Faith as an Option: Possible Futures for Christianity

Faith as an Option: Possible Futures for Christianity

by Hans Joas

View All Available Formats & Editions

Many people these days regard religion as outdated and are unable to understand how believers can intellectually justify their faith. Nonbelievers have long assumed that progress in technology and the sciences renders religion irrelevant. Believers, in contrast, see religion as vital to society's spiritual and moral well-being. But does modernization lead to


Many people these days regard religion as outdated and are unable to understand how believers can intellectually justify their faith. Nonbelievers have long assumed that progress in technology and the sciences renders religion irrelevant. Believers, in contrast, see religion as vital to society's spiritual and moral well-being. But does modernization lead to secularization? Does secularization lead to moral decay? Sociologist Hans Joas argues that these two supposed certainties have kept scholars from serious contemporary debate and that people must put these old arguments aside in order for debate to move forward. The emergence of a "secular option" does not mean that religion must decline, but that even believers must now define their faith as one option among many.

In this book, Joas spells out some of the consequences of the abandonment of conventional assumptions for contemporary religion and develops an alternative to the cliché of an inevitable conflict between Christianity and modernity. Arguing that secularization comes in waves and stressing the increasing contingency of our worlds, he calls upon faith to articulate contemporary experiences. Churches and religious communities must take into account religious diversity, but the modern world is not a threat to Christianity or to faith in general. On the contrary, Joas says, modernity and faith can be mutually enriching.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This commentary on modern Christianity is a lively and clever critique of both secularization and modernization as master theories of social change . . . Faith as an Option has much to commend it. Joas's argument offers a robust critique of many conventional notions in mainstream sociology. His call to social scientists to face the realities of the day is to be warmly welcomed."—Bryan S. Turner, American Journal of Sociology

"Joas conducts his inquiry from a historical and contemporary sociological perspective, but one that is appropriately suspicious of sweeping claims and predictions about the course of social history. As he shows through a wealth of carefully researched sources and citations, the notion of secularization is by no means a straightforward one."—John Cottingham, Times Literary Supplement

"Faith as an Option is much more than a descriptive attempt to explain a longstanding scholarly misnomer. Joas also provides an alternative conceptual framework for how modernity and faith can now facilitate and enrich one another."—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, The Immanent Frame

"The leading sociologist working today in the German language, Joas is also the leading expert on American pragmatism, a creative pragmatist in his own right, and one of the most prominent interlocutors between American and European social thought. His book offers original understanding of one of the most debated fields in the social sciences, namely the thesis of the secularization of modern societies and the place and future possibilities of 'religion' in Western secular societies. Faith As an Option should challenge the assumptions not only of specialists, but also of the educated public, 'believers' and 'unbelievers' alike."—José Casanova, Georgetown University

Product Details

Stanford University Press
Publication date:
Cultural Memory in the Present Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Faith as an Option

Possible Futures for Christianity

By Hans Joas, Alex Skinner


Copyright © 2012 Herder Verlag GmbH
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9278-3


Does Modernization Lead to Secularization?

For a long time, most observers would have answered the question that informs this first chapter unhesitatingly and openly in the affirmative. At least since the second half of the nineteenth century, but to some extent even since the eighteenth century, and with particular self-assurance from the 1960s onwards, those who assumed that secularization was a virtually inevitable outcome of modernization enjoyed hegemonic status in every debate on religion and the future of modern society, whether in philosophy, the humanities and social sciences, or intellectual life in general. For nonbelievers, this assumption meant that they themselves stood at the pinnacle of world historical progress. They subdivided into those prepared to wait patiently for the disappearance of religion and more militant opponents of religion who were determined to speed up this process through state pressure and intellectual attacks. Both could enjoy the feeling, not of having lost something, but of having rid themselves of something that could only be an obstacle to progress, which everyone would ultimately abandon. Even believers, including theologians and church people, sometimes came to believe that modernization must go hand in hand with secularization. Inevitably, they perceived themselves as members of a species nearing extinction. If they were unwilling to give up all hope, they had little choice but to declare war on modernization itself in an attempt to delay or reverse it. A few believers here and there, unwilling to be pulled along in the slipstream of "anti-modern" political movements, saw secularization as an opportunity to purify Christianity, and thus as a divinely ordained challenge.

Of course, there were always those who resisted this hugely popular thesis of secularization. Hegemony, it goes without saying, does not mean universal validity or universal consent, but rather supremacy in the battle of ideas. Those expressing doubts about the hegemonic view tend to have a hard time of it; their views are laughed off as outmoded or dismissed as oddities. Over the past twenty years or so, however, things have changed radically. At present, at least in the social sciences, but increasingly among the general public as well, it is the doubters who have gained the upper hand, in other words those who, while they do not dispute the phenomenon of secularization, do take issue with the idea that it has a virtually law-like connection with modernization. Even under the hegemony of the doubters, of course, there are those who take an opposing view, but today the advocates of the formerly so dominant secularization thesis are increasingly on the defensive. How did this happen? Is it no more than a fashion that will die away as quickly as it emerged, or a symptom of crisis afflicting those incapable of dealing rationally with the difficulties of contemporary life? Hackneyed ideas such as these will get us nowhere. What we need to do is look more closely at the factors that substantiate or contradict the secularization thesis or appear to do so.

