| The Secularization Myth Revisited:
Secularism as Christianity in Disguise
Robert H. Nelson1
As the American social scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart recently observed, “the seminal thinkers of the nineteenth century – Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud – all believed that religion would gradually fade in importance and cease to be significant with the advent of industrial society.”1 For example, Freud wrote that religion is a great “illusion” that is “comparable to a childhood neurosis;” seen from a scientific perspective, Freud wrote, we must now “view religious teachings, as it were, as neurotic relics, and we may now argue that the time has probably come … for replacing the [religious] effects of [psychological] repression by the results of the rational operation of the intellect."2 Such negative views about the future of religion seemed for many to be confirmed in the twentieth century as “the death of religion became the conventional wisdom in the social sciences.”3 One result was that the serious study of religion in such circles faded.
By some measures Freud and other social scientists who doubted that religion had much of a future proved prophetic.4 The current state of religion in the United States was recently described in a 2012 report of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, based on a new religious survey of the American public.5 The most striking finding was that the number of people who said they had “no religious affiliation” rose from 15 percent of Americans in 2007 to 20 percent in 2012, a remarkably rapid large shift for such a short time period (among those in the 18-29 age category, the unaffiliated by 2012 had reached 32 percent). Such “nones” had become the second largest religious category in the United States, surpassing both mainline Protestants and evangelical Protestants, trailing only Roman Catholics (many of whom continue to identify themselves as Catholic even as they participate minimally in church activities).
Self-identified Protestants (of all kinds) in the United States declined from 62 percent in 1972 to 48 percent in 2012, while Catholics declined over his period from 26 to 22 percent. Once the dominant religious group in the United States, the largest Protestant declines occurred among “mainline” Protestant churches, from 31 million members of such churches (Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational, and some others) in 1965 to 25 million members in 1988, and further still to 21 million in 2005.6 As the recent Pew report found, this mainline freefall has continued with its share of the American population down to 18 percent in 2007 and then a mere 15 percent in 2012, now less than half the mainline percentage in 1970.
Thus, at least as judged by trends in mainline Protestantism, whose origins lie in the historically most influential religions of the United States (Congregationalism was derived from the original Puritan churches in New England; Harvard, Yale and Princeton all were founded as religious institutions of Calvinist faiths that would later become parts of mainline Protestantism), the common social science prediction of the twentieth century of a sharp and continuing decline of religion has in fact been confirmed by the data. To be sure, this may simply reflect the fact that the mainline religions had already been substantially secularized by the 1960s in their actual religious messages (such as the social gospel that focused on saving this world), and their rapid loss of membership since then has simply formally confirmed their previous secular character which increasingly did not need any longer to be expressed in a church setting..
Such secularizing trends have extended further into the general populations of most European countries. According to a Pew study of global religion as of 2010, the largest percent of religiously unaffiliated in the world was found in the Czech Republic (76 percent), followed by Estonia (59 percent) – outside Europe, Japan (57 percent) and China (52 percent) ranked third and fourth in the world.7 In Europe, other countries with higher numbers of religiously unaffiliated than the United States included Latvia (44 percent), the Netherlands (42 percent), Belgium (29 percent), France (28 percent), Sweden (27 percent), Germany (25 percent) and the United Kingdom (21 percent).
In Lutheran Scandinavia (except to a lesser extent for Sweden) and in Catholic southern Europe, self- declared religious affiliation remains high, more than 75 percent. Surprisingly, by this measure, secularization in Europe as a whole (18 percent unaffiliated in 2010) is little different from North America as a whole (17 percent unaffiliated). Other measures, however, show considerably greater differences.
Regular church attendance is more difficult to measure reliably than the results of a single survey of religious affiliation. Measured by regular church attendance, the available evidence in Europe suggests that it has now widely fallen to around 15 percent or below, even in some of the European countries where self-declared religious affiliation may still be much higher (this is the case in Scandinavia in particular). The European figure for regular attendance is much lower than typical estimates for the U.S in the range of 20 to 40 percent (the wide range partly reflects the fact that some researchers in the United States have found that many people over-report their church attendance in surveys). Long a bastion of European Catholicism, Spain has, remarkably enough, now legalized divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage, even as most Spanish still self-report to opinion surveyers that they are “Catholic.”.
There are admittedly significant limitations to measuring the current state of religion in a society by the levels of affiliation with recognized religious bodies or by regular attendance at a church service. As the sociologist Grace Davie reports with respect to Great Britain, religion there has been increasingly characterized in the second half of the twentieth century by “believing without belonging,” a circumstance involving much greater “persistence of the sacred in contemporary society despite the undoubted decline in churchgoing.”8 Elaine Graham reports similarly that according to some credible estimates “as many as 33 percent of the people in the US identify as ‘spiritual but not religious.’”9 Claims of increasing secularization based on the diminished state of organized religions thus may much overstate the level of religious decline in a society; it may actually be the form of religious expression (leaving aside for the moment the additional complications raised by secular religion) that is changing, not the level of genuine religious belief.
