Are secularization and dechristianization inevitable?...
keywords: Western Europe, christian faith, christian practice, secularization, aspect of modernization, industrialization ...
In the nineteenth century, Christian clergy in Western Europe feared what they saw as a general dechristianization, or decline of participation in the churches. They saw a decline of faith both among intellectual elites, as a result of developments in modern thought that challenged traditional Christian faith, and among the working class, as a result of urbanization and industrialization that challenged traditional Christian practice. In the twentieth century, sociologists developed the theory of secularization, according to which a decline in the importance of religion was regarded as an inevitable aspect of modernization. Such theories were based upon the real decline in the importance of religious participation in Europe. By the end of the century, however, it became evident that religion was again playing a major role both in the public arena and in people's private lives, particularly outside Western Europe, forcing many scholars to reviset their theories. If one considers the role of religion in the United States in the past thirty years, it is clear that religion continues to thrive even as American society continues to modernize. It is my thesis that dechristianization is not inevitable in post - Communist Orthodox countries; rather, the continued role of the Orthodox Church will depend upon how the Church responds to the social and spiritual crisis of the transition. I should explain my perspective on these issues, which inform my analysis. First, I approach the question as an Orthodox believer and scholar.
I have graduate training in Orthodox theology and hope that my thoughts are firmly rooted in an Orthodox perspective. Moreover, I am a specialist in modern Russian Orthodoxy, so I bring to bear my knowledge of the Russian Church during the past two centuries; I have also been teaching in Romania for three semesters, and my comments on the Romanian situation are based upon observation of Romanian religious life and conversations with many ordinary believers as well as specialists in theology. Second, I am an American, and have been teaching the history of religion in the United States at the University of Bucharest, so I bring to these questions the religious experience of America in the modern period, which is dramatically different than that of Europe. In the words of Peter Williams, “The United States was the first nation to make widespread religious tolerance a fundamental premise of public policy, and it remains unusual, if not unique, in this coexistence of widespread and fervent religious are secularization and dechristianization inevitable activity within a legal matrix of rigorous non-establishment.” 1
Finally, I am a scholar in the history of religions, and bring to this discussion perspectives from sociology and a comparative history of religion in modernity. Let me turn to a discussion of the theory of secularization, which is broader and subsumes the concept of dechristianization, and has been the subject of extensive debate among sociologists. The traditional sociological theory of secularization postulated that, as a society modernizes, religion inevitably declines. At first, sociologists argued that secularization implied a decline in the plausibility of religious belief as a result of the rationalization of consciousness, the disenchantment of the world, the spread of the scientific worldview, and the pluralism that comes with modernization. “One of the most obvious ways in which secularization has affected the man in the street is as a ‘crisis of credibility' in religion. Put differently, secularization has resulted in a widespread collapse of the plausibility of traditional religious definitions of reality.” 2
The continued persistence of religious belief, particularly in the United States, forced revisions of the thesis. Thomas Luckman, Bryan Wilson, and Steve Bruce modified the thesis to argue that, while religious belief may not disappear, religion will decline in social significance and become relegated to the private sphere. They account for persistence or revival of religious beliefs as temporary “reversals,” or “retarding factors” driven by “cultural transition” or “cultural defense.” Nevertheless, the process was deemed to be universal, inevitable, and irreversible. 3
The revival even of the public role of religion in various countries in the last decades of the twentieth century forced further modification of the thesis. Steve Bruce, for example, has recently revised the thesis to explain the specific historical case of Western Christendom, admitting that the process of secularization will not necessarily be followed by other societies even as they modernize. 4
The “orthodox model” of the secularization thesis was base dup on the experience of Western (particularly northern) Europe, which were the first societies to modernize and which in deed witnessed a dramatic decline in religious belief and participation during the process of modernization. A countervailing example is provided by one of the most modernized countries of the world, the United States. Contrary to the image of America that is gained through the media, the U.S. is an extremely religious country. During the past half century, levels of religious participation have remained consistently high. According to statistics provided by sources such as the Gallup Reports, roughly forty percent of Americans answer affirmatively to the question of whether they have attended church “in the last seven days.” About sixty percent claim they attend church monthly, with thirty percent stating they go to church at least once a week. Moreover, the number of those who belong to a church is even higher, remaining consistently sixty-five to seventy percent of the population. Only about fifteen percent state that religion is not an important part of their lives, with ten percent claiming no religious affiliation or that they are agnostic or atheist. Since the late 1970s, religion has also periodically played an important public and political role in the U.S., often having a significant impact in elections (such as the 2004 presidentiale lections). Any theory that seeks to understand religion in the modern world must take the American experience in to account.
