Secularization: Thoughts on its Many Historical Causes

Secularization: Thoughts on its Many Historical Causes December 7, 2018


Peter Berger, an eminent Lutheran sociologist, who specializes in the sociology of religion, discusses with great insight the crucial role which Protestantism played in the development of the radical secularization with which all serious Christians are plagued today, and from which society at large reels and staggers in moral turpitude:

Protestantism may be described in terms of an immense shrinkage in the scope of the sacred in reality . . . The sacramental apparatus is reduced to a minimum and, even there, divested of its more numinous qualities. The miracle of the mass disappears altogether . . . Protestantism ceased praying for the dead . . . [and] divested itself as much as possible from the three most ancient and most powerful concomitants of the sacred – mystery, miracle, and magic . . . The Protestant believer no longer lives in a world ongoingly penetrated by sacred beings and forces. Reality is polarized between a radically transcendent divinity and a radically ‘fallen’ humanity that, ‘ipso facto,’ is devoid of sacred qualities . . .

The Catholic lives in a world in which the sacred is mediated to him through a variety of channels – the sacraments . . . intercession of the saints . . . a vast continuity of being between the seen and the unseen. Protestantism abolished most of these mediations. It broke the continuity, cut the umbilical cord between heaven and earth, and thereby threw man back upon himself in a historically unprecedented manner . . . It narrowed man’s relationship to the sacred to the one . . . channel that it called God’s word . . . – the ‘sola gratia’ of the Lutheran confessions . . . It needed only the cutting of this one narrow channel of mediation, though, to open the floodgates of secularization . . .

It may be maintained, then, that Protestantism served as a historically decisive prelude to secularization, whatever may have been the importance of other factors . . . This interpretation . . . is accepted . . . probably today by a majority of scholarly opinion . . .

The Protestant Reformation . . . may then be understood as a powerful reemergence of precisely those secularizing forces that had been ‘contained’ by Catholicism . . . The question, ‘Why in the modern West?’ asked with respect to the phenomenon of secularization, must be answered at least in part by looking at its roots in the religious tradition of the modern West. (The Sacred Canopy, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1967, 111-113, 124-125)

I think complex causality and multiple causality are involved in virtually all historical matters, especially those involving ideas, and those as vast and huge as a topic like secularization (arguably one of the most nebulous and subjective of any concept in the history of ideas in general and cultural sociology in particular).

I rarely if ever subscribe to hypotheses concerning Great Cultural Forces so excessively reductionist and simplistic as Neo-Platonism vs. Neo-Scholasticism Within an Overall Realist Framework, or some such Grand Explanation.

To illustrate such erroneous and shortsighted thinking (using one prominent and influential example), I’ve always loved Francis Schaeffer (I even named my evangelical campus outreach “True Truth Ministries” after a famous phrase of his), but I knew 20 years ago in my evangelical Protestant period that he was all wet when trying to grapple with St. Thomas Aquinas. He was clearly in over his head (and seemed to have no awareness of this at all).

I am not alone in that analysis. Ronald W. Ruegsegger, editor of Reflections on Francis Schaeffer (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1986), is a philosopher himself, and he takes the same position I have for a long time (which is not against Schaeffer — he appreciates him a lot, as I do — ; but rather, simply realistic in appraising his strengths and weaknesses), in his chapter, “Francis Schaeffer on Philosophy”:

Aquinas’ incorporation of particulars as well as universals seems to be a step in the right direction, rather than a mistake as Schaeffer sees it . . .Schaeffer overstates his case when he asserts that Aquinas made man’s reason — and thereby products of man’s reason such as natural theology and philosophy — independent from revelation.

. . . Schaeffer is not completely clear about what is at issue in the problem of universals . . .

I think it is indeed important to recognize that Schaeffer is a popularizer rather than a scholar. As such it is not fair to expect him to understand the details of philosophy as well as someone who is trained in the discipline . . . it is a mistake to promote Schaeffer as an authority in philosophical matters. He was not . . . the fact that Schaeffer is enormously popular among evangelicals, despite his not being an authority, suggests that all too often we are satisfied with simple answers to complex questions. (pp. 114-115, 126-127)

I agree with what Peter Berger says, but his analysis is only on one aspect of many that I think come into play. He can make his point without denying my present one (as suggested in his phrase, “whatever may have been the importance of other factors”). He has a sociological mind which is nothing if not attuned to the variety of factors that play a part in any large-scale societal and cultural force. My own major was sociology (something I have regretted, but sometimes it comes in handy).

