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The Hedgehog Review

Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture


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The Hedgehog Review
Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture


Spring & Summer 2006 / Volume Eight / Numbers One & Two
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After Secularization / 5

E ssa y s
Rethinking Secularization: A Global Comparative Perspective / 7
José Casanova
Is Europe an Exceptional Case? / 23
Grace Davie
Secularization and the Impotence of Individualized Religion / 35
Steve Bruce
Challenging Secularization Theory: The Growth of “New Age”
Spiritualities of Life / 46
Paul Heelas
In Search of Certainties: The Paradoxes of Religiosity in Societies of
High Modernity / 59
Danièle Hervieu-Léger
Sellers or Buyers in Religious Markets? The Supply and Demand of
Religion / 69
Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart
French Secularism and the “Islamic Veil Affair” / 93
Talal Asad
Secularity without Secularism: The Best Political Position for
Contemporary Jews / 107
David Novak
American Religion and European Anti-Americanism / 116
Thomas Albert Howard
Islam in the West or Western Islam? The Disconnect of Religion and
Culture / 127
Olivier Roy
Secularization, European Identity, and “The End of the West” / 133
Slavica Jakelić
Islam in European Publics: Secularism and Religious Difference / 140
Nilüfer Göle
R eport from the field
Secularization in the Global South: The Case of Ethiopia / 146
Wilson N. Brissett

An Interview with Peter Berger / 152
Charles T. Mathewes

A Review of Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American
Secularism / 162
Christopher McKnight Nichols
A Review of David Martin’s On Secularization: Towards a Revised
General Theory / 167
Emily Raudenbush

Secularization: A Bibliographic Review / 170
Kevin M. Schultz
After Secularization

he idea that religion gradually ceases to be the guiding authority in the lives
of individuals and in societies as they become more modern has roots in
the intellectual and institutional heritage of the Enlightenment. But even in
Enlightenment thought, there was never just one understanding of the relationship
between the progress of humanity and the future of religion. Only a few prophets of
religion’s decline—Karl Marx being the most notable among them—dared to predict
that the world of the future would be a world without religion. Others, like Thomas
Jefferson, did not speak of, or look forward to, the end of religion as such, but predict-
ed that human enlightenment would be accompanied by a rational form of religious
knowledge and experience. The history of the idea of secularization, in other words, has
been a complex one and has involved a number of different, nuanced views.

While the idea of secularization was not the property of the social sciences alone, the
full embrace of a causal relationship between progress and religious decline happened
precisely in the social sciences, which took this assertion to its theoretical heights in the
form of secularization theory. The traditional version of secularization theory involved a
two-fold claim: that modernization is a universal process that has similar features every-
where and that secularization is inseparable from modernization. From its earliest days,
this secularization theory was thus inseparable from the sociological conceptualization
of modernity. The decline of religion as a disenchantment of the world, Max Weber
declared a century ago, was one of the unintended consequences of the Protestant
Reformation and constitutive of the general processes of modernity. Due to this inti-
mate connection between the notions of secularization and modernity, the crisis of
secularization theory occurred not only because of empirical evidence that came in the
form of religious revivals around the world, but also because of a problem in its own
conceptual foundation.

As a result, for almost two decades now, social scientists have been divided into two
camps: those who want to discard secularization theory altogether and those who want
to preserve some part of it for limited use. Many agree that secularization theory still
works (only) in Western Europe. Others suggest that secularization has occurred in
the United States as well, not simply as a result of the general processes of modern-
ization—industrialization and urbanization—but as a consequence of the actions of
concrete historical agents. On the other side of the Atlantic, Paul Heelas proposes that,
due to the rise of New Age spirituality in Western Europe, it is not only secularization
but sacralization, too, that characterizes European religious life. Still others, who view
secularization as a process of individualization and privatization of religion, read this
New Age spirituality as ultimate proof of secularization processes.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

The claims in the secularization debate very much depend on one’s definition of both
religion and secularization. Attempting to introduce some conceptual clarity and
empirical accuracy into the debate, José Casanova suggests that secularization should
be thought of as a three-fold phenomenon—the decline of religion, the differentia-
tion of the secular spheres, and the privatization of religion. He is right, of course, but
there are other ways in which secularization could be conceptualized; for example, as a
weakening in the authority of the faith that is still embraced or as the re-symbolization
of ancient creeds in ways that accommodate the modern world. Each one of these sub-
theses should be empirically and separately studied in the context of concrete historical

Arguably the most important realization that came out of the secularization debate was
that the questions of what religion is and what it ought to be are mutually intertwined
in our contemporary thinking of religion, just as they were in the times when secular-
ization theory was born. The disentanglement of these two questions is vital if we are to
see that what is at stake in the secularization debate is not just the destiny of the social
sciences, but, much more importantly, our appreciation of the place of religion in the
contemporary world. How are we to understand the different roles that religion plays
in different societies and at the same time preserve our ability to conceptualize this as a
problem? How should we approach the relationship between modernity and secularity
while being aware that there is no single modernity, only multiple modernities? How
might we understand secularization in a time and world after secularization? Religion
today has not only survived the modern world, but even thrives in some senses. That
said, as Peter Berger observed some decades ago, “something still happened.” The old
secularization theory may not explain exactly what did happen, but it is pressing that
we continue to try to make sense of it all. Given the nature of events unfolding in the
world, much is at stake in how we address such questions.


essa y s

Rethinking Secularization: A
Global Comparative Perspective
José Casanova

ver a decade ago, I suggested that in order to speak meaningfully of “secular-
ization,” we needed to distinguish between three different connotations:

a) Secularization as the decline of religious beliefs and practices in modern societies, often
postulated as a universal, human, developmental process. This is the most recent but
by now the most widespread usage of the term in contemporary academic debates on
secularization, although it remains unregistered in most dictionaries of most European

b) Secularization as the privatization of religion, often understood both as a general

modern historical trend and as a normative condition, indeed as a precondition for
modern liberal democratic politics.1

c) Secularization as the differentiation of the secular spheres (state, economy, science),

usually understood as “emancipation” from religious institutions and norms. This is
the core component of the classic theories of secularization, which is related to the
original etymological-historical meaning of the term within medieval Christendom.
As indicated by every dictionary of every Western European language, it refers to the

1 My book, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), put into
question the empirical as well as the normative validity of the privatization thesis.

José Casanova is Professor of Sociology at the New School for Social Research in New
York City, where he has taught since 1987. He has published widely in the areas of socio-
logical theory, religion and politics, transnational migration, and globalization. His most
important work, Public Religions in the Modern World (1994), has appeared in multiple
languages. He is presently a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

transfer of persons, things, meanings, etc., from ecclesiastical or religious to civil or lay
use, possession, or control.2

Maintaining this analytical distinction, I argued, should allow for the examination of
the validity of the three propositions independently of each other and thus refocus
the often fruitless secularization debate into comparative historical analysis that could
account for different patterns of secularization, in all three meanings of the term, across
societies and civilizations. Yet the debate between European and American sociologists
of religion remains unabated. For the European defenders of the traditional theory,
the secularization of Western European societies appears as an empirically irrefutable
fait accompli.3 But Europeans tend to switch back and forth between the traditional
meaning of secularization and the more recent meaning that points to the progressive,
and, since the 1960s, drastic and assumedly irreversible decline of religious beliefs and
practices among the European population. European sociologists tend to view the two
meanings of the term as intrinsically related because they view the two realities—the
decline in the societal power and significance of religious institutions, and the decline
of religious beliefs and practices among individuals—as structurally related components
of general processes of modernization.

American sociologists of religion tend to restrict the use of the term secularization to its
narrower, more recent meaning of the decline of religious beliefs and practices among
individuals. It is not so much that they question the secularization of society, but simply
that they take it for granted as an unremarkable fact. The United States, they assume,
was already born as a modern secular society. Yet they see no evidence of a progres-
sive decline in the religious beliefs and practices of the American people. If anything,
the historical evidence points in the opposite direction of progressive churching of the
American population since independence.4 Consequently, many American sociologists
of religion tend to discard the theory of secularization, or at least its postulate of the
progressive decline of religious beliefs and practices, as a European myth, once they are
able to show that in the United States none of the usual “indicators” of secularization,
such as church attendance, frequency of prayer, belief in God, etc., evince any long-
term declining trend.5

2 “Secularization,” The International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, ed. Neil J. Smelser and
Paul B. Baltes (Oxford: Elsevier, 2001) 13,786–91.
3 Steve Bruce, God Is Dead: Secularization in the West (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).
4 Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1990); Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776–1990: Winners
and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992); Andrew M.
Greeley, Religious Change in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).
5 Rodney Stark, “Secularization, R.I.P.,” Sociology of Religion 60.3 (1999): 249–73; Rodney Stark and
William S. Bainbridge, The Future of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

R ethinking S E C U L A R I Z A T I O N / casanova

The new American paradigm has turned the European model of secularization on its
head.6 In the extreme “supply-side” version of the rational choice theory of religious
markets, American sociologists use the American evidence to postulate a general struc-
tural relationship between disestablishment or state deregulation, open and free com-
petitive and pluralistic religious markets, and high levels of individual religiosity. What
was until now the American exception attains normative status, while the previous
European rule is now demoted to being a deviation from the American norm. The low
levels of religiosity in Europe are now supposedly explained by the persistence of either
the religious establishment or highly regulated monopolistic or oligopolistic religious
markets.7 But the internal comparative evidence within Europe does not support the
basic tenets of the American theory. Monopolistic situations in Poland and Ireland are
linked to persistently high levels of religiosity, while increasing liberalization and state
deregulation elsewhere are often accompanied by persistent rates of religious decline.8

An impasse has been reached in the debate. The traditional An impasse has been reached
theory of secularization works relatively well for Europe, but
not for the United States. The American paradigm works
in the debate.
relatively well for the U.S., but not for Europe. Neither
can offer a plausible account of the internal variations within Europe. Most impor-
tantly, neither works very well for other world religions and other parts of the world.
Thus, in order to overcome the impasse and surmount the fruitless debate, one needs
to make clear the terminological and theoretical disagreements. But most importantly,
one needs to historicize and contextualize all categories, refocus the attention beyond
Europe and North America, and adopt a more global perspective.9

While the decline and privatization sub-theses have undergone numerous critiques and
revisions in the last fifteen years, the understanding of secularization as a single pro-
cess of functional differentiation of the various institutional spheres or sub-systems
of modern societies remains relatively uncontested in the social sciences, particularly
within European sociology. Yet one should ask whether it is appropriate to subsume
the multiple and diverse historical patterns of differentiation and fusion of the various

6 R. Stephen Warner, “Work in Progress toward a New Paradigm for the Sociological Study of Religion in
the United States,” American Journal of Sociology 98.5 (1993): 1,044–93.
7 Theodore Caplow, “Contrasting Trends in European and American Religion,” Sociological Analysis
46.2 (1985): 101–8; Rodney Stark and Laurence Iannaccone, “A Supply-Side Interpretation of the
‘Secularization’ of Europe,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33 (1994): 230–52; Roger Finke,
“The Consequences of Religious Competition: Supply-Side Explanations for Religious Change,” Rational
Choice Theory and Religion: Summary and Assessment, ed. L. A. Young (New York: Routledge, 1997)
8 Steve Bruce, “The Supply-Side Model of Religion: The Nordic and Baltic States,” Journal for the Scientific
Study of Religion 39.1 (2000): 32–46.
9 José Casanova, “Beyond European and American Exceptionalisms: Towards a Global Perspective,”
Predicting Religion, ed. Grace Davie, Paul Heelas, and Linda Woodhead (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003)

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

institutional spheres (that is, church and state, state and economy, economy and sci-
ence) that one finds throughout the history of modern Western societies into a single
teleological process of modern functional differentiation.

One should further ask the extent to which it is possible to dissociate the analytical
reconstructions of the historical processes of differentiation of Western European soci-
eties from general theories of modernity that postulate secular differentiation as a nor-
mative project or global requirement for all “modern” societies. In other words, can the
theory of secularization as a particular theory of European historical developments be
dissociated from general theories of global modernization? Can there be a non-Western,
non-secular modernity or are the self-definitions of modernity inevitably tautological
insofar as secular differentiation is precisely what defines a society as “modern”?

…the religious and the I fully agree with Talal Asad that the secular “should not be
thought of as the space in which real human life gradually
secular are inextricably emancipates itself from the controlling power of ‘religion’
bound together and mutually and thus achieves the latter’s relocation.”10 In the histori-
cal processes of European secularization, the religious and
condition each other. the secular are inextricably bound together and mutually
condition each other. Asad has shown how “the historical
process of secularization effects a remarkable ideological inversion…. For at one time
‘the secular’ was a part of a theological discourse [saeculum],” while later “the religious”
is constituted by secular political and scientific discourses, so that “religion” itself as a
historical category and as a universal globalized concept emerges as a construction of
Western secular modernity.11

But Asad’s own genealogy of the secular is too indebted to the self-genealogies of secu-
larism he has so aptly exposed, and fails to recognize the extent to which the formation
of the secular is itself inextricably linked with the internal transformations of European
Christianity, from the so-called Papal Revolution to the Protestant Reformation,
and from the ascetic and pietistic sects of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
to the emergence of evangelical, denominational Protestantism in nineteenth-century
America. Should one define these transformations as a process of internal seculariza-
tion of Western Christianity, or as the cunning of secular reason, or both? A proper
rethinking of secularization will require a critical examination of the diverse patterns of
differentiation and fusion of the religious and the secular and their mutual constitution
across all world religions.

10 Talal
Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christiantiy, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
2003) 191.
11 Asad192; see also Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press,

R ethinking S E C U L A R I Z A T I O N / casanova

The contextualization of categories should begin with the recognition of the particular
Christian historicity of Western European developments, as well as of the multiple and
diverse historical patterns of secularization and differentiation within European and
Western societies. Such a recognition in turn should allow a less Euro-centric compara-
tive analysis of patterns of differentiation and secularization in other civilizations and
world religions, and more importantly the further recognition that with the world-his-
torical process of globalization initiated by the European colonial expansion, all these
processes everywhere are dynamically interrelated and mutually constituted.

Multiple Differentiations, Secularizations, and Modernities

There are multiple and diverse secularizations in the West and multiple and diverse
Western modernities, and they are still mostly associated with fundamental histori-
cal differences between Catholic, Protestant, and Byzantine Christianity, and between
Lutheran and Calvinist Protestantism. As David Martin showed, in the Latin-Catholic
cultural area, and to some extent throughout Continental Europe, there was a colli-
sion between religion and the differentiated secular spheres—that is, between Catholic
Christianity and modern science, modern capitalism, and the modern state.12 As a
result of this protracted clash, the Enlightenment critique of religion found here ample
resonance; the secularist genealogy of modernity was constructed as a triumphant eman-
cipation of reason, freedom, and worldly pursuits from the constraints of religion; and
practically every “progressive” European social movement from the time of the French
Revolution to the present was informed by secularism. The secularist self-narratives,
which have informed functionalist theories of differentiation and secularization, have
envisioned this process as the emancipation and expansion of the secular spheres at the
expense of a much diminished and confined, though also newly differentiated, religious
sphere. The boundaries are well kept; only they are relocated, drastically pushing reli-
gion into the margins and into the private sphere.

In the Anglo-Protestant cultural area, by contrast, and particularly in the United States,
there was “collusion” between religion and the secular differentiated spheres. There is
little historical evidence of any tension between American Protestantism and capitalism
and very little manifest tension between science and religion in the U.S. prior to the
Darwinian crisis at the end of the nineteenth century. The American Enlightenment
had hardly any anti-religious component. Even “the separation of church and state”
that was constitutionally codified in the dual clause of the First Amendment, had as
much the purpose of protecting “the free exercise” of religion from state interference as
that of protecting the federal state from any religious entanglement. It is rare, at least
until very recently, to find any “progressive” social movement in America appealing to

12 David Martin, A General Theory of Secularization (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

“secularist” values; appeals to the Gospel and to “Christian” values are certainly much
more common throughout the history of American social movements, as well as in the
discourse of American presidents.

The purpose of this comparison is not to reiterate the well-known fact that American
society is more “religious” and therefore less “secular” than European societies. While
the first may be true, the second proposition does not follow. On the contrary, the
United States has always been the paradigmatic form of a modern secular, differenti-
ated society. Yet the triumph of “the secular” came aided by religion rather than at its
expense, and the boundaries themselves became so diffused that, at least by European
ecclesiastical standards, it is not clear where the secular ends and religion begins. As
Tocqueville observed, “not only do the Americans practice their religion out of self-
interest, but they often even place in this world the interest which they have in practic-
ing it.”13 Yet it would be ludicrous to argue that the United States is a less functionally
differentiated society, and therefore less modern, and therefore less secular, than France
or Sweden. On the contrary, one could argue that there is less functional differentiation
of state, economy, science, etc., in étâtiste France than in the United States, but this does
not make France either less modern or less secular than the United States.

When American sociologists of religion retort from their provincial perspective that sec-
ularization is a European myth, they are right if only in the sense that the United States
was born as a modern secular state, never knew the established church of the European
caesaro-papist absolutist state, and did not need to go through a European process of
secular differentiation in order to become a modern secular society. If the European
concept of secularization is not a particularly relevant category for the “Christian”
United States, much less may it be directly applicable to other axial civilizations with
very different modes of structuration of the religious and the secular. As an analytical
conceptualization of a historical process, secularization is a category that makes sense
within the context of the particular internal and external dynamics of the transforma-
tion of Western European Christianity from the Middle Ages to the present. But the
category becomes problematic once it is generalized as a universal process of societal
development and once it is transferred to other world religions and other civilizational
areas with very different dynamics of structuration of the relations and tensions between
religion and world, or between cosmological transcendence and worldly immanence.

The category of secularization could hardly be applicable, for instance, to such “reli-
gions” as Confucianism or Taoism, insofar as they are not characterized by high tension
with “the world,” insofar as their model of transcendence can hardly be called “reli-
gious,” and insofar as they have no ecclesiastical organization. In a sense, those religions
that have always been “worldly” and “lay” do not need to undergo a process of secular-

13 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1965) 284.

R ethinking S E C U L A R I Z A T I O N / casanova

ization. To secularize—that is, “to make worldly” or “to transfer from ecclesiastical to
civil use”—is a process that does not make much sense in such a civilizational context.
In this respect, China and the Confucian civilizational area have been “secular” avant
la lettre. It is the postulated intrinsic correlation between modernization and seculariza-
tion that is highly problematic. There can be modern societies like the U.S., which are
secular while deeply religious, and there can be pre-modern societies like China, which
from our Euro-centric religious perspective look deeply secular and irreligious.14

It just happened that the particular, specifically Christian, Western European dynamic
of secularization became globalized with the expansion of European colonialism, and
with the ensuing global expansion of capitalism, of the European system of states, of
modern science, and of modern ideologies of secularism. Thus, the relevant questions
become how Confucianism, Taoism, and other world religions respond to the global
expansion of “Western secular modernity,” and how all the religious traditions are rein-
terpreted as a response to this global challenge.

The concept of multiple modernities, first developed by S. N. Eisenstadt, is a more ade-

quate conceptualization and pragmatic vision of modern global trends than either secu-
lar cosmopolitanism or the clash of civilizations. In a certain sense, it shares elements
from both. Like cosmopolitanism, the concept of multiple modernities maintains that
there are some common elements or traits shared by all “modern” societies that help to
distinguish them from their “traditional” or pre-modern forms. But these modern traits
or principles attain multiple forms and diverse institutionalizations. Moreover, many of
these institutionalizations are continuous or congruent with the traditional historical
civilizations. Thus, there is both a civilization of modernity and the continuous trans-
formation of the pre-modern historical civilizations under modern conditions, which
help to shape the multiple modernities.

Most of the modern traits may have emerged first in the West, but even there one finds
multiple modernities. Naturally, this multiplicity becomes even more pronounced as
non-Western societies and civilizations acquire and institutionalize those modern traits.
Modern traits, moreover, are not developed necessarily in contradistinction to or even
at the expense of tradition, but rather through the transformation and the pragmatic
adjustment of tradition. In this respect, the multiple modernities position shares with
the clash of civilizations position the emphasis on the relevance of cultural traditions
and world religions for the formation of multiple modernities.

14 Indeed, in the same way as the U.S. appears as an “outlier” or deviant case among advanced post-indus-
trial societies, similarly China appears as an outlier among agrarian societies. Actually, China evinces the
lowest level of religious beliefs and religious participation of any country in the world, challenging the
assumed correlation between insecurity/survival values and religious beliefs and participation. On the
Norris/Inglehart scale, agrarian China—at least its Confucian elites—would have appeared for centuries
as a highly secular-rational society. See Figures 10.1 and 10.2 in Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart,
Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

Secular cosmopolitanism is still based on a rigid dichotomous contraposition of sacred

tradition and secular modernity, assuming that the more of one, the less of the other.
The clash of civilizations perspective, by contrast, emphasizes the essential continuity
between tradition and modernity. Western modernity is assumed to be continuous with
the Western tradition. As other civilizations modernize, becoming ever more like the
West, they will also maintain an essential continuity with their respective traditions—
thus, the inevitable clash of civilizations as all modern societies basically continue their
diverse and mostly incommensurable traditions.

The multiple modernities position rejects both the notion of a modern radical break
with traditions as well as the notion of an essential modern continuity with tradition.
All traditions and civilizations are radically transformed in the processes of modern-
ization, but they also have the possibility of shaping in particular ways the institu-
tionalization of modern traits. Traditions are forced to respond and adjust to modern
conditions, but in the process of reformulating their traditions for modern contexts,
they also help to shape the particular forms of modernity.

Decline, Revival, or Transformation of Religion?

The progressive decline of institutional Christian religion in Europe is an undeniable

social fact. Since the 1960s an increasing majority of the European population has
ceased participating in traditional religious practice on a regular basis, while still main-
taining relatively high levels of private individual religious beliefs. Grace Davie has
characterized this general European situation as “believing without belonging.”15 At the
same time, however, large numbers of Europeans, even in the most secular countries,
still identify themselves as “Christian,” pointing to an implicit, diffused, and submerged
Christian cultural identity. Danièle Hervieu-Léger has offered the reverse characteriza-
tion of the European situation as “belonging without believing.”16 From France to
Sweden and from England to Scotland, the historical churches (Catholic, Lutheran,
Anglican, or Calvinist), although emptied of active membership, still function, vicari-
ously as it were, as public carriers of the national religion. In this respect, “secular” and
“Christian” cultural identities are intertwined in complex and rarely verbalized modes
among most Europeans.

Yet traditional explanations of European secularization by reference to either increasing

institutional differentiation, increasing rationality, or increasing individualism are not per-
suasive since other modern societies, like the United States, do not manifest similar levels
of religious decline. Once the exceptional character of European religious developments is

15 GraceDavie, Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing Without Belonging (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994); and
Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
16 Danièle
Hervieu-Léger, “Religion und Sozialer Zusammenhalt in Europa,” Transit: Europäische Revue 26
(Summer 2004): 101–19.

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recognized, it becomes necessary to search for an explanation not in general processes of

modernization but rather in particular European historical developments. Indeed, the most
interesting issue sociologically is not the fact of progressive religious decline among the
European population since the 1950s, but the fact that this decline is interpreted through
the lenses of the secularization paradigm and is therefore accompanied by a “secularist”
self-understanding that interprets the decline as “normal” and “progressive”—that is, as a
quasi-normative consequence of being a “modern” and “enlightened” European. The secu-
larization of Western European societies can be explained better in terms of the triumph of
the knowledge regime of secularism, than in terms of structural processes of socio-economic
development. The internal variations within Europe, moreover, can be explained better in
terms of historical patterns of church-state and church-nation
relations, as well as in terms of different paths of secularization
It is the tendency to link
among the different branches of Christianity, than in terms of
levels of modernization. processes of secularization to
processes of modernization…
It is the tendency to link processes of secularization to
processes of modernization, rather than to the patterns of that is at the root of our
fusion and dissolution of religious, political, and societal impasse at the secularization
communities—that is, of churches, states, and nations—
that is at the root of our impasse at the secularization debate.
debate. Following Weber we should distinguish analytically
the community cult and salvation religious communities.17 Not every salvation religion
functions as a community cult—that is, is co-extensive with a territorial political com-
munity or plays the Durkheimian function of societal integration. One may think of
the many denominations, sects, or cults in America that function primarily as religions
of individual salvation. Nor does every community cult function as a religion of indi-
vidual salvation offering the individual qua individual salvation from sickness, poverty,
and all sorts of distress and danger—one may think of state Confucianism in China,
Shintoism in Japan, or most caesaro-papist imperial cults. Lesser forms of “folk” reli-
gion tend to supply individual healing and salvation.

The Christian church and the Muslim umma are two particular though very different
forms of historical fusion of community cults and religions of individual salvation.
The truly puzzling question in Europe, and the explanatory key in accounting for the
exceptional character of European secularization, is why national churches, once they
ceded to the secular nation-state their traditional historical function as community
cults—that is, as collective representations of the imagined national communities and
carriers of the collective memory—also lost in the process their ability to function as
religions of individual salvation. Crucial is the question of why individuals in Europe,
once they lose faith in their national churches, do not bother to look for alternative

17 Max
Weber, “The Social Psychology of the World Religion,” From Max Weber, ed. H. H. Gerth and C.
Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946) 272.

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salvation religions. In a certain sense, the answer lies in the fact that Europeans continue
to be implicit members of their national churches, even after explicitly abandoning
them. The national churches remain there as a public good to which they have right-
ful access when it comes time to celebrate the transcendent rites of passage, birth, and
death. It is this peculiar situation that explains the lack of demand and the absence of
a truly competitive religious market in Europe.

In contrast, the particular pattern of separation of church and state codified in the dual
clause of the First Amendment served to structure the unique pattern of American reli-
gious pluralism. The United States never had a national church. Eventually, all religions
in America, churches as well as sects, irrespective of their origins, doctrinal claims, and
ecclesiastical identities, turned into “denominations,” formally equal under the consti-
tution and competing in a relatively free, pluralistic, and voluntaristic religious market.
As the organizational form and principle of such a religious system, denominational-
ism constitutes the great American religious invention.18 Along with, yet differentiated
from, each and all denominations, the American civil religion functions as the com-
munity cult of the nation.

At first, the diversity and substantial equality was only institutionalized as internal
denominational religious pluralism within American Protestantism. America was
defined as a “Christian” nation and “Christian” meant solely “Protestant.” But eventu-
ally, after prolonged outbursts of Protestant nativism directed primarily at Catholic
immigrants, the pattern allowed for the incorporation of religious others, Catholics and
Jews, into the system of American religious pluralism. A process of dual accommoda-
tion took place whereby Catholicism and Judaism became American religions, while
American religion and the nation were equally transformed in the process. America
became a “Judeo-Christian” nation, and Protestant, Catholic, and Jew became the three
denominations of the American civil religion.

The fact that religion, religious institutions, and religious identities played a central
role in the process of incorporating European immigrants has been amply documented
and forms the core of Will Herberg’s well-known thesis.19 Herberg’s claim that immi-
grants became more religious as they became more American has been restated by most
contemporary studies of immigrant religions in America.20 It is important to realize,
therefore, that immigrant religiosity is not simply a traditional residue, an Old World

18 Sydney
E. Mead, “Denominationalism: The Shape of Protestantism in America,” The Lively Experiment:
The Shaping of Christianity in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1976); Andrew M. Greeley, The
Denominational Society: A Sociological Approach to Religion in America (Glenview: Scott, Foresman,
19 Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew (Garden City: Doubleday, 1960).
20 SeeJosé Casanova, “Immigration and the New Religious Pluralism: A EU/US Comparison,” The New
Religious Pluralism and Democracy, ed. Thomas Banchoff (New York: Oxford University Press, forth-

R ethinking S E C U L A R I Z A T I O N / casanova

survival likely to disappear with adaptation to the new context, but rather an adaptive
response to the New World. The thesis implies not only that immigrants tend to be
religious because of a certain social pressure to conform to American religious norms,
something that is undoubtedly the case, but more importantly, that collective religious
identities have always been one of the primary ways of structuring internal societal
pluralism in American history.21 In my view, the thesis also offers a more plausible
explanation of American religious vitality than rational choice supply-side theories of
competitive religious markets.

There is a sense in which both European secular develop- When it comes to religion,
ments and American religious developments are rather unique
there is no global rule.
and exceptional. In this respect, one could certainly talk, as
Europeans have done for decades, of “American exceptional-
ism,” or one could talk, as it has become fashionable today, of “European exceptional-
ism.” But both characterizations are highly problematic, if it is implied, as it was in the
past, that America was the exception to the European rule of secularization, or if it is
implied, as it often is today, that secular Europe is the exception to some global trend of
religious revival.22 When it comes to religion, there is no global rule. All world religions
are being transformed radically today, as they were throughout the era of European
colonial expansion, by processes of modernization and globalization. But they are being
transformed in diverse and manifold ways.

All world religions are forced to respond to the global expansion of modernity as well
as to their mutual and reciprocal challenges, as they all undergo multiple processes of
aggiornamento and come to compete with one another in the emerging global system
of religions. Under conditions of globalization, world religions do not only draw upon
their own traditions but also increasingly upon one another. Inter-civilizational encoun-
ters, cultural imitations and borrowings, diasporic diffusions, hybridity, creolization,
and transcultural hyphenations are all part and parcel of the global present.

Sociologists of religion should be less obsessed with the decline of religion and more
attuned to the new forms that religion is assuming in all world religions at three dif-
ferent levels of analysis: the individual level, the group level, and the societal level. In a
certain sense, Ernst Troeltsch’s three types of religion—“individual mysticism,” “sect,”
and “church”—correspond to these three levels of analysis.23 At the individual level the

21 Racialization
has been the other primary way of structuring internal societal pluralism in American his-
tory. Not religion alone, as Herberg’s study would seem to imply, and not race alone, as contemporary
immigration studies would seem to imply, but religion and race and their complex entanglements have
served to structure the American experience of immigrant incorporation—indeed, they are the keys to
“American exceptionalism.”
22 GraceDavie, “Europe: The Exception that Proves the Rule?” The Desecularization of the World, ed. Peter
Berger (Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1999).
23 Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (New York: MacMillan, 1931).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

predictions of Troeltsch and William James at the beginning of the last century con-
cerning individual mysticism have held well.24 What Thomas Luckmann called “invis-
ible religion” in the 1960s remains the dominant form of individual religion and is
likely to gain increasing global prominence.25 The modern individual is condemned to
pick and choose from a wide arrangement of meaning systems. From a Western mono-
theistic perspective, such a condition of polytheistic and polyformic individual freedom
may seem a highly novel or postmodern one. But from a
non-Western perspective, particularly that of the Asian pan-
“Invisible religion”…remains
theist religious traditions, the condition looks much more
the dominant form like the old state of affairs. Individual mysticism has always
been an important option, at least for elites and religious
of individual religion….
virtuosi, within the Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist traditions.
What Inglehart calls the expansion of post-materialist spiri-
tual values can be understood in this respect as the generalization and democratization
of options until now only available to elites and religious virtuosi in most religious
traditions. As the privileged material conditions available to the elites for millennia are
generalized to entire populations, so are the spiritual and religious options that were
usually reserved for them. I would not characterize such a process, however, as religious
decline. But what is certainly new in our global age is the simultaneous presence and
availability of all world religions and all cultural systems, from the most “primitive” to
the most “modern,” often detached from their temporal and spatial contexts, ready for
flexible or fundamentalist individual appropriation.

At the level of religious communities, much of sociology has lamented the loss of
Gemeinschaft as one of the negative consequences of modernity. Both individualism
and societalization are supposed to expand at the expense of community. Theories of
modernization are predicated on the simple dichotomies of tradition and modernity,
and of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Most theories of secularization are based on the
same simple dichotomies and ultimately on the premise that in the long run pro-
cesses of modern societal rationalization make community inviable. But the fact is that
modernity, as Tocqueville saw clearly, offers new and expanded possibilities for the
construction of communities of all kinds as voluntary associations, and particularly for
the construction of new religious communities as voluntary congregations. The sect
is, of course, the paradigmatic type of a voluntary religious congregation. But in the
traditional theory, the sect lives in a high and ultimately unsustainable tension with the
larger society. American denominationalism, by contrast, can be understood as the gen-
eralization and relaxation of the sectarian principle of voluntary religious association.

24 William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985); and
Charles Taylor, Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 2002).
25 Thomas Luckmann, The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society (New York:
Macmillan, 1967).

R ethinking S E C U L A R I Z A T I O N / casanova

Most of the so-called “cults,” “new religions,” or “new religious movements” assume the
form of voluntary congregations, but so do the most dynamic forms of Christianity, like
the Christian base communities in Latin America or the Pentecostal churches through-
out the world, or the most dynamic forms of Islam—such as Tablighi Jamaat, a form
of evangelical Islam akin to early nineteenth-century American Methodism—and the
many forms of Sufi brotherhoods. Even world religions, like Hinduism or Buddhism,
that have a less developed tradition of congregationalism, are emerging as prominent
new institutional forms, particularly in the immigrant diasporas. This institutional
transformation in the immigrant diasporas is in turn affecting profoundly the religious
institutional forms in the civilizational home areas.

At the societal level of what could be called “imagined religious communities,” secular
nationalism and national “civil religions” will continue to be prominent carriers of
collective identities, but ongoing processes of globalization are likely to enhance the re-
emergence of the great “world religions” as globalized transnational imagined religious
communities. While new cosmopolitan and transnational imagined communities will
emerge, the most relevant ones are likely to be once again the old civilizations and world
religions. Therein lies the merit of Samuel Huntington’s thesis.26 But his geo-political
conception of civilizations as territorial units akin to nation-states and superpowers
is problematic, leading him to anticipate future global conflicts along civilizational
fault lines. In fact, globalization represents not only a great opportunity for the old
world religions insofar as they can free themselves from the territorial constraints of the
nation-state and regain their transnational dimensions, but also a great threat insofar
as globalization entails the de-territorialization of all cultural systems and threatens to
dissolve the essential bonds between histories, peoples, and territories that have defined
all civilizations and world religions.

Religious Privatization, Religious De-Privatization, or Both?

It is unlikely that either modern authoritarian regimes or modern liberal democratic

systems will prove ultimately successful in banishing religion to the private sphere.
Authoritarian regimes may be temporarily successful through repressive measures in
enforcing the privatization of religion. Democratic regimes, by contrast, are likely to
have greater difficulty in doing so, other than through the tyranny of a secular major-
ity over religious minorities. As the case of France shows, laïcité can indeed become a
constitutionally sacralized principle, consensually shared by the overwhelming majority
of citizens, who support the enforcement of legislation banishing “ostensible religious
symbols” from the public sphere because they are viewed as a threat to the national
system or the national tradition. Obviously, the opposite is the case in the United

26 SamuelP. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1996).

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States, where secular minorities may feel threatened by Judeo-Christian definitions of

the national republic.

I cannot find a compelling reason, on either democratic or liberal grounds, to banish

in principle religion from the public democratic sphere. One could at most, on prag-
matic historical grounds, defend the need for separation between “church” and “state,”
although I am no longer convinced that complete separation is either a necessary or
a sufficient condition for democracy. The attempt to establish a wall of separation
between “religion” and “politics” is both unjustified and probably counterproductive for
democracy itself. Curtailing the “free exercise of religion” per se must lead to curtailing
the free exercise of the civil and political rights of religious citizens and will ultimately
infringe on the vitality of a democratic civil society. Particular religious discourses or
particular religious practices may be objectionable and susceptible to legal prohibition
on some democratic or liberal ground, but not because they are “religious” per se.

Tocqueville was perhaps the only modern social theorist who was able to elaborate these
issues with relative clarity and freed from secularist prejudices. He questioned the two
central premises of the Enlightenment critique of religion, namely that the advance-
ment of education and reason and the advancement of democratic freedoms would
make religion politically irrelevant. He anticipated,
rather presciently, that the democratization of politics
Curtailing the “free exercise of
and the entrance of ordinary people into the political
religion” per se must lead to arena would augment, rather than diminish, the pub-
lic relevance of religion. He found empirical confirma-
curtailing the free exercise of
tion in the democratic experience of the United States,
the civil and political rights at the time the most democratic of modern societies
and the one with the highest levels of literacy.27
of religious citizens and will
ultimately infringe on the vitality The history of democratic politics throughout the
world has confirmed Tocqueville’s assumptions.
of a democratic civil society.
Religious issues, religious resources, interdenomina-
tional conflicts, and secular-religious cleavages have
all been relatively central to electoral democratic politics and to the politics of civil
society throughout the history of democracy. Even in secular Europe, where a majority
of the political elites and of ordinary citizens had taken the thesis of privatization for
granted, unexpectedly, contentious religious issues have returned again to the center
of European politics.28 It is not surprising therefore that this should be even more the

27 The fact that Tocqueville uses the subterfuge of discussing the problems of black slavery and the genocide
of the Native American in a separate chapter at the end of Book I because “they are outside democracy”
shows the extent to which Tocqueville was at least implicitly aware that America was a “racial” democracy,
for whites only, and therefore far from being a model democracy.
28 José Casanova, “Religion, Secular Identities, and European Integration,” Religion in an Expanding Europe,
ed. Timothy Byrnes and Peter Katzenstein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

R ethinking S E C U L A R I Z A T I O N / casanova

case in the United States, where historically religion has always been at the very center
of all great political conflicts and movements of social reform. From independence to
abolition, from nativism to women’s suffrage, from prohibition to the civil rights move-
ment, religion has always been at the center of these conflicts, but also on both sides of
the political barricades. What is new in the last decades is the fact that for the first time
in American political history, the contemporary culture wars are beginning to resemble
the secular-religious cleavages that were endemic to continental European politics in
the past. Religion itself has now become a contentious public issue.

If today I had to revise anything from my earlier work, it The rules for protection
would be my attempt to restrict, on what I thought were
justifiable normative grounds, public religion to the pub-
from the tyranny of religious
lic sphere of civil society. This remains my own personal majorities should be the same
normative and political preference, but I am not certain
democratic rules used to
that the secular separation of religion from political soci-
ety or even from the state are universalizable maxims, defend from the tyranny of any
in the sense that they are either necessary or sufficient
democratic majority.
conditions for democratic politics. As the example of so
many modern secular authoritarian and totalitarian states
show, from the Soviet Union to secular Turkey, strict no establishment is by no means
a sufficient condition for democracy. On the other hand, several countries with at least
nominal establishment, such as England or Lutheran Scandinavian countries, have a
relatively commendable record of democratic freedoms and of protection of the rights
of minorities, including religious ones. It would seem, therefore, that strict separation
is also not a necessary condition for democracy. Indeed one could advance the propo-
sition that of the two clauses of the First Amendment, “free exercise” is the one that
stands out as a normative democratic principle in itself, while the no-establishment
principle is defensible only insofar as it might be a necessary means to free exercise and
to equal rights. In other words, secularist principles per se may be defensible on some
other ground, but not as intrinsically liberal democratic ones.

The rules for protection from the tyranny of religious majorities should be the same
democratic rules used to defend from the tyranny of any democratic majority. The
protection of the rights of any minority, religious or secular, and equal universal access
should be central normative principles of any liberal democratic system. In principle
one should not need any additional particular secularist principle or legislation. But
as a matter of fact, historically and pragmatically, it may be necessary to disestablish
“churches”—that is, ecclesiastical institutions that claim either monopolistic rights over
a territory or particular privileges, or it may be necessary to use constitutional and at
times extraordinary means to disempower entrenched tyrannical majorities.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

Finally, on empirical grounds there are good reasons why we should expect religion and
morality to remain and even to become ever more contentious public issues in demo-
cratic politics. Given such trends as increasing globalization, transnational migrations,
increasing multiculturalism, the biogenetic revolution, and the persistence of blatant
gender discrimination, the number of contentious public religious issues is likely to
grow rather than diminish. The result is a continuous expansion of the res publica
while the citizen’s republic becomes ever more diverse and fragmented. The penetra-
tion of all spheres of life, including the most private, by public policy; the expansion
of scientific-technological frontiers giving humanity Demiurgic powers of self-creation
and self-destruction; the compression of the whole world into one single common
home for all of humanity; and the moral pluralism that seems inherent to multicul-
turalism—all these transcendent issues will continue to engage religion and provoke
religious responses.

Is Europe an Exceptional Case?
Grace Davie

number of factors must be taken into account if we are to understand the place
of religion in twenty-first-century Europe.1 These include the legacies of the
past, more particularly the role of the historic churches in shaping European
culture; an awareness that these churches still have a place at particular moments in
the lives of modern Europeans, even though they are no longer able to discipline the
beliefs and behavior of the great majority of the population; an observable change in the
churchgoing constituencies of the continent, which operate increasingly on a model of
choice, rather than a model of obligation or duty; and the arrival in Europe of groups
of people from many different parts of the world, notably the global South, with very
different religious aspirations from those seen in the host societies.

Each of these factors will be taken in turn in order to answer the question set out in the
title: is Europe an exceptional case in terms of its patterns of religious life? The answer
leads in turn to more questions. If we conclude that Europe is indeed “exceptional,”
why is this so? Or, conversely, why not? And what can we say about the future? Will
Europe continue within the trajectory set by its past or will it become more like the
patterns found elsewhere? Or—it must be asked—will the rest of the world become
more like Europe?

1 Overviews of the place of religion in European societies can be found in Gerhard Robbers, ed., State and
Church in the European Union (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 1996); René Rémond, Religion
and Society in Modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Andrew M. Greeley, Religion
in Europe at the End of the Second Millennium: A Sociological Profile (London: Transaction, 2003); John
Madeley and Zsolt Enyedi, eds., Church and State in Contemporary Europe: The Chimera of Neutrality
(London: Frank Cass, 2003); Hugh McLeod and Werner Ustorf, eds., The Decline of Christendom in
Western Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); and in the publications emerging from
the European Values Study, listed on the frequently updated EVS website <www.europeanvalues.nl/
index2/htm>. Alongside these overviews, there is a rapidly growing literature on the presence of Islam in
Europe; see Jorgen Nielsen, Muslims in Western Europe (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2004)
for a useful summary of this material.

Grace Davie has a personal Chair in the Sociology of Religion at the University of Exeter,
where she is also the Director of the University’s Centre for European Studies. She is the
author of Religion in Britain since 1945 (1994), Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory
Mutates (2000), and Europe: The Exceptional Case (2002). The Sociology of Religion: A
Critical Agenda will appear in 2007.

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Cultural Heritage

Two points are important in relation to the role of the historic churches in shaping
European culture; the Christian tradition is indeed a crucial element in the evolution
of Europe, but it is by no means the only one. O’Connell identifies three formative
factors or themes in the creation and re-creation of the unity that we call Europe:
Judeo-Christian monotheism, Greek rationalism, and Roman organization.2 These fac-
tors shift and evolve over time, but their combinations can be seen in forming and
reforming a way of life that we have come to recognize as European. The religious
strand within such combinations is self-evident.

One example will suffice: the Christian tradition has had an irreversible effect on the
shaping of time and space in this part of the world. Both week and year, for instance,
follow the Christian cycle, even if the major festivals are beginning to lose their reso-
nance for large sections of the population. Or to put the same point in a different
way, we have had heated debates in parts of Europe about whether or not to shop on
Sundays. We do not, for the most part, consider Friday an issue in this respect—though
this may change. The same is true of space. Wherever you look in Europe, there is a
predominance of Christian churches, some of which retain huge symbolic value. This is
not to deny that in some parts of Europe (notably the larger cities) the skyline is becom-
ing an indicator of growing religious diversity. Europe is changing, but the legacies of
the past remain deeply embedded in both the physical and cultural environment.

Vicarious Religion

Physical and cultural presence is one thing; a “hands-on” role in the everyday lives of
European people quite another. Commentators of all kinds agree that the latter is no
longer a realistic aspiration for the historic churches of Europe. That does not mean,
however, that the churches have entirely lost their significance as markers of religious
identity. In my own work, I have explored this continuing ambiguity through the con-
cept of “vicarious religion.”3

By vicarious, I mean the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf
of a much larger number, who (implicitly at least) not only understand, but, quite clearly,
approve of what the minority is doing. The first half of the definition is relatively straight-
forward and reflects the everyday meaning of the term—that is, to do something on
behalf of someone else (hence the word “vicar”). The second half is more controversial

2 James O’Connell, The Making of Modern Europe: Strengths, Constraints and Resolutions, University of
Bradford Peace Research Report no. 26 (Bradford: University of Bradford, 1991).
3 Grace Davie, Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

I s europe an e x ceptional case ? / davie

and is best explored by means of examples. Religion, it seems, can operate vicariously in
a wide variety of ways: churches and church leaders perform ritual on behalf of others;
church leaders and churchgoers believe on behalf of others; church leaders and church-
goers embody moral codes on behalf of others; churches, finally, can offer space for the
vicarious debate of unresolved issues in modern societies. Each of these propositions
will be taken in turn in order to demonstrate the fruitfulness of looking at European
religion from this point of view.

The least controversial of the above list concerns the role of both churches and church
leaders in conducting ritual on behalf of a wide variety of individuals and communities
at critical points in their lives. The most obvious examples can be found in the continu-
ing requests, even in a moderately secular society, for some sort of religious ritual at the
time of a birth, a marriage, and, most of all, a death. In many parts of Europe, though
not in all, the demand for the first two of these diminished sharply in the later decades
of the twentieth century. The same is not true with respect to churches’ services at the
time of a death. It is at this point, if no other, that most Europeans come into direct
contact with their churches and would be deeply offended if their requests for a funeral
were met with a rejection. A refusal to offer either a funeral liturgy or appropriate pas-
toral care would violate deeply held assumptions.

Exactly the same point can be made the other way round. It is perfectly possible to have
a secular ceremony at the time of a death; de facto, however, relatively few people do
this. Much more common is what might be termed a “mixed economy” funeral—that
is, a liturgy in which the religious professional is present and the Christian structure
maintained but filled with a variety of extraneous elements, including secular music or
readings and, with increasing frequency, a eulogy rather than a homily. Princess Diana’s
funeral in September 1997 offers an excellent example. Churches, moreover, maintain
vicariously the rituals from which a larger population can draw when the occasion
demands it, and whilst that population anticipates a certain freedom in ritual expres-
sion, they also expect the institutional structures to be kept firmly in place.

But churches and church leaders do more than conduct ritual: they also believe on
behalf of others. And the more senior or visible the role of the church leader, the
more important it becomes that this is done properly. English bishops, to give but
one example, are rebuked (not least by the tabloid press) if they doubt in public; it is,
after all, their “job” to believe. The most celebrated, and not entirely justified, case of
a “doubting bishop” in the Church of England was that of David Jenkins, Bishop of
Durham from 1984 to 1994.4 To a large extent the controversy turned on a frequently

4 Shortly after David Jenkins’ consecration in York Minster, the building was struck by lightning, an
event that was seen by some as a sign of divine displeasure. This episode was given extensive press cover-
age at the time (July 1984). See also David Jenkins’ own account in The Calling of a Cuckoo (London:
Continuum, 2002).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

misquoted statement concerning the Resurrection. The phrase “not just a conjuring
trick with bones” quickly turned into the opposite, for which the Bishop was widely
pilloried. The cultural expectation, in other words, is that bishops believe. When they
doubt, something quite clearly has gone amiss.

