Secularisation in the Christian World
248 pp., $160.00
Almost twenty years ago, Hugh McLeod contributed a shrewd essay to what was then the best all-around collection of essays debating the meaning and extent of secularization. That book, edited by Steve Bruce, was entitled Religion and Modernization: Sociologists and Historians Debate the Secularization Thesis (1992). In it McLeod used his own research for making a very nice point: to judge secularization, you must begin with a definite standpoint. Thus, in 1900 Berlin was far more secular than New York City if the question concerned the proportion of population in church on a given Sunday. But if the issue was the churches' influence in political or academic life, Berlin was far less secular than New York. That kind of straightforward assessment, based on extensive ground-level research, has remained a hallmark of McLeod's unusually productive career as the most insightful general historian of Christianity in modern Europe and Great Britain. McLeod's important books include a comparison of religious life in major cities, an account of the relationship between the working classes and the churches, a closely argued case for the 1960s as a turning point just as important for religious history as the Reformation, and a much-used general survey, Religion and the People of Western Europe, 1789-1969 (2nd ed. from Oxford in 1998).
Now McLeod has been honored with a festschrift that replaces the earlier colloquium as the premier consideration of the topic. The book contains carefully researched historical essays, broader considerations of social forces that drive secularization (or may not do so), perceptive national studies (Australia, Canada, Scandinavia, Holland, Germany), and several illuminating discussions of McLeod's own major arguments. The liveliest chapters come from sociologist Steve Bruce, enlisted this time as a contributor, and Jeffrey Cox, a noted historian of British missions and imperialism. Bruce argues persuasively that, when carefully qualified and oriented toward solid empirical work, secularization has clearly been at work in Western societies for a long time, while Cox is almost as persuasive with his contention that secularization is merely ideological wish-fulfillment from Europeans blind to the rest of the world.
This unusually informative book is a fitting tribute to a scholar whose own works have made first-order contributions to secularization discussions even as they provide others with unusually solid research for carrying on the debates.
Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author most recently of The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (InterVarsity Press).
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