Proponents of the secularization thesis expected in the decades following World War II that its effects would gradually extend across the entire world. That has, to the surprise of many social scientists, not happened.10 While mainline Protestantism went into rapid decline in the United States from the 1960s onwards, evangelical Protestantism retained its vitality and even gained adherents there.11 In the Muslim world, Islamic fundamentalism made an even stronger comeback in nations such as Turkey and Pakistan. Elsewhere around the world, such as in India and its traditional Hindu faith, other religious fundamentalisms have gained in influence as well. Catholic and other branches of Christianity have been growing very rapidly in Africa.12 The secularization thesis has thus come under strong criticism since the 1990s as an inaccurate empirical prediction of religious events outside Europe. Indeed, even a former 1960s leading proponent of the secularization thesis such as the sociologist Peter Berger has since recanted his own earlier theories.13
Another important if less widely recognized challenge to the secularization thesis is that, even within nominally “secular” societies today in Europe, the cultural influence of historic religion often remains surprisingly large.14 Thus, based in part on the results of World Values Surveys and European Values Surveys over many years, Pippa Norris of Harvard University and Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan write in 2011 that even in secular circumstances around the world, “the distinctive worldviews that were originally linked with religious traditions have shaped the cultures of each nation in an enduring fashion; today, these distinctive values are transmitted to the citizens even if they never set foot in a church, temple or mosque.” For example, “although only about 5% of the Swedish public attends church weekly, the Swedish public as a whole manifests a distinctively Protestant value system that they hold in common with other historically Protestant societies such as Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands.” Moreover, these national Protestant value systems still today differ ” markedly and consistently from those of historically Catholic countries” of Europe such as France, Italy and Spain. It is thus not only a Protestant-Catholic cultural divide in Europe, but “as a distinguished Estonian colleague put it, in explaining the difference between the worldviews of Estonians and Russians, ‘we are all atheists, but I am a Lutheran atheist, and they are Orthodox atheists.’”15
According to the secularization thesis, the continuing secularization of the world would include the spread of much the same rational and scientific ways of thinking to all societies. Pippa and Inglehart do not attempt to explain why secularization in Europe has instead taken different forms according to the religious history of a nation. One plausible explanation is that current secular cultures still retain implicitly many of the core values and assumptions of their religious pasts. As the American sociologist of religion Christian Smith observes, “in some circles it is unfashionable to talk about secularization as religious decline; the focus instead is on the ´relocation´ or ´restructuring of religion.”16 In many cases, lacking greater exposure to the long history of religion, many young Europeans today may not have much awareness of the traditional religious roots that still inform their own current “secular” thinking.
Such an argument is made, among others, by Edward Bailey who in England began writing about ”implicit religion” in the 1970s and founded the Centre for the Study of Implicit Religion and Contemporary Spirituality in 1995 – the publisher of the journal Implicit Religion. Bailey writes in 2012 that there is much to be gained if we recognize the presence of large implicit elements that “we usually call ‘religion,’ even when it seems to be ‘secular.’” Thus, we may advance significantly in our religious understanding of the world today if we “apply something of what we now know about [traditionally] religious life, to ordinary secular life” where religion may still be present in disguised forms.17
As one might say, secular Europe is now seemingly divided among three main religious traditions, “secular Protestantism,” “secular Catholicism,” and “secular Orthodoxy” “Secular religion” is seemingly not as “secular” as most social scientists once expected. Of course, it is always possible that the processes of secularization work considerably more slowly than had once been assumed, and given enough time, the existing secular religious differences in Europe and elsewhere will eventually disappear altogether . But that is not a statement of empirically demonstrated scientific fact but of secular religious faith.
Secularism as Religion
As this suggests, still another large problem with the secularization thesis is that secularism itself may best be understood as a religion.18 There was a fundamental paradox in twentieth century thinking and expectations about the processes of secularization. Supposedly, secularization would mean the marginalization of religion. As recently as 2011, a strong contemporary advocate for the secularization thesis, Steve Bruce, wrote that “the secularization paradigm aims to explain one of the greatest changes in social structure and culture: the displacement of religion from the centre of human life.”19 But what if secularism is itself an actual form of religion, as a number of people have in recent years been suggesting. A prominent British theologian Edward Norman thus writes that “secularization now is the recognition as quintessentially Christian of the priority of welfare materialism.”20 How can something marginalize itself?
Some may suggest that this argument trivializes the concept of religion by extending it to secular ideas that do not rely explicitly on a key role for a supernatural God. But this would in effect say that religion must follow the models of Judaism and Christianity as traditionally practiced over the long history of western civilization. That would, among other problems, then recast the discussions of secularization to mean not the decline of religion in general but the fate of specifically institutional Jewish and Christian religion. The study of the secularization thesis would then become a matter of the study of official Jewish and Christian history, not of the full dimensions of world religious faiths.
The justification for introducing the concept of “religion” (a term that only came into wide use a few hundred years ago) was to recognize that there were fundamental commonalities between Judaism and Christianity and many other belief systems around the world (including some forms of Buddhism that do not have any belief in a supernatural God).21 Theologians, philosophers and social scientists have sought – if without any consensus to date -- to identify these fundamental commonalities of belief that could then be taken to demonstrate the presence of an actual religion.
Early in the twentieth century, based on his Gifford lectures in Scotland, the American William James wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience -- leaving any necessary presence of a supernatural God out of the answer -- that if one were “asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”22 By this measure, physical science – with its astonishing ability to reveal an unseen mathematical order of the physical universe – would be a religion. Isaac Newton might then be said to have rivaled Jesus Christ as an authoritative prophet of religion. Indeed, for many modern people following after Newton, “Science” would become for them the source of the most authoritative truths about the world – as one might say, their new voice of God.
