Religion in Decline: Two Perspectives

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The New Atheists want to get rid of religion by deploying science-based critique. A much more effective way, however, is to address structural inequalities.

 

It is now accepted by most reasonable people that religion, as we have traditionally understood it, is in decline in the western world. The number of people who attend religious services, engage in religious practices, and believe in God/gods has been rapidly shrinking in the 21st century (Kasselstrand et al., 2023). Some social scientists still cling to the idea that religion is not disappearing but evolving, but the writing is on the wall: religion is simply not as important to as many people as it was a generation ago and for young people in many western countries today in particular, it’s simply irrelevant.

While these facts are increasingly clear and beyond dispute, the question of their cause is a different matter. There are many rival theories of the fall of religion in the academic and popular spheres, but they generally can be categorized within two major narratives. The first sees religion as an inquiry into the nature of material reality, a primitive pseudo-science that was persuasive until modern science came along to displace it.

This idea took firm root in the Enlightenment, when it was assumed that the ascent of science and reason over superstition and ignorance would naturally lead to an erosion of religious belief. Historians of science and religion refer to this view as the conflict thesis, referring to the notion that these are incommensurable worldviews and that one must eventually destroy the other (Harrison 2015).

The second is the theory of secularization, which is also an idea with origins in the Enlightenment, though it has evolved to become a proper sociological theory that views the decline of religion as the result of a complex set of social, cultural, and economic changes that together constitute the grand process of modernization (Bruce 2011). In this view, things like access to education, economic development, and greater overall well-being are associated with a reduction in religion’s psychological appeal and cultural prestige.

The conflict thesis has been the dominant approach in public discourse, with popular anti-religious figures arguing for the past few centuries that science has killed God. The most recent incarnation of this idea that drew a great deal of public interest was the “new atheism,” a loosely knit group of popular intellectuals who sold millions of books over a decade, beginning in 2004 with Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and represented most famously by The God Delusion, a caustic screed against Christianity in particular written by Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist who became quasi-famous for his works of popular science, and later became truly famous as the most notorious religious critic of his time.

Rather than defending the inequalities within modernity and its liberal, capitalist socio-economic configuration, contemporary expressions of secularization theory directly challenge them, suggesting that religion is a cultural expression of the oppression they produce.

Dawkins’s basic argument, on the surface, was that religion is a direct contradiction of scientific truth and that because science is the key to social progress — that is, it is the primary driver of the improvements in human civilization in the modern age — religion is, therefore, an enemy of progress and of civilization itself. In order to protect and preserve civilization, Dawkins argued, religion must be stamped out by the force of public science-based criticism and organized secularist activism aimed at expelling it from the public sphere.

Harris took it a step further, grounding his critique of religion in an apocalyptic vision of conflicting worldviews leading to unfathomable violence, most likely carried out by Muslims (his initial writings on the topic largely centred on the threat of Islamic terrorism and reactions to that threat among Christian fundamentalists). It’s in this idea that the core of the new atheists’ concerns, and the Enlightenment critics who preceded them, is revealed: western civilization, the pinnacle and penultimate achievement of human history, is threatened by barbaric Others who are driven by ancient superstition and hostile to the truth as revealed by science. Ultimately, the new atheism was less an attack on religion than a defence of western modernity and the hierarchies of power and authority that characterize it.

Despite their insistence that we reject dogma and superstition in favour of evidence-based reason, they offer precious little evidence that science is, in fact, responsible for the decline in religious belief and practice, instead assuming this must be the case because their ideology demands it. This ideology is an extension of the Enlightenment myth, an idea forged in the 18th and 19th centuries suggesting that scientific rationality was bringing about progress to an improved, and ultimately perfect, society (Gray 2007). The superficial utopianism in this idea masks a dark undercurrent of Orientalism and racism, where the supposedly advanced nature of western society is a justification for colonizing and subjugating other nations and their cultures.

The violence of colonialism, in this view, is a legitimate means to the end of ushering in civilization to uncivilized peoples. This idea persists in the neo-colonialism and outright imperialistic inclinations of people like Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens (another prominent new atheist), who argued that Muslims must be rescued from themselves — by force, if necessary—and that western countries, most importantly America, have a duty to both protect themselves from the barbarians who would destroy them and also to save those Others from the cultural prisons they have constructed around themselves (most importantly, Islam).

Plenty of evidence can be found in the second major narrative of the decline of religion, which consists of a set of related theories and ideas associated with the secularization paradigm — not just a sociological theory but a broader perspective on the nature of modern society. The secularization thesis has oscillated between periods of influence and disrepute in the social sciences. It was rejected in the 1980s and 1990s by even many of its most prominent advocates (e.g. Berger 1999), largely as a reaction to the rise of the Christian Right in America, an instance of religion surging back into the public sphere that indicated to some people that claims of its demise were wildly overstated.

