The greater the decline of religion, the more grievous the waywardness of the ungodly. This cannot but lead in the end to chaos and confusion.
Onely a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like seasoned timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turns to coal,
Then chiefly lives.
(George Herbert: 1634)
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 then.
The Starting Point:
In The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, Shoghi Effendi refers to “the onslaught of secularism invading what has hitherto been regarded as the impregnable strongholds of Christian and Muslim orthodoxy” as one of several grave symptoms boding ill “for the future stability of the structure of modern civilisation.” It clearly would seem a good idea to try and understand its nature better. When we look at current thinking in the wider community alongside key Bahá’í concepts, can we tease out the nature of secularisation more clearly?
“Secularism”, according to the Chambers Dictionary (1994), is “the belief that the state, morals, education etc. should be independent of religion” whereas “secularisation” is not defined: we are left to assume it might be the process by which secularism comes about, from “secularise” meaning “to make secular.” The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1973) gives the primary definition of secularisation as “the conversion of an ecclesiastical or religious institution or its property to secular possession or use.” This more or less forces us to start by attempting a definition.
Problems of Definition:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.
(Alexander Pope: 1733-34)
The meaning of this term, according to David Fontana in Psychology, Religion and Spirituality (pages 10), probably depends upon what we decide we mean by religion. He summarises a detailed consideration of the work done to define religion and feels that three factors provide a good enough working definition:
1. Belief in a spiritual dimension,
2. Observance of a set of spiritual rituals or practices, and
3. Adherence to a doctrine of ethical conduct arising from spiritual teachings.
As for secularisation, Hamilton, in The Sociology of Religion, distinguishes six overlapping possibilities (pages 166-167):
- Decline of religion: previously accepted symbols, doctrines, institutions lose their prestige.
- Greater conformity with this world and a turning away from the “supernatural.”
- Disengagement of society from religion.
- Religious beliefs and institutions get transposed into non-religious forms.
- The desacralisation of the world.
- The movement from a sacred to a secular society.
Judith Fox, in The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (page 292- First Edition) reminds us of the distinction researchers and theorists have made between public and private “religiosity”, some locating “secularisation” only in the former sphere and “secularism” in the latter. She compares two influential thinkers in the field (page 295). Weber, it seems wistfully, contended that science and modernity would inevitably and irretrievably push faith to the margins: Durkheim, though an atheist, felt that the function religion served, regardless of its truth value, would never be outlived and religion would always revive in some new form when the old forms lost their hold. The latter is known as the functionalist view.
While some have ended up wanting to abandon the concept of secularisation altogether, Hamilton, in his treatment of the subject (page 167), feels this to be premature. He argues the term has a core meaning:
. . . the decline, and perhaps ultimate disappearance, of specifically religious beliefs and institutions which seems to encompass [the] first, second, fourth and fifth meanings. . . . Secularisation in this sense may or may not be occurring and may or may not be a permanent process.
Is It Happening?
Being overcome by the drunkenness of corrupt inclinations, the people of the earth find themselves in a state of stupor. They are, therefore, debarred from the wondrous signs of God, are prevented from attaining the ultimate goal and are deprived of the liberal effusions of divine grace.
(Bahá’u’lláh: Tablets – page 237)
A strong sense of the decline of religion is also shared by poets. Matthew Arnold’s image of a retreating tide is perhaps the most famous example, but we will also be meeting Tennyson’s take on it in a later post.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
(Matthew Arnold: 1867)
Hamilton (page 169) reviews the evidence and concludes:
. . . the evidence would appear to be in favour of the view that religion, in general terms, is in decline in most Western industrial societies, at least in so far as they are Christian. . . The general pattern of this weakening is that it is more marked in the Protestant countries of Northern Europe than in Catholic countries of the Mediterranean region. Britain falls somewhere in the middle. Holland and Belgium, however, show a somewhat less marked trend, at least until recently, and the United States perhaps the least marked but this is on the basis of church attendance and similar indicators . . .