Social science might then be seen as the extension of the scientifically revelatory methods of Newton to those domains of human existence extending beyond the natural world. This would mean that, like Newtonian physical science itself, they would then be an expression of religion. As I have argued in 1991 in Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics, and later in 2001 in Economics as Religion, a social science such as economics can indeed well be regarded literally as a religion – not merely in a metaphorical or functional sense.23 Economic religion offers a new path to heaven on earth, based on the redeeming powers of economic progress, based on a core theological assumption that bad behavior (in older fashioned terms, “sinfulness”) in the world derives from the pervasive existence of material scarcity. – and can thus be abolished by sufficient economic progress.24 In economic religion, human beings are not inherently sinful – there was no fall in the Garden of Eden – but it is their external environments – especially the material aspects of those environments -- that makes them so.25
Following after James in seeking to characterize the legitimate scope of religion, Emile Durkheim wrote in 1912 that “in the first place, there are great religions from which the idea of gods and spirits is absent, or plays only a secondary and inconspicuous role.” The necessary identifying feature of a religion for Durkheim was that it “is a unified system of beliefs and practices relating to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”26
The American theologian Richard Neuhaus wrote in 1970 that “in the view of the early nature romanticists who fostered the conservation movement [in the United States] the sacred was clearly located in extra-human nature. … This is a viewpoint characteristic of the bulk of today’s ecological writing,” and thus by Durkheim’s understanding putting secular environmentalism today within the category of an actual religion.27 In his magisterial A Religious History of the American People, Yale Professor Sydney Ahlstrom wrote that the radical new events in American society of the 1960s, including the civil rights movement and the rise of belief systems such as environmentalism and feminism, amounted to a “violent and sudden … moral and theological transformation” of the nation.28
Well before such novel secular American religious developments commenced in the 1960s, a leading theologian of the twentieth century Paul Tillich, who fled Nazi Germany in 1933 to come to the United States (at the age of 47), had written on many occasions that a religion is a comprehensive belief system that deals with matters of “ultimate concern.”29 As early as 1926, Tillich had explained that it was now often true that “the most important religious movements are developing outside of [traditional] religion.”30
He could not of course have anticipated in 1926 the full horrors of “Nazi religion” but they later served to make his point – this particular secular religion was undoubtedly more important to the history of the twentieth century than anything that took place in the officially recognized Christian churches of Europe of the time. A recent student of Tillich’s theology writes that in the twentieth century “what is most significant [religiously] for Tillich is not the encounter of Christianity with other world religions but the encounter of [traditional] world religions with secular quasi-religions.” Quasi-religions, moreover, are not to be excluded from the general category of all ”religion;” as Francis Yip explains, for Tillich “religion in the full sense” extends to include “quasi-religion as a subset.”31
But the wider implications of such ways of thinking about religion have not yet been well integrated into their overall thinking by either social scientists or theologians. As one consequence, theology schools and departments of religious studies in most leading universities today have failed to recognize adequately– and thus to give close theological scrutiny to -- many of the most important religious developments of our times. They might, for example, incorporate the history of economic thought (of “economic religion”) into their programs of religious studies. The economic religion of Marxism might in the future be a standard subject for explicitly theological inquiry.
At the same time, most professionals in the various disciplines of the social sciences – including economics and psychology as the most important social sciences in terms of their impacts on society today -- have also failed to recognize the deeply religious character of their own professional thinking and activities. Economics departments, for their part, may have to introduce theology into their future course of studies, if they hope to encompass the deeper wellsprings of their own economic thinking (to address explicitly many key matters that are now simply taken for granted as unspoken beginning assumptions of professional economic theory and practice).32
Related Recent Developments
There have admittedly been some recent signs of movement in such directions. As the American sociologists Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer and Jonathan VanAntwerpen comment in a 2011 book, at the deepest level the social sciences have operated under “a relatively unexamined set of assumptions” that shaped their basic goals and methods. As they write, “the “dominant ‘modes of secularism’” within the social sciences have “recently come under intensified scrutiny.” In the future it will be necessary to develop “more nuanced analyses of secularization and religious expansion, … more sophisticated treatments of the complex pattern of religion’s growth and decline in the contemporary world, and … a thorough going rethinking of contemporary understandings of secularism.” They thus state that their overall purpose in their collection of essays is “to take stock of the ongoing research on, and debates over, multiple forms of secularism.” They are seeking to “reframe discussions of religion in the social sciences by drawing attention to the central issue of how ‘the secular’ is constituted and understood and to how new understandings of both religion and secularism [should] shape analytical perspectives in the social sciences.”33
Similarly on the theological side, a prominent American theologian (a former student of Tillich’s), Max Stackhouse , wrote in 2007 that a religion is “a comprehensive worldview or ‘metaphysical moral vision’ that is accepted as binding because it is held to be, in itself, basically true and just, even if all dimensions of it cannot be either finally confirmed or refuted.” Stackhouse explains further that “by this definition, worldviews such as a philosophical-ethical Confucianism, an atheistic spirituality such as Buddhism, or a secular-humanistic ideology such as Marxism … can properly be seen as faiths.” Besides the fundamentally religious content of such belief systems, they also “function as ‘religions,’ shaping an ethos, even if they are opposed to theistic traditions or do not recognize themselves as religious. They are also subject to theological analysis, for they inevitably contain a ‘metaphysical-moral vision’ – an ontology, a theory of history and ethic – that involves some view of transcendence.”34 Stackhouse thus sees a need for the extension of theological forms of analysis to secular belief systems.
Studying a secular religion as an exercise in theological analysis will mean evaluating this religion in terms of the merits – of lack of such – of its truth claims. This will be well removed admittedly from the current approach to the study of religion of the social sciences. When they have studied religion, social scientists have typically focused on the functional roles that religion plays in society – in what ways religion may be useful. More recently, a few economists have sought to “explain” religion in economic terms. A church might be seen as a special form of business activity, for example.35 Or, the level of participation of an individual in religious life might be a product of that person’s education, income, age and other such exogenous variables familiar to social science analysis.36
But the social sciences do not at present ask whether a religion is “true.” Indeed, many – probably most -- social scientists would be uncomfortable with this way of thinking because they no longer profess to believe in any overarching idea of “the truth” – or certainly they do not believe that they have any special ability as social science professionals to make authoritative pronouncements on such matters. Rather, a good social scientist should focus functionally on studying the workings of society, including discovering the scientific laws that underlie these workings. If religion happens to be important to the workings of society, they should study it as such. Admittedly, such beliefs do amount for social scientists as their understanding of basic “truth” with respect to religion, even as they paradoxically doubt that any such forms of fundamental ”truth” can exist.
Social scientists in this respect, however, are typically and in retrospect rather naïve about their own role and activities in society because there is an implicit transcendent goal present in their own thinking – that the knowledge produced by the social sciences can contribute significantly to the continuing scientific and economic progress of society. This assumed truth of the world is taken as in essence a matter of faith, not of any economic or other scientific demonstration itself. As one might say, most social scientists take the transcendent importance of modern “progress” for granted in the manner that the medieval period took “God” for granted.
