So-Called Secularization of the West: Theology Plus Social Theory

The famed sociologist José Casanova has argued for what he calls the ‘deprivatization theory’ which has to do with the role of religion in public life (cf. José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). This (rather well-received) argument suggests simply yet profoundly that, contrary to classical secularization theory, as the more modern a country becomes, the more (not less) resistant it is to privatizing religion in public life; hence, the term ‘deprivatization’.

Yet it is important to note that until recently this deprivatization has taken place largely in the global South and less so in the global North. The recent deprivatization that is beginning to increase in places such as Western Europe and North America is owed largely to the ‘religious revival among the European population’ which is in turn largely a function of the ‘significant influx of new immigrant religions’. (See José Casanova, ‘Public Religions Revisited’, in Religion: Beyond a Concept, ed. Hent de Vries (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), pp. 101-02.) Seeing the situation many years ago, the sociologist Bryan Wilson concurs:

‘Superficially . . . and in contrast to the evidence from Europe . . . the United States manifests a high degree of religious activity. And yet, on this evidence, no one is prepared to suggest that America is anything other than a secularised country’ (Religion in Secular Society (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), p. 89).

Again, the sociologist David Martin makes this shrewd observation: that there is a ‘simultaneous secularization and sanctification’ taking place, particularly in American Protestantism. (See On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), p. 144.) That is, while much of Western society is secularizing by way of social differentiation, it is doing so in virtue of individuals’ taking their Protestant faiths more seriously – which is to say inwardly – and thus becoming ‘sanctified’. So while there is an increasing global growth of religion, and while much of this growth is vocal and visible, in the West it is often inward and private.

In short, there are multiple forms of secularization (just as there are ‘multiple modernities’ as argued famously by Shmuel Eisenstadt (See ‘Multiple Modernities in an Age of Globalization’, The Canadian Journal of Sociology 24, no. 2 (1999): 283-95.) In Protestant Christianity, there is a discernible metanarrative evident in the ‘emphasis of individuality and inward faith’ (cf. Martin) as there are more public expressions of religion found in Roman Catholic aggiornamento and ‘political Islam’. What must be carefully considered when analysing the ‘secularity’ of Western society is (among other things) the kinds of religious communities present within a given context.

The lesson illustrated here is that, as critical thinking Christians, we do our homework in sociological theory as well as theology in order to provide a more accurate and robust understanding of our contemporary situation. This is yet another way of loving God with all our minds (cf. Matt. 22.37).

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