Abby. 2009. ‘Researching Belief Without Asking Religious Questions’. Fieldwork in Religion 4 (1): 86–104.
  • ———. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Knott, Kim. 2013. ‘The Secular Sacred: In-between or Both/and?’ In Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Lee, Lois. 2011. ‘NSRN Glossary (unpublished Paper)’. In NSRN Terminology – Virtual Conference: Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/nsrn-glossary-28-aprl-2011-lois-lee1.pdf
  • ———. 2012a. ‘Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’. Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (1).
  • ———. 2012b. ‘Being Secular: Toward Separate Sociologies of Secularity, Nonreligion and Epistemological Culture’. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Cambridge: University of Cambridge.
  • Lynch, Gordon. 2012. The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Quack, Johannes. 2011. ‘Modes of Non-religiosity’. In  NSRN Terminology – Virtual Conference: Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/nsrn-terminology-conference-5-may-2011-johannes-quack-nonreligion-stream1.pdf.

Why are Women more Religious than Men?

The relationship of religion to gender is a highly complex and disputed area. However, it is well-documented that (to take some UK-based examples), ‘men are proportionately under-represented’ in (mainstream ‘Christian’) ‘religious’ services (Brown 2000, 193), and ‘women outnumber men on all indices of religiosity and spirituality’ (Day 2008, 267). In fact, Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce, the authors of the forthcoming Why are Women more Religious than Men? (OUP, 20 September 2012) unambiguously state in their abstract that, simply, ‘women are more religious than men’.

In this interview with Chris, recorded at the BSA’s Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference in March 2012, Dr Marta Trzebiatowska us a fascinating whirlwind tour through the masses of sociological research which have been done into this area in recent years.

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Explanations for this disparity in levels of religiosity include suggestions that ‘religion’ emphasises ‘‘feminine’ qualities of relationality and emotional expression’ (Aune and Vincett 2010, 222), and that ‘men tend to exhibit a greater degree of skepticism than do women’ (Bryant 2007, 844). It has been proposed that women explain their ‘religious’ experiences ‘in terms of protection [and] belonging’ (Day 2008, 274) and ‘value being caring and expressive, being a person through reciprocal relationships, and appreciate the value of improving the quality of subjective-life [in contrast to men, who concentrate] on improving the quality of life by way of autonomous, individuated and competitive agency in the world’ (Heelas et al. 2005, 110). Trzebiatowska extensively examines and critiques such explanations and concludes, with Bruce, that

the gender gap is not the result of biology but is rather the consequence of important social differences —responsibility for managing birth, child-rearing and death, for example, and attitudes to the body, illness and health — over-lapping and reinforcing each other. In the West, the gender gap is exaggerated because the social changes that undermined the plausibility of religion bore most heavily on men first. Where the lives of men and women become more similar, and where religious indifference grows, the gender gap gradually disappears.

For discussions on these issues and more, we recommend that you check out Marta’s other work, the references cited in this post, and the recently launched (2011) online journal previous interview with Lisbeth Mikaelsson on Religion and Gender.

Dr Marta Trzebiatowska is Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. Her research focuses on ‘taking religion seriously’ and on the relationship between religious discourses and gender politics. More specifically, she focuses on sociologically examining the ways in which religious women construct their femininity under circumstances commonly perceived as restrictive, or even oppressive, by secular feminists. She is the author of a number of articles and chapters in these areas, including Habit does not a nun make?: Religious dress in the lives of Polish Catholic nuns (Journal of Contemporary Religion) and When Reflexivity is Not Enough: Researching Polish Catholics (Fieldwork in Religion), and is co-author, with Steve Bruce, of the OUP Book Why are Women more Religious than Men? (2012).

This interview is the second in our series on Material/Embodied Religion, which started last week with David Morgan on Material Religion, and concludes next week with Professor Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Location.

References:

  • Aune, Kristin, and Giselle Vincett. “Gender Matters: Doing Feminist Research on Religion and Youth.” In Religion and Youth, edited by Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Pink Dandelion, 217–224. Surrey: Ashgate, 2010.
  • Bryant, Alyssa N. “Gender Differences in Spiritual Development During the College Years.” Sex Roles 56 (2007): 835–846.
  • Day, Abby. “Wilfully Disempowered.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 15, no. 3 (2008): 261 –276.
  • Heelas, Paul, Linda Woodhead, Benjamin Seel, Bronislaw Szerszynski, and Karen Tusting. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Editors’ Picks 4: The Secularisation Thesis

In this, the penultimate Editors’ Pick, David tells us why he chose his interview with Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation thesis as his favourite.

The secularisation thesis – the idea that traditional religions are in terminal decline in the industrialised world – was perhaps the central debate in the sociology of religion in the second half of the 20th century. Scholars such as Steve Bruce, Rodney Stark and Charles Taylor argued whether religion was becoming less important to individuals, or that only the authority of religions in the public sphere was declining. Data from the US and South America, however, began to challenge many of their basic assumptions. Professor Linda Woodhead joins us to discuss the background and legacy of the secularisation thesis.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below the original posting of this podcast. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Editors’ Picks 3: Jay Demerath on Functionalist Religion and the Substantive Sacred

Week three of our Editors’ Picks. Chris tells us why he (and his fiancée) liked Jay Demerath’s interview on substantive and functionalist definitions of religion.

Could the difficulties associated with the academic conceptualisation of “religion” be overcome by changing our focus instead to “the sacred”? Jay Demerath tells Chris why we should define religion substantively – that is, in terms of specific attributes like rituals, deities or dogmas – but the sacred in terms of the function it serves in the lives of individuals and cultures. From this perspective, religion can be considered one of a number of potential sources of the sacred.

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Jay Demerath is currently the Emile Durkheim Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he has been a faculty member since 1972, including ten years as Chair. Prior to UMass, he received a 1958 A.B. from Harvard and a 1964 Ph.D from the U. Of California, Berkeley before rising from Instructor to Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and serving as Executive Officer of the American Sociological Association. Among his many publications, he is author or editor of fourteen books, including the award-winning Crossing the Gods: World Religions and Worldly Politics (2001) and the recent Sage Handbook for the Sociology of Religion (2008). The current Chair-elect of the Religion Section of the American Sociological Association, he is also past-President of the Eastern Sociological Society, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Association for the Sociology of Religion.

Of particular relevance to this interview is his paper from 2000, The Varieties of Sacred Experience: Finding the Sacred in a Secular Grove, from the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 39, p. 1–11. Here’s the abstract:

This paper contends that the social scientific study of religion has long labored under a chafing constraint and a misleading premise. It suggests that our primary focus should be on the sacred, and that religion is just one among many possible sources of the sacred. Defining religion “substantively” but the sacred “functionally” helps toresolve a long-standing tension in the field. Broadened conceptions of the sacred and of “sacralization” help to defuse the conflict among the two very different versions of secularization theory: the “all-or-nothing” versus the “middle range.” Meanwhile, a conceptual typology of the sacred pivots around the intersections of two distinctions (compensatory vs. confirmatory and marginal vs. institutional). This generates four distinct scenarios: the sacred as integrative, the sacred as quest, the sacred as collectivity, and the sacred as counter-culture. The paper concludes with three admonitions for research in the area.

In Saecula Saeculorum: Reflecting on the Age/Aeon in light of the Cappadocian Fathers

In Saecula Saeculorum: Reflecting on the Age/Aeon in light of the Cappadocian Fathers

By Mario Baghos, St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College and University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 23 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Tariq Modood on the Crisis of European Secularism (28 May 2012).

Introduction

Drawing on my own research and interdisciplinary interests, the following response to Professor Tariq Modood’s podcast entitled ‘The Crisis of European Secularism’ will consist in a summary of his main thesis, followed by a statement of the challenge I seek to address, namely the anthropocentrism inherent in (some forms of) contemporary secularism; particularly its neglect of religion/God and the cosmos.  This will be followed by an etymological analysis of the word ‘secular,’ which is analogous with the age/aeon, especially as it was envisaged by the Cappadocian fathers of the early Church, Ss Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian (or, ‘Nazianzus’). It is hoped that their holistic vision of the age, one in which God and the cosmos were in fact included, can inspire further reflection on the way we experience our ‘age.’

Summary, and Addressing the ‘Crisis’

David Robertson’s insightful interview with Professor Tariq Modood unfolds within the parameters of a very pertinent debate, namely, the relationship between secular nations or states and religious institutions; where secularism, in a broad sense, has to do with separation of these two spheres. Professor Modood distinguishes between three types of secularism that, historically, have conditioned the relationship between governments and religious establishments since the Enlightenment. These can be described as ‘soft,’ ‘strict,’ and ‘moderate,’ the latter implying that organised religion and political authority can be partners, albeit in a limited sense (i.e. whilst retaining their mutual autonomy). According to him, it is the ‘strict’ form of secularism – an outcome of the French concept of laïcité – that is unfortunately prevailing in British society at a time when a new religious pluralism is beginning to emerge with immigration by Muslim minorities. Indeed, Professor Modood is genuinely concerned with positing a framework (i.e. through moderate secularism), where British authorities and Muslim clerics can work together without compromising the secularism of the former and the religious convictions/way of life of the latter. Whilst appreciating the significance of Modood’s presentation, I am reluctant to comment on it further, insofar as I do not feel sufficiently equipped with the knowledge pertaining to the secular policies of our modern governments, nor the intricacies of immigration. However, Modood’s nuanced description of various secularisms does offer the opportunity to engage the ‘crisis’ in relation to my own research interests; for whilst the professor has pertinently observed their implications for the relationship between politics and religious/ethnic minorities, I will be presupposing that the general mentality (or, metanarrative) behind secularism can be both anthropocentric and reductionist, insofar as its promotion of a-religiosity (on a political level) and preoccupation for the interests of human beings precludes an appreciation for the ways in which the ‘age’ has been interpreted by ancient and traditional societies, wherein God and the cosmos were intimately bound with the human endeavour or history. As pretexts for this anthropocentrism, the increasing neglect of God and religion in public affairs (the latter pointed to by Modood with reference to the ‘strict’ model), Mircea Eliade’s characterisation of modern ‘man’ [or, people] as only existing “insofar as he makes himself, within history [i.e. apart from cosmos]” (2005: xxiii), as well as the scientifically proven and very obvious degradation to the planet since the Industrial Revolution in the name of our own progress, will have to suffice for such a short piece. But before moving forward I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Modood for drawing my attention to some very important and sensitive issues, apart from which I would have remained rather ignorant.

Scope and Definitions

As mentioned, I intend to begin with an etymological analysis. Presupposing that words or definitions are indicative of the mentalities that produce them, I will address the concept of the ‘age’ or aeon as implied by the secondary meaning of the Latin term saeculum, wherefrom the word ‘secular’ is derived. I am aware of the difficulties inherent in undertaking an etymological analysis without extensively considering the different ways in which the notion of secularism and its cognates (such as ‘secularisation,’ ‘secularity’) have been employed across a range of interpretive disciplines (the history of religion, the sociology of religion, the field of geo-politics, to name a few). Nevertheless, having recently explored the historical development and use of some of these definitions as set out both in Modood’s presentation and in the works of N. J. Demerath and Judith Fox, I believe that my approach is legitimated by etymological analyses of the words ‘culture’ (Demerath 2007: 71) and ‘secular’ (Fox 2005: 292) undertaken by the latter in order to demonstrate their respective theses. Of particular relevance is Fox’s demonstration that the derivation of this term, coming from “the same etymological root (L. saeculum) as the French word siecle, meaning ‘century’ or ‘age,’” is also evident in “the astronomical use of the word secular to talk about processes of change over long periods of time” (Fox: 292). Perhaps unintentionally hinting at the longue durée of the Annales school of historiography (Le Goff 1992: xxi-xxii), this astronomical definition is important, for it can be interpreted as pointing to a relationship between the Latin saeculum and the Greek aeon (αἰῶν); the latter being a more flexible term which can mean either a long period of time or eternity depending on the context. To this end, the Latin phrase in saecula saeculorum, included in my title, is the Vulgate translation of the New Testament phrase “into the ages of ages” (εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων/eis toūs aiōnas tōn aiōnōn) which is commonly mistranslated as the eternity of God, but in fact relates to a doxological (and hence, existential) appraisal of his sovereign presence and providential activity throughout both the present age and the eschatological ages to come (Cf. Gal 1:5, Eph 3:21, Phil 4:20, 1 Tim 1:17, 2 Tim 4:18, Heb 13:21, 1 Pet 4:11, Rev 1:18, 4:9, 10, 5:13, 7:12, 11:15, 22:5). Usually preceded by an invocation of the Holy Trinity, this doxological phrase commonly prefigured many prayers and hymns of the Christianity of the late antique and medieval periods, resounding today in its major branches, Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. So, as my title suggests, I will address the concept of the ‘age’ or aeon as implied by the secondary meaning of the Latin term saeculum as a long period of time (here to be understood as the duration of the cosmos), evoking the existential dimension of the Christian tradition with its antecedents in the scriptures and exemplified in material which is of immediate relevance to (and an outcome of) my own research, namely, the writings of the fourth century Cappadocian fathers Ss Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian. I will show that their conception of the age or aeon is one in which God and the cosmos are included, which, I will argue, stands in stark contradistinction to our anthropocentric and reductionist interpretations of secularism.

The Cappadocians on the Age/Aeon

The Basilian concept of the ‘age’ is associated with two other aspects of his thinking, namely, his exegetical approach to the scriptures – more particularly Genesis (i.e. protology) – and his eschatological vision; where the eschaton, the ‘last things’ of the historical continuum traditionally described as “Christ’s final judgment of humanity, the resurrection of the dead and the final ‘transformation of the cosmos’” (Baghos: 2010: 86) were envisaged as anticipated in the here and now in an ecclesial context. Concerning the former, which is expounded at length in his Hexaēmeron (or, Homilies on the Six Days of Creation), he notes that scripture [i.e. Gen 1:5] “calls the first day of creation ‘one day’ – ἡμέρα μία [heméra mía] – instead of the ‘first’ – πρώτη ἡμέρα [prótē heméra] – in a succession of days” (Baghos: 89). The Cappadocian allegorically interprets this ‘one’ day (heméra mía) as symbolising a totality that recapitulates within itself all of creation history from beginning to end as metaphorically represented by the creation narrative. He does this by suggesting that the very structure of the week of Genesis, which is paradigmatic for the duration of time we experience (i.e. all subsequent ‘weeks’), constitutes an image or approximation of eternity in its cyclical rotation. Hence, both the ‘one’ day and its consecutive ‘reiterations’ point to the aforementioned recapitulation of history which he also describes as the age/aeon (αἰῶν), which does not simply refer to the human endeavour undertaken for its own sake; but to the origin, rhythms and purpose of the entire created cosmos, consisting of both the “heavenly and earthly, human and biological, astronomical and mineral” (Costache 2010: 22), which he elucidates throughout the treatise. So, for this traditional thinker, there could be no separation between the notion of the age and the cosmic purpose that contained within itself the human endeavour (Costache: 23), thereby leaving no room for the sort of anthropocentrism characterising contemporary secularism(s). St Basil also refers to “the ages of ages” mentioned in the scriptures (see above), stating that, since they are not enumerated in a sequence (as the six days of creation in Genesis) they do not refer to ‘ages.’ Instead, they pertain to “differences of conditions and of various circumstances” (Hexaēmeron 2.8, at 35. PG 29, 49D-52A) that pertain to this very age designated by the ‘one’ day, the age or aeon, and also the ‘eighth day’ that occurs outside the week of time and hence our temporal experience. Days ‘one’ and ‘eight,’ inhering within the same aeon, not only point to the inextricable relationship between protology and eschatology in the saint’s thinking, but also to the fact that those aspects relating to the ‘last things’ mentioned above can be experienced in any epoch, thereby prefiguring the profoundly existential already/not yet of the eschaton put forward by contemporary scholarship; that although God’s kingdom has ‘already’ been established in the Church (with the advent of Christ), it is ‘not yet’ consummated – and won’t be until the second coming (Baghos: 85). In his On the Holy Spirit, St Basil highlights this ecclesial dimension by affirming that days ‘one’ and ‘eight’ coincide on a Sunday, which in Greek is literally the ‘Lord’s day’ – or Κυριακή (Kyriakē) – the principal day on which the Eucharistic liturgy was and still is celebrated (Baghos: 85). Herein lies the existential significance of the age for this Church father. For him, the ecclesial rhythms, but especially the liturgy, recapitulate God’s providential activity throughout the entire age understood cosmically; what has happened, is happening, and will happen is summed up within the Sunday, the ‘one’ day of creation, through which believers are able to have an immediate foretaste of the ‘eighth’ day, i.e. the eschatological life to come.

St Gregory the Theologian’s vision of the age/aeon is as holistic as that of his friend and peer, St Basil. At the beginning of the twenty-fifth chapter of his Fifth Theological Oration, he states that “there have been two transformations of life manifested out of the entire age [τοῦ παντὸς αἰῶνος/toū pantōs aiōnos]” (Fifth Theological Oration 25, at 136. PG 36, 160D). I have written elsewhere that this all-encompassing approach, resonating with Basil’s conception of the age, “attempts to give a comprehensive account of the historical drama and the persons and events that it includes” (Baghos 2011: 24). In other words, the Cappadocian’s perception was akin to what we today call a metanarrative, which, he went on to affirm, unfolded between the two covenants of the Old and New Testaments, which he also described as “earthquakes” marking two important existential changes in disposition of God’s people; from the pagan idols to the Mosaic Law, and from the Law to the Christian Gospel (Baghos: 24-25). For the Theologian, these two changes were analogously marked by the disclosure of God as Trinity; the first covenant proclaimed the Father, the second the Son, whilst also giving believers “a glimpse of the Spirit’s Godhead” (Fifth Theological Oration, 26, at 137; PG 36, 161C) before his revelation to the apostles and the ecclesial community. Here, we encounter a conception of the age/aeon that far from being interpreted anthropocentrically, is instead concerned with God’s self-disclosure that unfolds in stages proportionate to the capacity of human beings to receive it (Baghos 2011: 29). That this self-disclosure is again profoundly existential is exemplified by the saint’s insistence that the Spirit dwelt within the apostles, and his understanding of the eschatological experience as constituting the “third and final earthquake that will translate the cosmos into an unshaken, unmoved mode of being” (Baghos 2011: 31). And it is precisely here that the cosmic dimension of Gregory’s vision of the age is exhibited; for this eschatological rumination, when compared intertextually with chapters 11-13 of his Oration 38, denotes that whilst the historical continuum moves from one ‘covenantal earthquake’ to the next, it is in fact marked on either end (i.e. alpha and omega) by the Demiurge Logos (i.e. Christ), who, in his pre-incarnate existence created the spiritual and material worlds (Baghos: 30-31). For Gregory it is to this same Logos, now incarnate as Christ Jesus, towards which history, and hence the age, is oriented; thereby precluding the anthropocentric model in light of the inevitable teleological encounter of the universe and all it contains with God the Son.

