Secularisation and Modernity
Modernity has seen both the rise of secularisation and also the rise of multiple forms of religion; of multiple forms of believing. These two issues have been seen as the norm in Europe, in the case of the former, and as the norm in the United States in the case of the latter. The likes of Peter Berger and Grace Davie have expanded upon this issue in great detail, arguing that what has happened in Europe over the previous century, and is continuing to happen today, i.e., secularisation, is not the norm when it comes to the world in general. Instead, they, and those with similar views, argue that Europe is the exception when it comes to the issue of secularisation and that the rest of the world, in particular the United States, is the norm when it comes to both religious belief and practice.
The crux of the argument is that modernity does not lead to rationality and declining religious belief, with instead religious belief essentially being on the rise outside of Europe. This is indeed a complex issue but the argument that I wish to make is that this notion of both Davie and Berger is flawed. It does not take into consideration a number of factors, particularly in the case of the United States, but also worldwide, with it being noted that “secularization theory was an extrapolation of the European situation to the rest of the world – an understandable but finally invalid generalization” (Berger, Davie, & Fokas, 2008, p. 10). Particular focus will be placed upon the United States and Europe over the coming paragraphs, with it being demonstrated that Europe is not the “exceptional case” as Davie declared in the subtitle of her book, which itself is considered an important publication on the issue at hand (2007).
In Europe, secularisation has seen a constant upsurge for roughly the last century, with the result being a diminishing of the power and role of religion, in particular some form or other of Christianity, in society. Writing on Steve Bruce’s From Cathedrals to Cults: Religion in the Modern World, Grace Davie argues that the main reason for this diminishing role and power of the church has to do with what took place during the Reformation. She writes that it was then that,
“the authority of the medieval church was seriously questioned. The challenge came in two ways: from a growing sense of individualism as the believer was freed from the mediation of the church in terms of his or her relationship with God, and from increasing rationality as innovative ways of thinking began to penetrate the European mind” (Davie, 2007, p. 14).
With the waning of the church’s influence also came a religious plurality in Europe, as different Christian denominations had to live side by side in relative peace, to a greater or lesser degree. But Davie notes that it was this plurality which eventually undermined the authority of the now multitudinous churches, as not only is religious plurality associated with a higher level of tolerance, but it also “undermines the plausibility of all forms of religious belief” (Davie, 2007, p. 15). To put Davie’s point even more succinctly, how can a multitude of religions, living side by side in relative peace, all be the one true religion, which they all make a claim to be? Bruce also picks up on this point, noting Berger’s own thoughts on the role that “pluralism plays in undermining certainty” (2002, p. 237).
Another reason for the apparent secularisation of Europe is that in the not so distant past, the church, as an institution, was closely related to the institution of the monarchy and to the state in general. When people rebelled against the monarchy and the power of the state, particularly in France, they also rebelled against the church as they saw the institutions they were rebelling against as inseparable from one another. With Catholicism in particular, “the “natural” union of theology and philosophy, politics and religion, crown and church, religious discipline and social control was thereby turned into a forced and more rigid union”, with this “rigid union” constituting what was being rebelled against by the general population, because as mentioned, they came to see the government of the day, and the church as one (Martin, 1978, p. 37). Ireland and Poland have, or at least had, been the exception to this in Europe however, as in both cases religion, specifically Catholicism, merged with nationalistic sentiment and was seen as another bulwark against their oppressors; in the case of Poland, the USSR, and in the case of Ireland, colonial Britain.
Martin also notes this point regarding the church, writing that “If the state itself experiences a pressure against its historic unity and identity it will lean on the church to help resist that pressure even though state and church are ideologically opposed” (1978, p. 48). As just mentioned, this was the case in Ireland during the British rule of the country. Nationalism and Catholicism became intertwined as Catholicism became identified with Irishness with, on the other hand, Protestantism being identified with Britishness, i.e., the oppressors of the Irish. The power of the church in Ireland only began to wane in the early nineties once revelations of Catholic clergymen abusing children, mentally, physically, and sexually, became apparent. This wasn’t only limited to Ireland and worldwide, the church has paid well over a billion dollars in compensation to victims of abuse at the hands of Catholic clergymen (Dawkins, 2007). The United States is seen as the opposite of all of this. Instead, it is seen as the bastion of religious belief and religiosity in general, with a multitude of religious practices being available for consideration and digestion. Some have seen the origins of this in the so-called “American Enlightenment”:
“The American Enlightenment was very different indeed…The authors and politicians of the American Enlightenment were not anti-clerical – in any case, there was no clerisy to be against – and they were not anti-Christian. At worst (from a conservative Christian point of view), they were vaguely Deist. Thus the American Enlightenment could not serve as a legitimation of secularity in either state or society. Ironically, it has only been since the middle of the twentieth century that the federal judiciary, embedded in a newly developed “Swedish” intelligentsia, made decisions with a pronounced affinity with the French “ideology of reason”” (Berger, Davie, & Fokas, 2008, p. 18).
