The 2020s are an exciting time to be studying secularization: after several false starts, we might finally be witnessing the emergence of a new paradigm. Since the 1960s, Western sociologists and historians have routinely told the “secular” story about secularization, in which “religion”, once ubiquitous and powerful, became in some countries steadily less influential, thus prompting the emergence of “secular” societies, which have no particular collective ideology.Footnote 1 For half a century, this basic framework dominated the debate, underpinning a wide variety of scholarly disagreements about the extent, timing, and causes of “secularization” in particular historical cases.Footnote 2 Recently, however, a distinctively “postsecular” theory of secularization has emerged, inspired by the postcolonial turn, which radically decentres Western secularity by historicizing its central categories.Footnote 3 For proponents of this perspective, the whole concept of “religion” is analytically suspect.Footnote 4 Far from being a real global phenomenon, “religion” is actually secularity’s othering category, used by secular theorists to designate all cultures that are not secular, as Britons might talk of “foreigners” or ancient Greeks of “barbarians”. Instead, secularity is best understood as an ideological culture in its own right, comparable to Christianity and Islam, dominant in most Western cultures since the 1960s, which claims to represent post-ideological neutrality, which asserts its uniqueness by labelling all other cultures “religion”, and within which most of the last half-century of the Western secularization debate has been more-or-less naively situated.Footnote 5 Thus the theoretical question at the crux of the secularization debate is whether secularity’s claims to exceptional post-ideological neutrality should be endorsed or historicized: “secular” approaches are those written within the culture of secularity, which opt for endorsement, and “postsecular” approaches are those written from an external perspective, which opt for historicization. From a postsecular perspective, therefore, “secularization” is properly understood as the rise of secularity, a culturally-specific phenomenon analogous to “Christianization” and “Islamization”, which is not to be confused with the quite different phenomenon of “Christian decline”.Footnote 6 On this view, the key to explaining secularization is to conceptualize it as the acceptance and enactment of secularity’s beliefs: but whereas theistic beliefs make theological claims about the uniqueness of God, secularity’s beliefs make sociological claims about the uniqueness of secular societies, especially their exceptional neutrality, permanence, and modernity – beliefs which, by assigning epistemic privilege to the culture of secularity, cause those who accept them to think and act in culturally distinctive ways. The task for postsecular historians of secularization, consequently, is to understand when and why some groups of people began believe that they lived in a permanently post-“religious” age, and how this belief radically reshaped their thoughts and actions.Footnote 7

Yet as this fledgling paradigm gains self-consciousness, its proponents are beginning to realize that it is not as new as one might think: many of its constituent elements have in fact already been articulated by central figures in the culturalist tradition in Western sociology, especially by Max Weber and the mature Émile Durkheim, who turn out on closer inspection not to have been paid-up secularization theorists after all.Footnote 8 Consequently, a crucial dimension of this postsecular paradigm’s theoretical development is the discovery of its intellectual heritage, so that its proponents can learn from that heritage whatever lessons they can.Footnote 9

This essay pursues this agenda by considering the content and reception of David Martin’s The Religious and the Secular, a brilliant anthology of articles and occasional pieces on secularization written in the mid- and late 1960s and published as a book in 1969. The essay’s central thesis is that the young Martin successfully deconstructed the entire secularization paradigm by critiquing the central categories in which it was expressed, such that his anthology should be regarded as a vital early text in the new paradigm in secularization studies.Footnote 10 The essay’s second thesis is that the widespread neglect of Martin’s critique in subsequent scholarship, to the point where Martin himself chose not to develop its more radical implications in his middle-period work, illustrates the extraordinarily powerful hold of secularity’s ideological assumptions on Western secularization scholarship from the late 1960s to the early 2000s.Footnote 11 It is only in the twenty-first century, now that world events are beginning to disenchant secularity, that postsecular scholarship is able to decentre and historicize secularity, and return Martin’s early critique to its rightfully central place in the Western secularization literature.Footnote 12

As devotees of Martin’s work will have noted, this argument trespasses on the disputed question of how to contextualize The Religious and the Secular in Martin’s overall intellectual trajectory.Footnote 13 The cartoon version of Martin’s early intellectual biography is that he called for the elimination of the concept of “secularization” in 1965, and then performed a radical self-contradiction by publishing “Notes for a General Theory of Secularization” in 1969, and developing this into his A General Theory of Secularization (1978). Martin himself regularly expressed irritation at this account, insisting throughout his later career that his “conceptual critiques” of 1964–69 and his General Theory were in fact closely related. A central purpose of those critiques, he repeatedly explained, was to purge the term “secularization” of its teleological overtones, thus paving way the way for the much more contingent and historically-nuanced account of Western secularization that he mooted in 1969 and delivered in 1978.Footnote 14 And indeed The Religious and the Secular does perform precisely this function, such that Martin was quite right to insist that positive links existed between his 1969 The Religious and the Secular and his 1978 General Theory.Footnote 15 At the same time, the essays in Part One of The Religious and the Secular mounted a deeper critique of “secularization”, going beyond the critique of teleology to deconstruct the concept itself. It is this early and more radical approach that this essay seeks to recover.Footnote 16

