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How the West Really Lost God
A New Theory of Secularization
By Mary Eberstadt
TEMPLETON PRESS Copyright © 2013 Mary Eberstadt
All rights reserved.
Does Secularization Even Exist?
NOW FORGET for a moment the impressionistic evidence just presented in the introduction about Christianity's decline in parts of the West. In this chapter, we will consider a radical response to all that: according to some theorists, the notion of decline is itself an illusion—one brought on by a failure to read the evidence in a sufficiently deep or nuanced way. The idea that the West is less Christian today than it once was, they argue, may indeed be widespread and widely accepted; but it is nevertheless based on a misreading of the facts.
This is a minority, contrarian view, to be sure; but the reason that we need to pay attention to it is simple: if it is correct—if Christianity, pace Matthew Arnold and Time magazine and other authorities, is not in fact in a downward spiral across the West—then rather obviously, the world does not need a new theory explaining its decline. In fact, the world doesn't need any theory about secularization at all—because if these contrarian thinkers are correct, there is no decline to account for.
The second reason we need to examine this line of argument is that it sheds light on the same mystery at the heart of this book: namely, the fact that upon inspection, there is something seriously amiss—maybe even more than one thing—with the conventional sociological account of what has really happened to Christianity in the Western world. In the course of criticizing secularization theory per se, the scholars opposed to it have generated useful clarifications about the theory's limits. In fact, as two other noted scholars, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart recently put it, "Secularization theory is currently experiencing the most sustained challenge in its long history"—an observation issuing not from critics of the theory, but from two of its leading representatives.
In sum, there is figurative blood in the water surrounding this matter of secularization theory, and watchful parties on both sides know it. Let us see where the trail leads.
Contrarians in this debate believe that other scholars and especially secular scholars have misread the empirical evidence—in effect, that they have minimized the signs of the times that point to Christian vitality and/or revival, and maximized those signs that point to decline. Let us dub this contrarian mode of thought the "so-what" school of secularization theory—because the arguments amount to saying "So what?" when faced with evidence of what appears to be Christian religious decline.
The "so-what" school is not an actual school, of course. As sometimes happens in scholarship, it is instead the unintentional collective outcome of like minds thinking alike. But taken together, their arguments do bear a family resemblance to each other, so it seems fair to regard them as variations on the same wider theme—the theme being that Christianity is not in fact declining as many say it is.
"The West hasn't really lost God, because recent events go to show that religion is thriving around the world."
Since the jihadist attacks of 9 /11 especially, many have remarked upon religion's unexpected resiliency in the world. Believers and nonbelievers alike have made the point that contrary to claims of God's obsolescence, the most monumental global events of recent years have been inspired or otherwise decisively affected by religious belief. In a sense, these observations are all footnotes to sociologist Peter Berger's famous observation of 1990 that "the assumption we live in a secularized world is false" because "the world is as furiously religious as ever."
Consider just a smattering of the historical evidence bolstering the claim to religion's staying power. There was, first and perhaps foremost, the near-global routing over two decades ago of that most aggressively secularist ideology of them all: Marxist/Communism. To many observers, the demise of the Communist governments served as a proxy of sorts for the endurance of God. Not only did religion fail to wither away as the modern age with all its machinations wore on, as Marx had so hopefully predicted; rather—thanks to the Velvet Revolutions of 1989—it was instead Communism that was unceremoniously jettisoned from history, alongside Nazism and certain other professional enemies of Christianity, too.
Even so, the unforeseen speed and depth of the Communist collapse was especially striking—particularly to those who believed the Cold War to be at heart a contest between religion on the one side and ferociously antireligious ideology on the other. To understand just how dramatic that collapse appeared, it helps to bear in mind that many intelligent people thought for decades that the West might ultimately lose that struggle. Sixty years ago, for instance, at the height of the Cold War, no less an experienced observer than the American reformed Communist Whittaker Chambers could still believe that in rejecting Marxism and embracing the free West, he was "leaving the winning world for the losing world." Nor was Chambers alone. Other informed Western observers believed that Communists and non-Communists were indeed locked in a life-and-death struggle, the outcome of which was anyone's guess.
