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Interview with Steve Bruce

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Modern Reformation editor-in-chief Michael Horton asked Steve Bruce, University of Aberdeen sociologist and leading international authority on secularization, to discuss some of the major issues he raises in his new book, Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).




MR: What is the "secularization paradigm" and why has it come under fire in recent decades?
SB: The SP is often taken to be the prediction that, with the passage of time, religion will die out. This is wrong. I take the SP to be an attempt to explain the changes in the nature and social position of religion in western industrial democracies that have accompanied modernization (say, from the end of the eighteenth century). Those changes are complex but they do form a common pattern. At the level of social structure we see the removal of the economy and polity from religious control (for example, religious precepts no longer hinder economic rationality and we allow unbelievers the vote), the gradual marginalization of religion, and the rise of toleration. At the level of culture, religion loses the power to provide the most convincing explanations and the best remedies. For the individual, the key changes are religion's shift from necessity to choice and the decline of dogmatism. Modern societies have 'fundamentalist' enclaves but most of us now accept that religion is a matter of private preference. Those changes are accompanied by a decline in the proportion of the population that takes religion seriously. Note that despite changes in intellectual fashion, the decline in religious adherence continues apace.


There are very many reasons why the SP has lost status in the academy. One is that the social sciences are driven by fashion: revisionism is always more popular than accepting that by and large one's predecessors got it right. One oddity is that many avowed critics of the SP actually support key elements of it. For example, I cannot think of anyone who doubts that modernization has been accompanied by a social-structural differentiation that sees the economy and polity becoming free from religious precepts. What Western polity now denies Catholics the vote or prevents unbelievers from holding government office? And it is widely accepted that in most states religious pluralism produces increasing toleration and a gradual shift from religion as necessity to religion as choice.


MR: Critics of the secularization thesis often emphasize the intentional factors in the process—whether of secularists with a program to marginalize religion or believers with a program to choose their spiritual "products" in the marketplace. On the other hand, you underscore ways in which the process is driven largely by unintended consequences that make further development of modernization inevitable and secularization therefore plausible. Could you give some examples of how that works?
SB: The largely secular state long predates 'secularists', whose main role is generally to articulate what everyone else has intuitively grasped long before. One of the greatest unintended consequences is the rise of toleration. Most Protestant sects (the Quakers are the exception) were not initially in favour of toleration. They split from national churches because the state church was not pure enough to justify being imposed on everyone. They initially wanted to do the imposing themselves (consider the New England Puritans!). Only when they failed to win over enough people did they start to think that toleration might just be to their advantage. And gradually they persuaded themselves it was also virtuous. When urbanization and industrialization created an obvious need for better education and social welfare, the British state initially wanted to channel tax funding through the state churches but that did not work because the state churches faced too much opposition from Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists etc. So the state gradually had to make secular provision. That is, the rise of secular provision was a consequence, not of aggressive secularism, but of the internal divisions of the churches.


For another example consider the US Constitution. If the 13 colonies had all had the same established church, the USA could have had a state church. It was the fact of religious diversity and the fears of the minority sects that created neutrality, not the campaigns of secularists.


MR: One of the compelling arguments in your book is that even the type of religion or spirituality that remains personally engaging in the US, for example, is privatized and subjectivized. Could you explain how this fits rather than counts against the secularization paradigm?
SB: Privatized and subjectized religion is evidence of secularization. In the Christian West, traditionally religious people supposed that there was one God and it was our job to obey him and that usually meant trying to impose our vision on everybody else. We no longer expect that everyone will worship the same God in the same way and we lack the certainty and the power to impose our views on others. In turn we fail to pass on what faith we have intact to our children. Instead we encourage them to think for themselves. We solve the problem of competing visions by allowing that apparent contradictory things can all somehow be 'true'. There is what is true for you and what is true for me. That sort of religion is inherently weaker than the traditional kind because there is no longer a strong psychological dynamic to ensure our children share our perspective.


MR: Some have attributed decline in church attendance in Western countries as "believing without belonging." What do you make of that interpretation?
SB: 'Believing without belonging' is a fairy story church people tell themselves so they don't get too depressed. There is no evidence for it. We have good longitudinal measures of religious activity, popularity of religious beliefs, and sense of religious identity. The three measures start from different heights: claiming a religious identity is more common than holding some religious beliefs which in turn is more common than engaging in religious activities. But - and this is the crucial point -- all three measures decline pretty much in tandem.


MR: Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism are growing in many parts of the developing world. How can the secularization paradigm account for this?
SB: The secularization thesis argues that a series of specific changes (not the passage of time) undermines religion. Large parts of the world are not yet experiencing those changes. So why expect those societies to secularize? For example, religious diversity only weakens commitment when it is underpinned by an essentially egalitarian ethos that puts a high premium of personal liberty. Societies have to first work through the alternative of trying to re-impose a single religious culture through extermination, expulsion, and forced conversion. In Europe we tried that for two centuries before we gave it up.


Actually, far from being a surprise, the shift of many cultures from an organic communal Catholicism to an individualistic Protestantism is largely a repeat of what happened in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There are many parallels between the current appeal of Pentecostalism in Latin America and the appeal of Methodism in England in nineteenth century.


MR: Is it really secularization that we're seeing across Europe or the march of militant Islam through the vacant ruins of Christendom?
SB: Your question does not actually pose competing alternatives. The ruination of Christendom is what we mean by secularization. And the suggestion that we are being over-run by jihadis is the paranoid fantasy of a few right-wing newspapers and muppet political parties. Four bearded men and a dog with a bomb is still four men and a dog. Muslims are a very small part of the population of most European societies. Militants are a very small pat of the Muslim population. They are easily out-numbered by liberal and 'secular' or 'heritage' Muslims. The Muslim influx has made religion more controversial because some Muslims wish their faith to enjoy the public presence and prestige it had in their home country but the net effect has been to make Europe even more secular. For example, the UK had blasphemy laws that had long fallen into disuse (last Scottish case in the 1830s) but we left them on the statute book rather than bother to argue about their repeal. When Muslims claimed that parity required that Islam also be protected against insult, we levelled the playing field by repealing the blasphemy laws.


MR: From a sociological perspective, what would have to happen if secularization were to be reversed?
I am not sure I understand this question. If you mean, what would we make of the UK or France becoming more religious, then the answer would depend on what changes brought that about. If religion became more popular while the social forces that we believe weakened it were still in play, then that would suggest the SP was mistaken. If some of the causal secularizing forces changed, that would just tell us that the social world is understandable but not (in the physics sense) predictable. If you mean 'Can secularization be reversed?', I would have to say it is as unlikely as the reversal of the slow road to gender or racial equality. Precisely because we now lay such store by personal liberty I cannot see the degree of religious diversity being reduced, I cannot see state imposition of religious uniformity being accepted, and I cannot see economic rationality giving way to religious precepts. Show me the advanced industrial economy that will shut down continuous production machines to respect the sabbath or the democratic polity that will deny the vote to heretics!

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  • Guest - Chris

    Thank you for posting the interview, Dr. Horton. The content is very sobering. I think seeing the video of the conversation would be very interesting, if not telling...

    Thanks again,

    Chris Jager
    Tillamook, OR

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  • Guest - Scott Pierce

    I'm curious why it is considered unfashionable. The theory seems to be playing out as predicted. Is it the seeming rise of Islam as a religious force? I suppose you could argue South Korea would be a contradiction but if you consider the theory's evolutionary steps, South Korea would be at a religious peak as it is still a largely homogenous society but on the brink of fracturing under modernity. I'm not that familiar with South Korea but intuitively that seems right. My take away from this isn't some call to arms to prop up Western-idealized Christendom but rather to consider the implications and practice as described above regarding the solidity of truth and how that is conveyed to my children. Again, this theory has always seemed intuitively obvious to me and from a sociological perspective, it is how the "visible" church plays out as a social and communal construct. Christ's church has always ebbed and flowed. I don't see how this differs and also this social transformation stuff going on right now is largely a sociological response to the church as an institution's loss of significance within society and is mainly tilting at windmills. But then, I guess I'm one of those pessimistic amils. My guess is, given enough time, you would see punctuated periods of religious interest within societies as secularization goes through a season of doubt being that it doesn't fill that void innate in all of us that this place isn't right and things aren't as they should be. Though these bubbles certainly won't be to the same degree as when the state enforced cult upon its citizenry.

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