c. 2008 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) In the cloud of dust that passes for public rhetoric these days, few epithets stir up passions as quickly as accusing an opponent of being a “secularist,” or some variant of the term.
To embrace secularization is to seem vaguely un-American, or at least irreverent. For religious conservatives, of course, it is the red flag that can send them stampeding to the ballot box.
A prime example was Mitt Romney’s highly touted speech on religion in December, in which he sought to allay suspicions about his own Mormonism by projecting himself as a defender of faith _ any faith at all, as long as it was not what he derided as “the religion of secularism.”
Romney’s blast was loud, but hardly unusual. In a commencement address at Liberty University last May, Newt Gingrich lionized the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s battle against “a growing culture of radical secularism.”
The repetition of such attacks has not sharpened our understanding of just what is meant by secularism, or secularization, or why secularity of any stripe should be so harmful to fragile souls and American society. (Only fascism and fundamentalism, and perhaps humanism, are as common, and as commonly misapplied.)
“Secular” has varied connotations. It’s also undergoing yet another transformation as public figures trot it out with predictable regularity. The irony is they think they are shooting fish in a barrel when they draw a bead on secularity; in fact they are trying to hit a moving target.
The common understanding of the term secularization is generally a negative one. It grows out of the century-old idea that the inexorable advance of modernity _ material and intellectual progress _ is equated with a similarly inevitable erosion of faith. As Sigmund Freud famously predicted, “The more the fruits of knowledge become accessible to men, the more widespread is the decline of religious belief.”
Now, however, scholars and a cohort of younger thinkers are rethinking those assumptions. Studies show that a liberal education doesn’t always dilute faith, and affluence doesn’t necessarily lead to atheism.
“Today you cannot plausibly maintain that modernity necessarily leads to secularization,” said Peter Berger, author of “The Sacred Canopy,” in a 2006 interview. “It may _ and it does in certain parts of the world among certain groups of people _ but not necessarily.”
The term “secular” was originally employed in medieval Christian theology to distinguish between priests “living in the world” and “religious” priests (the Franciscans, Benedictines and others) who live communally.
Over time, the word secular came to refer to the temporal political order, often over and against the religious orbit, and an increasing “privatization” of religion. That separation only increased after the Protestant Reformation and then the Enlightenment.
The last century saw the emergence of the term “secularization” to describe the process of modernization and the correlated decrease in religiosity. About the same time, the spreading presumption that secularization was an unmitigated good came to be described as “secularism,” a view that has been given a bully ideological caste by vocal neo-atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
But experts argue that both champions and foes of such ideological absolutism fail to understand that secularization really is not so easily understood.
For one thing, a central pillar of secularization theory _ that modernization equals a decline in belief _ is wobbling in the face of countervailing evidence.
As Georgetown University sociologist Jose Casanova points out, China was secular before it was modern (indeed, faith seems to be growing as China modernizes), while Poland retains its religiosity in the face of a modernizing explosion. In Holland, religion is weak, yet in Switzerland it is relatively strong. The United States is deeply religious, yet our cultural tap root, England, is a bastion of religious indifference.
It is also clearer than ever that religion is resurgent today, whether defined as the passions of Pentecostalism and Islam, the endurance of old-time churches like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, or the irenic individualism of New Age spirituality and Eastern traditions. The overriding fact is that God is not dead. He’s just gone viral, replicating in strains almost too numerous to track.
In other words, the salient characteristic of modernity is that it leads to more religious choices, not less religion. Just consider the United States, where religiously minded founders created a secular state in order to provide safe haven for a society of believers of varying denominations. That “secular canopy,” to paraphrase Berger, has proven to be a blessing to religion rather than the bane it is often made out to be.
This could actually be discomfiting to all sides. Ideological secularists cannot purge every trace of religious expression from the public square without undermining the principal of secularity _ the freedom to practice any faith, or no faith. Religionists, meanwhile, must acknowledge that their favorite bogeyman is, in reality, their best friend.
In a sense, secularity could be viewed as the midwife to a religious rebirth that is manifested by a growing religious pluralism. Perhaps the real question, then, is how the United States will cope with this developing pluralism and the tensions that it brings.
Will America maintain a healthy secularity that encourages faith of whatever sort to flourish (or wither)? Or will it retreat toward a sectarian past that never existed?
It has been said that the United States is the oldest nation in the world because it is the first country born in the modern era _ the first to forge a secular society benefiting all creeds. Whether Americans learn to appreciate our secular philosophy will go a long way toward determining whether we remain so venerable, or become something entirely new, and pre-modern.
(David Gibson is a veteran religion writer. His most recent book is “The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World.” A version of this story first appeared in The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)
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