Journalists should be aware that 2023 turns out to be big for the much-discussed “secularization theory” framed by the 19th Century founders of sociology.
The nub of theory claims that economically advancing societies with improved education inevitably become more secular, largely because modern science explains matters formerly left to the religious realm.
The NYU Press states that its 2023 release “Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society” demonstrates “definitively that the secularization thesis is correct, and religion is losing its grip on societies worldwide.” Steve Bruce of the University of Aberdeen, author of the classic “Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory” (Oxford, 2011), blurbs that this new title “will be the defining text on the undeniable proof” that supports the concept.
The three co-authors of “Beyond Doubt,” all experts, are Ryan Cragun (University of Tampa), Isabella Kasselstrand (also at Aberdeen), and Phil Zuckerman (founder of Pitzer College’s Secular Studies program). They take on such noted U.S. critics of the theory as Christian Smith, Rodney Stark, and the late Peter Berger. Though such theorizing has focused on the West, this book (which The Guy has yet to read) is distinctive in drawing together elaborate data from several dozen varied countries.
The United States, however, has long been a serious problem for the theory. It’s an educationally, economically and scientifically advanced culture that has persisted with a far more devout population than in, say, Western Europe or Canada.
Yes, but now, as the news media frequently remind us, 21st Century America has experienced a rapid and substantial increase in “nones” who tell pollsters they have no religious identity and are either atheist, agnostic, or — by far the largest category — “nothing in particular.” Their ranks have nearly doubled since 2007. And there other signs of sagging religious vitality.
It seems secularization has finally triumphed even in the United States.
But the U.S. debate took an interesting turn October 24 with a major (3,400-word) patheos.com response to the new secularization book from historian Daniel K. Williams, who has just moved to Ohio’s Ashland University. As The Guy advised fellow journalists last year, Williams is a prime source on modern American religion and politics per this list of writings (.pdf here). And note his contrarian outlook in an Atlantic.com article last month arguing that declining U.S. church attendance worsens the danger of extremism.
Williams insists that whatever has gone on elsewhere in the world, the standard secularization theory still doesn’t apply in the United States now any more than in the past. Here’s the nub of his case.
In the generation after World War II, the U.S. experienced a golden age in expansion of churches, membership, attendance, cultural vitality and respect, and e.g. in the percentage saying religion was important in their persona lives. This occurred simultaneously with a greater percentage attending college, and economic and scientific development. In the late 1950s only 2 percent did not identify with a religious tradition. Thereafter, “mainline” Protestant statistics started a long-running slide but evangelical and Catholic numbers made up for that.
OK, but what about the troublesome 21st Century?
As church statistics waned, so did college enrollments relative to population, while economic growth was more up and down than reliably positive. Importantly, prior reverence for science has eroded to the lowest point in decades, with only 29% in 2022 expressing a “great deal” of confidence in scientists, down 10% in just two years. “There’s not a whole lot of evidence that large numbers of Americans in the last 10 or 15 years have suddenly found scientific explanations more credible than religious claims,” he writes.
So how, then, to explain religion’s undoubted slide? Too many are leaving the church “because they no longer find Christianity morally credible,” not due to theological objections to Christian teachings, Williams contends, launching into an extended discussion well worth journalists’ consideration.
That leads to Williams’ sketch on the journalistically intriguing question of America’s religious future. “The United States is not exactly secularizing as much as it is becoming more religiously and culturally polarized,” compared with past generations when centrist “mainline” Protestant churches reflected a cultural consensus and most Americans saw Christianity as “morally beneficial” in a general sense. The old “mainline” is now in a long, stead demographic dive.
Williams expects no secularization that follows the pattern in Britain and Canada. Instead, some U.S. areas and population sectors will be hit hard by “dechurching” while others remain unscathed. The result would be a Christianity that’s less Caucasian, less “mainline,” more evangelical or charismatic, more Sunbelt, “more culturally polarizing” yet still exercising “strong influence.” In other words, the emerging nation will be neither “nearly entirely” Christian as in the past nor “nearly entirely post-Christian” as elsewhere in the West.
That word “dechurching” brings up another book, released in August: “The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back?” (Zondervan) by evangelical authors Jim Davis and Michael Graham with political scientist Ryan Burge, a GetReligion contributor.
Writers who delve into this may also turn to a third important 2023 title, Burge’s updated second edition of his “The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going” (Fortress Press). His October 26 Substack newsletter (subscriptions recommended by The Guy) offers his latest look at non-religious Americans.
FIRST IMAGE: Uncredited illustration with the Praxis Circle article, “The Secularization Thesis: Is It Dead?”