That said, I hereby offer an additional analysis of another important cause of secularization, from Catholic (oops; now we know he is incorrigibly biased . . . ) cultural historian Christopher Dawson:

It is difficult to exaggerate the harm that was inflicted on Christian culture by the century of religious strife that followed the Reformation . . . It was during this century of sterile and inconclusive religious conflict that the ground was prepared for the secularization of European culture. The convinced secularists were an infinitesimal minority of the European population, but they had no need to be strong since the Christians did their work for them . . .It is impossible to ignore this dark and tragic side of religious history; for if we do not face it, we cannot understand the inevitable character of the movement of secularization . . .

The immediate cause of the secularization of European culture was the frustration and discouragement resulting from a century of religious wars, and above all from the inconclusiveness of their end. After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the necessity for the co-existence of Catholics and Protestants in Europe became generally recognized, and since men still valued their common culture they were forced to emphasize those elements which were common to Catholics and Protestants, i.e., its secular aspects . . .

The merchant class in Holland and England and the lawyers and officials in France gradually took the place of the nobility as the real leaders of culture . . . They were apt to be critical of authority and naturally tended to adopt a sectarian type of religion – Puritans and Nonconformists in England, and Huguenots in France. Theirs was among the strongest influences making for the secularization of culture, as so many writers have argued . . . They regarded religion as a private matter which concerned the conscience of the individual only, whereas public life was essentially business life; a sphere in which the profit motive was supreme and a man’s moral and religious duties were best fulfilled by the punctual and industrious performance of his professional activities. (The Dividing of Christendom, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1965, 9-11, 253-255)

The chief cause of the secularization of Western culture was the loss of Christian unity . . . The mere fact of this loss of unity created a neutral territory which gradually expanded till it came to include almost the whole of social life . . . When once men had admitted the principle that a heretic could be a good citizen (and even that an infidel could be a good man of business), they inevitably tended to regard this common ground of practical action as the real world, and the exclusive sphere of religion as a private world, whether of personal faith or merely private opinion . . .

In this way there arose the new liberal humanitarian culture which represents an intermediate stage between the religious unity of Christendom and a totally secularized world. (The Judgment of the Nations, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1942, 103-104)

One might argue along these lines that Protestantism emerged as a quasi-Donatist, ostensibly and theoretically (but not in practice or long-run outcome) rigorist and schismatic cultural force in the 16th century. The inevitable split from the Catholic Church led to equally inevitable religious wars (as men on both sides then still cared deeply about religious matters, unlike today where doctrinal disagreements are winked at and cheerfully dismissed as of no import, and nothing worth fighting over — not even in rational discussion).

The wars in turn led to the cultural exhaustion and malaise described by Dawson. In that sense of a causal chain one might argue that Protestantism caused the drive towards secularization that has never ceased to increase from that day to this. But as I say, this is only one aspect among many, and neither it nor Berger’s analysis should be construed as the be-all and end-all of historical discussion concerning secularization. That’s far too simplistic, in my opinion.

I would also point out, in fairness (to give much credit to Protestantism in this respect) that the history of revivalism within the Protestant tradition has been a great cultural force against secularization. This can be seen especially in the Wesleyan and Whitefield revivals in 17th-century England, which had vast positive social consequences, and the First and Second Great Awakenings in America: arguably responsible for slowing down the subsequent slide into a thorough quasi-humanist secularism for a good century (for early America was greatly influenced by the Enlightenment, deism, and a liberal brand of disillusioned post-Calvinist, post-Puritan Christianity).

Along these lines, I would cite and recommend books such as Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform, by William G. McLoughlin (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978), and Revivalism and Social Reform, by Timothy L. Smith (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957). The latter begins with this delightful passage:

Could Thomas Paine, the free-thinking pamphleteer of the American and French revolutions, have visited Broadway in 1865, he would have been amazed to find that the nation conceived in rational liberty was at last fulfilling its democratic promise in the power of evangelical faith. The emancipating glory of the great awakenings had made Christian liberty, Christian equality and Christian fraternity the passion of the land . . . Religious doctrines which Paine, in his book The Age of Reason, had discarded as the tattered vestment of an outworn aristocracy, became the wedding garb of a democratized church, bent on preparing men and institutions for a kind of proletarian marriage supper of the Lamb. (Preface, p. 7)

These movements were not without their own faults, and arguably contained the seeds of an eventual further descent into secularism and sectarianism, but that is beyond my immediate point, which is simply that Protestant revivalism has been a considerably powerful force against secularism and irreligion, and towards a Christian worldview with culturally transformative power and import. It would be just as wrong for a Protestant with a sophisticated view of history, sociology, and culture to deny the positive aspects of revivalism, as it would be for a Catholic to do so. What’s true (and documented from history) is true.