One of the most thorough and compelling revisions of the thesis was provided by Jose Casanova in his book Public Religions in the Modern World (1994). Casanova breaks the secularization thesis into three component parts. In the premodern Western Christendom, the church dominated in such a way that it was able to structure social reality into “religious” and “secular”— while the secular remained an undifferentiated whole. The process of modernization has entailed the end of the dominance of the church in defining social reality, and, as a result, the differentiation of various secular spheres. The modern state, scientific thought, and the capitalist economy emerged as autonomous spheres that now structured social reality, and religion became “just another sphere rather than the dominant one”. The differentiation of secular spheres and their emancipation from religious institutions and norms, for Casanova, is the “valid core” of the secularization theory and “remains a general modern trend” that “serves precisely as one of the primary distinguishing characteristics of modern structures.” Further, Casanova argues that “established churches are incompatible with modern differentiated states and that the fusion of the religious and political community is incompatible with the principle of citizen ship.” Being disestablished, the church becomes a voluntary association modern. 5
Casanova critiques a second dimension of the secularization thesis, namely that religion would become privatized and marginalized from the public sphere. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, there were a number of “de privatizations” of religion in countries as diverse as Iran, Poland, and the United States. “Privatization is determined externally by structural trends of differentiation which tend to constrain religion into a differentiated, circumscribed, marginalized, and largely ‘invisible' religious sphere. But equally important, privatization is mandated ideologically by liberal categories of thought which permeate not only political ideologies and constitutional theories but the entire structure of Western thought. For that reason, sociological theories and liberal political analysis have found it difficult to conceptualize properly and to comprehend that new phenomenon which I call the de privatization of modern religion.” 6
Casanova maintains that the public role of religion is not contrary to modernization, but that both privatization and de privatization remain options in modern societies. A third element of the secularization thesis is the claim that religious belief and practice would decline and eventually disappear. Casanova claims that the thesis of religious decline was based lesson empirical observation than on an Enlightenment critique of religion. It is, however, quite clear that religion is not disappearing in the modern world. At the same time, it is true that the decline of religion has been the dominant trend in Western Europe — but, rather than providing the model of modernity, Europe appears to be an exception. Casanova seeks to understand why Europe developed in this fashion. He argues that the Protestant Reformation undermined the unity of Western Christendom and helped to free secular spheres from religious control. The rise of the modern nation-state sought to monopolize the means of coercion and even brought the church under its control with the establishment of state churches, which became a means of enforcing conformity.
Eventually the state itself no longer needed the church for the consolidation of its control and preferred religion to be absent from the public sphere, while the people began to turn elsewhere for their spiritual needs than the state - sanctioned churches. In answering the question of why religion declined in Europe but not in America, Casanova points to the fact that America never had an established state church, which “more than anything else determined the decline of church religion in Europe.” 7
Thus the attempts by the churches to resist change soump “vicariously religious,” who are content to let the churches and churchgoers maintain religion for them, knowing accanying modernization,which it perceived as threats to its prominence, were the very factors that served to undermine religion in the long run. The sociologist Grace Davie has recently built upon Casanova's suggestion that Western Europe is an exceptional case of modern development rather than the norm, with greater sensitivity to the ways in which Eastern Europe and the new world developed very differently from Western Europe. She argues that Western Europeans are “un churched” rather than secular — that they have ceased to belong to religious institutions, but have not abandoned religious beliefs. She accepts Casanova's argument that the state churches, which resisted structural differentiation, are the ones that suffered the most. But she contends that people are not so much disaffected with the established churches, but rather regard them like a public utility that are maintained by the few for the many. She terms Europeans as that the churches are there if they need them and can draw on the min times of crisis. 8
In short, if one accepts the arguments of Casanova and Davie, secularization in the sense of dechristianization or the decline of religious belief is not a universal and inevitable aspect of modernization. Rather, Western Europe represents a unique case, and the decline of religion in Western Europe is particularly tied to the efforts of the dominant churches in Western Europe to maintain their ties with and reliance upon the state for their support and predominance. Specialists in American religion have like wise argued that one of the primary reasons for the vitality of religion in America rests precisely on the fact that, since the churches were disestablished, they were forced to rely upon the people. Lyman Beecher (1775-1863), one of the great revivalist preachers of the nineteenth century, was vehemently opposed to the disestablishment of the Congregational Church in Connecticut, which he believed would result in a decline of morality and the influence of the church. When the church was disestablished in 1818, he recounts in his autobiography, “for several days I suffered what no tongue could tell for the best thing that ever happened to the State of Connecticut the churches loose from dependence on state support. It threw them wholly on their own resources and on God. They say ministers have lost their influence; the fact is, they have gained. By voluntary efforts, societies, missions, and revivals, they exert a deeper influence than ever they could” through state support. 9
In short, deprived of state support, the churches had to reach out to the people, to actively meet their religious and spiritual needs. As a result, the people are more actively involved and invested in their churches, and this religious activism has remained a constant feature of American life.
