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The Secularization Thesis

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"one key to secularization is modernization.... Like mary's little lamb, wherever modernization is at work, secularization is sure to go."

From the beginning of the world there has been no region, no city, in short, no household that could do without religion....At the same time, I do not say, as Cicero did, that errors disappear with the lapse of time, and that religion grows and becomes better each day. (1) John Calvin

Introducing the Secularization Thesis

Your children are less likely to be committed to Christian faith and practice than you are. In broad terms, that's the secularization thesis. Especially for those who take their faith seriously, there is hardly an academic debate with more bearing on our practical lives.

In conservative circles, secularization usually conjures the image of a cabal of cultural elites, moving stealthily between New York, Washington, and Hollywood to drive religion out of public life. The enemy is obvious and, more importantly, external. According to the secularization thesis (hereafter ST), secularization is a lot more complicated, subtle, and unintentional. In fact, we aren't passive victims but part of the process in all sorts of ways every day.

Before summarizing the ST, it's important to be precise out of the gate about what it's not saying. First, secularization shouldn't be equated with secularism: the former is a process, the latter an ideology. The ST doesn't say what should happen. Nor does it see secularization as the triumph of adult reason over childhood faith. Second, the ST does not say that in the future religion will eventually die out, as secularists might argue. People will still follow certain beliefs and practices in various religious communities. But it won't have the same level of public significance in the long term, and as the current of secularization gains strength it will be more difficult to swim against it.

Defining the Secularization Thesis (ST)

The ST is relatively simple, though the process is complex: As societies modernize, they become less religious. This secularization is both external (a gradual fading of a particular religion from the public square) and internal (a gradual transformation and accommodation of traditional religions themselves).

One key to secularization is modernization: they go hand in hand. According to sociologist Peter Berger's widely invoked definition, modernization "consists of the growth and diffusion of a set of institutions rooted in the transformation of the economy by means of technology." (2) There is no "modern society," but "only societies that are more or less advanced on the continuum of modernization." (3)

Like Mary's little lamb, wherever modernization is at work, secularization is sure to go. This is why some Anabaptist communities still shun modern conveniences. More obviously (and, of course, violently), Islamists are adamantly opposed to the expansion of Western patterns—not only liberal democracy, but also the visible signs of participation in the global economy. The 2012 film Salmon Fishing in the Yemen offers a vignette of this larger resistance.

The Rise and Fall of Religion? The Debate

There has been a lively debate about the secularization of religion over the last twenty-five years. In the late 1980s, sociologist Peter Berger announced that he no longer believed the secularization thesis, though he had once been a leading proponent of the view. It may work for Europe, he supposed, but it hardly explains the explosion of radical Islam around the world (even in Europe itself) or of fundamentalist and Pentecostal forms of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and evangelical megachurches and political influence in America. Others have joined Berger, such as Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark.

People still go to church—just different ones. Using his South Dakota hometown as an example, Stark observes that the old mainline churches in the center of town are virtually empty, but the Assemblies of God folks who started in a strip mall are now the megachurch near the freeway. In fact, Stark has argued that instead of destroying religion, competition in the marketplace actually energizes it. All boats rise when free enterprise is at work, even in religion.

Yet the debate seems to have only just begun. Along with Mark Chaves, N. J. Demerath, and others, University of Aberdeen sociologist Steve Bruce has mounted an impressive case for the ST in the face of recent objections. These scholars argue that you can't just look at drop-out numbers to detect secularization. Often in different ways, with radically different agendas, liberal and conservative churches themselves are carriers of modernization and therefore secularization. They don't impede the transition from God-centered to human-centered, public claims to private experience, theology to therapy, and truth to technique. In fact, they typically foster it.

Defending the Secularization Thesis: Steve Bruce

Although this debate has been held primarily among academics, and many evangelical scholars take the side of Peter Berger against the secularization thesis, we argue that there are important aspects of the ST that help explain American religious experience. In his impressive book Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory, Steve Bruce makes a solid case for the secularization of religion thesis. Marshaling piles of data, he distinguishes carefully between secularist polemics arguing for a deliberate program against religion on the one hand and secularization as a mostly inadvertent process on the other. Bruce's case is not to argue for or against the merits of secularization, but simply to document, as a sociologist, the process and consequences of secularization in modern culture.