Concluding Remarks

In an environment where secularism is often interpreted as a prerogative in human self-governance and even our perception and experience of the world, it is perhaps intriguing – if not often disquieting – to be confronted with how representative figures from other epochs, usually considered more religious than our own, viewed their own age and all it contained. Whilst there are many forms of secularism, such as those pointed out by professor Modood in his podcast, what I have been concerned with in this piece is to offer an alternative, holistic vision of the concept of the age/aeon based on the writings of two figures from fourth century Christianity. Whilst some might decry this diachronic, and in fact interdisciplinary approach, I am finding that it has become a staple of my own research, insofar as I am genuinely convinced that the religious perceptions and mentalities from any context can offer insights into contemporary situations, not the least secularism. In the beginning of this response I mentioned the fact that secularism can be, in a general sense, characterised by an anthropocentrism that is manifested in a neglect of God and religion in public affairs, as well as an a-cosmicism that has had an immediate effect on our environment. I then undertook an etymological analysis of the term ‘secular,’ in order to legitimate its use with reference to the age or aeon. This led me to a brief exploration of the conception of the ‘age’ in two representative figures of early Christianity, namely the Cappadocians Basil and Gregory. In the former, I identified the relationship between the age and the cosmic rhythms, outlining their existential dimension that is facilitated by the Eucharistic liturgy, wherein the entire salvific economy (or, God’s presence in the age) is anticipated with a foretaste of the future eschaton. In the latter, I observed a metanarrational vision of history (or the age) whereby God gradually discloses himself through the ‘covenantal earthquakes’; a vision which is not without its cosmic significance insofar as the age is marked by Christ’s presence on either end as creator and consummator. That the vision of these two saints is not without contemporary relevance is testified by their veneration, especially amongst Eastern Orthodox Christians, who moreover continue to refer to them with epithets established by tradition (‘the Great,’ ‘Theologian’) and to celebrate liturgies ostensibly written by them. It is perhaps worth pondering the ramifications of secularism on these Christians, both as it increases in popularity in their native countries and as they migrate abroad. As a final note, in focusing on these specifically Christian figures I did not mean to preclude the perception and experience of other religious traditions. On the contrary, it is hoped that their holistic perception and experience of the ‘age’ as one in which God and the cosmos are included will provide a meaningful alternative to our modern experience of it as interpreted from the viewpoint of various secularisms, which I have posited can be anthropocentric, and hence reductionist, in nature.

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:

 

Mario Baghos is Associate Lecturer in Patristic Studies and Church History at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Redfern, Sydney. He is a PhD candidate in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. His research interests include the city of Constantinople, patristic eschatology, and the history of religions and mentalities.

 

References

Baghos, Mario (2010) ‘St Basil’s Eschatological Vision: Aspects of the Recapitulation of History and the Eighth Day’ Phronema 25, 85-103.

Baghos, Mario (2011) ‘The Meaning of History: Insights from St Gregory the Theologian’s Existential Metanarrative’ Colloquium 43:1, 17-38.

Costache, Doru (2010) ‘Christian Worldview: Understandings from St Basil the Great’ Phronema 25, 21-56.

Demerath III, N.J. (2007) ‘Secularization and Sacralization Deconstructed and Reconstructed’ in James A. Beckford and N.J. Demerath II (eds.) The Sage Handbook of the Sociology of Religion. London: Sage Publications, 57-79.

Eliade Mircea (2005) The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History, trans. W.R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fox, Judith (2005) ‘Secularization’ in John R. Hinnells (ed.) The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. Oxon: Routledge, 291-305.

Harrison, Nonna Verna (trans.) (2008) Festal Orations: Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, in Popular Patristics Series 36, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood NY: SVS Press.

Hildebrand, Stephen (trans.) (2011) St Basil the Great: On the Holy Spirit, in Popular Patristics Series 42, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Le Goff, Jacques (1992): History and Memory, trans. S. Rendall and E. Claman. New York: Columbia University Press.

Way, Agnes Clare (trans.) (2003) St Basil: Exegetical Homilies, The Fathers of the Church Series, vol. 46. Washington D.C: The Catholic University of American Press.

Williams, Frederick (trans.) (2002) St Gregory of Nazianzus: On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and the Two Letters to Cledonius, Popular Patristics Series 23, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Historical Approaches to (Losing) Religion

How can we use historical approaches in the study of religion? More specifically, can we use historical approaches to understand why people are losing it? Professor Callum Brown tells us why historical approaches have much to tell us about religious change.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Callum Brown is Professor of Religious and Cultural History at the University of Dundee. He is a social and cultural historian with special research interests in religion and secularisation in the post 1750 period – especially in the 20th and 21st centuries – mostly in Scotland and Britain, but also Canada, USA and Ireland.

He is currently involved in the project A Social and Cultural History of Modern Humanism, covering Scotland, UK, Ireland, Canada and USA and using especially oral history focusing on the social and cultural origins of individuals’ humanism, looking at issues like family background, religious experiences, and cultural alignments. He is also about to publish Religion and the Demographic Revolution: Women and Secularisation in Canada, Ireland, UK and USA since the 1960s (London, Boydell & Brewer), which looks at demographic behaviour in the North Atlantic world, and the correlations between gender change, the sexual revolution, changes in patterns of marriage and cohabitation, and changes in religious ritual (such as religious solemnisation of marriage, baptism and funeral rites), and incorporates considerable statistical research. 

You may also be interested in our recent interview with Professor Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation Thesis, and Bjoern Mastiaux’s essay on the same topic.

For an interesting response essay to this podcast, please see Tim Hutchings’ A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion. For a more ‘informal’ response, you can listen to our roundtable discussion session on the question Can We Trust the Social Sciences?.

Secularization: A Look at Individual Level Theories of Religious Change

The Demise of Established Religiosity

While it is often argued that the secularization thesis only referred to macro-level secularization – the separation of religion from other societal spheres in the process of functional differentiation (cf. e.g. Wilson 1998) – there is no way of denying that most specific secularization theories also refer to a loss of significance of religion on the individual level, explicitly or implicitly, which may be prompted by macro-level differentiation and individualization, and which itself may affect the meso-level in the form of a steady decrease in church membership or attendance (cf. Dobbelaere 2000). As an explanation for this observed or expected micro-level secularization either one or both of two reasons are commonly given. It is either assumed that there was or will be no further need for religion – as, in Weber’s case, rationality and science have taken over its explanatory function or as, in Marx’s case, its solace function will not be required any longer in a perfect socialist society. Or it is postulated that the individual will eventually lose confidence in the established religion’s supernatural truth claims, will literally fall from or at least be shaken in his or her faith. This was the central argument of Peter L. Berger’s early approach (before his conversion to being critical of secularization theory), which was built on the idea that any belief or belief system relied on an intact “plausibility structure”, provided through social affirmation. But Christianity’s plausibility structure – the taken-for-grantedness particularly of its metaphysical claims – had suffered from the accessibility of a plurality of competing religious faiths and other worldviews, made commonplace by modern media, travel, education, and cultural exchange, and thereby from decreasing affirmation or even widespread refutation. The result of this, in any modernized society, would be a doubting, secularized populace as well as secularized churches, which would refrain from overly demanding metaphysics and, instead, turn to the individuals’ this-worldly needs in order to avoid their complete demise (cf. Berger 1980).

This concentration on the decline of institutionalized, established, church religiosity by early secularization theorists prompted some criticism. Berger’s companion in other projects, Thomas Luckmann (who defined as religion anything that helps people to overcome different sorts of “transcendences”), claimed that religion had not disappeared but only changed its location – e.g. to psychotherapy, esotericism, and other hedonistic projects of self-fulfillment. To him, religion had become privatized and thereby “invisible” for the social scientific study of religion (cf. Luckmann 1967). Similar to this is Grace Davie’s (1994) concept of “believing without belonging”, and other theories of individualized religiosity, which claim that spirituality persists outside institutionalized churches. Relying on Durkheim’s integration model of religion, Robert N. Bellah, too, denied that religion had disappeared but claimed that, in a multidenominational nation such as the United States, it had to manifest itself differently – not in an all-encompassing, European style nation church, but in what he called “civil religion”, composed of reference to a generalized “God” as well as of “sacralized” national institutions, documents, figures, holidays, and symbols, whose role it was to achieve national integration (cf. Bellah 1967). Nevertheless, both Luckmann and Bellah agreed that the significance of conventional churches and denominations, as well as of personal (substantively defined) religious belief and activity, had diminished over the past decades.

The American Challenge

An early critic of the view that modernity necessarily meant secularization, as pointed out by Linda Woodhead, was David Martin. Besides rejecting an ahistorical, undifferentiated theory of secularization as a universal, linear, and irreversible process, Martin warned against secularists (and for him this might just as well apply to proponents of secularization theory) taking “Catholic laments about the period when men were truly religious” too seriously (Martin 1969: 30). In order to diagnose secularization in the present one would have to believe in the existence of a former “Golden Age of Faith”, a highly sacralized past. But for critics of the secularization thesis this constituted largely a fiction. They argued that there had never been a time of universal and widespread religious belief and presented examples of medieval impiety as proof (cf. Bruce 2011).

Yet attacks on secularization theory were not only directed against its depictions of the past, but also of the present, with the most prominent (twofold) challenge coming from the United States of America. Firstly, the empirical situation in the U.S. had always given reason for doubt. American rates of church affiliation had constantly been high, as had rates of individuals’ belief in a personal god and other religious indicators. Particularly surprising was that this situation was to be found in a highly modernized as well as religiously pluralized country. Secondly, starting in the U.S. during the 1980s, these doubts were translated into a forceful theoretical onslaught on secularization theory, brought forward by the so-called “rational choice” or “market” theorists of religion. Rodney Stark, Laurence R. Iannaccone, William S. Bainbridge, and Roger Finke wholeheartedly dismissed the idea of micro-level secularization. Instead they claimed that demand for religious products, for other-worldly “compensators”, was always stable and about the same in any society – with a range of societal “niches” with differing degrees of such demand. What really differed when comparing different societies – and the historically specific characteristics of which had produced the, in their view, exceptional case of European “secularization” – was the makeup of the “religious marketplace”, the degree to which religious entrepreneurs were free or hindered to do their business. In contrast to Berger’s original view, religious pluralism was not seen as undermining religious faith and vitality, but on the contrary as a prerequisite for sufficient supply to meet the diverse kinds of religious demand (cf. Stark, Bainbridge 1987, Stark 2000, Stark, Finke 2000).

According to this theory, citizens in the United States, with its free and rich religious market, were able to make a “rational choice” about their religious affiliation and pick one according to their specific preferences. Those segments of society, for example, who took a specific interest in the supernatural promises of a religious brand – such as compensation in the afterlife for earthly suffering – would favor fundamentalist churches, because these, with their high costs for membership (e.g. abstinence from some earthly pleasures, stigmatizing appearance, denial of contact to wider society), were able to generate a dependent and committed congregation. For these religious searchers, a vibrant community of believers is seen as crucial, since, other than a congregation of lazy and sullen churchgoers, only this would be able to provide at least some testimony to a highly insecure and untestable expected reward, such as other-worldly promises. This would explain the success particularly of “strict churches” in the U.S. (cf. Iannaccone 1994). Religious vitality in Europe, on the other hand, was thwarted by a lack of religious choice and, in addition, a lack of incentives for pampered state church officials to make their regulated religious brand somewhat more appealing. To the rational choice authors, the dearth of religious vitality in most of Europe has nothing to do with diminished demand, or individual secularization, but everything with insufficient supply. Accordingly, they expect that with further separation of church and state and further cutbacks of church privileges in Europe, these countries will, after some generations, eventually be de-secularized and become as religiously vital as the United States, leaving proclaimed individual-level secularization a mere fiction, or even an ideology, and Europe’s meso-level secularization nothing but a historical oddity (cf. Stark, Iannaccone 1994, Stark, Finke 2000).

Refined Theories of Secularization

This economic approach has, from its conception, drawn a lot of criticism – in particular from Steve Bruce, whom Linda Woodhead called “probably the most important defender of secularization theory now”, and who has published a book length refutation of the economic theory of religion, hoping that this might be “the stake through the vampire’s chest”, as which he sees his opponents (Bruce 1999, 2). Somewhat more moderate is the criticism by Christopher G. Ellison (1995) and Darren E. Sherkat (1997). They agree with Stark and his colleagues that people make their religious choices rationally, but doubt that they necessarily do so for inherently religious reasons. Instead, on many occasions, people would enter, remain in, or actively participate in specific churches with the reactions of others in mind – e.g. in order to set an example or not to suffer social sanctions. This would make individual-level secularization compatible with high levels of religiosity on the organizational level – people may remain active in churches for social reasons, without actually believing.

Steve Bruce agrees and concludes that the supposed “free choice”, central to the rational choice approach of religion, was actually a fiction. While overall in the United States there really existed a plurality of religions and denominations, at the local level, where people actually made their religious choices, this was not so. Even if there were a plurality of churches in one town or county, membership was not open to everyone, but bound up with ethnicity, class, or other forms of social identity and related sanctions: “Racial segregation is still such that adding a black Pentecoastal church to a town does not in the least increase the choice for white Americans. Adding a German language Lutheran church makes no difference to a Swedish American.” (Bruce 1996, 135). Yet, Bruce does not doubt that many Americans actually are highly religious and practice their faith fervently and wholeheartedly. But, in his view – and in contrast to the rational choice theorists’ – this does not falsify secularization theory as such. Bruce’s explanation is that, in many places in the United States, modernization did not and could not have its secularizing effects. Due to the deregulation of the informational and educational sectors, the United States enabled fundamentalist Christianity to build its own universe, shielding its members from different views in the privatized media, schools, and even universities, and thereby leaving the religion’s “plausibility structure” intact (cf. Bruce 2002, 2011).

Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart offer a different explanation for why Americans seem to cling to religion in large numbers. Analyzing a range of international surveys and indices, they show that subjective religiosity is positively correlated with existential insecurity. In line with the classical view of Marx and Freud, but also with the rational choice theorists, they conclude that religion may serve as consolation or compensation. But they differ from the rational choice theorists in that they do not assume such need to be universal, but rather dependent on the specific economic situation and other alterable factors under which individuals live and grow up – and that in this respect the United States is, at least for now, an exceptional case in the western world: “Relatively high levels of economic insecurity are experienced by many sectors of U.S. society, despite American affluence, due to the cultural emphasis on the values of personal responsibility, individual achievement, and mistrust of big government, limiting the role of public services and the welfare state for basic matters such as healthcare covering all the working population” (Norris, Inglehart 2004, 108). Being and feeling more vulnerable to existential risks, Americans were more likely to turn to religion for solace and comfort than were citizens of other western nations.

Conclusion

Over the past decades, the secularization thesis has been discarded – but only insofar as it postulated an inevitable, universal, and uniform process. It would be going too far, though, to assume that “there was nothing really ever there”. Theories of secularization have, instead, been refined. Karel Dobbelaere (2002) and José Casanova (1994) have shown that secularization may work differently on different levels – for example affecting the institutional organization of society, but not individual religiosity. Concerning the latter, Bruce and Norris/Inglehart maintain that modernization is very likely to have a secularizing effect – yet only insofar as it is accompanied by 1) access to a plurality of worldviews as well as 2) feelings of existential security for wide sectors of society. Both conditions depend on political and economic arrangements and are prone to change. Consequently, secularization is no longer seen as a natural development – even by its theoretical proponents –  but, rather, as a contingent phenomenon.

References

Bellah, Robert N. (1967): Civil Religion in America. Daedalus 96, 1-21.

Berger, Peter L. (1980): The Heretical Imperative. Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation. London: Collins.

Bruce, Steve (1996): Religion in the Modern World. From Cathedrals to Cults. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Bruce, Steve (1999): Choice and Religion. A Critique of Rational Choice Theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Bruce, Steve (2002): God is Dead. Secularization in the West. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Bruce, Steve (2011): Secularization. In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Casanova, José (1994): Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Davie, Grace (1994): Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing Without Belonging. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Dobbelaere, Karel (2000): Toward an Integrated Perspective of the Processes Related to the Descriptive Concept of Secularization. In: Swatos Jr. et al. (eds.): The Secularization Debate. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 21-39.

Dobbelaere, Karel (2002): Secularization: An Analysis at Three Levels. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Ellison, Christopher G. (1995): Rational Choice Explanations of Individual Religious Behavior: Notes on the Problem of Social Embeddedness. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34, 89-97.

Iannaccone, Laurence R. (1994): Why Strict Churches Are Strong. In: American Journal of Sociology 99, 1180-1211.

Luckmann, Thomas (1967): The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society. New York: Macmillan.

Martin, David (1969): The Religious and the Secular. Studies in Secularization. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Norris, Pippa and Ronald Inglehart (2004): Sacred and Secular. Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sherkat, Darren E. (1997): Embedding Religious Choices. Preferences and Social Constraints into Rational Choice Theories of Religious Behavior. In: Young (ed.): Rational Choice Theory and Religion. Summary and Assessment. London, New York: Routledge, 66-86.