The meaning of the term "secularization"

In seeking to look more closely at the factors substantiating or contradicting the secularization thesis, however, we quickly come up against the ambiguity of the terms used by its exponents. Neither "secularization" nor "modernization" is a clear-cut or uncontested term. So what we need to do first is clarify what these terms are, and are not, going to mean for us here.

A number of instructive accounts have already explored the history of the term "secularization." It was originally a legal term that referred exclusively to the transformation of members of religious orders into "secular priests." Studies of the concept's history have shown that this quite marginal term gained wide currency only at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when most church property became state property, or, in any case, the church lost its property, as a result of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. This process of "secularization" was soon followed by the philosophical-theological use of the term. The associated debates were concerned chiefly with "genealogical" links between characteristic features of modern society and culture, on the one hand, and the Christian faith, or religion as a whole, on the other. Key thinkers evaluated these developments in quite different ways. Certain Protestant theologians concluded that the emerging modernity was such a thoroughgoing realization of Christian ideals that the church as an institution separate from state and society would become increasingly superfluous. Others (on the radical Left) believed that those aspects of their era that they perceived as alarming resulted from a failure fully to overcome Christian thought. An as yet incomplete process of secularization must at last be brought to its radical conclusion.

This is not the place to look at these varied threads of conceptual history in detail. But they form the background to the modern social sciences, which emerged in the late nineteenth century, and the way they used the term "secularization." If the term was already ambiguous, it became even more so in the hands of social scientists. In our day, it is the Spanish-American sociologist of religion José Casanova who has made the most helpful attempt to clarify things. According to him, the term "secularization" as used in the social sciences has three meanings: the generally decreasing importance of religion, the retreat of religion from the public sphere, and the freeing of societal subspheres (such as economy, science, art, or politics) from direct religious control. Countless misunderstandings have arisen because these meanings blur into one another or because those engaged in dialogue have different things in mind when they use the same word. Furthermore, the concept of "religion," which is, of course, an inherent component of every variant of the term "secularization," is anything but clear-cut, and it is very difficult to measure religious phenomena. So conceptual clarification is no more than a small step forward. In itself it tells us nothing about causal connections, such as those between the processes distinguished by Casanova. If, as in this chapter, we take secularization exclusively to mean the decreasing importance of religion, it may still refer to a wide variety of things: decreasing membership of churches and religious communities, declining participation in religious rituals, or a decreasing number of people who approve of certain religious beliefs. A general decrease in one area does not necessarily go hand in hand with a decrease in another: you can be a believer without regularly attending church services and you can be a nominal member of a church despite having lost your faith.

The notion of the retreat of religion from the public sphere is also far from unambiguous. Until striking cases of religion's public impact disabused them of the idea, sociologists of religion such as Thomas Luckmann long asserted that there was an epoch-making modern tendency towards the "privatization" of religion. Others espouse the old social democratic dictum that religion is a private matter, as if it were enshrined in the constitution. What few have asked is what exactly this private sphere consists of, whether the aim should be merely to avoid close ties between church and state, whether religion ought to be absent from political life as such, or even from all public communication—and where this retreat of religion should end. In communication within families and small groups? Or perhaps even in the inner life of individuals?

Unfortunately, the second term of importance to the thesis of secularization, that of modernization, is also ambiguous. This is a topic I shall be returning to repeatedly and in more detail in later chapters of this book. At this juncture I merely wish to emphasize one particular ambiguity. Some authors refer to modernization quite innocently as a matter of economic growth and scientific-technological improvements. If we do this, then modernization has occurred in every historical period—to varying degrees, certainly, but not just in recent times. Others, meanwhile, refer to modernization in a more sophisticated sense as a process of transition to something historically new, an era they call "modernity." I reject this sophisticated variant, however, and shall restrict myself to the more "innocent" concept of modernization, for reasons explained later. So with an untypical degree of conceptual clarity, the question for this chapter is: do economic growth and scientific-technological progress cause religion to decline in importance? To be precise, the question is whether these developments not only have this effect now and then, but of necessity, and, to be even more precise, whether this means that the decline of religion is irreversible and is not merely a historical phase or cycle. In other words, what I am concerned with here is the idea that modernization, as defined above, will eventually cause religion to vanish.

