The Advance of Secularism

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The West’s new cultural and moral environment did not emerge from a vacuum. Massive intellectual changes have shaped and reshaped Western culture since the dawn of the Enlightenment. At the heart of this great intellectual shift is secularization.

Secular, in terms of contemporary sociological and intellectual conversation, refers to the absence of any binding theistic authority or belief. It is both an ideology, which is known as secularism, and a result. Secularization, on the other hand, is not an ideology; it is a concept and a sociological process whereby societies become less theistic as they become more modern. As societies move into conditions of deeper and more progressive modernity, they move out of situations in which there is a binding force of religious belief, and theistic belief in particular. These societies move into conditions in which there is less and less theistic belief and authority until there is hardly even a memory that such a binding authority had ever existed.

The secularization schedule of Europe covered about 150 years, accelerated at certain points by such events as the French Revolution and two World Wars, but for many reasons, America did not track with Europe’s secularization. For at least a century, America has been the exception to secularization in Western society. Whereas in some Scandinavian countries, less than 2 percent of the people attend church regularly, an estimated 40 percent of Americans claim to be regular church attendees. The vast majority of Americans at least say they believe in God. Those statistics have led many American Christians to believe that the majority of Americans share the same general beliefs about God.

Yet, there is one sector of American public life that has kept pace with Europe’s secularization: American universities. If secularization is ultimately about the evaporation of religious belief and binding authority, then this situation has certainly prevailed in the American university culture. The closer one gets to most American colleges or universities, the closer one gets to a secular public space—an intellectually secular place. As Peter Berger, one of the founding fathers of the modern theory of secularization, reminds us, those who are watching must understand that the engines of the culture are the cultural creatives, the intellectual elites. And where are they gathered in the most concentrated form for optimal influence upon the young? On the college and university campus. The secularization that America has largely avoided in the past is alive in its institutions of higher learning and has finally been unleashed on the nation through the many students who have had their worldview shaped by the secular intellectual elites. Thus, the intellectual conditions of America are quantitatively and qualitatively different from those that prevailed in the culture just fifteen years ago.

But why has secularization not happened at the same rate in other communities in the United States as it has on American college campuses or in Europe? This question has consumed a great deal of discussion on the part of sociologists for the better part of three decades. Yet, the most helpful response to this question came from Berger, who argued that secularization has happened to the same degree across the United States, but it has simply looked quite different than it has on American college campuses and in Europe. Berger has argued that America was and is far more secular than it looks. While America is not characterized by the hardline secularism and open ridicule of religion and theism that often characterize the culture in European nations, the United States is still largely secularized.

As Berger explains, in twentieth-century America, Christianity and religion in general were transformed to something noncognitive and optional. As a result, the binding authority of the Christian moral tradition or of any religious tradition was lost. Consequently, many of our friends and neighbors continued to profess faith in God, but that profession was ultimately devoid of any moral authority or cognitive content. From the outside looking in, America did not appear to be secularizing at the same rate as the European Continent. In reality, however, professions of faith in God had little real theological or spiritual substance.

Berger predicted that this collapse of cognitive religious commitments coupled with the collapse of binding authority would lead to the fact that, in the face of cultural opposition, adherents to believe in God or religious principle quickly would give way to the secular agenda—which is exactly what has happened. Just ten years ago, most polls showed that a majority of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. Yet, in our day, a majority of the very same people polled one decade ago have rendered an opposite moral judgment on the same issue. Just as Berger explained, when the cultural tide turned against our society’s empty religious commitments, people were happy to jettison their moral judgment on homosexuality to retain their social capital.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has also carefully traced the influence and effects of secularization on the Western world. As he explains in his important book The Secular Age, the way people hold to theological convictions and religious principles in the modern era is fundamentally different from how people believed in the past. Modernity has made religious belief provisional, optional, and far less urgent than it was in the premodern world. As Taylor notes, on this side of modernity, when people believe, they are making a choice to believe that previous generations did not make. Belief is now really nothing more than an exercise of personal autonomy. 

Taylor also helpfully shows that Western history can be defined by three intellectual epochs: pre-Enlightenment impossibility of unbelief; post-Enlightenment possibility of unbelief; and late-modern impossibility of belief. In the pre-Enlightenment era, it was impossible not to believe. One simply could not explain the world without some appeal either to the Bible or to some other form of supernaturalism. No other worldviews were available to members of society other than supernatural worldviews, particularly the Christian worldview in the West. While society had its heretics, there were no atheists among them. Everyone believed in some form of theism, even if it was polytheism.

That all changed with the Enlightenment and the availability of alternative worldviews . These alternative worldviews made it possible for members of society to reject the supernaturalism of Christianity or other theistic systems for a naturalistic worldview. At this point it became possible not to believe. Yet, even in this intellectual climate, it was still unlikely that people would reject the Christian worldview because the theistic explanations for life were simply more pervasive, binding, and persuasive than nontheistic worldviews.

The third set of intellectual conditions is identified with late modernity and our own intellectual epoch. For most people living in the context of self-conscious late modernity, it is now he third set of intellectual conditions is identified with late modernity and our own intellectual epoch. For most people living in the context of self-conscious late modernity, it is now impossible to believe. That means, especially in terms of the intellectual elites and the culture formative sectors of society, theism is not an available worldview—if not personally, then at least culturally.

Significantly, Taylor pinpoints this unbelief as a lack of cognitive commitment to a self-existent, self-revealing God. Secularization is not about rejecting all religion. Taylor notes that people in the current hypersecularized culture in America often consider themselves to be religious or spiritual. Secularization, according to Taylor, is about rejecting belief in a personal God, one who holds and exerts authority. He describes the secular age as deeply “cross-pressured” in its personal experience of religion and rejection of the personal authority of God. The issue is binding authority.

In these cultural conditions, Christians are the intellectual outlaws. Entering a discussion on the basis of a theistic or theological claim is to break a cardinal rule of late modernity by moving from a proposition or question to an obligation, or moving from an is to an ought. Some oughts remain, of course, but the language of command and law and authority has been explicitly secularized and carefully reduced in scope. Secularization in America has been attended by a moral revolution without precedent and without endgame. The cultural engines of progress driving toward personal autonomy and fulfillment will not stop until the human being is completely self-defining. This progress requires the explicit rejection of Christian morality for the project of human liberation.

The story of the rise of secularism is a stunning intellectual and moral revolution. It defies exaggeration. We must recognize that it is far more pervasive than we might want to believe, for this intellectual revolution has changed the worldviews of even those who believe themselves to be opposed to it. If nothing else, many religious believers in modern societies now operate as theological and ideological consumers, constantly shopping for new intellectual clothing, even as they believe themselves to be traditional believers.

Christian ministers, theologians, and thinkers who stand on biblical authority break the rules by engaging the culture based on the self-revelation of a self-existent God with ultimate moral authority who has addressed His creatures with oughts and who does and will finally judge according to His laws and commands. This culture grows more and more resistant to a God—any god—who would speak to us with words such as “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not.” The fact that Christians enter every conversation as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ who are bound by biblical revelation means they cannot begin without breaking the new rules. And we must remember those who break the rules are not welcome by those who make the rules.

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