In retrospect, of course, such misgivings seem almost perverse. As ground zero of the struggle against the Soviets in the late 1980s became pious Catholic Poland; as Karol Wojtyla, aka Pope John Paul II, became so integral to the struggle against Communism that some historians would later give him great credit for the thing's ultimate implosion; in sum, as world events seemed practically to conspire on the side of religious believers, the contrary idea of a religious "end of history" seemed less defensible than before. Thus did the fate of Communism, for one, come to be taken as a reverse verdict of sorts on the fate of the churches.
Other kinds of evidence for Christianity's continued potency also abound. One can see, for example, that constant engagement with hostile ideologies has inadvertently served here and there to empower Christianity's apologists even more—that modernity's relentless and multidimensional attacks on the churches have had an unintended jujitsu effect all its own. As Catholic scholar Robert Royal has put it, "Three centuries of debunking, skepticism, criticism, revolution, and scorn by some among us have not produced the expected demise of religion and are now contributing to its renewal." Certainly that same effect also followed ideological attacks on Christianity by the wave of best-selling new atheists in the mid-2000s. For all their commercial success, these authors also provoked counterattacks high and low across the secular as well as religious Western media.
To quote Peter Berger once more, these and other pieces of evidence for our "furiously religious world" in turn "means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labeled 'secularization theory' is essentially mistaken." Pointing in particular to American religiosity which is anomalous by the standards of Western Europe, as well as to the energetic global religious scene, Berger argues that secularization theory has been confuted by both phenomena. "While secularity is not a necessary consequence of modernization," as he has put the point elsewhere, "I would argue that pluralism is."
Once again, he is plainly right that religion continues to write the scripts of history quite without the permission of the world's secularists. In addition to the towering example of the demise of Communism, consider also just a few other transformative global events fueled by religious fervor in the past few decades: the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini's in Iran, and of other fundamentalists across the Islamic world; the Islamicist terror attacks of 9/11; the abiding political influence in the United States of a coalition of Catholic and Protestant evangelical conservatives; the enduring and unexpected political saliency including in the West of abortion and other "social issues": all these and other examples could be piled up to prove that it may be secularism, not religion, for whom the bell of history really tolls.
Surveying these and related examples of religion's staying power, sociologist José Casanova has argued further for what he calls the "deprivatization" of religion, meaning "the fact that religious traditions throughout the world are refusing to accept the marginal and privatized role which theories of modernity as well as theories of secularization had reserved for them." Once again, he and others who point to the unexpected tenacity of religious belief—including in particular Christian belief—have an impressive array of facts on their side. It is no wonder, given the historical staying power of the sacred, that some argue it is the irreligiosity of Western Europe, rather than the apparent religiosity of the rest of the world, that needs "explaining."
To all this one might add that on the stage of the world—as opposed to just that of the European Continent—Christianity has lately spread to many more millions. In 1900 there were roughly ten million African Christians; today there are some four hundred million, almost half the population. Pentecostalism, founded just over one hundred years ago in Los Angeles, now claims at least five hundred million "renewalists" worldwide. In the largely unknown example of China, government figures alone show the number of Christians increasing from fourteen million in 1997 to twenty-one million in 2006—and most Christians themselves believe that these are underestimates. These are just a few of the facts about Christianity's ongoing global advance to be found in John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge's highly informative 2009 book, God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World—one more work that goes to show the unexpected vibrancy of the Christian creed, at least when judged by secular standards.
And yet despite such flourishing among followers of the Nazarene elsewhere on the planet, the logical problem of Western secularization remains. The relative religiosity of the rest of the world, however fascinating in its own right, does not answer the question before us: Why and how did Christianity come to decline in important parts of the West?
That question remains a problem independent of any appeal to the rest of the world. To answer by pointing to the robust nature of Islam on the Continent, say, is to compare apples and oranges. Similarly, the advances of Christianity in Africa and Asia in recent years may be intriguing in their own right, as well as comforting to those who welcome evidence that Europe is a special case; but those gains obviously don't tell us how and why Christianity elsewhere has come undone where it has. As contrarian theorists rightly point out, modernity is not causing religion always and everywhere to collapse—but that is different from addressing the question of whether Christianity specifically has collapsed in parts of the West, and if so, why.
