Almost weekly we hear news of the decline of Christianity. In most Western countries, church attendance has been declining for years, especially among young people. The influence of Christian values in our culture and social institutions — the arts and mass media, schools and universities, politics and public life — gets weaker all the time.
All of this seems a sharp contrast with ages past, when Christianity played a central role in Western culture and society. What happened?
This shift is often called “secularization,” and thinkers have been trying to explain it for at least 200 years. Until recently, the most popular explanation went something like this:
“Religion was important in primitive times, when people needed to explain the mysteries of nature. Monks preserved knowledge and the church held society together. In the modern world, however, the development of complex social institutions and the rise of scientific thinking have made religion unnecessary. This is a natural stage in the development of all societies. Western society may be first, but others will soon follow.”
This story, sometimes called the secularization thesis, was widely accepted by most scholars a few decades ago. One sociology textbook of the 1960s even told tens of thousands of students that “the evolutionary future of religion is extinction.”
“What would an alternative story of secularization look like?”
Now, as Christians, we probably feel instinctively that something is not quite right about this story. And over the past few decades, researchers, both Christian and non-Christian, have pointed out some major problems with the secularization thesis.
First, the global demise of religion predicted by the theory isn’t happening. In 1979, the secular, modernizing government of Iran was overthrown by an Islamic religious leader and his followers. The influence of Islam in world affairs has, if anything, grown since then — from the rise of radical-inspired terrorism, on one extreme, to the development of international Islamic charities and banking systems on the other. Christianity, for its part, is positively thriving in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia. In fact, outside Western Europe and North America, the world seems to be getting more religious, not less.
“We did not automatically drift into a secular age — we chose to get there.”
A second problem with the secularization thesis is its assumption that secularization is an automatic process, like osmosis, that just happens as a byproduct of modernization. But when you dig deeper, there is no good reason to think that modern developments, from urbanization to social differentiation to the introduction of electricity, are dangerous to religion. Instead, historians and other scholars have begun to emphasize how secularization was the consequence of specific decisions made at specific times by specific people, especially cultural and political elites. We did not automatically drift into a secular age — we chose to get there.
Finally, by thinking of secularization only as the decline of religion, the secularization thesis misses the other half of the picture: the rise of new secular worldviews, values and ways of acting and reacting. It is not just the decline of religion that needs to be explained, but also the construction of this new secular world. Where did secular ideas, values and systems come from?
What would an alternative story of secularization look like? What if we thought of secularization not simply as the fading away of religion, but as a project of building a new secular society? What if we thought of it, not as an automatic, “natural” process, but as a result of decisions made by specific people in unique, concrete situations? What if secularization is not the inevitable future of religion in all societies, but one of many possible futures, as yet only chosen by Western civilization?
Over the next few years, I’m going to tell that alternative story by writing a book on the history of the secularization of the West. It’s a huge task, but thankfully I’ll have Redeemer’s help and support. A Zylstra research grant from Redeemer’s Centre for Christian Scholarship has made it possible for me to hire Redeemer student Noah Van Brenk as a research assistant this summer. With Noah’s help, and the help of Redeemer supporters, we’re coming up with a better answer to the question, “Why did the West become secular?”