Anticipating the usual objections, Bruce begins by identifying the typical factors of secularization: a gradual weakening of social power and difficulty in socializing children in the faith. Without state support and the influx of immigrants who practice their religion freely, even a residual social consensus privileging one religion begins to fade. Without the ambient affirmation of a particular religion in public, the individual is left to the support of mediating institutions—family, church, school, and the wider subculture of adherents. Beliefs and practices once considered normal are now considered odd and perhaps even antisocial. Bruce says, "As religion becomes increasingly a matter of free choice, it becomes harder to maintain boundaries." This encourages "first relativism—all roads lead to God—and then indifference as it becomes harder to persuade people that there is special merit in any particular road" (Bruce, 2-3). He shares Thomas Luckmann's view that "religion does not disappear; rather, it is transformed into the private codes of 'self-expression' and 'self-realisation' in an invisible or private form of religion" (Bruce, 24).

Internal secularization results, and you see this in both mainline and evangelical churches, especially in their efforts to be relevant. Bruce writes: "In brief, the major churches have responded to the liberalization of the general environment by themselves becoming more liberal in doctrine and more ecumenical in inter-church relations." Framing religion—in fact, selling it—in terms of consumers picking and choosing what they find valuable is to embrace secularization. In mainline churches, it is often among the clergy that one finds a lack of conviction in the specific articles of the Apostle's Creed. Even where the creed is still affirmed, "the basic Christian ideas have been internalized and psychologized," Bruce says. "Evil and sin have been turned into alienation and unhappiness. The vengeful God has been replaced by Christ the inspiring Big Brother or Christ the therapist. The purpose of religion is no longer to glorify God: it is to help find peace of mind andpersonal satisfaction" (Bruce, 13).

Revivals: Energizing Secularization

Even movements that are hailed by some as revivals can be seen to facilitate rather than interrupt the secularization process. Bruce says, "Although the charismatic movement that influenced Protestant churches in the 1970s is often seen as a conservative reaction to liberalizing trends, the reality is rather different." Although the emphasis on miracles "might seem like a significant injection of supernaturalism," he argues, "it eroded the doctrinal orthodoxy of conservative Protestant sects" and "recruited primarily from older denominations and sects rather than from the unchurched." In fact, "much of their appeal lay in the way they disguised the extent of change with some old language. Far from being a cure for the liberalization of the faith, they made the change easier by providing easy steps away from the old orthodoxies" (Bruce, 14).

One of the points Bruce emphasizes is that this process is often carried forward by unintended consequences. It is not the case that secularists are winning arguments and court cases, or even that people prefer its dogmas to Christian ones.

So citing examples of outbreaks of religious enthusiasm is not enough to refute the ST. Where these resurgences appear, they are either hostile to modernization (thereby slowing its general acceptance) or are successful precisely by accommodating internal secularization. Wherever modernization is lagging, secularization is lagging as well. So the rising enthusiasm in close-knit tribal territories of Pakistan, where children are isolated in madrassas from Western influences, doesn't count against the ST (Bruce, 26). Modernization is real, it is global, and wherever it becomes entrenched, secularization is inevitable. Is it more difficult to be a convinced and practicing Christian today than it was even a generation ago? If your answer is yes, then you're basically in agreement with the ST.

The Private World of Religious Experience

Under these conditions, believers themselves begin to compartmentalize their lives. There have always been hypocrites and heretics, but in the medieval worldview (and in Islamist communities today) there is no corner of life where the heavenly world doesn't somehow affect daily affairs. Under the terms of modernization, however, we agree to leave our private convictions at the checkpoint before entering the public square. There are public beliefs that are hammered out through rational debate and consensus. We use the same calculative reason when we go to work, pick up our prescriptions, and make preparations for a hurricane that the meteorologists have calculated for our region. But then on Sunday or in private devotions we shift subconsciously to a different worldview.

The compartmentalization of "doctrine" and "life" and then of "spirituality" and "the real world" deepens into a yawning chasm. We struggle with the contradiction and sometimes feel anxiously pressed to choose between a private but irrational faith and a public but utterly naturalistic reason. "With compartmentalization comes privatization: the sense that the reach of religion is shortened to just those who accept the teachings of this or that faith" (Bruce, 38).

