Secularization Thesis

Secularization Thesis March 22, 2014

With characteristic gleeful verve, Rodney Stark assaults secularization theory in his Triumph of Christianity.

Secularization theory revived, he says, a charge brought against religious pluralism by “monopoly religions: that disputes among religious groups undermine the credibility of all” (357). But people kept being religious, even in pluralistic settings.

Secularization theory responds with a Harumph, arguing that the religions that survive in pluralism are cheap imitations of the old time religion. Stark refutes by showing that the growing religions in America are the ones that demand most of their members.

Secularization theory responds with a “Yes but” and argues that religious pluralism leads to religious violence. Stark cites Adam Smith’s observation that competition keeps sects too small to “disturb the publick tranquility” (366) and thus everyone is forced to get along. Keep that point in mind for later.

On the other side, Stark shows that religious monopoly, far from strengthening religion, weakens it. Religious establishment makes religions lazy and obstructionist. No one gets invested because the government will take care of religion; it is treated as another public utility. More worrying, religious establishments are intolerant of rivals. Stark cites some remarkable evidence that Iceland, Spain, Greece, and Belgium score the same as the UAE by “government favoritism” measures that include subsidies, privileges, support or sanctions to a state religion.” Denmark and Finland have a high favoritism index than Morocco (379).

Stark argues that Europe not America is the exception when it comes to religion, and it is exceptional because of the manner of its Christianization. He cites a study he did trying to link the length of “Christianization” to church attendance, and found that the “duration of Christianity is extremely highly correlated with contemporary rates of church attendance” (376). Peoples that became Christian before Constantine and Christendom (he cites Italy) have much higher attendance rates than those that became Christian after Christianity became dominant.

A very illuminating analysis, and right on target in many ways. But two caveats: First, on the last point, I wonder how “Christianized” Italy was before Constantine. Second, and more generally, Stark measures secularization by the vibrancy of religious expression, by, say, church attendance. Under American pluralism, churches are indeed lively and many are growing. America is not secular in that sense. But we might have a different picture if we examined institutions. 

Peter Berger’s quip that we are Indians ruled by Swedes smacks too much of conspiracy, but it’s close enough to the truth to think Stark’s compelling analysis of American religiosity doesn’t tell the whole story.

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