While religion continues to remain very important in American life, the environment of pluralism has had negative consequences from an Orthodox perspective. American individualism and the democratic ethos erode respect for religious authority and tradition, which results in continual fragmentation of religious groups as individuals feel quite free to form new churches if they disagree with the leadership of their church. Commitment to particular religious traditions is weak, especially among Protestants; most Americans have very little understanding of the theological distinctions between Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and soon, and generally choose their religious affiliation based upon other criteria (which pastor or worship service appeals to them more, for example). Hence, because of the intense pluralism, religion itself is subject to a “market” environment, in which religious groups have to “compete” with one another for constituency.
One result of this competition is that religious groups tend to accommodate themselves to dominant cultural trends. This accommodation generally takes two forms: Protestant “mainline” churches (Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc.)tend to take a “liberal” position, in which they accommodate themselves to prevailing norms in personal morality (particularly in areas of family and sexuality, such as divorce, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality), embrace feminism and the ordination of women, while at the same time take a more critical stance on issues of social ethics such as materialism, imperialism, and war. Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants (Southern Baptists and non-denominational churches), on the other hand, take a “conservative” position, in which they remain critical of liberalizations of personal morality, but have accommodated themselves to prevailing social norms, legitimating capitalism with a “gospel of wealth” and embracing right-wing politics that leaves them uncritical toward issues such as the death penalty and American imperialism. Only the Roman Catholic Church in the United States combines a conservatism in matters of personal morality (though American Catholic laity and parish clergy regularly disregard Rome's prohibition of contraception) with a critical attitude toward social inequalities and war.
Even Catholics, however, have accommodated to American culture, particularly in the reals of people through the creation of a se m of piety: fasting has all but disappeared, and liturgy has generally lost all solemnity. In the realm of religious practice, Roman Catholics in the United States are closer to Protestants than they are to more traditional Catholics in places like South America. After the collapse of communism, the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe are struggling to define their role in rapidly changing societies. The Russian Church has generally responded with what one scholar labeled “triumphalism and defensiveness.” 10
On the one hand, it assumed an attitude of triumphalism with the collapse of communism and its own resurgence during that collapse; it sought to reassert its preeminent role in the life of the Russian people. At the same time, it assumed a very defensive position with regard to the influx of foreign missionaries, whom it accused of trying to steal its flock. Instead of trying to understand the appeal of the se missionaries — who often drew converts because they were better able to meet social and spiritual needen se of community and by directly answering their spiritual questions — the Russian Church pressured the government to restrict the activities of the missionaries (which finally resulted in the law on religious organizations of 1997).
Communism made a deliberate policy of marginalizing religious life from society, of restricting the Church to liturgical activity and excluding it from social assistance and education. Since the collapse of communism, however, the Orthodox churches have been very slow to overcome their social isolation and become active in addressing the needs of their flock. While there was an initial popular resurgence of Orthodoxy in Russia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, levels of church attendance and religious participation are currently at an all time low. Romania, by contrast, was in a sense blessed by a less severe communist regime when it came to religious practiceiest subjected her to an interrog, and the slowness and difficulty of economic transition has perhaps led to continued high levels of church attendance. It could be argued, however, that such attachment to the church is largely habitual and ritualistic. Catechism remains very weak, and anunder standing of the faith is generally shallow. From my personal conversations with many ordinary Romanians, I understand that there is a high degree of what might be described as a kind of clericalism. People respect the Church, but at the same time feel a distance between themselves and the clergy.
The “church,” in the popular mind, subsists in the clergy, and the laity themselves are reduced to passive appendages. Ordinary people tend to have little direct contact with the clergy outside of confession; moreover, I have heard repeated stories of how confession itself is a traumatic experience that sooner drives people from the church rather than a spiritually healing one that draws them to it. I vividly remember one story, related to me by a student in Sibiu, in which she was undergoing a profound spiritual crisis. She went to a priest for confession, but the pration and, discovering that she sometimes smoked cigarettes, contemned her in no uncertain terms for smoking and never even heard of her more profound spiritual crisis.