As Thomas Luckmann explains, individual autonomy is enshrined in the idea of a consumer. Religion is private and therefore one may buy whatever product one finds useful. (4) Even when you can point to encouraging "sales figures" as an evangelist, you've succeeded at the cost of translating objective truth-claims centered on God into subjective purchases centered on the self. Those for whom private therapy is the dominant religious motive will not likely transmit a body of doctrine and traditional practices to their children. The bubble will burst. "Relativism debilitates faith by removing the best reason to ensure one's children are socialized in the faith. If all faiths (and none) offer a road to God, if there is no hell to which heretics get sent, then there is no need to ensure the transmission of orthodoxy" (Bruce, 47-48).

The Case For the Transformation of Religion

Critics believe that proponents of the secularization thesis interpret global religious movements through the narrow lens of European secularization. To be sure, Europe is secularized. They will argue, however, that this pattern doesn't work for the United States, much less for the global south, where conservative—even radical—forms of Islam and Christianity are bursting at the seams. But by debating too narrowly the question of the disappearance of religion, critics of the secularization thesis fail to see the transformation of religion that is at the heart of the process of secularization.

Steve Bruce wonders if critics have even understood the trend line of European secularization. It's not a free fall that occurred from the 1960s, but part of a longer trajectory of displacement. In his book, Bruce offers overwhelming data showing that even where revivals—especially in the U.K.—have given a momentary spike in church attendance and social piety, the aftermath is usually lower church involvement than had been true before the revival. Critics of the ST are looking at the spikes—including bursts of religious enthusiasm in various parts of the world today, instead of the longer trend lines whereupon after each revival Anglican, Methodist, and Baptist churches declined in membership. This suggests a radical transformation and displacement of religion, not its disappearance.

Yet, once again, Bruce doesn't rest everything on church drop-out numbers. Even where in revivalist religion "business is booming," the very fact that it thinks and acts like a business is evidence of internal secularization.

Spirituality vs. Religion?

What then about the apparent popularity of New Age or other occult spiritualties? For the most part, this impression is anecdotal, says Bruce. An impressive cadre of celebrity endorsers is hardly a mass movement. Besides, when looking at the data, New Agers are a terrific example of secularization.

First, most were raised in fairly traditional religious backgrounds. Statistically, there isn't a sudden rush of atheists and agnostics who are reading Deepak Chopra or signing up for Kabbalah courses. It's simply a stage along the exodus from more traditional religious communities; it's "fuzzy fidelity." Bruce writes, "As Voas concludes: 'Fuzzy fidelity is not a new kind of religion, or a proxy for as yet unfocused spiritual seeking; it is a staging post on the road from religious to secular hegemony'" (Bruce, 22). In other words, movements like this consist not of serious adherents, but of consumers who are on their way out of traditional religions. (Oprah Winfrey was reared in the Missionary Baptist Church and was dubbed "the preacher girl." Shirley MacLaine's parents were Southern Baptist missionaries.) Furthermore, they do not proselytize, and they do not pass their beliefs (utterly unique to each sovereign chooser) to their children. They do not reproduce.

"The secularization paradigm has no argument with the claim that there has been an increase in individualistic this-worldly religion," says Bruce. "Indeed, the shift from authoritarian dogmatic religion predicated on an external Creator to individualistic forms of religion is a central part of the secularization thesis" (Bruce, 103). If those reared in more traditional religions are becoming New Agers, then that's exactly what the ST expects. "While the sovereign consumerism of the New Age may be extreme, it is part of a general trend in the religious culture of the Western world" (Bruce, 155).

Nor is Bruce baffled by the evidence of evangelical vitality in the United States. First, the triumph of secularization itself often provokes futile rebellions among those who feel threatened. But even in terms of numbers, there simply has been no mass conversion of Episcopalians to Southern Baptists, or agnostics joining the ranks of the born again. Rather, evangelicals—like most subcultures in modernized societies—have become a special interest group, like a trade union or ethnic minority. As the U.S. economic base has shifted from urban northern centers to the Sun Belt, the evangelical subculture has spawned schools, colleges, and mass media. Overall, however, the national indicators of religious conviction are on the decline. Second, evangelical political efforts—not theology—brought considerable media attention to the movement. Even then, the Christian Right failed to win many, if any, of its major policy concerns (Bruce, 157-58). And, one might add, recent surveys indicate that the next generation of evangelical voters is far more affirming of gay marriage, abortion rights, and other nemeses of their parents' generation.