Could it be that churches offer space Similar pressures emerge with respect to behav-
ioral codes: religious professionals (both local
for debate regarding particular, and and national) are expected to uphold certain
often controversial, topics that are standards of behavior—not least, more rather
than less traditional representations of family
difficult to address elsewhere in society? life—and incur criticism when they fail, from
outside churches as well as within. It is almost as
if people who are not themselves participants in church life want the church’s represen-
tatives to embody a certain social and moral order, thereby maintaining a way of living
that has long since ceased to be the norm in the population as a whole. Failure leads to
accusations of hypocrisy but also to expressions of disappointment (interestingly, royal
divorces provoke a similar reaction). Such expectations become at times unreasonable,
particularly in relation to the partners and children of religious personnel; it is hardly
surprising that clergy families come under strain. The pressures on the Catholic priest
are somewhat different, given the requirement of celibacy, but in their own way they
are equally demanding.

A final possibility with respect to vicariousness develops this point further, and more
provocatively. Could it be that churches offer space for debate regarding particular, and
often controversial, topics that are difficult to address elsewhere in society? The current
debate about homosexuality in the Church of England offers a possible example, an
interpretation encouraged by the intense media attention directed at this issue—and
not only in Britain. Is this simply an internal debate about senior clergy appointments
in which different lobbies within the church are exerting pressure? Or is this one way
in which society as a whole comes to terms with profound shifts in the moral climate?
If the latter is not true, it is hard to understand why so much attention is being paid
to the churches in this respect. If it is true, sociological thinking must take this factor
into account. Either way, large sections of the European media are, it seems, wanting to
have their cake and eat it too, pointing the spotlight at controversies within the church
whilst maintaining that religious institutions must, by their very nature, be marginal
to modern society.

Social scientific observers of the scene cannot afford to make a similar mistake. The
public attention displayed in the examples set out above demands that we understand
how religious institutions matter even to those who are not “participants” in them (in
the conventional sense of the term). That, moreover, is the norm in European societ-
ies—a situation rather different from that found in the United States. Indeed, in a
decade of lecturing across both Europe and the U.S., I have seldom met an audience in
the former who do not immediately grasp the notion of vicariousness and its implica-

I s europe an e x ceptional case ? / davie

tions for the European scene. This is much less the case in the United States, where the
connections between the population and their religious organizations are very differ-
ently understood. There are exceptions, but to act vicariously is not part of American

Herein, moreover, lies an important explanation for the “exceptional” nature of Europe’s
religion. It derives from a particular history of state-church relationships, out of which
grows the notion of a state church (or its successor) as a public utility rather than a pri-
vate organization. A public utility is available to the population as a whole at the point
of need and is funded through the tax system. Precisely that combination remains in
place in the Lutheran countries of Europe. Elsewhere both constitutional and financial
arrangements have been modified (sometimes radically), but the associated mentalities
are, it seems, more difficult to shift.

From Obligation to Consumption

The changing nature of churchgoing in modern Europe is important to understand,

and to do so, one must clarify the constituency: here are Europe’s diminishing, but
still significant churchgoers—those who maintain the tradition on behalf of the people
described in the previous section. And here an observable change is taking place: from
a culture of obligation or duty to a culture of consumption or choice. What until some-
what recently was simply imposed (with all the negative connotations of this word), or
inherited (a rather more positive spin), becomes instead a matter of personal choice: “I
go to church (or to another religious organization) because I want to, maybe for a short
period or maybe for longer, to fulfill a particular rather than a general need in my life
and where I will continue my attachment so long as it provides what I want, but I have
no obligation either to attend in the first place or to continue if I don’t want to.”

As such, this pattern is entirely compatible with vicariousness: “the churches need to
be there in order that I may attend them if I so choose.” The “chemistry,” however,
gradually changes, a shift that is discernible in both practice and belief, not to mention
the connections between them. There is, for example, an easily documentable change
in the patterns of confirmation in the Church of England. The overall number of
confirmations has dropped dramatically in the post-war period, evidence once again of
institutional decline. In England, though not yet in the Nordic countries, confirmation
is no longer a teenage rite of passage, but a relatively rare event undertaken as a matter
of personal choice by people of all ages. Indeed, there is a very marked rise in the pro-
portion of adult confirmations among the candidates overall—up to 40 percent by the
mid-1990s (by no means enough, however, to offset the fall among teenagers).

5 Grace Davie, “Vicarious Religion: A Methodological Challenge,” Religion in Modern Lives, ed. Nancy
Ammerman (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

Confirmation becomes, therefore, a very significant event for those individuals who
choose this option, an attitude that is bound to affect the rite itself—which now includes
the space for a public declaration of faith. Confirmation becomes an opportunity to
make public what has often been an entirely private activi-
Taken together, these events ty. It is increasingly common, moreover, to baptize an adult
candidate immediately before the confirmation, a gesture
indicate a marked change in which is evidence in itself of the fall in infant baptism some
the nature of membership in twenty to thirty years earlier. Taken together, these events
indicate a marked change in the nature of membership in
the historic churches… the historic churches, which become, in some senses, much
more like their non-established counterparts. Voluntarism
(a market) is beginning to establish itself de facto, regardless of the constitutional posi-
tion of the churches. Or to continue the “chemical” analogy a little further, a whole set
of new reactions are set off that in the longer term (the stress is important) may have a
profound effect on the understanding of vicariousness.

The trends are considerably more visible in some parts of Europe than in others. There
is, for instance, a marked parallel between the Anglicans and the Catholic Church in
France in this respect: adult baptisms in the Church of England match very closely those
in France—indeed, the similarity in the statistics is almost uncanny, given the very dif-
ferent ecclesiologies embodied in the two churches (one Catholic and one Protestant).6
But it is precisely this shift across very different denominations that encourages the
notion that something profound is taking place. Lutheran nations, however—despite
their reputation for being the most secular countries in Europe—still stick to a more
traditional pattern as far as confirmation is concerned, though the manner in which
they do this is changing. Large numbers of young people now choose the option of
a confirmation camp rather than a series of weekly meetings.7 In making this choice,
confirmation becomes an “experience” in addition to a rite of passage, implying a better
fit with other aspects of youth culture.

The stress on experience is important in other ways as well. It can be seen in the choices
that the religiously active appear to be making, at least in the British case. Here, within
a constituency that is evidently reduced, two options stand out as disproportionately
popular. The first is the conservative evangelical church—the success story of late twen-
tieth-century churchgoing, both inside and outside the mainstream. These are churches
that draw their members from a relatively wide geographical area and work on a con-
gregational, rather than parish, model. Individuals are invited to opt in rather than opt
out, and membership implies commitment to a set of specified beliefs and behavioral
codes. For significant numbers of people, these churches offer firm boundaries, clear

6 Davie, Religion in Modern Europe, 71–2.

7 The figures for confirmation stay particularly high in Finland.

I s europe an e x ceptional case ? / davie

guidance, and considerable support—effective protection from the vicissitudes of life.

Interestingly, however, it is the softer charismatic forms of evangelicalism that are doing
particularly well; old-fashioned Biblicism, relatively speaking, is losing its appeal.

Very different and less frequently recognized in the writing about religion in modern
Britain (as indeed in Europe) is the evident popularity of cathedrals and city-center
churches. Cathedrals and their equivalents deal with diverse constituencies. Working
from the inside out, they are frequented by regular and irregular worshippers, pilgrims,
visitors, and tourists, though the lines between these groups frequently blur. The num-
bers, moreover, are considerable—the more so on special occasions, both civic and
religious. Hence, concerns about upkeep and facilities lead to difficult debates about
finance. Looked at from the point of view of consumption, however, cathedrals are
places that offer a distinctive product: traditional liturgy, top-class music, and excel-
lence in preaching, all of which take place in a historic and often very beautiful build-
ing. A visit to a cathedral is an aesthetic experience, sought after by a wide variety of
people, including those for whom membership or commitment presents difficulties.
They are places where there is no obligation to opt in or to participate in communal
activities beyond the service itself. In this respect, they become almost the mirror image
of the evangelical churches already described.8

What then is the common feature in these very different stories? It is the experiential or
“feel-good” factor, whether this be expressed in charismatic worship, in the tranquility
of cathedral evensong, or in a special cathedral occasion (a candlelit carol service or a
major civic event). The point is that we feel something; we experience the sacred, the
set apart. The purely cerebral is less appealing. Durkheim was entirely correct in this
respect: it is the taking part that matters for late modern populations and the feelings
so engendered.9 If we feel nothing, we are much less likely either to take part in the first
place or to continue thereafter.

New Arrivals

The final factor in this complicated mosaic is somewhat different: the growing num-
ber of incomers in almost all European societies. There have been two stages in this
process. The first was closely linked to the need for labor in the expanding econo-
mies of post-war Europe—notably in Britain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Wherever possible, each of these countries looked to its former empire to expand its
workforce: Britain to the West Indies and the Indian sub-continent, France to the

8 The attraction of cathedrals and city-center churches is closely related to the growth in pilgrimage across
Europe; see Davie, Religion in Modern Europe, 156–62.
9 See in particular Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912; London: Harper Collins,

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

Mahgreb, Germany (with no empire) to Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, and the
Netherlands to its overseas connections (Indonesia and Surinam), but also to Morocco.
The second wave of immigration occurred in the 1990s and included, in addition to
the places listed above, both the Nordic countries and the countries of Mediterranean
Europe (Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal)—bearing in mind that the latter, until very
recently, have been countries of emigration rather than immigration. The turnaround
has been truly remarkable—the sharpest illustration of all being the transformation in
the 1990s of Dublin, Ireland, from a relatively poor city to a thriving, expensive, and
increasingly diverse place to live.10

Different host societies and different countries of provenance have led to a complex pic-
ture—generalization is dangerous. Some points are, however, common to most, if not
all, cases. It is important to remember that those who are arriving in Europe are coming
primarily for economic reasons—they are coming to work. If the first wave provided
labor for expanding industrial economies, the second filled a rather different gap. As
the twentieth century drew to a close, Europeans were becoming increasingly aware that
there were insufficient numbers to employ in Europe to support the rising proportion
of dependent people—notably the growing number of retired. The pull factor in this
case is the shifting demographic profile in Europe. A second point follows from this: all
is well, or relatively well, as long as there is sufficient work for everyone in an economy
able to maintain the services necessary for incoming populations. All is less well when
there is a downturn in the economy (as happened in the late 70s and 80s) or when those
who work to support dependent Europeans become dependent themselves. Hence the
unrest in France in the autumn of 2005: a population excluded both from the economy
itself, and from its concomitant benefits, expressed its frustration on the streets.

What, though, are the implications for the religious life of Europe? The short answer
is that they vary from place to place depending on both host society and new arrivals.
Britain and France offer an interesting comparison. In Britain immigration has been
much more varied than in France, both in terms of provenance and in terms of faith
communities. West Indians, for example, are Christians—and much more formed in
their Christianity than their British equivalents. One result of this is the vibrant Afro-
Caribbean churches of Britain’s larger cities—some of the most active Christian com-
munities in the country.11 From the sub-continent, moreover, come Sikhs and Hindus
as well as a sizeable number of Muslims (1.5 million). Britain is also a country where
ethnicity and religion criss-cross each other in a bewildering variety of ways (only Sikhs
and Jews claim ethno-religious identities). The situation in France is very different:

10 Interms of its religious life, Ireland is in many respects a “Mediterranean” country. It is also very like
Poland, insofar as Catholicism has become a marker of national identity.
11 Thereis a negative side to this story. For a variety of reasons, among them racism, Afro-Caribbeans were
largely excluded from mainstream churches when they first arrived in Britain, an episode that the historic
churches have come to regret bitterly.

I s europe an e x ceptional case ? / davie

here immigration has been largely from the Maghreb, as a result of which France has
by far the largest Muslim community in Europe (between 5 and 6 million)—an almost
entirely Arab population. Rightly or wrongly, “Arab” and “Muslim” have become inter-
changeable terms in popular parlance in France.

Britain and France can be compared in other ways as well— Rightly or wrongly, “Arab”
an exercise that provokes some interesting questions, among
and “Muslim” have become
them the tensions between democracy and tolerance. France,
for example, is markedly more democratic than Britain on interchangeable terms in
almost all institutional or constitutional measures. France is a
popular parlance in France.
Republic, with a secular state, two elected chambers, and no
privileged church (in the sense of connections to the state).
There is a correspondingly strong stress on the equality of all citizens whatever their eth-
nic or religious identity. Hence, France holds a strongly assimilationist policy towards
incomers, with the express intention of eradicating difference—individuals who arrive
in France are welcome to maintain their religious belief and practices, provided these
are relegated to the private sphere. They are actively discouraged from developing any
kind of group identity. Exactly the same point can be put as follows: any loyalty (reli-
gious or otherwise) that comes between the citizen and the state in France is regarded
in negative terms. The result, whether intended or not, is a relative lack of tolerance,
if by tolerance is meant the freedom to promote collective as well as individual expres-
sions of religious identity—that is, those expressions that impact the public as well as
the private sphere.

Britain is very different. On a strict measure of democracy, Britain fares less well than
France—with no written constitution, a monarchy, a half-reformed and so far unelect-
ed House of Lords, and an established church. More positively, Britain has a more
developed tradition of accommodating group identities (including religious identities)
within the framework of British society, a feature that owes a good deal to the relatively
greater degree of religious pluralism that has existed in Britain for centuries rather
than decades. Hence a markedly different policy towards newcomers: the goal becomes
the accommodation of difference rather than its eradication. Rather more provocative,
however, are the conclusions that emerge if you look carefully at who, precisely, in
British society is advocating religious as opposed to ethnic toleration. Very frequently it
turns out to be those in society who do not depend on an electoral mandate: the royal
family, significant spokespersons in the House of Lords (where other faith communities
are well represented by appointment, not by election), and prominent members of the
established Church. The latter, in fact, become the protectors of “faith” in general rather
than the protectors of specifically English expressions of Christianity.12

12 Fora more detailed presentation of this argument, including the discussion of specific examples, see
Grace Davie, “Pluralism, Tolerance and Democracy: Theory and Practice in Europe,” The New Religious
Pluralism and Democracy, ed. Thomas Banchoff (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

One further point is significant and reflects a shift that is taking place right across Europe.
The growing presence of other faith communities in general, and of the Muslim popu-
lation in particular, is challenging some deeply held European assumptions. The notion
that faith is a private matter and should, therefore, be proscribed from public life—nota-
bly from the state and from the education system—is wide-
The growing presence of spread in Europe (not only in France). Conversely, many of
those who are currently arriving in this part of the world
other faith communities in have markedly different convictions, and offer—simply by
general, and of the Muslim their presence—a challenge to the European way of doing
things. Reactions to this challenge vary from place to place,
population in particular, is but at the very least, European societies have been obliged
challenging some deeply held to re-open debates about the place of religion in public as
well as private life—hence the heated controversies about
European assumptions. the wearing of the veil in the school system and about the
rights or wrongs of publishing material that one faith com-
munity in particular finds offensive. The repercussions of the now famous (or infamous)
Danish cartoons are a case in point.13 The lack of comprehension on both sides of this
affair, together with an unwillingness to compromise, led alarmingly fast to dangerous
confrontations, both in Europe and beyond.

Such episodes raise a further point which, if developed, could become an article in
its own right. That is the extent to which the secular elites of Europe use these events
in order to articulate an ideological alternative to religion. The point to grasp in the
space that remains in this paper is that such elites—just like their religious alter-egos—
vary markedly from place to place. The fact that the cartoons were first published in
Denmark was not simply a coincidence; nor was the insistence on the part of the media
in some countries rather than others (most notably France) that the cartoons should be
repeatedly re-published in order to affirm the freedom of speech. Such attitudes have
historical roots. France, for example, is the European society where the Enlightenment
has been most obviously configured as a freedom from belief, an attitude which finds
expression in the democratic, though not always very tolerant, institutions already
described. In the United States, the Enlightenment becomes something very different:
a freedom to believe. A developed treatment of this theme would reveal, however, that
other European societies (much of Northern Europe, Germany, and Italy) fall some-
where between the two. Europe as ever is far from homogeneous.

13 The cartoons were first published in the autumn of 2005 and reprinted in many parts of Europe in the
early months of 2006. The depictions of Mohammed were considered derogatory by many sections of
the Muslim community; for most Europeans, they were simply “cartoons.”

I s europe an e x ceptional case ? / davie

Concluding Remarks

Several things are happening simultaneously in the religious life of Europe. The fact that
they are occurring at the same time is partly a coincidence—each, however, encour-
ages the other. The historic churches, despite their continuing presence, are losing their
capacity to discipline the religious thinking of large sections of the population (espe-
cially the young). Simultaneously, the range of religious choice is widening all the time
both inside and outside the historic churches. New forms of religion are coming into
Europe from outside, largely as the result of the movement of people. Finally, at least
some of the people arriving from outside are offering a significant challenge to the
widely held assumptions about the place of religion in European societies.

It is equally clear that at least some aspects of exceptionality can be pursued by framing
these statements in the form of questions, and by looking carefully at their implications
for the religious life of Europe. For example: is Europe likely to produce a religious
market like that found in the United States? The turn from obligation to consumption
could be seen in this light. Conversely: is the residue of the state church sufficiently
strong to resist this—maintaining thereby the notion of religion as a public utility
rather than a freely chosen voluntary activity? And where in these complex equations
do we place the newly arrived populations, whether Christian or not?

The answers must be tentative, but I will offer three; the last takes the form of a cautious
prediction about the future of religion in Europe.

There are effectively two religious economies in Europe, which run alongside each other.
The first is an incipient market, which is emerging among the churchgoing minorities
of most, if not all, European societies, and in which voluntary membership is becoming
the norm, de facto if not de jure. The second economy resists this tendency and contin-
ues to work on the idea of a public utility, in which membership remains ascribed rather
than chosen. In this economy opting out, rather than opting in, remains the norm and
is most visible at the time of a death. Interestingly, the two economies are in partial
tension, but also depend upon each other—each fills the gaps exposed by the other.
Exploring these tensions offers a constructive route into the complexities of European
religion in the twenty-first century.

Religion will increasingly penetrate the public sphere, a tendency driven largely by the
presence of Islam in different parts of Europe. Paradoxically, in many ways this is easier
for the active, increasingly voluntarist, Christian minorities to understand than those
who remain passively attached to their (public) historic churches. For the former, seri-
ously held belief leads to public implications; for the latter, seriously held belief is seen
as a threat rather than an opportunity.

The religious situation in Europe is and will remain distinctive (if not exceptional),
given the legacies of the past. It is not, however, static. Clearly things are changing,

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

and in some places very fast. Exactly how they will evolve is not easy to say, but I will
conclude by making a cautious and three-fold prediction—the first part is tentative, the
second more certain, and the third increasingly evident. First—I think that vicarious
religion will endure at least until the mid-century, but maybe not for much longer. It
follows that the actively religious in Europe will increasingly work on a market model,
but the fact that their choices will include the historic churches complicates the issue
(the alternatives are not as mutually exclusive as they first appear). Second—I know
that the presence of Islam is a crucial factor that we ignore at our peril. Not only does
it offer an additional choice, but it has become a catalyst of a much more profound
change in the religious landscape of Europe. Finally, the combination of all these factors
will increase rather than decrease the salience of religion in public, as well as private,
debate—a tendency encouraged by the ever more obvious presence of religion in the
modern world order. In this respect, the world is more likely to influence the religious
life of Europe than the other way round.

Secularization and the
Impotence of Individualized
Steve Bruce

he secularization paradigm combines two things: an assertion about changes in
the presence and nature of religion, and a collection of related explanations of
those changes. It is not a universally applicable scientific law, but a description
and explanation of the past of European societies and their settler offspring. Contrary
to often repeated caricatures, it is not a simple evolutionary model and does not imply
a single uniform future—but it does suppose that there are “socio-logics” to societal
changes. Some changes go together; others do not. For example, feudal societies can
have effective state churches; culturally diverse liberal democracies cannot. And that is
not an accident. As I show below, it can be explained by fundamental features of the
latter sort of society.

A full elaboration of the secularization paradigm with sufficient data to convince the
open-minded (some people are beyond persuasion) needs at least a book and it took
me three.1 All I can do here is offer a few illustrative facts, elaborate one part of the
explanation, examine in some detail one alternative to the secularization paradigm, and
request that the reader make the charitable assumption that I will have dealt with the
obvious criticisms in other places.

1 See my books Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1996); Choice and Religion: A Critique of Rational Choice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); and
God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).

Steve Bruce has been Professor of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen since 1991. He
has written extensively on religion in the modern world and on the interaction of reli-
gion and politics. His most recent works in the sociology of religion are Fundamentalism
(2001), God Is Dead: Secularization in the West (2002), and Politics and Religion (2003).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6


In 1851 about half the population of Britain attended church regularly. Now it is about
8 percent. Statistical data on religious beliefs are available only for the last fifty or so
years, but they show a similar trajectory to that of church attendance. There has been a
steady decline in the popularity of orthodox Christian beliefs. On the existence of God,
Britons now divide pretty equally between four positions: belief in a personal creator
God, belief in “a higher power or life-force,” the wonderfully vague “there is something
there,” and atheism or agnosticism. Baptism was once universal and so widely held to
be essential that in the Middle Ages midwives were taught a simple formula to baptize
babies thought unlikely to survive until the arrival of a priest. Now fewer than one-third
of babies are baptized. In 1971 over two-thirds of weddings were religious; now it is
less than one-third.

There is no need to labor the point: anyone familiar with European societies will be
aware of the drastic decline of organized religion. In Holland, the percentage of the
adult population describing themselves as having no denomination rose from 14 per-
cent in 1930 to 39 percent in 1997 and 42 percent in 2003.2 An overwhelming major-
ity of Swedes (95 percent) seldom or never attend public worship, and Hamberg finds
no evidence of revival in a situation that she describes as follows:

the share of the population who adhere to Christian beliefs or who devote
themselves to such traditional religious activities as prayer and church atten-
dance declined in Sweden during the twentieth century…data indicate a decline
not only in the prevalence of religious beliefs but also in the saliency of these

Even in the U.S., routinely held up as the great exception, churchgoing is now about
20 percent, down from about 50 percent in 1950. Equally important, those who still
strongly associate with organized religion do so in a spirit markedly different than
that of their grandparents. Most Christian churches have abandoned their supernatural
focus, and the therapeutic benefits of faith (once firmly second place to placating God
and ensuring salvation) are now advertised as the main point. The attitude of most
believers has shifted: from being loyal followers to being selective consumers.

2 Nan Dirk De Graaf, Ariana Need, and Wout Ultee, “‘Losing My Religion’: A New and Comprehensive
Explanation of Three Empirical Regularities Tested on Data for the Netherlands in 1998,” Patterns and
Processes of Religious Change in Modern Industrial Societies—Europe and the United States, ed. Alasdair
Crockett and Richard O’Leary (Lamenter: Edwin Millen, 1998) table 1.
3 Eva M. Hamberg, “Christendom in Decline: The Swedish Case,” The Decline of Christendom in Western
Europe, 1750–2000, ed. Hugh McLeod and Werner Ustorf Astor (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2003) 47.

secularization and T he impotence of individualized religion / bruce

The explanation of the decline of religion is necessarily complex; the diagram I often use
to illustrate the secularization paradigm has 21 boxes! I will mention here only a few of
them. First, the idea that science displaces religion in a zero-sum contest to explain the
world is largely a red herring. Contrary to the expectation of liberal theologians and
advocates of the “higher criticism” in the 1890s, modern people seem quite capable of
believing all sorts of twaddle (witness the popularity of alien abduction stories or theo-
ries of racial superiority). Insofar as science does impact faith, it is through technology
(rightly or wrongly) giving us a sense that we are masters of our fate. Medieval peasants
quite reasonably saw themselves as being of no significance in the eyes of either their
worldly masters or their Creator God. Modern Western consumers think rather highly
of themselves: they choose their microwaves, they choose their governments, and they
choose which God to believe in and in what manner.

Crucial to the marginalization of religion has been the combination of egalitarianism,

individualism, and diversity. Any belief system is at its most plausible when it is entirely
consensual. If everyone believes the same things, they are not beliefs; they are merely an
accurate account of how things are. Using the phenomenology of Alfred Schutz, Peter
Berger drew our attention to the impact of the “pluralization of life-worlds” on the
plausibility of religious belief systems:

Our situation is characterized by a market of world views, simultaneously in

competition with each other. In this situation the maintenance of certitudes
that go much beyond the empirical necessities of the society and the individual
to function is very difficult indeed. Inasmuch as religion essentially rests upon
supernatural certitudes, the pluralistic situation is a secularizing one and, ipso
facto, plunges religion into a crisis of credibility.4

Diversity, of course, need not provoke doubt. The first response to such a cognitive
threat is usually martial: the deviants are murdered, expelled, or forcibly converted.
This is where egalitarianism becomes relevant. In the modernizing industrial societies
of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, it became increasingly accepted
that, despite obvious differences of birth, status, and talents, we were all in some sense
much-of-a-muchness. People became reluctant to enforce religious conformity and rul-
ing classes came to see social harmony as more important than religious orthodoxy.
The Reformation insistence on the responsibilities of the individual gradually became
a demand for the rights of the individual and rights gradually became separated from
religious identities.

Unless it is prepared to accept high levels of social conflict (and none were), the mod-
ernizing state, if it has to encompass diversity, must become increasingly religiously
neutral. The public square is gradually evacuated. This not only removes formal state

4 Peter L. Berger, Facing Up to Modernity (Hammondsport: Penguin, 1979) 213.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

support for a particular religion; more importantly—and this is where Berger’s concern
with “taken-for grantedness” is vital—it removes a whole range of opportunities for
the religious tradition to be reinforced in day-to-day interaction. Where a community
shares a common faith, big events such as births, deaths, and marriages can be glossed
by the shared religion. The passing of the seasons can be similarly treated. And everyday
conversation can reinforce the shared beliefs as people gloss even mundane matters such
as the weather and crop yields in religious terms. The fragmentation of the religious
culture into a range of competing alternatives drastically curtails the routine low-level
social reinforcement of beliefs. When we can no longer be sure that those we meet share
our faith, we tend to keep it to ourselves.

When we can no longer At the societal level, the long-term result is a shift to ever-
more liberal and tolerant forms of religion and eventually to
be sure that those we meet benign indifference. When all faiths are in some sense equally
share our faith, we tend to valid, parents lack an incentive to indoctrinate their children,
and the environment proves stony ground for such seeds of
keep it to ourselves. faith as are planted.

In the terms of the classic typology of religious forms derived from Weber and Troeltsch,
the church form of religion (with a single shared culture and institution providing a sin-
gle plausibility structure for an entire society) becomes rare: it survives only in situations
(Poland until 1990, Ireland until the 1960s) where the Church acts as a guarantor of
national identity and integrity. And when that role becomes redundant, rates of adher-
ence drop rapidly as the Church comes to be seen as just another pressure group.

Here I will add a brief aside. Recent concern about Islamic fundamentalism in the West
and about the reaction of some Western Muslims to such foreign policy matters as the
war in Iraq and the Palestinian problem has led some commentators to consider that
the church form of religion might enjoy a revival. The idea is that Islamic challenges to
Western liberalism and secularity might stimulate a Christian revival, as Europeans with
a nominal commitment to their previously dominant Christian traditions feel moved
to explore their heritage faith and then acquire a real commitment to it. A revival of
concerns about the public presence of one religion might encourage a revival in the
more conventional sense. This seems a forlorn hope. Beyond the observation that those
people who described themselves as “Christian” in England and Wales in the 2001
census is vastly greater than the number who ever trouble a Christian church, there is
as yet no empirical evidence for revival. Insofar as fears of militant Islam are having any
effect on secularization in Europe, it seems the opposite of that hoped for by church
leaders. Because most Britons lack any acquaintance with Christianity (let alone a com-
mitment to it) they see Islamic militancy not as proof that Islam is a bad religion, but
as confirmation that any religion taken too seriously is a bad thing.

To return to the typology of forms, the sect can survive if it can insulate itself from the
wider society (possible in parts of the U.S., impossible in European societies), but this

secularization and T he impotence of individualized religion / bruce

comes at the cost of considerable sacrifice by its members. The denomination gradually
declines because its members lack powerful incentives to indoctrinate their children.
Which brings us to the cult. The term is often casually used to mean any small new
religion we do not like. I use it to mean a diffuse, extremely tolerant form of religion
that stresses private experience and grants to the individual the primary authority to
decide what he or she will believe. This form of religion exists not in large formal orga-
nizations but in a milieu: a world of overlapping outlets and expressions through which
individual consumers chart their own paths of preference. It is the future of this form
of religion that I want to consider in the rest of this essay.

Diffuse Spirituality

Many of the counters to the secularization paradigm are based on the belief that peo-
ple are essentially religious. Religion is not seen as a social accomplishment (like, for
example, speaking French) but as an expression of an innate biological need. The twin
facts that we all die and that we can distinguish the self from the body cause us all to
ask what the theologian Paul Tillich called “ultimate questions.”

If it is the case that we all have a need for religion, then long-term secularization is
impossible. If specific religions decline in popularity, then others must arise to fill the
gap. For a brief time in the 1970s it looked as if a variety of usually Eastern-inspired
new religious movements (NRMs) were going to fill the space left by the decline of
the Christian churches, but it quickly became obvious that the scale was wrong. When
the Moonies could never muster more than one thousand members in Britain and all
the NRMs together did not come close to the numbers lost by the main churches in
a month, hoping that these innovations could restore the religious capital of 1900 or
1950 was like setting a toy train engine to pull real freight wagons.

A more plausible candidate is the highly personalized individualistic “New Age” spiri-
tuality of the cultic milieu. Regis Debray made the point elegantly in saying that the
twilight of the gods was the “morning of the magicians.”5 The two are certainly related
on the supply side. The decline of the Christian churches has negated their power to
stigmatize alternatives as foreign and dangerous. In 2005, a serving naval officer man-
aged to establish paganism as a legitimate religion that the British armed services should
accommodate. As Partridge notes, there has been a vast increase in the range of spiritual
revelations and therapies on offer in the West.6 But we should not confuse supply and
demand measures. What matters for testing the secularization thesis is not the range of
spiritual offerings being purveyed but the numbers who take them up and the spirit in
which they do so.

5 Régis Debray, God: An Itinerary (London: Verso, 2004) 259.

6 Christopher Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Clark, 2004).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

Table 1. Experience and Salience of the New Age, Scotland 2001

Horoscopesa Divinationb Yoga or Meditation Alternative Medicinec

% % % %
Very important 1 2 3 5
Quite important 4 4 7 15
Not very important 21 13 9 20
Not at all important 15 11 4 5
Never tried 59 70 78 55

Note: Sample size for this table was 1,605. Percentage totals vary from 100 because of rounding.
a Consulting horoscopes in newspapers and magazines.
b Consulting a tarot card reader, fortune teller, or astrologer (excluding horoscopes in papers and magazines).
c Alternative or complementary medicine such as herbal remedies, homeopathy, or aromatherapy.

In 2001, the Scottish Social Attitudes survey asked a representative sample if they had
ever tried a variety of arguably New Age activities such as tarot cards, fortune telling,
astrology, yoga or meditation, alternative medicines or therapies, and horoscopes; and if
they had, how important were these in their lives.7 Table 1 summarizes the replies.

Most Scots have not tried these things, particularly those that represent a significant
commitment, and of those who have tried them, most do not think them very impor-
tant. The questions are perhaps too blunt to make much of the answers, but there is
a clear pattern that fits well with what colleagues at the University of Lancaster have
found in their study of New Age providers and consumers in Kendal, a small town
in the northwest of England.8 Led by Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, the research
team used a wide variety of techniques to identify everything (from organized yoga
classes to one-to-one therapies) that could be seen as New Age activity, and through
detailed interviewing and surveying compiled a reasonable estimate. They concluded
that between one and two percent of the population are involved in the holistic milieu
in a typical week.

But it is worth looking more closely at the activities they survey. Table 2 summarizes
the distribution of holistic milieu activities under nine headings.9

7 Steve Bruce and Tony Glendinning, “Religious Beliefs and Differences,” Devolution—Scottish Answers
to Scottish Questions, ed. Catherine Bromley, John Curtice, Kerstin Hinds, and Alison Park (Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press, 2003) 86–115.
8 Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality
(Oxford: Blackwell, 2005).
9 I am grateful to friend and collaborator David Voas, of the University of Manchester, for preparing these
summaries of the Kendal data. The original data is publicly available at <www.kendalproject.org.uk>.

secularization and T he impotence of individualized religion / bruce

Table 2. Participation in the Holistic Milieu, Kendal 2000–02

Activity %
Yoga and tai chi 45.5
Dancing, singing, art and craft 5.6
Massage, bodywork 13.9
Homeopathy 3.6
Counselling 3.5
Healing and complementary health groups 11.2
Reiki or spiritual healing 6.1
Specialized spiritual/religious groups 5.6
Miscellaneous one-to-one 5.0

It is hard not to be struck by how few activities listed are obviously spiritual. Over half
of all involvement is in what most people would view as leisure or recreation: yoga, tai
chi, dance, singing, art. Add in pampering (massage, bodywork) and you have covered
nearly two-thirds. Not all the “healing and complementary health groups” are obviously
spiritual or even unconventional; CancerCare, winner of the Queen’s Jubilee Award for
Voluntary Service in the Community, is one of the larger ones. A fair proportion of the
healing activities are based on distinctive beliefs, but even these (for example, homeopa-
thy, reiki) seem pseudoscientific rather than necessarily spiritual.

Fortunately, we do not have to argue about the nature of the activity or its significance
for those involved because Heelas and Woodhead asked their respondents whether they
saw their activities as spiritual. Only 51 percent of respondents saw their yoga classes
as spiritual; for the massage category, the percentage spiritual was only 28 percent; for
osteopathy only 10 percent; for “foot massage” (which involved typically 48 people)
the figure was 25 percent. Only some 45 percent of those engaged in holistic milieu
activities think of them as spiritual. Fewer than half of the respondents said that their
participation had anything whatsoever to do with spiritual growth.

In their defense of all this activity as a “spiritual revolution,” Heelas and Woodhead
assert that “the figure we have arrived at for the holistic milieu…shows that Bruce…is
wrong when he claims that ‘the number of people [in Britain] who have shown any
interest in alternative religions is minute.’”10 It would be unproductive to argue over
what is or is not “minute,” but the implications of their own work seem very clear.
Taking New Age spirituality at its narrowest, it is trivial. In order to get over 1 percent

10 Heelas and Woodhead 54–5.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

of the population, we need to encompass a variety of imported recreational activi-

ties, miscellaneous methods of relaxation, and diverse forms of alternative medicine, all
practiced mainly by people who do not even pretend to see them as spiritual. Rather
than seeing the New Age as compensating for a decline in Christianity, we should see
it as an extension of the surgery, the clinic, the gym, or the beauty salon. It is primarily
concerned with physical and psychological wellbeing.

The Future of the New Age

To strengthen the proposition that what we are seeing is the decline of one form of
religion rather than secularization per se, Heelas and Woodhead predict that the holistic
milieu will double in size over the next forty to fifty years.11 This seems highly unlikely.
They admit that at present holistic spirituality has a rather narrow socio-demographic
appeal, and that the relevant section of the population (educated, middle-aged white
women in people-orientated professions) may be approaching saturation point. Far from
growing, it is not even clear that the holistic milieu can reproduce itself. Asked if their
children were interested in the activity, two-thirds of respondents with offspring said
“no.” Heelas is more struck by the fact that 32 percent said “yes,” but this level of trans-
mission is disastrous.12 In a society where parents have only two children on average,
100 percent of them must be socialized into a practice for it to survive in the long term.
Intergenerational transmission of Christian affiliation, attendance, and belief currently
stands at about 50 percent, which is widely regarded as a major problem for churches.13
On the face of it the New Age has an even higher mountain to climb, not least because
women with spiritual interests are more likely than average to be childless.

In summary, an extremely detailed community study conducted by commentators sym-

pathetic to New Age spirituality fails to convince us that this milieu comes close to
providing a viable substitute for the decline of the Christian churches. Back to our toy
train metaphor: the scale is wrong.

Self and Other Religions

Not only is the New Age world very small, but there are good reasons to describe it as
fragile. The weakness of community in the New Age is not an accident but an inevi-
table consequence of its solipsistic basis of authority. In the New Age, the self is the

11 Heelas and Woodhead 137.

12 Paul Heelas and Benjamin Seel, “An Ageing New Age?” Predicting Religion: Christian, Secular and
Alternative Futures, ed. Grace Davie, Paul Heelas, and Linda Woodhead (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003) 234.
13 DavidVoas, “Intermarriage and the Demography of Secularization,” British Journal of Sociology 54.1
(2003): 83–108.

secularization and T he impotence of individualized religion / bruce

final arbiter of truth and utility. If it works for you, it is true. There is no legitimate
basis for imposing on others or even arguing. This makes any sort of concerted activity
remarkably difficult. If two people disagree, there is no basis for settling the dispute.
This explains why, for all the talk of counter-cultural and alternative community, New
Age spirituality has not produced its alternative schools and communes.

Although they do not appreciate the significance of their own examples (they want to
describe New Agers as a “tribe”), Prince and Riches’s study of New Age in Glastonbury
provides glaring examples of an inability to cooperate.14 In one example, a primary
school collapsed because parents could not agree on how or what they wanted their
children taught. In another, a small group of New Agers decided to meet regularly on
Sunday mornings for some sort of collective act of “worship.” At the first meeting they
talked about what they would do but could not agree. Fewer attended the second meet-
ing and the initiative petered out.

The Glastonbury ethnography raises an interesting gen- Left to our own devices a
eral problem that first occurred to me while lecturing to
combination of sloth and
students about the social reforms pioneered by British
evangelicals in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth self-interest will always make
centuries. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that
sacrifice unlikely.
the civilization of industrial society owes a great deal to
committed Christians. The ending of slavery, limitations
on the use of women and children in factories, controls on exploitation of workers,
the construction of decent housing for workers, improvements in prisons, penny sav-
ings banks, mutual insurance, workers’ educational institutes, public schooling for the
poor—all of these were the results of philanthropic activity by people who were driven
by the related ideas that we could hardly expect the poor to be concerned about their
souls when their bodies were sore oppressed and that a society that claimed to be
Christian could not also be barbarous. Against that example, the social impact of New
Agers seems trivial, and I take two points from the comparison.

First, only a religion that has an authoritative reference point outside the individual is
capable of providing a challenge to any status quo. Left to our own devices a combina-
tion of sloth and self-interest will always make sacrifice unlikely. Although New Agers
are fond of talking of their revelations and therapies as life-changing, in practice mostly
what changes is merely attitudes to their circumstances. The anxious repressed mer-
chant banker who takes up yoga or meditation does not cease to be a banker; he may
acquire a certain detachment from his work role and become a more contented holistic
banker, but he continues in the mainstream. A very small number will “downsize.”

14 Ruth
Prince and David Riches, The New Age in Glastonbury: The Construction of Religious Movements
(New York: Berghahn, 2000) 166–7, 176–8.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

They sell the expensive house in London and retreat to a cottage in Wales or Cumbria
to make pottery and run weekend workshops in reiki healing. But the significance for
the wider society is negligible. Worse, in many cases the change is no more than the
acquisition of a new language to defend old patterns of behavior. Consider the example
of sexual exploitation. In reading a number of accounts of Findhorn, Europe’s oldest
New Age center, I am struck by how often male New Agers manage to seduce younger
women by persuading them that getting in touch with their true feelings, discovering
the angel within, coming into their power, or creating authentic relationships means
having sex.15 To use the formal language of Max Weber, world-rejecting religion seems
only possible if there is a shared external authoritative source of revelation: the God
who punishes those who step out of line. If the only source of authority is the self—as
in the classic New Age slogan, “to your own self be true”—any new perspective or
revelation is more likely to be assimilated to our current circumstances than to provoke

Second, whereas the Victorian evangelical movement was more than the sum of its parts
because it was made up of individuals who were bound together by a shared faith, the
New Age movement is always less than the sum of its parts because even the highly
motivated and genuinely counter-cultural core is not united by common beliefs and
values. Or to be more precise, it is united only in highly abstract operating and episte-
mological principles such as, “No one has the right to tell anyone else what to do.”

My purpose here is not to criticize New Age spirituality (though that is hard to resist);
it is to explain why it fails to resist co-option and bastardization. Since the 1960s ele-
ments of the entire world’s religious repertoire have been imported to Britain, but
instead of secular Britons being transformed by Chinese necromancy, Native American
sweat lodges, and Hindu notions of karma, the innovations have been stripped of their
religious content.16 In its original context, feng sui is a serious matter of relating to
the spirits of the dead. In Britain, it is a decorating style. Yoga is no longer a spiritual
discipline; it is an exercise program. Meditation is not about attaining enlightenment;
it is about relaxing. And ayur vedic medicine is just another cosmetics line from the
Body Shop chain.


I have concentrated on New Age spirituality because it encourages us to move part of

the secularization debate forward. In Britain the Christian churches have shrunk to a
point where reproduction is threatened, the major non-Christian religions brought to

15 Steve
Bruce, “Good Intentions and Bad Sociology: New Age Authenticity and Social Roles,” Journal of
Contemporary Religion 13.1 (1998): 23–36.
16 Bruce, God Is Dead, 118–39.

secularization and T he impotence of individualized religion / bruce

Britain by migrants since 1945 have not recruited beyond their original ethnic bases,
and 1970s NRMs have failed to make any headway. We now have a society that is very
largely secular, not just in the formal operations of major social institutions but also
in popular culture. We are in a historically novel position. Over the next thirty or so
years, we may be able to see if societies are religious because people are religious, or vice
versa. If it is the case that people are in some sense enduringly interested in the religious
and the spiritual (and thus our current secularity is temporary), then we should soon
see evidence for this. New Age spirituality would seem to be a strong candidate for the
future of religion because its individualistic consumerist ethos fits well with the spirit
of the age.

What is needed is serious research directed to assessing the spread, significance, and
impact of alternative forms of spirituality. To date, little work has gone beyond being
impressed by the growth of the supply of spiritual innovations. Such work as has
attempted to measure demand suggests that alternative spiritualities will not refute the
secularization paradigm.

Challenging Secularization
Theory: The Growth of “New
Age” Spiritualities of Life
Paul Heelas

f the various meanings which have come to be associated with the term “spiri-
tuality,” one is readily identifiable. Spirituality is taken to be life itself—the “life
force” or “energy” that sustains life in this world, and what lies at the heart of
subjective life—the core of what it is to be truly alive. It is part and parcel with authentic
ways of being—as when one hears that “spirituality is love, love is spirituality.”

“New Age” spiritualities of life—or contemporary spiritualities of life—can be distin-

guished from theistic spiritualities. Whereas New Age spiritualities are experienced as
emanating from the depths of life within the here-and-now, the spirituality of the Holy
Spirit, the spirituality of obeying the will of God, or the spirituality of experiencing the
God-head itself are understood as emanating from the transcendental realm to serve
life in this world. Take away the theistic God of religious tradition, and there is little
left of Christianity (or theistic traditions); take away the God of theism, and New Age
spiritualities of life remain virtually intact.

The key words of New Age spiritualities are “experience” and “practice.” Rather than
attaching importance to the beliefs, doctrines, and ethical injunctions of theistic tra-
ditions, importance is attached to experiencing the heart of life. Practices are taken
to facilitate the inner quest. Drawn from many sources, most especially the spiritual
“traditions” of the East, activities range from yoga (the most popular) to spiritual mas-
sage (also popular), from reiki to spiritual forms of the Alexander Technique. Enabling
spiritual seekers to make contact with their inner depths, seekers experience spirituality

Paul Heelas is Professor in Religion and Modernity in the Department of Religious

Studies at Lancaster University. Being a classic “baby boomer” (born 1946) and having
lived through the 60s whilst at University, he is especially interested in tracing how inner
life spiritualities have developed and changed—a topic which is explored in his forth-
coming volume, Spiritualities of Life: From the Romantics to Wellbeing Culture.

C hallenging secularization theor y / heelas

flowing through other aspects of their personal lives—their bodies, their emotions,
their relationships. To draw on a term that has acquired wide currency, namely “mind-
body-spirit,” this is therefore mind-body-spirit spirituality.

The Growth of New Age Spiritualities in the West

Concluding his discussion of religion and “alternative” spirituality in Britain, Steve

Bruce writes that “in so far as we can measure any aspect of religious interest, belief or
action and can compare 1995 with 1895, the only description for the change between
the two points is ‘decline.’”1 Accordingly, secularization theory can be applied to explain
decline “across the board.” But there is at least one major problem with the across-the-
board application of secularization theory. Whether it be the beliefs and interests of
individuals, specialized associational activities, institutional cultures or widely available
cultural provisions such as books, New Age spiritualities of life have grown.

Evidence is provided by the growth of the “holistic milieu,” namely associational activi-
ties, of a group or one-to-one variety, run by mind-body-spirit practitioners, which take
place within their own self-contained contexts rather than within and with reference to
broader institutional contexts like schools or businesses. From October 2000 to June
2002 I was part of a research team studying spirituality and religion in the market town
and regional center of Kendal, a gateway to the Lake District of England. A primary
aim of the Kendal Project was to establish whether the holistic milieu of the town and
immediate environs (population 37,150) had grown, and if so, to what extent. By
way of several methods, including use of British Telecom Archives of the Cumbria and
North Lancashire Yellow Pages running back to 1969, we established that there were
virtually no holistic, mind-body-spirit activities in 1970. At the time of our research,
however, there were 126 separate activities provided by 95 spiritual practitioners—41
practitioners served 63 different groups and 63 practitioners worked with individual
clients (9 practitioners served both groups and individual clients). Including the prac-
titioners, 600 people were involved with mind-body-spirit activities during a typical
week, amounting to 1.6 percent of the total population of Kendal and the immediate

Even in the Glastonbury of 1970, there were very few holistic milieu activities of the
kind found today. However, there are very good reasons to suppose that over 900,000
inhabitants of Great Britain are now active on a weekly basis in the holistic milieu of

1 Steve Bruce, “Religion in Britain at the Close of the 20th Century: A Challenge to the Silver Lining
Perspective,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 11.3 (1996): 273.
2 For more on the Kendal Project, and on some of the data that follow in this essay, see Paul Heelas and
Linda Woodhead, The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality (Oxford: Blackwell,
2005). See also <www.kendalproject.org.uk>.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

the nation—a not inconsiderable figure. Yoga, with around 400,000 participants, is of
greater numerical significance than the regular participants of Methodist congregations
(372,600) or Pentecostal churches (216,400); the number of holistic milieu practitio-
ners (146,000) is considerably in excess of National Health Service general practitioners
(37,352). In the U.S., the holistic milieu of the nation has grown from being tiny in
1970 (an obvious exception being the San Francisco Bay area) to between 2.5 and 8
percent of the total population. A poll carried out by the Harris Interactive Service
Bureau in 2003 found that 7 percent of U.S. adults, or 15 million people, practice
yoga—an increase of 28.5 percent from the previous year. Not all practice yoga in asso-
ciational milieu settings, but many do. Additional evidence is provided by the growth of
complementary and alternative forms of “medicine” (CAM), which are often provided
by mind-body-spirit practitioners. According to David Eisenberg, et al., for example,
survey research suggests a “47.3% increase in total visits to alternative medicine practi-
tioners, from 427 million in 1990 to 629 million in 1997, thereby exceeding total visits
to all US primary care physicians.”3

Turning to evidence of growth within mainstream institutions, all the schools of

England and Wales are legally required to attend to the spiritual development of their
pupils. As defined by Ofsted (the government’s inspection agency), “spiritual develop-
ment” relates “to that aspect of inner life through which pupils acquire insights into
their personal existence which are of enduring worth…a non-material dimension to
life,” it being explicitly stated that “‘spiritual’ is not synonymous with religious.”4 Given
that Ofsted visits schools to judge the quality of provisions for spiritual education, it is
not surprising to find evidence that inner life spirituality is becoming more significant
within the mainstream educational system. Many primary schools now provide yoga
and tai chi for their pupils (and parents); some have special areas where pupils can go
for creative, calming, and holistic therapies.