Martin’s Radical Critique of “Secularization”

David Martin first became seriously interested in secularization theory in 1964, the same year that he took his PhD in sociology.Footnote 17 It used to be thought that the roots of widespread Western secularization go back to the dawn of industrialization, but recent revisionism has conclusively established that Anglosphere societies, at least, did not experience a “secular revolution” until the 1960s, such that Martin was in fact writing right in the middle of the events that he analysed.Footnote 18 In the 1940s and early 1950s, during the Second World War and the early Cold War, Christianity had enormous public salience, especially since Western rhetoric frequently framed the early Cold War as a spiritual conflict between a Christian (sometimes “Judeo-Christian”) West and a secular Soviet Union: the phrase “In God We Trust”, for example, was added to American banknotes from 1957.Footnote 19 As far as we can tell from the available data, at least 90% of the populations of Anglosphere societies personally identified as Christians: those positively self-identifying as having “no religion”, by contrast, numbered “a tiny proportion, usually less than 1 per cent, and rarely more than 2 per cent, of the population of Western nations”.Footnote 20 Faced with a Soviet enemy that claimed to be post-ideological, Anglosphere public discussion routinely insisted that post-ideological societies were impossible: instead, it was frequently argued, if a society abandoned its “religion”, it would necessarily end up embracing some form of totalitarian religion-substitute, as had apparently happened in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR.Footnote 21 For this reason, the “secular revolution” that occurred in Western societies in the 1960s was a profoundly radical cultural transformation. Almost overnight, many Western Anglophone commentators suddenly became convinced, not only that permanently post-religious societies were possible, but that they had long been living in one, and that Western culture ought to be reconfigured accordingly.Footnote 22

By the time that Martin published his first work on the subject in 1965, however, the secular revolution was only in its infancy: the teleological metanarrative of “secularization” was still being popularised largely by radical Christian theological works, especially by E.R. Wickham’s Church and People in an Industrial City (1957), John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God (1963), and Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965); the foundational sociological works, Bryan Wilson’s Religion in Secular Society (1966) and Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy (1967), still lay in the future.Footnote 23 Since the idea of “secularization” as the death of collective ideology had not yet been profoundly normalized, since he possessed considerable familiarity with theology, and since his sociological reading had been unusually wide and autodidactic, the young Martin was able to use his outsider’s perspective to critique the secularization paradigm to its very foundations.Footnote 24

The result was “Towards Eliminating the Concept of Secularization” (1965), which damningly critiqued teleological accounts of secularization, but also made the more radical move of deconstructing the notion of “secularization” altogether. Martin began his deconstruction by arguing that the newly commonplace practice of defining “secularization” as the epochal decline of “religion” was “conceptually confused”, because its notion of “religion” was intrinsically incoherent.Footnote 25 By invoking “the decline of religious institutions considered as a class”, he argued, the secularization paradigm was assuming that “religion” was a coherent category - that “religious groups undergo a common process because they share certain common denominators”.Footnote 26 The central problem, therefore, was to establish whether these “common denominators” could in fact be identified. Anticipating the postsecular turn by four decades, Martin answered this question firmly in the negative: the global cultural entities commonly classified as “religions”, he argued, are all so different that what is “religion” for one culture is often not “religion” for another, and consequently establishing an objective definition of “religion” is impossible: “no sets of [universal] criteria”, he insisted, “can be utilized to distinguish between the religious and the secular”.Footnote 27 There is, for example, a “Catholic definition of religion”, which “lays stress on membership of (or relation to) an institution”, and a rival “Protestant definition of religion” which focusses on belief, though on which precise beliefs is disputed by Protestants amongst themselves. Whilst it might seem tempting simply to follow local usage, this approach runs into fatal difficulties in cultures that do not possess a category of “religion” at all, such as ancient Greece.Footnote 28 Consequently, Martin insisted, the whole idea of “secularization” as “the decline of religious institutions considered as a class” did not make sense; it was “an unfortunate usage”, which “might just as well be dropped”.Footnote 29 “The most important point which I would wish to urge is that there is no unitary process called ‘secularization’ arising in reaction to a set of characteristics labelled ‘religious’. It can be shown that religious institutions bear no such common characteristics.”Footnote 30 Why, we might ask, developing this line of argument, do we discuss “secularization” whilst including Theravada Buddhism but not Leninism into the category of “religion”? Why are we insisting on placing upwards of 84% of today’s humanity, and upwards of 95% of humans who have ever lived, in the same category at all?Footnote 31 On this approach, whilst one can coherently talk of the decline of Christianity, it makes no sense to talk of the decline of “religion”, just as it makes no sense to talk of the decline of “foreigners”, because there is no reason to think that the entities being referred to actually have anything in substantive common with each other.Footnote 32 In a later essay, Martin succinctly summarized this position by referring to “the impossibility of defining secular based on the long-discussed difficulty of defining religion”.Footnote 33 “Since there is no unitary process of secularization”, he concluded, “one cannot talk in a unitary way about the causes of secularization”.Footnote 34

