Secularization is Happening, and Liberals are in Trouble


A narrow definition of secularization goes like this: “First, modernization induces people to lose faith in God and religion. Then, as religion is no longer meaningful, they stop identifying with it” (Hout & Fischer, 2014). In the mid-twentieth century, this was a common understanding of how the world would become less religious.

The evidence has consistently shown the contrary.

Throughout the twentieth century into the twenty-first, the world did not seem to become any less religious, but regions in South America, Africa, and Asia, became more religious leading some sociologists to argue that Europe’s secularization is an “exceptional case.” But this has left the United States something of a puzzle. There are parts of the country that are less religious while parts of it appear to be more religious, and there has been a sense that political alignment maps to this pattern. At the same time it seems that fewer and fewer Americans are enjoining themselves to any particular religion with each new generation.

In a recent paper, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer conclude that both politics and generational succession have real effects on religious preference and have significantly contributed to why fewer and fewer people are identifying with a particular religion. One-in-five people expressed no religious preference in 2012 compared to one-in-fourteen in 1987. They argue that secularization along the definition they use, did not have an observable effect on this trend which helps to account for the rather stable percentage of people who believe in God without doubt (61%) and life after death (81%). In several statistical models, secularization did not hold.

Religious disaffiliation is explained primarily in two ways. The first is that as one moves from a moderate to a more liberal political stance, they become less religious. This is in part because of the marriage between conservative politics and Christianity caused moderates and liberals to distance themselves from religious organizations, hence, the “backlash.” It’s not a reaction to religion per se, but leaving religion because of its perceived association with conservative politics, in general. The second and greater effect is generational succession. Each generation that replaces the previous has been less affiliated with religion in general, especially among liberal households, and the proportion of unchurched is growing. Moreover, those not raised within a religion are less likely to join one in the future. There was far less a change over time in affiliation among political conservatives who tend to enjoin themselves with conservative religion. However, given the decline in membership in the Southern Baptist Convention, we may be seeing the cracks in the conservative foundation as well.

This looks like a double-whammy for liberal and progressive religious organizations. Not only is there a general distaste for religious organizations among those who identify as liberal or progressive in their political, social, and cultural beliefs, there will be an increasing likelihood that they have never grown up in a religion and therefore see it as having little or no value in their lives. If we push this up against other explanations for secularization, it looks bad for progressive, God centered organizations. Religion is but one means of social bonding among many competing choices that happen on the weekday evenings, weekends, and holidays. Youth sports is one draw even though it has seen a recent decline in participation. It is also part of a wider trend of civic disengagement as argued by Robert Putnam.

Reclaiming the political position of the left might be one vehicle to reverse some of these trends. The position of Trump has caused a new vigor among religious liberals and progressives who feel threatened by right-wing policies and even betrayed by Christian evangelicals who overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump, who is ostensibly the least Christian looking candidate and President in a very long time. Religion used to be an important means to gain social capital in Western and American societies. During presidential campaigns, it has been normal for candidates to enjoin themselves to denominations and traditions because of their influence. Eisenhower joined the Presbyterians for this reason as Trump courted the evangelicals in 2016. We may see a liberal candidate hook up with progressive Christians with the same idea that religion feeds social capital even though the politically progressive have moved away from religion and continue to do so. But even if a reversal of political trend helps galvanize those in religions and attract people to religion, it will not move the downward trend on religious participation all that much. There is still a massive problem with a growing population in the country of people who have never been involved in any religion and are not likely to join one just because it seems to share a few political views and activities with them.

This is why Hout & Fischer’s narrow and linear definition of secularization needs to change. It is true that we have not seen people lose faith and then leave religion. Right now, leaving religion is happening first. Moreover, it might not be just that the modern ideas of reason and scientific progress are enough to dislodge belief in God from young peoples’ worldviews. It might be that with endless war, famine, economic inequality, murder, and oppressive political systems, that any doctrine of God does not come out looking all that loving, powerful, or knowledgeable about human affairs. It could be in the cultural disconnect between ancient texts and societies that look absolutely nothing like them.

Without a regular involvement in a religious community to help make sense of old doctrines and texts utterly alien to the people and events of this world, faith in them will not survive. This is a theological claim made in most Christian traditions where the center of worship is in baptism and communion. These are vehicles to nourish faith and without them, faith dies on the vine. Without these social constructs to nourish faith, we are left with vague spiritualities and temporary communities of interest that rarely gain enough momentum to act as vehicles for lasting spiritual practice. As Hout and Fischer conclude, “Time will tell if personalized religion is sustainable or if belief fades without public profession and community practice.” If this continues to happen, and it looks like it will, what is left to nurture or reinforce the notion of God or spirituality in any shape?


7 thoughts on “Secularization is Happening, and Liberals are in Trouble

  1. There is one good way to make sense of all the data: understand western institutional Christianity — the Protestant confessional churches in particular — as the foundations for western modernity the national colonial empires, including their secular, liberal forms that first became dominant as a response to the wars of religion, the impossibility of assimilating all citizens to a single church, and the emergence of left and right, egalitarian and anti-egalitarian politics in the Enlightenment where the ancien regime (alliance of religious and secular ruling elites) and science tended to take opposing sides.