Within another sphere of public services, the National Health Service, government
charters and plans state that nurses must attend to “the spiritual needs” of their patients.
Although this includes attending to the “spiritual needs” of theistic believers, it is clear
that patients and their nurses are increasingly concerned with holistic, mind-body-spirit
spirituality. And so are doctors. By 2001, almost half of the general practices in England
were providing access to CAM activities, with almost one-third of activities being pro-
vided “in-house” by doctors themselves or their staff. Regarding the U.S., much the
same picture is to be found, one indicator being that some 10 percent of hospitals now
provide alternative forms of healing, often with a spiritual orientation.5

3 David M. Eisenberg, et al., “Trends in Alternative Medicine Use in the United States, 1990–1997,”
Journal of the American Medical Association 280.18 (11 November 1998): 1,569.
4 Cited in Heelas and Woodhead 71–2.
5 Evidence is provided by Paul Heelas, “Nursing Spirituality,” Spirituality and Health International (forth-
coming): 1–16.

C hallenging secularization theor y / heelas

Holistic spirituality is also a growing presence within the heartlands of capitalism.

According to Douglas Hicks in his study of current interest in religion and spirituality in
U.S. companies, “along with a new public Christian evangelicalism, New Age language
fundamentally shapes discussions of contemporary workplace spirituality.”6 Indeed,
surveying the evidence provided by the numerous companies which have incorporated
“the sacred,” it can be argued that inner life spirituality has become more significant
than Christianity, with many employees (especially in larger companies) participating in
trainings, courses, and seminars that aim to release and optimize the resources that lie
within—including what spiritual “energy,” “wisdom,” and “creativity” have to offer.

In terms of the numerical significance of inner life beliefs Holistic spirituality is also a
among the general population, the best evidence to date is
growing presence within the
provided by Eileen Barker. Drawing on the 1998 Religious
and Moral Pluralism (RAMP) survey of eleven European heartlands of capitalism.
countries, she reports that 29 percent agree with the state-
ment, “I believe that God is something within each person, rather than something
out there,” with an additional 15 percent agreeing with the statement, “I believe in an
impersonal spirit or life force.”7 In the U.S., the importance of inner life spirituality
is indicated by George Gallup and Timothy Jones’s finding that “almost a third of our
survey defined spirituality with no reference to…a higher authority,” a typical response
being that spirituality is “the essence of my personal being.”8 Although comparison is
not made easier by virtue of the fact that survey questions have tended to change over
the years, it is safe to say that the picture of Europe and Britain over time adds up to
one of growth.

In sum, with no (significant) indices of decline, we can reverse Bruce’s assessment to

conclude that “the only description for…change…is ‘growth.’”

The “Symptom of Secularization” Defense

Faced with evidence of growth, across-the-board secularization theorists have adopted

the strategy of arguing that expansion is more apparent than real. The argument is that
a great deal of holistic mind-body-spirit spirituality is part of the very process of secu-
larization itself. As David Voas and Steve Bruce make the point, “Unconventional spiri-

6 Douglas A. Hicks, Religion and the Workplace: Pluralism, Spirituality, Leadership (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2003) 31.
7 Eileen Barker, “The Church without and the God within: Religiosity and/or Spirituality?” Religion and
Patterns of Social Transformation, ed. D. M. Jerolimov, S. Zrinscak and I. Borowik (Zagreb: Institute for
Social Research, 2004) 38.
8 George Gallup, Jr., and Timothy Jones, The Next American Spirituality (Colorado Springs: Chariot
Victor, 2000) 49.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

tuality is a symptom of secularisation, not a durable counterforce to it.”9 Compared to

the “real thing”—religious tradition—New Age spiritualities of life are impoverished,
vague, attenuated, and quasi-spiritual, if not secular.

To discuss this defense in connection with the Kendal Project, Voas and Bruce draw
attention to the finding that nearly half of the respondents to the questionnaire sent
to all the participants of the holistic milieu did not consider their activities to be of
spiritual significance. Although all the practitioners might have been providing activi-
ties that they understood to be spiritual, a considerable number of group members or
one-to-one clients understood homeopathy or osteopathy, for example, as devoid of
spirituality. However, Voas and Bruce do not take into account the finding that 82
percent of all respondents agreed with the statement that “some sort of spirit or life
force pervades all that lives,” with 73 percent agreeing that there is “subtle energy (or
energy channels) in the body.” Furthermore, 71 percent rated “spirituality” between 6
and 10 on a scale from 1 (not at all important) to 10 (very important), with 38 percent
selecting 10. The milieu is thus by no means secular as the understanding of activities
by some participants might lead one to suppose; Voas and Bruce themselves write that
questionnaire responses are “extraordinarily high on unconventional beliefs.”10 As for
elsewhere in Britain, Suzanne Hasselle-Newcombe’s study of the Iyengar Yoga Jubilee
Convention held at Crystal Palace, London, during 2002 finds much the same picture:
83 percent of questionnaire respondents “describe themselves as having a spiritual life”
whilst 47 percent have a “‘spiritual’ interest in their practice.”11

The extent to which the holistic milieu differs from the secular is seen in the criticisms
directed at CAM by scientific researchers. To mention just one critic, Raymond Tallis,
a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, writes that

acupuncturists require one to believe ideas about illness for which there is no
evidence, other than the sacred texts of Chinese medicine: that there are pat-
terns of energy flow (Qi) throughout the body that are essential for health; that
disease is due to disruptions of this flow; and that acupuncture corrects the

and suggests that such practitioners use “untested medicines invested with the magic
of antiquity and the subversive charm of irrationality.”12 From the perspective of critics

9 David Voas and Steve Bruce, “The Spiritual Revolution: Another False Dawn for the Sacred,” A Sociology
of Spirituality, ed. Kieran Flanagan and Peter Jupp (Aldershot: Ashgate, forthcoming).
10 Voas and Bruce.
11 Suzanne Hasselle-Newcombe, “Spirituality and ‘Mystical Religion’ in Contemporary Society: A Case
Study of British Practitioners of the Iyengar Method of Yoga,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 20.3
(2005): 312.
12 Raymond Tallis, Hippocratic Oaths: Medicine and Its Discontents (London: Atlantic, 2004) 129, 133.

C hallenging secularization theor y / heelas

like Tallis, a chasm exists between the explanations and procedures of orthodox medi-
cine and CAM—a chasm that reveals the extent to which beliefs like “subtle energy (or
energy channels) in the body” deviate from the secular world of science.

It is true that some of those participating in the holistic milieu of Britain (as elsewhere)
are simply doing yoga for stress relief (for example). It is also true that a smallish minor-
ity (probably in the order of 20 percent) do not acknowledge belief in inner spirituality
or spiritual energy. The fact remains, though, that the great majority of participants
accept spirituality, and those who do not sometimes accept the existence of scientifically
untenable states of affairs, such as the operation of non-material, invisible chakras.13

Generally speaking, the holistic milieu activities of Western countries are not the “last
gasp” of the sacred sought out by those who are happy to make do with the impover-
ished. Without going into detail here, the growth of the milieu attests to its vitality—a
vitality which owes a considerable amount to the fact that the milieu (in any particular
locality and beyond) works by way of shared, mutually confirmed, “cultural” values,
expectations, key terms (like “spiritual energy” or “life force”), and key experiences (like
“harmony,” “inner healing,” or “holistic wellbeing”).14

Explaining Growth

With secularization theory very much dwelling on the decline of religious tradition in
“Western” settings, the challenge is to develop alternative explanations—explanations
that specifically attend to the growth of New Age spiritualities of life.

The development of the assumptions, beliefs, and values of the autonomous self dur-
ing modernity is pivotal. The argument is basically simple. Whatever the reasons for
this development—which are multiple—the autonomous self has to have what Lionel
Trilling refers to as “internal space.”15 To be autonomous the self must act on the basis
of what belongs to itself. Appropriate subjectivities, taking place within internal “space”
and which can only be experienced by the self, are required for the self to be able to
consider itself able to exercise control, make judgments, act on the world, express itself,
and grow whilst being true to itself. Much of the content of the autonomous self of
Western societies is (relatively) secular: the “mind” itself; “will” and the ability to exer-
cise “will power”; being “imaginative” and “creative”; regulating one’s “emotions” to

13 SeePaul Heelas, “The Holistic Milieu and Spirituality: Reflections on Voas and Bruce,” A Sociology of
Spirituality, ed. Kieran Flanagan and Peter Jupp (Aldershot: Ashgate, forthcoming).
14 See
Paul Heelas, “The Infirmity Debate: On the Viability of New Age Spiritualities of Life,” Journal of
Contemporary Religion (forthcoming).
15 LionelTrilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (London: Oxford University Press, 1974) 24. For a brilliant
analysis of the muting of “inner space” in a culture where individual autonomy is equally muted, see
Godfrey Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka (Oxford: Clarendon, 1961).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

exercise authority; calling one’s “intuition,” “experience,” or one’s sense of what “feels
right” into play to make decisions; being “authentic,” honest about oneself, emotionally
“intelligent” in dealing with malfunctioning relationships. However, given the value
ascribed to being autonomous, an effective way of informing, articulating, or emphasiz-
ing autonomy is by locating the “sacred”—with its powers—within the subjectivities of
the self. And indeed a considerable body of evidence shows that autonomous selves are
much more likely than conformist selves to hold inner life, spiritual beliefs.16

As the sociocultural order As the sociocultural order becomes increasingly restric-

tive, people increasingly come to value their freedom. The
becomes increasingly “ideology” of autonomy, which is certainly deeply rooted
restrictive, people increasingly in “Western cultures,” comes to the fore precisely when it
is most threatened. The fact that people are “determined”
come to value their freedom. to be free—maybe in one sense of the word (in line with
Foucault), but certainly in the sense of their own self-deter-
mination—counters the Foucault-inspired objection that “autonomy” is subverted by
implicit regulatory or constructivist processes.

Another question arises in relation to the argument I have outlined: surely it is perfectly
possible to be autonomous without buttressing the exercise of freedom by way of inner
spirituality? Given that this question has to be answered in the affirmative, we then have
to ask: why do some people, but not others, believe in the sacred within? Unfortunately,
critical, detailed evidence has yet to be provided. Other than those participating in
holistic milieu activities, we know very little about the gender, occupational, age, edu-
cational, etc. profiles, or the values and worldviews of those in the population at large
who believe in the sacred within, and not “simply” in being autonomous. Neither do
we have a clear idea of the number of people who do not go to church (or other places
of worship) on a regular basis, who value autonomy, but who continue to believe that
the sacred is primarily located in the transcendental realm.

I strongly suspect, however, that an ingredient which has to be added to the autonomy
argument lies with the role played by the mysteries of life. In 1841 Feuerbach wrote
that “Man first of all sees his nature as if out of himself, before he finds it in himself.”17
What he called “religion,” Feuerbach argued, is increasingly found within our conscious-
ness—our consciousness of our infinite, mysterious nature. Scientific advance since the
time of Feuerbach has done nothing to dispel the inexplicable nature of consciousness
and life. Indeed, as Einstein was fond of observing, scientific progress highlights the
unknown. Whether it be life or the universe, there must be something more that is way

16 See Heelas and Woodhead 113–23; see, in particular, the pioneering research carried out by S. Houtman
and D. P. Mascini, “Why Do Churches Become Empty, While New Age Grows?” Journal for the Scientific
Study of Religion 41.3 (2002): 455–73.
17 Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper, 1957) 13–4.

C hallenging secularization theor y / heelas

beyond our ken as mere partially evolved mortals. And the more you think about it, the
more mysterious it becomes. The irreducibility of the great mysteries…

Especially with the decline of belief in the transcendental world since the time of
Feuerbach, if the sacred is to be located in this world (and where else can it go?) it will
be in the realm of the mysterious: the realm that exists beyond the mere materialities of
the secular world—a realm that can be experienced but not grasped by the mind.

In Durkheimian fashion, the “sacred” is quite naturally associated with the most impor-
tant, ultimate of cultural values. Hence, it is the interior home for many of the “free
spirits” who value the autonomous way of being. The “sacred” also quite naturally dwells
with the mysterious. Hence the probability that it has its interior home with those who
are most aware of the unfathomable, inexplicable depths of life (or, as with Einstein and
other preeminent scientists, the universe). I predict that research will show that those
whose self-reflexivity about life has been stimulated by college or university education
(especially in the humanities and social sciences), then exercised by careers in person-
centered jobs (most obviously hospices) where “meaning and purpose” issues come to
the fore, will be most aware of the mysteries of life. Such people, who almost certainly
value autonomy, are therefore the most likely to hold beliefs of the kind reported by
Eileen Barker; or to participate in holistic milieu activities to explore the significance of
their lives by plumbing the depths of “life” affirming life.

Just as the powers, capacities, and value of the inner life mean a great deal to the
autonomous self, so the question of what it means to be alive means a great deal to
those who adhere to the ethic of humanity. Assessing the significance of the “religion of
humanity,” as he called it, Durkheim claimed that the ethic

has become a fact, it has penetrated our institutions and our mores, it has blend-
ed with our whole life, and if, truly, we had to give it up, we would have to recast
our whole moral organization at the same stroke.18

Durkheim’s claim is even more justified today, at least in “the West.” Fuelling the value
of freedom by way of the importance attached to the value of “respecting the other,” and
the associated institutionalization of human rights, the core value of the ethic in fact lies
with life itself. The basic assumption of the ethic is that life itself—what we all share
by virtue of the life of humanity—lies beyond “difference” (ethnic, gendered, national,
etc.). Other values—for example equality and respecting the other—flow from this.
Acknowledging that no one human being is the same as another, freedom is valued as
providing the opportunity for people to “live out” their humanity in their own way—so
long as life itself (and the freedoms of others) is not (unnecessarily) at stake. In short,

18 Emile
Durkheim, “Individualism and the Intellectuals,” Emile Durkheim: On Morality and Society, ed.
Robert Bellah (London: The University of Chicago Press 1973) 46–7.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

the ultimate value assigned to life itself by the dominant ethic of “the West,” and in
many other parts of the world, means that it is not surprising that Durkheim called it
the “religion” of humanity. Neither is it surprising that so many today explicitly locate
the sacred within the depths of this shared life. (Recall the key Kendal Project finding
that 82 percent of questionnaire respondents agreed with the statement that “some sort
of spirit or life force pervades all that lives.”)

Whatever the precise role played by the “secular” ethic of humanity in explaining the
growth of inner life spirituality, there is undoubtedly an extremely close match between
the two. That they share the theme of there being a universal core to life, expressing or
“manifesting” itself through the unique life experiences of particular individuals by way
of the (relative) freedom which they are accorded, undoubtedly shows that the “secular”
ethic has played an important role in providing assumptions for, and in lending plau-
sibility to, the explicitly sacralized rendering of the ethic in contemporary spirituality
of life circles today.

Whereas the ethic of humanity is grounded in “life in general,” the development of the
autonomous self is more about “life in particular”: the unique life of the experiences
of each person. With the development of the autonomous self, subjective life—so vital
an aspect of the self-understanding of the autonomous agent—becomes an increasing
focus of attention and concern. Catering to subjective life, fuelling it, perhaps consti-
tuting particular elements, subjective wellbeing culture has thus become a vehicle for a
range of careers, adding up to one of the largest (if not the largest) employment sectors
of contemporary modernity. And the culture of subjective wellbeing has played a major
role in the growth of inner life spirituality.

All cultures are bound up with the wellbeing (or not) of their denizens. Subjective
wellbeing culture is marked out by the explicit (often highly elaborated) attention that
is paid to subjective life. One sees this, for example, in the difference between the car ad
that provides the objective facts (fuel consumption, number of cylinders, etc.) and the
one that declares “Experience the Difference” or “The Drive of Your Life,” with only a
photograph. Clearly, you might be pleased about the fuel consumption figure—but the
fact remains that the life of experience is not explicitly addressed in objective, imper-
sonal provisions of this variety.

Those working within subjective wellbeing culture seek to align their provisions and
activities with the elementary “logic” of enhancing the quality of subjective life. Given
that the subjective life of any particular individual is unique, provisions or activities are
personalized or individualized as much as possible (or are left intentionally vague so as
to be inclusive and open to personal interpretation). The key is to enable people to “be
themselves” (where the unique comes in) “only better” (which is where the enhancement
of quality comes in)—a two-fold aim which is frequently advanced by encouraging peo-
ple to go “deeper” into their experiences to develop their qualities and circumvent their
limitations (and for those who regard life as unfathomable, there is plenty of scope for

C hallenging secularization theor y / heelas

going “deeper”). From child-centered or “independent” education, to manager-centered

“soft capitalism,” to patient-centered nursing, to guest-centered spas and hotels, to the
more individuated health and fitness clubs, to customer-centered shop floor assistants,
to “person”-centered call center operatives, to viewer-centered “reality TV” shows, to
reader-“engaging” or “life-provoking” autobiographies and women’s magazines, to adver-
tising, to client-centered therapists, to life-skill coaches:
provisions and services offer a wide range of ways of being Provisions and services offer a
yourself only better. The child-centered primary school
wide range of ways of being
teacher works in the spirit of Rousseau to cultivate the par-
ticular abilities or “gifts” of individual children and to help yourself only better.
particular children to develop their own “well-rounded”
personalities; the therapist at the spa endeavors to work with her guest to facilitate the
best possible experiences; those producing “reality TV” shows aim to provide as many
opportunities as possible for the individual viewer to learn from the “personalities,” both
how to avoid ill-being and how to be happy and successful as a person.

What has all this got to do with the growth of New Age spiritualities of life? Within
the ranks of those supplying the provisions of purchasing culture, any good market
researcher will be aware of the inner life beliefs of the kind reported by Eileen Barker.
Market researchers will know that the sales of newspapers (like the Daily Mail) or
(women’s) magazines like O The Oprah Magazine benefit from the inclusion of articles
catering to the hopes of those with beliefs of this variety; market researchers will know
that “spiritual” products sold in health and beauty shops are likely to appeal to those
who think that holistic spirituality might well improve their quality of life. And in
turn, the widespread presence of spiritually “significant” provisions—not least the many
books housed under the “self-improvement,” “health and fitness,” and (of course) the
“mind-body-spirit” categories in the wellbeing zones of major bookstores—could well
be serving to contribute to the increase in the number of people who believe in inner
spirituality, perhaps even influencing the “I definitely believe in something” camp.

“Capitalizing” on widespread beliefs in what lies within and what this realm has to offer,
many of the provisions and activities of subjective wellbeing culture have introduced
holistic, mind-body-spirit themes. Sometimes these are well-developed; sometimes they
provide a “taste”; sometimes they take the form of allusions to inner life spirituality
and hints of what it promises. Relative to context, inner life spirituality is thriving. It
adds to the “better” or “more” of more secular forms of subjective wellbeing culture by
offering an additional means to the end of the “more.” Working from within the heart
of the person, to flow through her or his personal life, it does not distract from the
unique—the “I am what I am” anchorage of so much of modern culture.19

19 Whetheror not people are “taken in” by the advertising (etc.) of much of subjective wellbeing is not my
concern here. What matters is that they have the opportunity to be “taken in to” their subjectivities.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

The assumptions and values of subjective wellbeing culture—the importance of subjec-

tive life; the positive, “can do” way it is envisaged; the theme of exercising autonomy
to develop, express, and celebrate who you really are—are writ large in the holistic
milieu. Accordingly, expectations aroused by subjective wellbeing culture can serve to
direct people to the specialized zone of the milieu itself. Here, they can engage in asso-
ciational, face-to-face activities to go “deeper” into what is to be found in other areas
of the culture. One reads about yoga and wellbeing in a popular magazine; one decides
to “work out” whilst watching a yoga DVD; one gets interested, buys a book or two,
and reads about chakras, energy flows, and what yoga has to do with the purpose of life;
one gets older and starts thinking about one’s health and what one’s life is all about;
one exercises one’s autonomy to find out what works best; one finally settles with a
tai chi group; one “realizes” things about oneself that one had not known before. Or
again: a primary school teacher feels that she should really do something to prepare
for the upcoming Ofsted inspection; she introduces “stilling” sessions; she experiences
the effects for herself and observes the results in the classroom; she decides to join a
meditation group.

Many of the participants of the holistic milieu work, or have worked, in person-cen-
tered, wellbeing professions—nursing, education, counseling, therapy, HRD, and so on.
Many become active in the holistic milieu because they have been unable to fulfill their
holistic, person-centered, subjective wellbeing concerns within the workplace. Take the
National Health Service hospital nurses as an example: on the one hand, governmental
policies direct them to respond to the “spiritual needs” of their patients; on the other,
they are terribly busy working to comply with scientific and bureaucratic procedures. A
number of nurses whom I interviewed were seriously interested in “growth” by way of
working closely with others and with what holistic spirituality has to offer, but got so
frustrated with the “iron cage” of the ward that they simply left or went part-time, to
liberate themselves by becoming practitioners in the holistic milieu.20

20 For more on the role played by subjective wellbeing culture, including wellbeing-oriented professions
such as nursing, see Heelas and Woodhead. If space permitted, consideration could also be paid to other
growth factors, including the roles played by increasing prosperity; the increase of enrollment in college
and higher education; the self-reported efficacy of holistic activities in enhancing the quality of life; the
ways in which “humanistic” spirituality provides a useful way of appealing to “the same” in the increas-
ingly multicultural environment of many schools and hospitals (for example); the ways in which inner
life spirituality lends itself to serving the interests of the managerial sector (in particular) of mainstream
businesses; the decline of belief in “human” existence in heaven, meaning that increasing value is attached
to living a fulfilling, experience-laden life in the here-and-now; the widespread loss, at least in Britain, of
knowledge of Christian beliefs, opening up the “space” for spiritualities that, until recently, were widely
regarded as deviant; the ways in which the “empiricism” of holistic spiritualities of life—the test of “what
works in my experience”—suits the ethos of consumer culture pragmatism; the celebratory, celebrity
factor; and, somewhat conversely, the ways in which the egalitarianism of inner life spirituality suits the
democratic, anti-deferential ethos that is widely in evidence today.

C hallenging secularization theor y / heelas


The across-the-board claim—that both religion and “alternative spirituality” are in

decline—is clearly wrong. A great deal of evidence might show that regular church
attendance is falling in many countries (including the U.S.), but virtually all indices
show that New Age spiritualities of life are growing, most especially the activities of
the holistic milieu, activities and beliefs within mainstream institutions, and personal

Designed to explain decline, pluralization, and structural differentiation theories, for

example, might well help explain why theistic beliefs among the general population are
becoming less popular (the first theory) and why public institutions have generally lost
most of the theistic significance that they might have had in the past (the second). But
does secularization theory have anything to offer with regard to explaining the growth
of holistic spiritualities of life? Since explanations of decline can hardly explain growth,
the short answer to this ill-explored question is “no.”21

However, the longer answer is that certain sociocultural developments are associated
with both decline and growth. Consider the process of pluralization. On the one hand,
the increasing awareness of different religions probably contributes to loss of faith in
tradition. (Why should one be right when they all claim to be true?) On the other,
the same increase almost certainly contributes to the growth of humanistic, inner life
spirituality (for example, to handle the problem of difference in multicultural public
institutions, one finds the sacred within the common ground of humanity).

Or consider the development of the autonomous self. In The Spiritual Revolution,

Linda Woodhead and I argue that the subjectivization thesis serves to offer a particular
explanation of growth, another for decline.22 Basically, the argument is that the “turn”
to the autonomous self and its subjectivities—which Charles Taylor calls “the massive
subjective turn of modern culture”—favors those forms of spirituality which resource
one’s subjectivities and treats them as a fundamental source of significance, and under-
mines those forms of religion which do not.23 Experienced as the heart of life and
flowing through the unique experiences that comprise personal life, holistic spirituality
can appeal to the increasing number of free spirits in the culture—people who exercise
their autonomy by trusting their own experience to find ways of “deepening,” there-
by “elevating,” the quality of their subjective lives, their intimate relationships, their
sense of fulfillment and authenticity—without sacrificing their uniqueness and sense

21 This is not to deny that secularization theorists have done a great deal to illuminate the nature of moder-
nity, thereby contributing to other explanations.
22 See Heelas and Woodhead for further discussion.
23 Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991) 26.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

of authority. At the same time, however, the subjectivization thesis offers a particular
explanation of decline. As the assumptions, beliefs, and values of the autonomous self
oriented toward the subjective life become more widespread in Western cultures, there
are progressively fewer traditionalists, conformists, or conservatives who are willing to
remain with places of religious worship, let alone to start attending. And autonomous
selves are unlikely to participate in forms of worship that require living by an order of
things not of their own making, rather than by something from within their own (not
dependent) life.

Bearing on both growth and decline, the development of the autonomous self and
the associated subjective turn of modernity provide a general explanation of change.
The fact remains, though, that the particular ways in which growth and decline are
explained are by no means the same. The adverse impact of the autonomous, unique,
subjectively oriented mode of selfhood on theistic tradition is one thing; the positive
impact on New Age spiritualities of life another. Secularization theory is not so much
challenged as put in its place—a place where it serves to complement explanations of

In Search of Certainties:
The Paradoxes of Religiosity in
Societies of High Modernity
Danièle Hervieu-Léger

he “rational disenchantment” characteristic of modern societies does not
mark the end of religion. It has not caused the disappearance of the need
to believe—far from it. This assertion—which nowadays would sound self-
evident—formed the starting point, thirty years ago, of a theoretical revival in the
sociology of religions. It paved the way for a major re-evaluation of the secularization
process, a task still far from complete. One point has now been established, however:
it has become clear that belief proliferates in proportion to the uncertainty caused by
the pace of change in all areas of social life. But we also know that it sits less and less
easily within the dogmatic frameworks offered by institutional religions. In societies
that have adopted the autonomy of individuals as a principle, individuals create, in an
increasingly independent manner, the small systems of belief that fit their own aspira-
tions and experiences.

I propose to review, in broad outline, a number of elements of “religious modernity,”

deliberately choosing examples drawn from the European religious scene, which, as we
know, is substantially different from that of the United States. The first thing that can
be observed is the unpredictable diversity of these individual compositions of belief,
which may include elements borrowed from a wide variety of symbolic resources. Today,
individuals write their own little belief narratives using words and symbols that have
“escaped” the constellations of meaning in which a given tradition had set them over
the centuries. Regularly practicing French, Belgian, or Italian Catholics, actively inte-
grated in a parish community, state their belief in reincarnation. Norwegian or Danish

Danièle Hervieu-Léger holds academic degrees in political science, law, and sociology.
Professor (Directrice d’Études) at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales
(Paris), she was elected President of the EHESS in 2004. She is also Chief Editor of the
Archives des Sciences Sociales de Religions. Among her sixteen books is Religion as a
Chain of Memory (2000).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

Lutherans affiliated with their national church advocate, in accordance with spiritual
ecology, a religion in harmony with nature, which they see as an all-encompassing
whole where the human has a place but does not possess any particular privileges over
any other living organism. Jews claim to find in Buddhist meditation the authentic
meaning of their relationship to the Torah. Believers of all origins assert composite
religious identities, in which are crystallized the successive and cumulated stages of their
personal spiritual search.

At the same time, the organized structure of the belief systems authenticated by reli-
gious institutions is weakening: surveys on the beliefs of French people show that the
vast majority of those who state a commitment to Catholicism no longer associate a
belief in sin with the idea of possible damnation. Belief in a paradise after death holds
out, but it is out-distanced—among practicing Catholics—by belief in reincarnation.
The concept of hell is in the process of disappearing. More surprisingly, it seems that
essentials of Christological belief are held only feebly by believers who nevertheless
proclaim themselves “Christians.” Endless examples could be cited of this dual ten-
dency towards the individualization and subjectivization of beliefs, on the one hand,
and deregulation of the organized systems of religious belief, on the other. Seen from
this angle, religious modernity means the individualized dissemination of convictions
and the collapse of the religious codes that organized shared certainties within believing

To Each His “Own” Truth: The Primacy of Authenticity

The direct effect of this expressive individualism in the spiritual and religious sphere
is to call into question, in the eyes of the believers themselves, the institutions’ claim
to bear witness to “the true faith.” Thus, during a national survey on the beliefs of
Catholics and Protestants carried out in Switzerland, only 2 percent of people ques-
tioned agreed with the following statement: “All religions are respectable, but only
mine is true.”1 This down-toning of religious orthodoxies massively affects the younger
generations and is apparent increasingly early. A survey carried out in France in 1998
shows that 6 percent of the population questioned, and only 4 percent of 18- to 29-
year-olds, think that their religion is the only true one.2 This putting into perspective
of the orthodoxies upheld by institutions is part of a deeper movement in which the
governing systems of truth are being displaced. Legitimization of belief is moving from
religious authorities, guarantors of the truth of belief, to individuals themselves, who
are responsible for the authenticity of their own spiritual approach. What gives value to

1 Roland J. Campiche, et al., Croire en Suisse(s) (Lausanne et Genève: L’Age d’Homme, 1992).
2 Yves Lambert, “Un paysage religieux en profonde évolution,” Les valeurs des Français, ed. Hélène Riffault
(Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1994) 123–62.

in search of certainties / hervieu - léger

the believer’s search, not only in his own eyes but also in the eyes of those with whom
he dialogues, and before whom he testifies, is his sincerity and his personal commit-
ment. The endeavor to conform to truths formatted by religious authorities has become
completely secondary.

This trend is also confirmed by Wade Clark Roof ’s studies in the United States on the
religiosity of baby-boomers.3 Religious authorities themselves are contributing to this
movement, by giving greater weight to the quality of personal spiritual experiences
than to the strict orthodoxy of statements of belief. This tendency to consider that, in
spiritual and religious matters, there is no truth other than that which is personal, and
personally appropriated to oneself, is not a characteristic only of “floating” spiritual
seekers, whose search for belief now has few links, if any, with claims of belonging to
a particular community. It is also active within the domain of institutional religions,
profoundly calling into question the hierarchical structures through which they under-
pin their authority in the field of truth. Of course, one could demonstrate that these
mechanisms for bringing the faith of believers into conformity have never, historically
speaking, functioned in a pure and perfect manner. But the novelty here is the rejec-
tion in strictly spiritual terms (in the name of faith itself ) of an institutional means of
authenticating religious truth, which for centuries had represented both the support for
the unquestioned universal validity of the major religions and the basis for the denomi-
national definitions that identify different churches.

An Increasingly Broad “Symbol Market”

Does the increasingly “do-it-yourself ” nature of individual beliefs mean we have

entered into an era of spiritual fragmentation and radical change in perspective on
shared certainties? Things are not so simple. It is true that contemporary belief systems
are cobbled together from the resources available and accessible within a vast market
of symbols. But the extreme dissemination of the little narratives produced by the
individualization of belief must not be mistaken for a completely chaotic shattering
of beliefs. Individuals freely assemble their personal “belief solution,” but they do so
using symbol resources whose availability remains confined within certain limits. The
first of these are related to the cultural environment; the second to the access that each
person has to these resources. Reuse of elements taken from different sources is, up to
a point, guided by the way the social environment represents and interprets the differ-
ent contributing traditions. Thus, French Buddhism, currently being reinvented with
great success, is propagated by a series of clichés that derive—somewhat distantly from
the historical Buddhist tradition—from the assumed (and somewhat arguable!) close-
ness of Buddhism to flexibility in moral matters and to conciliatory openness towards

3 Wade Clark Roof, A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation (New York:
HarperCollins, 1993); and Spiritual Marketplace: Babyboomers and the Remaking of American Religion
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

other traditions that appeal to the modern individual. Obviously it is within the social
classes most directly affected by the issues pertaining to this modern culture of the
individual that this Buddhism revisited finds its main field for expansion. Furthermore,
in this game of individualized belief composition, individuals display varied do-it-your-
self skills, corresponding to differentiated social aptitudes. A
Furthermore, in this forty-year-old graduate from a renowned university who lives
in central Berlin and spends one-third of his time on business
game of individualized
trips will not cobble ideas together in the same way as a thirty-
belief composition, year-old woman just arrived from the Caribbean who works
as a cleaner. It is impossible to grasp the social logic of spiri-
individuals display varied
tual do-it-yourself composition without taking into account
do-it-yourself skills… both the social conditions of an individual’s access to symbol
resources of unequal availability and the cultural conditions of
the use of these resources. It is true that relaxation of institutional control over belief
favors individualistic dispersion of beliefs. But one should not overlook the fact that
this dispersion still falls within a mechanism of social and cultural restrictions, the
resonance of which remains extremely important.

However, there is no doubt that the pool of symbol resources upon which individuals
today are liable to draw in order to make their little personal belief system is undergo-
ing considerable expansion in all societies of high modernity. This is a consequence of
the general increase of cultural awareness linked to schooling and the development of
communication, to the professional and geographical mobility that brings individuals
into contact with a diversified range of cultural worlds during the course of their lives,
and so on. I wish to retain two elements whose combination sheds some light on the
increasing eclecticism characteristic of the belief productions of individuals.

The first is the weakening of the family structures of religious transmission, which
used to link an individual at an early age to a legacy of symbolic possessions that he
inherited and that it was his role to pass on, in his turn, to the next generation. One of
the characteristics of the contemporary religious scene is that religious identities are no
longer inherited, or at any rate are less and less so. This breakdown of transmission is
the result of a sequence of events that fall within the historical process of secularization.
The pace of social and economic change, geographical and job mobility, and cultural
transformations has dissolved the structures of plausibility in which inherited religious
identities were formed. Competition from the spheres of belief and the normative sys-
tems to which they correspond in a pluralist society has contributed on a large scale to
weakening the prescriptive power of religious references transmitted within the family.
More recently, the “imperative to pass on the faith” has itself undergone the backlash of
an individualization of belief that places individual choice at the forefront in religious
matters. It is considered self-evident by increasing numbers of people in our societies
that each individual must choose for him- or herself the lineage of belief with which
he or she identifies: the intervention of parents, even assuming it were legitimate, no
longer plays more than a subsidiary role.

in search of certainties / hervieu - léger

Furthermore, at the same time as a weakening of cultural and symbolic footholds for-
merly guaranteed by the early integration of individuals into a given religious tradition
(a situation commonly described in terms of the ebb or disappearance of “religious
culture” among the younger generations), the ready availability, with no special access
code, of multifarious symbol stocks has expanded quite phenomenally. The profusion of
religious sites on the internet offers a perfect illustration of this great bazaar of meanings
in which individuals move around and take what they want. Alongside this explosion
of virtual religion, the proliferation of published matter on religious topics, television,
films, and the mainstream press all contribute to putting at everyone’s disposal infor-
mation that—however partial or superficial it may be—broadens the “known religious
landscape” of individuals. Two out of three French teenagers born into Catholic fami-
lies have never been to mass or Sunday school. But they will without a doubt have seen
movies such as Little Buddha, Seven Years in Tibet, or Witness. They will have made con-
tact, through the intermediary of films, with the world of Jewish festivals or Ramadan,
or with the themes of New Age trends and spiritual ecology. And their first exposure
to the Gospels might well have been a successful popular musical. They will thus have
discovered, albeit in the most anecdotal and unreliable fashion, the existence of diverse
cultural, religious, and spiritual worlds that would, of course, have been unknown to
their grandparents. In Europe much is made of the dangers, perhaps even the impend-
ing “cultural catastrophe,” entailed by such a chaotic spraying around of references
to traditions known only fragmentarily. The fact remains that individuals build their
capacity for spiritual and religious composition from this kaleidoscope of disparate
data, almost invariably dislocated from the symbolic syntax that made it readable. It is
better to attempt to reason on the basis of this situation than to vainly regret the time
when early religious or ideological socialization enabled long-lasting stabilization of
compact identities, clearly distinguishable from one another and socially identifiable.

The Greater the Individualization of Belief, the Greater Its Degree of


Does this fragmentation of personal religious structures imply that it is becoming impos-
sible, in our societies, to share common beliefs? Or, in other words, does it imply that
religious belief no longer plays any part in the working out of common worlds that bind
individuals together? Things are somewhat more complex. The rejection of institutional
approval of belief and the broadening of the stock of references and symbols made avail-
able for use and reuse by individuals does not only signify the fragmentation of small
systems of belief. At the same time, the liberalization of the symbol market gives room
to a paradoxical tendency towards the standardization of these small narratives: a stan-
dardization that makes possible—in a context of general cultural globalization—their
arrangement into networks on a worldwide scale. This proclivity for standardization is
a very precise response to the mechanisms of a symbol economy increasingly in align-
ment with the general laws of the market.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

The economic logic of the standardization of products on offer for mass consumption
has asserted itself, along with the liberalization of competition, in all areas of produc-
tion, from the manufacture of goods to artistic production. It is also applicable in the
field of symbol production. Although it is often a dubious procedure to resort to eco-
nomic categories when examining religious phenomena, it is justifiable to make use of
them here in a non-analogous manner. Standardization as a production procedure, in
this area as in all others, is the direct consequence of the process of liberalization, itself
made possible by the abolition of the institutional monopoly of truth.

A good indicator of the logic of symbol production standardization in the Christian

world can be found in charismatic Catholic territory, as well as in evangelical Protestant
territory (especially Pentecostal), in the remarkable increase in adherence to a “mini-
mum creed,” which can be summed up as follows: “God loves you, Jesus saves, and you
can be healed.” Theological clarification of this “creed” is not required and its practical
effectiveness is meant to be experienced personally by each believer. This “doctrinal
reduction” is linked to the expansion within this movement of an emotional religiosity
that explicitly preaches putting the intellectual mind on the back burner and promotes
the value of emotional experience of the presence of the Spirit. This theological mini-
malism—which reduces the relation with transcendence to the mere emotional and
personalized closeness experienced with the divine being—allows the efficient adapta-
tion of the content of exhortation to the demands of modern individualism for self-ful-
fillment and personal realization. This “religiosity reduced to affect” is not, however, as
is too often suggested, the recent product of an assumed “postmodernity.” It represents
one of the culminations of the long process by which modernists have learned to think
of themselves as beings endowed with an inner life and to think of their presence in
the world no longer in a context of the order of things or of divine will, but rather
of a search for happiness and wellbeing. Charles Taylor, in the broad panorama that
he proposes of this process, traces it back to Saint Augustine and Descartes and fol-
lows it up right through to the present day.4 From the point of view of the history of
spirituality, a major stage—after the Reformation and the radical assertion of religious
individualism—can be identified in the great spiritual movements of the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries and the invention of a “friendly God.”

It must be noted, incidentally, that this emotional internalizing of the divine coin-
cides chronologically with the relegation of the deists’ Great Clock-Maker to a distant
heaven from which he refrains from intervening in the history of Men. But this spiritual
dynamic obviously underwent new development with the coming of a “psychological
modernity” (as Jean Baudrillard says5) and the highly contemporary reign of concern
for the self. Faith as an operator of individual realization is (with various modulations)

4 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989); Les sources du moi
(Paris: Seuil, 1998).
5 Jean Baudrillard, “Modernité,” Encyclopædia Universalis, vol.11 (Paris: Encyclopædia Universalis, 1980).

in search of certainties / hervieu - léger

the central motif of modern religiosity. Frequent reference to the convergence of dif-
ferent individualized spiritual quests (following the pattern of “we are all saying and
seeking the same thing,” “we are expressing the different aspects of a common truth in
a variety of forms,” etc.) allows the idea of a “common core belief ” to be authenticated.
But the content of this belief is thinning while at the same time being strengthened by
the personal benefits that each individual is supposed to gain from it.

This is the precise pivotal point of the standardization of spiritual goods as a produc-
tion process and of the phenomenon of marginal differentiation, which represents its
counterpart, as a consumer process. At the time when all the products on offer for
consumption conform to a small number of common standard types, the individual
consumer of these goods needs to be able to find in them the answer to individual
expectations, recognized as such in their unshakeable distinctiveness. These dialectics,
of the standardization of goods put into circulation and of the ultra-personalization of
their forms of presentation to believers, is one of the major traits of the new spiritual
currents unfurling inside and outside the main churches. This dual movement of stan-
dardization and personalization (present in all fields of consumption) here corresponds
to a rational concept of privatizing access to symbol goods, which is being progressively
substituted for a collective rationale, or a semi-collective one—which corresponds to
the institutional and family transmission of religious identities.

The Greater the Homogenization of Belief, the Greater the Migration among

This homogenization of belief clearly encourages the migration of believers, who define
and modulate spiritual courses that pay less and less heed to denominational and com-
munity boundaries. Such approaches bring the field of spirituality into contact with
that of therapy, psychology, or personal and professional performance management.
They depict a “pilgrim-like” form of religiosity, one that is willful, individual, and
mobile; not, or only slightly, subject to norms; one that is modifiable and external to
the routines governing the daily lives of the individuals concerned. Here we should
stress the fluidity brought to these spiritual journeys by the standardization of sup-
ply, which enables seekers of meaning to find anew, in various forms, shared themes
directly associated with typically modern individual requirements, especially regarding
each individual’s right to satisfy his subjectivity.

Two other factors encourage wider-ranging movements of believers beyond their com-
munity bases, or even away from their native religious soil.

The first is the movement of religious innovation stemming from migration itself, and
which in return reinforces the homogenization effect. Believers move around and bor-
row from the various banks of resources available, weaving their own tapestry of mean-
ings along the way. At the same time, it is possible to group together these individual

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

belief productions on the basis of the play of mutual authentication that occurs within
peer networks, where individuals come to seek essential confirmation of their own
productions of meaning. These conglomerates produce new syntheses of belief that,
drawing on the various sources that nourish them, create new bridges between different
religious worlds. These bridges are actually (thematic or practical) structures of transpo-
sition from one religious sphere to another, transpositions that, in turn, help to make
believers more mobile. In this way, one can observe the appearance of “converters”
that, by their very polysemy, make it possible to connect networks of meaning rooted
in different religious traditions. In this context, one may emphasize the place held by
the question of reincarnation—freely reinterpreted, in highly un-Buddhist terms—as
the boon of another chance to lead a successful life and avoid the dead-ends and fail-
ures of one’s initial path. Another “topical converter” of the utmost importance is the
idea of healing, which establishes communication between the traditional religious
worlds (where healing connects with the prospect of salvation, which it both heralds
and anticipates) and the modern rediscovery of the centrality of the body in the pro-
cess of self-construction. But there are also “practical converters,” which make possible
transpositions from one experiential context to another, and from one symbolic world
to another: the spread of meditation techniques (calling upon a variety of different
cultural and religious traditions) also constitutes a good reference point for analyzing
these migration phenomena.

The second factor triggering believer migrations is the mass development of communi-
cations that enable the worldwide exchanges through which believers obtain confirma-
tion of their own syntheses of belief. The multiplication of religious sites on the internet
and the lively activity of “discussion forums” on spiritual topics are, as has already been
pointed out, the first sign of this. Exploration of the implications of this phenom-
ena are only just beginning, not only from the standpoint of the standardization of
means of expression defined by the “web” (communication styles, the conventions of
“netiquette,” etc.), but also from the standpoint of the effects of abstraction and virtu-
alization or the disembodying effect of the phenomenon on the relationship between
individuals communicating by this means. This abstraction also furthers the homog-
enization of forms of religious expression, since it makes radically less remarkable a
relationship of dialogue requiring, under the governing system of religious modernity,
mutual authentication of belief.

The More Individual Believers Migrate, the Greater Their Need for
“Community Niches”: The Paradox of Rejoining a Community

The most striking paradox of this situation is this: the more beliefs circulate, the less
they determine tangible affiliations and the more they further a desire for community
liable to evolve into intensive forms of religious socialization. The extreme accelera-
tion of the circulation of beliefs, in particular via the media, stretches the connection
between belief and belonging almost to the breaking point. The belief choices of indi-

in search of certainties / hervieu - léger

viduals are more and more dissociated from the processes of socialization that ensure
the introduction, however limited, of individuals into tangible groups. The bond that
one chooses to preserve with some kind of spiritual family is now supported by no
more than, one could almost say, minimal references, shared on a worldwide scale.
One may call to mind the prodigious sales of Paulho Coelho’s books—translated into
every language with millions of copies sold—or the media success of the Dalai Lama’s
works. In these extreme conditions, this tendency towards global circulation of props to
belief—which is both fragmented to the extreme and yet standardized, within networks
more and more distended or even virtual—tends to submerge the exchanges between
individuals that are necessary for the mutual authentication (and therefore a minimum
of stabilization) of beliefs.

The whole paradox of religious modernity lies in the fact There can be no subject
that the extreme fluidity of beliefs, which bears witness to
the emancipation of individuals from the tutelage of the
without the ability to “speak.”
great institutions of meaning, rarely provides the “minima And this ability implies
of certainty” that they need in order to create their per-
the confrontation with an
sonal identities, as believers called upon to assume their
autonomy in all areas. These same individuals claim the otherness…
right to direct their spiritual course themselves and give
precedence to the authenticity of this personal quest over
any form of compulsory conformity to the “truths” of which religious institutions claim
to be the guardians. But for all this they have not eradicated the need to dialogue with
others and to testify to their experiences. In fact they continue to seek, by means of such
communication, a “sharing of certainties,” which does not challenge the individualiza-
tion of belief process—quite the contrary, in fact. In order to understand that this trend
towards individualization does not in any way contradict the search for a community
where one can declare one’s personal search, it must be remembered that the need
for subjectivization cannot really be met just through personalized consumption of
increasingly standardized symbol goods. For it has the more fundamental aim of mak-
ing meaning of individual experience. It thus requires the construction of a narrative, an
operation that is itself inseparable from an “ability to speak” that makes up the subject’s
own identity. There can be no subject without the ability to “speak.” And this ability
implies the confrontation with an otherness, outside of which no language—and hence
no recognition—is possible.