Stark, Rodney (2000): Secularization R.I.P.. In: Swatos Jr. et al. (eds.): The Secularization Debate. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 41-66.

Stark, Rodney and William S. Bainbridge (1987): A Theory of Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Stark, Rodney and Roger Finke (2000): Acts of Faith. Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Stark, Rodney and Laurence R. Iannaccone (1994): A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the “Secularization” of Europe. In: Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33, 230-252.

Wilson, Bryan (1998): The Secularization Thesis: Criticisms and Rebuttals. In: Laersmans et al. (eds.): Secularization and Social Integration: Papers in Honour of Karel Dobbelaere. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 45-66.

The Secularisation Thesis

The secularisation thesis – the idea that traditional religions are in terminal decline in the industrialised world – was perhaps the central debate in the sociology of religion in the second half of the 20th century. Scholars such as Steve Bruce, Rodney Stark and Charles Taylor argued whether religion was becoming less important to individuals, or that only the authority of religions in the public sphere was declining. Data from the US and South America, however, began to challenge many of their basic assumptions. Professor Linda Woodhead joins us to discuss the background and legacy of the secularisation thesis.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation Thesis (16 April 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. Robertson. Transcribed by Martin Lepage.

 

David Robertson: The secularisation thesis is probably the biggest central theme and certainly the most hotly debated in the sociology of religion, certainly since the 1960’s. Why is it so important and how has it changed? To talk to us today about this, we’ve got Professor Linda Woodhead, from the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Perhaps, you could just begin at the beginning with where does the secularisation thesis come from? Where does it begin?

Linda Woodhead: Actually, the origins of secularisation theory are coterminous with the origins of sociology itself. It’s absolutely fundamental to the whole discipline and all the great fathers of sociology – Weber, Durkheim and Marx – believed and expounded some version of secularisation theory. At the very heart of the social sciences, this belief that, as societies modernized, religion will decline. And each had a different way of explaining that. For Weber, it was primarily about the rise of scientific knowledge and it was about the application of rational standards, bureaucratic standards, in life more generally. He thought that that way of thinking and reasoning disenchanted the world, it cast out the magical, the religious. Durkheim had a rather different explanation of why religion declines. He thought that religion binds societies together, and he particularly thought that religion binds small groups together, and they meet face to face and celebrate the sacred. He thought that as societies modernized and urbanized, those fundamental bonds are broken, and religion is broken in that process as people move to cities and are individualized more. And Marx thought, of course, that religion would die out once you get the perfect socialist communist State. He thought it was a symptom of all that was wrong with society, a way of coping with the oppressions and difficulties of society. Once we realised the perfect society, you won’t need religion. In different ways, all of those classical theories are evolutionary or they’re progressive.

DR: I was going to ask that. Are they strongly tied to this notion of the gradual perfection of society and the move out of the darkness and into the light?

LW: They are really, and that’s a kind of, in a way, a blind spot of classical secularisation theory, in modern forms, that they didn’t really, perhaps… they weren’t sociological enough about their own background and presuppositions. This early crop of the classical theories, are all bound up with Nation-States developing, growing, extending their power and with their new elites, including academic elites, like the sociologists establishing their status. There was a kind of implicit optimism that the way that European society is developing is at the cutting edge of social evolution. So all societies are going to follow, so eventually everyone will become secular like we are. That’s never quite said, but that really does lie behind this theory. That we are not just talking about the tie of religion and particularities of here and now, we’re talking about an inevitable, inextricable process that everyone is destined to go through.

DR: That’s a critique of the narrative of modernization and westernisation anyway, that this is inevitable and even desirable motif. Maybe we can move on to the… I don’t want to call them the classical theorists, but the most famous describers of the secularisation thesis in the simple form that we know it.

LW: You could say that those classical sociologists, Weber, Durkheim, Marx, are sort of phase one of secularisation. And then there’s been a phase two. Phase two came in the wake of the Second World War, really. It was really flourishing in the 1970’s, and around about then. Again, it was very much European. In the UK, one of the chief figures was Brian Wilson, of Oxford University. (5:00) He fully endorsed secularisation theory, he gave it thoughts of new twists and explanations and interpretations. He particularly emphasised that secularisation is about the decline in the social significance of religion. He didn’t deny that some people were still religious, but he said “what’s changed, is that religion doesn’t have the same status in society. For example, politicians don’t have to refer to it anymore. They go on and do their business according to their own logic, they don’t take any notice of religion, whereas before the political ruler and religious elites would have to be in compensation with each other. He talked about that in every sphere, how religion ceases to be a point of reference in the public life.

DR: Perhaps you could clarify that, that sounds like the first development of the secularisation thesis, isn’t it? It’s one of the explanations for it, that it’s not that religion is going to completely disappear from society, rather it moves out of public sphere and into the private sphere.

LW: Yes. He thought that was that. You could still be devoutly religious, but it will affect you in your private life rather than when you go to work, or when you’re being a politician or wherever that might be.

DR: It’s not a disappearance of religion, it’s just a radical change in its function?

LW: Yes, the sociological term is social differentiation. The different spheres of society become autonomous. In law, you don’t refer to religion anymore, and in politics, likewise, and in education likewise. All these things become autonomous and they run according to rational secular standards, not by reference to religion. Wilson thinks he sees that happening very clearly in the UK and gives lots of examples of that process in various spheres.

DR: Were there any other interpretations of the secularisation thesis?

LW: There were lots of clarifications at that time. There was another very important contribution by a European, a Belgian sociologist, called Karel Dobbelaere, and he made what’s become really well used in his account, is a distinction between three levels of secularisation. He talks about secularisation at the societal level, the meta level of society; secularisation at the organisational level, and he’s thinking in part of religious organisation themselves declining, like the churches having fewer members or attenders; and then thirdly, secularisation at the personal level, where fewer people believe or their lives are less guided by religion. He says : “Don’t just talk about secularisation. What sort are you meaning, or what level of society? The macro level, the meso level or the micro level?” And he thought that it could happen at different rates in different parts. That’s quite compatible with Wilson’s theory, really. It’s another clarification of secularisation theory. But the most important current exponent, still in post, is, of course, in Scotland, and that’s Steve Bruce at Aberdeen University, who’s probably the most important defender of secularisation theory now, even though it’s waned very very much, it’s very much fallen out of favour in the last ten or fifteen years. Steve is a true believer still in secularisation theory and defends it very very strongly. He combines really particularly Durkheim and Marx. He thinks that it is about individualisation, the Durkheimian theory that societies break down and we don’t need that bond anymore, and he thinks it’s about rationalisation, the more Weberian account and he restates it, but in those quite classical terms, and he accumulates a lot of data, and the data mainly has to do with Churches in Europe. So it’s about the demonstrable decline in the number of people who are members, attenders, who had their child baptised, who have a Christian wedding. There are lots of statistics that support his case, that he regularly cites.

DR: That’s a weakness of secularisation thesis, isn’t it? That it’s based on a very strict model of what religion is, on an institutionalised Church model of religion. And it wouldn’t really translate to less institutionalised forms of religion, say New Age.

LW: That’s a very good point, and Steve Bruce would reply to you, because he is criticised for that point, by saying New Age isn’t really a religion. He would say it’s just what he calls it, cults. It’s the kind of… like an entropy, (10:00) when religion get less and less and less important to people and New Age is just the very end of that process. It doesn’t really matter to them, it doesn’t have a big effect on their lives, they don’t give a lot of money to it, they’re not really committed, it’s just a sort of privatised leisure pursuit. That’s how he tries to explain new forms of spirituality’s growth. Is that convincing from your point of view?

DR: Not convincing to me, but I can follow his argument. We could get into a big debate about whether or not… you could argue that something like New Age is a different form, a more individualised rather than an institutionalised model of religion, for instance, in which case secularisation would be a change in the form of religion, which would go along with an individualised privatisation model.

LW: But you could say, in criticism of someone like Steve Bruce, you wouldn’t, say you’re looking up modern communications, you wouldn’t get the statistics for how many people send telegrams from 1950 to 2012, and say, “Well, it’s completely declined, so people don’t use instant messaging anymore”. You’d look at what new forms have taken its place, so why just look at the churches? Of course some forms of religions grown declined over time, because religion is constantly transforming. So why say that’s the only true religion and nothing else counts? And I personally think that’s a major weakness of the secularisation theory, which is only… if we’re looking at something very specific, the decline of particular sorts of European Church that had close connections with the State, and they have declined their question. They generalized from that very particular story to religion as a whole.

DR: Which is a perfect link to the second major weaknesses, I think, of the secularisation thesis, which is, it’s very culturally and geographically specific.

LW: That’s a great point and that brings us to the USA, because you’ll notice that all the theorists I’ve been talking about are European. And Europe is in many ways the most secular part of the globe. America never produced secularisation theory in a significant way partly because, even though America was as modernised as Europe, it didn’t suffer the same decline of religion, even of church going or congregation, they have different kinds of churches in the States of course. So Americans didn’t really believe in it, in the way Europeans did.

DR: It was never really accepted?

LW: It didn’t have the same theoretical importance. It was accepted by many social scientists, but in the study of religion, there aren’t great theorist of it who contributed new developments. And since the 1980’s, the most important critics of secularisation theory have been Americans in the sociology of religion. First, Peter Berger and then Jose Casanova. Berger’s particularly interesting because he was a secularisation theorist. So his career has spanned right from the 1960s through to today, for much of that carrier, he went along with the European secularisation theorists. But his interpretation was different. He thought religion declines because it becomes less plausible when there’s not just one worldview. So if you’re a Christian and you just live in a Christian village near a Christian town, you’re going to believe it. But it becomes less plausible when you meet an Hindu and a Buddhist. That was his theory of why it declined in modern societies. But then he had a complete conversion, he changed his mind in the 1990’s, and he said… I brought a quote, it’s a good one. He said :

“My point is that the assumption that we live in a secularised world is false. The world today, with some exceptions, is as furiously religious as ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists, loosely labeled secularisation theory, is essentially mistaken. In my early work, I contributed to this literature. I was in good company. Most sociologists of religion had similar views and we had good reasons for upholding them. Some of the writing we produced still stand up. Although the term ‘secularisation theory’ refers to works from the 50’s and 60’s, the key idea can be traced right back to the Enlightenment. The idea is simple. Modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals. And it’s precisely this key idea that turned out to be wrong.”

So a very strong change of mind, in his part.

DR: It’s rare to see a scholar doing that.

LW: It’s very rare and it’s particularly interesting. Then Jose Casanova had developed a very sophisticated theory of public religion which accepts that there’s differentiation, but it thinks religion continues to a public and not just a private role and he shows that (15:00) in relation to Poland and Spain and several other countries.

DR: Poland is a very good example. It’s obviously… the figures in Britain alone since the arrival of the Poles here shown a huge growth in church attendances. I think it was Casanova, I might be wrong, who argued that it was because the Church wasn’t identified with the controlling power but the Church was rather a revolutionary… that’s a bit strong, but… of the people, and that the Church hasn’t gone into decline in Poland as it has here. And where the Church is still seen as, perhaps, I think, cultural hegemony. I think those statistics have a very interesting thing to say about secularization.

LW: Yes, so the difficulty is to explain why the differential rates of secularization. Actually, I was going to come to the other kind of key figure who’s really the stand out figure in this whole story. He’s the one person who saw all this a long time before anyone else, long before Casanova or Berger, and that was David Martin, who’s an English sociologist of religion, still alive, retired now. In 1965, he wrote an essay criticizing secularization theory, and then in the late 1970’s, he wrote the famous book called A General Theory of Secularization. He didn’t completely throw it overboard, but he tried to refine it, and his point was just what you said. That it depends what role religion has in a particular society and what relationship it has to reactionary and revolutionary political power. So in a country like France, where all forces of liberalization and democracy who have opposed by the Catholic Church, you get a very very strong secularism. Because all progressive people want to overthrow this reactionary force. But, going across the Atlantic to America, where the churches were a force of democracy and liberation from colonial British rule, then religion becomes identified with those positive forces and it’s a very religious place. And he thinks he can do similar analyses across the world. So he rejected the general theory, an undifferentiated theory, long before anyone else. I think he gets sometimes slightly irritated today when everyone says “Oh, it’s a really great new theory!” He thinks “I was saying that forty years ago.”

DR: But it’s interesting that that’s, in that case, what we’re talking about really is a radical de-traditionalisation, particularly in Northern Europe. It’s a challenging of power bases and the decentralisation of power, and epistemological power as well, and in institutions rather than the other interpretation about the logic of religion not making sense.

LW: Yes, no, you’ve put it really raw, because the kind of general progressivist theories make it seem like it’s just a neutral historical process that inevitably happens, whereas people like David Martin say “No, look at the power relations here, there are power struggles going on. And what role is religion playing in relations to those struggles.” And I think that’s a much more interesting and convincing way of looking at it. And my own little contribution to this story in relation to the UK would be that a really important part of why secularisation theory was so powerfully developed here in the post-war period, was because of the welfare state settlement. The welfare state became a secular utopian kind of quasi-religious project. People really believed in the realization of a fairer and more just and equal society, symbolised by the National Health Service, which is a kind of sacred icon and the envy of the world. The doctor and the GP became like the parish priest, a trust-worthy father figure in the community. So you had a kind of secular faith.

DR: The NHS as sacred canopy then.

LW: In many ways, it was sacred. If you look at Harold Shipman, the murderer, the reason he killed so many people was that no one would believe that a doctor could behave like that, a bit like child abuse in churches. So there was such an alternative secular faith, such hope for that model, that religion became less important. Actually the churches played a big role, they threw in a lot with the welfare state (20:00) and tried to contribute to it. And that’s part of why there was the sense you didn’t need religion anymore. We found the right way to organise society. And as we lost a bit faith in that vision, people turned to religion again to find meaning and models of more just social order and so on. We’ve seen some pockets of interesting revival like the ones that you look at in Europe.

DR: So where does this allude to secularisation thesis? Is it still relevant to the study of religion?

LW: We can’t ever get rid of it, because it’s so engraved, for over a century, that everything we do is shaken by it. The questions we ask on questionnaires, the data we gather, the whole way we look at the world, it’s very hard to get rid of that framework, even if it’s not the most interesting framework anymore. But I think where it leaves us is, that we no longer think that it’s a purely descriptive neutral theory. We can see now that it belonged in a particular place and a particular time and it was ideological. It was a kind of faith in its own right, it supported a vision of Europe at the cutting edge of history of the secular Nation-State starting to take over a new role in society and so on. It was bound up with those very particular conditions, and in those conditions, it made a lot of sense of what was happening. But it’s not universally applicable timeless ahistorical theory.

DR: What I’m going to take away from this today is it’s a very good example of how we as scholars allow our ideologies or the ideologies of the culture that maybe we are not aware of to affect whole theories. When I started studying religions, the secularisation thesis was still essential part of what you learned and, yet, once you look at it, it kind of dissolves away, there was nothing really ever there.

LW: And people believed in it, that’s the right word.

DR: And argued furiously about it.

LW: And wrote passionately about it, because it stood for a certain vision of how society should be. It wasn’t just about interpreting the facts. It was always a bit more than that.

DR: That’s a perfect place to end, it’s absolutely fascinating. Thank you very much, Professor.

LW: My Pleasure.

DR: Thanks.

Citation Info: Woodhead, Linda, and David G. Robertson. 2012. “The Secularisation Thesis.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 April 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.2, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-linda-woodhead-on-the-secularisation-thesis/

Podcasts

Heavy Metal as Religion and Secularization as Ideology

Heavy metal as religion and secularization as ideology: a sociological approach

By Mohammad Magout, University of Leipzig, Germany

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 9 October 2013, in response to François Gauthier’s interview on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture (7 October 2013).

In this thought-provoking interview, Professor François Gauthier from the University of Fribourg gives his remarks on a variety of theoretical, methodological, and empirical issues in social sciences. It would be impossible to cover even a tenth of those issues within the limits of this brief article, so I will restrict my response to two themes only: defining religion and critiquing secularization theory and post-secularity.

Gauthier states at the beginning of the podcast that current social theory fails to explain some recent developments in the social world, particularly in reference to subcultures and popular protest movements. He specifically criticizes sociologists of religion for not recognizing certain cultural notions, practices, or movements as religious even when people involved declare them as such. He says that if ravers, for example, believe rave to be just as religious as Catholicism, then sociologists should adjust their definitions of religion in order to accommodate rave as a religious phenomenon.

While I acknowledge that in social research there is always the risk of imposing inadequate, external categories on meanings conveyed by informants, I do have considerable reservations about conflating informants’ self-descriptions with theoretical terms. By saying that rave culture is as religious as Catholicism, a raver might be, for example, making a statement of identity; that is, defining his/her identity as a raver against or in relation to a Catholic identity, which is, of course, a personal right that no one should deny him/her. From a scientific perspective, however, “religion” is a theoretical term that is used to categorize and analyze a specific class of social phenomena. If we were to leave it solely to informants to decide which theoretical concepts and categories apply to them, social research would become very fragmented and incomparable, because different people can and do use complicated terms such as “religion” in widely different ways. Of course, their perspective is important and one should always take it into consideration, but scientific research requires at least some minimum degree of uniformity and consistency in the application of terms and categories.

I am not very well-informed about rave culture, but I can say something about another music-based youth culture with which I am familiar—both as a researcher and as a member—namely, heavy metal. Heavy metal can be seen as one of the most “quasi-religious” youth cultures, not only because religious imagery and symbolism are embedded in heavy metal lyrically, sonically, and visually, but also because of the “striking resemblance” between many aspects of heavy metal (especially live concerts) and religious rituals (Weinstein 2000, p. 231-2). Heavy metal, in addition, defines itself explicitly against traditional religion (Christianity in particular), which in a few extreme cases has reached the level of waging an open war against it (as it was the case with some members of the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 1990’s who were involved in dozens of arson attacks against churches). Some people have even considered heavy metal to be their “religion.” There was a campaign in the United Kingdom to answer the question about religion in the 2011 census with “heavy metal,” which resulted in more people identifying their “religion” as “heavy metal” than Scientology, Baha’ism, or Taoism.

