Desecularizing the World

Christianity Judaism Islam Buddhism Hinduism symbolsContinuing the trend from the last post, in this post we will be looking at a different book, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (1999), edited by Peter L. Berger. Few scholars have contributed so much to our understanding of religion and modernity as Berger. Beginning in the 1960s, he advanced the argument that the collapse of “the sacred canopy” provided by religion has created a crisis for faith, forcing it into a position of “cognitive bargaining” but ultimately ends up bargaining away religious substance in order to survive in a relentlessly secular and secularizing modern world. These thoughts were first published in his widely popular book The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967).

In this more recent book, however, Berger has changed his mind, reproves his earlier thoughts on the subject, and tells us why in the introductory essay. Indeed, what needs explanation, he tells us, is not the continued vitality of religion, a phenomenon that puzzles so many modern intellectuals, but why so many modern intellectuals are puzzled by it! The present collection of essays emerges from a conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which includes a leading essay by Berger, along with other expert sociologists George Weigel, David Martin, Jonathan Sacks, Grace Davie, Tu Weiming, and Abdullahi A. an-Na’im.

What needs to be said at the outset is that this book is dated. Most of the essays, moreover, are unremarkable and thus most are not worth detailed exposition. To summarize its contents is a simple task. In the opening essay, Berger refutes the link between secularization and modernity; Weigel writes about Roman Catholicism, telling us that the Catholic Church “has reacquired a certain critical distance from the worlds of power, precisely in order to help those worlds accountable to universal moral norms;” Martin writes about the Evangelical upsurge, assigning its political implications to its individualistic approach and pragmatism; Sacks, who focuses on Jewish identity in the context of post-modernity and secularization, says that Jews live “in a condition of ambivalence about themselves and trauma about their relationship with the world”; while the rest of the world tends toward desecularization, Europe seems to be the exception to the rule, says Davie; in communist China Weiming writes that “as China is well on it sways to becoming an active member of the international society, the political significance of religion will continue to be obvious”; and writing about political Islam, an-Na’im says that the principle of pluralism and the protection of basic human rights, which is and always has been an Islamic imperative, should be followed.

Out of the seven essays, two stand out. Berger’s essay was the keynote lecture of the series, and of course, he is interested in doing more than just describing the current state of play of world politics. Berger begins by musing over the recent interest in the Fundamentalism Project. Sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the MacArthur Foundation, the Project was an international scholarly investigation of conservative religious movements throughout the world. The Project, which began in 1987 and concluded in 1995, was directed by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby. Why, Berger muses, exert resources to studying religious fundamentalism? The most obvious answer was that because “fundamentalism” is such a strange and hard-to-understand phenomena, the purpose of the Project was to delve into this alien world and make it more understandable.

But understandable to whom? This crucial questions leads Berger to an epiphany: the concern that must have led this Project was based on an upside-down perception of the world, according to which “fundamentalism” is a rare, hard-to-explain thing. But a look either at history or at the contemporary world reveals that what is rare is not the phenomenon itself but the knowledge of it. That is to say, it is this elite group of intellectuals that is a rare, and hard-to-explain thing. “The world today,” writes Berger, “is a furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.” Thus the assumption of secularism, and the secularization theory, is both mistaken and false. The key ideas of the theory, traced back to the Enlightenment, is that modernization necessarily leads to religious decline, both in society and in the minds of individuals. It is this key ideas, Berger maintains, that has turned out to be wrong. “To put it simply, experiments with secularized religion have generally failed: religious movements with beliefs and practices dripping with reactionary supernaturalism have widely succeeded.”

Turning to the global religious scene, Berger observes that, on the one hand “it is conservative or orthodox or tradtionalist movements that are on the rise almost everywhere,” and, on the other, that “religious movements and institutions that have made great efforts to conform to a perceived modernity are almost everywhere on the decline.” From the remarkable revival of the Orthodox Church in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the rapidly growing orthodox Jewish groups in Israel and the Diaspora, to the vigorous upsurges of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, “taken together they provide a massive falsification of the idea that modernization and secularization are cognate phenomena.”

While the world today is massively religious, there are, however, two exceptions, one somewhat unclear, the other very clear. The first apparent exception is of course Europe. In Western Europe, if nowhere else, the old secularization theory seems to hold true. There are indeed increased indications in secularization both in expressed belief and personal codes of behavior.  Yet there are a number of recent works, Berger notes, that make this exception deeply problematic. Notably in France, Britain, and even Scandinavia, there is a body of literature indicating strong survivals of religion. What’s more, it seems that there has only been a shift in the institutional location of religion, rather than secularization. That is, there has been a shift away from organized religion, to personal, “spiritual” religious attitudes. Thus Europe as secular is a rather ambiguous assertion, requiring much qualification, detailed and careful analysis.