However, it is the action of recognition that, through interaction and dialogue, makes
possible the grounding of meanings individually produced and their introduction into
social life. In other words, there is no possible rendering of spiritual experience as a
narrative unless the individual, at some point, meets another individual able to confirm
it for him: “What has meaning for you also has meaning for me.” If this narration is
performed according to a religious mode, it requires the existence of a means of authen-
tication of belief, by which an individual’s subjective and objective connection to a par-
ticular lineage of belief can be constructed. Invoking the continuity of a lineage received

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

from the past, and qualified to set a course for the future, constitutes the structural axis
of any “religious identity.” If, in the contemporary context of fluidity of belief, the paths
of religious identification follow unpredictable and continually amendable courses, they
nevertheless still come across as the construction of an imaginary positioning system of
individuals within a symbolic genealogy. It is this construction that ensures the integra-
tion of successive and fragmented experiences of the present into a duration endowed
with a meaning.

And yet, what is happening today? The collapse, or at any rate the weakening, of the
great institutional governing systems of truth leaves individuals, to some extent, at a
loss. If truth is no longer imposed from outside, if the burden of conducting one’s own
search for certainties comes back to each individual, then if he or she is to endure the
psychological and social cost of the operation, he or she must have sufficient access to
symbol resources, to cultural references, to circles of dialogue that enable him or her to
operate and ground his or her personal composition of meaning more firmly through
contact with others. If these means are denied him or her, efforts to obtain authenti-
cation of belief may then move towards other ways, far more structured, of joining
religious communities in which the sense of security of a shared code of meaning may
be found and vouched for collectively. A call to recreate a community of shared truth
may thus arise, paradoxically, at the very breaking point of tangible socio-religious
links. At this extreme limit, a need to define a “base-platform of certainty” may arise,
within closed spaces where intense sharing of a common objective truth, vouched for
by the word of a charismatic leader and/or the sense of fellowship of being among kin-
dred spirits, may bring individuals together. Taken to this extreme, this idea of finding
reassurance within a community may lead to a group closing in upon itself and falling
back on “bunker values” or “refuge identities,” rendered as impermeable as possible to
communication with the outside world.

Individualization, which dissolves inherited cultural identities, then leads, as the other
side of the coin, to the constitution, activation, and even invention of small commu-
nity identities, which are compact, substantial, and compensatory. This paradox falls
within the contemporary proliferation of “cults,” as well as the strengthening of tradi-
tionalist and fundamentalist trends within the great religious traditions. This dubious
component of religious modernity is not only a subject “worth thinking about” for
sociologists; it is also a crucial political issue for society as a whole, and a challenge for

Sellers or Buyers in Religious
Markets? The Supply and
Demand of Religion1
Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart

ince the September 2001 terrorist attacks and their aftermath in Afghanistan
and Iraq, public interest in religious pluralism has grown tremendously, and the
debate about secularization theory and its recent critiques have become increas-
ingly relevant to contemporary concerns. The religious landscapes in both Europe and
the U.S. are increasingly diverse in different ways, but the overall trend on both sides of
the Atlantic is toward greater secularization and a multiplicity of different approaches to
religion. This diversity reflects centuries-old differences among Protestant and Catholic
churches, Orthodox Christians, and long-established Jewish groups, combined with
growing multiculturalism from immigrant populations adhering to Muslim, Hindu,
Buddhist, and other faiths, as well as those adhering to none. Many observers suggest
that New Age spiritualities may also play a role, including the development of more
individualized practices outside organized religion. Secular Western societies have expe-
rienced the influx of migrants and political refugees drawn from traditional cultures
and developing societies in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, which
has highlighted contrasts over divergent religious values and beliefs. Some traditional

1 This essay is adapted from Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics
Worldwide (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Pippa Norris is the McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the John F. Kennedy
School of Government at Harvard University. In May 2006 she begins a two-year
term as the new Director of the Democratic Governance Group at the United Nations
Development Program in New York.

Ronald Inglehart is Professor of Political Science and Program Director at the Institute
for Social Research at the University of Michigan. He helped found the Eurobarometer
surveys and directs the World Values surveys. He has also served as a consultant to the
U.S. State Department and the European Union.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

political conflicts between religious communities have become more muted, notably
among Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. At the same time, new forms
of identity politics appear to have become more salient.2 We are seeing a landscape in
Western societies that is becoming both more secular and more diverse.

The idea of secularization has a long and distinguished history in the social sciences,
with many seminal thinkers arguing that religiosity was declining throughout Western
societies. The seminal social 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.3 They were far from alone; ever since the Age of
the Enlightenment, leading figures in philosophy, anthropology, and psychology have
postulated that theological superstitions, symbolic liturgical rituals, and sacred practices
are the product of a past that will be outgrown in the modern era. The death of reli-
gion was the conventional wisdom in the social sciences during most of the twentieth
century; indeed, it has been regarded as the master model of sociological inquiry, where
secularization was ranked with bureaucratization, rationalization, and urbanization as
the key historical revolutions transforming medieval agrarian societies into modern
industrial nations. As C. Wright Mills summarized this process:

Once the world was filled with the sacred—in thought, practice, and institu-
tional form. After the Reformation and the Renaissance, the forces of modern-
ization swept across the globe and secularization, a corollary historical process,
loosened the dominance of the sacred. In due course, the sacred shall disappear
altogether except, possibly, in the private realm.4

During the last decade, however, this thesis of the slow and steady death of religion has
come under growing criticism; secularization theory is currently experiencing the most
sustained challenge in its long history. Critics point to multiple indicators of religious
health and vitality today, ranging from the continued popularity of churchgoing in the
United States to the emergence of New Age spirituality in Western Europe, the growth
in fundamentalist movements and religious parties in the Muslim world, the evangelical
revival sweeping through Latin America, and the upsurge of ethno-religious conflict in
international affairs.5 After reviewing these developments, Peter L. Berger, one of the
foremost advocates of secularization during the 1960s, recanted his earlier claims:

2 Some examples are the assassination of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands and the bombings by foreign
or indigenous Muslim groups causing mass casualities in Madrid and London.
3 See Steve Bruce, ed., Religion and Modernization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) 170–94; Alan
Aldridge, Religion in the Contemporary World (Cambridge: Polity, 2000) chapter 4.
4 C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959) 32–3.
5 “Fundamentalist” is here used in a neutral way to refer to those with an absolute conviction in the funda-
mental principles of their faith, to the extent that they will not accept the validity of any other beliefs.

S ellers or bu y ers in religious markets ? / norris & inglehart

The world today, with some exceptions...is as furiously religious as it ever was,
and in some places more so than ever. This means that a whole body of litera-
ture by historians and social scientists loosely labeled “secularization theory” is
essentially mistaken.6

In a fierce critique, Rodney Stark and Roger Finke suggest it is time to bury the secu-
larization thesis: “After nearly three centuries of utterly failed prophesies and misrepre-
sentations of both present and past, it seems time to carry the secularization doctrine to
the graveyard of failed theories, and there to whisper ‘requiescat in pace.’”7

Were Comte, Durkheim, Weber, and Marx completely misled in their beliefs about
religious decline in industrialized societies? Was the predominant sociological view dur-
ing the twentieth century totally misguided? Has the debate been settled? We think not.
Talk of burying the secularization theory is premature. The critique relies too heavily on
selected anomalies and focuses too heavily on the United States (which happens to be
a striking deviant case) rather than comparing systematic evidence across a broad range
of rich and poor societies.8 We need to move beyond studies of Catholic and Protestant
church attendance in Europe (where attendance is falling) and the United States (where
attendance remains stable) if we are to understand broader trends in religious vitality in
churches, mosques, shrines, synagogues, and temples around the globe.

There is no question that the traditional secularization thesis needs updating. This study
develops a revised version of secularization theory that emphasizes the extent to which
people have a sense of existential security—that is, the feeling that survival is secure
enough that it can be taken for granted. We build on key elements of traditional socio-
logical accounts while revising others. We believe that the importance of religiosity
persists most strongly among vulnerable populations, especially those living in poorer
nations, facing personal survival-threatening risks. We argue that feelings of vulner-
ability to physical, societal, and personal risks are a key factor driving religiosity, and
we demonstrate that the process of secularization—a systematic erosion of religious
practices, values, and beliefs—has occurred most clearly among the most prosperous
social sectors living in affluent and secure post-industrial nations.

6 See Peter L. Berger, ed., The Desecularization of the World (Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy
Center, 1999) 2. Compare this statement with the arguments in Berger’s The Sacred Canopy: Elements of
a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City: Doubleday, 1967).
7 Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 2000) 79.
8 For example, Roger Finke claims that “the vibrancy and growth of American religious institutions pres-
ents the most open defiance of the secularization model” (Finke, “An Unsecular America,” in Bruce

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

Secularization is a tendency, not an iron law. One can easily think of striking excep-
tions, such as Osama bin Laden who is (or was) extremely rich and fanatically religious.
But when we go beyond anecdotal evidence, we find that the overwhelming bulk of evi-
dence points in the opposite direction: people who experience ego-tropic risks during
their formative years (posing direct threats to themselves and their families) or socio-
tropic risks (threatening their community) tend to be far more religious than those who
grow up under safer, more comfortable, and more predictable conditions. In relatively
secure societies, the remnants of religion have not died away, but the importance and
vitality of religion, its ever-present influence on how people live their daily lives, has
gradually eroded.

The strongest challenge to secularization theory arises from American observers who
commonly point out that claims of steadily diminishing congregations in Western
Europe are sharply at odds with U.S. trends, at least until the early 1990s.9 Here we
focus upon how we can best explain “American exceptionalism.” 10 We first describe
systematic and consistent evidence establishing the variations in religiosity among post-
industrial nations, in particular contrasts between the U.S. and Western Europe. We
focus on similar post-industrial nations, all affluent countries and established democra-
cies, most (but not all) sharing a cultural heritage of Christendom (although the critical
cleavage dividing Catholic and Protestant Europe remains), and all being service-sector
knowledge economies with broadly similar levels of education and affluence.11

This “most-similar” comparative framework narrows down, or even eliminates, some of

the multiple factors that could be causing variations in religious behavior, allowing us to
compare like with like. We examine whether the United States is indeed “exceptional”
among rich nations in the vitality of its spiritual life, as the conventional wisdom has
long suggested, or whether, as Berger proposes, Western Europe is “exceptional” in its
secularization.12 On this basis, we then consider systematic evidence to test alternative
“supply” and “demand” explanations of variations in religiosity. Religious market theory
postulates that intense competition between rival denominations (supply) generates a
ferment of activity, explaining the vitality of churchgoing. We compare evidence sup-
porting this account with the theory of secure secularization, based on the idea that soci-
etal modernization, human development, and economic inequality drive the popular

9 Berger, Desecularization; Andrew M. Greeley, Religion in Europe at the End of the Second Millennium: A
Sociological Profile (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2003).
10 Further discussion of our larger project can be found in Norris and Inglehart.
11 Post-industrial
nation-states are defined as those assigned a Human Development Index score over .900
by the UN Development Report. These countries have a mean per capita GDP of $29,585.
12 Berger, Desecularization. See also discussions of American cultural exceptionalism in Louis Hartz, The
Liberal Tradition in America (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1955); Seymour Martin Lipset,
Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of Canada and the United States (New York: Routledge,
1990); Graham K. Wilson, Only in America? The Politics of the United States in Comparative Perspective
(Chatham: Chatham Publishers, 1998).

S ellers or bu y ers in religious markets ? / norris & inglehart



)TA 53


Figure 1. Religious behavior in post-industrial societies. Mean frequency of attendance at religious ser-
vices per society is based on responses to the question “Apart from weddings, funerals and christenings,
about how often do you attend religious services these days? More than once a week (7), once a week
(6), once a month (5), only on special holidays (4), once a year (3), less often (2), never or practically never
(1).” Mean frequency of prayer is based on “How often do you pray to God outside of religious services?
Every day (7), more than once a week (6), once a week (5), at least once a month (4), several times a year
(3), less often (2), never (1).” (World Values Survey, pooled 1981–2001.)

demand for religion. The conclusions consider the broader implications of the findings
for the role of faith in politics, and for divisions in the predominant cultures found in
Europe and the United States.

Comparing Religiosity in Post-Industrial Nations

We can start by considering the cross-national evidence for how the indicators of reli-
giosity apply to post-industrial nations. Figure 1 shows the basic pattern of religious
behavior, highlighting substantial contrasts between the cluster of countries that prove
by far the most religious in this comparison, including the United States, Ireland, and
Italy. At the other extreme, the most secular nations include France, Denmark, and
Britain. There is a fairly similar pattern across both indicators of religious behavior, sug-
gesting that both collective and individual forms of participation are fairly consistent in
each society. Therefore, although religion in the United States is distinctive among rich
nations, it would still be misleading to refer to American “exceptionalism” (as so many
do), as though it were a deviant case from all other post-industrial nations.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6








Figure 2. Religious participation in Europe. Mean frequency of attendance at religious services is based on responses
to the question “Apart from weddings, funerals and christenings, about how often do you attend religious services
these days? More than once a week (7), once a week (6), once a month (5), only on special holidays (4), once a year (3),
less often (2), never or practically never (1).” (World Values Survey, pooled 1981–2001.)

The marked contrasts within Europe are illustrated further in Figure 2, mapping secular
Northern Europe compared with the persistence of more regular churchgoing habits
in Southern Europe, as well as differences within Central and Eastern Europe. The
“North-South” religious gap within the European Union is, admittedly, a puzzle that
cannot be explained by the process of societal development alone, since these are all rich
nations. More plausible explanations include the contemporary strength of religiosity in
Protestant and Catholic cultures, as well as societal differences in economic equality.

S ellers or bu y ers in religious markets ? / norris & inglehart

Trends in Secularization in Western Europe

One reason for these cross-national variations could be that most post-industrial societ-
ies have experienced a significant erosion of religiosity during the post-war era, but that
these trends have occurred from different starting points, in a path-dependent fashion,
due to the historic legacy of the religious institutions and cultures within each country.
Where the church is today could depend in large part upon where it started out.

Evidence in Western Europe consistently and unequivocally shows two things: tradi-
tional religious beliefs and involvement in institutionalized religion, first, vary consid-
erably from one country to another; and, second, have steadily declined throughout
Western Europe, particularly since the 1960s. Studies have often reported that many
Western Europeans have ceased to be regular churchgoers today outside of special occa-
sions such as Christmas and Easter, weddings and funerals, a pattern especially evident
among the young. Jagodzinski and Dobbelaere, for example, compared the proportion
of regular (weekly) churchgoers in seven European countries from 1970 to 1991, based
on the Eurobarometer surveys, and documented a dramatic decrease in congregations
during this period in the states under comparison. Overall levels of church disengage-
ment had advanced furthest in France, Britain, and the Netherlands. “Although the
timing and pace differ from one country to the next,” the authors concluded, “the gen-
eral tendency is quite stable: in the long run, the percentage of unaffiliated is increas-
ing.”13 Numerous studies provide a wealth of evidence confirming similar patterns of
declining religiosity found in many other post-industrial nations.14

Trends in recent decades illustrate the consistency of the secularization process irre-
spective of the particular indicator or survey that is selected. Figure 3 illustrates the
erosion of regular church attendance that has occurred throughout Western Europe
since the early 1970s. The fall is steepest and most significant in many Catholic societ-
ies, notably Belgium, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Spain. To
conclude, as Greeley does, that religion is “still relatively unchanged” in the traditional
Catholic nations of Europe seems a triumph of hope over experience, and sharply

13 Wolfgang Jagodzinski and Karel Dobbelaere, “Secularization and Church Religiosity,” The Impact of
Values, ed. Jan W. van Deth and Elinor Scarbrough (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) 105.
14 R.Currie, A. D. Gilbert, and L. Horsley, Churches and Churchgoers: Patterns of Church Growth in the
British Isles since 1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977); Sabino Samele Acquaviva, The Decline of
the Sacred in Industrial Society (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1979); Sheena Ashford and Noel Timms, What
Europe Thinks: A Study of Western European Values (Aldershot: Dartmouth, 1992); Steve Bruce, Religion
in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); F. Höllinger,
Volksreligion und Herrschaftskirche. Die Würzeln Religiösen Verhaltens in Westlichen Gesellschaften (Opladen:
Leske und Budrich, 1996); L. Voye, “Secularization in a Context of Advanced Modernity,” Sociology of
Religion 60.3 (1999): 275–88; Steve Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Oxford: Blackwell,
2002) chapter 3. For a challenge to this view, however, see Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge,
“A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the ‘Secularization’ of Europe,” Journal for the Scientific Study of
Religion 33 (1985): 230–52.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6





Figure 3. Religious participation in Western Europe, 1970–2000. Graphs represent percentage of the population in
each society who said they attended a religious service “at least once a week” and the regression line of the trend. (The
Mannheim Eurobarometer Trend File 1970–99.)

at odds with the evidence.15 Marked contrasts in the strength of churchgoing habits
remain clear, as between contemporary rates of religious participation in Ireland and
Denmark. Nevertheless, all the trends point consistently downward. Moreover, the ero-
sion of religiosity is not exclusive to Western European nations; regular churchgoing
also dropped during the last two decades in affluent Anglo-American nations such as
Canada and Australia.16

15 Greeley xi.
16 See Reginald W. Bibby, “The State of Collective Religiosity in Canada: An Empirical Analysis,” Canadian
Review of Sociology and Anthropology 16.1 (1979): table 3, which shows that in Canada church attendance
fell from 67 percent in 1946 to 35 percent in 1978; Hans Mol, The Faith of Australians (Sydney: Allen
& Unwin, 1985); Ian McAllister, “Religious Change and Secularization: The Transmission of Religious
Values in Australia,” Sociological Analysis 49.3 (1998): 249–63.

S ellers or bu y ers in religious markets ? / norris & inglehart

Table 1. Belief in God, 1947–2001

Nation 1947a 1968b 1975c 1981d 1990d 1995d 2001d Changee βf Sig.g
Sweden 80 60 52 38 48 46 -33.6 -.675 **
Netherlands 80 79 64 61 58 -22.0 -.463 *
Australia 95 80 79 75 75 -19.9 -.379 **
Norway 84 73 68 58 65 -18.9 -.473 **
Denmark 80 53 59 62 -17.9 -.387 *
Britain 77 76 73 72 61 -16.5 -.461 *
Greece 96 84 -12.3 -.364
W. Germany 81 72 68 63 71 69 -12.0 -.305 n/s
Belgium 78 76 65 67 -11.2 -.487 n/s
Finland 83 83 61 73 72 -10.8 -.296 n/s
France 66 73 72 59 57 56 -10.1 -.263 n/s
Canada 95 89 91 85 88 -7.2 -.387 n/s
Switzerland 84 77 77 -7.2 -.277 n/s
India 98 93 94 -4.0 -.231 n/s
Japan 38 39 37 44 35 -3.0 -.016 n/s
Austria 85 78 83 -1.9 -.097 n/s
Italy 88 82 82 88 -0.1 .039 n/s
U.S. 94 98 94 96 93 94 94 0.4 -.027 n/s
Brazil 96 98 99 3.0 .056 n/s

Source: Gallup polls from Lee Sigelman, “Review of the Polls: Multination Surveys of Religious Beliefs,” Journal for the
Scientific Study of Religion 16.3 (1977): 289–94.
Note: Figures indicate the percentage of the public who express belief in God.
a Gallup Opinion Index “Do you, personally, believe in God?” Yes/No/Don’t Know.
b Gallup Opinion Index “Do you believe in God?” Yes/No/Don’t Know.
c Gallup Opinion Index “Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?” Yes/No/Don’t Know.
d World Values Survey/European Values Survey “Do you believe in God?” Yes/No/Don’t Know.
e The difference between the first and the last observation in the series. In the OLS regression models, year is
regressed on the series.
f The unstandardized β summarizes the slope of the line.
g The statistical significance of the change in the time-series. N/s = not significant, *p<.05, and **p<.01 (2-tailed).

One interpretation of these patterns is offered by those who emphasize that trends in
churchgoing are interesting but also out of date, if religiosity has evolved and reinvented
itself today as diverse forms of personal “spirituality.” Observers such as Wade Clark
Roof, Robert Fuller, Grace Davie, and Danièle Hervieu-Léger suggest that the declining
status and authority of traditional church institutions and clergy, the individualization
of the quest for spirituality, and the rise of multiple “New Age” movements concerned
with “lived religion” result in public engagement with churches being replaced by a

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

“private” or “personal” search for spirituality and meaning in life, making the practices,
beliefs, and symbols of religiosity less visible.17 Others, such as Greeley, propose that
indicators of subjective beliefs in Europe, exemplified by faith in God or in life after
death, display a mixed picture during the last two decades, rather than a simple uniform

In some countries, religion has increased (most notably the former commu-
nist countries and especially Russia) in others it has declined (most notably
Britain, the Netherlands, and France) and in still other countries it is relatively
unchanged (the traditional Catholic countries), and in yet other countries (some
of the social democratic countries) it has both declined and increased.18

Given such divergence, Greeley suggests that simple attempts to discover secularization
should be abandoned, and instead attention should focus on explaining persistent and
well-established cross-national patterns—for example, why people in Ireland and Italy
are consistently more religious than those in France and Sweden.

Yet we find that, far from divergent patterns, one reason for the decline in religious
participation during the late twentieth century lies in the fact that during these years
many common spiritual beliefs have indeed suffered considerable erosion in post-indus-
trial societies. There is, in fact, a consistent link between the “public” and “private”
dimensions of religiosity. We monitor trends in religious beliefs in God and in life after
death during the last fifty years by matching survey data in the Gallup polls starting in
1947 to the more recent data where the same questions were replicated in the World
Values surveys. Table 1 shows that in 1947, roughly eight out of ten people believed
in God, with the highest levels of belief expressed in Australia, Canada, the U.S., and
Brazil. A fall in faith in God occurred across all but two nations (the U.S. and Brazil).
The decline proved sharpest in the Scandinavian nations, the Netherlands, Australia,
and Britain. Table 2 illustrates very similar patterns for belief in life after death, where
again an erosion of subjective religiosity occurs in thirteen of the seventeen countries
where evidence is available. The greatest falls during the last fifty years are registered in
Northern Europe, Canada, and Brazil, and the only exceptions to this pattern, where
there is a revival of religious faith, are in the United States, Japan, and Italy.

17 Grace Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994); Wade
Clark Roof, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2001); Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual, but Not Religious: Understanding
Unchurched America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Danièle Hervieu-Léger, “The Case
for a Sociology of ‘Multiple Religious Modernities’: A Different Approach to the ‘Invisible Religion’ of
European Societies,” Social Compass 50.3 (2003): 287–95.
18 Greeley xi.

S ellers or bu y ers in religious markets ? / norris & inglehart

Table 2. Belief in life after death, 1947–2001

Nation 1947a 1961a 1968a 1975a 1981b 1990b 1995b 2001b Changec
Norway 71 71 54 41 36 43 -28
Finland 69 55 44 50 44 -25
Denmark 55 25 29 32 -23
Netherlands 68 63 50 41 39 47 -22
France 58 35 39 35 38 39 -20
Canada 78 68 54 61 61 67 -11
Brazil 78 70 67 -11
Sweden 49 38 28 31 40 39 -10
Greece 57 47 -10
Belgium 48 36 37 40 -8
Australia 63 48 49 56 -7
Britain 49 56 38 43 46 44 45 -4
Switzerland 55 50 52 52 -3
W. Germany 38 41 33 36 38 50 38 0
U.S. 68 74 73 69 70 70 73 76 8
Japan 18 33 30 33 32 14
Italy 46 46 53 61 15

Source: Gallup polls from Lee Sigelman, “Review of the Polls: Multination Surveys of Religious Beliefs,” Journal for the
Scientific Study of Religion 16.3 (1977): 289–94.
Note: Figures indicate the percentage of the public who express belief in life after death.
a Gallup Opinion Index “Do you believe in life after death?” Yes/No/Don’t Know.
b World Values Survey/European Values Survey “Do you believe in life after death?” Yes/No/Don’t Know.
c The difference between the first and the last observation in the series.

Trends in Religiosity in the United States

In light of these European patterns, many have regarded the United States as an out-
lier, although in fact the evidence remains somewhat ambiguous. At least until the
late 1980s, analysis of trends in church attendance derived from historical records and
from representative surveys commonly reported that the size of congregations in the
United States had remained stable over decades. Studies published during the 1980s
indicated that Protestant church attendance had not declined significantly in the U.S.,
and, while it fell rapidly among Catholics from 1968 to 1975, it did not erode further
in subsequent years.19 Gallup found that in March 1939, 40 percent of American

19 Andrew M. Greeley, Religious Change in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980);
Andrew M. Greeley, Unsecular Man: The Persistence of Religion (New York: Schocken, 1985); M. Hout
and Andrew M. Greeley, “The Center Doesn’t Hold: Church Attendance in the United States, 1940–
1984,” American Sociological Review 52.3 (1987): 325–45.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

adults reported attending church the previous week—roughly the same figure given by
Gallup more than sixty years later (in March 2003).20

The U.S. General Social Survey (GSS), conducted annually by NORC during the last
three decades, also indicates that weekly church attendance in the U.S. hovers around
25–30 percent, with a significant fall in church attendance occurring during the last
decade. According to the GSS, the proportion of Americans reporting that they attend-
ed church at least weekly fell to one-quarter in the most recent estimate, while at the
same time the proportion saying that they never attended church doubled to one-fifth
of all Americans (see Figure 4).21

Other indicators also suggest that traditional religious participation may have eroded
in the United States, parallel to the long-term trends experienced throughout Europe.
For example, Gallup polls registered a modest decline in the proportion of Americans
who are members of a church or synagogue, down from about three-quarters (73 per-
cent) of the population in 1937 to about two-thirds (65 percent) in 2001. The GSS
monitored religious identities annually during the last three decades and found that
the proportion of Americans who are secularists, reporting that they have no religious
preference or identity, climbed steadily during the 1990s (see Figure 5). During this
decade, the main erosion occurred among American Protestants, while the proportion
of Catholics in the population remained fairly steady, in part fuelled by a substantial
influx of Hispanic immigrants with large families. At the same time, changes have
occurred among denominations within the religious population in the United States;
many studies report that congregations for newer evangelical churches have expanded
their membership at the expense of “mainline” Protestant denominations such as the
United Methodist Church, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, in part due to changes in
the American population and also patterns of immigration from Latin America and
Asia.22 Moreover, Brian Wilson emphasizes that, even where we have reliable estimates

20 March 1939 Gallup Poll—A.I.P.O. “Did you happen to go to church last Sunday?” 40 percent answered yes,
60 percent no. March 14, 2003, Gallup—C.N.N./U.S.A. Today Poll. “How often do you attend church or
synagogue—at least once a week [31 percent], almost every week [9 percent], about once a month [16 per-
cent], seldom [28 percent], or never [16 percent]?” Self-reported church attendance figures may well con-
tain systematic bias towards over-reporting (C. Kirk Hadaway and P. L. Marler, “Did You Really Go To
Church This Week? Behind the Poll Data,” Christian Century [6 May 1998]: 472–5; C. Kirk Hadaway,
et al., “What the Polls Don’t Show: A Closer Look at Church Attendance,” American Sociological Review
58.6 [1993]: 741–52). Yet this cannot explain the apparent discrepancy between reported churchgoing
in the U.S. and Western Europe, unless some “spiral of silence” claims about the social acceptability of
churchgoing in the U.S. are brought in. Other evidence based on cohort and period analysis of the GSS
suggests that the apparent long-term stability of the aggregate levels of churchgoing in the U.S. in fact
disguises two simultaneous changes occurring since the early 1970s: a negative cohort effect and a posi-
tive period effect. See Mark Chaves, “Secularization and Religious Revival: Evidence from U.S. Church
Attendance Rates, 1972–1986,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28.4 (1989): 464–77.
21 See Hadaway, et al.
22 RobertWuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988);
Tom Smith, “Are Conservative Churches Really Growing?” Review of Religious Research 33 (1992): 305–
29; Michael Hout, Andrew M. Greeley, and Melissa J. Wilde, “The Demographic Imperative in Religious
Change in the United States,” American Journal of Sociology 107.2 (2001): 468–500.

S ellers or bu y ers in religious markets ? / norris & inglehart




Figure 4. Religious participation in the U.S., 1972–2002. Lines represent responses to the question “How
often do you attend religious services?” (U.S. General Social Survey 1972–2002.)

of churchgoing, little relationship may exist between these practices and spirituality—
churchgoing may fulfill a need for social networking within local communities, or
churches may have become more secular in orientation.23

Despite the overall popularity of religion in the United States, it would also be a gross
exaggeration to claim that all Americans feel the same way, as important social and
regional disparities exist. Secularists, for example, are far more likely to live in urban
cities on the Pacific coast or in the Northeast, as well as to have a college degree, and
to be single and male. By contrast, committed evangelicals are far more likely to live
in small towns or rural areas, especially in the South and Midwest, as well as be female
and married. These regional divisions proved important for politics: in the 2000 U.S.
presidential election, religion was by far the strongest predictor of who voted for George
W. Bush and who voted for Al Gore.24 The election result reflected strongly entrenched

23 Brian R. Wilson, Religion in Secular Society (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969).

24 Pippa Norris, “U.S. Campaign 2000: Of Pregnant Chads, Butterfly Ballots and Partisan Vitriol,”
Government and Opposition 36.1 (2001): 3–26; VNS Exit Polls in “Who Voted,” The New York Times (12
November 2000); Andrew Kohut, John C. Green, Scott Keeter, and Robert C. Toth, The Diminishing
Divide: Religion’s Changing Role in American Politics (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press,

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6





Figure 5. Religious identities in the U.S., 1972–2002. Lines represent responses to the question “What
is your religious preference? Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?” The graph
excludes religious identities adhered to by less than 3 percent of Americans. (U.S. General Social Survey

divisions in public opinion and values between social conservatives and liberals on
issues such as the death penalty, reproductive rights, and homosexuality. The regional
patterns of religiosity are important and may even have led to two distinctive cultures
within the United States; Himmelfarb argues that one culture in the U.S. is religious,
puritanical, family-centered, patriotic, and conformist, and the other is secular, toler-
ant, hedonistic, and multicultural. These cultures coexist and tolerate each other, in part
because they inhabit different worlds.25

The United States remains one of the most religious in the club of rich countries, along-
side Ireland and Italy, and this makes the U.S. one of the most religious countries in the
world. The pervasive importance of these values is apparent in many American prac-
tices, especially in public life (even prior to the Bush administration and 9/11), despite
the strict division of church and state. In the same way, American cultural values are
more individualistic, more patriotic, more moralistic, and more culturally conservative
than Europe. Nevertheless, there are some indicators that secular tendencies may have
strengthened in the U.S., at least during the last decade, which may bring the United
States slightly closer to Western Europe.

25 Gertrude Himmelfarb, One Nation: Two Cultures (New York: Random House, 1999).

S ellers or bu y ers in religious markets ? / norris & inglehart

Explaining Variations in Religiosity: The Religious Market Model

Given the existence of important and consistent cross-national variations in religiosity,

what best explains these patterns?

Religious Markets
Religious market theory provides the most critical and sustained challenge to the tra-
ditional secularization thesis. This account suggests that supply-side factors, notably
denominational competition and state regulation of religious institutions, shape levels
of religious participation in the United States and Europe. During the last decade many
American commentators have enthusiastically advanced this account, and the prin-
ciple proponents include Roger Finke, Rodney Stark, Lawrence R. Iannaccone, William
Sims Bainbridge, and R. Stephen Warner, although the theory has also encountered
sustained criticism. Market-based theories in the sociology of religion assume that the
demand for religious products is relatively constant, based on the otherworldly rewards
of life after death promised by most (although not all) faiths.26 Dissimilar levels of spiri-
tual behavior evident in various countries are believed to result less from “bottom up”
demand than from variance in “top down” religious supply. Religious groups compete
for congregations with different degrees of vigor. Established churches are thought to
be complacent monopolies taking their congregations for granted, with a fixed market
share due to state regulation and subsidy for one particular faith that enjoys special
status and privileges. By contrast, where a free religious marketplace exists, energetic
competition between churches expands the supply of religious “products,” thereby
mobilizing religious activism among the public.

The theory claims to be a universal generalization applicable to all faiths, although the
evidence to support this argument is drawn largely from the U.S. and Western Europe.
The proliferation of diverse churches in the U.S. is believed to have maximized choice
and competition among faiths, thereby mobilizing the American public. American
churches are subject to market forces, and depend upon their ability to attract cler-
gy and volunteers as well as the financial resources that flow from their membership.
Competition is thought to generate certain benefits, producing diversity, stimulating
innovation, and compelling recruitment by congregations. For example, the National
Congregations Study found that American churches commonly seek to attract new
adherents by offering multiple social activities (or “products”) beyond services of wor-
ship, including religious education, cultural and arts groups, engagement in commu-
nity politics, and welfare services such as soup kitchens and babysitting cooperatives.27
By contrast, Stark and Finke emphasize that most European nations sustain what they

26 Stark and Finke, Acts of Faith, 88.

27 Mark Chaves, “The National Congregations Study: Background, Methods and Selected Results,” Journal
for the Scientific Study of Religion 38.4 (1999): 458–76.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

term “a socialized religious economy,” with state subsidies for established churches.28
Religious monopolies are believed to be less innovative, responsive, and efficient. Where
clergy enjoy secure incomes and tenure regardless of their performance, such as in
Germany and Sweden, it is thought that priests will grow complacent, slothful, and
lax. Stark and Finke believe that if the “supply” of churches was expanded in Europe
through disestablishment (deregulation), and if churches just made more effort, this
would probably lead to a resurgence of religious behavior among the public. In short,
they conclude, “To the extent that organizations work harder, they are more successful.
What could be more obvious?”29

What indeed? Leaving aside the strong normative thrust of the supply-side argument
and concepts, derived from free market economics, what specific propositions flow
from this account that are open to systematic cross-national testing with empirical
evidence? We can compare four separate indicators to test the religious market model
(see Table 3). Any one indicator may be flawed, due to the limitations of data or mea-
surement error, but if all results from the independent measures point in a generally
consistent direction then this lends greater confidence to the results.

Religious Pluralism
If the supply-side theory is correct, then religious pluralism and state regulation of
religion should both be important in predicting rates of churchgoing in post-indus-
trial societies: in particular, countries with great competition among multiple pluralist
religious churches, denominations, and faiths should have the highest religious par-
ticipation. Supply-side theorists use the Herfindahl index as the standard measure to
gauge religious pluralism.30 One important qualification, however, concerns the unit of
comparison: since this study measures religious pluralism among the major world faiths
at the societal level, which is necessary for cross-national research, it cannot gauge com-
petition among religious organizations representing diverse denominations and sects at
local or regional levels.

Contrary to the predictions of supply-side theory, the correlation between religious plu-
ralism and religious behavior all prove insignificant in post-industrial societies, with the
distribution illustrated in Figure 6. The results lend no support to the claim of a significant
link between religious pluralism and participation, and this is true irrespective of whether
the comparison focuses on frequency of attendance at services of worship or the fre-

28 Stark and Finke, Acts of Faith, 228.

29 Stark and Finke, Acts of Faith, 257.
30 Data on the major religious populations is derived from the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year
2001, as compiled by Alberto Alesina, Arnaud Devleeschauwer, William Easterly, Sergio Kurlat, and
Romain Wacziarg, “Fractionalization,” Journal of Economic Growth 82 (2003): 219–58. The data set is
available at <www.stanford.edu/~wacziarg/papersum.html>.

S ellers or bu y ers in religious markets ? / norris & inglehart

quency of prayer.31 Among post-industrial societies, the United States is the exception
in its combination of high rates of religious pluralism and participation: the theory
does indeed fit the American case, but the problem is that it fails to work elsewhere.
The scatter gram shows that other English-speaking nations share similar levels of reli-
gious pluralism; however, in these countries far fewer people regularly attend church.
Moreover, in Catholic post-industrial societies the relationship is actually reversed, with
the highest participation evident in Ireland and Italy where the Church enjoys a vir-
tual religious monopoly, compared with the more pluralist Netherlands and France,
where churchgoing habits are far weaker. Nor is this merely due to the comparison of
post-industrial societies: the global comparison in all nations confirms that there is no
significant relationship between participation and pluralism across the broader distribu-
tion of societies worldwide.

Of course the account could always be retrieved by arguing that what matters is less
competition among the major faiths, since people rarely convert directly, but rather
competition among or within specific denominations, since people are more likely to
switch particular churches within closely related families. This proposition would require
testing at the community level with other forms of data, at a finer level of denomina-
tional detail than is available in most social surveys, and indeed even in most census data.
Nevertheless, if the claims of the original theory were modified, this would greatly limit
its applicability for cross-national research. Irrespective of the extensive literature advo-
cating the supply-side theory, based on the measure of pluralism of faiths and religious
participation used in this study, no empirical support is found here for this account.

State Regulation and Freedom of Religion

An alternative version of religious market theory predicts that participation will also
be maximized where there is a strong constitutional division between church and state,
protecting religious freedom of worship and toleration of different denominations,
without hindrance to particular sects and faiths. This is one of the explanations for
American exceptionalism advanced by Lipset, who argues that the long-standing sepa-
ration of church and state in the United States has given the churches greater autonomy
and allowed varied opportunities for people to participate in religion.32

Three indicators are available to analyze this relationship. First, the state regulation of
religion was measured by Mark Chaves and David E. Cann in eighteen post-industrial

31 It should be noted that the proportion of adherents to the majority religion in each country was also
compared as an alternative measure of religious diversity or homogeneity, but this measure also proved an
insignificant predictor of religious participation, whether the comparison was restricted to post-industrial
societies or to all nations worldwide.
32 Lipset.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6


*SF #OH 4"GS


*UB 64
(SF #SB[ #PT
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Figure 6. Religiosity and pluralism. Mean religious participation is based on responses to the question
“Apart from weddings, funerals and christenings, about how often do you attend religious services these
days? More than once a week (7), once a week (6), once a month (5), only on special holidays (4), once a
year (3), less often (2), never or practically never (1).” (World Values Survey, pooled 1981–2001.) Religious
pluralism is based on Herfindahl Index. (Alesina et al. 2002.)

nations.33 Second, these results were cross-checked against the Norris and Inglehart
Freedom of Religion Index.34 Third, comparisons can then be made with the summary
analysis of religious freedom generated every year by Freedom House, which measures
the freedom of houses of worship, humanitarian organizations, educational institu-
tions; the freedom for individual religious practices such as prayer, worship, and dress;

33 The 6-point scale was classified by Chaves and Cann using data provided by the World Christian
Encyclopedia (1982) based on whether or not each country had the following characteristics: 1) there is
a single, officially designated state church; 2) there is official state recognition of some denominations
but not others; 3) the state appoints or approves the appointment of church leaders; 4) the state directly
pays church personnel salaries; 5) there is a system of ecclesiastical tax collection; 6) the state directly
subsidizes, beyond mere tax breaks, the operation, maintenance, or capital expenses for churches. See
Mark Chaves and David E. Cann, “Regulation, Pluralism and Religious Market Structure,” Rationality
and Society 4 (1992): 272–90. The scale is reversed in this study, for ease of presentation, so that a low
score represents greater regulation.
34 See Norris and Inglehart. The 20-item scale was constructed by coding 20 indicators, such as the role of
the state in subsidizing churches, constitutional recognition of freedom of religion, and restrictions of
certain denominations, cults, or sects. It was then standardized to 100 points, for ease of interpretation,
and coded so that a higher score represented greater religious freedom.

S ellers or bu y ers in religious markets ? / norris & inglehart

and human rights in general, where they involve particular religious bodies, individuals,
and activities.35

Contrary to the supply-side theory, however, the results of the simple correlations of
these three indicators (see Table 3) suggest that no significant relationship exists between
any of these indicators of religious freedom and levels of religious behavior. Moreover,
this pattern was found both within the comparison of post-industrial nations and also
in the global comparison of all countries where data was available. There are many
reasons why one might imagine that the spread of greater tolerance and freedom of
worship, facilitating competition among religious institutions, might prove conducive
to greater religious activity among the public. But so far the range of evidence using
multiple indicators fails to support the supply-side claims.

The Role of Security and Economic Inequality in Generating Demand

Supply-side religious market theory has therefore provided only limited insights into
the diversity of religious participation found in rich nations. In post-industrial nations,
no empirical support that we examined could explain the puzzle of why some rich
nations are far more religious than others or establish a significant link between pat-
terns of religious behavior and the indicators of religious pluralism, religious freedom,
and the perceived functions of the church. But, of course, this still leaves us with the
question that we considered at the start of the paper: why are some societies such as the
United States and Ireland persistently more religious in their habits and beliefs than
comparable Western nations sharing a Christian cultural heritage?

Our answer rests on patterns of human security and, in particular, conditions of socio-
economic inequality. What matters for the societal vulnerability, insecurity, and risk
that we believe drives religiosity are not simply levels of national economic resources
but their distribution as well. The growth of the welfare state in industrialized nations
insures large sectors of the public against the worst risks of ill health and old age,
penury and destitution, while private insurance schemes, the work of non-profit chari-
table foundations, and access to financial resources have transformed security in post-
industrial nations and also reduced the vital role of religion in people’s lives. Even
relatively affluent nations have multiple pockets of long-term poverty, whether afflicting
unemployed African-Americans living in the inner cities of Los Angeles and Detroit;
farm laborers in Sicily; or Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Indian émigrés in Leicester and
Birmingham. Populations typically most at risk in industrialized nations, capable of
falling through the welfare safety net, include the elderly and children; single-parent,
female-headed households; the long-term disabled, homeless, and unemployed; and

35 The survey criteria used by this organization develops a 7-point scale based on the International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights; the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and
of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief; and the European Convention on Human Rights. See
Paul Marshall, ed., Religious Freedom in the World: A Global Report on Freedom and Persecution (Nashville:
Broadman and Holman, 2000).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

Table 3. Human security, religious markets, and religiosity in

post-industrial societies

Indicators Religious Participation Frequency of Prayer N of nations

Ra Sig.b Ra Sig.b
Religious pluralismc .018 n/s .119 n/s 21
Religious Freedom .367 n/s .477 n/s 21
State regulation of .427 n/s .423 n/s 18
Freedom House -.314 n/s -.550 n/s 13
religious freedom scalef
Human Development -.249 n/s .077 n/s 21
Economic inequality .496 * .614 * 18
(GINI coeffecient)h
a Pearson simple correlations without prior controls.
b Statistical significance. N/s = not significant, *p<.05, and **p<.01 (2-tailed).
c Data from the Herfindahl Index (Alesina et al. 2002).
d See Appendix C of Norris and Inglehart (2004) for details of the construction of this scale.
e Scale measured by Chaves and Cann (1992).
f Data from <www.freedomhouse.org> (2001).
g Data from United Nations Development Program, World Development Report (New York: UNDP/Oxford University
Press, 2003), <www.undp.org>.
h Data from World Bank, World Development Indicators, <www.worldbank.org> (2002).

ethnic minorities. If we are correct that feelings of vulnerability are driving religios-
ity, even in rich nations, then this should be evident by comparing levels of economic
inequality across societies, as well as by looking at the strength of religiosity among the
poorer sectors of society.

We analyzed the distribution of economic resources in post-industrial societies by com-

paring the GINI coefficient, which measures the extent to which the distribution of
income among households within a society deviates from a perfectly equal distribu-
tion.36 Table 3 indicates that the Human Development Index fails to predict varia-
tions in levels of religious behavior within post-industrial nations, not surprisingly since
all these countries are highly developed. Yet the level of economic inequality proves
strongly and significantly related to both forms of religious behavior, but especially to

36 The GINI coefficient ranges from perfect equality (0) to perfect inequality (100), estimated in the latest
available year by the World Bank.

S ellers or bu y ers in religious markets ? / norris & inglehart



&IN 3P

Figure 7. Religiosity and economic inequality. Mean frequency of prayer per society is based on
responses to the question “How often do you pray to God outside of religious services? Every day (7),
more than once a week (6), once a week (5), at least once a month (4), several times a year (3), less often
(2), never (1).” (World Values Survey, pooled 1981–2001.) Economic inequality is gauged by the GINI coef-
ficient. (World Bank, World Development Indicators, <www.worldbank.org> 2002.)

the propensity to engage in individual religiosity through prayer. Figure 7 illustrates

this relationship; the United States is exceptionally high in religiosity in large part,
we believe, because it is also one of the most unequal post-industrial societies under

Despite private affluence for the well-off, many American families, even in the profes-
sional middle classes, face serious risks of loss of paid work by the main breadwinner,
the dangers of sudden ill health without adequate private medical insurance, vulner-
ability to becoming a victim of crime, as well as the problems of paying for long-term
care of the elderly. Americans face greater anxieties than citizens in other advanced
industrialized countries about whether or not they will be covered by medical insur-
ance, be fired arbitrarily, or be forced to choose between losing their jobs and devoting
themselves to their newborn children.37 The entrepreneurial culture and the emphasis

37 For a discussion of the comparative evidence, see Derek Bok, The State of the Nation: Government and
the Quest for a Better Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

on personal responsibility has generated conditions of individual freedom and deliv-

ered considerable societal affluence, and yet one trade-off is that the United States has
greater income inequality than any other advanced industrial democracy. 38 By com-
parison, despite recent pressures on restructuring, the secular Scandinavian and West
European states remain some of the most egalitarian societies, with relatively high levels
of personal taxation but also an expansive array of welfare services in the public sector,
including comprehensive healthcare, social services, and pensions.39

If this argument rested only on the cross-national comparisons, then, of course, it

would be too limited, as multiple other characteristics distinguish Western Europe and
the United States. But evidence can also be examined at the individual level by look-
ing at how far the distribution of income relates to religious behavior. The patterns
in Figure 8 show that religiosity is systematically related at the individual level to the
distribution of income groups in post-industrial societies: the poor are almost twice as
religious as the rich. Similar patterns can be found in the United States (see Figure 9):
two-thirds (66 percent) of the least well-off income group pray daily, compared with
47 percent of the highest income group.

Conclusions and Implications

Secularization is not a deterministic process, but one that is largely predictable, based
on knowing just a few facts about levels of human development and socioeconomic
equality in each country. The levels of societal and individual security in any society
provide the most persuasive and parsimonious explanations and predictors, despite the
numerous possible explanatory factors that could be brought into the picture, from
institutional structures to state restrictions on freedom of worship, the historical role of
church-state relations, and patterns of denominational and church competition.

Conditions that people experience in their formative years have a profound impact
upon their cultural values. Growing up in societies in which survival is uncertain is
conducive to a strong emphasis on religion; conversely, experiencing high levels of exis-
tential security throughout one’s formative years reduces the subjective importance of

38 Arecent detailed study comparing the levels of household income after government redistribution
through tax and welfare transfers, based on the Luxembourg Income Study database, found that the
GINI coefficient for income inequality was greatest in the United States compared with thirteen other
advanced industrial democracies. See David Bradley, Evelyn Huber, Stephanie Moller, Francois Nielsen,
and John D. Stephens, “Distribution and Redistribution in Postindustrial Democracies,” World Politics
55.1 (2003): 193–228.
39 Katherine McFate, Roger Lawson, and William Julius Wilson, eds., Poverty, Inequality, and the Future of
Social Policy: Western States in the New World Order (New York: Russell Sage, 1995); Alexander Hicks,
Social Democracy and Welfare Capitalism: A Century of Income Security Policies (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1999); Gosta Esping-Andersen, Social Foundations of Postindustrial Economies (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1999).

