October 6, 2017

Does modernization mean secularization?

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A commentary on the website of the Stockholm-based Gapminder Foundation (as in “mind the gap – in your knowledge”), which encourages the proper understanding and use of statistics on global development, notes that one source of our misconceptions is notions we acquired in school that are no longer true, or at least have become questionable. As an example, I would cite the “secularization thesis.” This is the idea, originating in the 18th century Enlightenment, that as humanity develops, it abandons religion along with superstition and other irrational beliefs. In other words, modernization entails secularization.

Modernization, to be sure, has many meanings: socio-economic development, scientific advances, technical-industrial progress, freedom and democratization, the rule of law and so on. So does secularization (for a discussion, see Jose Casanova, “Public Religions in the Modern World,” 1994, chap. 1). We will use the latter term in the sense of the decline of religion in both public and private life – not just the separation of the sacred from the secular (e.g., Church from state), but also the isolation, marginalization and “privatization” of religion, its removal from public discourse, along with decreasing religious practice and a resulting decline in its social influence. Though never taught in so many words, this thesis did seem to underlie much of my education. And it is certainly alive today.

There is, to be sure, plenty of evidence. The “advanced” nations of Western Europe (and by “advanced” we usually mean economically, technologically and politically successful), such as the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Britain, Germany and France, have largely jettisoned their Christian heritage. Even the once solidly Catholic societies of Ireland and Spain are abandoning religious norms. Willingly or not, intellectual, cultural, business and political leaders of developing countries who aspire to join the international elite adopt its secular ideology, full of high-sounding phrases but bereft of fundamental Judaeo-Christian principles.

Ukrainians are among them. But secularization through modernization began a long ago in Ukraine. As John-Paul Himka, Frank Sysyn and Leonid Heretz have shown, among the most ardent modernizers – and unwitting secularizers – were Greek-Catholic priests, such as Father Mykhailo Zubrytsky, who brought “enlightenment” (“prosvita”) to their faithful. Literacy, after all, could lead not only to nationalism, but also to radicalism and communism (see the contributions by Sysyn and Heretz to Martin Schulze Wessel and Frank E. Sysyn, eds., “Religion, Nation, and Secularization in Ukraine,” 2015). And even nationalism, insofar as it competes with religion, is a symptom of secularization.

And yet, the secularization thesis has been challenged. The first challenger is the facts. In a celebrated essay, Samuel P. Huntington approvingly quoted George Weigel to the effect that “unsecularization of the world is one of the dominant social facts of life in the late 20th century” (“The Clash of Civilizations?” reprinted in Kevin Reilly, “Worlds of History,” Vol. 2, 2000, p. 527). As Casanova remarked over 20 years ago, “From a global perspective, since World War II most religious traditions in most parts of the world have either experienced some growth or maintained their vitality” (Casanova, p. 26). Most obviously, Islam is thriving. Much of this represents a fundamentalist revanchist reaction to Western dominance. But this reaction adopts and adapts features of modernization; Islamist groups, for example, rely heavily on social media.

A second challenge to the secularization thesis, stressed by Casanova and others, is the growth of “civil” or “public” religions even where traditional religion has declined. Religion is “deprivatized,” so that the Church, while no longer a partner of the state, becomes an active participant in civil society.

Third, a revived Christianity is evident in philosophical currents that offer an alternative to the dead end of post-modern nihilism. Even in Europe, contemporary culture seeks a spiritual response to despair: the program of last summer’s Salzburg Festival, for example, reveals the persistence of religious themes. Artists are often the first to detect a shift in the cultural atmosphere (professors are sometimes the last).

Fourth, there is the evidence of demography. The world’s least religious populations – those of northern Europe – register less than the replacement rate of fertility. As they die out, Muslim immigrants promise to make Europe religious again. Charismatic, Pentecostal and other sects are proliferating among the growing populations of Latin America, Asia and Africa. Missionaries predict that rapidly modernizing China will have the world’s largest Christian population by 2030 (Brandon Showalter in the Christian Post, July 21, 2016).

In a July 13 lecture on “Cultural Climate Change” at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, British Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, citing current data, showed how the secularization thesis had proved false. He also debunked the related notions that modernization necessarily means Westernization, and that science will overturn religion. Developing countries modernize selectively: Western-style secularization doesn’t have to be part of the package (see “Does Modernization Mean Westernization?” Cross-Currents, December 2014). As for science – depending on the religion, it may just as likely confirm its teachings as disprove them.

How does modernization affect Christianity? Some decry Churches’ lame attempts to “catch up with the times.” Yet there is evidence that modernization can strengthen orthodox Christianity. The Internet, particularly social media, permits the growth of global communities of the faithful. The recently arrived Ukrainian Catholic bishop of Chicago, Benedict Aleksiychuk, posts brief meditations on Facebook.

But modernization implies more for the Church than the use of technology. Among other things, modernization entails education, reason and opportunities for individual initiative. In the church context, this calls for a laity that is knowledgeable about its Church’s history, theology, spirituality, ritual and discipline – a laity prepared not only to participate in liturgical life, but to proclaim – and rationally defend – an Eastern Christian understanding of the issues of the day.

The wonderful thing about modernization is that by its very definition, it is constantly changing. If yesterday it spelled the secularization of society, tomorrow it may herald the re-enchantment of the world.

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