A more nuanced secularization thesis

A student sent me this article from Modern Reformation by Michael Horton.

It contained Horton’s summary of Steve Bruce’s version of the secularization thesis. I was familiar with a more rigid version which projected that everywhere would look like secular modern Europe eventually.

Here are a couple of key excerpts:

Critics believe that proponents of the secularization thesis interpret global religious movements through the narrow lens of European secularization. To be sure, Europe is secularized. They will argue, however, that this pattern doesn’t work for the United States, much less for the global south, where conservative—even radical—forms of Islam and Christianity are bursting at the seams. But by debating too narrowly the question of the disappearance of religion, critics of the secularization thesis fail to see the transformation of religion that is at the heart of the process of secularization.

Steve Bruce wonders if critics have even understood the trend line of European secularization. It’s not a free fall that occurred from the 1960s, but part of a longer trajectory of displacement. In his book, Bruce offers overwhelming data showing that even where revivals—especially in the U.K.—have given a momentary spike in church attendance and social piety, the aftermath is usually lower church involvement than had been true before the revival. Critics of the ST [secularization thesis] are looking at the spikes—including bursts of religious enthusiasm in various parts of the world today, instead of the longer trend lines whereupon after each revival Anglican, Methodist, and Baptist churches declined in membership. This suggests a radical transformation and displacement of religion, not its disappearance….

Even more telling [than the rise of New Age and other non-traditional movements], though, is the evidence of this internal secularization that the last point [the increased assent to mainstream sexual and other norms by younger evangelicals] highlights. “In 1996, Bryan Wilson drew a contrast that has turned out to be remarkably accurate. He suggested that, while Europeans secularized by abandoning the churches, Americans secularized their churches.” The statistics demonstrate that American Christians have become increasingly vague about their beliefs or even reject various orthodox doctrines (Bruce, 160). Bruce agrees with sociologist Wilson’s conclusion that secularization has taken two forms: “In Europe, the churches became less popular; in the United States, the churches became less religious” (Bruce, 156).

According to Bruce, “The simplest way of describing the changes in content of much American religion is to say that the supernatural has been diminished and it has been psychologized or subjectivized.” Evangelicals criticized liberals like Harry Emerson Fosdick in the 1930s and Norman Vincent Peale through the 1930s and ’50s for doing this, but Peale’s understudy, Robert Schuller, was widely embraced as an evangelical. Instead of God’s wrath against human sin, the real human problem according to Fosdick was that “‘multitudes of people are living not bad but frittered lives—split, scattered, uncoordinated.’ The solution was a religion that would ‘furnish an inward spiritual dynamic for radiant and triumphant living.'” (5) “Conservatives had been bitterly critical of liberals for turning salvation…into this-worldly personal therapy. Yet, two generations later, evangelicals were rewriting the gospel in the same way” (Bruce, 163). So even the arguments of Christian conservatives are framed in the way once championed by liberals. Wade Clark Roof notes that “the religious stance today is more internal than external, more individual than institutional, more experiential than cerebral, more private than public” (Bruce, 165-66).

The same changes are evident in behavioral codes. Bruce notes that evangelicals were known for strict (some would say legalistic) behavioral codes. In the 1950s nearly all evangelicals said that dancing and alcohol were “wrong all the time.” He writes, “In 2003, almost half of born-again Christians thought that ‘living with someone of the opposite sex without being married’ was morally acceptable.” After all, objective norms have been transformed into private therapies. Even conservatives defend traditional values now with liberal (secular) assumptions. Divorce is wrong not because God forbids it, but because it is “socially dysfunctional.” “Legal battles over abortion are fought on the entirely secular principle that abortion infringes on the universal right to life” (Bruce, 171). While most favor prayer in public schools, “Only 12 percent of evangelicals thought that such prayers should be specifically Christian.” (6) Especially in many of the churches that are booming, internal secularization is particularly evident as the message is psychologized and subjectivized. In the 1980s, Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham captured national headlines for evangelicals. More recently, one thinks of Joel Osteen and Rob Bell. This is the secularization paradigm.


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