- Thursday, July 31, 2008
Sommerville went on to speak of six aspects of secularization. First, secularization would take place at the macro-social-institutional level. This is known as differentiation. This process has clearly become a reality. Indeed, the fragmentation of knowledge and the specialization of expertise are now just taken for granted. Whereas the church once defined reality across an entire range of intellectual fields, it does so no longer— even for most Christians. We live in a time in which it is plausible to us that people would not ask the pastor about vocational issues, intellectual issues, legal issues, and all the rest. The church used to be at the center of all these questions, but differentiation now means that you go to a lawyer for legal advice and to a psychotherapist for counseling. People now go to any number of experts who are completely freed from the church and theistic belief. That is a massive shift brought about by secularization.
Second, secularization affects individual institutions. Think of all the universities and hospitals once established explicitly as Christian, which are now fully secularized. The most significant dimension of this institutional secularization has to do with the secularization of the academy. The secularization of colleges and universities has shaped the minds and worldviews of millions.14 Third, activities such as education and welfare, which used to be done by the church and in the name of the church, have now largely been taken over by the bureaucratic state. Fourth, Sommerville argued, mentalities and worldviews would be secularized. At the level of worldview, basic presuppositional ideas would be secularized and, almost imperceptibly, the mind would be secularized. Fifth, entire peoples would be secularized in terms of belief and identity. They would, like Europe today, desperately strive to separate themselves from their Christian heritage. Finally, Sommerville even talks about the secularization of religion, the attempt to accommodate theology to a secularized world.15
There were of course some scholars who did not go along. By 1986, Jeffrey Hadden would say that secularization was more a doctrine than a theory: it too had to be taken on faith.16 But even more problematic for the theory is the fact that it simply isn’t happening—at least not as the secularization theorists said it would happen. Take the United States of America, for example, the most hyper-modern state in the world as measured by sociological analysis. Ninety-five percent of Americans claim to believe in God. Now obviously the god in whom these people believe is not necessarily the God of biblical theism. But even so, Americans by and large are not secularists. Furthermore, instead of the spread of a global phenomenon of secularization, there appears to be a reassertion of religious belief around the world. So what happened?
What happened is that the theory of secularization soon became known as the “myth” of secularization. Peter Berger, who was one of the initial framers of the entire idea of secularization theory, has been very helpful in coming back to acknowledge that the theory must be recalibrated.17 At the same time, however, we must recognize that there is still something to the theory—even in its classical form. Secularization theory may have been falsified in terms of its major claims, but there are still two senses in which it was exactly right.
The first sense in which secularization theory was right is geographic. Western Europe followed the theory perfectly. Rates of church-going in Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain, and France hover right around 1 to 5 percent of the population. In many surveys, fewer than 10 percent of those populations claim to believe in God. The second exception to secularization theory’s failure is among the world’s cultural and intellectual elites. Here Peter Berger has put it wonderfully. In the course of studying the relative levels of religious belief in the world’s countries, sociologists determined that the least religious nation in the world was Sweden, while the most religious was India. Berger, speaking of the United States, said that what we have in America is a nation of Indians ruled over by an elite of Swedes. As Berger has explained, the secularized global intelligentsia is in all nations a minority of the population, “but a very influential one.”18
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