Nineteenth-Century British Secularism

Part of the series Histories of the Sacred and the Secular, 1700–2000 pp 1-15

Introduction: Secularity or the Post-Secular Condition

  • Michael RectenwaldAffiliated withLiberal Studies, New York University


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