Even if we grant that some of those who reported their religion as “heavy metal” were serious about it, does that justify changing our definitions of religion, so that they can accommodate heavy metal together with Christianity, Hinduism, Shamanism, and ancient Egyptian religion in the same analytical category? I myself do not think so, and no one so far—to the best of my knowledge—has presented a convincing case of the conceptual and analytical utility of treating a youth culture such as heavy metal as some type of religion.[i]

Gauthier seems to justify his position by stating that religion in the past few decades has morphed into something different than it used to be. It is now more concerned with personal life-style, identity, and morality, rather than correct belief and clerical institutions. This perhaps makes religion (at least some forms of contemporary religion) closer to youth cultures than traditional or institutional religion, which may justify grouping them together in the same category. Still this is not enough to change our definitions of religion. I think social scientists need to be a bit “conservative” about their definitions and conceptual frameworks in order to maintain the consistency of their work and measure change when it occurs. As stated by Steve Bruce, “Fixity of definition is not a refusal to recognize change; it is essential to describing change” (2009, p. 9).

Gauthier concludes his interview by warning us not to repeat the failure of secularization theory by adopting post-secularity, which he refers to as “the greatest threat to sociology of religion today.” He says quite bluntly, “Let’s try not to be as stupid, as ideological.” Since I originally conceived my PhD research project in terms of secularization theory, and have now started to drift toward post-secularity, I felt somehow challenged by Gauthier’s strong words. My intention in this article, nevertheless, is not to present a defense of secularization and post-secularity—especially given that I acknowledge many of the criticisms of these concepts—but rather to problematize one particular critique, which is the claim that secularization and post-secularity are based on certain ideologies or philosophical ideas.

First of all, I would like to say that I do not disagree with this critique: yes, secularization theories often reflected a modernist understanding of history and social change, and post-secularity is a concept that emerged in philosophical and normative discussions of the role of religion in the public sphere in contemporary Western societies. The problem is that many social scientists, in dismissing these concepts as ideologically biased, tend to gloss over the ideologies behind them as sociologically irrelevant. The impact of ideologies on social theory might be something undesirable, albeit unavoidable, but their impact on society is of utmost importance to the social scientist.

Modernism, in its various manifestations (liberalism, communism, nationalism, colonialism, etc.), has transformed our world, including religion, irreversibly.[ii] Most modern states—together with their political, legal, educational, and economic systems—have more or less been established along the lines of some modernist ideology that may have actively sought to marginalize, control, or privatize religion.[iii] Of course, how this might have developed or to what extent it has worked out in different contexts is widely variable. What is certain, I think, is that these ideologies have shaped and continue to shape the world today, despite the fragmentation of their hegemony and the rise of alternative ideologies. It is therefore implausible to think they have hardly changed anything with regard to religion, as some staunch critics of secularization seem to imply (e.g. Stark 1999).

The question I am trying to frame is related to the more general issue of the complicated relationship between ideology and social theory. Social science, more than any other branch of science, is prone to the undesired influence of philosophical and ideological perspectives. The question is, then, how should social scientists deal with ideologically-infused theories without glossing over the ideologies behind them? I don’t have a straightforward answer to this question, but I can refer to Gauthier’s nuanced approach to studying neo-liberalism, which he outlines in his interview.

Gauthier criticizes rational-choice/market theories of religion for interpreting religion in economic terms, as if it were a commercial product. In doing so, these theories fail to understand and explain the relationship between religious change and neo-liberalism, which is not only a dominant economic theory or political ideology, Gauthier asserts, but also a “cultural ideology” that conditions our ways of thinking and behaving. He stresses that any examination of religion, politics, or social relations is not adequate without taking into consideration the impact of neo-liberalism and consumerism, which have become the “structuring” force of our societies. In other words, while Gauthier rejects rational-choice/market theories of religion, he does not dismiss neo-liberalism and emphasizes the importance of studying its impact on religion.

The same approach, in my opinion, should be applied to secularization theory and post-secularity. Criticisms of secularization as an ideologically-infused theory should not make us gloss over its constituting ideology and the concrete sociological implications of this ideology. Similarly, the philosophical origins of the concept of post-secularity do not mean that it is irrelevant for social scientists. One should remember that the boundaries between social theory and social philosophy are not clear-cut and that philosophers and theologians are playing an important role—perhaps more than sociologists—in setting the parameters for public debates about religion (Turner 2012, p. 649). This is not only a matter of intellectual debates, but also of policy-making. There are religious groups, public institutions, and political organizations which are adopting, in one way or another, a “post-secular perspective” toward religion and society and making their policies accordingly. One domain in which this current is becoming evident is academia as some earlier research (Schmalzbauer and Mahoney 2009) and also my ongoing research project on Ismaili institutions of higher education in London seem to suggest.

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.

References

  • Bruce, S. (2009) “The Importance of Social Science in the Study of Religion”, Fieldwork in Religion, Vol. 4 No. 1, pp. 7–28.
  • Casanova, J. (2012) “Are We Still Secular? Explorations on the Secular and the Post-Secular”, in Nynäs, P., Lassander, M. and Utriainen, T. (Eds.), Post-secular society, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N.J, pp. 27–46.
  • Moberg, M. (2012) “Religion in Popular Music or Popular Music as Religion? A Critical Review of Scholarly Writing on the Place of Religion in Metal Music and Culture”, Popular Music and Society, Vol. 35 No. 1, pp. 113–130.
  • Schmalzbauer, J. and Mahoney, K. (2009) “Religion and Knowledge in the Post-Secular Academy”, SSRC Working Papers. Available at http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/post-secular-academy.pdf (Accessed 6 June 2013)
  • Stark, R. (1999) “Secularization, R.I.P”, Sociology of Religion, Vol. 60 No. 3, pp. 249–273.
  • Turner, B.S. (2010) “Religion in a Post-secular Society”, in Turner, B.S. (Ed.), The new Blackwell companion to the sociology of religion, Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA, pp. 649–667.
  • Weinstein, D. (2000) Heavy metal: the music and its culture. New York: Da Capo Press.


[i] For a survey of literature on the relationship between heavy metal and religion, see Moberg (2012).

[ii] This is what José Casanova calls “secularism as stadial consciousness,” i.e. secularism as a philosophy of history, according to which humanity progressively “emancipates” itself from religion. Secularization thereby functions as a “self-fulfilling theory” (2012, p. 31-2).

[iii] Another common criticism of secularization theory is its Euro-centrism, which is true, but it is almost forgotten that not very long time ago European powers ruled most countries of the world, established their political systems, wrote their laws, educated their elites, and planned their economies. This certainly does not entail that these countries should follow the same trajectories of modernization followed earlier by European countries, but it does mean that European ideas, theories, and ideologies are very relevant to other countries too.

Historical Approaches to Studying Religion

As the RSP continues to grow, we’re going to be returning more frequently to topics and themes which have already been touched upon in previous podcasts and features. This week, we are pleased to bring you a double re-post in response to our double podcast with John Wolffe & Ronald Hutton on Historical Approaches to the Study of Religion.

First, in the following podcast – first ‘broadcast’ on 30 April 2012, and later selected as one of our editors’ picks the following summer – Louise Connelly introduces Chris’s interview with Professor Callum Brown. How can we use historical approaches in the study of religion? More specifically, can we use historical approaches to understand why people are losing it? Professor Callum Brown tells us why historical approaches have much to tell us about religious change.

 

Download.

Second, Dr Tim Hutchings – who has also been an interviewee on the RSP, and participated in our ‘Religion in the News Panel Session’ – wrote the following response essay to Professor Brown’s interview. We ‘re-print’ it here in its entirety. We hope you enjoy these different takes on this week’s central theme. If you do, you can subscribe to receive our weekly podcast through iTunes and other portals. You can also use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us when buying your important books, clothes, diving equipment etc.


A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion

By Tim Hutchings, Durham University

In his new podcast for the Religious Studies Project, Callum Brown has given us an excellent introduction to the historical approach to the study of religion. In conversation with Christopher Cotter, Brown outlines rival traditions within the history of religion and demonstrates what each has contributed to our understanding of secularisation. Along the way, Brown summarises his research career and offers some tantalising hints about his current interview-based study of the life stories of people who have left religion. He also emphasises the value of demographics, arguing that sophisticated analyses of census data reveal that people develop ‘an entirely new sense of self’ when they leave religion.  This is a fascinating and challenging claim, but I have chosen to focus in this response on another of the main themes of this podcast: the relationship between history and sociology.

At the end of this interview, Brown distinguishes the history of religion sharply from sociology. According to Brown, there is a “huge gap” in method, approach and interests between the two disciplines. Sociologists, he argues, believe that the world is governed by rules. They undertake research to study the contemporary religious landscape, interpret this snapshot in time by framing it within a particular model of fixed, linear change, and then make predictions about the future. Historians, on the other hand, believe that nothing is inevitable and assume that “when” must be the first step in working out “why”. Instead of collecting snapshots, historians map change year-on-year, using that longitudinal data to establish the effects of key events.

My own field of research is digital religion, an area with a particularly troubled relationship to history. Scholars and commentators interested in digital culture and its significance for religion have struggled to distinguish what is truly new from what has come before, and continue to search for helpful ways to talk about change.

One classic strategy since the 1990s has been to contrast an anecdotal snapshot of contemporary life against visions of the near future and the recent past.  In the most common forms of this argument, the past is characterised by stable local communities, face-to-face relationships and a secure, unchanging personal identity. Contemporary digital technology challenges this stability by supporting fluid, self-determined, global communication networks, so the argument goes, and these changes will intensify in the near future. Different observers have interpreted this same basic approach in positive, neutral and negative ways, seeing technology as the route to new spiritual awareness (Cobb 1998), a powerful tool that can be used to promote an unchanging religious message to the new mission field of digital culture (Estes 2009, Sweet 2012), or a dangerous threat to church, character and society. Sherry Turkle’s recent declaration that social media is facilitating a “flight from conversation” is a good example of this third type (2012). Young people now use their phones a lot, she argues, and they previously spent time face-to-face, and this shift is very bad for everyone. Her argument is simple and intuitively appealing, contrasting a recognisable snapshot of everyday life with a widely-accepted vision of the recent past and calling for immediate action to rescue the future, and her article has provoked much discussion online in recent weeks.

Scholars of media and religion have tried to challenge this approach over the last decade by framing their observations within a more rigorous historical perspective. The forms of religious community observed online are not unique after all, they argue: they actually continue long-running trajectories of social change from groups to networks (Wellman 2012) or from stable to fluid religious identities (Wagner 2012). Heidi Campbell’s recent work (2010) focuses on the power of religious groups to construct and interpret the technology they use, a process that includes engagement with group history. For Campbell, contemporary religious uses of the internet must be interpreted in the context of the theology and values of particular communities, including how those communities have changed their approach to media over time.  Many other scholars have tried to complicate popular understandings of the past and present of media religion, undertaking detailed comparative studies to show that religious authority, community and identity have not changed in the ways some observers allege.

Listening to Callum Brown’s interview, it becomes clear that all of these scholarly approaches represent a distinctively sociological way of using history. These scholars analyse the past to identify long-term trajectories in social or religious change and use that model to interpret the present. “When” questions are rarely considered: the purpose of the exercise is to establish a tension between a stable (or predictably-changing) past and a snapshot of the present, to generate insights into continuity and change.

There is clear scope here for inter-disciplinary collaboration. Sociological interest in the history of religion and media has generated a space for interventions by historians, who can greatly benefit the study of digital culture by offering detailed critiques of our assumed trajectories of change. Recent examples include Jeremy Stolow’s keynote speech on the spirituality of the telegraph, delivered to the Digital Religion conference in Colorado earlier this year (see Stolow 2011), and Stefan Gelfgren’s work (2012) on the history of religious attitudes to media. Sociologists of digital religion are still not as interested in the connection between “when” and “why” as Callum Brown might like, but clear progress is being made to forge connections with historians. This podcast is an excellent provocation to think harder about the questions we overlook and the interdisciplinary conversations that might help us uncover them.

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.

Bibliography

  • Campbell, Heidi. When Religion Meets New Media. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010.
  • Cobb, Jennifer. CyberGrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. New York: Crown, 1998.
  • Estes, Douglas. SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
  • Gelfgren, Stefan. “Let there be digital networks and God will provide growth?” Comparing the aims and hopes of 19th-century and post-millenial Christianity. In Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren and Charles Ess (eds.), Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. p. 227-242.
  • Hogan, Bernie and Barry Wellman. The immanent internet redux. In Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren and Charles Ess (eds.), Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. p. 43-62.
  • Stolow, Jeremy. ‘Telegraph’, in freq.uenci.es: a collaborative genealogy of spirituality. September 7 2011. Available online: http://freq.uenci.es/2011/09/07/telegraph/.  Accessed May 2 2012.
  • Sweet, Leonard. Viral: How Social Networking is Poised to Ignite Revival. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2012.
  • Turkle, Sherry. The flight from conversation. New York Times, April 21 2012. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/the-flight-from-conversation.html. Accessed May 2 2012.
  • Wagner, Rachel. Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.

 

Religion, Secularism and the Chaplaincy

As Sullivan and other religious studies scholars complicate terms like religion and secularism, reducing these terms to near incoherence, and insist on the constant intermingling of the sacred and the secular, they leave jurists and legislators in a predicament with important practical consequences.

Religion, Secularism, and the Chaplaincy

By Dusty Hoesly, University of California, Santa Barbara

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Winnifred F. Sullivan on Religion and the Law (22 April 2013)

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Professor and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Indiana University, Bloomington, may be the supreme interpreter of the intersection of law and religion in American society today.  Each of her three books—Paying the Words Extra, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, and Prison Religion—treats individual legal cases both textually and anthropologically, examining their particular cultural and legal contexts as well as their wider import for discourse in American law and society generally.  Her work is attuned equally to debates within the field of religious studies, especially to how scholars of religion constitute the object of their study.

In this interview for The Religious Studies Project, Sullivan focuses on her latest project, which examines chaplaincy in secular settings, as well as on her larger body of work.  Her recent presentation, “Ministries of Presence: Chaplains as Priests of the Secular,” uses chaplaincy as a lens for thinking beyond her previous work in critiquing constitutional and legal protections for religious freedom, and arguing for the instability and incoherence of the category of religion as a basis for legal regulation.  Putting aside her study of the management of religion in constitutional settings, in this project Sullivan examines how religion and law shape each other on the ground.  She concludes that chaplains have come to serve a role of ministering to what is increasingly understood as a universal spiritual need, which she labels a “naturalization of religion.”

For Sullivan, the figure of the chaplain in Western Christendom has always been an ambiguous figure, a minister whose duties lie away from church authority or congregational demands.  In modern secular institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and the military, the chaplain’s role remains ambiguous since, unlike doctors, guards, or soldiers, the chaplain is an explicit broker between the sacred and the secular.  The chaplain is paid by secular institutions and beholden to secular authorities, despite the religious character of the chaplain’s work or the chaplain’s religious allegiance.  Chaplains may find themselves obliged to endorse secular missions, such as nationalism or militarism, that run contrary to the chaplain’s religious mission.

The role of the chaplain and the social perception of chaplaincy in America have both changed significantly since World War II, Sullivan argues.  In the mid-twentieth century, patients, inmates, and soldiers imagined that chaplains had specific ministerial resources that were particular to each denomination, such that Catholic priests, for example, could offer services that no other denomination’s chaplains could.  Today, however, chaplaincy is far more generalized and less identified with any particular tradition.  Contemporary chaplains practice a “ministry of presence,” a stripped-down form of witness (to use a Christian word) that is a “suffering with” those seeking spiritual guidance.  Chaplains are trained to de-emphasize their individual religious identities so that they can provide a non-imposing, non-coercive presence, letting clients instead take the lead in terms of any religious specificity.

In her presentation, Sullivan observes the rise of credentialing as a major shift in chaplaincies during the 20th century.   Credentialing, rather than mere religious training, is now required in order to serve as a chaplain.  Would-be chaplains must earn a Master of Divinity degree, intern with a clinical pastoral education program, and obtain an ecclesiastical endorsement, all of which must be accredited or recognized by the government.  These cooperative efforts between state and religion have resulted in the standardization and professionalization of the chaplaincy.  Anyone can be a chaplain today, Sullivan argues.  It becomes a white collar job, one requiring expensive educational training and a lengthy apprenticeship.  As Randall Collins has argued, the credential becomes symbolic of one’s ability to do the actual work.

For chaplains who must serve a diverse clientele, including Roman Catholics, Wiccans, Southern Baptists, and atheists, specific denominational beliefs and practices, as well as religion itself, become “cultural resources” (to use James Beckford’s term).  Religion loses its claim to be sui generis, instead revealing itself to be socially constructed according to the practical needs of the moment when a client requests the services of a chaplain.  This offering of non-denominational spiritual advice to any and all seekers is illustrative of the secularization and commoditization of the chaplaincy.

But the process is not complete and, therefore, neither is Sullivan’s analysis.  Atheists and secular humanists may be consumers of chaplaincy services, but they are not yet permitted by the government to serve as chaplains in hospitals, prisons, or the military.  Even if the credentialing process in theory is open to any person, from whatever background, as Sullivan claims, this does not mean that anyone can become a chaplain in actual practice.  Groups such as the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers are seeking recognition by the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, but they have been unsuccessful so far.  That said, many prisons now include yoga and meditation groups, blurring the boundary between secular and religious practices and challenging the role of prison chaplains as exclusive brokers between the sacred and the secular.  And some higher education institutions, including Harvard, Rutgers, Stanford, Columbia, and American University, now incorporate humanist chaplaincies, responding to a growing call for guidance that is explicitly secular.

