Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about Christian Smith’s 2019 book Atheist Overreach. We’ve covered the three questions that Smith asked and answered in his book. Now, let’s look at the conclusion he draws from his work. Namely, he thinks secularization will ultimately fail — making religion dominant once again across humanity. So today, let’s see if his overweening optimism is really justified.
(Notes: In the book, Christian Smith specifically tries to make it look like he’s talking about all religions generally, not just Christianity. However, the way he talks about “religion” makes it clear that he really means Christianity, and Catholicism in particular. Page citations come from the 2019 hardback edition. Please check out the “Atheist Overreach” tag for lots more posts about this book!)
Oh, the Optimism of This Guy!
Christian Smith makes a bold prediction at the end of his third question (p. 122):
… we should not expect human societies to become thoroughly secularized on any long-term basis.32 Secularization as a process will likely be limited, contingent, and susceptible to reversal. The New Atheist dream of a fundamentally secular world will prove illusory.
It’s quite an optimistic show of bravado. In reply, I must ask:
According to what research, exactly?
That citation, “Atheism and the Secularization Thesis,” comes from the Oxford Handbook of Atheism. I can’t access this work, alas. However, I can take a wild guess about it.
The secularization thesis holds that as societies modernize, they become more secular. As secularism rises, religious authorities’ own power fades.
Christian Smith ain’t buyin’ that idea. And I can absolutely see why he’d dislike it.
The Secularization Thesis.
Dominance is, after all, a zero-sum game. If someone wins it, then someone else must lose it. So if religious authorities are not dominant in a society, then secular ones will be. If religion itself does not dominate people’s lives, then secularism must. (Though sometimes, they take turns.)
The secularization thesis states that as societies become more rationally-oriented and modernized, their people lose their need for religious affiliation. They look instead to rational answers for their questions about the universe and themselves.
But Christian Smith doesn’t think that’s how it works.
Instead, he thinks that somehow religion will regain and maintain its dominance over societies. In his view, secularism will only arise briefly in scattered areas. Eventually, that spark will be snuffed out by religion again. (And to him, that’s a good thing.)
Secularization: Just a Blip?
As for the trend toward secularization now, he sees it as a show of smug, teenage rebellion against the status quo. He’s even in the Wikipedia article about secularization saying so:
In contrast to the “modernization” thesis, Christian Smith and others argue that intellectual and cultural élites promote secularization to enhance their own status and influence. Smith believes that intellectuals have an inherent tendency to be hostile to their native cultures, causing them to embrace secularism.
The citation in the above quote comes from Smith book The Secular Revolution. I suppose that in Christian Smith-Land, as these elites calm down and embrace religion again. In other words, they allow religion to dominate their lives again.
In Atheist Overreach, he tells us something similar (p. 125):
Humans are not naturally religious in the sense that religion is inevitable in human lives and social institutions. But we are naturally religious in the sense of possessing by nature not only the complex capacities but also the recurrent, strong inclinations to cognize, believe, and observe religious ideas and practices. [. . .] But atheists have little reason to be confident that human societies are on a path toward steadily increasing secularization. Atheist overreaching has tried in various ways to deny or ignore these realistic conclusions, which accomplishes little good for anyone.
It’s big talk. But where is this happening? What societies are going back to religion after embracing secularism? Who’s allowing religious leaders to dominate their lives again?
He offers us no support at all for these astonishing claims — nor for his sidelong insult to atheists. Instead of offering evidence, he throws a snotty little hissy-fit over atheists apparently ignoring Aristotelian ethics, and there, my friends, the book ends.
Over here in Reality-Land, meanwhile, I’ve seen little evidence of any of this dream actually happening anywhere.
The Secularization Floodgates.
I’m struggling to think of a single time in the past 50 years that any society has gone secular and then experienced a massive resurgence of religious dominance. I’m just not coming up with anything.
Instead, what we see is a constant decline of religious affiliation in major religions.
Christians love to gloat about Muh Chinese revival! MUH AFRICAN REVIVAL! They’ve done this for many decades.
These gloaters place their improbable stories only in dystopias, of course. There, the false promises of religion might be believed by achingly-desperate people who have no other options or hope.
By contrast, I have seen no evidence of this grand revival happening in any free societies that embrace human rights and civil liberties for all. At most, religious movements (like the Toronto Blessing) poach Christians from other groups or revive faith in lapsed Christians. Even then, these movements don’t even ping the radar of non-Christians.
Once a society embraces secularization alongside human rights, religious dominance dissolves away.
A Small Trickle Returning.
