Social changes that may undermine nonbelief

Standard accounts of secularization emphasize how social changes that led to the modern world undermine organized religion. Few people actively wanted religion to become a more private affair – secularization has always proceeded against a background of shirt-rending about the erosion of public morality. And few were affected by intellectual critiques of religion. Science, for example, had little to do with the European decline of organized religion except in an indirect sense, where supernatural agency became less plausible in an increasingly technological world where many basic human needs were being met by technological means.

There is a flip side to this story, however. In the last few decades it has begun to seem that the story of secularization was a story of an exception, Europe in particular. In fact, lately there has been more reason to pay attention to examples of de-secularization, such as the Muslim world. So it could be interesting to speculate about broader social changes that undermine the social and institutional bases of secular ways of life.

Neoliberalism may be important here. After all, the time when secular politics has become increasingly delegitimized coincides with the global dominance of neoliberal policy.

At first, this does not appear promising. In the standard narrative of the secularization of Europe, capitalism is a major force undermining organized Christianity. If commercial markets come to shape much of social life, this puts pressure on religious institutions that try to carve out areas of life that are not subject to markets. If people are thinking about making money much of the time, it becomes easier to restrict church to a private weekend activity and reduce religious moral ideas to platitudes.

But the currently successful varieties of religion do wonderfully in the marketplace. Conservative American Christianity and born-again Islam are both in many ways creatures of the market: populist, entrepreneurial, saturated with advertising. The religion of parish priests or local ulama has suffered much from the modern world. But mutated varieties of their supernatural beliefs have come to flourish, often under the pretense that they are even more strictly faithful to the original revelations.

So, religion has adapted. But what about secular ways of life? I suspect less so.

A common theme in most religious nonbelief today is that opposition to religion is understood as a legacy of the European Enlightenment. We care a lot about intellectual reasons for nonbelief. For example, we favor scientific critiques of supernatural notions, even though historically science has had only a minor contribution to secularization. We have broadly democratic notions about politics, but in a sense where we don’t just decide as an easily manipulable mob or as a collection of atomized consumers “choosing” with their dollars. We have at least some vague notions about deciding on public goods based on informed debate. When we defend secularity, we defend it in such a context of Enlightenment-derived ideals.

That sort of politics, and the institutions that support it, have not fared well in the neoliberal era. It would not be unreasonable, though speculative, to expect negative consequences for an Enlightenment style of nonbelief.

Consider, for example, the university, especially the public university. I would say that the university has been a prominent institutional engine of secularization in the twentieth century. In Western countries, it has helped create a broad-based middle class and has supported an associated style of politics. It has been an avenue for democratic debate in the Enlightenment sense. And it has been the place where much of the science and philosophy that supports a naturalistic view of the world has ben produced.

But it’s no secret that universities, especially public universities, are in trouble. For decades now, public universities in the US have been starved for public funding. Indeed, they are now best described as state-supported rather than state universities, with in some cases as little as 10-15% of funding coming from state budgets. And the continuing trend is for this percentage to get smaller. The public university system is being gradually privatized.

At the same time, there is enormous pressure on academic departments to make themselves commercially viable. The sciences suffer their own corruptions from this, but the largest negative effect has been on the humanities, which are more directly relevant for secular ways of life. Privatization and commercialization now mean that access to a more liberal-arts education, which provides exposure to a more Enlightenment style of thinking, is increasingly restricted to a shrinking segment of the population who can afford the obscene tuition bills.

Conservative religious leaders have justly been worried about those of their flocks who attend university: they have a significant likelihood of becoming religiously more liberal if not outright nonbelievers, and they often adopt a functionally secular approach to politics even if they remain privately devout. Seriously engaging with philosophy, literature, and the sciences very often has such an effect. This does not happen as easily for a financially disadvantaged first-generation student shunted into a program geared to develop “marketable skills,” and who needs to spend every extra minute holding down jobs to pay for even that privilege. It can happen: she may, for example, encounter one of the many philosophy instructors who toil in unpromising circumstances but still make heroic efforts to awaken a spark of interest in students. Nevertheless, these are not conditions that keep universities engines of a broad-based secularity.

Maybe universities are dinosaurs, clinging to old-fashioned notions such as public goods and non-market values. They may be devoured by commercial markets as with everything else. But that still leaves the question of whether secular ways of life are suffering from neoliberal social changes, while some varieties of religion have adapted well.

In that case, perhaps the secular wave of the future is a variety of nonbelief that is best adapted to a market-fundamentalist society. And we do have something that might fit the bill: those sects of Libertarianism or Objectivism that already have a considerable presence among American nonbelievers. I have no idea what their prospects for a larger social constituency might be, possibly because I have next to no sympathy for that sort of politics.

It used to be that nonbelief would be associated with communism in many American social circles, and joining something like a Unitarian or similar ultraliberal congregation would be vital protective coloration. If the day comes when nonbelief regularly gets associated with libertarianism, I will go hunting for a church to join. Not because I expect libertarianism to be feared and despised like communism, but because I am not willing to have anything to do with it, even by mistaken attribution.

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