Secularization or Religious Pluralism?

Secularization or Religious Pluralism? February 29, 2016

What is the “big story” that scholars should tell about the relationship of religion to the modern world? For many decades, social scientists believed that modernization led ineluctably to secularization. Modern goods such as science, democracy, technology, social mobility, and the free market meant that, sooner or later, religion was destined to swoon and irreligion would triumph. But that has changed swiftly in the last few decades.

The eminent sociologist Peter Berger, a pioneering theorist of “the secularization thesis,” as it is sometimes called, made news two decades ago when he announced that the thesis was “essentially mistaken.” In the 1990s, Berger came to the conclusion that the empirical evidence simply did not support the thesis; societies in the late modern world—with the exception of those in western Europe, perhaps—evinced considerable religious vitality, and scholars deluded themselves in sticking with the old paradigm—even if some have. I applauded then and applaud now Berger’s volte-face. At the same time, I felt that the term he offered in the 1990s, “desecularization,” was a bit cumbersome and failed to capture the religious dynamics of our age.

Fortunately, in 2014, Berger published The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age, which provides a much more nuanced understanding of religious pluralism in our globalized world. If I may simplify, he argues in this book that modernity leads not to secularization but to greater religious pluralism; processes of globalization in particular have led to the unprecedented intermingling of religious perspectives, especially in cosmopolitan areas. A time traveler from London in 1416 to London in 2016, I suspect, would experience first-hand the validity of Berger’s point.

No book can be expected to do all things; Many Altars s no exception. In reading it, some Christians and other readers with a religious bent understandably asked if a pluralistic age was good or bad for religion, and, further, how exactly were believers supposed to comport themselves in this setting? These are some questions—more theological really than sociological—that Berger is working on in a new edited book, to which I have the honor of contributing.

At this point, one might sum up his argument as follows: if encountered in the right frame of mind, pluralism is on balance a good thing for people of faith, whether Christian or otherwise. Pluralism can provoke new insights into one’s faith and new insights about the purpose of religious community—for Christians, the church. It can also help believers distinguish the core of the faith from its more peripheral aspects. And not least, by encountering many religious “others,” one comes to learn first-hand about beliefs and practices quite different from one’s own, and this familiarity can, in turn, yield to understanding and tolerance.

But “the right frame of mind” is not necessarily easy to arrive at, Berger admits, because one will face two temptations. On the one hand, pluralism can produce “fundamentalism,” a desire to withdraw oneself and one’s religious community from “the world” in an effort to live in a state of absolute certainty unchallenged by other religious views. On the other hand, it can yield to “relativism,” the conclusion, when confronting with many views, that none really should command one’s allegiance; all are equally true or equally false. Berger wants to define the via media between these two temptations.

As this project goes forward, I’m sure to contribute additional posts. In the meantime, I highly recommend Berger’s blog, Religion & Other Curiosities, which is hosted by the American Enterprise Institute. I confess that I am not a regular reader of individual blogs. Berger’s, however, is an exception.

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  • Andrew Dowling

    If you look at things like church attendance and the role of religion in an individual’s life, the world is indeed becoming more secular (which need not equate to “atheism”). In the West and now beyond (Japan, much of urban Latin America, parts of Southeast Asia) religion’s role has dramatically changed. One might still identify with a “religion” but so-called “secular” values of a tolerance of plurality (completely foreign to most religion before the Enlightenment) and individual rights override any traditional religious precepts. Churches themselves also hold less influence in daily life then they once did (outside of the theocratic Middle East and parts of sub-Saharan Africa)

  • stefanstackhouse

    Perhaps it could simply be said that religion, to the extent that it continues to be believed and practiced, is becoming more “first hand” rather than “second hand”. What I mean by this is that in traditional societies, religion is something that one gets from one’s family and community, and one doesn’t really have much choice about it. It is imposed from without rather than embraced from within. It is little wonder that when the ties of family and community loosen with modernity, and competing value systems are added to the mix, that “second hand” religion withers. It is also no surprise that there is considerable -and sometimes violent – push-back by those traditionalists (“fundamentalists”) who don’t want to see their second hand religion and its props go away.

    On the other hand, there is also the possibility of one making a deliberate choice to embrace the beliefs and practices of a religion as one’s own, regardless of whether it is supported by family and community or not – or indeed, even if in opposition to these. This is a scenario with which Evangelical Christians are very familiar and sympathetic. It is, indeed, how Christianity got started, and is the everyday experience of millions of Christians around the world. We have been sending missionaries to every nation for a couple of centuries now hoping to encourage some people to exactly this. It should be no surprise to us that such “first hand” religion – and especially its Christian flavor – is not just surviving but thriving.

    This line of thinking might thus lead to the conclusion that secularization might not actually be such a bad thing after all, but rather creates exactly the environment that is most conducive to the expansion of Evangelical Christianity.

  • I think that one problem is the use of self identification in studies involving religiosity. Many want to distance themselves from the “religious” label, and so identify as “spiritual” or just say that religion is not that important to them, when it really is. Many others simply do not have a solid working understanding of religion, and view religion as being akin to the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, and therefore reject eastern religions as being religion at all.

    There’s also the incorrect notion that religion and atheism are mutually exclusive, or that there must be a belief in something, which is “supernatural” in order for religion to exist. Belief, that “supernatural” things do not exist, is just as religious.

    At least people are starting to realize that the world is not necessarily becoming more secular, and that modernization and secularization are not inherently interconnected.