I would argue (if I must make a general statement) that it is not Protestantism per se which caused secularization, but rather, that some aspects of Protestantism tied in with some aspects of existing forces destructive of the unified medieval and Catholic synthesis and worldview (nominalism, the Renaissance, nationalism, the Divine Right of Kings, unbridled capitalism, the so-called “Enlightenment,” the philosophers Locke, Kant, Hume, etc.).

Catholicism-in-practice also contributed to this demise insofar as it was nominal and morally-compromised. After all, the rise of Protestantism was not hindered by Italian and Roman decadence, and the “Enlightenment” and the hideous French Revolution took place in Catholic France.

In any event, the medieval synthesis and Christian culture was Catholic through and through, and Protestantism obviously helped to bring that to an end (thus playing a “decisive” role, as Berger argues), but it alone was not the primary factor (though I regard it as a major one), and it often worked as a counter-force to secularization, as argued in the above examples.

Whatever the cause, we are in a mess today, because people do not think “Christianly.” One of the most extraordinary and remarkably insightful books I have ever read was The Gravedigger Files, by Os Guinness (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983). The subtitle is “Papers on the Subversion of the Modern Church.” It is a masterpiece of Christian sociology, written in the style of C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. I shall cite just one passage, where Guinness is dealing with what he calls “The Private-Zoo Factor” (privatization of religion):

If the ultimate value is survival and the immediate value is personal peace and prosperity, then those brought up to live for themselves will be less inclined to live (or die) for others . . . the privatized person is . . . a “classic narcissist,” client to the multiplying therapeutic agencies in a world in which, as Orwell said, “Freud and Machiavelli have reached the outer suburbs”; . . . The extremes here do not have to be coaxed into a cage; they virtually sit mewing for one.Notice again how the contradiction between the ostensible freedom and the true situation is entirely to our advantage [these are demonsspeaking, remember]. Once more privatized freedom is not the freedom it seems . . . In the past we have cultivated religious individualism and have found that certain strains of faith such as pietism are particularly fruitful for our purposes. But never have we had such harvest as this. You know that the Greeks defined the idiot as a wholly private person. Privatization multiplies the number of Christians who fall prey to this and makes such idiocy a spiritual condition.

I would not deny that there are exceptions to all this. There are theological traditions (such as the reformed) which refuse to fall for narrow pietism . . . or recent movements which have made a noise about faith in public (though mostly about more personal things, such as abortion and pornography). But these, fortunately, are exceptions. (pp. 85-86)

Many evangelical spokesmen have become alarmed at the sorts of trends that Os Guinness decried above. David Wells, professor of Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, wrote:

We . . . are reducing historical Protestant faith to a mass of diverse, conflicting ‘models.’ I cannot see it all surviving. That a sundering of the movement is coming seems utterly certain to me; the only question is when, how, and with what consequences. (“Evangelical Megashift”, Christianity Today, February 19, 1990, 15 ff. )

Jon Johnston, professor of Urban Ministry and Sociology of Religion at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, and a Church of the Nazarene minister, wrote cogently in a work on this very subject, back in 1980:

Evangelicals . . . are increasingly opting for godless cultural values. Our degree of compromise has reached epidemlc proportions . . .Popularity can prompt disastrous compromise. I firmly believe that compromise, or ‘accommodation,’ is the most formidable threat to evangelicalism today’ . . . Evangelicalism is in serious danger of . . . becoming engulfed by the surrounding culture. (Will Evangelicalism Survive Its Own Popularity?, preface, 35, 39)

Lastly, I would cite James Davison Hunter, professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, and one of the leading authorities on evangelicalism today; the author of American Evangelicalism (1983) and Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (1987). Another article in Christianity Today described an address of his on this general theme:

Hunter identified the major combatants in the cultural war. Traditional Orthodoxy, he said, holds a transcendent view of moral authority, as expressed in Scripture, the Roman Catholic magisterium, the Torah. What Hunter called a ‘progressive’ view of authority, based on Enlightenment thinking, is grounded in human, rational discourse. Hunter contended that advocates of the new way of thinking are winning the war. While allowing that ‘evangelicalism is the most vibrant form of religious expression,’ he said there is no evidence to support the oft-stated assertion that the evangelical faith is in the midst of revival . . . Hunter . . . added, ‘There is a very strong undercurrent of subjectivizing the gospel and the theological task.’ (Randy Frame, “Theological Drift: Christian Higher Ed the Culprit?,”Christianity Today, April 9, 1990; citation from pp. 43, 46)

Catholics are, of course, subject to the same cultural influences and are increasingly Americanized, privatized, and rendered ignorant from abominable catechesis and the liberal crisis in our own Church. To the extent that Catholics suffer that fate, they, too, do not think Christianly and contribute to the continuing secularization and decadence of our society and culture.