Yet if the conventional vision of “secularization” as the decline of “religion” makes no sense, this raises the question of why so many people think that it does, and here Martin put his finger squarely on the issue, moving his critique onto a second level. “The whole concept [of secularization]”, he suggested, “appears as a tool of counter-religious ideologies”.Footnote 35 These secular ideologies identify “the ‘real’ element in religion” so that they can define themselves in contradistinction to it, and define what they oppose as irreversibly declining, “partly for the aesthetic satisfactions found in such notions and partly as a psychological boost to the movements with which they are associated”.Footnote 36 Developing Martin’s argument, we might say that secular cultures use “religion”, as British nationalists use the term “foreigners”, to define themselves in mirror-image by publicly declaring what they are not. In particular, Martin insisted, secular ideologies indirectly depict their own beliefs as “natural” by insisting on the “artificiality” of non-secular beliefs, which can then, in a “pejorative usage”, be defined as ever-declining “religion”.Footnote 37 Rationalist secularization theories especially, he felt, begin by defining “religion” as beliefs “which by nature cannot be proved”, as a way of emphasizing the assured scientific verifiability of secular “truth”. Secularity’s vision of the decline of “religion” was therefore actually secularity’s mirror-image way of describing “the triumph of truth”, which “will be manifest in the demise of religion”.Footnote 38 In fact, Martin argued, such a process was sociologically impossible: “there is no steady progress towards a situation in which value systems gradually approximate to the neutral and indisputable deliverances of objective reason”.Footnote 39 Rather (and here Martin’s Durkheimian loyalties came into play) human societies always depend on “ideological systems”, because ideology is “required by social cohesion”: indeed, “society requires myth” in the sense of “a profoundly coherent framework of meaning”.Footnote 40 “It is this requirement which the rationalist theory of secularization”, with its vision of the rise of post-ideological societies, “ignores”, which is why it proclaims a death of collective ideology that is in fact impossible.Footnote 41 In short, Martin was arguing that the idea of “secularization” as the irreversible decline of “religion” was the product of a secular ideological program that defined all other cultures as “religion”.Footnote 42 This is why it was essential to realize that the “secularization” story was much more than simply an empirical observation that Western Christianity has declined, but was instead “closely related” to deeply ideological claims about Western societies having experienced “the end of ideology”.Footnote 43

This was radical criticism, but Martin was too far-reaching a thinker to stop there: in a follow-up essay, “Some Utopian Aspects of the Concept of Secularization”, published in 1966, he brought his critique onto a third level, by identifying the real cultural roots of “secular ideology”, which mythologized itself as the irresistible outcome of “secularization”, in heterodox Christianity. “The simple thesis of this essay”, he wrote, “is that secularization is a concept rooted in the ideologies of utopianism, which are themselves derived, with some elements of discontinuity and more important elements of continuity, from the sectarian tradition of Christianity.”Footnote 44 In particular, he suggested, Western “secular ideology” was based on two particular “presuppositions derived from Judaism and Christianity”.Footnote 45 The first was a stadial view of history, which depicts the human condition as being different at the end than it was in the beginning: but whereas Christianity positions the radical transformation as occurring with the birth of Christ, such that Christianity exclusively represents the new era, secular ideologies “shift the crucial epiphany” to the modern period, allowing them to assign Christianity to a past historical “stage”, and to identify secularity exclusively with the final stage.Footnote 46 Second, Martin argued, “secular ideology” had borrowed the Christian expectation of ultimate truth being revealed in the end times; but it had relocated this expectation from the distant future to the near future, such that secular ideology considered ultimate truth available in the modern age, hence its proclamation of “the end of ideology”.Footnote 47 There were, he added, other continuities, such as the secular intelligentsia taking over the priesthood’s function of being the “ontologically privileged strata” and thus the moral guardians of the people.Footnote 48 The secular expectation of humanity’s diverse cultures converging on secularity, he argued, also reflected the Christian expectation of peoples of all nations entering heaven.Footnote 49

