Many Christians (indeed, many people generally) think that social change takes place in quite a linear fashion: great thinkers think thoughts; those get passed down to the masses; and society changes accordingly. It is one thing to trace the genealogy of an idea; it is another to appreciate a second crucial dimension in analysing social change: the sociology of knowledge.
Take for example the so-called secularization of Christian theology. Peter Berger of Boston University argues that the secular theologies, which characterize the death-of-God movements in early twentieth-century America, have resulted from mainly two factors: First, there was a rejection of the traditional presuppositions of religious claims because allegedly ‘they do not meet certain modern philosophical or scientific criteria’ – and this rejection was owed in large part to German Protestant liberal theology; this analysis traces the history or genealogy of ideas. But there is a second more central factor having to do with the very epistemic horizon of the modern social world which tends to militate against the notion of an universal truth which is ‘binding on everybody’; this is to trace the sociology of knowledge of a given social context. Thus, according to Berger, traditional theology had become secularised (see Facing up to Modernity (New York: Basic Books, 1977), pp. 204-06).
Interestingly, this observation is not dissimilar to one made much earlier in the early nineteenth century by Alexis de Tocqueville who writes:
‘The philosophers of the eighteenth century explained the gradual decay of religious faith in a very simple manner. Religious zeal, said they, must necessarily fail, the more generally liberty is established and knowledge diffused. Unfortunately, facts are by no means in accordance with their theory. There are certain populations in Europe whose unbelief is only equalled by their ignorance and their debasement, whilst in America one of the freest and most enlightened nations in the world fulfils all the outward duties of religious fervor.’ (See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. David Reed and David Widger, trans. Henry Reeve, vol. 1 (Fairbanks: Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, 2006), Ch. 17, Pt. 3.)
This point is that it is not simply the ideas of the previous generation which determines the religious/social situation of the next; rather, the existing religiosity/sociality of a given context plays a crucial role.
The point can be illustrated further in a recent debate in the academy having to do with whether it is Europe or the US that serves as the model for the future relationship between religion and modernity. If one were to hold to what the sociologist David Martin calls a ‘master narrative approach’ of the ‘history of ideas’ thesis – the idea that ‘what the intellectual elite propose today the mass will accept tomorrow’ – it seems the ideology of the elite which proposed classical secularization theory would suggest that America is the exception and Euro-secularity is the model (see Martin, ‘Secularization: Master Narrative or Several Stories?’ in On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), p. 123). However, in evaluating secularization theory (just as with any other sociological theory), various sociological factors must be considered; among the relevant factors that Martin points out are the following: the growth of nationalism and the rise of nation-states (pp. 130-34), the interplay and near identity between religion and culture (pp. 141-45), social histories and the presence of other religions (p. 152), and of course the relevant political and legal status of a given religion, of other religions, and the extent of the legal implementation of secularism or conversely the establishment of religion (pp. 159 ff). In short, there are crucial historical/social factors which play into whether a certain country or community will secularise or not.
As critical thinking Christians, we must learn to do the important work of analysing society and culture through multi-layered lenses if we are to succeed in our efforts to understand, let alone, to change the world. In my next post, I will consider the specific example of the so-called secularization of Western society.