Secularization and the Christian Life

Even more telling, though, is the evidence of this internal secularization that the last point highlights. "In 1996, Bryan Wilson drew a contrast that has turned out to be remarkably accurate. He suggested that, while Europeans secularized by abandoning the churches, Americans secularized their churches." The statistics demonstrate that American Christians have become increasingly vague about their beliefs or even reject various orthodox doctrines (Bruce, 160). Bruce agrees with sociologist Wilson's conclusion that secularization has taken two forms: "In Europe, the churches became less popular; in the United States, the churches became less religious" (Bruce, 156).

According to Bruce, "The simplest way of describing the changes in content of much American religion is to say that the supernatural has been diminished and it has been psychologized or subjectivized." Evangelicals criticized liberals like Harry Emerson Fosdick in the 1930s and Norman Vincent Peale through the 1930s and '50s for doing this, but Peale's understudy, Robert Schuller, was widely embraced as an evangelical. Instead of God's wrath against human sin, the real human problem according to Fosdick was that "'multitudes of people are living not bad but frittered lives—split, scattered, uncoordinated.' The solution was a religion that would 'furnish an inward spiritual dynamic for radiant and triumphant living.'" (5) "Conservatives had been bitterly critical of liberals for turning salvation...into this-worldly personal therapy. Yet, two generations later, evangelicals were rewriting the gospel in the same way" (Bruce, 163). So even the arguments of Christian conservatives are framed in the way once championed by liberals. Wade Clark Roof notes that "the religious stance today is more internal than external, more individual than institutional, more experiential than cerebral, more private than public" (Bruce, 165-66).

The same changes are evident in behavioral codes. Bruce notes that evangelicals were known for strict (some would say legalistic) behavioral codes. In the 1950s nearly all evangelicals said that dancing and alcohol were "wrong all the time." He writes, "In 2003, almost half of born-again Christians thought that 'living with someone of the opposite sex without being married' was morally acceptable." After all, objective norms have been transformed into private therapies. Even conservatives defend traditional values now with liberal (secular) assumptions. Divorce is wrong not because God forbids it, but because it is "socially dysfunctional." "Legal battles over abortion are fought on the entirely secular principle that abortion infringes on the universal right to life" (Bruce, 171). While most favor prayer in public schools, "Only 12 percent of evangelicals thought that such prayers should be specifically Christian." (6) Especially in many of the churches that are booming, internal secularization is particularly evident as the message is psychologized and subjectivized. In the 1980s, Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham captured national headlines for evangelicals. More recently, one thinks of Joel Osteen and Rob Bell. This is the secularization paradigm.

Yet even in terms of drop-out rates favored by critics, the ST seems to be increasingly confirmed. After Bruce's book was published, a 2012 Pew Religion Survey showed that the number of Americans who check the box "None" for religion has grown over the last five years from 15 percent to just under 20 percent even though "three-fourths of unaffiliated adults were raised with some affiliation (74%)." (7) And while whole ministries were geared toward "seekers" among the Boomer generation, 88 percent of the religiously unaffiliated now say they're not even looking. This demographic is growing especially among the younger generations who have not even been part of a church. It's not that they have moved out of a particular church or denomination; they don't identify with any religion. "In 2007 60% of those who said they seldom or never attend religious services nevertheless described themselves as belonging to a particular religious tradition." In 2010, it was 50 percent— "a 10-point drop in five years." Just what the ST predicts.

The Big Question

Can secularization be reversed? "There is no sign that the people of the West are willing to give up their autonomy," says Bruce. Wherever "the individual asserts the rights of the sovereign autonomous consumer," so too will secularization. The idea that a good war or a national disaster will turn us around is nonsense. "Britain experienced two catastrophic wars and an intervening depression without a religious revival" (Bruce, 55). There may be occasional "retarding tendencies" along the way. "But, unless we can imagine a reversal of the increasing cultural autonomy of the individual, secularization must be seen as irreversible" (Bruce, 56).

Making Sense of the Modern World

My goal here has been simply to summarize what seems to me to be a fairly compelling thesis with important practical implications for all of us. Our response to secularization depends to a large extent on what we think it is in the first place. I'll conclude with two brief responses.

Sharing the Blame

First, if the ST is correct, then we have to stop thinking that we're simply a passive victim of a highly funded cultural elite and realize that we ourselves—our families, churches, schools, and subculture—are not only centers of resistance but also carriers of secularization. We need to become more self-critical—and critical of aspects of modernization that we have not only taken for granted but even treated as part and parcel of traditional Christianity.