Finally, if secularization represents the rise of secular ideology, then it remains to explain why this might occur. Martin tackled this problem in two stages, the first of which was denying that secularization was primarily caused by material factors such as economics or technology. Whilst “technological advance will bring about changes of some sort in all institutions, whether religious or otherwise”, he argued, anticipating objections to the secularization thesis that would be articulated some thirty years later, “it is not clear that modern technology has a unified impact on religion, either at the level of ecclesiastical organization, dogmatic beliefs, and ritual, or at the level of moral assumptions”.Footnote 50 Consequently, he concluded, “most varieties of religion are compatible with industrialised society”. After all, he added, tongue firmly in cheek, Catholicism “flourishes… in New York, and other feudal demesnes – like Liverpool”.Footnote 51 Second, he insisted in his first book, Pacifism (1965), utopian ideologies like secularity emerge from Christianity during episodes of “radical disorientation”, like extreme famine, or, we might suggest in hindsight, the threat of nuclear annihilation during the early Cold War.Footnote 52 It was these profound crises that pushed people to translate Christian expectations of future heavenly blessing into secular stories about future earthly bliss.Footnote 53 Indeed, he suggested, this was why it was so crucial to realise that this was precisely what radical Christian theologians such as John Robinson and Harvey Cox, who produced bestselling works on “secularization” in the 1960s, were in fact doing.Footnote 54

If in hindsight we assemble the various dimensions of Martin’s critique, the result is a new approach for thinking about Western secularization, which goes as follows. Human societies need collective ideologies, so it is worthwhile defining secular societies in terms of their domination by “secular ideology”.Footnote 55 “Secular ideology” defines itself as an escape from “religion”, and proclaims its own inexorability by defining itself as a historical stage after “religion”. A “postsecular” methodology, by contrast (though this term was not available to Martin in the mid-1960s), would concede the fact of Western Christianity’s decline, but would conceptualize “secularization” as the rise of “secular ideology”, a cultural phenomenon more prompted by profound crises than necessitated by socio-economic development.Footnote 56 It would, moreover, see “secularization” as primarily a local Western phenomenon, because secular ideology has important roots in Western Christianity.Footnote 57 Thirty years before Dipesh Chakrabarty wrote Provincializing Europe, the young Martin had sketched the basic elements of a fully provincialized model of Western secularization.Footnote 58

The Reception of The Religious and the Secular, 1969–2019

Yet Martin’s early essays faced a fundamental problem: they did not simply critique a particular sociological theory, but the entire cultural self-understanding of Western secular societies.Footnote 59 To those living within the culture of secularity, it was simply obvious that “religion” was a real global phenomenon, whose massive decline in “the modern age” had led directly to the post-ideological neutrality of the present-day West; this was a fundamental element of the shared cultural background that implicitly structured their day-to-day lives.Footnote 60 By the late 1960s the ideological claims of the Western secular revolution were becoming widely internalized, and so it is not surprising that Western scholars much preferred Bryan Wilson’s Religion in Secular Society (1966) and the young Berger’s The Sacred Canopy (1967); since these works reinforced secular cultures’ self-mythology rather than deconstructing it, they were in prime position to lay the foundations for the next two generations of Western secularization scholarship.Footnote 61 These works embedded secularity’s claims to exceptional post-ideological neutrality in the very basis of their model, by defining “religion” positively but secularity negatively: Wilson, indeed, began his seminal text by boldly proclaiming that in secular societies, unlike in “religious” societies, people simply “assess the world in empirical and rational terms”.Footnote 62 In this ideological context, as Kevin Schulz observed in 2006, “early critics of secularization theory… were mostly ignored.”Footnote 63 There is a price to pay for being two generations ahead of one’s time, and the early essays of Martin’s The Religious and the Secular duly paid it.Footnote 64 Even Martin’s middle-period work accepted secular theory’s fundamental premise that “certain broad tendencies towards secularisation in industrial society have already been fairly well established”, whilst nuancing this premise with unprecedented levels of comparative-historical detail.Footnote 65

