There is the growing sentiment, particularly in the U.S., that the secularization thesis, holding to an inevitable decline of religious belief under modernization, is out of touch with reality.
A recent New York conference RW attended suggests that sociologists are also searching for redefinitions and alternatives to this once predominant theory, even if some are not ready to discard it completely. Europe has usually been viewed as the last holdout of secularization, but the conference, held at New York University in early April, confirmed the opening statement of its organizer, German sociologist Detlef Pollack, that “more and more European sociologists are defecting from the secularization thesis.”
Wolfgang Jagodzinski of Cologne University in Germany offered the somewhat controversial view that the secularization theory is so malleable that even if its explanations are disproved (such as when certain countries seem to be desecularizing), its adherents can switch to new
definitions and timelines in order to maintain the project. Jagodzinski added that newer theories, such as the market model, can more easily be proven or disproven by the data. The market model–often called the new paradigm–holds that the modern conditions of pluralism and free market can foster religious growth. Proponent Tony Gill of the University of Washington presented research suggesting that state regulations, even the encroachment of secular welfare programs, can work to lower the level of religious participation.
But there were some resisters among the conference’s participants. Demographer David Voas of the University of Manchester (U.K.) said that the gradual decline of religious beliefs under conditions of modernization, particularly as shown in surveys of European countries, may be compared to the demographic change to smaller families– gradual and uneven but inevitable. He acknowledged that the U.S. is an exception, but suggested that just as the British empire lost its religious vitality, a similar dynamic can develop as America declines as a world power.
Other presenters backed away from the full-blown secularization thesis to adopt more hybrid versions that take into account other models, such as the market theory. Mark Chaves of the University of Arizona presented an institutional approach that discarded the link to the inevitable decline in religious belief. Chaves instead located secularization in the loss of religious authority in other spheres of life. His research on religious groups and welfare suggests that even the development of faith-based social services will not reverse the way secular welfare organizations have limited the authority of religion in the U.S..
Grace Davie of the University of Exeter (U.K.) doubted whether the market model can be applied to Europe, where state churches still play a vicarious role for individuals, acting on behalf of the majority who are uninvolved. But even that may be changing as patterns of obligation turn to those of consumption.
Davie presented recent research showing that religious devotion based around cathedrals is on the upsurge, and that it is among those British young people who have broken away from the authority of the churches into which they were born that are more likely to report a belief in the after-life.
Sociologist and priest Andrew Greeley cast doubt on whether one overarching theory will ever be able to explain the waxing and waning of religion around the world. But he made a case for Catholic exceptionalism, where the church’s sacramental and communal nature formed subcultures that act as a “firewall which resists secularization which does not exist in Protestant countries.”
Although Greeley noted exceptions even to this pattern (such as France and the Netherlands), in his view, the Reformation and King Henry VIII were the “first of the secularizers.”