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Philip Jenkins

The Real Story of Secularization

Is Europe a special case?

The idea of secularization is fundamental to contemporary debates over the sociology of religion. As sociologist Steve Bruce puts the issue succinctly, "The basic proposition is that modernization creates problems for religion"; or to quote the social anthropologist Anthony Wallace, "The evolutionary future of religion is extinction." To sketch the notion crudely, the Protestant Reformation created the social and economic conditions from which modern capitalism emerged. This in turn allowed the emergence of societies characterized by diversity, pluralism, individual choice, relativism, and an emphasis on scientific and technological ways of understanding the world. In this model, religion fares poorly, and religious adherence and practice decline precipitously. Very generally, "increasing prosperity reduces religious fervor." The whole process is epitomized by the evocative photograph on the cover of Bruce's new book, God Is Dead, depicting a once-grand British church now converted into "Mike's Carpet Stores—Discount Warehouse." Transitions of this sort are painfully commonplace across a rapidly de-Christianizing Europe. Of course, not all churches become warehouses: a fair number are now mosques.

A paradigm as important as secularization has not gone unchallenged. Since the 1980s, sociologists like Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge have fundamentally attacked the whole notion, charging for instance that the apparent decline of religion since the Middle Ages is far less than it seems, and that contemporary religion is much more vital than the prophets of secularization have claimed. The apparent trajectory of decline is thus exaggerated, or even illusory. It is in order to counter such criticism that Bruce has written God Is Dead, which among other things offers non-specialists a useful survey of some of the critical issues and debates in the contemporary sociology of religion.

Though the mechanisms of change are open to debate, the fact of a secularizing process is ...

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