From a theological perspective, an essential element of all religions is that they are believed to be “true” by their followers. Theological analysis consists of analyzing the fundamental truth claims made by a religion and the arguments made by the leaders and other believers in the religion in the support of such claims. In terms of the social sciences, this would consist of an examination of the actual transcendent powers of progress to save the world. In the United States, as will be discussed further below, the questioning of this religious expectation of a transforming power of progress has recently fallen most of all to the environmental movement that has been gaining influence in American life since the 1960s.37
Based on a theological analysis, it is possible, despite conventional social science thinking to the contrary, to reach judgments about the absolute merits of such religious arguments. One might, for example, conclude that, judged by the historical evidence, Christian creationism fails by various scientific tests, and thus is objectively “false” theologically as a fundamental truth claim, This might be “true” even if such creationism might be psychological reassuring for many true Christian believers and indeed might actually even improve their lives functionally (in economic terms their levels of “utility”).
But this kind of theological analysis of fundamental truth claims can also be applied to secular systems of thought – as one might say, doing “secular theology.” It might be that the basic truth claim of economic religion –that economic progress will save the world – is today difficult to defend, in light of the dark history of the twentieth century. One might distinguish doing secular theology from doing philosophy by the greater willingness of the former to reach basic conclusions of ultimate value and merit.
In identifying the existence of a religion, one good criterion thus might be whether it makes fundamental “truth claims” about the workings of the universe and the place therein of human beings -- and whether these claims are believed by significant numbers of human beings. Another person currently writing in this area is William Grassie, the founder of the Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science (in the past a recipient of grants from the John Templeton Foundation). As Grassie noted in 2008, attempts to define precisely the terms “religion” and “spirituality” can “prove illusive.” The term religion encompasses not only the familiar Christian forms but is also appropriately used more broadly “to designate a bounded believe system and set of practices, as in the religions of the Greeks, Romans, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Chinese and others.”38
Recognizing that some genuine religions go far as to deny their own religious character, Grassie describes a common worship in modern times of a “God-by-whatever name.” Ironically, it is possible to have a “religion of no religion.” He observes that the term “spiritual” derives from the Latin spiritus. The Latin verb root is spirare, literally to ‘breathe or blow.’ The connotation is that we are surrounded by a divine reality as pervasive, intimate, necessary, and invisible as the air we breathe.” In the end, for Grassie “every religion” can be identified as such by the fact that it is “making universal truth claims about the fundamental character of the universe as a whole.”39 By this standard, secularism qualifies as itself a religion.
Although not himself a theologian, the distinguished American legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin took an important step in 2013 to advance such an understanding of religion. In Religion Without God (unfortunately, the book was published posthumously and thus is a partly unfinished work), Dworkin explicitly recognizing that the “secular” is often religion in a new name. Dworkin now considers that “expanding the territory of religion improves clarity by making plain the importance of what is shared across that territory” of religion in its full modern diversity of expression. As Dworkin writes, we can thus speak, literally, not just metaphorically, of “religious atheism” as one prominent form of contemporary religious belief. Such secular forms of religion share with traditional religion the objective to inquire “more fundamentally about the meaning of human life and what living well means.” Recognizing the full scope of religion today, Dworkin declares that “the new religious wars are now really culture wars,” frequently involving competing secular understandings of the human condition and its prospects.40
Christianity in Disguise
Even if one accepts that secularism may be a new modern category of religion, it might be argued that there is nothing to be gained from integrating study of these two broad categories of fundamental belief in western civilization, traditional religion (historically Judaism and Christianity) and secular religion (fundamental belief systems that typically make a claim to be grounded in science). This argument faces a large practical difficulty, however, in that the social sciences have had few (if any) scientific successes to match the astonishing gains in knowledge of the physical world as achieved by physicists, chemists, and molecular biologists. For the social sciences, achieving such genuinely scientific successes mostly remains a goal for the future, the actual likelihood of which is an article of faith more than a scientific fact.41
Indeed, the long run record of the social sciences is unfortunately all too often one of making grand claims that have later fallen apart under closer scrutiny and with the benefit of historical hindsight. The two social scientists with the greatest impacts on the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, for example, are now generally discredited as scientists, their influence increasingly seen as attributable to their role as prophets of Freudianism and Marxism, two belief systems that actually achieved far greater religious than scientific successes, attracting many millions of followers across the world -- and whose associated religious revolutions did actually do much to shape the course of twentieth century history.
The tenability of maintaining a clear theological distinction between secular religion and traditional religion is still further undermined by the growing recognition of the large extent to which secular religions have actually advanced what are essentially Jewish and Christian truth claims in disguise.42 The outward forms may have differed, but much of the inner content of a secular religion is typically that of a traditional Jewish or Christian faith. This outcome might be regarded in one of three ways: (1) as the modern rise of a brand new form of (secular) religion out of Christianity (such as Islam arose in the seventh century): (2) as a modern major adaptation within Christian religion itself following a few such other large events in the 2,000 year history of Christianity (such as the Protestant Reformation), or (3) for the contemporary Christian devout, secular religions today might be seen as the source of new “Christian heresies” (as Protestantism was originally perceived in Rome).
Consistent with any of these three interpretations, the British political philosopher John Gray writes in 2004 that the many modern political and economic “projects of universal emancipation are earthly renditions of the Christian promise of salvation.” Indeed, “the idea of progress,” so central to secular religion, “is a secular version of Christian eschatology. In Christianity, history cannot be senseless: it is a moral drama, beginning with a rebellion against God and ending with the Last Judgment. Christians therefore think of salvation as a historical event.” This is in contrast, for example, to “Hindus and Buddhists, [for whom] it [history] means liberation from time.”43
The Christian roots of secular thought are well illustrated by Marxism which offered a revised story of an original happy and natural harmony in the world; a terrible fall into sin and depravity (now owing to the class struggle and resulting in human alienation, a new version of original sin); a future moment of the apocalypse; and the coming of a new heaven to earth as the culminating event in human history. Paul Tillich declared that, as a matter of objective historical influence, if not of the predictive accuracy of his economic theories, Karl Marx was “the most successful of all theologians since the [Protestant] Reformation.”44 A leading contemporary philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, declares that “Marxism shares in good measure both the content and the functions of Christianity as an interpretation of human existence, and it does so because it is [or was until recently] the historical successor of Christianity.”45
Igal Halfin is a contemporary Israeli historian who concluded in 2000, for example, based on extensive archival research, that the “eschatological” elements of Russian communism, borrowed from Christianity, were decisive influences in determining the very categories of thought that shaped the former Soviet Union’s government and economy in its first decades. It was not economics that determined religion, as so many committed economic determinists have firmly believed over the course of the twentieth century, but actually more the opposite. During the 1920s and 1930s, Soviet universities functioned as “a grand laboratory, designing techniques for the perfection of humanity.” Life in revolutionary Russia was everywhere a reflection of “messianic aspirations,” as the teachings of Marxist religion “shaped the identity of the Soviet citizen; it did not just coerce pre-existing, fully formed citizens to adjust to a Soviet reality that was somehow external to them.”46 Rather, for the communist faithful, Marxism formed the basis for their very way of comprehending their own existence in the world.
