Secularization's Dying Days

The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics edited by Peter L. Berger (Eerdmans and the Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1999, 135 pages, $17)

“The assumption that we live in a secularized world is false. The world today … is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labeled ‘secularization theory’ is essentially mistaken.”

Such is the assessment of sociologist Peter Berger in a groundbreaking essay in The Desecularization of the World, a volume which he also edited.

In particular Berger points to the worldwide explosion of Islam and of evangelicalism, especially pentecostalism. He identifies similarly important, though smaller, expansions among Catholics, Orthodox, Jews and others.

Taken together, says Berger, these trends provide “a massive falsification” of the idea that the world will become more secular as it becomes more modern.

“The Islamic upsurge … is an impressive revival of emphatically religious commitments. And it is of vast geographical scope. … Everywhere it is bringing about a restoration, not only of Islamic beliefs but of distinctively Islamic life-styles, which in many ways directly contradict modern ideas.” Furthermore, “the Islamic revival is by no means restricted to the less modernized or ‘backward’ sectors of society, as progressive intellectuals like to think.”

“The Evangelical upsurge is just as breathtaking in scope,” writes Berger. “Geographically that scope is even wider” — in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the former Soviet Union, and in the Philippines and South Pacific.

One exception Berger sees to the trends of desecularization in the world is “an international subculture composed of people with Western-type higher education, especially in the humanities and social sciences.” He says, “This subculture is the principal ‘carrier’ of progressive, Enlightened beliefs and values. While its members are relatively thin on the ground, they are very influential, as they control the institutions that provide the ‘official’ definition of reality, notably the educational system, the media of mass communication, and the higher reaches of the legal system.”

Call them the university-media-legal elite. Berger is adamant that they represent only a “subculture,” a small slice of the modern scene. They are hoping for the secularization of everyone else, but their imperious use of social position tends to encourage, by way of backlash, the very religious resurgence they abhor.

“The plausibility of secularization theory owes much to this international subculture,” says Berger. “When intellectuals travel, they usually touch down in intellectual circles — that is, among people much like themselves. They can easily fall into the misconception that these people reflect the overall society.” Berger pictures a secular intellectual from Europe visiting the faculty club of the University of Texas. The visitor finds himself comfortably at home. However, once he sets out across town, or once he turns on the radio, “heaven help him,” observes Berger. “What happens then is a severe jolt of culture shock.”

Berger points to the worldwide explosion of Islam and of evangelicalism.

Berger says that if secularization really did rule the roost, as the elite tells itself, then religious groups would have to adapt to it to survive. Instead, he says, “religious communities have survived and even flourished to the degree that they have not tried to adapt themselves to the alleged requirements of a secularized world. To put it simply, experiments with secularized religion have generally failed; religious movements with beliefs and practices dripping with reactionary supernaturalism (the kind utterly beyond the pale at self-respecting faculty parties) have widely succeeded.”

In fact, whatever their religious differences, all the resurgent religious forces of desecularization agree concerning “the shallowness of a culture that tries to get along without any transcendent points of reference.”

After reading Berger's analysis it is hard not to believe that the university-media-legal subculture is involved in a last-ditch effort to shore up its eroding position. “Secularity will triumph,” they think. But Berger says, “I find this thesis singularly unpersuasive.” To believe it you have to think that “eventually Iranian mullahs, Pentecostal preachers, and Tibetan lamas will all think and act like professors of literature at American Universities.” Not at all likely. Berger says the elite overlooks that such a change “would require something close to a mutation of the species.”

The other essays in this volume develop various aspects of Berger's astonishing essay. George Weigel, for example, contributes a piece that shows how the Catholic Church, especially under the leadership of Pope John Paul II, has been developing an increasingly powerful engagement with the modern world.

David Martin of the London School of Economics contributes an essay on the political implications of the upsurge among evangelicals. Grace Davie of the University of Exeter clarifies what is really going on in Europe, where it can erroneously seem that secularization is the only game in town. Tu Weiming of Harvard University relates the story of the recurring power of religious movements in China, even up to the present day. Abdullahi A. An-Na'im of Emory University discusses the breadth of the contemporary impact of Islam on politics and international relations.

Perhaps the most intriguing essay is “Judaism and Politics in the Modern World” by Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth. His account of the past 200 years of Jewish experience comes the closest to opening a door on the supernatural in of our supposedly secular world.

“Jews are less than a quarter of a per cent of the population of the world,” he says. “Our influence should be minimal. … But Jews and Judaism are of interest and influence in a way that numbers cannot account for.”

Sacks quotes fellow Jew Milton Himmelfarb: “We seem caught up in things great and inexplicable. … We remain bigger than our numbers. Big things seem to happen around us and to us.”

There is no space here to develop what Sacks has to say. We may note, however, that in the end he sees “a new generation of Jews emerging, for the first time in many generations, with an undamaged, uncomplicated sense of Jewish identity. They recognize Judaism's spiritual power and moral grandeur. … They are beginning to re-connect with Jewish observance and Talmud Torah.”

If you want to understand our world today and what is likely to happen in the next century, you dare not take your bearings any longer from the university-media-legal subculture. You need to read books like this one, which establish clearly that Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Pentecostals and Jews are not going to stop growing in numbers and in effective impact on the world. This is a book that lays out facts which may well undergird something Pope John Paul has been saying — that the new millennium will be a springtime of the human spirit.

Gerry Rauch is an assistant editor of the Register.