In sum, the fact that religion has not withered away as predicted by a variety of secular theorists—critical though it may be, and a point to which we will return—does not tell us why or how it has withered, where indeed it has.
"The West hasn't really lost God, because the idea of secularization depends in turn on the idea of a prior 'golden age' of belief. In fact, though, people were no more believing or pious in the past than they are today. Therefore, there has been no religious decline."
Other people staring at the puzzle of secularization make a different point that they think argues against the fact of Christian religious decline. They say that we modern observers erroneously assume that the men and women who came before us were more religious than the men and women of today. If they are correct, of course, then there is really no such thing as "secularization," in the sense that many people think there is—and without secularization, there is no need to explain how secularization came about.
As the distinguished observer Owen Chadwick put the point in his 1975 Gifford Lectures, subsequently published as a much-noted book called The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, "We cannot begin our quest for secularization by postulating a dream-society that once upon a time was not secular." It is a deep point. Embedded in the Western psyche is a story about the arc of Christianity, according to which it rose from the low historical point of the apostles to reach an apex sometime in the Middle Ages—after which it slowly, but surely, began curving down again.
It is a story we all believe unthinkingly, to some degree, as contrarians about secularization correctly point out. Just about everyone in the Golden Age of Christianity attended church, we think; just about everyone lived in fear of heaven and hell; and the village atheist was just that—a singular rather than plural force; a social anomaly. The deceptively simple question that contrarians ask about this story is: Is it true?
Consider, Chadwick observes, the sharp increase in illegitimate births in Toulouse, France, between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. If people who believe in the Christian God take their beliefs seriously, they believe that sex outside of marriage jeopardizes their very salvation. Hence, illegitimacy may arguably be used as one possible proxy for the influence of Christian belief on personal practice (in this case, marriage or lack thereof). And so it is interesting indeed that according to Chadwick's statistics, one out of fifty- nine births were to unmarried women in 1668–75—whereas by a century later, in 1778, fully one in four births occurred to unmarried women.
What the numbers show is that—at least in a significant area of France—a distinctly un-Christian practice was proceeding apace far earlier than most people would have guessed it did. One cannot blame state-enforced secularization for this change; the rise in out-of-wedlock births was apparently well under way before Robespierre and his fellow murderers would make the streets of Paris run with blood. No, the fact that more and more people were having babies outside of marriage in an ostensibly overwhelmingly Christian place tells us something else: either that not all Christians took their theological beliefs as seriously as we tend to think they did; or that the church was weaker in governing the behavior of its members than is commonly supposed—or both. In any event, is this example not evidence, as some would suggest, for a prior age that was not so much "golden," from the point of view of religiosity, as just prior?
To broaden the point considerably, it is also a fact that many other such examples could be produced to suggest that what we think of as the "good old days" of religiosity—or the bad old days, depending on one's perspective—were not as pious as the formidable statuary and paintings and other artifacts of the Middle Ages might lead one to suppose.
In a particularly compelling essay published in 1999 called "Secularization, R.I.P.," another outstanding sociologist of religion, American Rodney Stark, exuberantly compiles several pages of empirical and historical evidence testifying to what he calls "the nonexistence of an Age of Faith in European history."
His tour d'horizon ranges impressively: from medieval historians who dispute that such an age ever existed; to religious men and women from across the centuries and languages and cultures of what is now Europe, complaining about the lack of practice and belief among the people; to rural parish churches far too tiny to have held more than a small fraction of the population at any given time—which suggests to Stark that the expectation of weekly attendance was not only unlikely, but impossible; to primary sources indicating that not only the mass of men and women, but also many of the clergy, were plumb ignorant of the rituals and even basic prayers of the church; and so on. The "conception of a pious past," he summarizes, is "mere nostalgia," a "once-upon-a-time tale."
Excerpted from How the West Really Lost God by Mary Eberstadt. Copyright © 2013 Mary Eberstadt. Excerpted by permission of TEMPLETON PRESS.
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