The presentation of a Christian message in a disguised “scientific” form was no doubt a key to the enormous impact historically of Marxism and communism. As Halfin reports, “Marxists would doubtless have renounced notions such as good, evil, messiah, and salvation as baseless religious superstitions that had nothing to do with the revolutionary experience. Yet, these concepts, translated into a secular key, continued to animate Communist discourse” in Russia for many years. Most Russian Communists were nevertheless altogether blind to the reality of the close “affinity” of Russian communism “with Christian messianism.”47 Yet, as described by Halfin, the parallels are obvious to us today:
The Marxist concept of universal History was essentially inspired by the Judeo-Christian bracketing of historical time between the Fall of Adam and the Apocalypse. The Original Expropriation, at the beginning of time, represented a rupture in the timeless primitive Communism, which inaugurated History and set humanity on a course of self-alienation. The universal Revolution, an abrupt and absolute event, was to return humanity to itself in a fiery cataclysm. … Imbuing time with a historical teleology that gave meaning to events, Marxist eschatology described [human] history as moral progression from the darkness of class society to the light of Communism.48
Also in 2000, another contemporary historian reached similar conclusions with respect to the implicit Christian elements on which the Nazi regime in part rode to power in Germany. As Michael Burleigh comments, “interest in political religions is currently undergoing a renaissance,” partly reflecting the waning faith in standard economic and other materialist understandings of history and a new recognition of the potentially large power of ideas – and most importantly, religious ideas – to shape societies. The conflicts between the Soviet Union and Germany might be seen as a revival of religious warfare in Europe, now inspired by outwardly secular faiths. Indeed, the period from 1914 to 1945 might be described as a new 30-years religious war at the heart of Europe, following after its seventeenth century counterpart.
Burleigh thus writes that the leaders of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union “utilised sacred language and rites, even when they aggressively rejected religion” in any explicit traditional form. As Burleigh finds, the popularity of Nazism partly reflected its wide use of “pseudo-liturgical rites and deliberate evocations of the Bible,” all part of a wider European pattern in which “totalitarian ideologies themselves shadowed the belief patterns of conventional religion,” all of them promising in new secular credos that “salvation would not be long in coming.”49
The American historian David Redles in 2005 described such developments in Germany in detail in Hitler’s Millennial Reich. As he reports, “many Germans and non-Germans … accepted Hitler’s messianic self-perception, his role as both prophet and messiah, interpreting him as a Christ or Godlike figure, sent from heaven to save Germany from utter annihilation.” Looking back on their early involvement with National Socialism, many German Nazis later described the initial moments as involving a “conversion experience.” Redles writes that “in keeping with the religious nature of the Nazi conversion experience, the new faith was almost always referred to with a sense of righteousness; it was the ‘correct’ or ‘right’ path to salvation.” It frequently invoked a profound sense “of moving from confusion to clarity, from darkness to light, … a [personal] perception of order collapsed into disorder and then having that sense of order reconstructed. The sense of order generated by Nazi apocalyptic cosmology was experienced as a revelation of simple but profound truths” among millions of Germans, including a surprising number of university professors and other intellectuals.50
As Hitler himself later wrote, describing the reactions of many fellow Germans – and especially the young -- to his messages as delivered early in the Nazi years,
You will sense the inner conversion [among Hitler’s audience]; then you will realize the new faith is awakening out of the lethargy of a corrupt epoch and taking to the march – the faith in divine justice, in heavenly truth; the faith in an unworldly, paradisiacal future, where the lust for power, force and enmity gives way to equality and fraternity, the spirit of sacrifice, love and loyalty, and the will to stand before the throne of the Almighty with the open heart of one ready to believe in God. And they will have sufficient greatness to stammer out the prayer for their [non-believing German] brothers and fathers, “Forgive them, Lord, for they knew not what they did.” It is on this basis alone that the new world will be built. To lay this groundwork is our task.51
Thus, amidst the social and economic chaos of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, as Burleigh writes, the “Nazi ideology offered redemption from a national ontological crisis,” partly due to the crushing loss of World War I but also due to the large confusions of bringing modern thinking to a society that was still traditional in many respects. For German followers, “Nazism was not simply applied biology, but the expression of eternal scientific laws, revealed by God and in turn invested with sacred properties.”52 The swastika was the Nazi cross (also used historically as a religious symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism); the 1,000 year Reich to come was the Nazi millennium; the Nazis could – and did -- look to Martin Luther for a prior Christian example of extreme anti-semitism. Burleigh explains that ”Nazism was neither science run riot, … nor bastardized Christianity. … It was a creative synthesis of both. Armed with his religious science, Hitler was … God’s partner in ordering and perfecting that part of mankind which concerned him.”53 Amazingly enough, a large part of the German population believed in him; indeed, his mass popularity did not really fade until the early 1940s when World War II turned sharply against Germany and the nation now finally lost its faith in this latest false messiah.
