Arise, O people, and, by the power of God’s might, resolve to gain the victory over your own selves, that haply the whole earth may be freed and sanctified from its servitude to the gods of its idle fancies – gods that have inflicted such loss upon, and are responsible for the misery of their wretched worshippers. These idols form the obstacle that impedeth man in his efforts to advance in the path of perfection.
This sequence of posts appeared in September 2012. It seemed a good idea to republish them now. They contain a number of references to Century of Light, the focus of the workshop materials I am currently posting, and placing them between two workshops dealing with the dark side of our materialistic culture seems especially appropriate. I am posting all three in the sequence on consecutive days. It’s perhaps also necessary to share the nub of a comment left on part one of the original by a good friend. He felt that “the relationship of secularisation and the ‘secularisation thesis’ (so beloved of 1960s sociology) to the present state of religion and religiosity is much more complex and multi-dimensional than this post seems to suggest.” This is a valid point and is not explored in this sequence, though it triggered some changes in Parts 2 & 3 as I explain.
Why is secularisation happening?
In quoting Matthew Arnold in the last post, we mentioned that Tennyson also was affected by the decline in religion which was so dramatically felt at that time. Behind Tennyson’s anguish of doubt you sense throughout whole sections of the poem In Memoriam the presence of Darwinian ideas of evolution:
Be near me, when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And life a fury slinging flame.
Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.
Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.
(Tennyson: In Memoriam: No. 50)
Hamilton, in The Sociology of Religion, feels that the decline is linked to industrialisation (and urbanisation), but not in a straightforward way. For instance, the United States is highly industrialised but is not comparably secularised.
The Role of Reason
The growth of a culture’s emphasis on reason, Weber’s rationalisation, is also an important, maybe central factor. Also factors internal to Protestantism may have contributed. One view holds that the Reformation instigated these. Berger (quoted on page 171 of Hamilton) states:
Protestantism may be described in terms of an immense shrinkage in the scope of the sacred in reality, as compared with its Catholic adversary.
He feels it divested itself of mystery, miracle and magic. Christianity’s increasing pluralism also aided the spread of the rationalising tendency: the pluralistic situation (page 172) “where one can choose one’s religion is also a situation where one can choose no religion at all.” This is perhaps the process that produces one of the modern religious styles described in Century of Light (page 46):
Religion, where not simply driven back into fanaticism and unthinking rejection of progress, became progressively reduced to a kind of personal preference, a predilection, a pursuit designed to satisfy spiritual and emotional needs of the individual.
Hamilton then looks at the factors external to Christianity. The growth of rationality is taken to be central. He quotes Wilson (page 173) as arguing that:
It is not inherent tendencies in Christianity that are central but the autonomous growth of scientific knowledge and method. The argument is that this has undermined the credibility of religious interpretations of the world.
Century of Light describes this in forceful terms (page 69), not as the voice of true science but something masquerading as that:
What they find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science”, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.
Also people came to look to political institutions and processes for justice and for better conditions, not to the Church. The decline of community has played its part.
It is however possible to argue, as Hamilton goes on to do, that both the decline of religion and the rise of materialistic science have common underlying causes. Religion and science, he feels, are not necessarily at odds. Religion has not helped itself in the West by pronouncing on empirical matters using scriptural evidence. Beneath that the decline of Feudalism may have contributed to the decline of Christianity, the rise of science as well as ultimately and very indirectly the temporary credibility of Marxism.
Shoghi Effendi quotes reports of Christian missionaries (World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, page 181) describing communism as the “religious irreligion” and expands on its role in the next page:
The excessive growth of industrialism and its attendant evils . . . . the aggressive policies initiated and the persistent efforts exerted by the inspirers and organizers of the Communist movement . . . have no doubt contributed to the de-Christianization of the masses, and been responsible for a notable decline in the authority, the prestige and power of the Church.
Similarly, on the subject of materialism and looking most particularly at the Twentieth Century, Century of Light (page 46) asserts:
Fathered by nineteenth century European thought, acquiring enormous influence through the achievements of American capitalist culture, and endowed by Marxism with the counterfeit credibility peculiar to that system, materialism emerged full-blown in the second half of the twentieth century as a kind of universal religion claiming absolute authority in both the personal and social life of humankind. Its creed was simplicity itself. Reality – including human reality and the process by which it evolves – is essentially material in nature. The goal of human life is, or ought to be, the satisfaction of material needs and wants. Society exists to facilitate this quest, and the collective concern of humankind should be an ongoing refinement of the system, aimed at rendering it ever more efficient in carrying out its assigned task.
The Inevitable Part of a Cycle?
Interestingly, Stark and Bainbridge (Hamilton: pages 176-178) regard secularisation as nothing new but rather a part of the normal cycle of religious development, and, in describing their model, create fascinating resonances with the Bahá’í perspective.
Ultimately, Churches decline as a result of their tendency to develop ever more extreme worldliness, engendering the emergence of revived religious groups . . . or new innovative developments. . . . While acknowledging that the rise of science stimulated an unprecedented, rapid and extreme degree of secularisation in contemporary society Stark and Bainbridge argue that science cannot fulfil many central needs and human desires. It cannot remove all suffering and injustice in this life, it cannot offer an escape from individual extinction, it cannot make human existence meaningful. Only God can do these things in people’s eyes. Religion, then, will not only survive and rise to prominence again, it will be transcendental or supernaturalist in form. It is more likely to be, further, the innovative . . . . movements rather than the sectarian revivals of established traditions that will flourish since the latter can only come up against, in their turn, the same forces which have brought about a degree of secularisation in the first place.
Towards the end of his chapter on this subject Hamilton quotes Fenn (page 180) as wondering whether secularisation “does not so much drive religion from modern society [as foster] a type of religion which has no major functions for the entire society.” Spirituality becomes purely magical, even occult. The conclusion voiced in Century of Light (page 6) captures this:
inherited orthodoxies [are] all too often replaced by the blight of an aggressive secularism that [calls] into doubt both the spiritual nature of humankind and the authority of moral values themselves. Everywhere, the secularization of society’s upper levels [seems] to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population.
Prompted by Barney’s comment on the earlier post in this sequence, I revisited a book that I failed to finish in 2008. Charles Taylor, in that book – A Secular Age – dismissed what he refers to (page 22) as ‘subtraction stories’ and argued that ‘new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices’ were the truly effective factors. He argues (page 20) for what he labels ‘secularity 3’ stating that this:
. . . . is my interest here, as against 1 (secularised public spaces), and 2 (the decline of belief and practice) . . . [It] consists of new conditions of belief; it consists in a new shape to the experience which prompts to and is defined by belief; in a new context in which all search and questioning about the moral and spiritual must proceed.
He feels that (page 21):
The main feature of this new context is that it puts an end to the naive acknowledgement of the transcendent, or of goals or claims which go beyond human flourishing. But this is quite unlike religious turnovers in the past, . . . The crucial change which brought us into this new condition was the coming of exclusive humanism as a widely available option.
He defines ‘exclusive humanism’ as (page 18):
. . . the coming of modern secularity in my sense has been co-terminous with the rise of a society in which the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, or any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true.
The next post will consider where things might be moving from here. I feel there is more to say about this than I will be able to articulate at this point.