As a result, the young woman has never returned to confession to repeat the experience. Such examples could easily be multiplied. The general impression I have is that clergy in Romania hide behind a wall of their authority and do not reach out to the people in true communication. I know of only a few rare instances in which people speak lovingly of their priest as their spiritual father and of their church community as their family; the norm, at least in urban areas, seems to be that people know neither their priest nor their fellow parishioners. Young people in Romania today are facing a rapidly transforming society and are seeking spiritual guidance from the Church, but often they are not finding it. Traditional attitudes prevail, with little apparent sensitivity to what is more essential in spiritual are also negative aspects of religion in America, as I outlined above, l matters and what is secondary. There seems to be a prevalent attitude within the Church that the Romanian people simply are Orthodox, and therefore they do not have to work very hard to keep them Orthodox. At the same time, the Church continues to have a very close relationship with the state and seeks to rely upon the state for support. To return to the question of the inevitability of secularization: Romania appears to have two models before it during this period of transition, the American one and the European one.
The European churches, as a rule, continued to be established churches, dependent upon and tied to the state. The result has been widespread dechristianization. In America, by contrast, the churches relied not upon the state, but upon the people. The result there was to make the people feel invested in their churches, has encouraged the clergy to understand and meet the people's needs, so that religious participation remains extremely high. Certainly I am over simplifying; it is likely that, in Europe, a passive level of Christian identity remains, but it is undeniable that the churches do not play a significant role in shaping their daily lives. Certainly there in the way in which they tend to accommodate to society in one way or another. I do not expect the Church in Romania to complet elyabando persist, and the Church continues to rely upon the state, then I predict that dechristianization will take place in Romania in the decades to come. But dechristianization is not inevitable. Ultimately, the spiritual fate of Romania depends largely upon the choices that the Orthodox Church makes in the forthcoming years in its ties to the state, such as its involvement in education. Toa great extent, the American model is contrary to Orthodox practice since the time of Constantine, when it established close ties to the state. But the situation of modernity and post-modernity demand a reevaluation of this traditional relationship. I am not advocating a simple adoption of the American model.
Rather, the Orthodox Church should carefully examine different experiences of the West in modern times and seek to adapt those aspects that have proven effective, and learn to avoid the pitfalls and failures of western churches. While the Orthodox Church is hierarchical in its structure, it is not hierarchical in the same way as Roman Catholicism traditionally has been; rather, item braces the principle of conciliarity, what the Russians call sobornost. In Orthodox ecclesiology, the “church” is not only the clergy, but the whole people, who together constitute the Body of Christ. This principle, however, must not remain an abstract concept, but must become a living reality. If the inertia of the communist-era isolation of the Church from society continues to persists, and the Church continues to rely upon the state, then I predict that dechristianization wil take place in Romania in the decades to come. But dechristianization is not inevitable. Ultimately, the spiritual fate of Romania depends largely upon the choices that the Orthodox Church makes in the forthcoming years ...
1. Peter W. Williams, America's Religions: From their Origins to the Twenty - First Century (Urbana, IL, 2002), p. 6.
2. Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York, 1969), p. 127. Berger defines this as “subjective secularization,” and also discusses “objective secularization,” secularization at the social-structural level in which institutions once under Church control become secular.
3. See, for example, Bryan Wilson, “Secularization: The Inherited Model,” in The Sacred in a Secular Age,” ed. Phillip Hammond (Berkeley, 1985), pp. 9-20; Roy Wallis and Steve Bruce, “Secularization: The Orthodox Model,” in Religion and Modernization: Sociologists and Historians Debate the Secularization Thesis, ed. Steve Bruce (Oxford, 1992), pp. 31-58.
4. Steve Bruce, “The Social Process of Secularization,” in The Blackwell Companion to Sociology of Religion, ed. Richard K. Fenn (Oxford, 2001), pp.249-263.
5. Jose Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World, (Chicago, 1994), pp.212-13.
6. Ibidem, p. 215.
7. Ibidem, p. 29.
8. Grace Davie, Patterns of Religion in Western Europe: An Exceptional Case, in Fenn (ed.), Blackwell Companion, pp. 264 – 278.
9. Quoted in Williams, America's Religions, p. 183.
10. Jane Ellis, The Russian Orthodox Church: Triumphalism and Defensiveness, (New York, 1996).