Three Moving Cultural Currents
Dr. James Emery White
- 2014 Jun 30
Sociologist Peter Berger, among many others, has long suggested that the modern world is being shaped by three deep and fast-moving cultural currents: secularization, pluralization and privatization. Big words. Even bigger ideas. But it’s within these words and ideas that we find the wider cultural key to the rise of the “nones” – the fastest growing and now second largest religious constituency in the U.S.
The Process of Secularization
The English word secular derives from the Latin saeculum which means “this present age.” The contemporary term secular is descriptive, referring to that which is divorced from religious or spiritual sensibility. Secularization is the process by which something becomes secular. It is the cultural current making things secular.
And it is raging through our world like a flash flood.
Berger defines secularization as the process by which “sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.” The effect of this process is that the church is losing its influence as a shaper of life and thought in the wider social order, and Christianity is losing its place as the dominant worldview. Richard John Neuhaus writes that we live in a “naked public square,” meaning that religious ideas and mores no longer inform public discourse.
Christianity has ceased to be the motivating center of Western life; the religious question is consciously or unconsciously pushed from the heart of human concerns, and the institutional forms of Christianity have, and are, undergoing revision at the hands of the world. Or as C.S. Lewis observes, “Almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.”
Yet a full-blown secularization thesis has been challenged. Not the reality of the process itself; what is debated is the degree to which the process of secularization can redirect a person away from a belief in God. This argument is clearly in question in the United States, for while the process of secularization is clear, it has yet to produce an overwhelmingly secularized population. German philosopher Friedrich Nietschze may have proclaimed God dead, but it could be contended that few in America attended the wake. Our day is, as Berger himself observes, “as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.”
But that is where Berger was wrong. We may not be losing our belief in God, but we are losing our religion. While we may not be turning into atheists, we seem quite content to accept the idea of faith being privately engaging, but culturally irrelevant. And yes, this is because of the process of secularization.
Think about how faith itself is tended. It needs support. Apart from a Christian community, we quickly wither. We need a context of encouragement. Beliefs don’t exist in a vacuum; they need to be nurtured, reinforced. A secularized world no longer offers the deep religious socialization and the frequent reaffirmation of beliefs necessary for a distinctive faith to flourish. The declining social significance of religion will inevitably cause a decline in the number of religious people and the extent to which those people are religious. When society no longer supports religious affirmation, the difficulty of maintaining individual faith increases dramatically.
As a result, we should not be surprised at the rise of the “nones” – or when their ranks continue to swell.
The Process of Privatization
Privatization is the process by which a chasm is created between the public and the private spheres of life, and spiritual things are increasingly placed within the private arena. So when it comes to things like business, politics, or even marriage and the home, personal faith is bracketed off. The process of privatization, left unchecked, makes the Christian faith a matter of personal preference, trivialized to the realm of taste or opinion.
The influence of privatization is profound. Faith does not simply have a new home in our private lives; it is no longer accepted outside of that sphere. More than showing poor form, talk of faith has been banished from the wider public agenda. As historian and educator Page Smith sarcastically observed, in our day, “God is not a proper topic for conversation, but 'lesbian politics' is.” But privatization goes farther. Once placed solely within our private worlds, faith becomes little more than a reflection of ourselves. Spirituality has become anything an individual desires it to be – a private affair to be developed as one sees fit.
It is precisely this context that has compelled so many to move into the “nones.” Religion is, if anything, a public sphere manifestation of faith, and yet we don’t want faith in the public sphere. Further, if we subscribe to a defined set of beliefs or historic links to orthodoxy, our private world faith is held accountable – which is exactly what is least desired. So privatization is at war with what the establishment of religion requires, which is why the rise of the “nones” has benefited so much from this current’s coursing.
The Process of Pluralization
The process of pluralization is where individuals are confronted with a staggering number of ideologies and faith options competing for their attention. Pluralization is that process by which the number of options for our private sphere to consider multiplies explosively – particularly at the level of worldviews and faith. Berger speaks of the traditional role of religion as a "sacred canopy" covering the contemporary culture. Religion, at least in terms of the idea of there being a God whom life and thought had to consider, blanketed all of society and culture. Today that canopy is gone, replaced instead by millions of small tents under which we can choose to dwell.
There can be little doubt that the fuel that powered this process, at least in the United States, was immigration. One visit to Ellis Island will drive this home, as inside the main visitors center is a visual display of the tidal wave of immigration that struck upon the shores of our country. Between 1901 and 1910, nearly nine million immigrants were admitted to the United States, the majority from Southern and Eastern Europe. Nearly six million more came during the following decade. By 1910, 40 percent of the population of New York City was foreign-born.
And they brought their religions with them.
But the process of pluralization means far more than a simple increase in the number of faith options. The sheer number of choices and competing ideologies suggests that no one perspective or religious persuasion has the inside track about the spiritual realm. Theologian Langdon Gilkey is correct when he observes that “many religions have always existed”; what is different is a “new consciousness” that “entails a feeling of rough parity, as well as diversity, among religion.” By parity, Gilkey means “the presence of both truth and grace in other ways.” Harold O.J. Brown adds that such pluralism is actually “value pluralism,” meaning that “all convictions about values are of equal validity, which says in effect that no convictions about values have any validity.”
This has fostered a smorgasbord mentality in regard to the construction of personal beliefs. Malise Ruthven calls America the “divine supermarket.” The technical term is syncretism, the mix-and-match mentality of pulling together different threads in various religions in order to create a personal religion that suits our individual taste. Christianity becomes one of many competing boutique worldviews, no better or worse than another, that have set up shop in society’s mall for people to sample as a matter of personal preference.
So while Christianity used to be rejected by Enlightenment intellectuals because they thought its central beliefs had been disproven by science or philosophy, today orthodox Christianity tends to be disqualified on the grounds that it argues for a truth which is unchanging and universal. A particular faith used to be wrong on the basis of what one perceived to be truth; now a faith is wrong for claiming there is truth. As Allen Bloom has wryly noted, “The true believer is the real danger.”
Again, fueling the rise of those who hesitate to say they believe in any specific religion.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.