So (to end on an ecumenical note), I would echo C. S. Lewis’s comment that those at the center of their own theological traditions are all closer to one another in spirit than those on the outer edges (liberals, modernists, nominalists, semi-non-Christian syncretists, etc.). This is a fight of serious, committed Christians of all stripes against the postmodernist, humanist culture of death and all that it entails.

That is one reason (of many) why I absolutely despise both anti-Catholicism and anti-Protestantism, because they zap the energy and influence that the already weak Christian community has (itself the last hope against the encroaching darkness), by dividing Christians and setting them against each other. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. We Christians mock and battle and lie about and misrepresent each other on the Internet while western civilization goes to hell in a handbasket. It is wicked, and it is the devil’s victory.

It is to be expected that we will all stand up for our own Christian beliefs in gentlemanly yet vigorous principled discourse; but this should not be to the extent of reading others out of the faith entirely and questioning their personal standing before God and their salvation or eternal destiny, as the case may be.

I wanted to note that two out of the four revivals I mentioned were Calvinist-dominated:

1. The First Great Awakening arguably led by Jonathan Edwards.


2. The Whitefield revival in England.

The other two are Arminian:

3. The Wesleyan revival (which could be said to be an Anglican revival, since Wesley never formally split from that denomination).


4. The Second Great Awakening.

The latter two are more illustrative of what I would say are the inherent shortcomings in the Protestant system. “Mainline” or “culturally-respectable” (which meant largely “properly English”) Anglicanism couldn’t handle Wesley due to the “enthusiasm” and evangelicalism and so he was forced to take to the fields and reluctantly consent to a start-up of yet another denomination: the Methodists. Thus, further sectarianism is the result even when great, noble men are in leadership and don’t desire a split, because the Protestant tendency to dichotomize everything and to create unnecessarily-polarized competing camps would not allow a radical like Wesley to be contained within an Anglican framework.

In Catholicism, on the other hand, there is a place for all these different aspects of Christian expression and emphasis. We have quietism, we have mysticism; we have St. Francis on one hand and St. Thomas Aquinas on the other; St. Therese on one pole (monasticism) and Merton and Dorothy Day on the other (social activism). We have the jolly wise man Chesterton and super-serious folks like St. Ignatius Loyola. Even the charismatic movement flourished recently and was accepted by Rome without a crisis. None of these things cause a split. But Protestants will split because they lack a unifying principle which will prevent this.

As for Charles Finney and the Second Great Awakening, I understand that Finney went liberal (which is a real shame). Arguably, this was due to orthodox Arminianism being distorted and turned into a self-generation of holiness and sanctification. Again, I would contend that this is at least partially because of the structure of Protestantism which is insufficiently “magisterial.”

In contrast, the essentially Arminian soteriology of Catholicism does not become transformed into Pelagianism and then process theology, as we see occurring among Protestants (Clark Pinnock being one sad example). One must have some theory as to why this happens. I say that the dogmatic, magisterial structure of Catholicism prevents it, while the individualism and private judgment of Protestantism not only doesn’t prevent it, but encourages it by an interior logic.

The individualism in turn evolves into subjectivism and privatization, and there we are: back to some of the important contributing factors of secularization. So the second two revivalistic traditions contained the seeds of later trouble: the holiness movements spawned from Wesleyanism led to some pentecostal groups which were non-trinitarian and other groups which became so isolated, pietistic, and fundamentalist in the anti-intellectual, a-cultural sense, that they ceased to become salt to the society.

But then it can be disputed whether the break-offs were consistent with the original movement (development) or corruptions of it. I tend to think they are corruptions where Wesley is concerned; not so much regarding Finney, from what I hear about his errors.

Edwards and Whitefield seem to have fared better, in historical retrospect, except where the extremes of some aspects of Calvinism with regard to predestination caused a backlash, whereby people overreacted and went to deism, Unitarianism, and transcendentalism in New England (Schaeffer wrote that Harvard was controlled by Unitarians as early as 1802).

There is a “Golden Mean” somewhere in all this confusion. For my money, it exists in Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and classical (doctrinally orthodox as originally determined internally) Reformed, Methodist, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions. Of course, as a Catholic and an apologist, I go on to critique all Protestant systems as fundamentally flawed in principle, but in terms of secularism, the Christian traditions above do best at opposing it, with the Reformed doing the best among Protestant choices, in my opinion.


(originally 9-13-03; rev. 1-20-04)

Photo credit: PublicDomainPictures (12-14-12) [PixabayCC0 Creative Commons license]


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