S ellers or bu y ers in religious markets ? / norris & inglehart










Figure 8. Religiosity by income in post-industrial societies. The percentage of the public who pray daily
and who regard religion as very important by decile household income group (counting all wages, sala-
ries, pensions, and other incomes before taxes and other deductions) in post-industrial societies. (World
Values Survey, pooled 1981–2001.)

religion in one’s life. This hypothesis diverges sharply from the religious market assump-
tion that demand for religion is constant. On the contrary, our interpretation implies
that the demand for religion should be far stronger among low-income nations than
among rich ones, and among the less secure strata of society than among the affluent.
As a society moves past the early stages of industrialization and life becomes less nasty,
less brutish, and longer, people tend to become more secular in their orientations. The
most crucial explanatory variables are those that differentiate between vulnerable soci-
eties and societies in which survival is so secure that people take it for granted during
their formative years.

What must be included is that, although rising levels of existential security are condu-
cive to secularization, cultural change is path-dependent: the historically predominant
religious tradition of a given society tends to leave a lasting impact on religious beliefs
and other social norms, ranging from approval of divorce, to gender roles, tolerance
of homosexuality, and work orientations. The citizens of historically Protestant societ-
ies continue to display values that are distinct from those prevailing in historically

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6








Figure 9. Religiosity by income in the U.S. The percentage of the American public who pray daily and
who regard religion as very important by decile household income group (counting all wages, salaries,
pensions, and other incomes before taxes and other deductions). (World Values Survey, pooled 1981–

Catholic, Hindu, Orthodox, or Confucian societies. These cross-national differences

persist even in societies where the vast majority no longer attends church and reflect
historical influences that shaped given national cultures. Thus, within the Netherlands,
Catholics, Protestants, and those who have left the church all tend to share a common
national value system that is distinctive in global perspective.

Thus, while economic development brings systematic changes, a society’s cultural heri-
tage continues to influence cultural direction. While secularization started earliest and
has moved farthest in the most economically developed countries, little or no secular-
ization has taken place in the low-income countries, meaning that the cultural differ-
ences linked with economic development not only are not shrinking, but are growing
larger. This expanding gap between sacred and secular societies around the globe has
important consequences for our current religious and political landscapes, our cultural
change, and our new forms of identity politics.

French Secularism and the
“Islamic Veil Affair”1
Talal Asad

n what follows I want to look in some detail at the so-called Islamic veil affair in
France and its central articulation in the Stasi commission report. But first a caveat:
Much has been written on this subject, some arguing for and some against the right
of young Muslim women to wear the headscarf in school; my essay is not part of that
debate. Nor is it in any sense an attempt to offer solutions to what is often called “the
crisis of laïcité.” Its more modest aim is simply to try and understand some concepts
and practices of French secularism.

For most of 2003 and 2004, following a speech by the then Interior Minister Nicolas
Sarkozy in April 2003, French public opinion was exercised by the affair of the “‘fou-
lards islamiques’ [Islamic scarves].”2 Should Muslim girls be allowed to wear a covering
over their hair when they are in public schools? The dominant view was definitely that
they should not. A considerable amount of polemic has been published on this topic,
in France as well as elsewhere. This was not the first time that the matter had been
publicly discussed, but on this occasion the outcome was a law prohibiting the display
of religious differences in public schools.

1 This essay is adapted from a longer chapter, “Trying to Understand French Secularism,” forthcoming in
Political Theologies, ed. Hent de Vries (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006). I am grateful to a
number of friends for comments on various versions of this essay: Mustapha Alem, Jonathan Boyarin,
Marcel Detienne, Veena Das, Baber Johansen, Mahmood Mamdani, Ruth Mas, David Scott, Markha
Valenta, and Peter van der Veer. They should not, of course, be taken as endorsing my views.
2 See John Bowen, “Muslims and Citizens, France’s Headscarf Controversy,” Boston Review (February/
March 2004): 31. This is also a useful overview of the controversy.

Talal Asad is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the City University of New

York Graduate Center. A renowned anthropologist of religion, particularly religion in
the Middle East, he is the author of a number of books including Genealogies of Religion:
Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (1993) and Formations of the
Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (2003).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

The headscarf worn by Muslim schoolgirls has become the symbol of many aspects of
social and religious life among Muslim immigrants and their offspring to which secu-
larists object. Researchers have enquired into the reasons for their lack of integration
into French society, and especially for the drift of many of their youth towards “funda-
mentalist Islam” (l’islamisme), a drift that some of them trace to pervasive racism and to
economic disadvantage, but that others see as a result of manipulations by conservative
Middle Eastern countries and by inflammatory Islamist websites.3 Intellectuals have
debated whether, and if so, how, it is possible for religious Muslims to be integrated
into secular French society. The passions that have led to the new law are remarkable,
and not only on the part of French Muslims. It is felt by what seems to be the major-
ity of French intellectuals and politicians—of the left as well as of the right—that the
secular character of the Republic is under threat by aspects of Islam that they see as
being symbolized by the headscarf.

…since “religion” directs the I want to suggest that the French secular state today abides
in a sense by the cuius regio eius religio principle (the reli-
attention of subjects to other- gion of the ruler is the religion of his subjects), even
worldly concerns, state power though it disclaims any religious allegiance and governs
a largely irreligious society. In my view it is not the com-
needs to define its proper place mitment to or interdiction of a particular religion that is
for the worldly wellbeing of most significant in this principle but the installation of a
single absolute power—the sovereign state—drawn from a
the population in its care. single abstract source and facing a single political task: the
worldly care of its population regardless of its beliefs. As
Emile Durkheim pointed out in his writings on integration, the state is now a transcen-
dent as well as a representative agent. And as Hobbes showed, it can now embody the
abstract principle of sovereignty independent of the entire political population, whether
governors or governed, and independent of any supernatural power.

One way of looking at the problem that interests me is this: since “religion” directs the
attention of subjects to other-worldly concerns, state power needs to define its proper
place for the worldly wellbeing of the population in its care. (This doesn’t include the
guarantee of life; the state may kill or let die its own while denying that right to anyone
else. But it does include the encouragement of a flourishing consumer culture.) An
image of worldly wellbeing that can be seen in social life and so believed in is needed,
but so is an answer to the question: what are the signs of religion’s presence? Laïcité
therefore seems to me comparable to other secularisms, such as that of the United
States, a society hospitable to religious belief and activism in which the federal govern-
ment also finds the need to define religion.

3 It is estimated that more than half the inhabitants of French prisons are young Muslims of North African
origin. See Jerusalem Report (6 May 2002).

F rench secularism and the “ islamic veil affair ” / A sad

Reading Signs

Because religion is of such capital importance to the lay Republic, that Republic reserves
for itself the final authority to determine whether the meaning of given symbols (by
which I mean conventional signs) is “religious.” One might object that this applies only
to the meaning of signs in public places, but since the legal distinction between public
and private spaces is itself a construction of the state, the scope and content of “public
space” is primarily a function of the Republic’s power.

The arguments presented in the media about the Islamic …in the event of a conflict
headscarf affair were therefore embedded in this power.
between constitutional
They seemed to me not so much about tolerance towards
Muslims in a religiously diverse society, nor even about the principles, the state’s right to
strict separation between religion and the state. They were
defend its personality would
first and foremost about the structure of political liberties—
about the relations of subordination and immunity, the rec- trump all other rights.
ognition of oneself as a particular kind of self—on which
this state is built, and about the structure of emotions that
underlie those liberties. The dominant position in the debate assumed that in the event
of a conflict between constitutional principles, the state’s right to defend its personality
would trump all other rights. The state’s inviolable personality was expressed in and
through particular images, including those signifying the abstract individuals whom it
represented and to which they in turn owed unconditional obedience. The headscarf
worn by Muslim women was held to be a religious sign conflicting with the secular
personality of the French Republic.

The eventual outcome of such debates about the Islamic headscarf in the media and
elsewhere was the President’s appointment of a commission of enquiry charged with
reporting on the question of secularity in schools. The commission was headed by
ex-minister Bernard Stasi, and it heard testimony from a wide array of persons. In
December 2003, a report was finally submitted to the President recommending a law
that would prohibit the display of any “conspicuous religious signs” (des signes osten-
sibles) in public schools—including veils, kippas, and large crosses worn around the
neck. On the other hand, medallions, little crosses, stars of David, hands of Fatima,
or miniature Qur’ans, that the report designates “discreet signs” (les signes discrets), are
authorized.4 In making all these stipulations, the commission clearly felt the need to
appear even-handed. The proposed law was formally passed by the National Assembly

4 Rapport au President de la République: Commission de réflection sur l’application du principe de laïcité

dans la République, remis 11 December 2003, <www.ladocumentationfrancaise.fr>. The report has also
been published in book form as Laïcité et République, Commission présidée par Bernard Stasi (Paris: La
Documentation française, 2004). My references are to the latter.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

in February 2004 by an almost unanimous vote. There were some demonstrations of

young Muslims—as there had been earlier when the Stasi commission had formally
made its recommendation—but the numbers who protested openly were small. Most
French Muslims seemed prepared to follow the new law, some reluctantly.5

I begin with something the Stasi report does not address: according to the Muslims
who are against the ban for reasons of faith, the wearing of the headscarf by women in
public is a religious duty, but carrying “discreet signs” is not. Of course there are many
Muslims, men and women, who maintain that the wearing of a veil is not a duty in
Islam, and it is undoubtedly true that even those who wear it may do so for a variety
of motives. However, if the wearer assumes the veil as an obligation of her faith, if her
conscience impels her to wear it as an act of piety, the veil becomes for that reason an
integral part of herself. For her it is not a sign intended to communicate something but
part of an orientation, of a way of being. For the Stasi commission, in contrast, all the
wearables mentioned are signs, regarded, furthermore, as displaceable signs.

The Stasi commission takes certain signs to have a “religious” meaning by virtue of their
synecdochic relation to systems of collective representation—in which, for example,
the kippa stands for “Judaism,” the cross for “Christianity,” the veil for “Islam.” What a
given sign signifies is therefore a central question. I stress that although the Stasi report
nowhere defines “religion,” it assumes the existence of such a definition because the
qualifying form of the term (“religious signs”) rests on a substantive form (“religion”).

There are two points that may be noted in this connection. First, precisely because
there is disagreement among contemporary pious Muslims as to whether the headscarf
is a divinely required accoutrement for women, its “religious” significance must be
indeterminate for non-Muslims. Only by rejecting one available interpretation (“the
headscarf has nothing whatever to do with real religion”) in favor of another (“the veil is
an Islamic symbol”) can the Stasi commission insist on its being obviously a “religious”
sign. This choice of the sign’s meaning enables the commission to claim that the prin-
ciple of laïcité is breached by the “Islamic veil,” and that since laïcité is not negotiable
the veil must be removed.

The second point is this: the “religious” signs forbidden on school premises are distin-
guished by their gender dimension—the veil is worn by women, the kippa by men, and
the cross by both sexes. The object of the whole exercise is of course to ban the Islamic

5 The Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF) ordered its youth wing, one of the organizers of
the February 13th demonstration against the law, to desist from open struggle against the law, although
it did not discourage people from participating as individuals. At the annual meeting of the UOIF at
Le Bourget in April 2004, its president denounced what he saw as the move from a “tolerant, open
and generous secularism, that is to say a secularism aiming at integration [une laïcité d’intégration], to a
secularism of exclusion [une laïcité d’exclusion]” signaled by the new law. See the account by Catherine
Coroller, “UOIF: ‘La loi sur la laïcité est là et nous l’appliquerons,’” Libération (12 April 2004).

F rench secularism and the “ islamic veil affair ” / A sad

veil partly because it is “religious” but also because it signifies “the low legal status of
women in Muslim society” (a secular signification). However, the girls who are the
object of the school ban are French living in France; they are therefore subject to French
law and not to the shari’a. Since French law no longer discriminates between citizens on
grounds of gender or religious affiliation, since it no longer allows, as it did until 1975,
that a man may chastise his wife for insubordination, the sign designates not a real status
but an imaginary one, and therefore an imaginary transgression.

Ideally, the process of signification is both rational and clear, and it is precisely these
qualities that make it capable of being rationally criticized. It is assumed that a given
sign signifies something that is clearly “religious.” What is set aside in this assumption,
however, is the entire realm of ongoing discourses and practices that provide authorita-
tive meanings. The precision and fixity accorded to the relationship of signification is
always an arbitrary act and often a spurious one where embodied language is concerned.
In other words, what is signified by the headscarf is not some historical reality (the
evolving Islamic tradition) but another sign (the eternally fixed “Islamic religion”) which,
despite its overflowing character, is used to give the “Islamic veil” a stable meaning.

Assuming for the sake of argument that certain signs are essentially religious, where and
how may they be used to make a statement? According to the Stasi report, secularism
does not insist on religion being confined to the privacy of conscience, to its being
denied public expression. On the contrary, it says that the free expression of religious
signs (things, words, sounds that partake of a “religious” essence) is an integral part of
the liberty of the individual. As such it is not only legitimate but essential to the con-
duct of public debate in a secular democracy—so long as the representatives of the dif-
ferent religious opinions do not attempt to dominate it. But what “domination” means
when one is dealing with a religiously defined minority, whose traditional religion is
actively practiced by a small proportion of that minority, is not very clear.

It is interesting that the determination of meanings by the commission was not con-
fined to what was visible. It included the deciphering of psychological processes such
as desire and will. Thus the wearer’s act of displaying the sign was said to incorporate the
actor’s will to display it—and therefore became part of what the headscarf meant. As
one of the commission members later explained, its use of the term “displaying,” mani-
festant, was meant to underline the fact that certain acts embodied “the will to (make)
appear,” volonté d’apparaitre.6 The Muslim identity of the headscarf wearer was crucial to
the headscarf ’s meaning because the will to display it had to be read from that identity.
(Another aspect of its meaning came from equating the-will-to-make-the-veil-appear

6 Interview with Ghislaine Hudson, published as “Laïcité: une loi nécessaire ou dangereuse?” Le Monde
(11 December 2003).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

with “Islamic fundamentalism,” or “Islamism,” terms used interchangeably to denote

a range of different endorsements of public Islam.) Paradoxically, Republican law thus
realizes its universal character through a particular (female Muslim) identity, that is, a
particular psychological internality. However, the mere existence of an internal dimen-
sion that is accessible from outside is felicitous for secularism. It opens up the universal
prospect of cultivating Republican selves in public schools. At any rate, “the will” itself
is not seen but the visible veil points to it, as one of the veil’s effects.

“Desire” is treated even more interestingly. The commission’s concern with the desires
of pupils is expressed in a distinction between those who didn’t really want to wear the
headscarf and those who did. It is not very clear exactly how these “genuine desires”
were deciphered, although reference is made to pressure by traditional parents and com-
munities, and one assumes that some statements to that effect must have been made
to the commission.7

It is worth remarking that solicitude for the “real” desires of the pupils applied only to
girls who wore the headscarf. No thought appears to have been given to determining the
“real” desires of girls who did not wear the headscarf. Was it possible that some of them
secretly wanted to wear a headscarf but were ashamed to do so because of what their
French peers and people in the street might think and say? Or could it be that they
were hesitant for other reasons? However, in their case surface appearance alone was
sufficient for the commission: no headscarf worn means no desire to wear it. In this way
“desire” is not discovered but semiotically constructed.

This asymmetry in the possible meanings of the headscarf as a sign again makes sense if
the commission’s concern is seen to be not simply a matter of scrupulousness in inter-
preting evidence in the abstract but of guiding a certain kind of behavior—hence the
commission’s employment of the simple binary “coerced or freely chosen” in defining
desire. The point is that in ordinary life the wish to do one thing rather than another is
rooted in dominant conventions, in loyalties and habits one has acquired over time, as
well as in the anxieties and pleasures experienced in interaction with lovers and friends,
with relatives, teachers, and other authority figures. But when “desire” is the objective
of discipline, there are only two options: it must either be encouraged (hence “natural-
ized”) or discouraged (hence declared “specious”). And the commission was certainly
engaged in a disciplining project.

So the commission saw itself as being presented with a difficult decision between two
forms of individual liberty—that of girls whose desire was to wear the headscarf (a
minority) and that of girls who would rather not. It decided to accord freedom to the

7 See Laïcité et République 102–3.

F rench secularism and the “ islamic veil affair ” / A sad

latter on majoritarian grounds.8 This democratic decision is not inconsistent with laicï-
té, although it does conflict with the idea that religious freedom is an inalienable right of
each citizen—which is what the Rights of Man (and, today, any declaration of human
rights) articulates.9 But more important, I think, is the detachment of desire from its
object (the veil) so that it becomes neutral, something to be counted, aggregated, and
compared numerically. Desires are essentially neither “religious” nor “irreligious”; they
are simply socio-psychological facts.

Now I have been suggesting not only that government officials decide what sartorial
signs mean but that they do so by privileged access to the wearer’s motive and will—to
her subjectivity—and that this is facilitated by resort to a certain kind of semiotics. To
the extent that this is so, the commission was a device to constitute meanings by drawing
on internal (psychological) or external (social) signs, and it allowed certain desires and
sentiments to be encouraged at the expense of others. A government commission of
enquiry sought to bring “private” concerns, commitments, and sentiments into “pub-
lic” scrutiny in order to assess their validity for a secular Republic. The public sphere,
a guarantee of liberal democracy, does not afford citizens a critical distance from state
power here. It is the very terrain on which that power is deployed to ensure the proper
formation of its subjects.

From its beginning the idea of the secular Republic seems to have been torn in two
conflicting directions—insistence on the withdrawal of the state from all matters of
religion (which must include abstention from even trying to define “religious signs”),
and the responsibility of the state for forming secular citizens (by which I do not mean
persons who are necessarily “irreligious”). The Stasi report seizes this basic contradiction
as an occasion for creative interpretation. The trouble with the earlier legal judgments
relating to the veil, it says, is that

the judge did not think he had the power to pronounce on the interpretation of
the meaning of religious signs. Here was an inherent limit to the intervention of
the judge. It seemed to him impossible to enter into the interpretation given to

8 “After we heard the evidence, we concluded that we faced a difficult choice with respect to young Muslim
girls wearing the headscarf in state schools. Either we left the situation as it was, and thus supported a
situation that denied freedom of choice to those—the very large majority—who do not want to wear
the headscarf; or we endorsed a law that removed freedom of choice from those who do want to wear
it. We decided to give freedom of choice to the former during the time they were in school, while the
latter retain all their freedom for their life outside school” (Patrick Weil, “A Nation in Diversity: France,
Muslims and the Headscarf,” <www.opendemocracy.com> [25 March 2004]).
9 The Stasi report cites various international court judgments in support of its argument that the right to
religious expression is always subject to certain conditions; see Laïcité et République 47–50. My point here
is not that this right—or any other—should be absolute and unlimited; it is simply that a right cannot
be inalienable if it is subject (for whatever reason) to the superior power of the state’s legal institutions to
define and limit. To take away a right in part or whole on grounds of utility (including public order) or
morality means that it is alienable.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

one or another sign by a religion. Consequently, he was not able to understand

that the wearing of the veil by some young women can mean discrimination
between man and woman. And that of course is contradictory to a basic prin-
ciple of the Republic.10

The Stasi report regrets that judges in these cases had refused to enter the domain of reli-
gious signs. It wants the law to fix meanings, and so it recommends legislation that will
do just that. But first it has to constitute religious signs whose meanings can be deciphered
according to objective rules. For what the commission calls “a sign” is nothing in itself.
“Religious signs” are part of the game that the secular Republic plays. More precisely, it
is in playing that game that the abstract being called the modern state is realized.

One might suggest that for the Stasi commission the headscarf worn by Muslim school-
girls is more than a sign. It is an icon in the sense that it does not simply designate but
evoke. What is evoked is not a headscarf (un foulard ) but “the Islamic veil” (le voile
islamique). More than an image, the veil is an imaginary—a shrouded difference wait-
ing to be unveiled, to be brought into the light of reason, and made indifferent.

Dealing with Exceptions

A question that arises is whether there is any place in laïcité for rights attached to reli-
gious groups. And the answer is that indeed there is, although such groups are usually
thought of as exceptions. Perhaps the most striking are Christian and Jewish schools,
private establishments “under contract” (sous contrat) to the government, that are heav-
ily subsidized by the secular state. In these state-supported religious schools, where it
is possible, among other things, to display crosses and kippas, and where religious texts
are systematically taught, pupils nevertheless grow up to become good French citizens.
How important is this educational sector? According to the latest government figures,
slightly over 20 percent of all high school pupils are enrolled in religious schools. 11
(Incidentally, even in public schools where “ostentatious religious signs” are now forbid-

10 “Le juge n’a pas cru pouvoir se prononcer sur l’interprétation du sens des signes religieux; il s’agit là
d’une limite inhérente à l’intervention du juge: Il lui a semblé impossible d’entrer dans l’interprétation
donnée par une religion à tel ou tel signe. Par conséquent, il n’a pu appréhender les discriminations entre
l’homme et la femme, contraires à un principe fondamental de la République, que pouvait revêtir le port
du voile par certaines jeunes filles” (Laïcité et République 69–70). However, as far as school is concerned,
the report believes that in dealing with some religious signs (texts) pupils should not concern themselves
with theological meanings (Laïcité et République 34).
11 See <www.education.gouv.fr/systeme_educatif/enseignment_prive.html>. Of course, not all the parents
of children enrolled in these schools have concerns about the spiritual education of their offspring; it is
simply that they want them to have “a good education.” Because they are more selective (that is, middle
class) and often better funded than public schools, religious schools tend to maintain higher educational
standards. Their teachers are also less likely to go on strike than those working in public sector schools.

F rench secularism and the “ islamic veil affair ” / A sad

den, separate dining arrangements are made for Muslim and Jewish pupils who wish to
follow their religious dietary laws.)

There are more exceptions that reinforce the attachment of individuals to religious
communities: chaplains in the army, colleges, schools, prisons, and hospitals, are all
provided and paid for by the state. Jewish and Muslim funerary rites are permitted in
cemeteries although they are all owned and maintained by the state. According to the
1987 law, gifts made to religious associations benefit from tax concessions—like other
associations that provide a general public service. The Stasi report acknowledges these
exceptions to the principle of the state’s absolute neutrality but sees them as “reasonable
modifications” that allow each person to exercise his/her religious liberty.12

Thus these exceptions all have a politico-legal presence in the secular structure of the
French Republic. To these organizations belong many citizens, clerical and lay, whose
sensibilities are partly shaped by that belonging. Do such groupings amount to “com-
munitarianism”? The term is less important than the fact that France consists of a vari-
ety of groupings that inhabit the public space between private life and the state. And
since they dispose of unequal power in the formulation of public policy, the state’s claim
of political neutrality towards all “religious” groups is rendered problematic.

The Stasi commission is aware of exceptions to the general rule of laïcité. It explains
them by distinguishing between the founding principle of secularism (that the lay
Republic respect all beliefs) and the numerous legal obligations that issue from this
principle but that also sometimes appear to contradict it. The legal regime, it points out
in its report, is not at all a monolithic whole; it is at once dispersed in numerous legal
sources and diversified in the different forms it takes throughout mainland France and
in its overseas territories. The scattered sources and diverse forms of French secularism
mean that the Republic has constantly to deal with exceptions. I want to suggest that
that very exercise of power to identify and deal with the exception is what subsumes
the differences within a unity, and confirms Republican sovereignty. The banning of
the veil as a sign can therefore be seen as an exercise in sovereign power, an attempt by
a centralized state to dominate public space as the space of particular signs.

I want to stress that my interest is not in arguing that France is inadequately secu-
lar or that it is intolerant. No actually existing secularism should be denied its claim
to secularity just because it does not correspond to some utopian model. Varieties of
remembered religious history, of perceived political threat and opportunity, define the
sensibilities underpinning secular citizenship and national belonging in a modern state.
The sensibilities are not always secure, they are rarely free of contradictions, and they
are sometimes fragile. But they make for qualitatively different forms of secularism.

12 See Laïcité et République 52–4.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

What is at stake here, I think, is not the toleration of difference but sovereignty that defines
and justifies exceptions, and the quality of the spaces that secularism defines as public. The
“crisis of laïcité ” seems to me uniquely embedded in a political struggle over two ideal-
ized models of France’s future, a division that cuts across left and right parties: a highly
centralized and controlling state versus a decentralized and minimalist one, in both
of which the need to exercise sovereignty seems to be taken for granted. This struggle
has somehow come to be linked to the state’s principled definition of religion and its
“public” limits in the interest of creating “a community of sentiment.”

Passionate Subjects

The politics of secularism are fraught with emotion, calling into question the very
idea of neutrality. Guilt, contempt, fear, resentment, virtuous outrage, sly calculation,
pride, anxiety, compassion, all intersect ambiguously in the secular Republic’s collective
memory and inform attitudes towards its religiously or ethnically identified citizens.
Laïcité is not blind to religiously defined groups in public. It is suspicious of some
(Muslims) because of what it imagines they may do, or is ashamed in relation to oth-
ers (Jews) because of what they have suffered at the hands of Frenchmen. The desire
to keep some groups under surveillance while making amends to others—and thus of
coming “honorably” to terms with one’s own past, of re-affirming France as a nation
restored—are emotions that sustain the integrity of the lay Republic. And they serve
to obscure the rationality of communication and the clarity of signs that are explicitly
assumed by the Stasi commission.

All modern states, even those committed to promoting “tolerance,” are built on com-
plicated emotional inheritances that determine relations among its citizens. In France
one such inheritance is the image of and hostility towards Islam; another is the image
of and (until recently) antipathy towards Judaism. For a long time, and for many, Jews
were the “internal other.” In a complicated historical readjustment this status has now
been accorded to Muslims instead.

One might therefore wonder whether the headscarf affair wasn’t generated by a dis-
placement of the society’s anxieties about its own uncertain political predicament or
its economic and intellectual decline. In a witty and incisive review of the Stasi report,
the French anthropologist Emmanuel Terray has recently claimed that this is how the
headscarf affair should be understood—as an example of “political hysteria” in which
symbolic repression and displacement take place to obscure material realities. 13 Terray
points out that in discussing the “threat to the functioning of the social services,” the

13 Emmanuel Terray, “Headscarf Hysteria,” New Left Review 26 (March/April 2004): 118–27. See especially
Laïcité et République 90–6.

F rench secularism and the “ islamic veil affair ” / A sad

Stasi report makes no mention of inadequate funding but focuses instead on the minor
difficulties created when some Muslims make “religious” demands in schools, hospitals,
or prisons. Of course, this is precisely what laïcité is. Its overriding concern is with tran-
scendent values (neutrality of the state, the separation of “religion” from politics, “sacred-
ness” of the republican compact, etc.) and not with immanent materialities (distribution
of resources, flexibility of organizations, etc.). Isn’t this why the strong defenders of laïcité
seem unwilling to explore the complicated connections between these two?

The antipathy (even hostility) evoked in this affair is, quite simply, part of what it means
to be a secular Frenchman or Frenchwoman, to have an identity formed by layers of
educated emotions. The affair is about signs and about the passions evoked by them.
The signs do have political and economic implications, but they do not stand as empty
masks. The advocates of secularism claim that signs are important when they signify the
worldly equality of all human beings and invite compassion for human suffering. There
is a special sense in which this claim is right, although the game of signification is much
more complicated than spokespersons for the Republic declare it is.

Defenders of the veil claim that it is integral to their reli- How does the secular state
gious beliefs. How does the secular state address the pain
of people who are obliged to give up part of their religious
address the pain of people who
heritage to show that they are acceptable? The simple are obliged to give up part of
answer is: by expecting them to take beliefs lightly. Most
liberals are not passionate in expressing their beliefs. It is
their religious heritage to show
worth recalling that in early modern Europe, neo-stoic that they are acceptable?
thinkers who supported the emergence of the strong, sec-
ular state—the state that became the foundation of mod-
ern nationalism—did so because they saw passion as a destructive force that threatened
the state. Since for them passion was identified with religious belief, this meant in effect
a detachment from the latter—a skepticism in matters of faith. This virtue seems to
have been absorbed into the style of liberalism, so that religious passion has tended to
be represented—especially in a modern political context—as irrational and divisive. As
in the political domain so in the private, and the sense among many is that passion is a
disturbing force, the cause of much instability, intolerance, and unhappiness.

Passionate support of secular beliefs, on the other hand, was not—is not—regarded in
the same way. That passion is felt to be more like the public expression of “objective
principle” rather than “subjective belief.” Where, as in the French Revolution, secular
passion led to Terror, this was precisely because it was a revolution, a divided people
in process of being made into a united Republic. In general, distress is a symptom
of irrational and disrupted social conditions. “Good” passion is the work of secular
enlightenment, not of religious bigotry. Yet ironically, although the emotional concern
about anti-Semitism (or Islamophobia) is always an example of “good” (because secu-
lar) passion, being emotionally steeped in the object of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia
(the traditions of Judaism or Islam themselves) may not be.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6


Defenders and critics of the Islamic veil law represent it in different ways, but secu-
larists, whether pro or con, employ the same political language in which they assert
something about the proper place of religion.14 I think that in doing so most of them
miss how certain discourses can become part of the powerful practices that cultivate
particular sensibilities essential to a particular kind of contradictory individual—one
who is morally sovereign and yet obedient to the laws of the secular Republic, flex-
ible and tolerant yet fiercely principled. The liberal idea is that it is only when this
individual sovereignty is invaded by a body other than the representative democratic
state that represents his individual will collectively, and other than the market, which
is the state’s dominant civil partner (as well as its indispensable electoral technique),
that free choice gives way to coerced behavior. But the fact that the notions of moral
and political sovereignty are not coherent as descriptions of contemporary individual
and collective life is less important than the fact that they are part of the apparatus
of techniques for forming secular subject-citizens and that the public school has such
an extraordinary ideological place in the Republic’s self-presentation. Central to that
apparatus is the proper deployment of signs, a topic with which I began this essay. So
I end with a few further remarks on it.

The interesting thing about symbols (that is, conventional signs) is that they invite one
to do a reading of them independently of people’s stated intentions and commitments.
Indeed, the reading becomes a way of retrospectively constituting “real desires.” It facili-
tates the attempt to synthesize the psychological and juridical concepts of the liberal
subject. Vincent Geisser records some of the ways that the French media represented
those who wished to wear headscarves in school. At first, he notes, the young women
with headscarves were represented as victims of their relatives. But then, in response
to the latest sociological studies on the wearing of the veil that showed a complicated
picture of the young women’s motives for wearing it, the media chose an even more
alarmist interpretation:

Henceforth it is the idea of “voluntary servitude” that prevails in media analy-

ses: that young French women should themselves choose to wear the headscarf
is precisely what makes them even more dangerous. This act is no longer to be
seen as the consequence of family pressure but as the sign of a personal—and
therefore fanatical—commitment.15

14 For example, Henri Pena-Ruiz, “Laïcité et égalité, leviers d’émancipation,” Le Monde diplomatique
(February 2004): 9; and Pierre Tevanian, “Une loi antilaïque, antiféministe et antisocial,” Le Monde
diplomatique (February 2004): 8.
15 La nouvelle islamophobie (Paris: La Découverte, 2003) 31 (italics in original).

F rench secularism and the “ islamic veil affair ” / A sad

This, as Geisser points out, makes the veil appear even more threatening to the state
school and to Republican values in general. Once one is in the business of uncovering
dangerous hidden meanings, as in the Spanish Inquisitor’s search for hidden beliefs, one
will find what one is looking for. Where the power to read symbols includes the con-
struction of (religious/secular) intentions attributable to practitioners, even the distinc-
tion, made in the 1905 law of separation between Church and State between “freedom
of conscience” (a moral immunity) and “freedom of religious practice” (a legal right),
becomes difficult to maintain with clarity.

Secularism is invoked to prevent two very different kinds of transgression: the perver-
sion of politics by religious forces on the one hand, and the state’s restriction of religious
freedom on the other. The idea that religion is a system of symbols becomes especially
attractive in the former case, because in order to protect politics from religion (and
especially certain kinds of religiously motivated behavior), in order to determine its
acceptable forms within the polity, the state must identify “religion.” To the extent that
this work of identification becomes a matter for the law, the
Republic acquires the theological function of defining religious Secularism is invoked to
signs and the power of imposing that definition on its subjects,
of “assimilating” them. This may not be usually thought of as prevent two very different
coercive power, but it is undoubtedly an intrusive one. The kinds of transgression: the
Stasi report does not pretend otherwise. The secular state, it
insists, “cannot be content with withdrawing from all religious perversion of politics by
and spiritual matters.”16 religious forces on the one

Pierre Tevanian, a critic of the new law, has written that secu- hand, and the state’s
larism as defined by the laws of 1881, 1882, and 1886, applies restriction of religious
to the premises, the school curricula, and the teachers, but not
to the pupils. The latter are simply required to obey school
freedom on the other.
rules, to attend all lessons properly, and to behave respectfully
towards others.17 These founding texts appear to be echoed in the Council of State
judgment of November 27, 1989 (issued on the occasion of an earlier crisis concern-
ing the veil) that the Stasi report cites (“education should be provided with regard, on
the one hand, to neutral curricula and teachers, and, on the other hand, to the liberty
of conscience of the pupils”) and that it then glosses in its own fashion. 18 Instead of
withdrawing completely from anything that describes itself as “religion” (while insisting
that no behavior be allowed that disrupts the proper functioning of education) the Stasi
report chooses to interfere with “religion” by seeking to define its acceptable place.

16 “Il ne peut se contenter d’un retrait des affaires religeuses et spirituelles” (Laïcité et République 32).
17 Tevanian 8.
18 “L’avis énonce que le principe de laïcité impose que ‘l’enseignement soit dispensé dans le respect, d’une
part, de cette neutralité par les programmes et par les enseignants, d’autre part, de la liberté de conscience
des élèves’” (66).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

Today it seems that “religion” continues to infect “politics” in France—partly as parody

(the “sacred” foundation of the secular Republic) and partly as civilization (“Judeo-
Christian” values in the education of secular citizens). Whatever else laïcité may be, it
is certainly not the total separation between religion and politics said to be required for
living together harmoniously in a diverse modern society. It is a continuous attempt
by the state apparatuses at encouraging subjects to make and recognize themselves
through appropriate signs as properly secularized citizens who “know that they belong
to France” (Only to France? Ultimately to France? Mainly to France?). Like other modes
of secularism, laïcité is a modern form of political rule that seeks to define a particular
kind of secular subject (whether “religious” or not) who can take part in the game of
symbols—the right kind of conventional signs—to demonstrate his or her loyalty to
the state.

Where does all this leave the notion of “a community of shared values,” which is said
to be minimally secured in a modern democratic society by secularism? My simple
thought is that differences of class, gender, region, and ethnic origin do not constitute
a community of shared values in France. Besides, modern France has always had a size-
able body of immigrants, all bringing in “foreign” ideas, habits, and experiences. The
only significant difference is that since World War II they have been largely from North
Africa. The famous slogan “la République une et indivisible” reflects a nationalist aspira-
tion, not a social reality. Like people everywhere, the French are imbued with complex
emotions about their fellow citizens, including a simple feeling that “France” belongs
to them and not to Others. In any case, the question of feelings of belonging to the
country is distinct from that of the rights and duties of citizenship; the former relates
to dreams of nationalism, the latter to practices of civic responsibility.

The ways in which the concept of “religion” operates in that culture as motive and
as effect, how it mutates, what it affords and obstructs, what memories it shelters or
excludes, are not eternally fixed. That is what makes varieties of secularism—including
French laïcité—always unique. If one accepts this conclusion one may resist the tempta-
tion to think that one must either “defend secularism” or “attack civic religion.” One
might instead learn to argue over the best ways of supporting particular liberties while
limiting others, of minimizing social and individual harm. In brief, one might content
oneself with assessing particular demands and threats without having to confront the
general “danger of religion.”

Secularity without Secularism:
The Best Political Position for
Contemporary Jews
David Novak

o group has benefited more from modern secularity than have the Jews.
Modern secularity has enabled Jews to become full and equal participants in
the secular societies in which almost all Jews now live. In pre-modern, pre-
secular societies, Jews were at best tolerated and at worst they were persecuted as for-
eigners. Nevertheless, when these beneficiaries of modern secularity are told that they
must affirm secularism as the ideological foundation of the secularity from which they
have so benefited, then the cultural integrity of the Jews, especially but not exclusively,
is seriously threatened.

We need to define at the outset what is meant by “secularity” and then what is meant
by “culture.”

“Secularity” can be taken in two distinct senses. First, secularity is the modus operandi of
a society that does not look to any particular religious tradition for the validation of its
political authority in matters pertaining to the bodies and the property of its members,
that is, matters dealt with by criminal and civil law. So, for example, that is why even
though a majority of the citizens of the United States are Christians, and Christianity
looks to the Bible to authorize all its practices, one cannot invoke biblical authority as a
reason for public acceptance of any authorized practice in the United States. The author-
ity of the Bible is only cogent for the members of a particular religious community who
accept their tradition’s normative interpretation of the Bible. In theory and in fact, this
has meant that even different groups that call themselves “Christian” do not accept
each other’s biblically based normative teaching. As such, suggestions of “Christian

David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies as Professor
of the Study of Religion and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. He is
the author of thirteen books, most recently The Jewish Social Contract: An Essay in Political
Theology (2005) and Talking with Christians: Musings of a Jewish Theologian (2005).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

America” break down on the question: Whose Christianity—Catholic or Protestant—and

if the latter, which Protestant Christianity? Even if one were to speak of “Judeo-Christian
America” and assume that the biblical foundation of that society was the Old Testament
(whose authority is accepted by both Jews and Christians), Jews would hardly accept as
authoritative Christian biblical interpretation, any more than Christians would accept
Jewish biblical interpretation on any significant normative issue.

Instead of looking to any one religious tradition, or even to a combination of several

religious traditions, a secular society looks for a moral consensus among its members
in order to validate its political authority and its public policies. At least in the United
States and Canada, however, the majority of the members of the secular civil society
come from singular religious traditions, and it is in tandem with these traditions that
they bring their morality.1 As such, most of these religious people are only willing to
give their moral allegiance to a secular society whose public policies are consistent with
the morality that has already come with their respective religious traditions. But if, on
the contrary, any of these religious people makes the secular society their ultimate moral
arbiter, they have thereby relegated their own religious tradition and its morality to a
marginal role, one that is at odds with the primacy faithful adherents of that tradition
have always attributed to it and its morality. Therefore, there is nothing irrational about
a member of a traditional religious community affirming a public policy because this
is what his or her tradition teaches, as long as he or she can also give the reason his or
her tradition advocates that public policy. Inevitably, that reason has to be because this
policy is for the good of any human society and not just for the members of his or her
traditional community.2 Therefore, when a true moral consensus is reached in this kind
of secular society, this consensus is not based on merely accidental historical overlap-
pings between traditions. Rather, this consensus is rational, based on what these respec-
tive traditions hold to be basic moral norms that apply to all human persons because
they are rationally evident, not because of the authority of any religious tradition itself.
Traditional authority, by contrast, is rooted in a historical revelation and, as such, it
can only claim those who are part of the community constituted by this revelation, and
who have accepted, preserved, and transmitted that revelation to posterity. Any society
that can respect the prior religious commitments of its members—commitments that
actually enable them to live in a secular society in good faith—is a society of “moderate
secularity.” Moderate secularity has largely obtained dominance, until quite recently, in
the English-speaking West, namely Britain, the United States, and Canada.

1 I say “singular” rather than “particular” inasmuch as all the religious traditions adhered to by citizens of
a democratic polity would resist being taken as “parts” of some larger worldly genus called “religion.”
2 Logically speaking: the first “because” here denotes a “source” of a norm; the second, the end or purpose
of a norm. For the argument that religious people can present both the source and the end of any of their
stands on public morality, see David Novak, Natural Law in Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1998) 16–26.

S ecularit y without secularism / novak

The second sense of secularity is what I would call “radical secularity.” Unlike moderate
secularity, radical secularity looks to “secularism” for its primary justification. This kind
of secularism found its first and most powerful expression in the French Revolution. At
present, it is being vigorously promoted by certain “secularists,” especially in the United
States and Canada, and by some of the leading proponents of the European Union. In
this kind of secularity, a secular society does not look to any particular religious tradition
for its political validation. In fact, it does not even look
to any moral consensus among the religious traditions
Any society that can respect the
from which the majority of its members come. Instead,
this kind of secularity regards the members of the soci- prior religious commitments
ety as having no religio-moral background at all, or it of its members—commitments
requires them to leave their cultural background outside
society’s door, so to speak, before gaining entrance to the that actually enable them to
process of public policy making. That is the case even live in a secular society in
in matters pertaining to marriage, family relations, and
sexuality, areas in which historic traditions have a very good faith—is a society of
heavy investment. The only area of human interaction “moderate secularity.”
that is seemingly left out of the range of secular public
policy making is the area of religious ritual. Usually this
exclusion is subsumed under what has come to be called “the right to privacy.” Yet it
is hard to see how something like religious ritual, being the public practice of specific
communities, can be justified as a form of privacy. For radical secularity, the prior
religious commitments of its members, which are so very public, are a threat to the
ultimate hegemony that the secular society, and especially the secular state with all its
political power, claims for itself. Such societies are atheistic de facto (as is the case in
France) or atheistic de jure (as was the case in the former Soviet Union).

This latter view of secularity justifies itself in terms of individual autonomy, which
means that human individuals are free to create themselves, as it were. Secular society
entitles them—that is, grants them the right—to project whatever ends or goods they
choose for themselves as their raison d’être, as long as they do not infringe upon the
rights of others to do likewise. However, even advocates of this type of secularity can-
not equate human self-creation with the uniquely divine attribute of creatio ex nihilo.
Unlike God, they still have to create themselves out of something already there, which
means that their “self-creation” is really self-development. What this most often means
is that the very goods individual members of society are “allowed” or “entitled” to
choose turn out to be only those goods that the elites (those who have political or eco-
nomic power in that society) provide, over which these elites have varying degrees of
social control. As such, in this kind of secularity, the secular polity can accept no prior
source of right; it cannot recognize any authority outside itself to make any valid public
claims upon any of its citizens. At most, claims like those made by traditional religions
upon their own members are only valid when they are consistent with the claims made
upon citizens by the secular society itself. It is assumed all members of a secular society
have ceded all prior rights to that society as the price of admission to it. And, for those

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

who have long ago abandoned a Hobbesian view of the ceding of prior rights being an
essential component of the total move from a state of nature to civil society, no such
prior rights ever existed at all.

The first and foremost of these prior rights are what could be called “cultural rights.”
In Western democracies like the United States and Canada, the most basic of these
cultural rights is the freedom of religion. Distinct from radically secular societies, in
moderately secular societies freedom of religion is not an entitlement from society; it
is a prior right that society is to respect, even honor—the only proviso being that the
exercise of freedom of religion not violate the common good (as, for example, when the
exercise of one’s religion endangers public safety). Since the way culture is dealt with
denotes a major difference between a radically secular society and a moderately secular
one, we now need to define what is meant by “culture.”

In its deepest sense, “culture” means a way of life adhered to by a particular, histori-
cally continuous community. As an all-encompassing way of life, culture permeates the
lives of the members of the historical community who bear it. The bearers of culture
are a people. The people inevitably regard their raison d’être to be the maintenance and
enhancement of their culture throughout history. Culture is not the invention of the
people who bear it; it is their inheritance from the past. Even though the people have
ample opportunity to change and develop many of the specific aspects of their culture
in the course of transmitting it from the past through the present into the future, the
people cannot change it beyond recognition from what it has generally been in the past,
nor can they see it as having been superceded by some other culture. Moreover, cul-
tures that recognize that they are not synonymous with humanity per se look to some
particular historical event for their origin in the past. That particular event is inevitably
a theophany, a revelation of God that calls a singular community into existence for an
indefinite period of time, what in biblical terms is an “everlasting covenant” (Isaiah
55:3). That revelation is the transcendent warrant for the existence of the community
founded upon it. Culture, then, seems to be identical with “religion.”3 Indeed, the
Latin word cultura is closely related to the word cultus, both stemming from the verb
colere, “to cultivate.” Both religion and culture are cultivated as living things by those
who bear them, and in a deeper sense these people, both collectively and as individuals,
are cultivated by their religious cultures. Accordingly, one might say that a culture is the
outer form of its religion and that a religion is the inner intentionality of its culture.

I know of no historical culture or tradition that does not have a revelation as its foun-
dation, and I know of no democracy that claims to have been founded by a revelation
from God. A democracy seems to be secular by definition. At most, a democracy can

3 The only reason I use “culture” rather than “religion” is to avoid the modern mistake of separating culture
from religion by making culture a matter of nostalgia and something which, unlike religion, makes no
moral demands upon those who bear the cultural memory within a secular society.

S ecularit y without secularism / novak

affirm that God is supreme, implying the humanly created state is not. That seems to
be the minimal reason for the mention of God at the beginning of the Declaration
of Independence of the United States and the Canadian Charter of Rights and

Under the influence of radical secularity, many have a tendency to confuse culture
with art, even though art in its original sense of “making” (as in the Greek poiesis, from
which our word “poetry” comes) was developed as a cultural activity designed to inspire
the members of a culture to re-experience the founding events
of the culture in their transcendent dimension. Separated from A democracy seems to be
culture, though, art becomes entertainment. When art retains its
inspirational role, there is nothing disturbing about the presence secular by definition.
of non-cultural art to anyone who is not a “puritan.” But when
culture is reduced to art as entertainment, art so understood becomes a substitute for
culture in its transcendent sense. Religious people cannot accept the reduction of their
very public culture to the privacy of an “art form.” When reduced to entertaining art,
culture can be relegated by a radically secular society to the realm of private taste.

Secularist political claims are inevitably the claims made by those interest groups having
economic and political power in a society. These interest groups see themselves as hav-
ing a mandate to create culture, understood to be the way of life the society is dedicated
to promoting—what incorporates the social energies usually involved in traditional
religions and their moralities. Moreover, these interest groups often explicitly reject the
notion that secular society derives its culture from earlier social engagements. Instead,
they now require older cultures to either derive their moral authority from the secular
polity or to totally obliterate themselves (as in a melting pot) into the new secular culture
that these interest groups are continually creating and promoting.

The emergence of radical secularity just before, during, and just after the French
Revolution coincides with the political emancipation of Jews in the West. For Jews,
1789 (generally speaking) marks the abrupt end of the Middle Ages and the equally
abrupt hurl into modernity. This meant that Jews gained the rights of all other indi-
vidual citizens. But they thereby lost the collective rights they had when Jewish com-
munities (qehillot) enjoyed a large degree of independence, when Jewish communities
had considerable collective power in ordering the religious, familial, and even the eco-
nomic lives of their members. All of this was obtained within a larger Christian polity
(imperium in imperio), but one where Jews were related to the larger Christian polity
as members of a community having a contracted communal status therein, rather than
individual Jews having a direct relation to the sovereign (be it monarchial or republican)
as did the Christian citizens of the polity.