The other, and definitely clearer, exception to the upsurge in religious movements is the existence of an international subculture composed of people with Western-style higher education, especially in the humanities and social sciences, that is indeed secularized. “This subculture is the principal carrier of progressive, Enlightened beliefs and values. Although relatively thin on the ground, they are widely influential, providing the ‘official’ definitions of reality, notably the educational system, the media of mass communication, and the higher reaches of the legal system.” Berger calls them the a “globalized elite culture,” and the plausibility of secularization theory owes much to this elite subculture, for when they travel they usually touch down in isolated, intellectual circles, i.e. among people much like themselves. But because of this, they easily fall into the misconception that these people reflect the overall society, which is, of course, a mistake.

What are the origins of this new religious upsurge? Berger hints at two possible answers: first, religion provides certainty when so much of our taken-for-granted certainties have been undermined by modernity, or it appeals to people who resent the social influence of that small, cultural elite. But the most satisfying answer, Berger says, and the most historically accurate, is that “strongly felt religion has always been around; what needs explanation is its absence rather than its presence.” Thus the so-called “religious upsurge” simply serves to demonstrate continuity in the place of religion in human experience.

What are the prospects of this new religious upsurge? Berger argues that there is no reason to think the world of the twenty-first century will be any less religious than the world of past generations. But it is also true that many of these religious movements are linked to non-religious forces of one sort or another, and thus the future course of the former will be at least partially determined by the course of the latter.

The “new” religious upsurge is, of course, particular, differing in their critique of modernity and secularity. But what most of these religious movements do seem to agree upon is the shallowness of a culture that tries to get along without any transcendent points of reference. “The religious impulse, the quest for meaning that transcends the restricted space of empirical existence in this world, has been a perennial feature of humanity” from time immemorial. The critique of secularity common to all the resurgent movements is that “human existence bereft of transcendence is an impoverished and finally untenable condition.”

The other essay worth noting in the collection is Davie’s “Europe: The Exception that Proves the Rule?” Davie takes secularization theory quite seriously, and it seems that data proves that in Europe the old secularization thesis hold true. But data, she points out, never explains anything. It is the interpretation of data that explains. The data from Europe, for instance, provides several interpretations, and that some explanations are more nuanced than others. Davie proposes that “might it not be the case that Europeans are not so much less religious than citizens in other parts of the world as differently religious?” Her emphasis.

Davie disentangles various meanings behind the term secularization, specifically as used by Steve Bruce, José Casanova, and Daniele Hervieu-Léger, evaluating them against recent data from the European Values System Study Group (EVSSG), survey findings of 1981 and 1990. In her estimation, it is not so much that there is less religion but that European religion is now expressed differently from how it used to be expressed: hence, Europe is less “secular” than it is “unchurched.” She writes, “while many Europeans have ceased to participate in religious institutions, they have not yet abandoned many of their deep-seated religious inclinations.”

In interpreting the data, Davie finds the approach of French sociologist Hervieu-Léger most promising. Hervieu-Léger argues that modern societies (especially modern European societies) are less religious, not because they are increasingly rational (they are not), but because they are less and less capable of maintaining the memory that lies at the heart of the religious existence. In other words, they are “amnesiac societies.”

While modern societies may well corrode their traditional religious base, they also open spaces that only religion can fill. Hervieu-Léger calls this “utopian” spaces. Modern individuals are encouraged to seek answers, find solutions, and make progress. Such aspirations become an increasingly normative part of human experience. But the image of utopia must always exceed reality, and the more successful the projects of modernity, the greater the mismatch becomes. “Hence the paradox of modernity, which in its historical forms removes the need for the sense of religion, but in its utopian forms must stay in touch with the religious.”

In the end, religion, and churches in Western Europe, still function as a kind of “vicarious memory.” Many Europeans remain grateful rather than resentful of their churches, recognizing that the churches perform a number of tasks on behalf of the population as a whole. One of the most obvious risks of operating vicariously, Davie notes, is the lack of direct contact between the churches and the population. This dramatically leads to a generation-by-generation drop in religious knowledge. Davie concludes that “an ignorance of even the basic understandings of Christian teaching is the norm in modern Europe, especially among young people; it is not a reassuring attribute.”

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