A dubious defence of the secularisation thesis

Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society
By Isabella Kasselstrand, Phil Zuckerman, Ryan T. Cragun.
New York University Press. May 2023. 240 pages.

In Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society, three academics come to the defence of the traditional “secularisation thesis” against its debunking at the hands of several eminent academics in the field, most notably Rodney Stark and Peter Berger.

From the outset, the received wisdom in secularisation theory has been that, to put it baldly, religion is for superstitious dummies who, as soon as they get some real education, slough off their embarrassing beliefs.

And so for the founding fathers of secularisation theory, men such as Auguste Comte (1798–1857), Emile Durkheim (1858–1917), and Max Weber (1864-1920) scientific, positivistic knowledge inevitably unseats the gods dominating the magical, benighted world of religion. For such theorists, religion (in the West) has been on the back foot ever since the Enlightenment, and this process has no reason to cease.

In the 1970s, this secularisation thesis was challenged by a one-time proponent of the thesis, Peter Berger, and subsequently by Rodney Stark, most famously in his paper “Secularization, R.I.P,” published in the 1999 volume of the journal Sociology of Religion, in which Stark declared that the entire secularisation thesis ought to be carried to “the graveyard of failed theories.”

In that paper, Stark observes that predictions of the imminent demise of religion are nothing new:

“For nearly three centuries, social scientists and assorted western intellectuals have been promising the end of religion. Each generation has been confident that within another few decades, or possibly a bit longer, humans will ‘outgrow’ belief in the supernatural.”

And he shows convincingly that the correlation of cultural progress with religious decline simply does not hold up to scrutiny. He even quotes Alexis de Tocqueville making this very point in 1840:

Unfortunately, the facts by no means accord with their theory. There are certain populations in Europe whose unbelief is only equalled by their ignorance and debasement; while in America, one of the freest and most enlightened nations in the world, the people fulfill with fervor all the outward duties of religion.

Stark convincingly counters the “myth of past piety” from which society has supposedly inexorably declined. He shows, for example, that the Middle Ages were no golden age of piety, and that religious practice in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century was abysmally low.

Spirituality vs atheism

The question of the revival of religion in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union is of particular importance. Despite the concerted effort of the Soviets over seventy years to stamp out all religion, “In most of these countries the majority pray, and by 1990 church attendance already had recovered to levels comparable to western Europe.” Similarly, Islam does not seem to obey the secularism thesis that education means irreligion, since several studies “suggest that Muslim commitment increases with modernization” rather than the contrary.

Stark concludes his paper surmising that,

Perhaps the day will come when religion has been relegated to memory and museums. If so, however, this will not have been caused by modernization, and the demise of faith will bear no resemblance to the process postulated by the secularization doctrine.

The three authors of Beyond Doubt set out to “strongly refute” the claims of Rodney Stark and his colleagues, to leave it “beyond doubt” that the secularisation thesis stands firm. Yet what follows is anything but a strong refutation.

What is beyond doubt, though, is that the authors have a very, very poor idea of what religion actually is. It would appear that for them to be religious is to have the mind of a simpleton, for whom “morality is sustained through fear of an ever-watching deity who rewards good behavior with a heavenly afterlife and punishes bad behaviour with eternity in hell”; who when their car breaks down will call a priest to “anoint (sic) it with holy water” rather than calling a mechanic; and who believes that “earthquakes are caused by angry gods”.

The authors present much data surrounding the undeniably increased levels of disaffiliation from organised religion in the Westernised world over the past few decades. Nevertheless, as Stark explicitly states, disaffiliation from organised religion (or changing one’s religion) while maintaining a belief in the supernatural is not secularisation. He gives the example of Iceland, which is frequently touted as the most secularised nation on earth, whereas nonetheless there is much evidence of widespread belief in the supernatural among Icelanders.


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The perplexing question of the religious revival in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union, so damaging to the secularisation thesis, is explained away by the authors as irrelevant since secularisation was forced on them by the regimee. And in case that is not enough, the fascist canard is trotted out since there are “fascist tendencies” in these religious revivals. Even Ireland’s strong religiosity up till the 1990s is explained away as largely nothing more than an expression of nationalism.

The authors do not engage with the question raised by Stark regarding the failure of Islam to follow the trajectory predicted by secularisation thesis. Many leading Muslim fundamentalists are highly educated, and supporters of the movement are drawn overwhelmingly from “the new middle class”, also within developed European countries.

Simplistic narrative

The loss of belief in a God and a supernatural realm is usually associated with a loss of deeper meaning and purpose in one’s life. Can one imagine two more different conceptions of life: on the one hand, to believe that human existence ceases with death, or on the other hand, to believe that it continues for all eternity in a state decided on in this present life?

The latter conception of human life is saturated in meaning, indeed with a meaning almost too vast to comprehend. The former conception of life, however, is almost unbearably meaningless – an “absurdity” in the words of the atheist existentialist philosophers.

But there is no acknowledgement of this on the part of the three authors. There is rather a trite apologia for secular humanism:

Far from leading nihilistic, meaningless, or immoral lives – as is often the pejorative stereotype – most secular people find meaning, value, and purpose in their family relationships, friendships, community involvement, work, hobbies, nature, artistic endeavours, sports, pets, political interests, films, music, education, and so forth.

We are told that it is “an unfortunate but common misconception of secularization… that without religion, life carries less meaning. This stereotype often encompasses a perception of nonreligious rites of passage as dry and lacking in depth.” It is hard to imagine how a nonreligious “rite” could be anything other than lacking in depth when the only “passage” it countenances is a passage from nothingness to nothingness.

The authors stick doggedly to the thesis that “where modernization advances, religiosity retreats”. This contrasts with the kind of research done by Stephen Bullivant into the large-scale disaffiliation of Catholics from the Church in the post-Vatican II period, in Mass Exodus. There, for instance, Bullivant shows that the factors that lead to widespread Catholic lapsation and disaffiliation are much more complex: doctrinal and liturgical confusion, loss of Church authority, and simple disorientation, etc.

The authors suggest at one point that while the debunkers of the secularisation thesis tried to be as empirical as possible in their research,

Given our assessment of the state of declining religiosity evident in the world today, we are almost tempted to propose that just the opposite may be the case: perhaps those who sought to debunk secularization were the ones who were ideologically motivated.

This is ironic, given the almost reverent tones reserved in the book for apparently utter apathy towards all matters supernatural of many Scandinavians. But then, when one reads (not in the book’s own blurb, though) that one of the authors is the Executive Director of Humanist Global Charity, one wonders who it is that is being ideologically motivated.

Rev. Gavan Jennings is a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature. He studied philosophy at University College Dublin, Ireland and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome and is currently the editor of Position Papers.

Image: Pexels


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