How might these humanist movements complicate Sullivan’s analysis?  Sullivan argues that in contemporary American jurisprudence religion has become a universal human phenomenon, albeit one that takes many forms.  But in the instances noted above, we see people who reject religion and yet who desire counseling and meaningful ritual during difficult times in their lives.  These people feel that they are not being best served by the supposedly secularized chaplains which Sullivan describes.  They want a chaplain with a particularly secular worldview rather than a naturalized non-denominational Protestantism which they perceive as coercive and not representative of their beliefs.  While Sullivan maintains that today’s chaplains are priests of the secular, actual secular people are excluded from the chaplaincy.

As Sullivan and other religious studies scholars complicate terms like religion and secularism, reducing these terms to near incoherence, and insist on the constant intermingling of the sacred and the secular, they leave jurists and legislators in a predicament with important practical consequences.  If religion and secularism are unstable and interpenetrating categories in American law, as Sullivan has argued, how can bureaucratic functionaries or judges justify excluding secular humanists from the chaplaincy?  Despite Sullivan’s claims about the naturalization of religion and the homogenization of the chaplaincy, American law still recognizes distinctions between what is religious and what is secular, and so do the people who consume and seek to provide chaplaincy services.

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

Dusty Hoesly is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in Religions of North America.  His research focuses on religion and irreligion in the American West, specifically the values held by people who self-describe as not religious, how those values developed, how they translate into social or political action, and how irreligious people interpret experiences that stand apart from ordinary life.  Incorporating fieldwork, surveys, and historical and material culture research, this project will help explain the growth of religious “nones” in the U.S. and reexamine the categories of sacred and secular in contemporary society.  Other research interests include religion in the American West, comparative secularisms, liberal evangelicalism, and religion and politics. He has previously published The Last Best Hope of Earth? Bron Taylor and the Limits of Dark Green Religion for the Religious Studies Project.

Bibliography

  • Collins, Randall. The Credential Society: A Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. New York: Academic Press, 1979.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Paying the Words Extra: Religious Discourse in the Supreme Court of the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton             University Press, 2009.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. “We Are All Religious Now. Again.” Social Research 76.4 (2009): 1181-1198.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Religion and Globalization

Over the past few weeks we have been looking at ‘religion’ in a ‘global context’ – from Mark Juergensmeyer’s sociotheological approach to ‘cosmic war’, to Douglas Pratt’s discussion of the ‘persistence and problem’ of ‘religion’, and Ryan Cragun’s introduction and overview to Mormon demographics across the globe. The final interview in this series was recorded in Ottawa in November 2012, and features Chris speaking with Peter Beyer, Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa, who – as Chris has proudly stated ad nauseum – literally wrote the book on Religions in Global Society.

What do we mean by globalization? What does this concept have to say to the study of religion? How have religions been agents in the globalization process? What theoretical and methodological issues arise when trying to answer such questions? All of these questions and more are tackled in an interview which touches on post-colonialism, secularization theory, theodicy, Rational Choice Theory, and something called Post-Westphalianism. We hope you enjoy it!

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter. And if you want to support the RSP, you can click through to Amazon.co.uk through our affiliates link, and we will earn referral fees from any transactions during your visit.

In the earlier parts of his career, Peter Beyer focused his research primarily on sociological theory of religion and on themes in Canadian religious history, doing his doctoral dissertation on the Louis Riel and postdoctoral studies on 19th and 20th century French Canadian Roman Catholicism. Since the mid-1980s, however, his main interests have centred on the sociological understanding of the relations between religion and globalization and on religion in contemporary Canada. His current research focuses on religious diversity and multiculturalism in Canada, especially as concerns recent immigrants and the second generation of these immigrants. He is the author of Religion and Globalization, Religions in Global Society, and co-editor (with Lori Beaman) of Religion, Globalization, and Culture (International Studies in Religion and Society Series).

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

References

  • Bruce, S. (2011). Secularization: In defence of an unfashionable theory. USA: Oxford University Press.
  • Chaves, M. (1989). “Secularization and religious revival: Evidence from U.S. church attendance rates.” 1972-1986 Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28(4): pp. 464-477
  • Chaves, M. (1993). “Intraorganizational Power and Internal Secularization within Protestant Denominations.” American Journal of Sociology 99(1):1-48.
  • Chaves, M. (1994). “Secularization as declining religious authority.” Social Forces, 72(3), 749-774.
  • Gyatso, Tenzin HH. His holiness the Dalai Lama said secularism is the basis of all religions. (2006, November 26). Retrieved from http://tibet.net/2006/11/13/his-holiness-the-dalai-lama-said-secularism-is-the-basis-of-all-religions/
  • Oviedo, L. (2012). “Struggling with secularization.” Reviews in Religion and Theology,19(2), 188-199.
  • Paul, G. (2009). “The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional psychosociological conditions.” Evolutionary Psychology, 7(3), 399-441.
  • Robbins, M. (2012, February 17). “Christians should unite with atheists to defend secularism.” The Guardian, Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2012/feb/17/1
  • Voas, David and Abby Day. (2010). Recognizing secular Christians: Toward an unexcluded middle in the study of religion (ARDA Guiding Paper Series). State College, PA: The Association of Religion Data Archives at The Pennsylvania State University, from http://www.thearda.com/rrh/papers/guidingpapers.asp.
  • Zuckerman, P. (2006). “Atheism: Contemporary rates and patterns.” In M. Martin (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (pp. 47-68). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The ‘Persistence’ and ‘Problem’ of Religion

Some fifty years ago scholars claimed the end of religion was nigh.  More recently some at the fringe of the Christian religion have touted the imminent end of the world. But the world is still here; and so is religion, although religion could rarely be described as unproblematic. In this interview with Chris, Douglas Pratt – Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Waikato, New Zealand – asks:  ‘Why is religion so persistent?’ What are we to make of contemporary problematic issues, such as extremism and terrorism, often associated with religion? What might the Taliban in Afghanistan, Anders Breivik in Norway, and the Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand, have in common, for instance? And why should scholars care?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter. And if you want to support the RSP, you can click through to Amazon.co.uk through our affiliates link, and we will earn referral fees from any transactions during your visit.

In this interview, Professor Pratt outlines a model for understanding the nature of the ‘persistence’ of religion, paying particular attention to three interwoven dimensions: narrative, ethical, and metaphysical. He also discusses, in the light of this model, the contemporary ‘problem’ of exclusivism and extremism which arguably arise from the lack of an adequate conceptual mechanism for coping with religious diversity. This interview was based on Professor Pratt’s keynote lecture, of the same title, at the 2012 BASR Annual Conference in Winchester, UK.

Douglas Pratt is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Waikato, New Zealand. His research interests focus on aspects of Christianity, Islam, Christian-Muslim relations, interreligious dialogue, and contemporary religious issues such as pluralism, fundamentalism and extremism. He is currently the President of the Australian Association for the Study of Religion (AASR). He has previously studied and taught at the Universities of Oxford and Birmingham, UK, University of Heidelberg, Germany, and has been a visiting scholar at the International Islamic University, Malaysia, and the Pontifical Institute for the Study of Arabic and Islam, Rome. Professor Pratt is a co-editor of a major re-publication series of classic texts in the field of Islamic Studies – Exploring the House of Islam: Perceptions of Islam in the Period of Western Ascendancy 1800-1945 – published by Gorgias Press, New Jersey, USA, and a co-editor and contributor to a major book, Understanding Interreligious Relations, to be published by OUP in 2013. He is a member of the international research leadership team on a major 4-year UK AHRC funded project Christian-Muslim Relations 1500-1900 commencing late 2012.

Mormonism, Growth and Decline

Mormonism – or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) – exploded onto the scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States of America, and has courted controversy ever since. From the recent upsurge in worldwide visibility of Mormonism due to the widespread attention given to the religious identity of Mitt Romney (the Republican Candidate in the 2012 US Presidential elections), to the huge success of the Southpark creators’ hit musical The Book of Mormon, there is no shortage of ill-informed opinion surrounding this group. Unsurprisingly, the academic study of religion has its own questions about Mormonism: can it be described as a New Religious Movement? Is there a unified phenomenon which can be classified as Mormonism? Is Mormonism to be considered as a form of Christianity? This week, Chris is joined by Ryan Cragun – Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida – to discuss not only these conceptual issues, but issues relating specifically to quantitative research, Mormon demographics, and the worldwide growth and decline of the LDS Church.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter.

What numbers should a quantitative scholar use when ‘counting’ Mormonism? Who does the categorization? Is Mormonism outside of the US different? In what ways? And what about Mormonism in the ‘heartland’ of Utah? These are just some of the questions which come up in the interview, and Professor Cragun provides a great introduction not only to Mormonism and quantitative research, but also to Mormon growth and decline in the context of the secularization thesis, and to the intricate relationships and correlations which can be observed between LDS membership and factors such as gender, employment, education, and ethnicity.

A number of papers are referred to in this interview, including Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses, The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists, and The Price of Free Inquiry in Mormonism, all of which can be accessed on Ryan’s personal website. Ryan Cragun is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida. He is author and co-author of many peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Contemporary Relgiion, Sociology of Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and more, and is the co-author (with Rick Phillips) of Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion (2012), and author of the forthcoming What You Don’t Know About Religion (but Should).

This interview was recorded in the business centre at the Lord Elgin Hotel, Ottawa during the Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts Conference. We are grateful to everyone who facilitated the recording in any way.

Secular Sacreds and the Sacred Secular

In recent years, the centrality of ‘the sacred’ to the academic study of religion has come under sustained attack in recent years due to the apparent (un)conscious assumption amongst its advocates of an ‘ontological phenomenon that transcends signification’ (Lynch 2012, 15). It is against this backdrop that Gordon Lynch sets out – in his recent book, The Sacred in the Modern World, and in his interview with Jonathan Tuckett – to rehabilitate the ‘sacred’ as a viable academic concept, to map out a cultural sociology of the sacred, and to ‘conceptualise the focus of [the sociology of religion…] beyond the study of traditional, institutional forms of religion’ (2012, 3).

In this response I shall utilise a case study amongst notionally ‘nonreligious’ undergraduate students (Cotter 2011), in combination with my engagement with Lynch’s book (which I would thoroughly recommend), as a springboard to suggestively open up the complex relationship between the concepts religion, nonreligion and the secular.

Some Terms

The academic study of religion and related categories is populated with reified, mutually constitutive dichotomies – religion/secular, sacred/profane, religion/nonreligion, sacred/secular for example. However, I suggest that it is generally unhelpful to speak of rigid dichotomies when considering these terms, and in some contexts it makes sense to refer to two triads – sacred/mundane/profane and religion/secular/nonreligion – from which terms can be combined to provide compound designations which apply to distinct real-world phenomena.

Let us defer to Lynch for an understanding of the first of these triads. He defines the sacred as ‘what people collectively experience as absolute, non-contingent realities which present normative claims over the meanings and conduct of social life’ (2012, 29). Against this backdrop, the profane is defined as ‘the evil that threatens this sacred form and pollutes whatever it comes into contact with’ whilst the mundane constitutes ‘the logics, practices, and spaces of everyday life’ (2012, 26). There are a number of things which I find compelling about this account: firstly, this makes no ‘claim that there is an actual ontological referent for sacred forms (ibid, 15). Secondly, it provides a space for the mundane, and allows us to potentially conceptualise degrees of sacredness/profanity and commitments to multiple sacred forms. Finally, as Lynch effectively demonstrates in the interview, this account shows that the sacred is not an exclusively religious category. As Kim Knott (2013) writes, citing Viekko Antonnen:

The ‘sacred’ (or its equivalent in other languages) can be attributed by people in non-theological as well as theological contexts, irrespective of the nature of their belief systems: ‘It is not a uniquely religious category…’ (Anttonen 2000, 274)

Turning to religion/secular/nonreligion, I take Lois Lee’s definition of non-religion, as ‘anything which is primarily defined by a relationship of difference to religion’(2012a, 131), and the secular as a space where ‘religion is not the primary or immediate reference point’ (Lee 2011, 3). From this it is clear that nonreligion’ does not simply refer to everything which is not explicitly ‘religious’. It is also clear that the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘nonreligion’ are, ‘semantically parasitic categories’ (Fitzgerald 2007, 54). This also enables me to run away from the problem of defining religion until another time, because in the context of the examples below, definitions of ‘religion’ (and its semantically parasitic other, ‘nonreligion’) were left open to the interpretation of my research participants

With these basic and brief understandings of these terms in mind, it makes a great deal of sense for Kim Knott to write that:

“… those forging social identities in secular contexts – who draw on non-religious commitments and beliefs including atheism, humanism and secularism – mark as ‘sacred’ those occasions (such as marriage), persons (a lover), things (a ring), places (a registry office) and principles (equality and justice) that they value above all others, and that they see as set apart and inviolable: those things that may be deemed to be both secular and sacred.” (2013)

A Scottish Example

My study – which will only be given the briefest of introductions now – involved engaging with the narratives of undergraduate students at the University of Edinburgh via electronic questionnaires and semi-structured interviews, taking Abby Day’s ‘researching belief without asking religious questions’ (2009) approach as a basic model. Ultimately, the students were classified into a ideal-typical five-fold typology of naturalistic, humanistic, spiritual, familial and philosophical, with a key outcome being that these types were ‘independent of religious categories’ (Quack 2011, 2) . Full details of results, sampling strategy, methods, interview schedules etc can be found in my dissertation.

Secular Sacreds

In terms of beliefs and self-identification, many of the students were what could be described as substantively nonreligious i.e. the terms with which they described themselves, and their reported beliefs, stood in contradistinction to what they understood to be ‘religion’ (for a rigorous and in-depth treatment of substantive nonreligiosity, see Lee (2012b)). This nonreligiosity manifested itself in diverse ways which were always linked to particular ‘secular sacreds’, which corresponded to my five types. To take the example of Courtney – a 21 year-old ‘humanistic’ student from the US – discourse became noticeably hostile when ‘religion’ was considered in conjunction with ‘sacred’ humanitarian values (in this instance, when the topic of ‘Faith Schools’ was raised):

Eugh. I don’t… I just… ew it, it [the term] gives me a visceral reaction because I believe so strongly that if… due to my own experience of, you know, if you don’t tell a kid about religion they’ll turn out atheist because everyone’s born an atheist, like I… I truly believe that and I just, I mean it’s… I hesitate to use such a… like a militant sounding phrase but it’s indoctrination of children and it just… it makes me very uneasy…

Then we have Niamh, a 19 year-old student from England, who is an example of what I would term a ‘familial’ student. For these students, beliefs, faith and values were frequently located in the ‘sacred’ family unit. In the following section of interview, Niamh has just described how her Protestant grandmother disowned Niamh’s father when he married her Catholic mother. Her father then went through a particularly traumatic emotional period after his own father died, since he had effectively been ostracised from the family:

…but after all of that with my mum and dad I just stopped going [to church] altogether… like I’d been quite religious before that but I just stopped… like… partly because I was too busy trying to get my mother out of bed, but partly because I just didn’t… I just thought it was a pile of crap basically, like… em… and, yeah that kind of… because up until then I suppose I had quite an easy life, like we’d never had a lot of money but I’d always had… emotionally there’d always been everything there, eh, and then suddenly there wasn’t and I had to sort… I suppose it made me like… because now if my … my mum stuck by my dad through everything, and that kind of made me feel like now I have to… you know you don’t give up on relationships even if… even if they’re going to shit you don’t… you don’t give up, you stick by people because if you don’t they might be in a mess, like my dad basically said if my mum had left him he’d have sh’… he’d have killed himself, so like now I like sort of have this view that you stick by people through as long as you can bear to, you know, and I guess that affects a lot…

I’m not saying that these are the only sacreds in their lives but that through their narratives they were the primary sacreds by which they were classified in my typology. If it comes down to the wire, to use a phrase from Kim Knott’s forthcoming chapter, these ‘trump’ other sacred values. Niamh actually placed a great deal of importance on her former religion but was willing to abandon it because of what it had done to her relationships: ‘it [religion] was always about family relationships and politics, basically, it was never about faith’. Courtney seemed to really value her nonreligiosity, but was willing to set it to the side when humanitarian issues were at stake: ‘I’d prefer if [charities] were secular, but I’m not going to quibble when you’re doing charity’. Although religion and nonreligion were referred to in both quotations, they were of secondary importance to the sacred values concerned, which could be described as their secular sacreds. Therefore, in this situation we have substantively nonreligious students, whose lives are oriented around a number of secular sacreds with different degrees of sacredness and which trump both religion and nonreligion.

This understanding of secular sacreds should not be seen as implying that these sacreds are solely the domain of secular individuals, and although I can understand Lynch’s uneasiness about the term, I agree with Knott (2013) that the addition of ‘secular’ is necessary at this stage, due to the uncritical conflation of ‘sacred’ with ‘religious’ in much prior scholarship.

The Sacred Secular

In terms of the relative importance (‘salience’ – see Day 2011) and practice of religion, many of these students appeared functionally secular, i.e. ‘being nonreligious’ was generally unimportant and had little impact upon day-to-day life. Few were members of ‘nonreligious’ organisations, and some participated in religious activities for the sake of relatives, or persisted in communal religious worship regardless of disagreements with many fundamental aspects of the religion’s teaching or personal crises of faith. Although I don’t have space to go into my deliberations here, evidence such as this led me to conclude that ‘being nonreligious’ does not play a major part in most of these students’ lives.

However, stating that one aspect of a person’s life is not the most important does not imply that this aspect is unimportant. Most claimed that their nonreligiosity came to the fore when challenged by particular situations – particularly when their sacred values are challenged.