The Church of the American Nation State
America has also been a fertile ground for secular religion, although fortunately much more lasting, putting much more emphasis on human freedom, and. otherwise with many beneficial results (sufficient to motivate tens of millions of European immigrants – including my own relatives from Finland and Sweden about 100 years ago -- to move there and now to be happy that they did). A leading historian of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood, observes that “although some of the Founders … were fairly devout Christians, most leading Founders were not deeply religious men and few of them had much of a spiritual life.” Indeed, “many of them shared the [common eighteenth century] views of an enlightened speaker before the American Philosophical Society in 1793 who abhorred ‘that gloomy superstition disseminated by ignorant [Calvinist] illiberal preachers.’”54
As long ago as 1932, however, the American intellectual historian Carl Becker was pointing out that the Founders may have rejected old fashioned Calvinism but not Christianity itself altogether. Indeed, leading American and other thinkers of the late eighteenth century took a vision of “life eternal in the Heavenly City of God” which they then “projected into the life of man on earth and identified with the desired and hoped-for regeneration of society.” It was “to the future [that such Enlightenment] Philosophers therefore look, as to a promised land, a new millennium” here on earth. If faith in traditional Christianity was waning, they somehow understood that “the best hope” for its continued influence in the world “lay in recasting it, and in bringing it up to date” to fit the newly scientific expectations of the eighteenth century. In short, as Becker declared, “the task of the Philosophers was to present another interpretation of the past, the present, and the future state of mankind” – a seemingly new “religion of humanity” leading to a secular heaven on earth.55
One hears frequently of “anti-Americanism” in the world but seldom of “anti-Englishism,” “anti-Germanism,” or “anti-Chineseism.” Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington thus wrote in 2004 that “becoming an American” is a process “comparable to conversion to a new religion and with similar consequences.”56 Because America is the product of waves of immigration over several centuries, the national bonding agent had to be a unifying faith, also necessarily secular to avoid the old religious divisions that had plagued Europe in previous centuries. No one Jewish, Christian or any other older faith could hold Americans of so many races and backgrounds together. The necessary integrating force, Huntington explains, was thus “a nondenominational, national religion and, in its articulated form, not expressly a Christian religion.” Its civil religion “converts Americans from religious people of many denominations into a [single] nation with the soul of a church.”57
The unifying faith of America, however, is secular mainly in outward appearance. The fundamental reality, Huntington writes, is that the American nation state in essence is “a church that is profoundly Christian in its origins, symbolism, spirit, accoutrements, and, most importantly, its basic assumptions about the nature of man, history, right and wrong. The Christian Bible, Christian references, biblical allusions and metaphors, permeate expressions of the [American] civil religion.” The American civil religion is not, to be sure, identical to Christianity. As Huntington notes, the America’s civil religion allows for the frequent use of the word “God” -- as on the nation’s coins, for example. However, “two words … do not appear in civil religion statements and ceremonies. They are ‘Jesus Christ.’” This omission is of course of great religious significance. Many religions believe in a “God,” but only Christianity believes in the divinity of Christ. Again, though, the reality can be deceptive; as Huntington finds, even with little explicit mention “the American civil religion is Christianity without Christ.”58
Admittedly, this may raise basic theological questions for those who think of themselves as being both great American patriots and devout Christian believers as well. This may be a bit like declaring both “I am a Catholic” and “I am a Protestant” in the same breath, a concern that some prominent American theologians and philosophers have recently articulated. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University thus writes, too many devout American Christians “fail to see how the story of America can tempt [such] Christians to lose our own story and in the process to fail to notice the god we worship is no longer the God of Israel” but instead the god of America.59
Huntington was following in the path of the American sociologist Robert Bellah who had earlier developed similar themes in his 1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America,” among the most influential articles of American social science of the past 50 years.60 Bellah wrote there of a “civil religion” that for the United States had provided its “national religious self understanding” and in this capacity had played a central role throughout American history. The national religion was “a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity” – the American nation. For Bellah all this represented a “religion – there seems no other word for it” in a literal, not merely in a metaphorical, sense.61
As with most western secular religions, there were large borrowings from Christianity, even though the American civil religion in Bellah’s view, “is clearly not itself Christianity.” In terms of its contents, as Bellah wrote, the “God of the civil religion is not only rather ‘unitarian,’ he is also on the austere side, much more related to order, law and right than to salvation and love” – as Bellah may not have fully recognized, a bit of an old fashioned Calvinist, as one might expect of a nation with Puritan origins. But the deity of American civil religion was “actively interested and involved in history, with a special concern for America.” In some respects, the American civil religion had more of an Old Testament than a New Testament cast. Indeed, in the American civil religion, “Europe is Egypt; America, the promised land,” as the Atlantic Ocean would be seen as the Red Sea across which a perilous journey had been undertaken to build a model kingdom of God in the Massachusetts wilderness – a “city on a hill” to shine a beacon to all of mankind, as the seventeenth century Puritan settlers thought of themselves.62
Bellah’s article was important partly because, while he was far from the first to make the argument, it spread more widely the idea of secular religion as having a literally religious content. It also showed clearly how the boundaries between secular religion and traditional religion were more blurred than many people realized. Bellah explained that “behind the civil religion at every point lie biblical archetypes; Exodus, Chosen People, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But it is also genuinely American and genuinely new. It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols.” George Washington was the Moses and Abraham Lincoln (he gave his life to save the Union) the Christ figure. Bellah also considered that it was not a fixed religion, that “it is not evident that it is incapable of growth and new insight.”63
In 1988 Sanford Levinson published Constitutional Faith, a product, as he described it, of his own efforts to be a “legal theologian,” supplementing his daily job as a law professor at the University of Texas.64 Levinson explained that for most Americans the U.S. Constitution is seen as an American successor to the Christian Bible. The constitution is America’s “sacred text” that represents the foundational document for the American “civil religion.” Quoting approvingly from a Stanford Law Review article on “The Constitution as Scripture,” Levinson agrees that “America would have no national church …, yet the worship of the Constitution would serve the unifying function of a national civil religion” for the people of the United States.65