There were, to be sure, segments of the Jewish community who resented this elimina-
tion of what they took to be more ancient privilege than ancient discrimination. Many
rabbis, especially, knew that the end of their ancien régime meant the loss of their

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

political power to enforce Jewish religious tradition among people who had no civil
recourse elsewhere. Nevertheless, despite their opposition, there was very little these tra-
ditionalist rabbis and their diminishing circle of committed followers could do to stem
a historical-political reality that promised Europeans (and, later, North Americans) a
freer, more intellectually open, and more prosperous life, and which seemed to be suc-
ceeding in delivering on that promise. The vast majority of Western Jews have seen the
new secular political order to be a marked improvement over the time when, simulta-
neous with external political control by gentiles, rabbis could internally direct almost
all Jewish social and intellectual efforts in the direction of traditional Jewish religion,
which the rabbis alone were allowed to interpret and apply. The response of Jews in the
West to this nouveau régime has been threefold.

First, there have been Jews who have followed the Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza,
in taking this new secular political order to be their new theological-political reality,
sufficient enough to make their separate Jewish existence not only redundant but a
positive detriment to their becoming fully part of the newly created culture of secular
modernity.4 These have been the assimilationists of various
The most enthusiastic Jewish stripes. For them the chief attraction of this new culture
has been its minimal dogmatic requirements, unlike those
proponents of radical secularity
requirements of the Christianity of the ancien régime.
have known that the political
revolution that brought them The most enthusiastic Jewish proponents of radical
secularity have known that the political revolution that
their rights as equal citizens brought them their rights as equal citizens could not have
could not have come about come about without a cultural revolution. That revolu-
tion occurred in the late eighteenth century, when the
without a cultural revolution. still mostly Christian people of Western Europe (and their
cousins in still politically and culturally primitive North
America) in effect renounced the claim of their religion to be the transcendent war-
rant of the state’s political authority and their acceptance of it. That being the case,
how could Jews—who had much more to gain than the already politically dominant
Christians—do anything less if they wanted to be citizens of the new secular nation-
states in good faith?

Second, there have been Jews who have not wanted total assimilation but who have
believed that they could survive culturally and religiously by becoming a special interest
group voluntarily functioning within a secular society with a warrant from the govern-
ing polity. By looking to the secular polity for their warrant, they have thereby ceded
any real moral authority of the Jewish community. These liberal Jews have endorsed just

4 See Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, chapter 3; also, David Novak, The Election of Israel (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1995) 26–49.

S ecularit y without secularism / novak

about any moral position being promoted by the powerful political-cultural-intellectual

elites in their society in the name of “progress.” This approach could be taken, whether
explicitly stated by its liberal proponents or not, as being conducted in return for the
“tolerance” of their particular religious practices by these powerful elites. This approach
makes itself manifest, especially today, when liberal Jews suggest that the “spirit” of the
Jewish tradition endorses such practices as abortion and same-sex marriage—practices
that are explicitly proscribed by the “letter” of the Jewish tradition.5 The willingness of
more and more liberal rabbis to almost celebrate abortions and to officiate at same-sex
weddings indicates that the religious exclusivity formerly claimed even by liberal Jews
has been elided by their concessions to secularist morality.

Third, there have been traditionalist Jews, mostly known by the Jewish neologism
“Orthodox,” who have attempted to keep as much distance as possible from the secular-
ist culture and morality around them. Yet they too have accepted more of secularist ide-
ology than many of them might realize. Like the liberals—whom they usually suspect, if
not detest—they look to the secular polity for political entitlements. Just as the liberals
look to the secularists for entitlements in order to be like them, so many Orthodox Jews
look to these same secularists for an entitlement to be different from them. In other
words, instead of challenging secularist morality in principle, these Jews (and Christian
sectarians like them) are content to simply claim their “peculiar” religio-moral practices
not be interfered with by the polity for the sake of something as elusive as “cultural
diversity.” Instead of arguing that something like same-sex marriage is contrary to the
rational-moral consensus of the various traditions that most of the citizens of society
come from, these sectarians simply ask to be exempt from what is being promoted as
public morality (that is, the right of everyone who wants to be married to be married).
How long the secularists who seem to be gaining more and more power in the United
States and Canada will “tolerate” such moral “diversity”—especially when it is being
practiced by people otherwise quite involved in the society and its intellectual culture—
is already being doubted by some of the more politically perceptive Orthodox Jews.

Therefore, the task of traditionalist Jews who see themselves as being real participants in
secular society is to work out a public philosophy that can fully affirm political, legal,
and even intellectual secularity without succumbing to either the fervent affirmation of
the program of secularism or to the cautious begging for dispensational tolerance from
secularist elites. I for one am convinced that such a quest can find within the sources of
the Jewish tradition authentic building blocks for the construction of a Jewish public
philosophy adequate to the challenge of modern secularity, but which can avoid pitfalls
offered to Jews by Jewish assimilationists, accomodationists, or sectarians.

5 In Jewish tradition, abortion is only allowable as a dispensation from a prohibition in cases where the
fetus is a direct threat to the life of its mother. See David Novak, Law and Theology in Judaism, vol. 1
(New York: KTAV, 1974) 114–24.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

Such a Jewish public philosophy that affirms the value of secularity, without succumb-
ing to secularism in its various guises, requires a society that sees itself to be multicul-
tural rather than being dominated by a single culture or denying culture altogether. An
example of such a society is Canada, even though its intellectual elites are now, for the
most part, rigidly secularist.

Canada was founded as a unique polity in 1867 by the union of predominantly English-
Protestant Upper Canada (now Ontario) and predominantly French-Catholic Lower
Canada (now Quebec). This union, formulated in the Articles of Confederation, did
not require any people to give up its cultural identity and attendant morality (that was
only required of the Aboriginal peoples, an injustice whose effects Canada is still experi-
encing). There was recognition of enough common morality between the two founding
traditions to establish a secular polity, one that looked to this consensus for its moral
warrant. Since that moral consensus is hardly limited to Protestants and Catholics
alone, it could easily be joined by groups who, for the most part, came to Canada after
1867—such as the Jews.

Canadian consensus is secular insofar as it does not look to any singular religious event
for its warrant, like the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai for Jews or the Resurrection
for Christians. Yet it is not secularist since it does not presume to create a new moral-
ity for its participants, let alone claim to create a new culture for them. The consensus
is secular without being secularist because it only deals with what is penultimate in
human existence: the maintenance of a just social order. It does not offer salvation of
any kind, whether in this world or the next. For that reason, faithful Jews—and mem-
bers of other historic faiths—can affirm the value of this society in good faith and be
loyal to its political institutions, especially its laws. People of faith do not have to check
their cultural baggage at the door of civil society before being granted admission. They
can thus practice much of their religious culture in public without worrying that a
larger secular domain will swallow them up. That, indeed, is true pluralism. The faithful
can also practice much of their morality in concert with members of other historic faith
communities whose basic morality looks very much like their own.6 That is why the
Canadian Charter of Rights and Responsibilities can begin with an affirmation of “the
supremacy of God and the rule of law,” two terms that can be taken in apposition. It
means, maximally, that a majority of Canadians can recognize a divine lawgiver stand-
ing behind the moral norms they hold in common, and that this does not require the
affirmation of any particular revelatory event. In other words, one can locate a consen-
sus on what many would call “natural law.”

6 The gradual inclusion of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs into this moral consensus belies the charge that it
represents a “Judeo-Christian” cabal trying to impose the Bible on a secular society.

S ecularit y without secularism / novak

To date, however, too much of Canadian-Jewish political advocacy has been ethnic
advocacy, rather than an affirmation of true multiculturalism. This is probably due to
Canadian-Jewish memories from the not-so-distant past of anti-Semitism coming from
both the Anglo-Protestant and Franco-Catholic communities. Nonetheless, Canadian
Jews can only affirm a multicultural secularity with others. And they can do this more
honestly and effectively with Christians when they realize that there is no official anti-
Semitism being promoted by either the Catholic or Protestant churches in Canada
(or elsewhere in the world). What is now needed is a theoretical perspective that can
make the pursuit of multicultural secularity, to which anti-religious secularism stands
in opposition, an intelligent public policy position of the Jews of Canada (and in other
democratic societies). This true multiculturalism needs to protect itself and be pro-
tected from its enemies on the right—those who reduce culture to race and thus deny
multiculturalism by proposing a policy of ethnicity for its own sake, the inevitable
conclusion of which is racism. And this true multiculturalism needs similar protection
from its enemies on the left, who attempt to replace culture with ideology.

American Religion and
European Anti-Americanism
Thomas Albert Howard

he American invasion of Iraq in 2003 roiled transatlantic relations, offering
a jarring impetus for intellectuals and policy makers to consider afresh vari-
ous social and cultural differences between Western Europe and the United
States, many of which had been wholly or partly obscured during the Cold War and its
immediate aftermath. “The war in Iraq has made the Atlantic seem wider,” the German
journalist Peter Schneider noted in a 2004 New York Times op-ed, “but in reality it has
had the effect of a magnifying glass, bringing older and more fundamental differences
between Europe and the United States into focus.” Topping Schneider’s list was what
we might call the religion factor. The United States is a deeply religious nation, he
noted, “while in Europe the process of secularization continues unabated.”1

Other European intellectuals have expressed similar, if less dispassionate, sentiments,

agitated in the extreme that the moral pitch of President Bush’s foreign policy—under-
written by a cabal of “neoconservative” intellectuals and “evangelical” electoral shock
troops—constituted no episodic phenomenon, but expressed something entrenched,
and irredeemable, in American history and culture. In part, this worry gave rise to
a spectacularly staged series of essays in Europe’s newspapers of record on May 31,
2003, spearheaded by Jürgen Habermas with the late Jacques Derrida riding shot-
gun. In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Habermas and Derrida called for a “core
Europe”—principally France, Italy, Germany, and the Benelux countries—to serve as a
“locomotive” of European integration “to counterbalance the hegemonic unilateralism
of the United States.” Besides offering policy suggestions, their essay engaged in trans-
atlantic cultural analysis, touching upon religious differences: “In European societies,

1 Peter Schneider, “Across a Great Divide,” The New York Times (12 March 2004).

Thomas Albert Howard is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Jerusalem
and Athens Forum at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. He is the author, most
recently, of Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University (2006). He
is currently working on a project entitled “American Religion in the European Mind.”

A merican religion and european anti - americanism / howard

secularization is relatively developed…. [This] has had desirable consequences for our
political culture. For us, a president who opens his daily business with public prayer...
is hard to imagine.”2

The Italian philosopher and member of the European Parliament, Gianni Vattimo,
lent a supporting voice in Italy’s La Stampa. Claiming knowledge of “something felt
in the consciousness of all Europeans,” he made clear that “our spirit differs from the
currently prevailing spirit in American society,” opining further that “our hope is that
this difference will become the inspiring principle for a political system able to bestow
on Europe the dignity and significance it deserves in world politics.” When detailing
the differences, religion, once again, came to the fore:

We [Europeans] are certainly familiar with the religious roots of North American
society…. But—[the] religiosity that characterizes the American spirit has ended
up manifesting itself as what we fear it really is: the notion that ‘God is with us,’
and the proof of it is in our economic and military superiority.3

For sociologists preoccupied with the so-called “secularization thesis,” the transatlantic
religious divide has emerged as a truism in recent scholarship. While once sociologists
held that modernity led inexorably to secularization in society, most now concede that
this is not necessarily the case: the United States is at once a thoroughly modernized
nation, indeed the paradigmatic example of modernity in many respects, and simulta-
neously awash in a sea of faith, especially when compared to most Western European

However, for scholars interested in the genealogy of European anti-Americanism, reli-

gion has received scant attention, despite being frequently invoked, almost offhandedly,
as a leading dividing factor and source of misunderstanding between Europeans and
Americans. Behind these invocatory references lies the assumption that disparaging
assessments of religiosity in the United States—not unlike those of Habermas, Derrida,
and Vattimo—emanate from a secular historical consciousness, inclined leftward politi-
cally, passing skeptical judgment on overly credulous “Yankees” slow to accept that
enlightenment and the disenchantment of the world stand or fall together.

In this essay, besides making the general point that religious differences need to be taken
more seriously by students of transatlantic relations, I want to suggest that anti-American
sentiments vis-à-vis religion are not simply a byproduct of Europe’s exceptional secular-
ism and leftist political traditions. In fact, to understand the genealogy of European

2 Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, “Unsere Erneuerung; Nach dem Krieg: Die Wiedergeburt
Europas,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (31 May 2003).
3 Gianni Vattimo, “L’unione affronta i nodi decisivi del suo sviluppo,” La Stampa (31 May 2003).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

anti-Americanism in its full historical complexity, one must actually fix one’s gaze at the
opposite end of the political spectrum, to misgivings about the United States emanating
from voices on Europe’s historical right—or, borrowing from British political parlance,
what I’ll call “the Tory imagination.” To be sure, European anti-Americanism has a
recognizable “Whiggish” aspect too, a secularist-leftist mien, but this is of more recent
provenance, nourished largely by Marxist political currents in the twentieth century
and the juggernaut of “critical theory” in the post-war transatlantic academy. However,
if we cast our glance farther back, to the nineteenth century, it becomes apparent that
most European liberals and social democrats, even those inclined to radicalism, regu-
larly lionized the United States—praising its religious voluntarism in particular—as an
example of what European nation-states should aspire to,
if only they could shake off the backlash to the French
…anti-American sentiments
Revolution and Napoleonic upheaval inaugurated by the
vis-à-vis religion are not political Restoration of 1815, the resurgent ecclesiasti-
cal establishmentarianism of this era, and the climate of
simply a byproduct of Europe’s
Romantic nostalgia in literature and the arts.
exceptional secularism and
But it was also during the post-1815 era of Restoration
leftist political traditions.
and Romanticism that lasting anti-American images and
metaphors first gained wide currency in European thought;
they have since migrated to various points on the political landscape, perhaps particu-
larly to the far left today, although repositories of an older Tory anti-Americanism have
by no means been extinguished.4 Les extrêmes se touchent, as the French say, and this is
perhaps especially true when considering anti-Americanism and the European political

After the collapse of the democratic experiment in France in the early nineteenth cen-
tury, the fledgling American republic was the only state of any size in the world to still
practice what many considered the invalidated ideas of democracy, equality, and religious
voluntarism. At this time, numerous European visitors, immigrants, and intellectuals
(many who never went abroad) sought to “explain” America to an Old World audience
seemingly insatiable in its curiosity to make sense of the upstart nation. “America was
the China of the nineteenth century,” as one scholar has put it, “described, analyzed,
promoted, and attacked in virtually every nation struggling to come to terms with new
social and political voices.”5 What had been regarded as a remote backwater of colonial
exploitation in the eighteenth century became for Europeans, virtually overnight, truly
a novus ordo seclorum, a phenomenon to be examined, a moral and political experiment
to be judged, a possible laboratory of the future, as Alexis de Tocqueville asserted.

4 C. Vann Woodward, The Old World’s New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991) 21–2,
5 Marc Pachter and Frances Wein, eds., Abroad in America: Visitors to the New Nation, 1776–1914
(Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1976) xiii.

A merican religion and european anti - americanism / howard

Tocqueville’s own assessment of the fate of religion in the United States is fairly nuanced,
but quite positive in many respects. “Upon my arrival in the United States,” run often
quoted lines from his Democracy in America,

the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention....
In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom
marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately
united and that they reigned in common over the same country.6

When coupled with tales of persecuted religious minorities finding safe haven in
America, Tocqueville’s interpretation suggests a fairly sanguine view of religious condi-
tions in the new nation.

But we should resist equating Tocqueville’s views on America with that of Europe’s
intelligentsia tout court. To the conservative imagination of the nineteenth century, the
American religious experiment and the political institutions enabling it represented a
perilous plunge into cultural confusion and social anarchy. The French arch-conserva-
tive Joseph de Maistre might well serve as the archetype of this mindset; he saw the
American and French revolutions, if not identical, as signs of profound impiety, political
hubris against divinely sanctioned traditions. Austria’s Count Metternich, the diplo-
matic architect of the post-1815 order, once opined that the American polity set “altar
against altar” and represented an abiding insult to time-tested Old World institutions.7

The Catholic Church, a pillar of the Restoration era, viewed the American experiment
through the lenses of the French Revolution and the Italian Risorgimento, both judged
to loose anarchy upon the world and drown the ceremony of innocence. When Félicité
de Lemannais, a Catholic champion of religious liberty, made his famous appeal to
Rome in 1832, he brought to the pope’s attention the example of the constitution-
al freedoms of the United States, suggesting that modern freedoms and true religion
need not be sworn enemies. The pope, Gregory XVI, was not impressed. In Mirari
vos (1832), the encyclical rebutting Lammenais, the pope condemned religious liberty,
defining it as the error “indifferentism.” From “this most foul font of indifferentism,”
the pope wrote, “flows that absurd and erroneous teaching, or rather that folly [delira-
mentum] that it is necessary to assure and guarantee to whomever it may be the liberty
of conscience.”8

6 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1, trans. Henry Reeve (New York: Knopf, 1945) 319.
7 Noted in Günter Moltmann, “Deutscher Antiamerikanismus heute und früher,” Vom Sinn der Geschichte,
ed. Otmar Franz (Stuttgart: Seewald, 1976) 92.
8 Quoted in John Noonan, The Church that Can and Cannot Change (Notre Dame: University of Notre
Dame Press, 2005) 148.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

The Catholic Church not only regarded the American experiment as deficient in its
assertion of religious freedom. As a nation founded by Calvinist separatists and har-
boring numerous Protestant emigrants from Europe, the United States represented for
some the land where the principles of the Reformation would be reduced to absurdity.
Not surprisingly, ultramontane Catholics were keen to call attention to the proliferation
of Protestant sects in the United States, depicting the new nation as a grand bedlam
of religious schism and theological charlatanism. For example, the entry on America
in a Catholic encyclopedia (1854) depicts the United States as a land of bizarre reli-
gious enthusiasms; the authors even list one non-existent sect alleged to require its
members to pluck out their right eye in literal interpretation of the biblical passage
in Matthew 5:29!9 In his History of Modern Protestantism (1858), the Catholic scholar
Joseph Edmund Jörg portrayed American society as floundering in “chaos,” resulting
from the “religious individualism” and “sectarian spirit” of Protestantism.10

La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit publication founded in Naples in 1850, emerged as a lead-

ing organ of ultramontane opinion, often exhibiting a pointedly anti-American slant.
An article from 1860, “Mormonism in its Connections with Modern Protestantism,”
penned by Cardinal Archbishop Karl August von Reisach (1800–69), is an apt case
in point. The success of Mormonism in the United States had long been a source
of bewilderment to Europe’s traditionalist imagination. In Reisach’s interpretation,
Mormonism’s rise amounted to an indictment of Protestant “religious individualism,”
to which the American republic had given free reign. He traced the malady of American
Protestantism back to colonial New England. Trying to govern society theocratically “in
a state of total reliance on the Bible,” Puritans were ultimately unable to limit individu-
als from interpreting the Bible for themselves and “thus the same foundational principle
of the Reformation naturally and necessarily caused the collapse of such a theocratic
system and caused new sects and religious societies to emerge.”11 The proliferation of
sects in the nineteenth century gave rise to conditions of religious confusion, allowing
Mormonism fertile ground to take root and, at least for many, to pass itself off as the
one true way, a safe passage from sectarianism and individualism to a secure collective
and religious certainty. But in Reisach’s view, Mormonism itself represented simply a
sect writ large, a symptom of American Protestantism, not its cure, and thereby a pow-
erful, inadvertent witness for the Catholic Church as the authentic bulwark of religious
truth and social cohesion.

9 See the entry on “America” in volume 9 of Kirchen-Lexikon: oder, Encyklopædie der katholischen Theologie
und ihrer Hilfswissenschaften, ed. Heinrich Joseph Wetzer and Benedikt Welte (Freiburg im Breisgau: Karl
Herder, 1854).
10 J. E. Jörg, Geschichte des Protestantismus in seiner neuesten Entwicklung, vol. 2 (Freiburg im Breisgau:
Herder’sche Verhandlung, 1858) 457.
11 “Il Mormonismo nelle sue attinenze col moderno Protestantismo,” La Civiltà Cattolica 6 (19 May 1860):
394. I thank Mark Noll for calling my attention to this article.

A merican religion and european anti - americanism / howard

European Catholic misgivings about the American polity continued apace during the
pontificates of Pius IX (r. 1846–78) and Leo XIII (r. 1878–1903), arguably reaching a
high watermark in the latter’s encyclical Testem benevolentiae (1899), which condemned
the so-called heresy of “Americanism” (to my knowledge, the only time a national iden-
tity has ever been associated with a heresy).12 The complex
background to this papal condemnation found its center …the hurly-burly pluralistic
of gravity in debates about American freedom and ecclesi-
astical order. Many European clergy, particularly those in ethos of American religious
France, worried that their counterparts in the United States life…elicited a skeptical,
had succumbed to the American environment of “indiffer-
entism,” in that some had advocated a church remodeled
condescending attitude…
along liberal democratic lines. Other clergy even equated
“Americanism” with the degenerate spirit of modern times itself.13 In Leo XIII’s encycli-
cal, European clergy got what they wanted, even if in a much less alarmist voice: a warn-
ing against the “Americanist” heresy. The events surrounding this controversy negatively
colored Catholic attitudes toward America until a time when Catholic thinkers such
as Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray—not to mention Vatican II’s epochal
Declaration on Religious Freedom (1965)—allowed for a more positive estimation of the
United States.

The Catholic Church, of course, had no monopoly on anti-American sentiment in the

nineteenth century. For anyone—Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, or Reformed—who
took Europe’s state-church system to be the proper state of things, the hurly-burly plu-
ralistic ethos of American religious life, with its revivals, camp meetings, and itinerant
preachers, elicited a skeptical, condescending attitude, if not one of bemusement and

The Anglicans Frances Trollope and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce exhibited such atti-
tudes. After traveling throughout the United States and residing for several years in
Ohio, Trollope published (in London) The Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832).
Her portrait of America as a nation of revivalist zealots and as a people lacking in social
refinement became a top seller in British literary circles. One cannot remain long in
the United States, she observed, “without being struck with the strange anomalies pro-
duced by its religious system…. The whole people appear to be divided into an almost
endless variety of religious factions.”14

12 See
Testem benevolentiae nostrae, “Concerning New Opinions, Virtue, Nature and Grace, with Regard to
Americanism,” encyclical of Pope Leo XIII (12 January 1899).
13 Abbé Henry Delassus, L’Américanisme et la conjuration antichrétienne (Paris: Société de Saint-Augustin,
Desclée De Brouwer et Cie, 1899).
14 Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (New York: Penguin, 1997) 84.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

Bishop Wilberforce of Oxford reached a comparable conclusion in his history of the

Episcopal Church in the United States. “Every fantastic opinion that has disturbed the
peace of Christendom,” he wrote, “has been reproduced in stranger growth on the other
side of the Atlantic. Division has grown up in all its rankness, and seeded on every side
a new crop of errors.”15 This reality, he feared, threatened to produce a generation of
theologically illiterate and schismatic individuals who in turn would “obliterate civiliza-
tion.”16 He found a modicum of comfort in that this uncivilized anarchy existed at a
safe distance from the gothic tranquility of Oxford, in the far reaches of the American

While the economic and Concerns about religious anarchy easily passed over into
broadsides against American culture and society generally.
political opportunities In his American Notes (1842), based on extensive trav-
in America were rarely els in the United States, Charles Dickens wondered how
the lack of an established church might have contributed
gainsaid, Continental religious deleteriously to American society, which he viewed as a
leaders were less sanguine cauldron of mob passions in politics, libel in the press,
and swindling in business. The American Revolution
about the effects of American had produced “a degenerate child,” he concluded, driv-
society on Old World religion ing the point home in The Life and Adventures of Martin
Chuzzlewit (1843), a 700-page novel-cum-anti-American
and culture… polemic.17 Dickens’ disparaging musings on America, far
from standing alone, fit a larger pattern of derisory com-
mentary on the United States by eminent visitors from Victorian Britain. Another
revealing example is Matthew Arnold’s Civilization in the United States (1888), in which
the apostle of high learning portrayed the United States as a country of Philistines given
to ignoble pursuits, in possession of “a defective type of religion.”18

In Continental Europe, leaders of Lutheran and Reformed communities regularly

expressed puzzlement at the religious free-for-all of the upstart nation. While the eco-
nomic and political opportunities in America were rarely gainsaid, Continental religious
leaders were less sanguine about the effects of American society on Old World religion
and culture, being transplanted across the Atlantic by waves of German immigrants
during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Philip Schaff, a Swiss-German
Reformed émigré theologian, worried, for example, that the church in America (his

15 SamuelWilberforce, A History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America (New York: Standford and
Swords, 1849) 290–1.
16 Wilberforce 291.
17 Charles Dickens, American Notes (London: Chapman and Hall, 1842) 141.
18 Matthew Arnold, Civilization in the United States, 6th ed. (Boston: DeWolfe, Friske, 1900), 140. For
additional Victorian-era criticisms of America, see Benjamin Evans Lippincott, Victorian Critics of
Democracy (New York: Octagon, 1974).

A merican religion and european anti - americanism / howard

adopted home) lacked a principle of authority and mechanism toward unity and thus
appeared destined for a career of fissiparous, obscurantist ignominy:

Tendencies, which had found no political room to unfold themselves in other

lands, wrought here without restraint.... Every theological vagabond and peddler
may drive here his bungling trade, without passport or license, and sell his false
ware at pleasure. What is to come of such confusion is not now to be seen.19

Less devout German-speaking intellectuals also expressed their misgivings about the United
States. Among them, arguably none was more influential than G. W. F. Hegel. In his
Lectures on the Philosophy of History, America occupies a marginal position. Hegel’s famous
division of the world into “three distinct world-outlooks”—Oriental, Greco-Roman, and
the Germanic—made no place for the indigenous peoples of the New World, and he
dismissed the culture of the U.S. as derivative from Europe and ultimately of negligible
importance. “America,” he wrote, “has severed itself from the ground that world’s history
has taken place until now. What has taken place in America so far is a mere echo of the
Old World, and the expression of an alien vitality.”20

To be sure, Hegel admitted that America might represent “the land of the future,” “the
land of longing for all those who are weary of the historic arsenal that is old Europe.”21
Even so, this land of longing presented for him a problem, particularly in the religious
sphere. While dismissive of traditional, creedal Christianity, Hegel was supportive of
the Prussian state church and the Ministry of Culture, which had secured for him
his influential post at the University of Berlin. To his mind, America constituted a
deficiency insofar as it lacked a strong state and a European-style ministry of culture,
which, among other things, served to check popular religious enthusiasm. From the
august Prussian capital, society across the Atlantic appeared to him a hatchery of reli-
gious misfits, isolated from the truly important currents of world history. The United
States is the land of “every sort of capriciousness,” he wrote,

This explains the proliferation of sects to the point of sheer madness…. This
total arbitrariness is such that the various communities hire and fire ministers
as they please: the church is not something that [has]…an external establish-
ment; instead, religious matters are handled according to the particular views
of the congregation. In North America, the wildest freedom of imagination

19 Philip
Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, trans. John Nevin (Chambersburg: Publication of the
German Reformed Church, 1845) 149–50.
20 G. W. F. Hegel, Werke, vol. 12 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970) 114.
21 Hegel 114.
22 Hegel 112–3.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

Such derisory preoccupation with religion and culture in the United States enjoyed a
long life in modern Continental thought—a minor, if not a major, note in the thought
of numerous intellectuals influenced by Hegel. Yet it was arguably in Hegel’s own
stomping grounds, the “mandarin” guilds of the German university system in the late
nineteenth century, that anti-American sentiment in general and contempt of American
religious life in particular, attained a stage of true virtuosity. Although no haven of reli-
gious orthodoxy, fin de siècle German academic culture, as Fritz Ringer has persuasively
argued, constituted a spiritual aristocracy of sorts, empowered by ideals of cultural
organicism, criticism of democracy, and an ethos of daunting academic accomplish-
ment. Scholars felt their collective worldview best preserved the genuine spiritual values
necessary for a deep and rich culture (Kultur), one capable of producing a Goethe,
Schiller, or Kant. By contrast, “Western” countries, and America foremost, represented
a utilitarian, shallow, mass civilization (Zivilization) that threatened to place all “spiri-
tual” (geistige) motivations and actions into the maw of purely individualistic, commer-
cial interests. “The [Anglo-American] trader,” wrote Werner Sombart after the outbreak
of World War I, “regards the whole existence of man on earth as a sum of commercial
transactions which everyone makes as favorably as possible for himself, whether with
fate or God,” adding that “the trader’s spirit molds religions in its own image too.”23
One finds similar sentiments in the writings of a wide spectrum of thinkers, such as
Oswald Spengler, Adolf von Harnack, Emil Dubois Reymond, and Eduard Spranger.
The “breathless haste” of the American, Friedrich Nietzsche had written, precociously
capturing a widespread fear, “is already beginning to infect old Europe with its ferocity
and is spreading a lack of spirituality [Geistiglosigkeit] like a blanket.”24

Max Weber’s well-known writings on American religious life reflect his milieu. While
he was less politically illiberal and anti-American than many of his peers, his writ-
ings on the “sect spirit” in American society bear witness to a distinctly pre-demo-
cratic, European disquiet toward the United States. In the famous final passages of his
Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the only nation Weber mentions by name is
the United States, the site of capitalism’s “highest development,” before wondering who
will live in this “iron cage” of the future, this site of “mechanized petrifaction, embel-
lished with a sort of convulsive sense of self-importance.” 25 In a shorter essay, “The
Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism,” written after visiting the United States in
1904, Weber expressed amazement at the high levels of church affiliation in the United
States despite the severance of church-state ties. The transference of religion from the
public to the private sphere helped account for the voluntary and “ascetic” character of

23 Quoted
in Fritz K. Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community,
1890–1933 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969) 183.
24 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1974)
25 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Scribner’s,
1958) 181 and following.

A merican religion and european anti - americanism / howard

American churches. But, in his interpretation, this asceticism only helped “put a halo
around the economic ‘individualist’ impulses of the modern capitalist ethos.”26

The German mandarin depiction of America as a religiously deformed, economi-

cally utilitarian, and culturally shallow civilization arguably reached its apogee in the
writings of Martin Heidegger and in his highly symbolic conception of America—or
Americanism—as a site of cultural catastrophe. In many respects, Heidegger is a piv-
otal and revealing figure in the story of European anti-Americanism. Growing up in
provincial Baden in southwestern Germany and once a devoted student of Catholic
theology (he sought to become a Jesuit as a young man), Heidegger had deep roots
in a rural, pre-democratic conservative religious milieu. The ponderous anti-modern,
anti-technological outlook that he developed—in, for instance, An Introduction to
Metaphysics—has exerted an estimable influence on the European left: on the existen-
tialist Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir and their successors; on
the 1960s counterculture generally; and, not least, on leaders within Germany’s Green
Party, the gold standard of contemporary leftist anti-Americanism. One also thinks of
subsequent au courant thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse (One-Dimensional Man) and
Jean Baudrillard (America), whose influence in the modern academy, on both sides of
the Atlantic, has been considerable and in whose writings the Heideggerian image of
“the American” as a history-less “mass man” or “collective man,” holding desperately to
a simple and irrational faith, emerges as an article of certainty.27

But we should not forget Heidegger himself in considering his influence. Germany, he
wrote in 1935, two years after the Nazis had seized power, “lies today in a great pincer,
squeezed by Russia on one side and America on the other. From a metaphysical point
of view, Russia and America are the same, with the same dreary technological frenzy
and the same unrestricted organization of the average mind.”28 But in 1942, as the
Holocaust was underway, he would write that Americanism is the purest and most
problematic form of modernity. “Bolshevism is only a variant of Americanism...” he
wrote, “the most dangerous shape of boundlessness, because it appears in the form of
a democratic middle-class way of life mixed with Christianity, and all this in an atmo-
sphere devoid of any sense of history.”29 “Americanism,” as he put it in yet another
formulation, “is the still unfolding and not yet full or completed metaphysical essence
of the emerging monstrousness of modern times.”30

26 H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1946) 322.
27 SeeHerbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon, 1991) and Jean Baudrillard, America,
trans. Chris Turner (Lodon: Verso, 1988). Compare with James W. Ceasar, Reconstructing America: The
Symbol of America in Modern Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997) 190.
28 Martin Heidegger, Einführung in die Metaphysik, in Gesamtausgabe, vol. 40 (Frankfurt am Main:
Klostermann, 1975) 40–1.
29 Heidegger, “Hölderlins Hymne,” in Gesamtausgabe, vol. 53 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1975) 86.
30 Martin Heidegger, Holzwege (Frankfurt: Vittoria Klostermann, 1957) 103; quoted in Ceasar 9.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

To be sure, “anti-Americanism” is a diffuse and complicated phenomenon, polygenetic

in its origins, protean in its manifestations, and diverse in possible interpretations. But,
at a minimum, it is inaccurate and simplistic to regard it as a product of “the European
left,” a secularist, progressive mindset passing judgment on a more religious, conserva-
tive one. The deepest historical currents of anti-American sentiment vis-à-vis religion
derive from the traditionalist, political right, from “the throne and altar” milieu of
reactionary, post-1815 Europe. This particular form of anti-modern conservatism—
one of established churches, social hierarchy, and cultural organicism, often expressed
by aggrieved aristocrats, bishops, clergy, and professors—is quite foreign to American
political thought, with the partial exception of Southern Agrarianism. And in Europe
today this tradition is vestigial at best (and should not be confused with more recent
nationalist and anti-immigrant right-wing voices). Even so, passionate moods of being
and thought perish reluctantly in history, especially when the truth of religion and the
social order is at stake; more often they live on in transmuted, residual, and unexpected
ways. A longer treatment would be necessary to establish this point definitively, but one
can reasonably conjecture that a rather venerable Tory condescension and contempt of
New World religiosity prowls about today ghost-like in the general (secular) European
body politic and historical consciousness, an embedded element of cultural memory.

In the final analysis, European anti-Americanism includes a significant, if often obscured,

religious dimension. One cannot properly understand its deep-seated hold on the imag-
ination if the scope of inquiry is limited to recent history and the domains of politics,
economics, and diplomacy. And it certainly transcends much-discussed single issues,
such as transatlantic differences of opinion over the death penalty, the penal system,
the welfare state, or the war on terror. Indeed, much deeper cultural and religious forces
come into play, and this requires more penetrating historical analysis, which in turn
might take one to some rather unlikely places and periods. To be sure, intellectuals such
as Habermas, Derrida, and Vattimo might have important and valid grievances with the
directions of the current administration; and these deserve open and fair discussion in
the media and political arena. But their efforts—and those of many others—to insinu-
ate a link between contemporary policy and America’s general religious identity might,
finally, tell us as much about European attitudes toward America as about America itself.
These attitudes and the long history of concerns, perceptions, and anxieties informing
them deserve more attention from students of transatlantic relations.

Islam in the West or Western
Islam? The Disconnect of
Religion and Culture1
Olivier Roy

he definitive presence of a huge Muslim population in Europe will, of course,
have long-term consequences. There is, nevertheless, some debate about the
figures of the Muslim population, partly due to imprecise data, partly due to
the difficulty of knowing who qualifies as a Muslim. Is one defined as a Muslim strictly
because of one’s choice to belong to that religious community, or is one a Muslim by
ethnic background? Beyond the demographic aspect, the fact that Islam is taking hold
in Europe seems to put into question European identity. It is clear that the rejection of
Turkey’s European Union candidature by European public opinion is largely linked to
the fact that Turkey is a Muslim country. Furthermore, the assassination of the Dutch
filmmaker Theo Van Gogh seems to have played a role in the Dutch rejection of the
European Constitution in May 2005. What does the rise of Islam in Europe entail in
terms of shared culture and values? Should we speak of “Islam in the West” as if Islam
were the bridgehead of a different culture area, or of “Western Islam” as if a European
Islam should necessarily differ from its Middle Eastern or Asian versions?

Since the late 1970s, when it became clear that the bulk of incoming immigrants would
stay in Europe, two models have shaped Western European countries’ immigration pol-
icies. The first model is called “multiculturalism” and is dominant in Northern Europe;
the second one is “assimilationism” and has been advocated by a broad spectrum of

1 This paper was first presented at the conference “Religion, Secularism, and the End of the West,” held by
the Center on Religion and Democracy and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture in Laxenburg/
Vienna, Austria, on June 3, 2005.

Olivier Roy is Research Director at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

and Lecturer at both the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and the Institut
d’Études Politiques in Paris. He is the author of numerous books, including The Failure
of Political Islam (1996), The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations (2000), and
Globalized Islam: The Search for the New Ummah (2004).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

political forces in France. This last model—an exception in a generally multiculturalist

Europe—possesses new appeal for Northern European countries (Belgium, Holland,
and Denmark). Both models presuppose what is perceived as a national and/or Western
identity, which, for the multiculturalist approach, should coexist with other cultures.
However, the assimilationist perspective assumes that the “Western” model is universal
and could integrate people from various cultural backgrounds on the condition that
they give up former identities.

Contemporary fundamentalism, At the end of the 1990s, however, both models were
widely seen as having failed, which led to an unprec-
therefore, entails a disconnect of edented convergence between the different European
religious markers from countries. Countries that did not consider themselves
immigration societies (Italy and Spain) realized recent-
cultural content. ly that, in fact, they have actually acquired a perma-
nent Muslim population—and this is a realization that
Eastern European countries will soon be having. This convergence demands a European
approach to the question of what Islam in Europe means. The same issue is, it should
be noted, addressed by some Islamic institutions in Europe (The European Council of
Fatwa, based in London, for instance).

The model of multiculturalism failed not because of the “multi” but because of the
“culturalism.” The underlying idea was that a religion is embedded into a culture (or
that any culture is based on a religion). Religious believers form a community with its
own customs, social fabric, diet, and so on, and community leaders who maintain some
sort of social control on the community. To share a faith means to share a common
culture. Such self-regulation through community leaders is portrayed in an old story
from Holland, in which the Jews expulsed from Spain and Portugal around 1600 were
granted asylum and offered hospitality, but asked to regulate their own community

The French assimilationist model failed because it initially ignored the religious dimen-
sion of immigrants’ identities, or more exactly, because it presupposed that this dimen-
sion would fade away during the process of integration. The underlying policy was
to integrate the Muslims the way the Jews had been integrated in the wake of the
French Revolution: to grant them “nothing as a community (nation), everything as
individual citizens.” But the rise of different forms of Islamic religious revival among
integrated immigrants pushed the government to acknowledge the existence of a (sup-
posedly) purely religious community (hence the creation by the state of a religious
body, the French Council of Muslim Faith, in 2002, which is in itself a break from the
Republican secular policy of laïcité).

It is clear that the way the different European countries have defined their relations with
immigrants is deeply rooted in their own history and political culture. But national
identities are in crisis at two levels: from above, due to European integration (which

I slam in the west or western islam ? / ro y

has nothing to do with Islam), and from below, due to the crisis of the “social bind” in
destitute neighborhoods (in France) or big city centers (in Holland), and the inability
of the school system to cope with these areas of social exclusion. Clearly, the focus on
Islam is, wrongly or rightly, a focus on national and/or European identity.

In fact, both immigration models have failed because they have been unable to acknowl-
edge and deal with what is at the root of the present forms of religious revivalism: the
disconnect between religion and culture. Religious fundamentalism among Muslims
in the West is not a consequence of the importation of a given original culture into
the West, but of the deculturation of Islam. Pristine cultures like Islam are in crisis, as
immigration changes the relation between migrants and the original culture. Second
and third generations tend to prefer the language of the guest country over that of their
parents’ home country, and they tend to speak better French than Arabic (when they
speak Arabic at all), English than Urdu, and even, but far more slowly, German than
Turkish. Youth tend to adopt Western urban youth sub-culture (in terms of dress, slang,
music, etc.). Fast food is more popular than traditional cuisine. Moreover, fundamen-
talism is itself a tool of deculturation. The Saudi Wahhabis reject anything close to a
“traditional” culture; they banned music, dance, novels, and non-religious poetry. The
Taliban in Afghanistan did not fight against Western influence but against the tradition-
al Afghan culture (banning music, kite-flying, singing birds, etc.). Such a rejection of
the very concept of culture appeals to a youth who feels often culturally alienated, even
if socially well-integrated. Van Gogh’s killer in Holland spoke better Dutch than Arabic
and was not reacting to the Middle Eastern conflict or to Muslim culture. He became
outraged at what he saw as blasphemy against Islam in a purely Western context.

Contemporary fundamentalism, therefore, entails a disconnect of religious markers

from cultural content. For instance, “hallal ” does not refer only to a traditional cuisine
but describes any cuisine; hence, the flourishing of hallal fast-food restaurants among
born-again Muslims in the West, but few Moroccan or Turkish traditional restaurants.
This disconnect means that the issue is not a clash of cultures between West and East
but the recasting of faith into what is seen as a “pure” religion based on isolated religious
markers. The issue for European societies is, then, how to deal with such a surge of
religious identities at a time when secularization is seen as a prerequisite for democracy
and modernity.

It is an often expressed idea that the Westernization of Islam should mean the reforma-
tion of Islam. A superficial understanding of Max Weber, who has often been misread,
leads to the conclusion that the modernity of a religion has to do with its theologi-
cal dogma. Because it supposedly does not differentiate between religion and politics,
Islam is deemed incompatible with secularization and democracy, as long as it does
not undergo a deep theological reform. Such a reasoning ignores the fact that Roman
Catholicism never underwent a deep theological reformation (because it would have
meant the triumph of Protestantism) but, nevertheless, has been able to adapt reluc-
tantly to modernism. Of course, there are “liberal” Muslim theologians who advocate

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

some sort of reformation. But, for me, this is not a prerequisite for Westernization. In
fact, Westernization is already at work, specifically in the more fundamentalist forms of
religious expression, for two reasons. First, fundamentalism entails a clear delinking of
religion and culture. And second, the new forms of religiosity are “transversal,” which is
common to Islam and Christianity. What is at stake is not religion (a set of dogma and
rituals), but religiosity (the relationship between a believer and religion). Even if the
dogmas differ, we find common forms of religiosity that explain the religious nomad-
ism of our time (people going from religion to religion while claiming to look for the
same thing).

The present forms of religiosity are based on the same patterns. There is a stress on the
individual, coupled with the crisis of religious institutions. Immediate access to the
“truth” is promised through faith, at the expense of studies. A contempt of history,
tradition, philosophy, and literature develops, as favor for a direct, personal, emotional
form of religious feeling takes precedence. And the religious community is defined not
as an already existing body (church or ummah), but as a reconstructed community of
the “chosen” by individuals. The “community” lives both in and apart from the existing

The space of the ummah is no longer a territorial one, implying a political leadership,
with a nation-state and borders. In fact, most of the neo-fundamentalist movements,
including the most radical ones, stopped discussing the “dar ul islam” (abode of Islam)
in territorial terms. They consider the ummah to be everywhere Muslims are to be
found. An interesting case is that of Hizb-ul-Tahrir, a radical (although not terrorist)
movement now based in London, which advocates the revival of the Islamic Caliphate
but simply skips the issue of its territorial basis: the Caliphate could be restored in a
very short time if every Muslim decides that it exists and pledges loyalty to it. Thus,
one can live both as a member of a specific minority group while also part of a universal

This dialectic of universalism/minority is interesting because it is to be found both in

Islam and Christianity. Although the great majority of Americans claim to be practic-
ing Christians, every church speaks about living as a minority in a decadent society
(as illustrated by the novel Left Behind, in which the “saved” are a minority).2 Even
the Catholic Church acknowledges representing a minority in Europe and advocates
closing ranks in difficult times. As much as religion tends to be disembedded from cul-
tures, churches and congregations tend to be disembedded from mainstream society (a
process clearly at work in Spain and Italy, where, until recently, Catholicism was seen
as being at the core of the national culture).

2 Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days (Carol Stream: Tyndale,

I slam in the west or western islam ? / ro y

The new dilemma for many who are born again is not how to rebuild the society on
Christian or Islamic principles, but how to live integrally with that society according
to one’s true religious tenets. “Integralism” in this sense tends to replace “fundamental-
ism,” and religious revivalism does not challenge the existing political or social order.
The brand of fundamentalism that is thriving among many second-generation Muslim
immigrants in the West is a paradoxical consequence of their own Westernization,
which means first deculturation and then the recasting of Islam as a “mere” religion.
Yet the same phenomena of deculturation and recasting could take different forms,
such as “liberal,” “mystical,” or “conservative ethical” Islam.

“Liberal Islam” means delinking the religious meaning of …many Muslims in the West
the Koran and the Sunnah from its socio-cultural and his-
torical context. Historically, it could be said that Islam was
are recasting their religious
a progression in terms of women’s conditions, compared norms in terms of Western-
to the previous period (jahiliyya or “ignorance”), but that
it nevertheless had to take into account the customs of
compatible values, but not
the time (for example, allowing polygamy without recom- necessarily on the liberal side.
mending it). If one comes back to the true spirit of the text,
then, men and women should be considered equal. The
same argument is used about the prohibition of alcohol: alcohol was banned because
people were unable to drink moderately and thus became drunk at prayer time, but
if one can drink without becoming drunk, then alcohol is permitted. Whatever the
religious validity of such assertions, they clearly contribute to making Islam Western-
compatible. It should be noted, however, that such a view is not dominant by definition
among those who are born again and represents more the “lazy” discourse of secular or
seldom-practicing Muslims when they are asked to explain their behavior.

Mystical Islam is linked with the burgeoning of Sufi orders. These brotherhoods,
whether traditional or reconstructed, are wide open to converts, once again blurring
the divide between West and East. Islamic Sufism fits here with the spread of New Age
religious communities and cults in the West.

Conservative ethical Islam is probably the dominant trend among practicing Muslims,
who could be compared to Orthodox Jews. The basic norms are taken into account,
especially the diet norms: eating hallal and fasting during Ramadan, for instance.3 But
beside this normative dimension, norms tend to be recast into values on the model
of conservative Christianity. For example, Holland. When Pym Fortuyn entered into
politics, it was to protest the declarations of a Dutch-speaking Moroccan Imam who
called homosexuals “sick people” and refused to grant them any rights as a minority

3 The fast of Ramadan is, according to polls, the most respected religious norm among French Muslims,
even before daily prayer.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

group. Fortuyn, however, was not acting in the name of traditional Western values but
in defense of the “sexual liberation” movement of the 1960s, which is largely seen by
many conservative Christians as the collapse of a society based on values and principles.
Interestingly enough, many Muslims in the West are recasting their religious norms in
terms of Western-compatible values, but not necessarily on the liberal side. They tend,
for instance, to support the anti-abortion campaign, while abortion has never been a
central issue in Muslim societies (it is usually condemned, but the ban on abortion has
never really been enforced).

