Sunday, April 24, 2005

Secularization doesn’t just happen - First Things: The Public Square

“As society became more modern, it became more secular.” That sentence has about it a certain “of courseness.” It or its equivalent is to be found in numerous textbooks from grade school through graduate school. The connection between modernization and secularization is taken for granted. Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, challenges what everybody knows in an important new collection of essays by several sociologists and historians, The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life (University of California Press, 484 pp., $60). ...

There are, writes Smith, seven crucial and related defects in conventional secularization theory. Over-abstraction: the literature of the theorists routinely spoke of “differentiation,” “autonomization,” “privatization,” and other abstract, if not abstruse, dynamics disengaged from concrete factors of social change such as interests, ideologies, institutions, and power conflicts. Lack of human agency: the theory was big on process without protagonists. It depicted secularization without secularizers. According to the theory, secularization just happens. Overdeterministic inevitability: “Religion’s marginalization from public life is portrayed as a natural or inevitable process like cell mitosis or adolescent puberty.” Secularization theory reflects a view of linear social evolution in the tradition of Comte and Spencer. “If there is one truth that history teaches us beyond doubt,” wrote the great Durkheim, “it is that religion tends to embrace a smaller and smaller portion of social life.” Any questions, class?

These are interesting and resonate as true. Plus four more that begin to lose me. I'll put this in my "to read" pile. Whether I'll become a regular reader of First Things is in doubt. While I found this article penetrable, much of the other contributions in the few issues I scanned were impenetrable - first things first, and if I'm to get much out of First Things I'll need some more brains.

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