‘The “sacred” can be located in reversible category positions, whether in things pure or impure, licit or forbidden (taboo), fixed or unfixed, violable or sacrosanct.’ (Anttonen 2005, 198) Various things, places and people are set apart according to time and context. The boundaries that become the focus of sacred-making discourse and activities have the potential to erupt as sites of struggle but for much of the time lie dormant and, as such, invisible. (Knott 2013)

At such moments of eruption, the interaction of religion with personal sacreds precipitated the recognition and reaffirmation of subjective nonreligiosity. In fact, in some cases, the sacred in question was the ‘secular’ itself, which was profaned by the incursion of religion into individual narratives. For instance:

…everyone’s always talking about like religious tolerance and that. I’m definitely tolerant towards people of all religions and no more so to like one than any other, um, but I’m not really tolerant of like public religion. I really dislike public religion and the fact that we’ve got an established church [in the UK … and that] everything’s allowed to be sort of quietly… quietly influenced by religion, and that annoys me.  (Harriet, 19, F)

There is a lot here which I think could be developed, and which I intend to develop during the course of my PhD, but basically what I wanted to suggest was that nonreligion is a complex substantive phenomenon characterised by a relationship of difference to prevailing religion, and the adoption of secular sacreds by individuals and, perhaps, sacralising the secular itself. Reframing understandings of (non)religion according to types of sacred which are independent of religious categories, allows (non)religious identities to be conceptualised to acknowledge the simultaneous intersection of multiple subjectively compatible (yet seemingly contradictory) religious and/or nonreligious identities, and paves the way for scholars to take religion seriously whilst avoiding unwarranted reverence. Paradoxically, if it provides robust models which work regardless of individual self-descriptions, it could also add to the growing critique of the usefulness of ‘religion’ as an analytic category.

[NB – This response is based on a presentation given at the BASR conference in Winchester, September 2012.]

References

  • Anttonen, Veikko. 2000. ‘Sacred’. In Guide to the Study of Religion, ed. Willi Braun and Russell T McCutcheon, 271–282. London: Cassell.
  • ———. 2005. ‘Space, Body and the Notion of Boundary: A Category-Theoretical Approach to Religion’. Temenos: Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion 41 (2): 185–201.
  • Cotter, Christopher R. 2011. ‘Toward a Typology of “Nonreligion”: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Unpublished MSc by Research Dissertation, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. http://www.academia.edu/1329691/Toward_a_Typology_of_Nonreligion_A_Qualitative_Analysis_of_Everyday_Narratives_of_Scottish_University_Students.
  • ———. 2012. ‘Scottish Students, Their Secular Sacreds, and the Sacred Secular: Borders, Boundaries and Transgressions in the Study of “Nonreligion”’. In  University of Winchester.
  • Day, Abby. 2009. ‘Researching Belief Without Asking Religious Questions’. Fieldwork in Religion 4 (1): 86–104.
  • ———. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Knott, Kim. 2013. ‘The Secular Sacred: In-between or Both/and?’ In Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Lee, Lois. 2011. ‘NSRN Glossary (unpublished Paper)’. In NSRN Terminology – Virtual Conference: Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/nsrn-glossary-28-aprl-2011-lois-lee1.pdf
  • ———. 2012a. ‘Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’. Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (1).
  • ———. 2012b. ‘Being Secular: Toward Separate Sociologies of Secularity, Nonreligion and Epistemological Culture’. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Cambridge: University of Cambridge.
  • Lynch, Gordon. 2012. The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Quack, Johannes. 2011. ‘Modes of Non-religiosity’. In  NSRN Terminology – Virtual Conference: Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/nsrn-terminology-conference-5-may-2011-johannes-quack-nonreligion-stream1.pdf.

Why are Women more Religious than Men?

The relationship of religion to gender is a highly complex and disputed area. However, it is well-documented that (to take some UK-based examples), ‘men are proportionately under-represented’ in (mainstream ‘Christian’) ‘religious’ services (Brown 2000, 193), and ‘women outnumber men on all indices of religiosity and spirituality’ (Day 2008, 267). In fact, Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce, the authors of the forthcoming Why are Women more Religious than Men? (OUP, 20 September 2012) unambiguously state in their abstract that, simply, ‘women are more religious than men’.

In this interview with Chris, recorded at the BSA’s Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference in March 2012, Dr Marta Trzebiatowska us a fascinating whirlwind tour through the masses of sociological research which have been done into this area in recent years.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And please, take moment to rate us.

Explanations for this disparity in levels of religiosity include suggestions that ‘religion’ emphasises ‘‘feminine’ qualities of relationality and emotional expression’ (Aune and Vincett 2010, 222), and that ‘men tend to exhibit a greater degree of skepticism than do women’ (Bryant 2007, 844). It has been proposed that women explain their ‘religious’ experiences ‘in terms of protection [and] belonging’ (Day 2008, 274) and ‘value being caring and expressive, being a person through reciprocal relationships, and appreciate the value of improving the quality of subjective-life [in contrast to men, who concentrate] on improving the quality of life by way of autonomous, individuated and competitive agency in the world’ (Heelas et al. 2005, 110). Trzebiatowska extensively examines and critiques such explanations and concludes, with Bruce, that

the gender gap is not the result of biology but is rather the consequence of important social differences —responsibility for managing birth, child-rearing and death, for example, and attitudes to the body, illness and health — over-lapping and reinforcing each other. In the West, the gender gap is exaggerated because the social changes that undermined the plausibility of religion bore most heavily on men first. Where the lives of men and women become more similar, and where religious indifference grows, the gender gap gradually disappears.

For discussions on these issues and more, we recommend that you check out Marta’s other work, the references cited in this post, and the recently launched (2011) online journal previous interview with Lisbeth Mikaelsson on Religion and Gender.

Dr Marta Trzebiatowska is Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. Her research focuses on ‘taking religion seriously’ and on the relationship between religious discourses and gender politics. More specifically, she focuses on sociologically examining the ways in which religious women construct their femininity under circumstances commonly perceived as restrictive, or even oppressive, by secular feminists. She is the author of a number of articles and chapters in these areas, including Habit does not a nun make?: Religious dress in the lives of Polish Catholic nuns (Journal of Contemporary Religion) and When Reflexivity is Not Enough: Researching Polish Catholics (Fieldwork in Religion), and is co-author, with Steve Bruce, of the OUP Book Why are Women more Religious than Men? (2012).

This interview is the second in our series on Material/Embodied Religion, which started last week with David Morgan on Material Religion, and concludes next week with Professor Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Location.

References:

  • Aune, Kristin, and Giselle Vincett. “Gender Matters: Doing Feminist Research on Religion and Youth.” In Religion and Youth, edited by Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Pink Dandelion, 217–224. Surrey: Ashgate, 2010.
  • Bryant, Alyssa N. “Gender Differences in Spiritual Development During the College Years.” Sex Roles 56 (2007): 835–846.
  • Day, Abby. “Wilfully Disempowered.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 15, no. 3 (2008): 261 –276.
  • Heelas, Paul, Linda Woodhead, Benjamin Seel, Bronislaw Szerszynski, and Karen Tusting. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Editors’ Picks 4: The Secularisation Thesis

In this, the penultimate Editors’ Pick, David tells us why he chose his interview with Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation thesis as his favourite.

The secularisation thesis – the idea that traditional religions are in terminal decline in the industrialised world – was perhaps the central debate in the sociology of religion in the second half of the 20th century. Scholars such as Steve Bruce, Rodney Stark and Charles Taylor argued whether religion was becoming less important to individuals, or that only the authority of religions in the public sphere was declining. Data from the US and South America, however, began to challenge many of their basic assumptions. Professor Linda Woodhead joins us to discuss the background and legacy of the secularisation thesis.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below the original posting of this podcast. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Editors’ Picks 3: Jay Demerath on Functionalist Religion and the Substantive Sacred

Week three of our Editors’ Picks. Chris tells us why he (and his fiancée) liked Jay Demerath’s interview on substantive and functionalist definitions of religion.

Could the difficulties associated with the academic conceptualisation of “religion” be overcome by changing our focus instead to “the sacred”? Jay Demerath tells Chris why we should define religion substantively – that is, in terms of specific attributes like rituals, deities or dogmas – but the sacred in terms of the function it serves in the lives of individuals and cultures. From this perspective, religion can be considered one of a number of potential sources of the sacred.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. Please take a moment to rate us while you’re there.

Jay Demerath is currently the Emile Durkheim Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he has been a faculty member since 1972, including ten years as Chair. Prior to UMass, he received a 1958 A.B. from Harvard and a 1964 Ph.D from the U. Of California, Berkeley before rising from Instructor to Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and serving as Executive Officer of the American Sociological Association. Among his many publications, he is author or editor of fourteen books, including the award-winning Crossing the Gods: World Religions and Worldly Politics (2001) and the recent Sage Handbook for the Sociology of Religion (2008). The current Chair-elect of the Religion Section of the American Sociological Association, he is also past-President of the Eastern Sociological Society, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Association for the Sociology of Religion.

Of particular relevance to this interview is his paper from 2000, The Varieties of Sacred Experience: Finding the Sacred in a Secular Grove, from the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 39, p. 1–11. Here’s the abstract:

This paper contends that the social scientific study of religion has long labored under a chafing constraint and a misleading premise. It suggests that our primary focus should be on the sacred, and that religion is just one among many possible sources of the sacred. Defining religion “substantively” but the sacred “functionally” helps toresolve a long-standing tension in the field. Broadened conceptions of the sacred and of “sacralization” help to defuse the conflict among the two very different versions of secularization theory: the “all-or-nothing” versus the “middle range.” Meanwhile, a conceptual typology of the sacred pivots around the intersections of two distinctions (compensatory vs. confirmatory and marginal vs. institutional). This generates four distinct scenarios: the sacred as integrative, the sacred as quest, the sacred as collectivity, and the sacred as counter-culture. The paper concludes with three admonitions for research in the area.

In Saecula Saeculorum: Reflecting on the Age/Aeon in light of the Cappadocian Fathers

In Saecula Saeculorum: Reflecting on the Age/Aeon in light of the Cappadocian Fathers

By Mario Baghos, St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College and University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 23 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Tariq Modood on the Crisis of European Secularism (28 May 2012).

Introduction

Drawing on my own research and interdisciplinary interests, the following response to Professor Tariq Modood’s podcast entitled ‘The Crisis of European Secularism’ will consist in a summary of his main thesis, followed by a statement of the challenge I seek to address, namely the anthropocentrism inherent in (some forms of) contemporary secularism; particularly its neglect of religion/God and the cosmos.  This will be followed by an etymological analysis of the word ‘secular,’ which is analogous with the age/aeon, especially as it was envisaged by the Cappadocian fathers of the early Church, Ss Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian (or, ‘Nazianzus’). It is hoped that their holistic vision of the age, one in which God and the cosmos were in fact included, can inspire further reflection on the way we experience our ‘age.’

Summary, and Addressing the ‘Crisis’

David Robertson’s insightful interview with Professor Tariq Modood unfolds within the parameters of a very pertinent debate, namely, the relationship between secular nations or states and religious institutions; where secularism, in a broad sense, has to do with separation of these two spheres. Professor Modood distinguishes between three types of secularism that, historically, have conditioned the relationship between governments and religious establishments since the Enlightenment. These can be described as ‘soft,’ ‘strict,’ and ‘moderate,’ the latter implying that organised religion and political authority can be partners, albeit in a limited sense (i.e. whilst retaining their mutual autonomy). According to him, it is the ‘strict’ form of secularism – an outcome of the French concept of laïcité – that is unfortunately prevailing in British society at a time when a new religious pluralism is beginning to emerge with immigration by Muslim minorities. Indeed, Professor Modood is genuinely concerned with positing a framework (i.e. through moderate secularism), where British authorities and Muslim clerics can work together without compromising the secularism of the former and the religious convictions/way of life of the latter. Whilst appreciating the significance of Modood’s presentation, I am reluctant to comment on it further, insofar as I do not feel sufficiently equipped with the knowledge pertaining to the secular policies of our modern governments, nor the intricacies of immigration. However, Modood’s nuanced description of various secularisms does offer the opportunity to engage the ‘crisis’ in relation to my own research interests; for whilst the professor has pertinently observed their implications for the relationship between politics and religious/ethnic minorities, I will be presupposing that the general mentality (or, metanarrative) behind secularism can be both anthropocentric and reductionist, insofar as its promotion of a-religiosity (on a political level) and preoccupation for the interests of human beings precludes an appreciation for the ways in which the ‘age’ has been interpreted by ancient and traditional societies, wherein God and the cosmos were intimately bound with the human endeavour or history. As pretexts for this anthropocentrism, the increasing neglect of God and religion in public affairs (the latter pointed to by Modood with reference to the ‘strict’ model), Mircea Eliade’s characterisation of modern ‘man’ [or, people] as only existing “insofar as he makes himself, within history [i.e. apart from cosmos]” (2005: xxiii), as well as the scientifically proven and very obvious degradation to the planet since the Industrial Revolution in the name of our own progress, will have to suffice for such a short piece. But before moving forward I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Modood for drawing my attention to some very important and sensitive issues, apart from which I would have remained rather ignorant.

Scope and Definitions

As mentioned, I intend to begin with an etymological analysis. Presupposing that words or definitions are indicative of the mentalities that produce them, I will address the concept of the ‘age’ or aeon as implied by the secondary meaning of the Latin term saeculum, wherefrom the word ‘secular’ is derived. I am aware of the difficulties inherent in undertaking an etymological analysis without extensively considering the different ways in which the notion of secularism and its cognates (such as ‘secularisation,’ ‘secularity’) have been employed across a range of interpretive disciplines (the history of religion, the sociology of religion, the field of geo-politics, to name a few). Nevertheless, having recently explored the historical development and use of some of these definitions as set out both in Modood’s presentation and in the works of N. J. Demerath and Judith Fox, I believe that my approach is legitimated by etymological analyses of the words ‘culture’ (Demerath 2007: 71) and ‘secular’ (Fox 2005: 292) undertaken by the latter in order to demonstrate their respective theses. Of particular relevance is Fox’s demonstration that the derivation of this term, coming from “the same etymological root (L. saeculum) as the French word siecle, meaning ‘century’ or ‘age,’” is also evident in “the astronomical use of the word secular to talk about processes of change over long periods of time” (Fox: 292). Perhaps unintentionally hinting at the longue durée of the Annales school of historiography (Le Goff 1992: xxi-xxii), this astronomical definition is important, for it can be interpreted as pointing to a relationship between the Latin saeculum and the Greek aeon (αἰῶν); the latter being a more flexible term which can mean either a long period of time or eternity depending on the context. To this end, the Latin phrase in saecula saeculorum, included in my title, is the Vulgate translation of the New Testament phrase “into the ages of ages” (εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων/eis toūs aiōnas tōn aiōnōn) which is commonly mistranslated as the eternity of God, but in fact relates to a doxological (and hence, existential) appraisal of his sovereign presence and providential activity throughout both the present age and the eschatological ages to come (Cf. Gal 1:5, Eph 3:21, Phil 4:20, 1 Tim 1:17, 2 Tim 4:18, Heb 13:21, 1 Pet 4:11, Rev 1:18, 4:9, 10, 5:13, 7:12, 11:15, 22:5). Usually preceded by an invocation of the Holy Trinity, this doxological phrase commonly prefigured many prayers and hymns of the Christianity of the late antique and medieval periods, resounding today in its major branches, Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. So, as my title suggests, I will address the concept of the ‘age’ or aeon as implied by the secondary meaning of the Latin term saeculum as a long period of time (here to be understood as the duration of the cosmos), evoking the existential dimension of the Christian tradition with its antecedents in the scriptures and exemplified in material which is of immediate relevance to (and an outcome of) my own research, namely, the writings of the fourth century Cappadocian fathers Ss Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian. I will show that their conception of the age or aeon is one in which God and the cosmos are included, which, I will argue, stands in stark contradistinction to our anthropocentric and reductionist interpretations of secularism.

The Cappadocians on the Age/Aeon

The Basilian concept of the ‘age’ is associated with two other aspects of his thinking, namely, his exegetical approach to the scriptures – more particularly Genesis (i.e. protology) – and his eschatological vision; where the eschaton, the ‘last things’ of the historical continuum traditionally described as “Christ’s final judgment of humanity, the resurrection of the dead and the final ‘transformation of the cosmos’” (Baghos: 2010: 86) were envisaged as anticipated in the here and now in an ecclesial context. Concerning the former, which is expounded at length in his Hexaēmeron (or, Homilies on the Six Days of Creation), he notes that scripture [i.e. Gen 1:5] “calls the first day of creation ‘one day’ – ἡμέρα μία [heméra mía] – instead of the ‘first’ – πρώτη ἡμέρα [prótē heméra] – in a succession of days” (Baghos: 89). The Cappadocian allegorically interprets this ‘one’ day (heméra mía) as symbolising a totality that recapitulates within itself all of creation history from beginning to end as metaphorically represented by the creation narrative. He does this by suggesting that the very structure of the week of Genesis, which is paradigmatic for the duration of time we experience (i.e. all subsequent ‘weeks’), constitutes an image or approximation of eternity in its cyclical rotation. Hence, both the ‘one’ day and its consecutive ‘reiterations’ point to the aforementioned recapitulation of history which he also describes as the age/aeon (αἰῶν), which does not simply refer to the human endeavour undertaken for its own sake; but to the origin, rhythms and purpose of the entire created cosmos, consisting of both the “heavenly and earthly, human and biological, astronomical and mineral” (Costache 2010: 22), which he elucidates throughout the treatise. So, for this traditional thinker, there could be no separation between the notion of the age and the cosmic purpose that contained within itself the human endeavour (Costache: 23), thereby leaving no room for the sort of anthropocentrism characterising contemporary secularism(s). St Basil also refers to “the ages of ages” mentioned in the scriptures (see above), stating that, since they are not enumerated in a sequence (as the six days of creation in Genesis) they do not refer to ‘ages.’ Instead, they pertain to “differences of conditions and of various circumstances” (Hexaēmeron 2.8, at 35. PG 29, 49D-52A) that pertain to this very age designated by the ‘one’ day, the age or aeon, and also the ‘eighth day’ that occurs outside the week of time and hence our temporal experience. Days ‘one’ and ‘eight,’ inhering within the same aeon, not only point to the inextricable relationship between protology and eschatology in the saint’s thinking, but also to the fact that those aspects relating to the ‘last things’ mentioned above can be experienced in any epoch, thereby prefiguring the profoundly existential already/not yet of the eschaton put forward by contemporary scholarship; that although God’s kingdom has ‘already’ been established in the Church (with the advent of Christ), it is ‘not yet’ consummated – and won’t be until the second coming (Baghos: 85). In his On the Holy Spirit, St Basil highlights this ecclesial dimension by affirming that days ‘one’ and ‘eight’ coincide on a Sunday, which in Greek is literally the ‘Lord’s day’ – or Κυριακή (Kyriakē) – the principal day on which the Eucharistic liturgy was and still is celebrated (Baghos: 85). Herein lies the existential significance of the age for this Church father. For him, the ecclesial rhythms, but especially the liturgy, recapitulate God’s providential activity throughout the entire age understood cosmically; what has happened, is happening, and will happen is summed up within the Sunday, the ‘one’ day of creation, through which believers are able to have an immediate foretaste of the ‘eighth’ day, i.e. the eschatological life to come.

