Friday, April 22, 2005


From: "New challenges await the next pope."
"The next pope's biggest problem, I think, is the secularists of the developed world. Europeans are turning away from religion altogether. A new chapter will begin in the religious world with the election of a new pope," wrote Aaron Kinney, from Los Angeles, California. "Will he bring Europe back to religion or will Europe continue to snub the church?"
All week long I have been thinking about commenting on the late John Paul II. In particular, I wanted to list his many significant historical accomplishments and also comment about what the new pope is up against.

But, once again, all the carping and posturing about the evils of "secularization" has annoyed me enough that I decided to talk about secularism.

Secularization is defined as: "The process through which religious thinking, practice, and institutions lose their religious and/or social significance." The concept is based on the theory, held by some sociologists, that as societies become industrialized their religious morals, values, and institutions give way to secular ones and some religious traits become common secular practices.

In one sense, the attack this week on secularism by the Vatican's Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is no surprise. It has become a kind of knee-jerk response on the part of church leaders to argue constantly about the evils of secularism. However, I suspect that the reality of the situation is this: Recently the United States, the most secular nation on Earth®, witnessed an election in which "moral values" ranked higher than any other single issue in determining how people voted. Moreover, the Republicans masterfully courted churchgoers (evangelicals in particular) which may have gotten George Bush reelected. In fact, the US can be used as an example: secularism and the very public expressions of religious faith seem able to co-exist--albeit not with controversy or tension.

Ratzinger's concern, of course, is Europe not the US. I'm comfortable in asserting that Americans are one of the most church-going people in the world. In Europe, by contrast, the church-going population is nearing extinction and in Britain it is now less than 8% of the total population. In fact, the Skeptical Inquirer recently ran an article that lists some very interesting statistics concerning religious beliefs--both in the US and abroad (follow the link and you can view a portion of the article and statistics).

To understand why Europe is more secular than the US, it is worth remembering what history teaches us about what life was like in Europe BEFORE the rise of secularism. Up until the 1800's, in Britain, public office was denied to any man who refused to accept the doctrines of the Church of England, couples (irregardless of their religion) were required by law to be married by an Anglican priest, all teaching posts at Oxford and Cambridge were reserved for Anglican-only professors; and, even the mildest form of blasphemy could carry a prison term. Added to that was the fact even after secularism started to rise, the church in Europe still asserted its dominance. For example, as late as WW II it was law that Jewish synagogues had to be built shorter than Christian cathedrals.

The whole movement to remove these restrictions led to the rise of the secular societies of the 1850s. Sadly, among many theists, secularism is now thought of in negative terms. What history can teach us, however, is that many of these secularists were committed to the more positive goal of developing a system of ethics based on the social good of the community. Moreover, they were (and still are) committed to the notion of an open and democratic marketplace of ideas and beliefs (including religious beliefs).

When Ratzinger made his comments on secularists, I found myself compelled to go through my years-old electronic archive of sociology notes. As is the case with MANY things in life, secularization is a very complex issue. Granted, there are those that do have a "secular agenda", but I hold the opinion that this vocal group only fits into the larger picture of secularization/secularism. So, blaming the "secular agenda" or the evil secularists is an oversimplification of a very complex issue!

Outline of notes (circa 1992):

Secularization: Very complex. No single cause. There are distinguishable contributors to secularization.

1. Rationalization/Post-Enlightenment--dominant trend. (Weber)
  • Rational mentality stressing openness toward new ways of doing things (in contrast to traditionalism) and readiness to adapt to functionally of common/universalistic criteria of doing things. Key principle: belief that all phenomena can be rationally explained.
2. Structural Differentiation
  • Gradual dissociation of religion from other major institutional spheres. Idea of religious values replaced by separate spheres, each with its own set of values.
  • Causal Factors for Structural Differentiation
    • Division of labor secular state--separation of church and state
    • Secular education: Religious foundations of morality/law gradually replaced by laws based on rationalism
    • Church functions assumed by secular agencies
3. Spread of Capitalism (tangentially related to differentiation)
  • Quest for profit has sped up the "demystify" process by encouraging human mastery of technical skills.
  • Expanded markets, depersonalized work relations, increased reliance on industrialization, segmented tasks, helped to transition many areas of life to matters of planned performance.
  • Capitalism is "a world in which religion is replaced by a social organization in which technological rationality reigns supreme." (Giddens).
  • Pluralism/globalization (Berger)
  • No single world-view (capitalism promotes as well as science)
  • Religion as a legitimating function of society reduced
  • Privatization and individualism: Individuals find sources of identity increasingly only in the private sphere. Leads to moral individualism
Apparent contradiction: Fundamentalists in the US are often great supporters of capitalism and traditional values. However, a historical/sociological study of business and the industrial age shows that capitalism and globalism is arguably AS GREAT a threat to tradition as secularization is.

4. The Growth of Science
  • Scientific world-view challenges belief in supernatural powers
  • Promotes impartiality and skepticism
  • Tends to promote disenchantment and demystification among some
Finally, a fifth point that I am leaving out is the schism within the church itself. Many historians believe that schism weakened the church which also allowed for the rise of secularism. This may be true. However, I believe that points 1-4 are the likely reasons that secularism grew--along with the European people's revolt against the church. In fact, without the schism I think secularism would have grew and it would have done so based on points 1-4.

To summarize the causes of secularism:

1) A populace revolt against church practices which culminated in a schism (at least in Europe).

2) Structural differentiation: at one point in history the church was the only social institution. Now, there are many social institutions which have replaced the church in this role.

3) Capitalism and globalization: the bottom line is the bottom line! When money and power are involved many business persons who are religious will trade principles for profit.

4) Science: I personally believe that science has played a role in promoting secularism but it's not as strong as points 1-3. In fact, the general public (especially in the US) is usually quite uninformed or misinformed about science and the scientific method. This ignorance has led to all sorts of nonsensical beliefs (e.g., alien abductions, ghosts, crop circles, big foot, etc.).

Digression: Generally speaking I'm more concerned with how you arrive at your beliefs than what you believe. As long as your beliefs are not harmful to others and you don't dogmatically try to get me to subscribe to them, I am generally not too concerned with what you believe. In fact, there are a good many religious scholars and well-informed theists (you pick the religion) who have arrived at their beliefs via good methods (i.e., science, information literacy, etc).

Digression 2: Why does the Catholic church see secularism as a threat? Is it because there is a true "secular agenda" which is organized and powerful enough to topple the church? Or, is it something else? I've already argued that--to a certain extent--the secular agenda is a myth.
In fact, over the years I've come to the conclusion that when it comes to most institutional and/or societal problems the root cause is usually power.

Again, turning to sociology we see something known as Elite Theory: "Societal power is concentrated in elite groups who control resources of key social institutions and are not accountable to the masses." Origins of societal power lie in control of social organizations, regardless of how democratic (or undemocratic) a society may be. Elites hold the bulk of power and use all and any means to retain power--often to the point that the pursuit of maintaining power becomes an end in itself (e.g., democrats and republicans, special interest groups, big business influencing politics).

So, I personally think that the Catholic church is concerned with its survability as an institution and part of this has to do with an attempt to hold onto its fading power (especially in Europe). Hopefully, the new pope will follow John Paul's example and try to maintain church power for altruistic reasons and the betterment of societies--not for the sake of power itself.

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