The debate in the West is not between Islamic and Western values, but within the West:
What are Western values? Where is the divide between human freedom and nature (or
God)? In fact, Islam is the mirror in which Europe is looking at its own identity, but it
does not offer a new culture or new values. It expresses itself inside the present debate
on religious revivalism and secularism—but as part of the debate, not its cause.

Secularization, European
Identity, and “The End of
the West”1
Slavica Jakelić

f Europe is so uniquely secularized—as most scholars of religion, Western European
intellectuals, and U.S. conservatives seem to agree—why is its secular character so
widely and vigorously debated in the legal and political context of European inte-
gration, in the institutions of the European Union and those of the current (and future)
Union members? Many disputes and disagreements surrounded the mentioning of the
Christian heritage in the constitution of the European Union, the French decision
about the wearing of foulards, and the debates about the public role of religions in the
Netherlands, Poland, or Italy. For anyone watching—social scientists in particular—the
right thing to do is not to reiterate the too often repeated arguments about European
uniqueness but to ask: why are discussions about public religions and affirmations of
European secular heritage happening precisely now?

This question is the point of departure for a correlation I want to draw between the
insistence on the secular character of Europe, the diversification of the European reli-
gious context, the struggle to define the symbolic foundations of European identity, and
the positing of America as Europe’s Other. The usual way to understand the “Europe
versus America” phenomenon is to contextualize it in the end of the Cold War era; to
explain its source as the rise of religious conservativism in the U.S., politically affirmed
in the Bush administration; or to point out that Europe is undergoing a serious and

1 I am grateful to Charles Mathewes, Jason Varsoke, and Joshua Yates for reading and commenting on this

Slavica Jakelić is Associate Director of the Center on Religion and Democracy and
Lecturer at the University of Virginia. Her work focuses on religion, identity, and social
change. She is co-editor of Crossing Boundaries: From Syria to Slovakia (2003) and The
Future of the Study of Religion (2004), and is presently working on a book entitled Religion
as Identity: The Challenge of Collectivistic Religions in the Contemporary World.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

often disquieting quest for its geo-political and cultural boundaries. 2 The focus here
is different: the goal is to understand the place of religion within today’s European
cultural and political currents, as these factors particularly shape “the end of the West
thesis” and, moreover, the paradox bound up in this thesis.

The current context of the European Union, by which it is greatly defined as an eco-
nomic and political entity, is that of integration, enlargement, and immigration. What
comes out of these processes that bring together countries as distant and as different as
Lithuania, France, and Malta, and introduce into the heart of Western European cities
immigrants from Africa and Asia, is a crisis of European collective self-understand-
ing. During the first decades of the existence of some form of European integration
processes, economic rationale had been a dominant and, it seemed, sufficient rationale
for these processes. In post-World War II Europe, the prevalent view was that eco-
nomic cooperation guaranteed peace. But during the last several years, more and more
voices have expressed a serious worry that economy and market cannot be the founda-
tion for solidarity among different European peoples. Discussing these questions, the
working group of intellectuals and politicians organized around the Vienna Institut
für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, initiated by a former president of the European
Commission, Romano Prodi, concluded that “markets cannot produce a politically
resilient solidarity” that would result in “a genuine sense of civic community.”3 The
main concern of European intellectual and political elites has become the determina-
tion of the features—boundaries and characteristics—of European identity.

To paraphrase T. G. Ash, while the Americans are asking “What are we to do with who
we are?” Europeans are still asking “Who are we?” The European identity is anything
but defined, and steps toward definition are multiple and range widely—from a view
of European identity as a new national identity,4 to an attempt to define European
identity as a cultural identity,5 or as “something” that has been and will remain, to be
defined by “unity in plurality.” In this context, where the definition of what it means to
be European is at stake, the religious processes that define the everyday life of Europeans
and the political discourse negotiating the proper place of religion in European societies
are not the homogenizing forces that can provide the foundation for what it means to

2 For a recent succinct statement of the contextual variables surrounding the twenty-first-century notion
of the crisis of the West, see Timothy Garton Ash, Free World: America, Europe, and the Surprising Future
of the West (New York: Random House, 2004).
3 For the report of this working group, see IWM Newsletter no. 4 (Fall 2004): 86.
4 See the statement of the former French finance minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who, upon watching
the demonstrations against Bush’s war in Iraq all over Europe, declared: “On Saturday, February 15, a
new nation was born on the street. This new nation is the European nation” (Ash 46).
5 For a critique of the possibility of creating European cultural identity from different national cultures and
for a notion that the elements of “European” identity are only aspects of modernity, see Agnes Heller,
“Europe: An Epilogue,” The Idea of Europe: Problems of National and Transnational Identity, ed. Brian
Nelson, David Roberts, and Walter Veit (New York: Berg, 1992).

S E C U L A R I Z A T I O N , european identit y , and “ the end of the west ” / J akeli Ć

be European. Within the processes of integration, enlargement, and immigration in

Europe, contemporary religious developments lead not toward a unified secular desti-
nation—as many Western Europeans would like to believe and religious scholars still
prophesy—but into a religious diversification; not toward a new collective efferves-
cence, but toward new divisions.

The first and oldest component of European religious …the contemporary religious
pluralism is the difference in the levels and character of
religiosity between Catholic and Protestant countries. As developments lead not
studies clearly point out, the level of religious practices is toward a unified secular
much higher in Catholic Italy, Spain, and Ireland than in
historically Protestant Netherlands and Great Britain.6 A destination…but into a
second component is the emergence of new religious move- religious diversification…
ments with their individualistic character and “here-and-
now” spirituality.7 Both components are indigenous to
the European West. The Catholic-Protestant difference was the hallmark of European
religious history, while new religious movements are perceived by some as the result of
secularization, since the spiritual revivals that embody the sacralization of life and the
self are highly individualized and de-institutionalized religious expressions.

But neither the argument about Catholic-Protestant difference nor suggestions about
the spiritual revival of Western Europeans seriously challenge the dominant narrative
of progressive secularization within the European world. Two other processes do, how-
ever. The first phenomenon that is changing the European religious scene is Islam. As
many commentators point out, it is impossible to overemphasize the general cultural
and political impact, and the specifically religious impact, that the public presence
of Muslim believers is already generating and will continue to generate in European
societies. Currently, there are more than ten million Muslims in Western Europe.8
This number can only grow in coming decades, especially as new countries such as
Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania approach the Union. With Turkey in
the European Union, the number of Muslims within European borders would increase
by more than sixty million.

The other major, yet much less discussed, phenomenon that adds to the diversifica-
tion of the European religious scene is that of collectivistic Christianities. “Christian

6 See Grace Davie, Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates (New York: Oxford University Press,
2000) 11.
7 See Paul Heelas, “Detraditionalizing the Study of Religion,” The Future of the Study of Religion, ed. Slavica
Jakelić and Lori Pearson (Leiden: Brill, 2004) 251–73. See also Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, The
Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005).
8 See Joel S. Fetzer and J. Christopher Soper, eds., Muslims and the State in Britain, France, and Germany
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

identity” usually denotes an identity that crosses ethnic, gender, national, and class
boundaries, an identity that links the individual into a universal community of salva-
tion. However, and perhaps counter-intuitively, Christianity also developed many col-
lectivistic traditions. It is too often forgotten that in a number of cases Christianity is
constitutive, often the constitutive, element of people’s collective memory. In Orthodox
Christian churches—in Bulgarian, Russian, or Serbian Orthodox churches, to name a
few—the church as an institution and Christianity as a religious tradition have been
distinctively embedded in vernacular liturgy since medieval times. Institutionally and
symbolically often inseparable from the political establishment, these Christian church-
es are, and have long been, focal in defining the boundaries of the collective identities
of Bulgarians, Russians, and Serbs.

The other major, yet much less One can recognize collectivistic religions in the institu-
tional and historical applications of Roman Catholicism
discussed, phenomenon that as well, although the Roman Catholic Church explicitly
adds to the diversification understands itself as a universal church. Collectivistic
Catholicisms are not simply grounded in the localization
of the European religious of universal meanings or the localization of rituals, pro-
scene is that of collectivistic cesses that happen with Christianity all the time. Rather,
collectivistic Catholicisms are religious traditions and
Christianities. institutions that developed under very specific historical
contexts—such as in Poland, Ireland, or Croatia—domes-
ticating themselves most evidently with regard to the existence of a religious other.9 While
different in the extent of their institutional sovereignty, all collectivistic Christianities
have in common historically embedded meanings of Christianity.10 To be Serbian has
for centuries meant to be an Orthodox Christian, and vice versa; to be Polish has meant
to be a Catholic. Put differently, the key aspect of collectivistic Christianites is belonging
shaped by religious identification that is ascribed to individuals rather than chosen by
them, and experienced as fixed rather than as changeable. This type of identity gives to
the collectivistic Christian communities the primary meaning of primordial and only
secondary meaning of universal communities of salvation.

The collectivistic Christianities described above are now represented in the European
Union by ten million Greek Orthodox believers and thirty-eight million Polish Catholics.
Before long, collectivistic Christianities will be represented by an additional seven mil-
lion Bulgarian Orthodox Christians, about twenty-one million Romanian Orthodox

9 For a discussion of the Polish case and its specific historical context, see José Casanova, “Catholic Poland
in Post-Christian Europe,” Tr@nsit online 25 (2003) <www.iwm.at/index.php?option=com_content&ta
sk=view&id=239&Itemid=415>. For a discussion of the historical context of Croatian Catholicism, see
Slavica Jakelić, Religion as Identity, unpublished manuscript.
10 The Eastern Orthodox collectivistic Christianities are autocephalous national churches, while the
Catholic Churches belong under the jurisdiction of the Pope.

S E C U L A R I Z A T I O N , european identit y , and “ the end of the west ” / J akeli Ć

Christians, and four million Roman Catholic Croats. Students of religion usually per-
ceive these Christianities as something that connects the Old and New Europe—not as
something that further complicates the European religious scene. Most social scientists
suggest that collectivistic Christianities are suffering the same enervation as Western
European Christianity. Studies of religion and religious institutions in post-Communist
societies—where collectivistic Christianities are primarily located—seem to show that
the “commitment to the Church” and “the level of religious practice” are generally
lower than they were during the Communist period, even “as low today as in the most
secularized Western European societies.”11

In addition, social scientists regularly study collectivistic Christianities under the title
of “religious nationalism.” Such a conceptualization contains an inherent assumption
that Christianity is secularized because it is linked to nationalism and results in an inter-
pretation of Christianity as epiphenomenal to nationalism.12 Due to this approach,
what gets overlooked is the rootedness of a people’s collective self-understanding in
Christianity and the historical processes of that collective identification that long pre-
cede the age of modern nationalisms.

In order to understand that collectivistic Christianities are a significant religious force

operating in Europe, and in order to understand what these Christianities may do for
the European Union, one needs to appreciate their key aspect: belonging. This belong-
ing is specific, historically embedded, and—something that collectivistic Christianities
share with Islam—public. Even when this belonging is without believing, as social
scientists triumphantly declare, it has a different character than in Western European
Christianity: it is rarely private and it is rarely de-institutionalized.

To be sure, the argument about the strength and potential of collectivistic Christianities
could be relativized if one is to follow the only unquestioned paradigm that has remained
from the old theory of secularization: that the march of secularization is unstoppable
whenever Europe is in question. Then, the claim could be made that even if the col-
lectivistic Christianities are now public and highly institutionalized, they will become
less so when they become integrated into the European world.13 In Europe, as the argu-
ment regularly goes, secularization begins with modernization and always ultimately
ends in secularization.

But this thesis about European secular exceptionalism, just like the old theory of secu-
larization, has an inherent teleological quality to it, and as such must be re-assessed in

11 See Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart quoting Irena Borowik in Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics
Worldwide (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004) 113.
12 On the treatment of religion as an epiphenomenon, see David Martin, “The Secularization Issue: Prospect
and Retrospect,” British Journal of Sociology 42.3 (September 1991): 465–74.
13 My thanks to Joshua Yates for pointing this out to me.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

the face of the specific historical moment.14 Today, different religious traditions—col-
lectivistic Christianities and Islam—present a challenge to the idea of Europe as defined
by Western European, post-Christian civilization and the secular foundations of con-
temporary European democracies. These traditions may present this challenge for very
different reasons, but they nevertheless share this agenda. Both Muslims in Europe and
Europe’s “new” Christians have a public character.15 They are very much the internal
European religious Others. They are also numerous enough to make the establishment
of secularism as a common legacy and foundation of identity for all Europeans rather
difficult. And, I suspect, Muslims and these “new Christians” would want their places
at the table where the elements of Europeans’ collective memory are to be defined.16

Put differently, Europeans today are making intellectual and political efforts to forge
their identity by creating the symbolic and cultural foundations of their political com-
munity. The questions surrounding religion and secularism can hardly be separated from
this European quest for self. Islam’s immediate presence in most European societies, as
some have pointed out, makes defining Islam as Europe’s religious Other a catastrophic
move.17 The “end of the West” thesis, which defines America as that Other, appears a
better option. In a situation in which Europe is experiencing the diversification of its
religious landscape—quite opposite to the dominant view that Europe is both secular-
ized and secularizing—American religiousness emerges as the ideal opposite pole to
Western European secularism, because it enables Europeans to reaffirm their secular
identity around that opposition rather than against occurring religious pluralization.
Stated succinctly, while Europeans need some Other to define themselves, they need
the American Other to unify themselves.

And here is the paradox related to this dominant view of European secularism, the
view so constitutive of the “end of the West thesis.” In essentializing the differences
between European and American religious past and present, what is being neglected
are the circumstances—historical sources and structural legacies in a relationship with
contemporary developments—that shape the current America’s religious Otherness. In
insisting that America is the religious Other to Europe, Western European elites, reli-
gious scholars, and social scientists miss that the European religious scene today is not

14 On the teleological feature of the secularization thesis, see Casanova.

15 Another group that constitutes Europe’s “new Christians” and that needs to be at least mentioned here is
African immigrants who, as Philip Jenkins argues, represent the future of Christianity in Western Europe;
see Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2002). Their presence in Europe supports the claim about the diversification of the European religious
16 On the relationship between religion, memory, and European identity, see Davie 2. For an important
systematic discussion of this relationship, see Danièle Hervieu-Léger, Religion as a Chain of Memory (New
Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000).
17 See
Tony Judt, “Europe vs. America,” The New York Review of Books 52.2 (10 February 2005) <www.

S E C U L A R I Z A T I O N , european identit y , and “ the end of the west ” / J akeli Ć

very different from that of America. It is much less secular than many think, and it is
increasingly pluralistic religiously.

For Europeans, for their elites and their citizens, disregarding religious pluralization
would be a serious misstep in fully grasping the magnitude and political implications of
their own religious differences. The short-term consequence of such an oversight might
be the imposition of secularism as a defining element in the identity of all Europeans,
old and new. In the long run, however, the price for finding European Others in reli-
gious America and thereby affirming a secular European identity could be too high for
Europe itself, since the accompanying failure to address religious differences is nothing
short of dangerous for any contemporary political community, especially the one that
is now being created.

Islam in European Publics:
Secularism and Religious
Nilüfer Göle

he European nations are witnessing unprecedented forms of encounter with
Islam. The claims of new generations of migrant Muslims within European
nation-states, but also the Turkish claim for membership in the European
Union, raise a series of public debates, which particularly focus on the presence of
Muslims in Europe, and generally address Western cultural values of democracy. Europe
(meaning both European nations and the European Union) becomes a central site for
this encounter. Furthermore, the Europe-based controversies have spread into other
publics and provoked conflicts at a global scale. The cartoon controversy, for example—
the publication of cartoons on Islam and the Prophet in a Danish right-wing newspaper
created a debate on the relation between freedom of expression and religious tolerance
at the European scale, but provoked anger and protestation in the Middle East, expand-
ing the debate to other Muslim publics, including Indonesia and Pakistan.

The “old” Europe is being transformed by its encounter with contemporary Islam—an
Islam that is reappropriated, interpreted, and revitalized in political and cultural terms
by a new generation of Muslim actors. I am not, therefore, referring to Islam as a
distinct and separate civilization, but as an idiom that provides a source for the redefi-
nition of collective identity and self-affirmation of Muslims in modern contexts. By
Islam, I refer to the ways in which Muslims interpret and perform religious faith in their
individual and collective agencies. It is most often among the members of social groups

1 This paper was adapted from a presentation at the conference “Religion, Secularism, and the End of the
West,” held by the Center on Religion and Democracy and Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture in
Laxenburg/Vienna, Austria, on June 3, 2005.

Nilüfer Göle is a professor of sociology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences
Sociales in Paris. She works on the new configuration between Islam and modernity,
and in particular on the emergence of new Muslim figures and practices in the public
sphere. She is the author of The Forbidden Modern: Veiling and Civilization (1996) and
Interpénetrations: L’Islam et l’Europe (2005).

I slam in E uropean P ublics / G ö le

who have been uprooted, who have moved from little towns to urban cities, or who
have crossed national frontiers and migrated to European centers to find new opportu-
nities of work, education, and life, that we observe the return to Islam. Contemporary
Islam and its revival is closely related to the social mobility of Muslim groups. Their
entry into life spheres of modernity in general, and to European societies in particular,
activates a political return to Islam. Consequently, contemporary Islam is the outcome
of a conflictual conversation with the premises of modernity. We need to privilege the
description of the zones of contact, interaction, and friction between Islam and Europe.
One can rightly object to these terms, since one cannot contrast a religion to a historical
and geographical entity, on the one hand, and since Muslims are co-creating Europe, on
the other. Yet the terms capture the tension between the two players as their relationship
is shaped and expressed publicly. The nature of relations between Islam and Europe is
not that of an encounter between two distinct and separate civilizations, but on the
contrary, is wrought by proximity and interaction between the two. The public sphere
is the site where the two-way, transversal, and conflictual aspects of the relation between
Europe and Islam take place.

Islam is carried into public debates in Europe foremost by the religious claims of a new
generation of Muslim migrants. Third-generation, young Muslims are distanced from
their national cultures of origin and are more integrated than the previous generation
into the culture of their host countries. Young Turkish migrants speak German, the
Arab-origin Muslim migrants are instructed in French public schools, and both groups
claim their French, German, or European citizenship. However, distancing oneself from
one’s country of origin and integration into one’s host country do not necessarily imply
assimilation to the cultural values of Europe. By means of reference to Islam, European
Muslims of this new generation claim their religious difference as a source of self-affir-
mation but also as a source of social distinction and cultural confrontation with the
European values of self and democracy. In making their religious difference visible to
the European public eye, this newer generation engenders a series of public controver-
sies on the place of religion and Islam in European democracies.

The question of gender in particular disturbs and becomes a prominent issue of dispute
in this encounter. The “headscarf issue,” carried by female members of the new genera-
tion of migrants in the French public schools, illustrates the ways in which the irruption
of Islamic symbols in French public schools has triggered a nation-wide debate, not
only on gender equality, but also on the French Republican notion of laïcité. The assass-
ination of the Dutch intellectual Theo Van Gogh for a film he had produced with Hirsi
Ali on Muslim women’s submission, and the debate that followed in the Netherlands,
have also brought to public attention the divide between those who defend equal-
ity between the sexes, individual freedom, and liberty of expression (Van Gogh) and
those who define their identity in reference to Islamic values and religious faith (Van
Gogh’s assassin). In light of these examples, one can suggest that the questions raised
by the presence of the immigrant Muslim population in Europe do not merely concern
Muslims, but all European citizens and become part of a general and societal debate on

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

the cultural values of democracy. In this respect, the question of immigration becomes
progressively a question that is perceived and framed in terms of religion, and specifi-
cally in terms of a religious and Islamic presence in Europe. The semantic change in
naming this immigrant population indicates this shift as well; rather than putting the
accent on the social qualification, such as “the migrant worker,” or on the national one,
such as “Turks” in Germany or “Algerians” in France, or using the more general cultural
attribute, such as “Arabs,” the religious attribute “Muslims in Europe” becomes widely
used, if not over-determinate.

The discourse of integration therefore does not fully capture the changing nature of
relations between European nations and Muslim migrants. The politics of integration
supposes a predetermined frame of social institutions and public values to which the
newcomers are expected to conform and assimilate. On the one hand, the established
system and values are not fixed, but are in the process of being transformed by the
entrance of new actors, groups, and idioms on the public scene. On the other hand,
both French Republicanism and Dutch multiculturalism, as two different forms of
integration, fall short of providing a successful frame for rethinking Islamic difference
in European democracies. The French model of Republicanism promises equality of
universal rights for individual citizens; but the voluntary secular “blindness” to religious
difference and the fear of communitarian twists (seen as an Anglo-Saxon and American
model to be avoided) risk leading to a politics of denial, where ethnic, cultural, and
religious differences disappear, or where authoritarian attitudes towards Muslims mani-
fest themselves. Multiculturalism, on the other hand, recognizes cultural pluralism and
furthermore enhances a politics of difference, encouraging identity politics, but in the
absence of a common frame of communication, interaction then turns into cultural
avoidance. In this respect, both multiculturalism and universalism present two opposite
sides of the same coin: both cultural avoidance and political denial end up with the rela-
tive failure of the integration of Muslims into Europe. My point here is not to engage
in a debate on the issue of multiculturalism, but to introduce a reservation for those
who condemn French universalism with the comfortable certainty that multicultural-
ism is the solution. One should recall that the two European countries that have voted
against the referendum for the European constitution are France and the Netherlands.
In spite of their strong traditions of Republicanism and multiculturalism, respectively,
the two countries joined each other in defending their “national” cultural particulari-
ties against what they have perceived as a threat, whether it is defined as neo-liberalism,
global economics, or Islamic values. However, I have to add as well that the political
discourse on multiculturalism in Europe and the academic discourse of cultural rela-
tivism and postmodernity came to a halt, if not faded away altogether, in reaction to
Islam, whereas Republican values and politics have seen revitalization in the French
society of the last few years.

Carried into the forefront of public debate in Europe not only by new claims of Muslim
minority groups, but also by means of Muslim-majority Turkey’s claims for member-
ship in the European Union, Islam enters into the public life of European countries

I slam in E uropean P ublics / G ö le

setting a new public and political agenda. The controversy over Turkish membership
in the European Union became a common preoccupation for European citizens and
provoked a debate on the cultural and spiritual origins of European identity. Turkey
presents herself as a secular Republican state—though she does not acknowledge a full
separation between the state and religion, and attempts, on the contrary, to maintain
state control over religion—and entails some commonalities with French laïcité: the
principle of secularism was declared in the 1937 Constitution (compared to 1946 in
France), and Turkey demonstrates a notion of laïcité (including the notion itself ) in the
regulation of public life, forbidding religious symbols and organizations from public
schools and institutions. Turkey’s ban of the Islamic headscarf from universities has
provoked a nation-wide political debate since the post-1980 period. Turkey has been
widely discussed in France—yet not in relation to secularism and Islam, but as the
Other. The self-definition of Europeans needs difference to define itself against, whether
this difference is defined in terms of geographic frontiers, cultural differences, or reli-
gious belief. Thus, a civilizational discord underpins the public discourse, and thereby
transmits a feeling of reserve, if not reticence, in regard to Muslim Turkey’s entrance.
The Turkish candidacy has been a catalyst in revitalizing the debate on Europe and its
identity, ironically evoking a reminder of the tacit equation between Europe’s Christian
religious heritage and values and European identity.2

The encounter between Europe and Islam calls for a critical re-examination of the
coupled academic notions and their articulations that have accompanied this trans-
formative process: European identity and project; the West and modernity; faith and
identity; and lastly, laïcité and secularization.

Europe as an Identity or as a Project?

Islamic difference in Europe raises a major question regarding the future and definition
of the European Union. Europe is made of diverse nation-states, but the European
Union aims at a transnational unity beyond the nation-states and offers a new political
frame for democratic rights and freedoms. Whether Europe will be defined as a par-
ticularistic identity or as a political project becomes a crucial question; for European
citizens, there is no hiatus between the two. But the presence of Muslims reveals a ten-
sion between these two notions, because the definition of Europe as a particularistic
(Christian) identity does not facilitate the creation of hyphenated identities between
Europe and Islam. As Europeans turn towards the defense of their identity and cultural
heritage, the European project suffers in its claims for pluralism. In other words, to the
extent that European heritage becomes a source for the essentialization of European
identity it undermines the universalistic claims of the project.

2 This equation became more than tacit in the European Constitution debates, when reference to God and
to the Christian heritage in the European Constitution was claimed by some European countries and
rejected in the end by France-led secular European nations.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

The End of the West?

The “end of the West” can be understood as a difficulty in identifying the project of
modernity with the West. First, the fractures between the two Wests, European and
American, become more apparent. Second, there is a divorce between the Western
experience of modernity and its claims for universalism, namely the validity of the
Western model of modernity in every cultural and historical context. The experience of
modernity spread to peoples, regions, and cultures beyond the European and American
context. This testifies to the success of the project, and such testimony lends itself to
universal claims: modernity’s meanings will not be bound to a given particularistic reli-
gion, culture, or location. Yet the non-Western habitations of modernity are not copies
of European and American models, and take different forms, twists, and interpreta-
tions. Hence, to embrace these different modernity narratives, the equation between
Europe and civilization, between the West and the universal, becomes problematic;
deconstruction of the Western universal is underway.

In a way, the Western experience of modernity suffers from its own success. The seman-
tic shift in the self-presentation of the West illustrates this change as well. The European
experience of modernity was identified with a universal “civilization” and not with a
particular culture and religion. The debate over the notions of “civilization” and “kul-
tur” that divided the French and German peoples during the nineteenth century ended
with the victory of “civilization” over “kultur.” Today, however, the way the notion of
civilization is used to underline Western cultural difference makes its meaning closer
to the German kultur.

Faith and Identity

Religious faith has lost its institutional representative power but, as seen in younger
Muslim generations, is becoming a new source for the definition of personal and col-
lective identity. Islamic radicalism is not in continuation with religious orthodoxy, but,
on the contrary, offers a new interpretation of religious texts in the light of criticism
addressed to the modern world. We speak of the politicization of Islam to the extent
that religious faith is turned into a public and collective identity; contemporary Islam
voices a new articulation between religious faith and collective identity. We can put it
the other way round as well: for a pious Muslim, religion is a matter of faith, not force-
fully an identity. One is born into a given religion, and one becomes a pious person by
learning norms, rituals, and traditions transmitted by family members, or by belonging
to religious communities. Whereas one becomes an Islamist as a personal and collective
choice—this is the politicization of Islam—one learns to become Islamic by means of
a learning process and performative practices.

I slam in E uropean P ublics / G ö le

Laïcité and Secularization

The principle of laïcité is searching for ways of adaptation to the presence of Muslim
migrants. The establishment of a representative council for the Muslim population
(Conseil Français de la Culte Musulmane) marked a moment of public recognition for
Islam as the second largest religion in France and a step toward creating a “French Islam.”
The legislation to ban ostentatious religious signs, and in particular the headscarf from
the public schools, expressed firmly the French commitment to the principle of laïcité,
but also testified that the “Islamic veiling” is not confined to a Muslim nation, or to the
Middle East region, but has also become an issue for the French public.

The principle of laïcité and the process of secularization are not interchangeable; the first
is defined in relation to state will and legislation, whereas the latter describes a long-term
process of the marginalization of religion, its privatization, and the “disenchantment” of
modern daily life. The principle of laïcité was thought to be a “French exceptionalism”
and therefore limited in its scope, whereas the process of secularization was depicted
to be a universal trait of modernization. However, religious references in the regulation
of matters concerning gender, life and death, and “bio-politics”—same-sex marriage,
abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering and the critique of Darwinism—all illustrate
cleavages between secular and religious sets of values (Muslim as well as Christian)
in shaping modern life. In the contemporary context, religion enters into the public
domain and competes with the process of secularization. It might be fruitful to rethink
the principle of laïcité as a single secular law, providing a consensual judicial frame in
a pluralistic context.

The confrontation between Islam and the West is not a confrontation between two
different civilizations, or religions, but a confrontation between two different sets of
cultural values, two different orientations toward modernity. Europe is becoming a
central site where the conflictual encounter between these orientations, as embodied by
Muslims and Europeans, is taking place, and public debates over Western definitions
of self and society are intensifying. It is not in terms of two distinct entities—Islam and
Europe—but in terms of zones of contact, interactions, and interpenetrations that one
can frame the nature of this confrontation.3 The emergence of Islam in the European
publics provokes a two-way relation that transforms not only Muslims and Europeans,
but also the whole European project. Issues related to faith, religion, and secularism
become decisive in debates on the values of modernity, in which we are witnessing the
end of Western hegemony on the definitions of values of modernity. However, such a
divorce between the West and the experience of modernity might undermine the latter
as well.

3 Nilüfer Göle, Interpenetrations: l’islam et l’europe (Paris: Galaade, 2005).

rep o rt fr o m t h e fiel d

Secularization in the Global

South: The Case of Ethiopia
Wilson N. Brissett

While the academic debate over the validity of the theory of secularization continues
in American and British universities, it must be remembered that secularization theory
also exerts a very practical influence in places quite distant from the sacred halls of the
Ivy League and Oxbridge. In colonial and postcolonial contexts, its influence has rarely
been other than pernicious. The marriage of secularization and modernization theories
in the social sciences produced a great deal of useful, if still controversial, analysis of
modernity in Western societies. In the global South, however, the union served, more
often than not, to legitimate authoritarian ideologies of progress that, through the
militant socialism of the 1960s and 1970s, extended the destructive logic of cultural
paternalism beyond the fall of the colonial regimes and into the era of de-colonization.
And while socialist states in Africa and Latin America fell like dominoes through the
1990s, the toxic cultural impact of the militant socialist appropriation of secularization
theory remains thick in the atmosphere. If European and North American audiences
have become thoroughly aware of our complicity in the resource problems that plague
the global South, we have yet to consider fully the enduring, corrosive influence of the
political uses of our social science theories.

The experience of Ethiopia across the twentieth century crystallizes with terrible clarity
the ravages of secularization theory in the global South. Here we see how the classic
theory’s guiding assumption—that the process of modernization requires a dismissal
of any traditional religious commitments that do not comport with a scientific, natu-
ralistic, enlightened worldview—opened the door to the tragic cycle of violence that
dominated twentieth-century Ethiopia and shows few signs at present of receding into
a more just social and political equilibrium.

Wilson N. Brissett is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University

of Virginia and a dissertation fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.
His dissertation is entitled Beauty among the Puritans: The Cultural Aesthetic of Early New
England. He conducted research in Ethiopia in the summer of 2005.

S E C U L A R I Z A T I O N in the global south / B rissett

© Kate Hundley, 2005

Ethiopia, dominated in the first half of the twentieth century by the personage of
Emperor Haile Selassie, entered the League of Nations, and acquired the status of
African golden child among the Western powers after Selassie famously abolished slav-
ery in the 1920s. Despite advances in modern infrastructure and Western education,
however, Ethiopian intellectuals became impatient with the slow pace of reform, and
the Emperor’s regime was overthrown in 1974 by a self-identified Marxist-Leninist mil-
itary junta, later known as the Derg. The Derg ruled the country with an iron fist and
an indifference to the sanctity of life. Lamin Sanneh has shown that, in this authoritar-
ian environment, resistance was not cheap for those who managed to maintain it:

The story of what happened in Ethiopia may stand as an object lesson for all
concerned. Shortly after he came to power in 1974, Mengistu Haile Mariam,
styling himself after Lenin, unleashed what has come to be called the reign of
Red Terror that engulfed the monarchy and the church. In 1977 and 1978
alone, the regime killed half a million people, according to reports by Amnesty

The Derg was displaced in its turn in 1991 through the military collaboration of the
Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary
Democratic Front (EPRDF). EPRDF became the ruling party, known as Ehadig, under

1 Lamin Sanneh, “Conclusion: The Current Transformation of Christianity,” The Changing Face of
Christianity: Africa, the West, and the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) 216.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

the new constitution and immediately announced a doctrine of democracy and liber-
alization. Despite these stated ideals, and despite once again paving Ethiopia’s way into
favor with the West, Ehadig has retained its control of political power since 1991 by
manipulating elections. Most recently, in June 2005, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
preserved his place at the head of state by crushing opposition protests to the tune of
nearly seventy dead and hundreds imprisoned.

The dominant interpretation of what went wrong in Ethiopia often focuses narrowly on
problems of material circumstances—economic inequality, the seeming intractability
of the configuration of global power, the need for land policy reform—to the neglect
of equally significant cultural factors that address the less visible realm of moral order.
This pattern holds true even within the more personal regis-
ter of Nega Mezlekia’s English-language memoir, Notes from
The materialist account
the Hyena’s Belly, which recounts his experiences in Ethiopia
of the political tragedy of during the revolutionary era.2 Mezlekia’s book is an artful
narrative that weaves together traditional wisdom, Orthodox
modern Ethiopia is finally
ritual, and reports of historical brutality—all delivered with
as insufficient in explanatory a terrible irony that seeks desperately to claim some min-
ute comic distance from realities that otherwise threaten to
power for the past as it is
swallow the speaker in silence altogether.
impotent to heal the deep
If ironic distance provides one strategy for keeping existen-
cultural fissures…
tial annihilation at bay, the revelation of truth through sheer
fact offers another. Mezlekia fights against the darkness by
uncovering the wretched material situations that produced so much horror in revo-
lutionary Ethiopia. Near the end of Notes, after Mezlekia has escaped to Canada, his
reaction to the overthrow of the Derg indicates the helplessness Mezlekia feels in the
face of history, even as he has offered compelling economic, agricultural, and political
explanations of the path that led to Ethiopia’s autocratic political fate:

In 1991, the military junta that had ruled Ethiopia for over a decade was finally
deposed by one of the guerrilla movements. I did not break open a bottle of
champagne to celebrate the occasion, because by then I’d realized that what had
happened in Ethiopia was not exceptional. To varying degrees, it had happened
all over sunny Africa, and still does.3

Mezlekia demonstrates what he is not able to articulate: the materialist account of the
political tragedy of modern Ethiopia is finally as insufficient in explanatory power for
the past as it is impotent to heal the deep cultural fissures that shape the current social
and political morass.

2 Nega Mezlekia, Notes from the Hyena’s Belly (New York: Picador USA, 2002).
3 Mezlekia 351.

S E C U L A R I Z A T I O N in the global south / B rissett

Ethiopian Konjo Collection
© Marie Claire Andrea, 2005

While most commentators on this sordid history have, like Mezlekia, emphasized the
material roots of Ethiopia’s troubles, Ethiopian philosopher Messay Kebede has steadily
offered an interpretation that focuses instead on the indoctrination of Ethiopia’s intel-
lectual elites in Western social theories that paired secularization with modernization
and taught that the way of progress was to be achieved only at the cost of absolute
retreat from backward native traditions. The door to the auto-genocidal Derg days was
flung open, Kebede argues, during the time of the Emperor’s love affair with Western
education. Once reform proved powerless, the intelligentsia—those who had bitten
hard at the notion that the prosperous future was a secular future liberated from the
oppression of tradition—were ripe for the acceptance of the messianic political doctrine
of Marxism-Leninism.

Claiming scientific authority that legitimated any means of revolutionary establishment,

the Marxist Derg forced the transition to secular modernity that appeared stalled in the
evolutionary process. Despite Ethiopia’s grand history of repelling military invaders, a
more sinister brand of colonial influence in the form of an indigenous, culture-slay-

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

© J. Jessup, 2005

ing secularization model produced a Westernized native regime as deadly, and perhaps
more pernicious, to itself than any foreign occupier could have been.4 The political-
scientific doctrine of messianic Marxism-Leninism provided no deeper soil in which
to sow a new Ethiopian political culture than a fanatical dedication to the revolution
itself. Once nationalism was emptied of its traditionalist content, the best way to prove
oneself a patriot was to display an enthusiasm for the revolution. In the context of this
zealous one-upmanship, the wholesale murder of the Red Terror was countenanced by
its perpetrators as the ultimate loyalty to the homeland.

In Ethiopia, those who were most able to resist the tide of the tyrannical socialist state,
Kebede remembers, were those who clung to aspects of traditional Ethiopian life—in
this case the ancient, nationalist Orthodox Church:

People of my generation offered the greatest resistance to Marxism when they

remained faithful to Orthodox Christianity. Let us admit it, the story of the
spread of Marxist-Leninist views among the young of the 60s and 70s is the
story of Westernized Ethiopians who, having walked away from the traditional
beliefs of their people under the impact of Western ideas, were craving for a

4 Messay Kebede, “Marxism-Leninism and Ethnicity as the Two Stages of Ethiopian Elitism—Part I,”
Addis Tribune (19 October 2001) <www.addistribune.com/Archives/2001/10/19-10-01/Marxism.htm>.
See also Kebede, “Guilt and Atonement: The Genesis of Revolutionary Spirit in Ethiopia,” Addis Tribune
(6 August 2004) <www.addistribune.com/Archives/2004/08/06-08-04/Guilt.htm>.
5 Kebede, “Guilt and Atonement.”

S E C U L A R I Z A T I O N in the global south / B rissett

The experience of Ethiopia may be emblematic for the broader Marxist-impacted

global South. If so, it seems secularization theory ended up, as often as not, serving
as the handmaiden of ruthless politicians set adrift by the corrosive cultural influence
of Western imperial powers. Those who found voices to oppose such rank abuses of
authority often did so by drawing from the same traditional cultural resources the
native usurpers sought to abolish. They often lost their lives in the struggle. In light
of their courage, however, Kebede conceives of the possibility of a re-modernization
of Ethiopia in which habits of mind and heart are shaped by a dynamic that preserves
traditional Ethiopian culture as it seeks to come to grips with the realities of a modern
economic and political world.6 As Kebede’s work suggests a new path for Ethiopian cul-
tural analysis and development, though, it also offers unspoken reflections on European
and American approaches to Africa: the constituent nations of the West have worked
out modern cultural systems within the (now distant but yet discernable) frameworks
of their own native traditional beliefs; perhaps Africa should be granted the elbow room
to do the same in developing societies that respond to postmodernity on different, and
quite possibly better, terms than those that have guided the West.

6 His most elaborate formulation of this vision is laid out in Survival and Modernization, Ethiopia’s
Enigmatic Present: A Philosophical Discourse (Lawrence: Red Sea, 1999), where he also indicates the
significant place of traditional Islam in shaping a new Ethiopian modernity.


An Interview with Peter Berger

Charles T. Mathewes

You’re known for arguing, most notably in The Sacred Canopy in the 1960s, for a
theory of secularization and then for renouncing that theory in the 1990s. What are
the distinctively modern characteristics of how religion is lived today?

You’re right, of course, that I changed my mind over the years. It wasn’t a dramatic
change—it happened in stages, and it wasn’t due to any change in theological or philo-
sophical position. It was basically the weight of evidence, as I think a social scientist
should base his theories on evidence. Much earlier than the 90s—I would say by the
late 70s or early 80s—most, but not all, sociologists of religion came to agree that
the original secularization thesis was untenable in its basic form, which simply said
modernization and secularization are necessarily correlated developments. I followed
most people in the field; I went through the same process of rethinking. There are
some people who didn’t follow, and there are still some today. Steve Bruce in Britain is
a heroic upholder of the old theory, which I greatly respect. He’s a very intelligent and
likable fellow, and there are a few others.

If I look at my early work, I think I made one basic mistake intellectually—leaving aside
the question of data and empirical evidence—and that was to conflate two phenomena
that are related but quite distinct: secularization and pluralization. Today you cannot
plausibly maintain that modernity necessarily leads to secularization: it may—and it does
in certain parts of the world among certain groups of people—but not necessarily.

Peter L. Berger is Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at
Boston University. A leading scholar on secularization theory, he has written numerous
books on sociological theory and the sociology of religion, most notably The Sacred
Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967) and the edited volume The
Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (1999). His most
recent book is Questions of Faith: A Skeptical Affirmation of Christianity (2003).

Charles T. Mathewes is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of

Virginia. He has published several books and is Editor of the Journal of the American
Academy of Religion.

berger interview

On the other hand, I would argue that modernity very likely, but not inevitably, leads
to pluralism, to a pluralization of worldviews, values, etc., including religion, and I
think one can show why that is. It’s not a mysterious process. It has to do with certain
structural changes and their effects on human institutions and human consciousness. I
would simply define pluralism as the coexistence in the society of different worldviews
and value systems under conditions of civic peace and under conditions where people
interact with each other. Pluralism and the multiplication of choices, the necessity to
choose, don’t have to lead to secular choices. They can lead to religious choices—the
rise of fundamentalism in various forms, for example—but they change the character of
how religion is both maintained institutionally and in human consciousness.

What I did not understand when I started out—my God, it’s now almost forty years
ago—is that what has changed is not necessarily the what of belief but the how of belief.
Someone can come out with an orthodox Catholic statement of belief—“I believe
everything that the Pope would approve of ”—but how that person believes is different.
What pluralism and its social and psychological dynamics bring about is that certainty
becomes more difficult to attain. That’s what I mean by the how of belief. It’s more
vulnerable. The what can be inherently unchanged, but the how is different, and I think
the difference is that certainty becomes more difficult to attain or can only be attained
through a very wrenching process, of which fundamentalism is the main expression.

Might certainty itself be a modern concept? With the experience of Muslims and
Christians living side by side in medieval Sicily, for example, the other people’s reli-
gion would not be a live option for them. They lived in pluralist settings, yet the ques-
tion of certainty did not arise because their religious beliefs were so fundamentally in
their background that it was unthinkable perhaps for these people to translate in this
way. This is what I took to be the insight of your book The Heretical Imperative—the
idea that modernity makes us all “foreground” our beliefs. Given that, would cer-
tainty have been a question for a twelfth-century Sicilian peasant?

I’m not a historian, but my hunch is that pluralism the way I’ve defined it is not a
uniquely modern phenomenon. So I’m not saying that pluralism is uniquely modern,
but I think modernization has intensified this phenomenon both in depth and in scope,
and in scope it’s enormous. I mean, it’s almost worldwide.

I’m sure there are peasants in Indian villages who are no more pluralistic than people
were two hundred years ago in those localities, but they’re becoming rare, and with
mass education and mass communications of one sort or another, pluralism has become
a worldwide phenomenon. It flourished in the religious sense for obvious reasons. It
flourishes particularly in societies in which there is religious freedom, where everyone
has the right to proclaim their messages to each other. But even in societies where the
government tries to limit its effect, it happens anyway. In places like Russia, which are
mildly repressive of various religious groups, it happens anyway, and it’s very difficult
to stop as long as the society’s modernizing.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

What aspects of the modernization process accentuate, intensify, and expand the
scope of pluralism?

Urbanization, which inevitably means that people of very different backgrounds impact
each other. Mass education. People read. Now, they may read a lot of garbage, but some
people read interesting stuff, and even if they only read the newspaper, they read about
other ways of life. And then modern mass communications from radio, television,
films, Internet, and so on. If you want to use that favorite postmodernist term “the
other,” the other is present in the consciousness of enormous numbers of people and
not necessarily as an enemy. I mean, the other is an alternative possibility of life.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the idea of multiple modernities—the idea
that in some important way, development is path-dependent, and so different societ-
ies will develop different kinds of modernity. Is that an idea we can translate in some
sense over to the possibility of multiple secularisms or multiple secularizations?

Yes, we certainly could. Take Japan, which is in a way the most interesting case because
it’s the first non-Western society that has successfully modernized. Japan leads to a
lot of misinterpretations of sociology, of religion data, because some people like Ron
Inglehart see it as a secular society. I don’t think it’s secular at all, but it’s a very different
form of religiosity. It doesn’t have the kind of dogma or church that we’re accustomed
to in the West. You could say Japan is an alternate modernity in many ways, not just
in religion but also the religious shape of Japan is different from that in, say, Europe or
North America.

What do you take to be the character of the religiosity of a society like Japan vis-à-vis
a society like the United States or France or England? If Inglehart isn’t picking this
up, what precisely is it that he’s not seeing?

It’s very syncretistic. People see no problem going to a Shinto shrine on certain seasons
of the year, being married in a Christian-like ceremony, and being buried by a Buddhist
monk. This eclecticism is not just apparent in Japan—it’s in all of East Asia; China is
similar in that respect. It’s very different from Western notions, which probably come
from monotheism. You either believe or you don’t believe. There’s a Japanese philoso-
pher by the name of Nakamura who wrote a book. I’ve forgotten everything about it
except one sentence in it in which he says that the West has been responsible for two
basic mistakes. One is monotheism—there’s only one God—and the other is Aristotle’s
principle of contradiction—something is either A or non-A. Every intelligent Asian, he
said, knows that there are many gods and things can be both A and B. Well, those are
deep-seated cultural habits of mind, and they make both religion and secularity where
it exists take on a very different form.

berger interview

How would you characterize the differences between the U.S. and the E.U. in terms
of the question of secularity and secularism? In particular, what do you think about
Grace Davie’s idea of “believing without belonging”?

Oh, it’s a very good concept. We just finished a project at our Institute on what we
call Eurosecularity, and Grace Davie and I are writing the book together to summarize
what we think came out of the project. The popular perception that America is a much
more religious society than Europe is correct as far as it goes. As you look more closely,
America’s less religious than it seems. Europe is less secular than it seems. But the broad
generalization holds, and the very important question is: how did this come about? The
question is particularly interesting in terms of the old secularization theory because the
United States clearly is not a heavily secularized society except in certain strata. Europe
is. Well, it’s difficult to argue that the United States is less modern than, I don’t know,
Belgium, so something is wrong here. You can say it’s the big exception, but why is it an
exception, how do you explain it? Grace Davie is quite right: the exception is Europe,
not North America, and that’s how one should begin to think about this.

One can go into much greater detail. I would say America is less religious than it
seems because it has a cultural elite which is heavily secularized, which, if you will,
is Europeanized. The cultural elite is the minority of the population, but it has great
influence through the media, the educational system, and even the law to some extent.
Europe is less secular than it seems because of the kind of thing that Davie has been
writing about, believing without belonging. Also belonging without believing is equally
important. Again, to use one of her terms, a lot goes on under the radar. When you say
Europe, one has to say Central and Western Europe. When you get into the Orthodox
world, it’s a different picture. Maybe with the exception of Greece, I’m not sure. In
Central and Western Europe, no question, the churches, both Protestant and Catholic,
are in bad shape by any indicator of either behavior or expressed belief, and also insti-
tutionally in terms of recruitment of the clergy, the financial situation, and public influ-
ence, certainly very much compared to the United States, but a lot takes place outside
the churches and that has to be taken into account.

Are you referring to a turn to more diaphanous kinds of spirituality?

Well, that’s certainly part of the phenomenon of religion, of what is clearly religious but
outside the doors of the church, but it’s not only that. When people say—and you get
this in Europe as much as in the U.S.— “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual,” what do
they mean? I think they mean two quite different things. One is New Age-ist type stuff:
“I want to be in harmony with the cosmos. I want to discover my inner child.” But
sometimes it’s much simpler; it means, “yes, I’m interested in the questions of religion,
but I don’t feel at home in any church, in any organized religion,” and that doesn’t have
to have a New Age flavor.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

You get the same thing in America. Robert Wuthnow used the term “patchwork reli-
gion.” Danièle Hervieu-Léger used the term “bricolage”—tinkerings like a Lego game.
You put together your own version of whatever, so that’s similar on two sides of the
Atlantic, and one shouldn’t overlook that.