Lionizing or demonizing is the lazy option. Capitalism, democracy, and technology can't be embraced or rejected wholesale. By friends, Christianity is often praised as the force behind modernization. (8) By foes, it is seen as either the enemy of freedom or the source of modernization's worst features. Christians have theological reasons to resist simplistic and reductionistic answers. Christianity has influenced, and has been influenced by, all sorts of trends that we like and dislike. The church has persecuted and liberated. The deepest instincts of the New Testament draw us to defend religious liberty, but also to resist a naturalistic worldview that enshrines human autonomy.

As those who live in, but are no longer defined by, this passing age, Christians of all people should be suspicious of every principality and power that claims ultimate allegiance. Yet as those who know that the age to come has not yet been consummated by the return of Christ, and that we ourselves remain simultaneously justified and sinful, we can find no pure alternative to modernization that could compensate for Christ's fully realized kingdom.

The ST helps us let go of our nearly idolatrous obsession with America in particular and with the West in general, as something that belongs to us that we must win back by another revival, great awakening, or political crusade. It can cause anxiety, but it can also help relieve it, by letting us focus finally on our Lord's commission to his apostles to preach the gospel, baptize, and teach everything he commanded. The increasing secularization of the kind of society we have right now seems inevitable—in purely natural terms—but the growth of Christ's kingdom has the promise of a risen Lord and the powerful presence of his Word and Spirit.

The early Christians didn't have an empire to "win back." They knew they were strangers and aliens sent to proclaim good news to the captives to the ends of the earth. They gathered—even secretly when necessary—"for the apostles' teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). They proclaimed God's Word as true for all people everywhere. They testified to the coming judgment, with Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father. Dubbed "enemies of humanity," they nevertheless loved their neighbors. And they evangelized, baptized, catechized, communed, and cared for the spiritual and temporal needs of the saints. They were always in danger either of being persecuted or being absorbed into the cultus of Roman paganism.

But Caesar was too late, and even if he had been on time, he was never the lord of history. Jesus already reversed the inevitable process of our fallen world to death and hell. It is precisely this news that we proclaim to the world and in the light of this news that we live hopeful and secure lives in the world each day. It is on this basis that we leave off trying to turn back the secularizing forces of modernity in our culture and simply teach the faith to our children, share in the communion of saints, and love and serve our neighbors each day.

The Limits of the Secularization Thesis

Second, even if the ST is correct, it is—like all other natural explanations—limited in its predictive power. It can only tell us what normally happens under certain conditions. A doctor can tell you what is likely to happen given various factors of genes, diet, habits, and exercise. Apart from Christ's resurrection from the dead, there is no evidence in this world that we will be raised—and much in our present condition to count against that hope. Astrophysicists can predict with remarkable mathematical precision the likelihood that our expanding universe will collapse in on itself at some point in the future. Using mathematical formulas, Las Vegas bookies can predict with stupefying accuracy the outcome of the World Series. Sophisticated methods of calculative analysis are not simply entertaining; they are often crucial and even life-saving. But they only cover the natural explanations—how things ordinarily go, things being what they are. They can't account for the sudden recovery from cancer that defies the odds, the second coming of Christ, or the career of Babe Ruth.

There is no way of predicting the emergence of the church from a nucleus of eleven terrified followers of a crucified Jew whose leader had denied—to a little girl—even knowing Jesus. And, given its history ever since, there is no way of explaining the existence of the church today, much less its spread to the ends of the earth, in natural terms. It's a miracle. Repentance and faith are gifts. We are born again from above. Given the conditions of modernization, secularization will continue as one of the many regimes of this fading age. Yet it's the one who was raised from the dead, against all odds, who has the last word: "I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it."



1 [ Back ] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.3.1, 3.
2 [ Back ] P. L. Berger, B. Berger, and H. Kellner, The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), 15.
3 [ Back ] Steve Bruce, Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 26. Hereafter "Bruce" followed by page number.
4 [ Back ] Bruce, 38, referring to T. Luckmann, The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society (NY: Macmillan, 1967), 98-99.
5 [ Back ] Bruce, 161. See also his book, Pray TV: Televangelism in America (London: Routledge, 1990), 84.
6 [ Back ] Bruce, 172, citing Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2009.
7 [ Back ] I explore these findings in a post at http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/?s=flying+nones.
8 [ Back ] Many examples could be cited from evangelical leaders over recent decades, but this view also has academic supporters like Rodney Stark. See especially his work, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2007).


Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

Issue: "Secularizing Religion" Sept./Oct. 2013 Vol. 22 No. 5 Page number(s): 26-41

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