Since then, the pendulum has swung back, and a growing number of social scientists are accepting what the data is clearly saying: a generational shift is underway, and young people are rejecting organized religion and abandoning faith in God if they ever had any (Thiessen and Wilkins-Laflamme 2020).

Even among those who accept the fact of secularization, however, there is some disagreement about what is driving it. The longstanding idea that the decline of religion is due to a nebulous process called “modernization” is no longer in favour, given that the concept doesn’t provide any testable hypotheses but relies on speculation about how modern societies differ from pre-modern ones and the cultural implications of these changes. Instead, explanations of secularization today tend to fall into two categories: one focused on social and economic structures and the other on culture and values.

In the first case, we have the “existential security” theory, developed by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart (2004), which suggests that religious decline is correlated with, if not caused by, socio-economic development that produces greater overall well-being and equality. Examining an array of survey data on religious belief and comparing it with indicators of socio-economic development that they frame as an indication of “existential security” (which refers to things like safety, health, and financial security), Norris and Inglehart find that countries where citizens experience greater existential security tend to be less religious. Conversely, countries where citizens face greater existential peril and suffering tend to be more religious.

In the second case, there is the matter of rapidly shifting values that tend toward tolerance and acceptance, particularly concerning sexuality. As people become more accepting of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, the traditionally heteronormative, patriarchal nature of many forms of organized religion is increasingly seen as incompatible with contemporary morality (Evans 2018; Putnam and Campbell 2010).

While many branches of mainline Protestantism are fairly liberal on these issues, Catholics and evangelicals are still very socially conservative. The Catholic Church refusing to accept women as priests is an enduring symbol of gender inequality, and they, along with evangelicals, have been staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage and other social reforms to grant equal status to sexual minorities (in America, this extends to even mentioning their existence to children in school classrooms, as in the case of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law). As a result, young people reject religion simply because it doesn’t fit their more progressive attitudes on sexuality and gender equality.

Different camps within social science favour one or the other of these explanations of secularization, but some combination of the two is likely responsible for it. In this view, the rejection of religion is a moral and political issue rather than a matter of conflict with Darwinism, the Big Bang, or any other scientific theory. While new atheists assume that this conflict drives secularization, sociologists draw on extensive research, including survey data and focused interviews, to understand the reasons for the drift away from organized faiths.

Secularization theory, particularly its existential security incarnation, is in stark contrast to the science-defeats-religion theory promoted by new atheists and their Enlightenment antecedents, whose self-defining myth of western superiority served as a convenient justification for the imbalances in power that characterize modernity, which they benefit from. Rather than defending the inequalities within modernity and its liberal, capitalist socio-economic configuration, contemporary expressions of secularization theory directly challenge them, suggesting that religion is a cultural expression of the oppression they produce.

It’s not a great stretch to suggest that the current state of secularization theory supports a traditional Marxist view of religion. Marx (1844) argued that religion is the “opium of the people” and the “heart of a heartless world”, referring to its utility in coping with the alienation wrought by capitalism. In his view, religion would never disappear until the unjust social conditions that grant it power were reformed through a revolution that would abolish class society.

Changing the social structure, then, must come first. Secularization theory might lead us to a similar point of view, given the evidence suggesting that religious belief is affected by structural inequalities. New atheists like Richard Dawkins argue the opposite: that changing cultural beliefs—that is, getting rid of religion by attacking it with science-based critique—would produce positive social change. The state of sociological knowledge on the issue favours Marx over Dawkins.

 

References

Berger, Peter L. (1999). “The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview.” In The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, ed. Peter L. Berger, pp. 1-18. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Bruce, Steve (2011). Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, Richard (2006). The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Evans, John (2018). Morals Not Knowledge: Recasting the Contemporary U.S. Conflict Between Religion and Science. Oakland: University of California Press.

Gray, John (2007). Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. New York: Macmillan.

Harris, Sam (2004). The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Harrison, Peter (2015). The Territories of Science and Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kassselstrand, Isabella; Zuckerman, Phil, and Cragun, Ryan T. (2023). Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society. New York: NYU Press.

Marx, Karl. (1844[1983]). “From ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction’.” In The Portable Karl Marx, ed. E. Kamenka, pp. 115-24. New York: Penguin Books.

Norris, Pippa and Inglehart, Ronald (2004). Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Putnam, Robert D. and Campbell, David E. (2010). American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Thiessen, Joel and Wilkins-Laflamme, Sarah (2020). None of the Above: Nonreligious Identity in the US and Canada. New York: NYU Press.

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