Secularization: Christianity fighting a losing battle in the West
By Dr R Balashankar
Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory, Steve Bruce, Oxford University Press (HB), pp 243, £25.00
WE Indians are familiar with the word secular. It is used ad nauseum in political discourse. But its real meaning is altogether different from what is intended in India. Steve Bruce in his latest remarkable book Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory has quoted Bryan Wilson and defined "secularization as the decline in the social significance of religion." Its meaning also includes "the decay of religious institutions," and "the replacement of a specifically religious consciousness... by an empirical, rational, instrumental orientation."
The focus of his book is Christianity and the West. He asserts that the number of church-goers has declined. In Britain, according to the 2001 census it was as low as nine per cent. Bruce gives a series of statistics in various countries in the West to prove the point that the people have moved away from religion. Not even the old notion of ‘believing without belonging’ is true, he says, as religious affiliations and attendance have come down drastically. In Eastern Europe, where communism forcibly took religion away, people have not returned to it in any large numbers after the Churches, their property and the bones of saints were restored.
In an absolutely dispassionate analysis, Bruce discusses the religious institutions. "Most sects begin as primitive democracies, with little formal organization, but as they grow they acquire an internal division of labour and a distinct leadership cadre. Especially after the founder has died, there is a need to educate and train the preachers and teachers who will sustain the movement. There is an organization to be coordinated and managed... with organization come paid officials who have a vested interest in reducing tension between the sect and the wider society. The movement’s officers start to compare themselves to the clergy of the established church... The once-radical sect is compromised by its own officials." How true! We have seen organisations defeat themselves like this.
Bruce emphatically demolishes the proposition that secularisation is only a temporary, passing phenomena. He refutes arguments that there would be revival of religious interest. "The obvious evidential problem is that, in the British case, Christianity has experienced at least 150 years of decline, and each wave of possible gap fillers (the Pentecostal movements of the 1920s, the charismatic movements of the 1960s, the new religious movements of the 1970s, and the New Age spirituality of the 1990s) has failed to make even a small dent in the growing numbers of people free from any organized religious interest."
Secularisation, Bruce says is a result of a variety of complex social changes, which can broadly be called as modernisation. Some of these factors are: rise of individualism, the decline of deference, a new fluidity in social relations, and increasing levels of education. According to Sociologist David Voas quoted in the book ‘Of the 20 most modern nations in the world...19 are becoming increasingly secular. These countries have very different histories, speak 11 different languages and are located on four different continents.’ The exception is America, where they are more likely than Europeans to claim a religious identity, to go to church and to pray.
Secularisation has taken two forms: in Europe the churches became less popular; in the United States, the churches became less religious. "...many Americans do treat religion as a consumer commodity." "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" says Bruce.
He discusses Islam and many countries. In Asia he takes up China and Japan, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East. But both India and Hinduism are conspicuously absent from the analysis. On Islam, after a disclaimer that it is "difficult to generalize about millions of people from diverse backgrounds, in a variety of countries" Bruce says: "The rise of Islamic fundamentalism, terrorist attacks on Western targets, and the Western wars in Iraq and Afghanistan offers all Muslims in Europe a cause that they can support and an identity - as a member of a global radical Islam - that they can adopt." In fact, conservative Christians see the increasing Muslim presence in the West as an opportunity to revive Christianity. They believe that "dislike of Islam will cause nominal Christians to rediscover their faith." Though as of now, the "new competition is not simulating a Christian revival in Europe." It is to be noted that in several countries in the West various denominations of Christianity have sought minority status, as a fall-out of the presence of non-Christian religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and of course Islam.
Steve Bruce is Professor of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen and has authored several books and scores of articles on subjects relating to religion and secularization. In this book, he has brilliantly presented his arguments on the secularization of the West. Unobtrusively he has introduced the subject of Islam and the social, political and religious role and space it is occupying in a secular West. A profound book on an issue that ought to set the reader thinking.
(Oxford University Press, Inc. 198, Madison Avenue, New York, 10016)