St Gregory the Theologian’s vision of the age/aeon is as holistic as that of his friend and peer, St Basil. At the beginning of the twenty-fifth chapter of his Fifth Theological Oration, he states that “there have been two transformations of life manifested out of the entire age [τοῦ παντὸς αἰῶνος/toū pantōs aiōnos]” (Fifth Theological Oration 25, at 136. PG 36, 160D). I have written elsewhere that this all-encompassing approach, resonating with Basil’s conception of the age, “attempts to give a comprehensive account of the historical drama and the persons and events that it includes” (Baghos 2011: 24). In other words, the Cappadocian’s perception was akin to what we today call a metanarrative, which, he went on to affirm, unfolded between the two covenants of the Old and New Testaments, which he also described as “earthquakes” marking two important existential changes in disposition of God’s people; from the pagan idols to the Mosaic Law, and from the Law to the Christian Gospel (Baghos: 24-25). For the Theologian, these two changes were analogously marked by the disclosure of God as Trinity; the first covenant proclaimed the Father, the second the Son, whilst also giving believers “a glimpse of the Spirit’s Godhead” (Fifth Theological Oration, 26, at 137; PG 36, 161C) before his revelation to the apostles and the ecclesial community. Here, we encounter a conception of the age/aeon that far from being interpreted anthropocentrically, is instead concerned with God’s self-disclosure that unfolds in stages proportionate to the capacity of human beings to receive it (Baghos 2011: 29). That this self-disclosure is again profoundly existential is exemplified by the saint’s insistence that the Spirit dwelt within the apostles, and his understanding of the eschatological experience as constituting the “third and final earthquake that will translate the cosmos into an unshaken, unmoved mode of being” (Baghos 2011: 31). And it is precisely here that the cosmic dimension of Gregory’s vision of the age is exhibited; for this eschatological rumination, when compared intertextually with chapters 11-13 of his Oration 38, denotes that whilst the historical continuum moves from one ‘covenantal earthquake’ to the next, it is in fact marked on either end (i.e. alpha and omega) by the Demiurge Logos (i.e. Christ), who, in his pre-incarnate existence created the spiritual and material worlds (Baghos: 30-31). For Gregory it is to this same Logos, now incarnate as Christ Jesus, towards which history, and hence the age, is oriented; thereby precluding the anthropocentric model in light of the inevitable teleological encounter of the universe and all it contains with God the Son.

Concluding Remarks

In an environment where secularism is often interpreted as a prerogative in human self-governance and even our perception and experience of the world, it is perhaps intriguing – if not often disquieting – to be confronted with how representative figures from other epochs, usually considered more religious than our own, viewed their own age and all it contained. Whilst there are many forms of secularism, such as those pointed out by professor Modood in his podcast, what I have been concerned with in this piece is to offer an alternative, holistic vision of the concept of the age/aeon based on the writings of two figures from fourth century Christianity. Whilst some might decry this diachronic, and in fact interdisciplinary approach, I am finding that it has become a staple of my own research, insofar as I am genuinely convinced that the religious perceptions and mentalities from any context can offer insights into contemporary situations, not the least secularism. In the beginning of this response I mentioned the fact that secularism can be, in a general sense, characterised by an anthropocentrism that is manifested in a neglect of God and religion in public affairs, as well as an a-cosmicism that has had an immediate effect on our environment. I then undertook an etymological analysis of the term ‘secular,’ in order to legitimate its use with reference to the age or aeon. This led me to a brief exploration of the conception of the ‘age’ in two representative figures of early Christianity, namely the Cappadocians Basil and Gregory. In the former, I identified the relationship between the age and the cosmic rhythms, outlining their existential dimension that is facilitated by the Eucharistic liturgy, wherein the entire salvific economy (or, God’s presence in the age) is anticipated with a foretaste of the future eschaton. In the latter, I observed a metanarrational vision of history (or the age) whereby God gradually discloses himself through the ‘covenantal earthquakes’; a vision which is not without its cosmic significance insofar as the age is marked by Christ’s presence on either end as creator and consummator. That the vision of these two saints is not without contemporary relevance is testified by their veneration, especially amongst Eastern Orthodox Christians, who moreover continue to refer to them with epithets established by tradition (‘the Great,’ ‘Theologian’) and to celebrate liturgies ostensibly written by them. It is perhaps worth pondering the ramifications of secularism on these Christians, both as it increases in popularity in their native countries and as they migrate abroad. As a final note, in focusing on these specifically Christian figures I did not mean to preclude the perception and experience of other religious traditions. On the contrary, it is hoped that their holistic perception and experience of the ‘age’ as one in which God and the cosmos are included will provide a meaningful alternative to our modern experience of it as interpreted from the viewpoint of various secularisms, which I have posited can be anthropocentric, and hence reductionist, in nature.

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:

 

Mario Baghos is Associate Lecturer in Patristic Studies and Church History at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Redfern, Sydney. He is a PhD candidate in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. His research interests include the city of Constantinople, patristic eschatology, and the history of religions and mentalities.

 

References

Baghos, Mario (2010) ‘St Basil’s Eschatological Vision: Aspects of the Recapitulation of History and the Eighth Day’ Phronema 25, 85-103.

Baghos, Mario (2011) ‘The Meaning of History: Insights from St Gregory the Theologian’s Existential Metanarrative’ Colloquium 43:1, 17-38.

Costache, Doru (2010) ‘Christian Worldview: Understandings from St Basil the Great’ Phronema 25, 21-56.

Demerath III, N.J. (2007) ‘Secularization and Sacralization Deconstructed and Reconstructed’ in James A. Beckford and N.J. Demerath II (eds.) The Sage Handbook of the Sociology of Religion. London: Sage Publications, 57-79.

Eliade Mircea (2005) The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History, trans. W.R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fox, Judith (2005) ‘Secularization’ in John R. Hinnells (ed.) The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. Oxon: Routledge, 291-305.

Harrison, Nonna Verna (trans.) (2008) Festal Orations: Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, in Popular Patristics Series 36, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood NY: SVS Press.

Hildebrand, Stephen (trans.) (2011) St Basil the Great: On the Holy Spirit, in Popular Patristics Series 42, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Le Goff, Jacques (1992): History and Memory, trans. S. Rendall and E. Claman. New York: Columbia University Press.

Way, Agnes Clare (trans.) (2003) St Basil: Exegetical Homilies, The Fathers of the Church Series, vol. 46. Washington D.C: The Catholic University of American Press.

Williams, Frederick (trans.) (2002) St Gregory of Nazianzus: On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and the Two Letters to Cledonius, Popular Patristics Series 23, John Behr (ed.) Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Historical Approaches to (Losing) Religion

How can we use historical approaches in the study of religion? More specifically, can we use historical approaches to understand why people are losing it? Professor Callum Brown tells us why historical approaches have much to tell us about religious change.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Callum Brown is Professor of Religious and Cultural History at the University of Dundee. He is a social and cultural historian with special research interests in religion and secularisation in the post 1750 period – especially in the 20th and 21st centuries – mostly in Scotland and Britain, but also Canada, USA and Ireland.

He is currently involved in the project A Social and Cultural History of Modern Humanism, covering Scotland, UK, Ireland, Canada and USA and using especially oral history focusing on the social and cultural origins of individuals’ humanism, looking at issues like family background, religious experiences, and cultural alignments. He is also about to publish Religion and the Demographic Revolution: Women and Secularisation in Canada, Ireland, UK and USA since the 1960s (London, Boydell & Brewer), which looks at demographic behaviour in the North Atlantic world, and the correlations between gender change, the sexual revolution, changes in patterns of marriage and cohabitation, and changes in religious ritual (such as religious solemnisation of marriage, baptism and funeral rites), and incorporates considerable statistical research. 

You may also be interested in our recent interview with Professor Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation Thesis, and Bjoern Mastiaux’s essay on the same topic.

For an interesting response essay to this podcast, please see Tim Hutchings’ A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion. For a more ‘informal’ response, you can listen to our roundtable discussion session on the question Can We Trust the Social Sciences?.

Secularization: A Look at Individual Level Theories of Religious Change

The Demise of Established Religiosity

While it is often argued that the secularization thesis only referred to macro-level secularization – the separation of religion from other societal spheres in the process of functional differentiation (cf. e.g. Wilson 1998) – there is no way of denying that most specific secularization theories also refer to a loss of significance of religion on the individual level, explicitly or implicitly, which may be prompted by macro-level differentiation and individualization, and which itself may affect the meso-level in the form of a steady decrease in church membership or attendance (cf. Dobbelaere 2000). As an explanation for this observed or expected micro-level secularization either one or both of two reasons are commonly given. It is either assumed that there was or will be no further need for religion – as, in Weber’s case, rationality and science have taken over its explanatory function or as, in Marx’s case, its solace function will not be required any longer in a perfect socialist society. Or it is postulated that the individual will eventually lose confidence in the established religion’s supernatural truth claims, will literally fall from or at least be shaken in his or her faith. This was the central argument of Peter L. Berger’s early approach (before his conversion to being critical of secularization theory), which was built on the idea that any belief or belief system relied on an intact “plausibility structure”, provided through social affirmation. But Christianity’s plausibility structure – the taken-for-grantedness particularly of its metaphysical claims – had suffered from the accessibility of a plurality of competing religious faiths and other worldviews, made commonplace by modern media, travel, education, and cultural exchange, and thereby from decreasing affirmation or even widespread refutation. The result of this, in any modernized society, would be a doubting, secularized populace as well as secularized churches, which would refrain from overly demanding metaphysics and, instead, turn to the individuals’ this-worldly needs in order to avoid their complete demise (cf. Berger 1980).

This concentration on the decline of institutionalized, established, church religiosity by early secularization theorists prompted some criticism. Berger’s companion in other projects, Thomas Luckmann (who defined as religion anything that helps people to overcome different sorts of “transcendences”), claimed that religion had not disappeared but only changed its location – e.g. to psychotherapy, esotericism, and other hedonistic projects of self-fulfillment. To him, religion had become privatized and thereby “invisible” for the social scientific study of religion (cf. Luckmann 1967). Similar to this is Grace Davie’s (1994) concept of “believing without belonging”, and other theories of individualized religiosity, which claim that spirituality persists outside institutionalized churches. Relying on Durkheim’s integration model of religion, Robert N. Bellah, too, denied that religion had disappeared but claimed that, in a multidenominational nation such as the United States, it had to manifest itself differently – not in an all-encompassing, European style nation church, but in what he called “civil religion”, composed of reference to a generalized “God” as well as of “sacralized” national institutions, documents, figures, holidays, and symbols, whose role it was to achieve national integration (cf. Bellah 1967). Nevertheless, both Luckmann and Bellah agreed that the significance of conventional churches and denominations, as well as of personal (substantively defined) religious belief and activity, had diminished over the past decades.

The American Challenge

An early critic of the view that modernity necessarily meant secularization, as pointed out by Linda Woodhead, was David Martin. Besides rejecting an ahistorical, undifferentiated theory of secularization as a universal, linear, and irreversible process, Martin warned against secularists (and for him this might just as well apply to proponents of secularization theory) taking “Catholic laments about the period when men were truly religious” too seriously (Martin 1969: 30). In order to diagnose secularization in the present one would have to believe in the existence of a former “Golden Age of Faith”, a highly sacralized past. But for critics of the secularization thesis this constituted largely a fiction. They argued that there had never been a time of universal and widespread religious belief and presented examples of medieval impiety as proof (cf. Bruce 2011).

Yet attacks on secularization theory were not only directed against its depictions of the past, but also of the present, with the most prominent (twofold) challenge coming from the United States of America. Firstly, the empirical situation in the U.S. had always given reason for doubt. American rates of church affiliation had constantly been high, as had rates of individuals’ belief in a personal god and other religious indicators. Particularly surprising was that this situation was to be found in a highly modernized as well as religiously pluralized country. Secondly, starting in the U.S. during the 1980s, these doubts were translated into a forceful theoretical onslaught on secularization theory, brought forward by the so-called “rational choice” or “market” theorists of religion. Rodney Stark, Laurence R. Iannaccone, William S. Bainbridge, and Roger Finke wholeheartedly dismissed the idea of micro-level secularization. Instead they claimed that demand for religious products, for other-worldly “compensators”, was always stable and about the same in any society – with a range of societal “niches” with differing degrees of such demand. What really differed when comparing different societies – and the historically specific characteristics of which had produced the, in their view, exceptional case of European “secularization” – was the makeup of the “religious marketplace”, the degree to which religious entrepreneurs were free or hindered to do their business. In contrast to Berger’s original view, religious pluralism was not seen as undermining religious faith and vitality, but on the contrary as a prerequisite for sufficient supply to meet the diverse kinds of religious demand (cf. Stark, Bainbridge 1987, Stark 2000, Stark, Finke 2000).

According to this theory, citizens in the United States, with its free and rich religious market, were able to make a “rational choice” about their religious affiliation and pick one according to their specific preferences. Those segments of society, for example, who took a specific interest in the supernatural promises of a religious brand – such as compensation in the afterlife for earthly suffering – would favor fundamentalist churches, because these, with their high costs for membership (e.g. abstinence from some earthly pleasures, stigmatizing appearance, denial of contact to wider society), were able to generate a dependent and committed congregation. For these religious searchers, a vibrant community of believers is seen as crucial, since, other than a congregation of lazy and sullen churchgoers, only this would be able to provide at least some testimony to a highly insecure and untestable expected reward, such as other-worldly promises. This would explain the success particularly of “strict churches” in the U.S. (cf. Iannaccone 1994). Religious vitality in Europe, on the other hand, was thwarted by a lack of religious choice and, in addition, a lack of incentives for pampered state church officials to make their regulated religious brand somewhat more appealing. To the rational choice authors, the dearth of religious vitality in most of Europe has nothing to do with diminished demand, or individual secularization, but everything with insufficient supply. Accordingly, they expect that with further separation of church and state and further cutbacks of church privileges in Europe, these countries will, after some generations, eventually be de-secularized and become as religiously vital as the United States, leaving proclaimed individual-level secularization a mere fiction, or even an ideology, and Europe’s meso-level secularization nothing but a historical oddity (cf. Stark, Iannaccone 1994, Stark, Finke 2000).

Refined Theories of Secularization

This economic approach has, from its conception, drawn a lot of criticism – in particular from Steve Bruce, whom Linda Woodhead called “probably the most important defender of secularization theory now”, and who has published a book length refutation of the economic theory of religion, hoping that this might be “the stake through the vampire’s chest”, as which he sees his opponents (Bruce 1999, 2). Somewhat more moderate is the criticism by Christopher G. Ellison (1995) and Darren E. Sherkat (1997). They agree with Stark and his colleagues that people make their religious choices rationally, but doubt that they necessarily do so for inherently religious reasons. Instead, on many occasions, people would enter, remain in, or actively participate in specific churches with the reactions of others in mind – e.g. in order to set an example or not to suffer social sanctions. This would make individual-level secularization compatible with high levels of religiosity on the organizational level – people may remain active in churches for social reasons, without actually believing.

Steve Bruce agrees and concludes that the supposed “free choice”, central to the rational choice approach of religion, was actually a fiction. While overall in the United States there really existed a plurality of religions and denominations, at the local level, where people actually made their religious choices, this was not so. Even if there were a plurality of churches in one town or county, membership was not open to everyone, but bound up with ethnicity, class, or other forms of social identity and related sanctions: “Racial segregation is still such that adding a black Pentecoastal church to a town does not in the least increase the choice for white Americans. Adding a German language Lutheran church makes no difference to a Swedish American.” (Bruce 1996, 135). Yet, Bruce does not doubt that many Americans actually are highly religious and practice their faith fervently and wholeheartedly. But, in his view – and in contrast to the rational choice theorists’ – this does not falsify secularization theory as such. Bruce’s explanation is that, in many places in the United States, modernization did not and could not have its secularizing effects. Due to the deregulation of the informational and educational sectors, the United States enabled fundamentalist Christianity to build its own universe, shielding its members from different views in the privatized media, schools, and even universities, and thereby leaving the religion’s “plausibility structure” intact (cf. Bruce 2002, 2011).

Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart offer a different explanation for why Americans seem to cling to religion in large numbers. Analyzing a range of international surveys and indices, they show that subjective religiosity is positively correlated with existential insecurity. In line with the classical view of Marx and Freud, but also with the rational choice theorists, they conclude that religion may serve as consolation or compensation. But they differ from the rational choice theorists in that they do not assume such need to be universal, but rather dependent on the specific economic situation and other alterable factors under which individuals live and grow up – and that in this respect the United States is, at least for now, an exceptional case in the western world: “Relatively high levels of economic insecurity are experienced by many sectors of U.S. society, despite American affluence, due to the cultural emphasis on the values of personal responsibility, individual achievement, and mistrust of big government, limiting the role of public services and the welfare state for basic matters such as healthcare covering all the working population” (Norris, Inglehart 2004, 108). Being and feeling more vulnerable to existential risks, Americans were more likely to turn to religion for solace and comfort than were citizens of other western nations.

Conclusion

Over the past decades, the secularization thesis has been discarded – but only insofar as it postulated an inevitable, universal, and uniform process. It would be going too far, though, to assume that “there was nothing really ever there”. Theories of secularization have, instead, been refined. Karel Dobbelaere (2002) and José Casanova (1994) have shown that secularization may work differently on different levels – for example affecting the institutional organization of society, but not individual religiosity. Concerning the latter, Bruce and Norris/Inglehart maintain that modernization is very likely to have a secularizing effect – yet only insofar as it is accompanied by 1) access to a plurality of worldviews as well as 2) feelings of existential security for wide sectors of society. Both conditions depend on political and economic arrangements and are prone to change. Consequently, secularization is no longer seen as a natural development – even by its theoretical proponents –  but, rather, as a contingent phenomenon.

References

Bellah, Robert N. (1967): Civil Religion in America. Daedalus 96, 1-21.

Berger, Peter L. (1980): The Heretical Imperative. Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation. London: Collins.

Bruce, Steve (1996): Religion in the Modern World. From Cathedrals to Cults. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Bruce, Steve (1999): Choice and Religion. A Critique of Rational Choice Theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Bruce, Steve (2002): God is Dead. Secularization in the West. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Bruce, Steve (2011): Secularization. In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Casanova, José (1994): Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Davie, Grace (1994): Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing Without Belonging. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Dobbelaere, Karel (2000): Toward an Integrated Perspective of the Processes Related to the Descriptive Concept of Secularization. In: Swatos Jr. et al. (eds.): The Secularization Debate. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 21-39.

Dobbelaere, Karel (2002): Secularization: An Analysis at Three Levels. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Ellison, Christopher G. (1995): Rational Choice Explanations of Individual Religious Behavior: Notes on the Problem of Social Embeddedness. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34, 89-97.

Iannaccone, Laurence R. (1994): Why Strict Churches Are Strong. In: American Journal of Sociology 99, 1180-1211.

Luckmann, Thomas (1967): The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society. New York: Macmillan.

Martin, David (1969): The Religious and the Secular. Studies in Secularization. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Norris, Pippa and Ronald Inglehart (2004): Sacred and Secular. Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sherkat, Darren E. (1997): Embedding Religious Choices. Preferences and Social Constraints into Rational Choice Theories of Religious Behavior. In: Young (ed.): Rational Choice Theory and Religion. Summary and Assessment. London, New York: Routledge, 66-86.

Stark, Rodney (2000): Secularization R.I.P.. In: Swatos Jr. et al. (eds.): The Secularization Debate. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 41-66.

Stark, Rodney and William S. Bainbridge (1987): A Theory of Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Stark, Rodney and Roger Finke (2000): Acts of Faith. Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Stark, Rodney and Laurence R. Iannaccone (1994): A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the “Secularization” of Europe. In: Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33, 230-252.

Wilson, Bryan (1998): The Secularization Thesis: Criticisms and Rebuttals. In: Laersmans et al. (eds.): Secularization and Social Integration: Papers in Honour of Karel Dobbelaere. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 45-66.

The Secularisation Thesis

The secularisation thesis – the idea that traditional religions are in terminal decline in the industrialised world – was perhaps the central debate in the sociology of religion in the second half of the 20th century. Scholars such as Steve Bruce, Rodney Stark and Charles Taylor argued whether religion was becoming less important to individuals, or that only the authority of religions in the public sphere was declining. Data from the US and South America, however, began to challenge many of their basic assumptions. Professor Linda Woodhead joins us to discuss the background and legacy of the secularisation thesis.

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Podcast Transcript

Podcast with Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation Thesis (16 April 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. Robertson. Transcribed by Martin Lepage.

 

David Robertson: The secularisation thesis is probably the biggest central theme and certainly the most hotly debated in the sociology of religion, certainly since the 1960’s. Why is it so important and how has it changed? To talk to us today about this, we’ve got Professor Linda Woodhead, from the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Perhaps, you could just begin at the beginning with where does the secularisation thesis come from? Where does it begin?

Linda Woodhead: Actually, the origins of secularisation theory are coterminous with the origins of sociology itself. It’s absolutely fundamental to the whole discipline and all the great fathers of sociology – Weber, Durkheim and Marx – believed and expounded some version of secularisation theory. At the very heart of the social sciences, this belief that, as societies modernized, religion will decline. And each had a different way of explaining that. For Weber, it was primarily about the rise of scientific knowledge and it was about the application of rational standards, bureaucratic standards, in life more generally. He thought that that way of thinking and reasoning disenchanted the world, it cast out the magical, the religious. Durkheim had a rather different explanation of why religion declines. He thought that religion binds societies together, and he particularly thought that religion binds small groups together, and they meet face to face and celebrate the sacred. He thought that as societies modernized and urbanized, those fundamental bonds are broken, and religion is broken in that process as people move to cities and are individualized more. And Marx thought, of course, that religion would die out once you get the perfect socialist communist State. He thought it was a symptom of all that was wrong with society, a way of coping with the oppressions and difficulties of society. Once we realised the perfect society, you won’t need religion. In different ways, all of those classical theories are evolutionary or they’re progressive.

DR: I was going to ask that. Are they strongly tied to this notion of the gradual perfection of society and the move out of the darkness and into the light?

LW: They are really, and that’s a kind of, in a way, a blind spot of classical secularisation theory, in modern forms, that they didn’t really, perhaps… they weren’t sociological enough about their own background and presuppositions. This early crop of the classical theories, are all bound up with Nation-States developing, growing, extending their power and with their new elites, including academic elites, like the sociologists establishing their status. There was a kind of implicit optimism that the way that European society is developing is at the cutting edge of social evolution. So all societies are going to follow, so eventually everyone will become secular like we are. That’s never quite said, but that really does lie behind this theory. That we are not just talking about the tie of religion and particularities of here and now, we’re talking about an inevitable, inextricable process that everyone is destined to go through.

DR: That’s a critique of the narrative of modernization and westernisation anyway, that this is inevitable and even desirable motif. Maybe we can move on to the… I don’t want to call them the classical theorists, but the most famous describers of the secularisation thesis in the simple form that we know it.

LW: You could say that those classical sociologists, Weber, Durkheim, Marx, are sort of phase one of secularisation. And then there’s been a phase two. Phase two came in the wake of the Second World War, really. It was really flourishing in the 1970’s, and around about then. Again, it was very much European. In the UK, one of the chief figures was Brian Wilson, of Oxford University. (5:00) He fully endorsed secularisation theory, he gave it thoughts of new twists and explanations and interpretations. He particularly emphasised that secularisation is about the decline in the social significance of religion. He didn’t deny that some people were still religious, but he said “what’s changed, is that religion doesn’t have the same status in society. For example, politicians don’t have to refer to it anymore. They go on and do their business according to their own logic, they don’t take any notice of religion, whereas before the political ruler and religious elites would have to be in compensation with each other. He talked about that in every sphere, how religion ceases to be a point of reference in the public life.

DR: Perhaps you could clarify that, that sounds like the first development of the secularisation thesis, isn’t it? It’s one of the explanations for it, that it’s not that religion is going to completely disappear from society, rather it moves out of public sphere and into the private sphere.

LW: Yes. He thought that was that. You could still be devoutly religious, but it will affect you in your private life rather than when you go to work, or when you’re being a politician or wherever that might be.

DR: It’s not a disappearance of religion, it’s just a radical change in its function?

LW: Yes, the sociological term is social differentiation. The different spheres of society become autonomous. In law, you don’t refer to religion anymore, and in politics, likewise, and in education likewise. All these things become autonomous and they run according to rational secular standards, not by reference to religion. Wilson thinks he sees that happening very clearly in the UK and gives lots of examples of that process in various spheres.

DR: Were there any other interpretations of the secularisation thesis?

LW: There were lots of clarifications at that time. There was another very important contribution by a European, a Belgian sociologist, called Karel Dobbelaere, and he made what’s become really well used in his account, is a distinction between three levels of secularisation. He talks about secularisation at the societal level, the meta level of society; secularisation at the organisational level, and he’s thinking in part of religious organisation themselves declining, like the churches having fewer members or attenders; and then thirdly, secularisation at the personal level, where fewer people believe or their lives are less guided by religion. He says : “Don’t just talk about secularisation. What sort are you meaning, or what level of society? The macro level, the meso level or the micro level?” And he thought that it could happen at different rates in different parts. That’s quite compatible with Wilson’s theory, really. It’s another clarification of secularisation theory. But the most important current exponent, still in post, is, of course, in Scotland, and that’s Steve Bruce at Aberdeen University, who’s probably the most important defender of secularisation theory now, even though it’s waned very very much, it’s very much fallen out of favour in the last ten or fifteen years. Steve is a true believer still in secularisation theory and defends it very very strongly. He combines really particularly Durkheim and Marx. He thinks that it is about individualisation, the Durkheimian theory that societies break down and we don’t need that bond anymore, and he thinks it’s about rationalisation, the more Weberian account and he restates it, but in those quite classical terms, and he accumulates a lot of data, and the data mainly has to do with Churches in Europe. So it’s about the demonstrable decline in the number of people who are members, attenders, who had their child baptised, who have a Christian wedding. There are lots of statistics that support his case, that he regularly cites.

DR: That’s a weakness of secularisation thesis, isn’t it? That it’s based on a very strict model of what religion is, on an institutionalised Church model of religion. And it wouldn’t really translate to less institutionalised forms of religion, say New Age.

LW: That’s a very good point, and Steve Bruce would reply to you, because he is criticised for that point, by saying New Age isn’t really a religion. He would say it’s just what he calls it, cults. It’s the kind of… like an entropy, (10:00) when religion get less and less and less important to people and New Age is just the very end of that process. It doesn’t really matter to them, it doesn’t have a big effect on their lives, they don’t give a lot of money to it, they’re not really committed, it’s just a sort of privatised leisure pursuit. That’s how he tries to explain new forms of spirituality’s growth. Is that convincing from your point of view?

DR: Not convincing to me, but I can follow his argument. We could get into a big debate about whether or not… you could argue that something like New Age is a different form, a more individualised rather than an institutionalised model of religion, for instance, in which case secularisation would be a change in the form of religion, which would go along with an individualised privatisation model.

LW: But you could say, in criticism of someone like Steve Bruce, you wouldn’t, say you’re looking up modern communications, you wouldn’t get the statistics for how many people send telegrams from 1950 to 2012, and say, “Well, it’s completely declined, so people don’t use instant messaging anymore”. You’d look at what new forms have taken its place, so why just look at the churches? Of course some forms of religions grown declined over time, because religion is constantly transforming. So why say that’s the only true religion and nothing else counts? And I personally think that’s a major weakness of the secularisation theory, which is only… if we’re looking at something very specific, the decline of particular sorts of European Church that had close connections with the State, and they have declined their question. They generalized from that very particular story to religion as a whole.

DR: Which is a perfect link to the second major weaknesses, I think, of the secularisation thesis, which is, it’s very culturally and geographically specific.

LW: That’s a great point and that brings us to the USA, because you’ll notice that all the theorists I’ve been talking about are European. And Europe is in many ways the most secular part of the globe. America never produced secularisation theory in a significant way partly because, even though America was as modernised as Europe, it didn’t suffer the same decline of religion, even of church going or congregation, they have different kinds of churches in the States of course. So Americans didn’t really believe in it, in the way Europeans did.

DR: It was never really accepted?

LW: It didn’t have the same theoretical importance. It was accepted by many social scientists, but in the study of religion, there aren’t great theorist of it who contributed new developments. And since the 1980’s, the most important critics of secularisation theory have been Americans in the sociology of religion. First, Peter Berger and then Jose Casanova. Berger’s particularly interesting because he was a secularisation theorist. So his career has spanned right from the 1960s through to today, for much of that carrier, he went along with the European secularisation theorists. But his interpretation was different. He thought religion declines because it becomes less plausible when there’s not just one worldview. So if you’re a Christian and you just live in a Christian village near a Christian town, you’re going to believe it. But it becomes less plausible when you meet an Hindu and a Buddhist. That was his theory of why it declined in modern societies. But then he had a complete conversion, he changed his mind in the 1990’s, and he said… I brought a quote, it’s a good one. He said :

“My point is that the assumption that we live in a secularised world is false. The world today, with some exceptions, is as furiously religious as ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists, loosely labeled secularisation theory, is essentially mistaken. In my early work, I contributed to this literature. I was in good company. Most sociologists of religion had similar views and we had good reasons for upholding them. Some of the writing we produced still stand up. Although the term ‘secularisation theory’ refers to works from the 50’s and 60’s, the key idea can be traced right back to the Enlightenment. The idea is simple. Modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals. And it’s precisely this key idea that turned out to be wrong.”

So a very strong change of mind, in his part.

DR: It’s rare to see a scholar doing that.

LW: It’s very rare and it’s particularly interesting. Then Jose Casanova had developed a very sophisticated theory of public religion which accepts that there’s differentiation, but it thinks religion continues to a public and not just a private role and he shows that (15:00) in relation to Poland and Spain and several other countries.

DR: Poland is a very good example. It’s obviously… the figures in Britain alone since the arrival of the Poles here shown a huge growth in church attendances. I think it was Casanova, I might be wrong, who argued that it was because the Church wasn’t identified with the controlling power but the Church was rather a revolutionary… that’s a bit strong, but… of the people, and that the Church hasn’t gone into decline in Poland as it has here. And where the Church is still seen as, perhaps, I think, cultural hegemony. I think those statistics have a very interesting thing to say about secularization.

LW: Yes, so the difficulty is to explain why the differential rates of secularization. Actually, I was going to come to the other kind of key figure who’s really the stand out figure in this whole story. He’s the one person who saw all this a long time before anyone else, long before Casanova or Berger, and that was David Martin, who’s an English sociologist of religion, still alive, retired now. In 1965, he wrote an essay criticizing secularization theory, and then in the late 1970’s, he wrote the famous book called A General Theory of Secularization. He didn’t completely throw it overboard, but he tried to refine it, and his point was just what you said. That it depends what role religion has in a particular society and what relationship it has to reactionary and revolutionary political power. So in a country like France, where all forces of liberalization and democracy who have opposed by the Catholic Church, you get a very very strong secularism. Because all progressive people want to overthrow this reactionary force. But, going across the Atlantic to America, where the churches were a force of democracy and liberation from colonial British rule, then religion becomes identified with those positive forces and it’s a very religious place. And he thinks he can do similar analyses across the world. So he rejected the general theory, an undifferentiated theory, long before anyone else. I think he gets sometimes slightly irritated today when everyone says “Oh, it’s a really great new theory!” He thinks “I was saying that forty years ago.”

DR: But it’s interesting that that’s, in that case, what we’re talking about really is a radical de-traditionalisation, particularly in Northern Europe. It’s a challenging of power bases and the decentralisation of power, and epistemological power as well, and in institutions rather than the other interpretation about the logic of religion not making sense.

LW: Yes, no, you’ve put it really raw, because the kind of general progressivist theories make it seem like it’s just a neutral historical process that inevitably happens, whereas people like David Martin say “No, look at the power relations here, there are power struggles going on. And what role is religion playing in relations to those struggles.” And I think that’s a much more interesting and convincing way of looking at it. And my own little contribution to this story in relation to the UK would be that a really important part of why secularisation theory was so powerfully developed here in the post-war period, was because of the welfare state settlement. The welfare state became a secular utopian kind of quasi-religious project. People really believed in the realization of a fairer and more just and equal society, symbolised by the National Health Service, which is a kind of sacred icon and the envy of the world. The doctor and the GP became like the parish priest, a trust-worthy father figure in the community. So you had a kind of secular faith.

DR: The NHS as sacred canopy then.

LW: In many ways, it was sacred. If you look at Harold Shipman, the murderer, the reason he killed so many people was that no one would believe that a doctor could behave like that, a bit like child abuse in churches. So there was such an alternative secular faith, such hope for that model, that religion became less important. Actually the churches played a big role, they threw in a lot with the welfare state (20:00) and tried to contribute to it. And that’s part of why there was the sense you didn’t need religion anymore. We found the right way to organise society. And as we lost a bit faith in that vision, people turned to religion again to find meaning and models of more just social order and so on. We’ve seen some pockets of interesting revival like the ones that you look at in Europe.

DR: So where does this allude to secularisation thesis? Is it still relevant to the study of religion?

LW: We can’t ever get rid of it, because it’s so engraved, for over a century, that everything we do is shaken by it. The questions we ask on questionnaires, the data we gather, the whole way we look at the world, it’s very hard to get rid of that framework, even if it’s not the most interesting framework anymore. But I think where it leaves us is, that we no longer think that it’s a purely descriptive neutral theory. We can see now that it belonged in a particular place and a particular time and it was ideological. It was a kind of faith in its own right, it supported a vision of Europe at the cutting edge of history of the secular Nation-State starting to take over a new role in society and so on. It was bound up with those very particular conditions, and in those conditions, it made a lot of sense of what was happening. But it’s not universally applicable timeless ahistorical theory.

DR: What I’m going to take away from this today is it’s a very good example of how we as scholars allow our ideologies or the ideologies of the culture that maybe we are not aware of to affect whole theories. When I started studying religions, the secularisation thesis was still essential part of what you learned and, yet, once you look at it, it kind of dissolves away, there was nothing really ever there.

LW: And people believed in it, that’s the right word.

DR: And argued furiously about it.

LW: And wrote passionately about it, because it stood for a certain vision of how society should be. It wasn’t just about interpreting the facts. It was always a bit more than that.

DR: That’s a perfect place to end, it’s absolutely fascinating. Thank you very much, Professor.

LW: My Pleasure.

DR: Thanks.

Citation Info: Woodhead, Linda, and David G. Robertson. 2012. “The Secularisation Thesis.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 April 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.2, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-linda-woodhead-on-the-secularisation-thesis/