In the 1960s sociologists predicted that modernisation would automatically lead to secularisation. With the exception of Europe this has not happened. Peter Berger asks why they (and he) were wrong, and considers the likely impact of the Islamic and evangelical movements on world politicsby Peter Berger / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
A few years ago there landed on my desk the first volume produced by something called the Fundamentalism Project. The volume-generously funded by the MacArthur Foundation-was very big, a “book-weapon” type with which one could cause a serious injury. I asked myself: why would the MacArthur Foundation pay out several million dollars to support an international study of religious fundamentalists? Two answers came to mind. The most obvious one was that the MacArthur Foundation is a progressive outfit, which understands fundamentalists to be anti-progressive; the project, then, was a matter of knowing one’s enemies. The second answer was more revealing: so-called fundamentalism was assumed to be a strange phenomenon; the purpose of the project was to delve into this world and make it more understandable.
But then came another question: who finds this world strange, and to whom must it be made understandable? The answer was easy: people to whom the officials of the MacArthur Foundation normally talk, namely professors at American elite universities. It was then that I realised that the project was based on an upside down perception of the world. It assumed that so-called fundamentalism (which, when all is said and done, usually refers to any sort of passionate religious movement) is a rare and difficult phenomenon to explain. But in fact it is not rare at all. What is rare is people who think otherwise. What is difficult to understand is not Iranian mullahs but American university professors.
The assumption that we live in a secularised world is false. 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 body of literature written by historians and social scientists over the 1950s and 1960s, loosely labelled as “secularisation theory,” was essentially mistaken. In my early work I contributed to this literature-most sociologists of religion did. Although some of these writings still stand up today, the core premise does not.
The key idea of secularisation theory can be traced to the Enlightenment: modernisation necessarily leads to a decline of religion, both in society and in individuals. To be sure, modernisation has had some secularising effects, but it has also provoked powerful counter-movements. Also, the secularisation of society does not necessarily lead to that of the individual. Religious institutions may have lost power and influence in many societies, but both old and new religious beliefs and practices continue in the lives of individuals, sometimes taking new institutional forms, sometimes leading to great explosions of religious fervour. On the other hand, religiously identified institutions can play social or political roles even when very few people believe or practise the religion represented by these institutions. The relation between religion and modernity is complicated.
The proposition that modernity necessarily leads to a decline of religion is, in principle, “value free.” Enlightenment thinkers and their successors have tended toward the idea that secularisation is a good thing, at least in so far as it does away with religious phenomena that are “backward,” “superstitious,” or “reactionary.” Religious people, including those with traditional or orthodox beliefs, have also affirmed the link between modernity and secularity, and have greatly bemoaned it. Some have defined modernity as the enemy, to be fought whenever possible. Others have seen modernity as an invincible worldview to which religious beliefs and practices should adapt. Both strategies have had doubtful results.
It is possible, of course, to reject any number of modern ideas and values in theory, but to make this rejection stick in practice is more difficult. To do that, you have to take over a society and make your counter-modern religion obligatory for everyone-a difficult enterprise. Franco tried in Spain, and failed; the mullahs are still trying in Iran and a couple of other places; in most of the world such exercises in religious conquest are unlikely to succeed. Modernisation creates very heterogeneous societies and a quantum leap in intercultural communication, both of which favour pluralism, not the establishment (or re-establishment) of religious monopolies. An alternative means of contesting modernisation is to create religious subcultures designed to keep at bay the influences of the outside world. That is a more promising exercise than religious revolution, but it, too, is fraught with difficulty. Where it has taken root, modern culture is a very powerful force, so an immense effort is required to maintain enclaves with an airtight defence system. Ask the Amish in Pennsylvania, or a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn.
Modernisation may be almost irresistible, but it does not automatically lead to secularisation. If we really lived in a highly secularised world, then religious institutions could be expected to survive to the degree that they manage to adapt to secularism. What has in fact happened is that, by and large, religious communities have survived and indeed flourished to the degree that they have not tried to adapt themselves to the alleged requirements of a secularised world. Religious movements with beliefs and practices dripping with “reactionary supernaturalism” have the best record of success.