Davie further notes that due to this, and the ideology of free-market economics which has been applied to religion in the United States, there is a proliferation of religions available in the country, which are marketed as products which believers, who are also seen as consumers, pick and choose from as they so wish. She also sees this as the reason for religious decline in Europe, writing that it is “caused by deficiency in religious supply; not in demand” (Davie, 2007, p. 43). However, this doesn’t prove anything as such, and one must look at the statistics with regards to religious belief or more precisely, the lack of religious belief in the United States.
In one survey carried out by the Program on Public Values at Trinity College, Connecticut, they noted that the “population continues to show signs of becoming less religious, with one out of every five Americans failing to indicate a religious identity in 2008” (Kosmin & Keysar, 2009). Another survey, which was carried out by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, found that out of a sample of 35,000 Americans, 5% do not believe in a God with a further 3% stating that they don’t know (2008). Despite the differing results of the two surveys, one coming to the figure of 8% and the other 20%, it is still a substantial demographic in the United States. Added to this is the fact that it is fair to surmise that the figure is in actuality higher than commonly assumed, given the open hostility directed towards non-believers in the United States, with a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finding that “Only people with a proven track record of untrustworthy conduct—rapists—were distrusted to a comparable degree as atheists” (Gervais, et al, 2011, p. 1200). Davie’s thesis, and by extension other similar theses, therefore, are extremely flawed and the claim that she makes, along with others such as Berger and Bruce, that Europe is the exceptional case is without merit, at least in comparison to the United States.
However, one also needs to be careful not to underestimate the importance of religion for a great deal of the population in the United States. Its origins and history differ from Europe, in that it “cuts vertically into American society as each group of new arrivals brings with it its own religious package; in Europe, the patterns are horizontal – a direct consequence of the collusions of religion and power over many centuries” (Berger, Davie, & Fokas, 2008, p. 97). In this sense, the United States is decades or centuries behind Europe in its dealings with religion and religious power and institutions. In another sense though, one can also argue that the United States is ahead of Europe in that it hasn’t taken centuries for it to shake off the power of the institution of the church, with instead people being (relatively) free to believe what they want to believe, something which has its foundations in the progenitors of the American Enlightenment. There is a level of plurality, when it comes to religious belief, in the United States that simply isn’t present in many parts of Europe, particularly here in Ireland for example, with emigration to Ireland being a new phenomenon that only emerged during the Celtic Tiger years.
This level of plurality in the United States is due to the fact that they were not anti-clerical in the same way that European rational thought came to be. Instead, they were “vaguely deist”, the result being that the “American Enlighenment could not serve as a legitimation of secularity in either state or society”, with equality being enshrined for all (Berger, Davie, & Fokas, 2008, p. 18). Despite this, beneath the surface there is a substantial number of non-believers within the United States and this is something that has been largely ignored by sociologists of religion. Instead as mentioned earlier, they already make up a substantial amount of the population and this number is likely larger, especially when one considers the study which was also mentioned in which it found that the only people less trusted than non-believers were rapists (Gervais, et al, 2011, p. 1200). When it comes to Europe, similar sentiments are also in existence, with the current Pope, Bendict XVI, stating in 2010 that “As we reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus a reductive vision of a person and his destiny” (BBC, 2010). This obviously has a large effect on the number of non-believers who are open about their lack of belief. It is therefore fair to say that until the true number of non-believers is known in the United States, but also in Europe, secularisation theory and in particular, the notion that Europe is the exceptional case, will be an incomplete thesis. Until the thesis is fully researched and considered, it is completely legitimate to argue that modernity and industrialisation in the Western World, i.e., Europe and the United States, does in fact lead to increasing levels of secularisation, to a greater or lesser degree.