The origin of the secularization thesis

Before getting down to examining this idea, it is worth reflecting briefly on the genesis and history of this so-called secularization thesis. Since when has it existed, who supported it and how was it originally justified?

As yet, the emergence of the secularization thesis has not been thoroughly researched. According to our present state of knowledge, it appears that this assumption first emerged around the beginning of the eighteenth century, but it is difficult to decide how much of this we should ascribe to improved conditions of publication and how much to intellectual shifts. The English theologian and freethinker Thomas Woolston (1670–1733), who, unable to pay the fine imposed on him because of his attacks on the clergy, died in the debtors' jail, is identified as one of the first exponents of the idea that Christianity had a limited future and would be gone by 1900. In Lawrence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy (1759–67), there is even a suggestion that Christianity may have ceased to exist within fifty years. At least for Sterne, however, the end of Christianity did not mean the end of all religions. Quite the opposite: he expected that it would mean the reemergence of "every other heathen god and goddess," with Jupiter at their head and Priapus at the end of their procession. Predictions of Christianity's disappearance were common in the continental Enlightenment; Friedrich II of Prussia, for example, saw the idea of the decline and disappearance of a now untenable faith as showing the shape of things to come. A famous example from North America is to be found in an oft-cited letter by Thomas Jefferson from 1822, in which he reduces the teachings of Christianity to a clear and simple moral doctrine provided by Jesus and joyfully declares that in the land of the free, where neither kings nor priests exercise control over faith and conscience, every young man currently alive will have become a "Unitarian" by the end of his life.

In the nineteenth century, these scattered developments came together to form a broad stream. By the end of the century at the latest, almost everybody who was anybody in philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences supported the thesis of secularization. It is not surprising that Marxists, who were largely excluded from academic life, espoused this notion. But even the greatest thinkers and scientists of the time, such as Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, and George Herbert Mead, not to mention Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most vehement critics of Christianity, believed, in one form or another, in the inevitable advance of secularization. Of course, we can debate what exactly the assumption of secularization meant to each of these complex thinkers. Max Weber's term "disenchantment" cannot be simply equated with "secularization"; he was essentially concerned with the "demagification" of religion, but saw a personal striving for salvation as inevitable. Emile Durkheim's research made him aware of the dynamics of repeated processes of sacralization, including that of secular entities—the "nation" in the case of nationalism, the "person" in the case of human rights. Also important, of course, are the connections between the thesis of secularization and the cultural struggles of the nineteenth century. All these authors participated in these struggles, which informed their work, and they already interpreted them in light of theories of secularization. The exponents of the secularization thesis are so numerous that we must go out of our way to find exceptions. But they certainly exist. The most significant are probably Alexis de Tocqueville, William James, Jacob Burckhardt, Ernst Troeltsch, and Max Scheler, and we can profitably draw on the work of all these authors today. After World War II, and especially in the 1960s, the thesis of secularization seemed even more self-evident. In 1968, the noted Protestant sociologist of religion Peter Berger predicted in the New York Times that by the year 2000, there would be virtually no religious institutions left, just a few believers here and there, isolated pockets in a sea of secularity. The most important dissenting voice during this period was that of the English sociologist of religion David Martin, who expanded his initially timid objections into an impressive, historically profound, and increasingly global research program, which now amounts to a political sociology of religion.

But how did the many exponents of the secularization thesis justify their assumptions? An initial response might be that they didn't much bother. For many, it all seemed so obvious that they felt little need to carefully examine the theoretical underpinnings of their views or empirical evidence. This is why I prefer to talk of the thesis rather than the theory of secularization. As far as theoretical justifications are concerned, the underlying understanding of religious faith is obviously crucial. This understanding may seem justified to a given thinker but may appear far more problematic to believers or those more schooled in matters of faith.

We most often find three types of understanding of religion in the relevant texts. Religious faith may be understood in an essentially cognitive sense as immature or insecure knowledge, as pseudoscience or a misguided attempt to solve cognitive problems. Religious faith may also be understood as an expression of hardship—material want, social and political repression, the unbearable meaninglessness of cruel twists of fate, or existential insecurity. The best-known example here is probably Marx's reference, in the introduction to his critique of the Hegelian philosophy of right, to religion as the "sigh of the oppressed creature" and the "opium of the people." Religious faith may still be understood as dependent on conditions under which no doubts arise or doubts are suppressed by authorities. In many cases, the three types are linked or fused together. In desperate circumstances, some believe, people develop compensatory fantasies that limit their capacity for independent critical thought, or ruling powers exploit the situation, deploying religions to anaesthetize the public.


Excerpted from Faith as an Option by Hans Joas, Alex Skinner. Copyright © 2012 Herder Verlag GmbH. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Hans Joas is Ernst Troeltsch Professor for the Sociology of Religion at the Humboldt University of Berlin and Professor of Sociology and Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >