Archive for the 'Culture' Category

Europe’s Odd Secularism

The fondly remembered Fr. Richard John Neuhaus writing in the February 2009 issue of First Things:

If sociology was always a soft discipline compared to the hard sciences that it sought to emulate, the softest of the soft was the sociology of religion. There was a strong tendency to view religion as something vestigial, prescientific, and therefore pre-modern. Enter the well-known “secularization theory” that reigned almost unchallenged until the 1970s. In perhaps its most influential form, it was propounded by Max Weber (1864-1920) and, to put it too simply, claimed that there is a necessary connection between modernity and religion: As modernity advances, religion retreats. This near-inexorable process is called secularization.

As frequently discussed in these pages, secularization theory is now challenged on many fronts, and not least of all by Peter Berger, once one of its most influential proponents. The advocates of secularization theory had over many decades referred to “American exceptionalism.” This reflected the awareness that, if modernity necessarily entails secularization, it is something of a puzzle as to why the most modern of societies is also so vibrantly religious. Hundreds of books have been written in an attempt to explain American exceptionalism. In recent years, however, the table has been turned, and the question of increasingly intense interest is “European exceptionalism,” meaning especially western and northern European secularity. Viewed in global terms, the American mix of modernity and religion seems to be the normal pattern. The interesting question is not why America is so religious but why Europe is so secular.


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