Yet Martin’s early critiques were never entirely forgotten. For a brief moment in the early stages of the secular revolution, they were given a warm welcome by scholars critical of the secularization paradigm.Footnote 66 In the 1980s and 1990s, as various minorities of scholars became increasingly disenchanted with that paradigm, they often found themselves returning to Martin’s early work.Footnote 67 Nonetheless, even into the early 2000s, most of the major works on Western “secularization” revised the secularization paradigm without overthrowing it.Footnote 68 In 2001, Callum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain radically reimagined mass “secularization” as a revolutionary development originating in the 1960s, whilst retaining the underlying model of “religion” fading into post-ideological neutrality.Footnote 69 In 2004, Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris retained the familiar secular story of the decline of “religion”, merely proposing a new explanatory mechanism based on “existential security”.Footnote 70 Even Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007), for all its attempt to break out of secular categories, ended up conceptualizing secularization as the gradual decline of the naïve theism supposedly found in late medieval Western societies, leaving behind “secularity 3”, a value-neutral arena in which late modern Westerners possess myriad spiritual options.Footnote 71

Since the secularization metanarrative had been deeply embedded in Western culture by the cultural revolution of the 1960s, Western secularization theory had to wait for Western culture to change before it could experience the kind of radical paradigm-shift demanded by Martin’s early critiques. In the early twenty-first century, however, various historical events have begun to initiate such a change. In 2001, the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre abruptly reminded Western commentators that “religion” was still a powerful force in the modern world.Footnote 72 The subsequent rise of postsecular multiculturalism in Anglosphere societies, which guaranteed the rights of specifically “religious” as well as racial minorities, went a step further by underlining the permanent presence of “religion” within Western societies.Footnote 73 A third factor was the rise of China as a global superpower, which reminded self-confident Western commentators that Western modernity was only one amongst many “multiple modernities”.Footnote 74 The central factor, though, was the postcolonial turn in Western scholarship, which has announced its determination to “provincialise Europe” and to decentre Western culture and categories.Footnote 75 Whilst these events do not add up to a postsecular revolution in Western societies, they have created a distinctive postsecular movement within the Western academy, and have radically increased scholarly discontent with the secularization paradigm.Footnote 76 As Mary Eberstadt put it in 2013, there is now “blood in the water surrounding this matter of secularization theory, and watchful parties on both sides know it”.Footnote 77

A revealing index of this trend is the recent growth of interest in Martin’s sociology of religion, symbolised by book-length treatments of his work in 2015 and 2018.Footnote 78 In a high-profile 2012 article, the historian J.C.D. Clark announced that the “grand narrative” of “secularization” had straightforwardly “failed”, and that “David Martin’s challenge in 1965 to dispense with the category ‘secularization’ should now be re-examined”.Footnote 79 Postsecular scholarship has repeatedly found itself returning to Martin’s early work for inspiration.Footnote 80 In this exciting new intellectual context, it seems increasingly likely that Martin’s early critiques may finally be restored to their rightfully central place in Western secularization theory.


This article has argued that the “secular revolution” of the 1960s had a powerful impact on Anglophone secularization theory, normalizing the secularization paradigm so thoroughly that alternative perspectives were routinely ignored. The reception accorded to David Martin’s The Religious and the Secular (1969) is a central case in point: whereas Martin brilliantly deconstructed the very categories in which secularization theory was expressed, unmasking the very idea of the epochal decline of “religion” as a product of secular ideology, mainstream Western secularization scholarship continued its naïve acceptance of secular categories and secularity’s self-mythologization into the early twenty-first century. It is only very recently, following the postcolonial turn in Western historiography, that postsecular historians have begun following in the young Martin’s footsteps, and deconstructing the ideological culture of Western secularity in its entirety.

This story illustrates three wider points about the Western secularization debate. The first is that this debate has been much more influenced by shifting local ideologies than it cares to admit - and indeed than some of its elements are capable of admitting, since the “secularization” metanarrative is itself a story about how Western societies supposedly abandoned collective ideology and embraced post-ideological neutrality.Footnote 81 The second is that these local ideologies have regularly caused this debate to misrepresent its own past, especially by inventing a tradition for the secularization paradigm that includes all the major modern social theorists, a misrepresentation that can only be upheld through the quiet marginalization of dissenting voices, as happened in the young Martin’s case.Footnote 82 Finally, however, this episode strongly implies that the recovery of these dissenting voices offers an invaluable resource for historicizing the secular ideology prevalent in late twentieth century Western social theory.Footnote 83 In this respect, as in many others, the dialogue between past and present can provide startlingly alternative ways of thinking about the state of human societies in the twenty-first century.