Introduction: Secularity or the Post-Secular Condition

  • Michael Rectenwald

Abstract

This book addresses the recent criticism and breakdown of the secularization thesis, a development that amounts to a crisis in the concept of secularism and in the long-held assumptions about an inevitable modernization from traditional, religious worlds to secular ones. Until the last decades of the twentieth century, secularization was generally regarded as a nearly indisputable fact of modern life and a staple of sociological thinking. A broadly held belief in secularization, what I call ‘the standard secularization thesis’, pointed to religion’s continual and inevitable decline. In the conjectures of the earliest sociologists — including Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, and Max Weber — secularization was considered an inevitable result of modernization: urbanization, industrialization, the rise of science, individualization, and so forth. Secularization was understood as teleological and irreversible, ending in the ultimate extirpation of religion and ‘the death of God’.1 As an example of this article of faith, in 1968, the American sociologist Peter Berger was quoted in the New York Times as predicting that ‘[b]y the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture’.2

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Notes

  1. 1.
    For a discussion of the ‘death of God’ discourse, see, for example, J. W. Robbins ‘Introduction: After the Death of God’, in J. D. Caputo, G. Vattimo, and J. W. Robbins (2009) After the Death of God (New York, NY: Columbia University Press), esp. at pp. 1–10.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
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  3. 3.
    Once an important secularization theorist, Berger reversed his long-standing position on secularization in P. L. Berger (1999) The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    For a summary of the secularization debates, see R. Warner (2010) Secularization and Its Discontents (London; New York: Continuum); D. V. A. Olson and W. H. Swatos (2000) The Secularization Debate (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers); S. Bruce (ed.) (1992) Religion and Modernization: Sociologists and Historians Debate the Secularization Thesis (Oxford: Oxford University Press); I. Katznelson and G. Stedman Jones (eds) (2010) Religion and the Political Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). For a call to abandon the notion of secularization, at least where historians are concerned, see D. Nash (2004) ‘Reconnecting Religion with Social and Cultural History: Secularization’s Failure as a Master Narrative’, Cultural and Social History 1, 302–25.Google Scholar
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  7. 7.
    For the persistence of the secularization thesis, see S. Bruce (2002) God Is Dead: Secularization in the West (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub). For a significant revision, see P. Norris and R. Inglehart (2011) Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Norris and Inglehart advance the ‘existential security hypothesis’ as the explanation for secularization or the lack thereof. According to this thesis, as populations become relatively secure economically and otherwise, religiosity tends to decline. The denizens of post-industrial societies are demonstrably less religious than those living in agricultural or industrial economies. Meanwhile, although secularization is increasing as regions become post-industrial, religious populations are growing relative to secular ones, owing to the fact that in traditional societies the birthrate is much higher than in secular societies.Google Scholar
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    See C. Brown (2009) The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation, 1800–2000, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge), p. 10. Note that Nineteenth-Century British Secularism does not suggest that the timing or gradient of secularization should be revised, but rather that the end of secularization should be reconsidered and reconstructed through a new notion of ‘secularity’.Google Scholar
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    For the argument that secularization never happened, see A. Morozov (2008) ‘Has the Postsecular Age Begun?’, Religion, State & Society 36.1, 39–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    The major social historian of Secularism is E. Royle (1974) Victorian Infidels: The Origins of the British Secularist Movement, 1791–1866 (Manchester: University of Manchester Press; Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield); and E. Royle (1980) Radicals, Secularists, and Republicans: Popular Freethought in Britain, 1866–1915 (Manchester: Manchester University Press; Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield). See also D. Nash (1992) Secularism, Art, and Freedom (Leicester: Leicester University Press); L. Schwartz (2013) Infidel Feminism: Secularism, Religion and Women’s Emancipation, England 1830–1914 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press). For general studies of unbelief, see S. Budd (1977) Varieties of Unbelief: Atheists and Agnostics in English Society, 1850–1960 (London: Heinemann Educational Books); D. Berman (1988) A History of Atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell (London and New York: Croom Helm); and S. A. Mullen (1987) Organized Freethought: The Religion of Unbelief in Victorian England (New York: Garland).Google Scholar
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    L. Schwartz (2013) Infidel Feminism: Secularism, Religion and Women’s Emancipation, England 1830–1914 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    M. Rectenwald (2013) ‘Secularism and the Cultures of Nineteenth-Century Scientific Naturalism’, British Journal for the History of Science 46.2, 231–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 27.
    B. Nongbri (2013) Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven: Yale University Press). This assertion is analogous to argument made by Butler regarding belief and unbelief. ‘Neither belief nor unbelief is an origin’, Butler states, suggesting that belief and unbelief constitute a discursive pair, and that each element in the pair becomes the source of its opposite. Unbelief or ‘loss of faith’ in the mid-nineteenth century is generative of a subsequent belief or faith, and so on. See L. S. Butler (1990) Victorian Doubt: Literary and Cultural Discourses (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf), pp. 1–8, at 3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 31.
    N. Vance (2013) Bible and Novel: Narrative Authority and the Death of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    V. Geoghegan (2000) ‘Religious Narrative, Post-secularism and Utopia’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 3.2–3, 205–24, at 206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 35.
    M. Warner, J. Van Antwerpen, and C. J. Calhoun (eds) (2010) Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), p. 22: ‘[B]ecause [Taylor’s] third sense of the secular comprehends precisely those forms of religiosity that are now most widely mobilized, resurgence of religion is not evidence of a new post-secular dispensation’.Google Scholar
  25. 36.
    N. Vance, Bible and Novel: Narrative Authority and the Death of God, p. 17.Google Scholar
  26. 37.
    R. Bhargava (2015) ‘We (In India) Have Always Been Post-Secular’, in M. Rectenwald, R. Almeida, and G. Levine (eds) Global Secularisms in a Post-Secular Age (Boston and Berlin: De Gruyter), pp. 109–35.Google Scholar
  27. 39.
    R. M. Young (1985) Darwin’s Metaphor: Nature’s Place in Victorian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Young sees the Darwinian ‘revolution’ as a demarcation debate within Natural Theology.Google Scholar
  28. 40.
    C. LaPorte (2013) ‘Victorian Literature, Religion, and Secularization’, p. 283.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Michael Rectenwald 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael Rectenwald
    • 1
  1. 1.Liberal StudiesNew York UniversityUSA

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