As the ultimate adjudicators, the members of the Supreme Court not only dress and act like priests, but the American nation has in fact substituted a “priesthood of lawyers for a pontifical Court” in Rome. For Levinson, the contemporary legal debates about constitutional original intent versus a “living constitution” re-enact much older theological disagreements between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The Catholic Church historically saw Christianity as refined through the prism of centuries of church interpretation, papal encyclicals, the writings of Catholic scholars, church councils, and other historic events. For early Protestants, such Catholic thinking was heresy, effectively substituting the efforts of fallen human beings in place of God’s directly revealed truths in the Bible. Today, in the American legal system, according to Levinson, there is a similar clash among “protestant” and “catholic” secular legal authorities in constitutional interpretation; the new “protestant position is that it is the [U.S.] constitutional text alone [that is relevant], while the [new] catholic position is that the source of doctrine is the text of the Constitution plus unwritten tradition.” 66
In 2007, Walter Russell Mead, formerly a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, took note of all this growing body of American – and European as well -- historical reinterpretation of the twentieth century in religious terms. He characterized “secular modernism” as constituting in reality a new “fourth faith” within the West. The first faith was Judaism, which 2,000 years ago gave rise to the second faith, Christianity, which was followed 650 years later by the third faith, Islam, all three tracing their origins to the biblical Abraham. In the modern age, as Mead argues, yet another Abrahamic faith has emerged as a powerful new religious movement, even as no one has yet given it a suitable name (“secular religion” seems to be about the best we have at present). Mead acknowledges that “believers in the fourth faith don’t always like to be called believers” in any form of religion (they are sometimes more comfortable with being described as “spiritual”). Indeed, many followers in the new secular religions “argue that unlike the superstitious and emotionally driven convictions of religious believers, the fourth faith is based in the clear light of science and reason.”67
This sense of secular rationality and modern uniqueness, however, is more of a religious than an actual scientific statement. As Mead comments, “the fourth faith, like the first three, fits the definition of faith given in the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament.” All four faiths are part of an “ongoing Abrahamic revolution in human affairs” that continues to shape the world; all “provide explanations of things that are seen and known, as well as predictions concerning things that are not yet seen.” Like Christianity, there are many “denominations” of the fourth faith – many forms of secular religion. The believers in fourth-faith forms of religion are often as righteously convinced of their own special access to the truths of the world as other religious believers of the past. Mead thus observes that “most devotees of the new [fourth faith] believe that their own particular version of it is the one sure way, and that history will culminate in the triumph of the true faith.”68 Monotheism was a great contribution of the Abrahamic faiths to world religion, now being reworked to new modern secular understandings of the one great truth of the world.
While Marxism, social Darwinism, Freudianism and many other twentieth century “denominations” of the “fourth faith” have been fading into history, a more generic “scientific materialism” that follows in their path still retains a great influence. At the heart of this secular religion are beliefs such as that the only legitimate access to “truth” must come from science; that all events in the world ultimately are explainable in natural terms (and thus are amenable to conclusive analysis with scientific methods); that other competing religions with conflicting truth claims are assertions of faith that cannot be rationally demonstrated; that the future prospects for the human condition depend on the world becoming more rational and scientific; that modern economic progress and its continuing advances will help to make that possible; and other related secular themes. In its more strident forms, one finds such thinking, for example, in the recent writings of the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and his American philosopher compatriot Daniel Dennett.69
For most of the modern age, there would be many competing secular explanations of the correct route of human progress – democratic socialism, capitalism, social Darwinism, Marxism, the “market mechanism” of the welfare state, globalism, etc., etc. Owing to intellectual misunderstandings and other failings, some of these supposed paths of scientific and economic progress turned out to have less happy consequences than had been predicted. After Jean Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century, however, no intellectual of such large stature rejected the very goal of scientific and economic progress itself, and the fundamental benefits that its successful pursuit would offer for the human condition. With the rise of environmentalism in the last decades of the twentieth century, however, this began to change.
Many of the central events of twentieth century history – the vast destructiveness of World War I to no seeming purpose, World War II, the holocaust, the building and use of the atom bomb, the worldwide widespread loss of plant and animal habitat (leading in some cases to the extinction of species), human induced climate change, and many other developments – called into question the modern assumption that economic progress would save the world. In response, the environmental movement has lead led the way in challenging the redemptive claims of economic progress. One environmental philosopher was even motivated to write an article on the good reasons why “environmentalists hate mainstream economists.”70
Environmentalism nevertheless showed one large continuity with the earlier modern worship of progress. The messages of environmental religion again drew heavily on longstanding Christian themes.71 Human beings in their consuming drive to assert complete mastery over nature were now “playing God” with the world. Given the frailties of the fallen human condition, this was bound to exceed limited human capabilities. Not only would human beings fail in practice to achieve the desired human control over nature, but the modern age was worshipping false idols; as in the Bible, severe punishments would therefore soon be forthcoming.
In the Old Testament, God’s punishments for those who violate his commands typically take the form of great floods, droughts, famines, pestilence, earthquakes and other environmental calamities. It is not a coincidence that Al Gore and other American environmentalists now warn that a warming climate will bring rising seas, spreading malaria, severe shortages of food, more severe hurricanes, and other environmental catastrophes, all on a truly biblical scale. Contemporary environmentalism – at least in the United States, this may be less the case in Europe -- owes a large debt to Deuteronomy and Jeremiah.
Over the long course of Christianity's history, the faithful have regarded the natural world as a product of the handiwork of God at the creation. Christians can learn about the mind of God, they have believed, by experiencing nature as God originally planned it. As John Calvin said, "the knowledge of God [is] sown in their minds out of the wonderful workmanship of nature." The great American theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote similarly in the eighteenth century that the experience of nature "will tend to convey instruction to our minds, and to impress things on the mind and to affect the mind, that we may, as it were, have God speaking to us." Such ideas were translated to more secular forms in the nineteenth century by transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and later by environmental followers such as John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club in 1892).
Environmentalists today usually leave out any such explicit references to God, but otherwise the message is little altered. They speak of experiencing powerful spiritual feelings in the presence of wild nature. They can more clearly see the humble place of human beings in a large and wonderful universe.