The few times I’ve heard about religion making a comeback it has been on the smallest scale imaginable. Moreover, such cases usually represent a form of “religion” that violates Christian Smith’s entire narrative.
For example, Hellenistic pagans achieved legal recognition in Greece a few years ago. Norse paganism is apparently now the fastest-growing religion in Iceland. In both cases, the actual number of people involved in these religions is quite low (1.2% in the latter case). Thus, I doubt we’ll see either country declaring itself pagan anytime soon.
Meanwhile, Christianity declines in both those countries. In Greece, the decline looks especially dramatic. Greek Orthodox leaders are panicking there these days — for good reason!
Even worse (for Christian Smith), these up-and-comers aren’t at all like Christians.
They aren’t trying to force their rules on everybody. Nor are they seeking to enshrine their demands into law. They aren’t annoying people with evangelism attempts, even.
(And yet they are still growing! I’ll tell you this: When I was a pagan, I converted several people to Hellenismos — but none to Christianity. And each time, it happened by accident. Christian evangelists only wish they could experience those conversations.)
In short, these new religious adherents do not seek coercive power over others.
And so they won’t ever attain it.
It Was Always Thus.
Religious dominance hinges upon coercion above all other factors. Secularization is what we get when coercion is demolished.
As human rights and civil liberties get more and more firmly supported by governments and society, religious leaders’ power diminishes significantly. Most particularly, religious leaders lose the power to force that society’s people to play along with their Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game.
Despite their frantic machinations, religion becomes optional in free societies. Once that happens, every adherent who wants to leave, can. Every person who wants to reject religious recruitment, can.
And that’s exactly what happens.
People leave. They refuse to join up. They reject religious leaders’ demands.
Before, religious leaders and adherents alike retaliated brutally against these rejections. But in a free society, they can’t. The law ties their hands. It punishes and prevents religious overreach.
So coercion becomes the magic fairy-dust that brings religions to dominance.
By contrast, human rights, embraced and enforced, become the thunderclap that heralds secularization.
The Truth About Religion.
Ever wonder why world religions tend to be so authoritarian?
Wonder no more.
Humans might be naturally superstitious. Our cognitive development — and our evolution into modern humans — speak to that tendency.
But humans do not naturally tend toward organized religion. They don’t naturally want to follow strict behavioral rules that make no sense. Nor do they want to spend their diminishing resources and finite lifetimes on stuff that they’re not excited about and doesn’t seem to bring any benefits to anybody. Most especially, they don’t want to be part of groups that might hurt them.
It always has been like that. It always will be.
Authoritarian groups like Catholicism demand a lot while actively harming a significant number of people. So those groups don’t appeal to many people on their own. They can’t. They never did.
Instead, such groups might win a few adherents here and there, as pagans are doing and as Christians did before they gained real temporal power. Where people can freely reject them, where they can’t gain artificial support from governments, these groups always struggle to keep the lights on.
History teaches us a very sobering lesson:
In order to grow to world-religion status, religious leaders must gain coercive power, and they must keep it.
The Winning Team — Isn’t.
I can see why Christian Smith — a member of a flavor of Christianity facing a particularly pronounced decline nowadays — might want to believe that sooner or later, some large number of people will spontaneously wake up one day and flood into his abandoned cathedrals and churches.
Christians like imagining themselves as being on the winning team.
I can also see why Christian Smith — a very scholarly member of that flavor of Christianity — thinks that religion’s resurgence hinges upon atheists re-subscribing to Christian dominance based not on belief in gods, but something far more esoteric. He thinks they’ll return because of Catholicism’s high-flown philosophy and ethics. Catholicism in particular falsely imagines that it is the only real source of ethics and morality. Indeed, Smith’s spun this narrative of superior ethics and morality all through his book.
But Catholicism’s own history contradicts that narrative, even more so than just that of Christianity generally.
The Conclusion of the Conclusion.
At the book’s very ending, Christian Smith laments that (p. 130):
All parties involved in the theism-atheism debates, in shared moral reflection, and in the public consumption of the findings of science should be interested in and committed to careful reasoning, rigorous criticism, and the making of justified and defensible claims.
I’m feeling really helpful today. Thus, I offer some advice in return:
Maybe try “shared moral reflection” yourself sometime.
Living in reality is rewarding and spectacularly interesting. More than that, though, it’s the only real game in town.
NEXT UP: It’s not just about hypocrisy anymore. It’s about blatant, indefensible hypocrisy — and the world is watching Christians reveal their true nature and goal. Tomorrow, let’s see what really drives secularization.
(Hint: It sure ain’t cultural elites throwing teenage temper-tantrums about religion.)
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