    Out of the Reformation came the confessionalization of Europe which settled into national churches that had to accommodate dissenting minorities — Catholics, rival confessions, and de-institutionalized non-conformist traditions, such as Pietists and Anabaptists who started as revolutionary radicals and became pacifists in response to their violent subjugation. The forms of secularism that developed by the 19th-20th centuries shared the character of the national confession. French laicite is markedly Catholic. Anglo-American countries have deep Quaker and Calvinist influences in their sense of civic virtues and national narratives. Germany and the low countries have a conflicted history of sectarian pluralism mediated by center-right, Christian-Social-Democratic liberalism. What we call secularism in these cultures is quite markedly Christian to outsiders.

    In the US today, the measures of membership, belief and religiosity are based on affiliation, participation, and ideological alignment with churches of the early modern institutional variety, which includes even the independent, non-denominational evangelical churches. As the bourgeois liberal civilization of the west declines (to put it mildly), it makes sense that its oldest core institutions will double down and respond to events as an existential crisis. What that looks like is churches that make sense of their ancient texts by seeing themselves as the faithful remnant of Israel, threatened by demonic forces on all sides. As in times past, today conservative Protestant churches find in the Old Testament a new relevance in its stories of resistance and survival for an embattled minority. This is simply the religious form of the same type of secular, ethno-nationalist ideology of the alt-right and the old paleoconservative right.

    The religious and liberal center of the US, Canada, and much of Europe has always been a center-right ethos that is not fully committed to egalitarianism but has a history of resisting more inclusive, egalitarian constructs and falling prey to ethnonationalist populism. As the center collapses, people take sides in a more polarized context: left vs. right as defined by very fundamental values — e.g., are women/non-white people/sexual minorities intrinsically inferior so a real threat to order if they’re granted equal freedoms? If your answer is yes, you have a home on the right, including the religious right. If no, you do not.

    • David Martin helps sort through some of this in his theory. There he looks a the French resistance to the state which was deeply fused with French Catholicism. The people associated the Catholic hierarchy with French authoritarianism. When they revolted against the state, they revolted against the church. This established a secularism that is unique to France which we see working its way today even in the anti-Burka sentiment.

      • Right, but it’s important to emphasize how that anti-ecclesiastical motive in France was Catholic. It was not necessarily anti-clerical and generally not anti-Catholic. There were priests who sided with their poor parishioners in the Revolution and beyond; the common foe was the church hierarchy and clerical elites who sided with the aristocracy. This lay Catholic revolt did not produce a secularity that was, like in Protestant dominant countries, highly anti-Catholic.

        The anti-Muslim clothing sentiment that exists now in France was first championed legislatively by Sarkozy at a time when he was in dialogue with the pope about the good of reforming laicite. Facing major demographic and cultural changes, “secular” countries like France suddenly have an interest in public religiosity that is healthy, i.e. recognizable and acceptable to multiple faiths. They’ve ended up banning all religious symbols in certain designated public places to be even-handed, but previously laicite didn’t mean Christian or Jewish symbols were banned. The banning is really an anti-Muslim ethos coming from the default Christian-inflected secularity.

        In a similar way, the US was always WASP dominant with exceptions in places like Maryland and cities that were Catholic dominant or home to concentrated Jewish minorities. While Catholics and Jews liberalized, they joined with liberal Protestants in challenging the inequalities built into the system, and generically liberal J-C civic religion briefly flourished as the stable center for American pluralism. Then a conservative reaction developed that argues against the possibility of religious neutrality and tries to enshrine WASP or broadly J-C or “theistic” values in public, in government, and in the law. The European right belatedly follows this trend; both align with nationalism in secular forms as well.

        The same thing in reverse has happened in formerly Dutch-colonized Indonesia, where religious toleration has required a minimum theism to hold together a 99% Muslim nation whose 1% of non-Muslims control the economy and (shakily) much of the government (but not the police or military). In Canada, WASP Anglophone culture became dominant but had to accommodate bilingualism and the strong Francophone and Catholic identity of upper Canada. Quebec got its laicite late after the 60s, at the height of its nationalism. But even today several provinces, like the Netherlands, and maybe some other European countries have state funding of religious schools. That is a result of secular liberals accepting equally supported (and state regulated) schools in a unified system as a good way to do pluralism (or at least a lesser evil) while religious conservatives (excluding ultra conservatives who completely opt out of state schools) have seen public funding for religious schools as vital to their very survival. Americans on the other hand equate public funding with “establishment of religion.”

        My point is that “secularism” is never the absence of religion. Every European country and their colonies where Christianity took hold developed its own “secularism,” shaped by the dominant religion/s there. Most countries have remained markedly Catholic or Protestant in their dominant cultural ethos, or they have had to accommodate both, with different federal states or regions taking different religious flavors due to their history. Why this is so steadily denied to “secular liberals” scandalized by it probably boils down to some personal psychological resistance to the idea there is no objective basis for their Enlightenment values — or any values or metanarratives that confer identity and meaning. Everyone is competing to define the culture they wish to have, based on the fragments of the cultures they have inherited. Religion is always part of that and the motive to create value and meaning is fundamentally religious in nature. This is only bad for liberals because they’ve been the fence-sitters between the left and the right, trying to have limited equality and religious tolerance. This has led to rampant inequality and religious intolerance, so once again that old center is not going to hold.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful writing. I think you have done a lot to help us think about the idea of secular, versus unchurched and push us toward rethinking the work of the church.

  3. Reblogged this on interimreflections and commented:
    Ther us much to think about in this blog. I am adding this to an article in Christian Century that described St. Patrick’s work in Ireland. A series of engaged Christian communities trying to live out the kingdom of God while interacting with the society around them.

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