The struggle with modernity in the Roman catholic church illustrates the difficulties of rejection and adaptation strategies. In the wake of the Enlightenment and its multiple revolutions, the church’s response was first militant and then defiant rejection. This culminated in 1870, when the first Vatican council solemnly proclaimed the infallibility of the Pope and the immaculate conception of Mary, just as the Enlightenment was about to occupy Rome in the shape of the army of Victor Emmanuel II. The disdain was mutual. The Roman monument to the Bersaglieri, the elite army units that occupied the eternal city in the name of the Italian Risorgimento, positions the heroic figure in such a way that his behind points exactly toward the Vatican.
The second Vatican council, 100 years later, considerably modified this rejectionist approach. It tried to open windows, especially those of the strong anti-secular catholic subculture that had been constructed when it became clear that society as a whole could not be reconquered. The trouble with opening windows is that you cannot control what comes in through them, and a lot has come in-indeed, the whole turbulent world of modern culture. This has been very troubling to the church. Under the current pontificate the church has been steering a nuanced course between rejection and adaptation, with mixed results in different countries.
Looking at the international religious scene conservative or orthodox movements are on the rise almost everywhere. These movements are precisely those that rejected a deal with modernity as defined by progressive intellectuals. Religious movements and institutions that have made great efforts to conform to a perceived modernity, however, are on the wane almost everywhere. In the US and Britain this has been much commented upon, and is exemplified by the decline of mainstream protestantism and the rise of evangelicalism.
The conservative thrust in the Roman catholic church under John Paul II has borne fruit in both the number of converts and in the renewed enthusiasm among native catholics, especially in non-western countries. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, too, there has been a revival of the orthodox church in Russia. The most rapidly growing Jewish groups, both in Israel and in the diaspora, are orthodox. There have been similar upsurges of conservative religion in all the other major religious communities-Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism-as well as revival movements in smaller communities (Shinto in Japan and Sikhism in India).
Taken together these movements refute the idea that modernisation leads ineluctably to secularisation. At the very least one can say that counter-secularisation is as important in the contemporary world as secularisation.
fundamentalism suggests great religious passion, a defiance of what others have defined as the Zeitgeist, and a return to traditional sources of religious authority. These are common features which must be understood as a reaction against secularising forces. Modernity undermines certainties and uncertainty is a condition that many people find hard to bear. Any movement (not only a religious one) that promises to provide or renew certainty has a ready market.
If fundamentalism displays common features across cultural boundaries, there are differences too. Take the Islamic and the evangelical upsurges, arguably the two most dynamic in the world today. The Islamic upsurge, because of its immediate political ramifications, is the better known of the two. But it would be a mistake to see it only through a political lens. It is an impressive revival of emphatically religious commitments. And it is of vast geographical scope, affecting every Muslim country from north Africa to southeast Asia. It continues to gain converts, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is often in direct competition with Christianity. It is becoming very visible in the burgeoning Muslim communities in Europe and, to a much lesser extent, in North America. This revival is restoring not only Islamic beliefs, but also distinctive Islamic lifestyles, which clash with modern ideas on the relation between religion and the state, the role of women, moral codes of everyday behaviour and the boundaries of religious and moral tolerance.
This Islamic revival is by no means restricted to the less modernised sectors of society, as progressive intellectuals like to think. On the contrary, it is very strong in cities with a high degree of modernisation, and is particularly visible among people with western-style higher education-in Egypt and Turkey, for example, it is often the daughters of secularised professionals who are putting on the veil.
Islamic conservatism means very different things in, say, Saudi Arabia and Iran. As one moves away from the middle east, the differences become even greater. In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, a powerful revival movement, the Nahdatul Ulama, is avowedly pro-democracy and pro-pluralism. Where the political circumstances allow it, there is a lively discussion about the relationship of Islam to various modern realities, and there are sharp disagreements between individuals who are equally committed to a revitalised Islam. Still, it is probably fair to say that Islam has had a difficult time coming to terms with key modern institutions-pluralism, democracy, the market economy.
The evangelical upsurge is just as broad. Geographically its scope is even wider than that of the Islamic revival. It has gained huge numbers of converts in east Asia-in all the Chinese communities (including, despite persecution, in mainland China) and in South Korea, the Philippines, throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and apparently in parts of former communist Europe. But the most remarkable success has occurred in Latin America. It is estimated that there are now between 40m and 50m evangelical protestants south of the US border, the great majority of them first generation.
The most numerous component within the evangelical upsurge is pentecostal, combining biblical orthodoxy and a rigorous morality with an ecstatic form of worship and an emphasis on spiritual healing. Especially in Latin America, conversion to protestantism brings about a cultural transformation-new attitudes towards work and consumption, a new educational ethos and a rejection of traditional machismo (women play a key role in the evangelical churches). Unlike the Islamic upsurge which is happening almost exclusively in Muslim countries, the evangelical movement is growing in countries where this type of religion was previously unknown or marginal. The origins of this evangelical upsurge are in the US, from where the missionaries were first dispatched. But the new evangelicalism is now thoroughly indigenous-indeed, Latin American evangelicals are sending missionaries to the Hispanic community in the US.
there are two exceptions to this wave of counter-secularisation. The first is in western Europe, where the old secularisation theory seems to hold. With increasing modernisation there has been an increase in the key indicators of secularisation: on the level of expressed beliefs, on the level of church-related behaviour (attendance at services of worship, adherence to church-dictated codes of personal behaviour-on sexuality, reproduction, and marriage) and, finally, recruitment to the clergy. These phenomena have long been observed in northern Europe, but since the second world war they have also engulfed the south. Thus Italy and Spain have experienced a rapid decline in church-related religion-so has Greece (thus undercutting the claim of catholic conservatives that Vatican II is to be blamed for the decline). There is now a massively secular Euroculture and it is not fanciful to predict that there will be similar developments in eastern Europe.
While these facts are not in dispute, a number of recent works in the sociology of religion (in France, Britain, and Scandinavia) have questioned the term “secularisation” as applied to these developments. Evidence suggests strongly surviving belief, most of it Christian, despite widespread alienation from the organised churches. If the data stand up to scrutiny, a shift in the institutional location of religion, rather than secularisation, would be a more accurate description of the European situation. All the same, Europe stands out from the rest of the world. It certainly differs sharply from the religious situation in the US. One of the most interesting puzzles in the sociology of religion is why Americans are so much more religious, as well as more churchgoing, than Europeans.
The other exception to the counter-secularisation thesis is less ambiguous. There exists an international subculture composed of people with higher education, especially in the humanities and social sciences, which is secularised by any measure. This subculture is the principal “carrier” of progressive, enlightenment beliefs and values. While the people in this subculture are relatively thin on the ground, they are very influential, as they control areas that provide the “official” definitions of reality (education, the media, the legal system). This international subculture is remarkably similar all over the world, even if there are defectors from it, especially in the Muslim countries. Why it is that people with this type of education should be so prone to secularisation is not entirely clear, but there is, without question, a globalised elite culture. In country after country, religious upsurges have a populist character: over and beyond the purely religious motives, these are movements of protests and resistance against a secular elite. The so-called “culture war” in the US emphatically shares this feature.
this somewhat breathless tour d’horizon of the global religious scene raises several questions. First, what are the origins of the worldwide resurgence of religion? Two possible answers have already been mentioned. The first is that modernity tends to undermine the certainties by which people have lived through most of history. The second is that a purely secular view of reality has its principal social location in an elite culture that, not surprisingly, is resented by large numbers of people who are not part of it but who nevertheless feel its influence. Religious movements can appeal to people with resentments that sometimes have non-religious sources.
But there is another answer, which recalls my opening story. In a sense, there is nothing to explain here. Deeply felt religion has always been around; what needs explanation is its absence-the University of Chicago is a more interesting topic for the sociology of religion than the Islamic schools of Qom.
The second question concerns the likely future course of the religious resurgence and its effect on international politics and economics. One prediction can be made with some assurance: there is no reason to think that the world of the 21st century will be any less religious than the world today. The religious impulse, the quest for meaning that transcends the restricted space of empirical existence in this world, has been a perennial feature of humanity. It would require something close to a mutation of the species finally to extinguish this impulse. Thus far this has not happened and it is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.
A minority of sociologists of religion have been trying to salvage the old secularisation theory by what may be called the “last-gasp” thesis: modernisation does secularise, and movements such as the Islamic and the evangelical ones represent last-ditch defences by religion that cannot win. Eventually, secularism will triumph-Iranian mullahs, pentecostal preachers and Tibetan lamas will all think and act like professors of literature at American universities. This thesis is unpersuasive.
If the religious impulse is unlikely to wane in the foreseeable future, it is more difficult to make predictions about the politics of religion because individual personalities play a much greater role than most social scientists and historians are willing to concede. There might have been an Islamic revolution in Iran without the Ayatollah Khomeini, but it would have looked quite different. No one can predict the appearance of charismatic figures who will launch powerful religious movements in places where no one expected them. Who knows-the next religious upsurge could occur among disenchanted postmodern academics.
Religious movements will continue to differ in their relation to modernity. The Islamic resurgence tends toward a negative view of modernity; in places it is downright anti-modern or counter-modernising, as in its view of the role of women. By contrast, the evangelical resurgence is positively modernising in most places where it occurs, clearly so in Latin America.
Samuel Huntington’s thesis that cultural and religious animosities suppressed during the cold war are resurfacing is certainly plausible. The closest thing to a religiously defined clash of civilisations would come about if the radical Islamic interpretation of the world became the basis of foreign policy within a wider spectrum of Muslim countries. As yet this has not happened.
Indeed, the most militant Islamic movements will have difficulty maintaining their present stance vis-? -vis modernity should they succeed in taking over the governments of their countries. This is already apparent in Iran. It is also unlikely that pentecostalism, as it exists today among mostly poor and uneducated people, will retain its present religious and moral characteristics unchanged as many of these people move up the social scale.
When discussing religion and politics, we must distinguish between those who are genuine believers and those who use religion as a convenient legitimation for political agendas based on non-religious interests. Such a distinction is difficult but not impossible to establish. Thus there is no reason to doubt that the suicide bombers of the Hamas movement believe in the religious motives they avow. By contrast, there is good reason to doubt that the three parties involved in the Bosnian conflict, commonly represented as a clash between religions, are really inspired by religious ideas. PJ O’Rourke observed that these three parties are of the same race, speak the same language, and are distinguished only by their religions-in which none of them believe.
The resurgence of religion also has implications for economic development. The basic text on the relation between religion and economic development is Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It is clear that some values foster modern economic development more than others. Something like Weber’s “protestant ethic” is probably functional in an early phase of capitalist growth-an ethic, whether religiously inspired or not, which values personal discipline, hard work, frugality, and a respect for learning.
The new evangelicalism in Latin America exhibits these values in crystalline purity. Iberian catholicism, however, which was so well established in Latin America, clearly does not foster such values. But religious traditions can change. Spain experienced a successful period of economic development which began in the waning years of the Franco regime. One of the important factors was the influence of Opus Dei, which combined rigorous theological orthodoxy with market-friendly openness in economic matters. Islam, by and large, has difficulties with a modern market economy, and with modern banking in particular. However, Muslim emigrants have done remarkably well in a number of countries (for instance, in sub-Saharan Africa) and there is a powerful Islamic movement in Indonesia-the aforementioned Nahdatul Ulama-that might yet play a role analogous to that of Opus Dei in the catholic world.
But values which function at one period of economic development may not function at another. The values of the “protestant ethic” are probably essential during the phase that Walt Rostow called “the take-off.” Much less austere values may be more functional in the post-industrial economies of Europe, North America and east Asia. Frugality, however admirable from a moral viewpoint, may now be a vice, economically speaking. Undisciplined hedonists have a hard time climbing out of poverty but they can do very well in the high-tech, knowledge driven economies of the advanced societies.
Finally, there is the effect of religious resurgence on human rights and social justice. Religious institutions have had political influence, for example in the civil rights struggle in the US or in the collapse of communist regimes in Europe and apartheid in South Africa. But there are many different religiously inspired views about the nature of human rights.
Both those who have great hopes for the role of religion in the affairs of this world and those who fear this role must be disappointed by the evidence, which points in so many directions at once. But one statement can be made with great confidence: those who neglect religion in their analyses of contemporary affairs do so at their peril.