The typical expressions of American religion are not rooted in millenia of deep cul-
tural background. Might American religion be characterized as broader in some sense
but yet shallower than religion in Europe? This relates to Hervieu-Léger’s argument
about French culture being Catholic even after the populace had given up going to
church. If you were an atheist in a Catholic culture, you were still a Catholic athe-
ist—but in America maybe we’ve always been Protestants or Catholics or whatever in
a fundamentally profane culture.

American history virtually from the beginning, even in colonial times, was character-
ized by pluralism, and there were some attempts to set up state churches in Virginia and
in Massachusetts, but they failed very quickly. These failures were later legitimated by
the principle of religious freedom, and even before independence. Think of the Virginia
Bill of Rights that Jefferson pushed through the colonial legislature. Pluralism became
an -ism in a sense, not only an empirical fact, but something people were proud of, and
I don’t think this necessarily means anything more superficial or shallow. I don’t see that
an American Presbyterian going to church a hundred years ago was more shallow than
somebody in a Scottish village.

What it does mean is religion was voluntary from the beginning. The churches, even if
they didn’t like this—certainly the Catholics didn’t like it—were forced to become vol-
untary associations, which changed the way they related to the laity and to each other.
And that’s been characteristically American, so I think America in many ways is the
vanguard society of religious pluralism, but it happens under very different conditions.
Here it has become enshrined as almost a foundational principle of the state.

Have you come to any preliminary conclusions about the likely changes in religious
life in these two societies in the coming decades?

Most broadly speaking, I don’t think that America is going to become much more secu-
lar or Europe much more religious. I think the basic structures are here. In America, I
think this is very unlikely to change. There are some things that are happening which
are interesting, and I think the increasing middle-class and higher education status of
the evangelical community is going to make a difference. The interesting question is:
will they change and become more like mainline Protestants or will they retain their
distinctiveness and influence the culture? That’s something that’s happening in an inter-
esting way. I wouldn’t dare to predict what this will look like forty years from now.

berger interview

In Europe, there is the really dramatic challenge of Islam and the effect this will have.
Again, I wouldn’t dare to predict, but European societies are forced to rethink their, if
you will, ideological basis in a way which didn’t happen earlier—and certainly in terms
of laïcité. Muslims are not only radical Muslims; ordinary Muslims don’t play by the
rules of that game. They don’t want to play by the rules of that game. So change is
occurring, but at the moment I don’t see the likelihood of anything terribly dramatic.

What do you think of the predictions of demographic changes, for example, the
reported decline in birth rates in Europe? Do you think that the possibility of the
traditional ethnicities of these various nations staying stable or even declining in
population numbers vis-à-vis immigrants, etc., will cause some large-scale pressures?

I’m sure it will. The Muslim population within the E.U. will continue to grow, and that
will have certain consequences. How dramatic the consequences will be I don’t know. A
very important issue is not only what European governments are going to do and how
European publics are going to look at this—and this could become very ugly; it could
become a nativist, intolerant kind of thing. Equally important is what will happen
within the Muslim communities, and there is a struggle going on. I was in Holland a
few months ago, and I visited the first Islamic university in the Netherlands. It’s very
interesting what’s happening there. They want to be Dutch Muslims. They don’t want
to take money from the Middle East. They don’t want Wahhabi faculty. There are other
voices as well—fanatical jihad voices. The struggle for the soul of European Islam is
going to be a very important issue, not just for Europeans. It’ll affect us. It’ll affect
the Middle East. It’ll affect everybody else, but that’s as far as I would go in terms of

Given all of this about secularization, have we learned something that is useful about
the idea of religion or the concept of religion?

It’s certainly useful to understand that religion is not about to disappear. The belief is
still quite prevalent among intellectuals—secular intellectuals—that religion is a kind of
backwoods phenomenon that with rising education will increasingly disappear. That’s
not happening. It’s not going to happen.

What do you think about Hervieu-Léger’s argument, that in some ways the notion of
religion itself is deeply connected to notions of memory and similar things, so that
the frequent focus on religious interiority, such as we find in William James, might be
quite mistaken? It seems that the attention that sociologists such as Max Weber have
given to this should make us rethink received understandings of religion, that religion
is in some ways at least as much socially fundamental as it is individual.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

Yes, but that’s not just Weber. Certainly the French sociologist Emile Durkheim had
the same notions. You get this in American sociology. You get it in anthropology. Since
I’ve spent much of my intellectual career looking at third-world development, Weber is
important in terms of his notions of the Protestant ethic. We now can say that he was
wrong about certain things—he may have been wrong in exaggerating the importance
of Protestantism; he was certainly wrong about Confucianism. He died in 1921; how
could he foresee the East Asian economic miracle of the post-World War II period? But
the questions he asked were the right ones, and if you break down the Protestant ethic
into its behavioral categories, systematic works, saving, delayed gratification, all of these
things, they’re as relevant today in much of the world, in developing societies, as they
were in Europe and North America in the seventeenth century. So that’s a lasting legacy
of Weber which I think is highly relevant, and much of the work we’ve been doing out
of this Institute has to do with this.

Our Institute is twenty years old now, but when we started, one of our first projects
was on Pentecostalism in Latin America, directed by David Martin. It was pioneering.
Now, all kinds of other people have gotten in. My mental title for that project was “Max
Weber is alive and well and living in Guatemala.” You look at these people, and they
speak Spanish or even Mayan, but they act like the Puritans that Weber was describing.
Pentecostalism now is a worldwide phenomenon, anywhere between a quarter and a
half billion people.

I want to ask about your predictions, not so much about the future of real phenom-
ena like religions, as about the future of the study of such phenomena. What are the
questions we need to be asking now that we are not asking?

One very important topic is one that you raised a little while back of multiple moderni-
ties and what are the viable syntheses—viable economically, politically, morally, if you
will—between modernity and various traditional cultures. That’s a question of life-and-
death importance in terms of the Muslim world, but it’s also very important in terms
of China, in terms of India, in terms of Russia. Those are tremendously important
questions which are susceptible to social science inquiry. They’re not dark mysteries.
It’s not a question of the Russian soul. It’s a question about the Russians’ belief, about
how they act, about what their political institutions are, etc., so that seems to me an
extremely important thing to look at.

The other has to do with Weber’s heritage. The questions about which religious tra-
ditions and institutions are conducive to economic growth and democracy are very
important, so I would argue on the basis of a good deal of data that Pentecostalism is a
modernizing force. It is conducive to economic development and maybe, although it’s
less clear, conducive to democratic development.

berger interview

With Islam, you have a much more ambiguous situation. Very crucial to this is the role
of women. If half the population is basically shut out of economic and public life, it’s
not very good for economic development. I’m not saying there are no possibilities of
a Protestant “ethic.” There are some cases of this, but if you look at the Muslim world
as a whole, it’s a much more ambiguous picture, so that’s another very important area
of research.

Some scholars argue that the kind of radical Islamism that has appeared in Europe and
the Middle East is a distinctly modern, distinctly Protestant kind of Islam because it
has become detached in crucial ways from the local cultural contexts within which
Islam always found itself. One of the strengths of Islam historically has been what
we might call its portability across cultures, its ease of translation, which is in part
because of the minimal character of its demands to change one’s life. It allowed some
particular cultural context to flesh out its precepts. Some scholars, most notably
Olivier Roy, suggest that contemporary radical Islamists simply take the “de-territo-
rialized” kernel of the faith and jettison the cultural husk, presenting the kernel as the
true tradition—without even realizing what they’re missing.

Radical Islam is a modern phenomenon in the sense that every fundamentalist religion
is a modern phenomenon, even if you take the original meaning of “fundamentalism”
in American Protestant history. It was a reaction against modernity, but it couldn’t have
happened before modernity. “Fundamentalism” used for Islam or Hinduism or Judaism
is a little iffy, because it has a very distinctive American Protestant meaning, but if you’re
going to use the term—and we’re probably stuck with it—I would define it rather nar-
rowly as an attempt to restore the taken-for-grantedness of the position that has been
challenged, or as we discussed earlier, an attempt to restore certainty.

We talked earlier about the changes in religion in terms of not the what, but the how.
That means that religious belief and religious life become much more vulnerable. Every
fundamentalism responds to that vulnerability and says, “Look, join us and you will no
longer be uncertain as to who you are, how you should live, what the world is.”

That is very different from traditional religion, traditional Islam or any other. A person
who lives in a taken-for-granted traditional world can afford to be quite tolerant. The
one who doesn’t share that world is interesting, maybe even amusing, like somebody
who believes the earth is flat. It doesn’t threaten us. But when you are dealing with an
attempt to restore a certainty that has been challenged, chances are you can’t afford to
be very tolerant, and the one who is outside your community of belief is a threat. You
have to convert him or you have to segregate yourself from him, or in the extreme case,
liquidate him. In that sense, I would say every fundamentalism is a modern phenom-
enon. And many movements that can be described as fundamentalist have used modern
techniques of communication very effectively.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S U mmer 0 6

Al Qaeda escaped Afghanistan and is now living on the web. This is what I’ve heard
terrorist experts say.

The Ayatollah Khomeini came to power through cassettes.

Do you have any intimations about what scholars who study these matters are more
or less completely missing today? Are there large questions that twenty or fifty years
from now we’ll look back on and say, “Wow, we really should have been thinking
about that”?

I wrote an article some years ago about four highly significant developments of the post-
World War II period which were not anticipated by social scientists and which even in
retrospect they have great difficulty in explaining: the collapse of socialism, the cultural
revolution of the late 60s and early 70s in the West, the meteoric rise of East Asia, and
the explosion of religious movements all over the world.

Those are four highly significant events of the twentieth century. Hardly anyone pre-
dicted them, and even in retrospect people have difficulty explaining them. These are
monumental failures, and where do the failures come from? Well, in terms of sociol-
ogy, I would say they come from an abandonment of asking the big questions which
gave birth to sociology as a discipline. What is the modern world? What are its basic
forces? That failure has two rules. The older one is methodological. I’ve called it “fetish-
ism of method,” where you have the ambition to be like physicists. The basic principle
was, and still is, “that which cannot be quantified cannot be studied,” and that has
meant a tremendous trivialization. That goes back to the 50s in American sociology,
and European sociology basically followed the American lead. Then in the 60s and 70s,
you had an ideological, neo-Marxist ideological wave overcoming the field, and science
became propaganda. So between trivialization and ideology, I would say sociology has
become a pretty depressing field with individuals and some centers doing good work.
I think something very similar happened in political science and anthropology—not
in economics, though the economists are so captive to their particular vocabulary and
conceptual machinery, they can’t deal with anything that doesn’t fit into that. And that’s
pretty awful, too, in a different way.

You have, at least, two large projects: your sociological inquiries, and, broadly con-
strued, a theological form of inquiry. How do you understand the relationship
between these two? Does one of them emerge from the other? Do you think of them
as written for two fundamentally different audiences, or do you conceive of them as
two parts of a larger and at least roughly coherent whole?

I’ve never had any problem with this. As far as sociology or social science is concerned,
I’m an orthodox Weberian. I believe in value-free science. I think what I’ve written
may be wrong, it may be biased here and there, but as I understand my own work, it
is value-free. For example, the whole issue of secularization: I think I would have gone

berger interview

through the same conceptual journey if I had been an atheist or a Buddhist or whatever.
Now, I don’t see any problem in that. This is not the only hat I wear, since I have very
intense religious interests and define myself as a Christian, though in a rather heretical
way—I’ve written on that, too. Well, why not? I mean, a cousin of mine in Austria is
an accomplished classical musician, particularly with Mozart. He also plays jazz. Are
those two incompatible? Apparently not.

I don’t think there are any great biographical revelations to divulge here. I was interested
in religion before I even knew that sociology existed. As a young man I wanted to be
a Lutheran minister and then decided this wasn’t for me. Sociology I stumbled into
more or less by accident and then got intrigued with these questions intellectually. So
here are two quite different interests, I pursued both of them, and it comes out in my
publications. After all, some people are lechers and stamp collectors, but they manage
to do these things at different times.

One hopes.

Yes. You could have an orgy with stamp collectors, but that’s unlikely.

Indeed. Let me ask you about what sorts of large-scale worries you have—as a scholar,
as a concerned citizen, as a private individual—about the character of society or the
direction in which society may be going? And what hopes accompany those worries?

I don’t know how to answer that—my worries are not terribly unusual. One is wor-
ried about nuclear terrorism, about environmental degradation, about new pandemics
of one sort or another. Those are very unoriginal worries. In terms of hopes: so far
Western democracies have managed to solve their problems with reasonable efficiency,
and I have considerable confidence in the ingenuity and innovativeness particularly of
American society to deal with its problems. I don’t find myself terribly pessimistic about
the future of this society, but obviously there are catastrophic scenarios that are possible,
and some are uncomfortably possible. Just think—a single nuclear act of terrorism in
America or Europe, and we’d find ourselves in a different world the next day, much
more so than after 9/11, and there are other such possibilities.

What about long-term things? What could happen in the course of this next century?

I don’t know. If you took a modern social scientist with all his paraphernalia and
dropped him in the center of Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century, would
he have predicted the Reformation? I doubt it, so—what’s the phrase that Rumsfeld
loves—stuff happens.

B o o k reviews

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History have been vilified or otherwise veiled. In

of American Secularism. New York: Freethinkers she therefore argues that it
Metropolitan, 2004. is “past time to restore secularism, and
its noble and essential contributions at
every stage of the American experiment,
to its proper place in our nation’s histori-
“I trust that there is not a young man cal memory” (11).
now living in the United States,” wrote
Thomas Jefferson in a private letter in Freethinkers boldly enters into today’s
1822, “who will not die an Unitarian.” turbulent debates over whether the
Only four years before his death, the American government has authentically
author of Virginia’s landmark Statute for Christian or secular origins. Often ideo-
Religious Freedoms clearly envisioned the logically driven, answers to this driving
nation’s path as one toward a Christianity question have been a long-standing fea-
based on reason rather than pure faith ture of how Americans construct narra-
and denominational dogmatism.1 tives about the nation and its path in the
world. Since the providential account of
Jefferson’s prediction was mistaken. Today George Bancroft in the nineteenth cen-
most Americans are not Unitarians. In tury, many histories of the United States
her important and timely new book, have sought to establish that the nation
Freethinkers: A History of American had Christian roots that ought to endure.
Secularism, journalist Susan Jacoby grap- Contemporary works that attempt this
ples with the history of secular thought in project or seek to deny it are plentiful.
the United States and the fate of Jefferson’s Mark Noll and George Marsden assert
much heralded reason-based beliefs. By that “Christian nation” arguments are
looking to the past, Jacoby attempts to overstated; efforts to find “belief ” in
illuminate contemporary debates about founding texts represent a cherry picking
the proper role for religion in the public of phrases that grossly distorts the nomi-
square. Her core argument is that secu- nally Christian rhetoric emerging from
lar thought formed the root origins of the deist and Enlightenment rationalist
American democracy. Yet, she contends, beliefs of many of the founding genera-
this fact has been obscured. Freethinking tion. Comparative religion scholar Diana
secularists who attained significant influ- Eck, in contrast, emphasizes culture. She
ence on the nation and its direction often asserts that the nation on the whole has

1 Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822, Thomas Jefferson: Writings, ed. Merrill D.
Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984) 1458–9; Edwin S. Gaustad, Sworn on the Altar of God:
A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) 145–6. On Thomas Jefferson
and civil religion, see also Thomas E. Buckley, S. J., “The Religious Rhetoric of Thomas Jefferson,” The
Founders on God and Government, ed. Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark D. Hall, and Jeffrey H. Morrison
(Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) 53–82. See also the forthcoming work of Johann Neem on
Jefferson’s conception of religion and his philosophy of history.

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always been Christian, yet what makes it

unique today is not the persistent power
of Christianity but, rather, the remark-
able level of religious pluralism and toler-
ance across American society. Historian
Nathan Hatch adds early politics to this
pluralist position by arguing that there
was a “democratization” of American
Christianity from the earliest days of the
Republic, which shaped the rise of the
U.S. as a democratic Christian nation.2

Given the charged atmosphere in which

these debates take place, Jacoby was wise
to select “freethinkers” for her title. The
term is powerful, if vague. It conjures
up that most vaunted of American prin-
ciples: “freedom”—freedom to think, to
speak, to assemble, and to pursue life,
liberty, and happiness. Secularists—a
term which she uses interchangeably with
freethinkers—pursue liberty-based goals, received or revealed truths. According to
yet seem less noble somehow, as people Jacoby, freethinkers ran the gamut from
of faith easily negate secularists and their the anti-religious to the devout. What
views by portraying them as atheists and they shared, she says,
agnostics, as unprincipled, or simply as
godless heathens. regardless of their views on the
existence or nonexistence of a
“Freethinking” itself is a term derived divinity, was a rationalist approach
from a phrase that first appeared in the to fundamental questions of
late 1600s and flourished into a philo- earthly existence—a conviction
sophical movement in the nineteenth that the affairs of human beings
century. The philosophy of “freethought” should be governed not by faith in
pivoted on the belief that judgments the supernatural but by a reliance
about religion should be based on rea- on reason and evidence adduced
son and evidence from the natural world from the natural world. (4–5)
rather than on tradition, authority, or

2 See George Bancroft, History of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent (Boston:
Little, Brown, 1834); Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1989); Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Now
Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001); Mark A. Noll,
America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002);
George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S ummer 0 6

The book opens with a telling anecdote selected Virginia. It “is impossible to
about the present state of religious poli- overstate the importance” of Virginia’s
tics. President Bush chose Washington’s 1786 Act for Establishing Religious
Episcopalian National Cathedral to issue Freedom because “much to the dismay of
an ecumenical address four days after the religious conservatives, it would become
terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the the template for the secularist provisions
World Trade Center. Basing his words on of the federal Constitution” (19). Many
the famous passage from Paul’s Epistle to state constitutions commingled religion
the Romans, President Bush consoled the and government in the pre-Constitution
nation by invoking religiously informed period. Indeed, quite a few, such as
language while standing beside represen- Massachusetts, continued to uphold for-
tatives of several major religions. This mal, established religions and oaths for
signaled a profound break from the tra- public officials well after the ratification
dition of separation of church and state, of the Constitution in 1788. However,
Jacoby informs her readers. Washington, these states were in the minority. Many
Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin members of the founding generation
Roosevelt would not and did not do such were concerned that “established” reli-
things (even after a direct attack on the gions—even at the state level—would
United States). act to the detriment of the republic as
a whole. Thus, “[w]ith its refusal to
With this as a springboard, Freethinkers invoke any form of divine sanction, even
moves from the revolutionary era through the vaguely deistic ‘Providence,’” Jacoby
the present to chronicle the development argues convincingly, “the Constitution
of American secularism and explain how went even further than Virginia’s reli-
we “got here.” Recovering this story is no gious freedom act in separating religion
mean feat. “The religiously correct version from government” (29). To bind citizens
of American history,” Jacoby proclaims, within the nation, secular values seemed
“has never given proper credit to the more likely to connect citizens than reli-
central importance of the Enlightenment gious beliefs.
concept of natural rights—or to the anti-
clerical abolitionists who advanced that Developments such as crafting a
concept before the public—in building Constitution without reference to God
the case against slavery” (70). and enacting statutes of religious tolera-
tion did not represent unalloyed good
Jacoby takes pains to demonstrate that done by those of the freethinking per-
a robust Enlightenment rationalism suasion. “[S]ecularists are not value-free,”
undergirded the objectives of many fram- Jacoby insists; “their values are simply
ers and signers of the Constitution and grounded in earthly concerns rather than
Declaration of Independence. Having in anticipation of heavenly rewards or
thrown off the chains of British rule, fear of infernal punishments” (10).
“Americans lived no longer in an age of
faith,” Jacoby contends, “but in an age Jacoby recovers and sympathizes with the
of faiths and an age of reason” (34). As relatively forgotten lives and stories of the
their model, the founders consciously heroes of secular thought. Among those

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in the pantheon are: Elizabeth Cady and much maligned pamphlet The Age
Stanton, suffragist and author of the of Reason, published in 1794. This was
“Woman’s Bible,” who said that “every no quixotic act, according to Jacoby.
form of religion which has breathed Paine attacked not only the ecclesiastical
upon this earth has degraded woman”; and monarchic hierarchies in The Age of
Lucretia Mott, the ardent feminist whose Reason, but also religious beliefs of many
personal motto was “truth for authority, kinds. He went on to propound a mis-
not authority for truth”; William Lloyd guided expectation that “a revolution in
Garrison, the famous abolitionist, for the system of government would be fol-
whom “truth is older than any parch- lowed by a revolution in the system of
ment”; and Robert Green Ingersoll, the religion” (35).
so-called “Great Agnostic,” who notably
hoped that “we have retired the gods In perhaps the best chapter of the book,
from politics. We have found that man “The Great Agnostic and the Golden Age
is the only source of political power, and of Freethought,” Jacoby shows the impor-
that the governed should govern.” Jacoby tance of networks of newspapers, such as
notes the subtle influence of freethought the Truth Seeker, founded in 1875, that
in the public expressions and actions of a rapidly became the nation’s best-known
diverse set of American luminaries such freethought organ. The influence of such
as Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, papers was amplified by the audiences
Clarence Darrow, Walt Whitman, Mark reached by an array of speakers, like
Twain, and John F. Kennedy. Ingersoll, former abolitionists, suffragists,
radicals, university professors, and labor
Freethought as a philosophy never fully activists—all of which helped to make
sustained an organized movement in freethought a viable belief system from
America, although Jacoby asserts that 1875 through 1914. In this era “freedom
it “flowered into a genuine social and of religion meant just that—the freedom
philosophical movement…fraught with to believe in and practice one’s creed. It
ambivalence” (4). Freethinking was a did not mean that particular religious
way of looking at the world and making beliefs were exempt from public criti-
judgments about religion that is proba- cism or even from public ridicule” (172).
bly best understood as a cohesive cluster Not many were moved to reject religion
of ideas that can be only loosely defined outright, but a good number seem to
as an intellectual movement. If there was have been persuaded to make a case for
a prime mover in the constellation of a continued and strengthened secularist
American freethinking stars, Jacoby con- approach to public affairs.
cludes that it was Thomas Paine.
An outstanding insight Jacoby develops
Paine, the renowned revolutionary, from this period is to show the connec-
authored what became the American tions developing between atheists, social-
Revolution’s most iconic patriotic tract, ists, and Darwinists around the turn of
Common Sense, which sold an astonish- the twentieth century. What the five-time
ing 500,000 copies in the mid-1770s. socialist candidate for president, Eugene
Paine also penned the less well-known Debs, had in common (apart from

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S ummer 0 6

agnosticism) with Ingersoll and Darrow position. Yet particularly in the twentieth
was a “deep commitment to the liberties century, a number of prominent conser-
enumerated in the Bill of Rights” (180). vatives, such as political philosopher
Leo Strauss, and those of other political
Yet in the years after World War I stripes, such as the irascible journalist H.
these connections were not enough. L. Mencken, have been both passion-
Freethought as any sort of coherent move- ately conservative in their politics and
ment began to lose momentum. After the also ardent non-believers. Jacoby also
“golden age,” freethinkers worked toward often casts devout believers as thoroughly
achieving the secularization of American conservative in their politics in the mod-
society through the instruments of the ern sense, yet in the past Social Gospel
“procedural republic”: namely, juridical advocates such as Washington Gladden
review and resolution, rather than direct and Walter Rauschenbusch clearly do
legislation or lecture circuits. Jacoby not conform to such a generalization.
deploys a host of post-Scopes legal battles The civil rights movement is yet another
over the establishment clause as her pri- example of the importance of religious
mary evidence of secular thought at work values animating social change.
in the period leading up to the present,
but she lacks the public figures and large- So, what values and strategies should sec-
scale historical events to fully support her ularists advocate today? Jacoby argues that
argument. The one major exception was the intellectual offspring of the freethink-
Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who in the late ers should learn from their forebears. If
1950s and 1960s championed a high- they want to change minds, contempo-
profile cultural battle to remove prayer rary secularists must move beyond the
from public schools. defense of a godless Constitution sepa-
rating church and state. Beliefs cannot
This narrow focus on freethinkers like promote themselves: “Values are handed
Paine and lesser knowns such as Ingersoll down more easily and thoroughly by
is advantageous. It makes this narrative permanent institutions than by margin-
engaging and adds cohesion. But this alized radicals who, even if they change
methodology does not permit a wider minds in their own generation—as the
view of the historical context in which abolitionists did—are often subject to
Jacoby’s central individuals acted. Some remarginalization in the next” (103). To
of the “prominent” freethinkers were sway hearts and minds, “secular human-
more marginalized than this account of ists must reclaim passion and emotion
their lives and actions would suggest. from the religiously correct” (363).
Freethinkers could stand more of what it Overly rational arguments stand in sharp
calls for: a critical examination of what contrast to the successful faith-based
it means to be “secular” and to have an emotional appeals of the current Bush
“influence” on society. To be prominent administration, which “could hardly do
is not necessarily to be influential. more to demonstrate its commitment to
pulverizing a constitutional wall that has
Jacoby seems to suggest that to be secular served both religion and government well
is to take a liberal political-philosophical for more than two hundred years” (353).

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Jacoby offers not only a historical chal- Martin, David. On Secularization:

lenge to those who believe God is and has Towards a Revised General Theory.
always been part of American governance, London: Ashgate, 2005.
but also a warning to secularists. She con-
cludes that it is time to confront the

unexamined assumption that reli- David Martin has been one of the lead-
gion per se is, and always must be, ing scholars of secularization theory
a benign influence on society…. since the 1960s. In his magnum opus, A
For secularists to mount an effec- General Theory of Secularization (1978),
tive challenge to the basic premises Martin laid out a careful historical soci-
of religious correctness, they must ology of secularization that maintained
first stop pussyfooting around the the limited and highly particularized
issue of the harm that religion is nature of this cultural process. Even then
capable of doing. (358) he doubted that secularization would
be inevitable or that secularism would
We may not all be Unitarians, as Jefferson become universal. For him, one of the
supposed. And there was no systemic reli- key factors for understanding how reli-
gious revolution to go with government gion fares in the modern world was
transformation, as Paine believed. But “social differentiation,” or the increas-
rationalist skepticism certainly is embed- ing autonomy of social spheres. Social
ded in the fundamental mechanisms of differentiation refers to the tendency in
American democracy and society. One modern society for social spheres to be
thing is clear: a better sense of the impor- less and less integrated. For example,
tance of secularism in the past is essential the separation of church and state is a
if we are to enlighten our current pub- fundamental manifestation of social dif-
lic dialogue in the present. To this end, ferentiation in the modern world. This
Freethinkers is a good place to start. dynamic has played out differently in dif-
ferent societies, which is why one finds so
much variation not only in the West, but
Christopher McKnight Nichols is a Ph.D. also beyond to the rest of the world. To
candidate in the Corcoran Department of return to the example, the establishment
History at the University of Virginia and of the Church of England in that country
a doctoral fellow at the Center on Religion has no comparison in the United States;
and Democracy. He is working on a disser- in Chile, a different balance altogether
tation project on isolationism and interna- has been struck.
tionalism during the Progressive Era.
In his new work, On Secularization,
Martin updates this theory through a
compilation of articles and lectures that
outline the directions in which he has
moved since his general theory. Martin
once again voices his skepticism towards
secularization as grand narrative and

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S ummer 0 6

implicitly reiterates his argument that gio-cultural landscape of Europe in fun-

just as there are multiple modernities, damental ways.
there are also multiple secularizations.
It is not that secularization theory is Even from casual observation, it is evi-
untrue, as he first argued in 1965; it dent that religion has far from disap-
simply manifests itself differently in dif- peared, and the fate of specific faith
ferent contexts. The dynamics of religion traditions remains far from clear. Of
and modernity play out differently in particular interest for Martin are Islam
Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin and Christianity and how one accounts
America, Asia, and Africa. In Latin for the differences between these faiths in
America and Turkey, for example, secu- their encounter with the modern world.
larism does not translate from the elites Here, as in the rest of this book, Martin
to the masses. In the United States, secu- is more suggestive than systematic.
larity is anything but uniform, with elites
and masses divided on the question of For example, Martin brings attention
religion. Even in Europe—the one place to the ways in which different religions
where the traditional notion of secular- mobilize believers. Islam enters the
ization has seemed to be at work—there modern world collectively, “through
is great variation: secularity in Berlin and the mobilization of whole populations”;
secularism in Paris look and feel differ- Pentecostal Christianity, by contrast,
ent, because they are in fact different enters it factionally and individually,
realities. Likewise, the mass migration of “through the mobilization of subcultural
Muslims to Europe is changing the reli- and individual self-consciousness” (144).
The latter, as Martin first demonstrated
in Tongues of Fire (1990), helps to explain
why Pentecostalism actually welcomes in
and encourages the individualism and
social differentiation of modernity.

To take another example, faiths vary

by their implicit approach to plural-
ism—ranging from “voluntaristic” to
“communal.” Communal pluralism
is characterized by the interaction of
homogenous communities with each
other. The classic example of this is the
acceptance of “religions of the book” by
certain Islamic empires. Voluntaristic plu-
ralism is most clearly understood as the
“supermarket of beliefs,” with individu-
als respected for their capacity to choose.
Like others, including Adam Seligman
(Modernity’s Wager) and Charles Taylor
(Sources of the Self ), Martin argues that

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voluntaristic pluralism is historically a culture is potentially corrosive to Islam

product of Western Christianity. as Islam reproduces itself collectively; it
remains to be seen what such communal
The starkest differences between religions mobilization will look like in our global-
are seen in their various relationships to izing context.
power. In Martin’s conceptualization,
this relationship is straightforward in A good book is in part measured by the
Islam but paradoxical in Christianity. degree to which it provokes questions.
For Christians, a tension exists between Martin’s new book brings into relief
the City of God and the City of Man. some of the critical sociological questions
In other words, the “already” and the about religion in our day. What sources
“not yet” of the kingdom of God have of social cohesion are Europeans left with
a profound impact on Christian, and as religious sources continue to be weak-
derivatively Western, social and political ened? What will the relationship of Islam
thought, because social orders are derived to modernity become in different parts
from sacred orders. This paradox, which of the world? In what ways has secular-
in Martin’s theological understand- ization actually revitalized religious prac-
ing should exist between Christians and tice, opening up space for religious faith
power, is fundamentally different than to be newly proclaimed? While Martin
the triumphalism of Islam. To the extent does not provide a systematic theory to
that such a paradox is manifested in the address all of these questions, he does
West, there “surely is a clash of civiliza- provide critical concepts and insights for
tions” (198). scholars of religion to grapple with such
questions in the future.
And what are we to make of these religions
in our increasingly globalized condition?
While Martin does not answer this ques- Emily Raudenbush is Research Associate
tion conclusively, he does suggest the at the Institute for Advanced Studies in
ways in which the twenty-first-century Culture.
market culture will impact Christianity
and Islam. Martin maintains that while
religions are still sending out missionar-
ies, the most efficient means of evange-
lism is simply for globetrotters to carry
their message with them. This way of
reproducing faith lines up very well with
Christian individualistic mobilization. In
fact, Christianity’s main challenge in the
modern world, according to Martin, is
internal: “it is dangerously open-ended
to a degree which threatens its own via-
bility and ability to reproduce” (169).
While Islam does not have this latter
problem, the individualism of market

bibli o g rap h ic review

Secularization: A Bibliographic
Kevin M. Schultz

Today, most people think that something has happened regarding the importance of
religiosity in everyday life since the nineteenth century, but nobody is quite sure how
to generalize it, or even if it can be generalized. This has been especially troubling for
social scientists, who make a living configuring large-scale theories of society that pro-
pose to have predictive capabilities. Is it simply—as the “classic theorists” of seculariza-
tion said a century ago—that when a society becomes modern it becomes secular too?
Does modernity necessarily imply secularity?

There is certainly something appealing to the formulation, and it became a chief preoc-
cupation of social scientists and theologians of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, many of whom
quickly became busy celebrating the death of God, the rise of the secular city, and the
general triumph of secularization theory. Europe and America seemed to be throwing
off the shackles of that old-time religion, becoming increasingly secular as they became
more and more “modern.” The secular age had arrived.

Things did not turn out as these advocates had envisioned they would. Continued
religiosity became a nagging problem. Countries like the United States were witnessing
something of a return to religion during the last quarter of the twentieth century. This
glaring problem led to a flood of criticism in the 1980s and 1990s, suggesting that the
theory had been wrong and that it was the simple-minded creation of secular hopefuls
wishing for a godless future. The tone of many of these critics was just as self-righteous
and triumphant as the theory’s proponents had been two decades prior. Secularization
theory seemed to be in tatters. But still, wasn’t there something to it?

Kevin M. Schultz is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia’s Center

on Religion and Democracy. His current book project is entitled Making Pluralism:
Catholics, Jews, and the Decline of the Melting Pot in Postwar America.

bibliographic review

Reconfiguring what is left of secularization theory has been one of the major projects
of historical sociologists during the past decade or so. Their new theories are filled with
possibility, but they are also complex—so complex, in fact, that one cannot help but
wonder if the social scientists are trying a bit too hard. And one senses a bit of anxiety
that if the whole theory turns out to have been bunk, then the life and times of secu-
larization theory will be turned over to historians, who might just see it as yet another
example of the glaring flaw of the social sciences (namely, its disregard for history).
Furthermore, secularization theory emerged at roughly the same time as the field of
sociology, which was, at root, preoccupied with the meaning of modernization and
crafting the theory of modernization. Along with bureaucratization, rationalization,
and urbanization, secularization constituted a basic part of what it meant to be modern.
Is it too far fetched to think that sociology, modernity, and secularization all need each
other to survive? If secularization is tossed aside as an unreliable component of what it
means to be modern, what might fall away next? And if rationalization, bureaucratiza-
tion, and urbanization prove unreliable predictors too, is there anything left of classical
sociology? Do all large sociological theories need to be left behind? The answers to these
questions hinge, of course, on what secularization means.

Classical Theories of Secularization

At its most basic, the classical theory of secularization contends that as a society becomes
increasingly modern (usually as knowledge expands through the processes of scientific
rationality), religion becomes less and less important to that society. Those following
Weber claim that rationalization and the scientific perspective made belief in the super-
natural impossible, with religion falling victim to the power of science. Others, follow-
ing Durkheim, have stressed the decline of control by religious institutions over the
important institutions of society. Either way, there is an evolutionary cast to the idea:
as people “advance” technologically and scientifically, they no longer need the magic of
the past to offer explanation or meaning. The idea that Western societies have moved
away from religious or divine authority dates back to the 1600s, but it was Weber who
in 1910 gave us the term “secularization.” His phrase about the increasing “disenchant-
ment of the world” has come to signify all that secularization could mean: the decline in
importance of things mystical. There is great irony in the fact that the word is Weber’s,
because he was no positivist and in fact has been the single most important figure in
describing the worldly significance of religion in modern sociology. For an excellent
anthology of many of the key texts on the early sociology of religion, see Birnbaum and
Lenzer’s edited volume.

n Birnbaum, Norman, and Gertrud Lenzer, eds. Sociology and Religion: A Book of
Readings. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
n Comte, August. The Positive Philosophy. New York: Calvin Blanchard, 1858.
n Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life: A Study in Religious
Sociology. New York: Macmillan, 1915.

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n Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. 1928. New York: Norton, 1975.
n Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. 1848. New
York: International, 1948.
n Spencer, Herbert. The Principles of Ethics. 1897. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics,
n Troeltsch, Ernst. Protestantism and Progress: A Historical Study of the Relation of
Protestantism to the Modern World. 1911. Boston: Beacon, 1958.
n Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1904–5. New York:
Penguin, 2002.

Institutional Secularization

Secularization’s first widely accepted meaning was essentially the process of separation
of church and state. More specifically, it meant the confiscation of some of the Catholic
Church’s property after the Reformation (then, the same transfer in many Catholic
countries after the French Revolution). One can find this definition of secularization
in nearly every dictionary in Europe, despite the fact that this is the most forgotten
usage of the term. Along similar lines, over the course of the nineteenth century, several
institutions like the state and the university were “secularized,” meaning they were no
longer controlled by formal religious bodies. This kind of secularization was usually a
direct result of the rise in authority of scientific reason, and hence its occurrence within
academies of higher learning has been most noted (and studied). Since these defini-
tions are dissimilar, and do not take into account today’s most common usage of the
term, readers should consult the article by Sommerville for clarifying the definitional

n Dahrendorf, Ralf. Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Palo Alto: Stanford
University Press, 1959.
n Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry
into a Category of Bourgeois Society. 1962. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.
n Marsden, George M. The Soul of the University: From Protestant Establishment to
Established Nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
n Marsden, George M., and Bradley J. Longfield, eds. The Secularization of the
Academy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
n Sommerville, C. J. “Secular Society Religious Population: Our Tacit Rules for Using
the Term Secularization.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37.2 (1998):

Secularization as Individual Disbelief

From the late nineteenth century to the present, the word “secularization” has gained
the most traction by signifying a decline in religious practices within modern societ-

bibliographic review

ies. There is considerable evidence that those who proclaimed a rise of disbelief in the
modern world (that is, the classical theorists and their champions) created straw men
out of the past, suggesting that previous eras were more religious than they really were.
Nevertheless, there is a small collection of good books that offer historical grounding
to the rise of unbelief as a “live option” in the realm of epistemology.

n Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity

and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
n Carter, Stephen L. The Culture of Disbelief. New York: Basic, 1993.
n Chadwick, Owen. The Secularization of the European Mind in the 19th Century.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
n Febvre, Lucien. The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century. 1942. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.
n Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Metro-
politan, 2004.
n Thomas, Keith Vivian. Religion and the Decline of Magic. New York: Scribner,
n Turner, James. Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

Second Generation Theoreticians

Voltaire and Hume were perhaps the most famous philosophers to assert that reli-
gion was a mere holdover from the pre-scientific age and that as scientific knowledge
expanded, religion would occupy a smaller and smaller part of our lives. From an intel-
lectual perspective, this idea was revived forcefully at the beginning of the twentieth
century by thinkers as diverse as Robert and Helen Lynd and H. L. Mencken. From a
sociological perspective, however, working out secularization theory was largely a 1960s
phenomenon, a celebration of the secular city with the understanding that modernity
and secularization were proceeding along just fine. Some (such as Wallace) advocated
this position forcefully. Others (Berger, Luckmann) were more careful in their delibera-
tions, suggesting that some variety of secularization had arrived but that religion had
not yet been dislodged from being a primary source of moral authority. Nevertheless,
they all acknowledged that secularization theory seemed to be holding true.

n Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion.

Garden City: Doubleday, 1967.
n Cox, Harvey. Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective.
New York: Macmillan, 1966.
n Dobbelaere, Karel. “Some Trends in European Sociology of Religion: The
Secularization Debate.” Sociological Analysis 48.2 (1987): 107–37.
n Luckmann, Thomas. The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern
Society. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S ummer 0 6

n Wallace, A. F. C. Religion: An Anthropological View. New York: Random House,

n Wilson, Bryan R. Religion in Secular Society: A Sociological Comment. London:
Watts, 1966.

Critics of Secularization Theory

Early critics of secularization theory (Shiner, Martin, Greeley) were mostly ignored.
But by the 1990s, it became evident that religion just wasn’t going away; critiques of
secularization theory proliferated. Perhaps most surprising was Peter Berger’s reversal,
from being one of the most thoughtful advocates of secularization theory in the 1960s
to flatly stating in 1999 that the “whole body of literature by historians and social sci-
entists loosely labeled ‘secularization theory’ is essentially mistaken” (2). Rodney Stark
and Andrew Greeley were some of the more persistent critics, often using polling data
in the U.S. as their ammunition. The central claim of the critique is that, if secular-
ization is defined as the decline of religious beliefs and practices in modern societies,
the theory of secularization is bunk. Not only has religion persisted (and the evidence
is incontrovertible) but the theory also implies that the past was more religious than
today, which, it turns out, is not so easy to prove. Of course, these critics were mainly
looking at behavioral data and did not consider institutional secularization (as in the
marginalization of religious institutions from a reality-defining role), cultural secular-
ization (the transformation of mythic and symbolic markers), or social secularization
(faith as a source of social solidarity and division). Ignorance of these aspects of secular-
ization complicated these critiques and, as we will see, allowed for numerous scholars
to critique the critiques in an attempt to rebuild secularization theory.

n Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford:

Stanford University Press, 2003.
n Bellah, Robert N., et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in
American Society. New York: Harper, 1985.
n Berger, Peter L., ed. The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World
Politics. Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1999.
n Caplow, Theodore, Howard M. Bahr, and Bruce A. Chadwick. All Faithful People:
Change and Continuity in Middletown’s Religion. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1983.
n Greeley, Andrew M. Religion in Europe at the End of the Second Millennium. New
Brunswick: Transaction, 2003.
n ---. Unsecular Man: The Persistence of Religion. New York: Schocken, 1972.
n Martin, David. “Towards Eliminating the Concept of Secularization.” Penguin
Survey of the Social Sciences. Ed. J. Gould. Baltimore: Penguin, 1965. 169–82.
n Shiner, Larry. “The Concept of Secularization in Empirical Research.” Journal for the
Scientific Study of Religion 6 (1967): 207–20.
n Stark, Rodney. “Secularization, R.I.P.” Sociology of Religion 60.3 (1999): 249–73.

bibliographic review

The Rise of Orthodoxy and the Persistence of Religion

The secularization theory received another series of blows from scholars examining
the rise of orthodoxy and the persistence of religion in a global context. If the world
was presumably becoming more and more modern, religion was supposed to be going
away. The problem was that it wasn’t. In fact, more orthodox religions were growing.
Fundamentalisms and Pentecostalism proliferated throughout the world. The rise in
awareness of these manifestations served as perhaps the final nail in the coffin of secu-
larization theory, at least in its original formulation.

n Bulka, Reuven P., ed. Dimensions of Orthodox Judaism. New York: KTAV, 1983.
n Cox, Harvey. Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping
of Religion in the 21st Century. Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1995.
n Freston, Paul. Evangelicals and Politics in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2001.
n Gittelson, Natalie. “American Jews Rediscover Orthodoxy,” The New York Times
Magazine. 30 September 1984: 41–71.
n Hunter, James Davison. American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the
Quandary of Modernity. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1983.
n Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2002.
n Martin, David. Pentecostalism: The World Their Parish. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.
n ---. Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America. Oxford:
Blackwell, 1990.
n Marty, Martin E., and R. Scott Appleby. The Glory and the Power: The Fundamentalist
Challenge to the Modern World. Boston: Beacon, 1992.
n McGuire, Merideth. Pentecostal Catholics. Philadelphia: Temple, 1982.
n Weaver, Mary Jo, and R. Scott Appleby. Being Right: Conservative Catholics in
America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Attempts to Formulate a New Theory

Not everyone is ready to give up on secularization theory. And indeed, some of the most
thoughtful of the critics (Martin) have pulled reversals similar to that of Berger. The
tactic of the “new believers” is to salvage the idea behind the theory but to soften its
predictive capacity, or to shift the definition of secularization by emphasizing different
aspects of what secularization means. Some (Bibby, Finke and Stark) have suggested
that because most of the critics work in the U.S., challenges to secularization theory
are merely utterances of “American exceptionalism.” What really needs explaining, they
contend, is why there is so much religion in the U.S., and to do so they use “supply-side
theory”: religion persists because supply can easily adapt to demand.

T he H edgehog R eview / S pring & S ummer 0 6

On the other side of the Atlantic, scholars have pointed out that many of the strongest
advocates of secularization theory are European (Luckmann, Wilson, Dobbelaere, and
Berger in 1967), and thus secularization is a uniquely European phenomenon, extant
nowhere else in the world. Some (Norris and Inglehart) have argued that the “European
exception” is attributable to the generous welfare states in Europe, which have created
security and therefore limited demand for religious bodies. Meanwhile, some scholars
(Chaves) have tried defining the problem away by limiting the definition of seculariza-
tion to the decline of religious authority (but not individual belief ). The most persua-
sive attempts to recreate a theory have come from those (Martin, Casanova) who have
gone a long way toward forcing us to reconsider what we mean by secularization and
whether we aren’t better off thinking in terms of “multiple modernities,” where no
single rule holds true for every society. Once we accept variation and change, we can
begin to understand historical differences in the processes of secularization.

n Bibby, Reginald Wayne. Fragmented Gods: The Poverty and Potential of Religion in
Canada. Toronto: Irwin, 1987.
n Bruce, Steve. God Is Dead: Secularization in the West. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.
n Chaves, Mark. “Secularization as Declining Religious Authority.” Social Forces 72.3
(1994) 749–74.
n Finke, Roger, and Rodney Stark. The Churching of America, 1776–1990: Winners
and Losers in Our Religious Economy. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press,
n Martin, David. A General Theory of Secularization. Oxford: Blackwell, 1978.
n Norris, Pippa, and Ronald Inglehart. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics
Worldwide. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
n Casanova, José. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 1994.
n Scott, David, and Charles Hirshkind, eds. Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad
and His Interlocuters. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.
n Seligman, Adam. Modernity’s Wager: Authority, the Self, and Transcendence. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2000.
n Smith, Christian, ed. The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the
Secularization of American Public Life. Berkeley: University of California Press,
n Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. The Future of Religion: Secularization,
Revival, and Cult Formation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
n Stark, Rodney, and Roger Finke. Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

bibliographic review

Books on the Secularization Debate

At the very least, present-day theorists of secularization agree that modernity can be
defined in numerous ways and that the original inception of secularization theory needs
complicating. Perhaps it is time to take the tools created by the critics and the re-formu-
lators, work out the history of what has happened concerning religion in each “modern”
society, then come together in ten or twenty years and see what we come up with at
that point. Perhaps there is yet to arise a new theory of secularization? For useful guides
to the modern debates, see:

n Bhargava, Rajeev, ed. Secularism and Its Critics. Delhi: Oxford University Press,
n Bruce, Steve, ed. Religion and Modernization: Sociologists and Historians Debate the
Secularization Thesis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
n Swatos, Jr., William H., and Daniel V. A. Olson, eds. The Secularization Debate.
Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

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Rethinking Secularization
José Casanova

Is Europe an Exceptional Case?

Grace Davie

Secularization and the Impotence of Individualized Religion

Steve Bruce

Challenging Secularization Theory

Paul Heelas

In Search of Certainties
Danièle Hervieu-Léger

Sellers or Buyers in Religious Markets?

Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart

French Secularism and the “Islamic Veil Affair”

Talal Asad

Secularity without Secularism

David Novak

American Religion and European Anti-Americanism

Thomas Albert Howard

Islam in the West or Western Islam?

Olivier Roy

Secularization, European Identity, and “The End of the West”

Slavica Jakelić

Islam in European Publics

Nilüfer Göle

Interview with Peter Berger