Monday, February 2, 2009

The end of secularization theory

Much of the Western world, or at least the educational system of the West, has taken for granted the truth of secularization theory. Securalization theory is the belief that as socities become more educated and advanced economically they would also become more secular (and so less religious). This has been the dominant view of much of the educated Western world for at least 100 years. Many thinkers have predicted the coming end of religion at the hands of the triumphal march of reason. The German philosopher Nietzsche declared that God was dead, we had killed him, and the news would gradually spread to all mankind from those who were the first to hear about it.

But secularization theory has always had some problems. One of the biggest is the United States. The U.S. has been such a stark exception to the supposed rule of secularization theory that writers call it "American exceptionalism." That is, the U.S. has become very advanced economically and educationally and yet remains a very religious nation, much more religious than most European nations. This has always been something of a mystery to secularists. If secularization theory is true, why isn't the general population of the U.S. more secularized?

More and more sociologists have been calling into question the basic assumptions of secularization theory in recent years. Mary Eberstadt challenges the idea that secularization leads to people having fewer children. She suggests that it may be the other way around. It may be that fewer people getting married and having children (and the ones that do have children having fewer of them) may actually cause secularization rather than being a result of it. In other words, as the basic family structure weakens people become more secular. This idea, she says, would explain American exceptionalism quite easily. America is less secular because there are more families, and because the family unit is stronger here than in Europe.

Another corollary of secularization theory is that children will, on the whole, be less religious than their parents. In other words, each succeeding generation will be more secular than the previous. The Bertelsmann Foundation, a German think-tank, has done an extensive worldwide survey of religious views and attitudes that challenges this and other assumptions. According to Martin Rieger who heads the Bertelsmann project (called the Religion Monitor), "The notion that religion continuously declines from generation to generation can be clearly disproved, even in some of the industrialized nations." In Britain, for example, religious belief is stronger among young people than among their secularized parents.

It appears clear that secularization theory has run into some serious trouble. It's certainly not the case that religion is on the decline worldwide, and it may be that the secularizing trend even in Europe is showing signs of reversing. Secularization theory, however, is still quite a strongly held belief in the West. Ironically, belief in the theory itself may partly explain why some surveys have shown religion to still be on the decline in Europe. Most surveys track religious affiliation or generalized categories (such as theist, agnostic or atheist). But such labels don't reveal anything about a person's actual attitudes towards religion (though perhaps towards religious institutions) or towards God or the meaning of life. Matthias Jaeger from the Bertelsmann Foundation says, "Traditional churches clearly have a communication problem because people are more open to religious messages and practices than we thought." Secularization itself may be coming to an end sooner than people think. The declining native populations in Europe are being replaced by swarms of immigrants, primarily Muslims, who are very religious. The issue in the future will likely be not how religious Europeans are, but what religion will predominate.

Of course all of these surveys leave out one very important factor: God. It's quite easy for a Christian to explain why secularization theory has run aground. It's because it's not true. Human beings, created in the image of God, are inveterately religious. We have a God-sized hole in the very core of our beings that can only be filled by God himself. We may try to fill that hole with other things, but nothing else can do the trick. God is still overseeing human affairs. As the apostle Paul said to the philosophers in Athens so long ago, “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27). God is still actively pursuing his rebellious creatures and still finding them.

While Europeans may have turned their backs on the traditional churches, they still have an inner longing for the one who created them. It’s both a challenge and a great opportunity. It may not be long before Europe becomes predominantly Muslim and very difficult to reach with the Gospel. But for now Europeans are more open to religion than most observers believe. The challenge is to present the Gospel to them in a way that breaks through the typical traditional stereotypes that many Europeans have about religion.


Roy Bauer said...

Excellent post and good luck with your itinerating. I trust God will have you back on the field as soon as possible.

John Fraser said...


Thanks for your comment! For reasons unbeknownst to me not many people are leaving comments lately, though I'm still getting a reasonable number of hits. But I appreciate you taking the time to post and your word of encouragement. God bless!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a very poignant and clear viewpoint, I was doing some reseach for an American Contemporary Society Class, and I found your view very helpful!

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My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.