There is, moreover, a deeply ascetic and Calvinist side to contemporary environmentalism. The continual accumulation of goods and services is seen, not as the path to a greater individual and social happiness, but as a distraction from much higher and better things.72 A 1970s Sierra Club Book is entitled “Muddling Towards Frugality.”73 Economic optimism in the eighteenth century displaced the Calvinist pessimism that had long seen human beings living in a state of depravity, many of them predestined by God for damnation in the hereafter. Looking back on the human savagery of so much twentieth century history, it suggested that perhaps a larger dose of Calvinist pessimism was newly warranted.
Perhaps the most influential book in spreading the new environmental gospel in the United States was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, appearing in 1962. Carson wrote that human beings had lived for many thousands of years in an Eden-like “natural environment” that, given the very limited tools available at the time, could not be altered in any essential – and potentially harmful -- way by human actions. Although there were cancer causing elements in this environment such as the radiation of the sun, “over the eons of unhurried time that is nature’s, life reached an adjustment with destructive forces” through the workings of biological evolution.74
In almost a late twentieth century echo of Rousseau, however, for Carson there had been a recent moment of the fall: the modern spread of scientific and economic progress over the world. As she explains, “with the dawn of the industrial era the world became a place of continuous, ever-accelerating change. Instead of the natural environment there was rapidly substituted an artificial one composed of new chemical and physical agents, many of them possessing powerful capacities for inducing biologic change.” Having turned away from the possibility of living in a natural and thus ecologically balanced world, modern human beings now encountered large exposures to “carcinogens which his own activities had created” and against which “man had no protection.”75 The very gene structure of human beings, for example, had been “shaped through long eons of evolution.” Our natural “genetic heritage” is for the human species “infinitely more valuable than individual life.” Here again, however, through their own misplaced human pride and greed, ending up in the pervasive unnatural assaults on nature of the modern industrial system, human beings now faced a genetic future that would yield alienation and despair.
A remarkable number of American environmental leaders, including not only Carson herself but also John Muir, David Brower, Edward Abbey, Dave Foreman, and still others were brought up in the Presbyterian church (the Scottish branch of Calvinism), or one or another of its American offshoots. Environmental historian Mark Stoll thus comments that today’s “environmentalists rally in defense of virtuous nature against the amoral forces who let themselves be overcome by greed.” This reflects the “Calvinistic moral and activist roots” of the contemporary environmental movement. Indeed, recasting in new language “the doctrines laid down by John Calvin,” one finds today in the environmental movement a “moral outrage, activism, and appeal to government intervention [that] draw on the same account. [In this vision] the world has been transformed with new answers that are often only old ones rephrased” from past American religious history.76
In Europe, environmentalism has also exerted its largest public policy influence in northern nations with a Protestant heritage. Finding that all these Protestant connections are more than a mere coincidence, the distinguished environmental historian Donald Worster notes that the intense desire to purge the world of its spreading evils was combined in early Protestantism with a strong sense of “ascetic discipline.” There was, as Worster explains, “a deep suspicion in the Protestant mind of unrestrained play, extravagant consumption, and self-indulgence, a suspicion that tended to be very skeptical of human nature, to fear that humans were born depraved and were in need of strict management.” Worster now finds that the very echoes of this more pessimistic way of thinking are often prominently featured among current environmentalists for whom “too often for the public they sound like gloomy echoes of Gilbert Burnet's ringing jeremiad of 1679: ‘The whole Nation is corrupted...and we may justly look for unheard of Calamities.’" Worster suggests that in our own time of wide devotion to personal pleasures and consumption “the Protestant ascetic tradition may someday survive only among the nation’s environmentalists, who … compulsively turn off the lights.”77
Worster’s observation was amusingly illustrated by a Washington, DC resident who recently described her heroic pursuit of environmental purity. A bitter billing dispute with her electric company changed environmentalist Keya Chatterjee's life for the better, as she discovered,
Battling Pepco over charges for electricity at her Washington, D.C., row house in the dead of winter six years ago, Chatterjee eventually just ordered the utility to shut off the power. She and her husband lived in the dark and cold for a few months, an experience that convinced them that even when they turned the lights back on, they could use less power.
They went on a strict energy diet, one that has only increased since having a baby two-and-a-half years ago.
Getting mad at Pepco was like a gateway drug to sustainability," Chatterjee said. "Then we started getting rid of everything."78
In 1994 the insightful British sociologist David Martin speculated that “it may be that the ‘grand narratives’ of the enlightenment are themselves collapsing” today. 79 The secularization thesis ranks among the most important of these “grand narratives.” But it now seems that secularization is not what it has appeared. Instead of a retreat from religion, secularization is the transformation of religion from one old form to another newer one. The Jewish and Christian origins of western civilization are not being rejected by the powerful contemporary secularizing trends but are rather being newly adapted to a (seemingly) scientific dress.
According to one hypothesis, secularization might thus be seen as the solution to the following problem. Beginning in the Enlightenment, and then accelerating under the influence of Darwin, traditional Judaism and Christianity could no longer sustain their historic truth claims for large parts of the populations of Europe and the United States. The core religious truths of Judaism and Christianity might, however, have had more enduring validity than the historical Jewish and Christian way of expressing them. These truths might therefore have to be rediscovered in the name now of science which for many people had replaced the Bible as the leading source of the authoritative truths of the world. Secular religion has been equally as diverse in modern times as traditional Judaism and Christianity but its various “denominations” have fallen within the encompassing framework of an overarching modern secularism that has nevertheless been a “Christianity in disguise.”
If this hypothesis, or others that might better explain the empirical contemporary reality of secularism, are to be further explored, two developments might facilitate matters. The study of religion in schools of theology could be extended to incorporate secular religion explicitly into the legitimate field of religious study. The social sciences, a main vehicle for the secular religious truth claims of the modern age, could recognize their actual implicit religious content in contemporary society, and begin to apply theological methods – along with continuing to use the more technical methods appropriate to narrower questions of the workings of society -- to achieving a clearer understanding of the foundational justifications for their own thinking and activities.