01: There has been a steady stream of recent books on atheism and secularism in less than a year. They range from studies of the broader phenomenon of secularism to more specific examinations of atheist groups, movements and practices (including RW’s editor and co-author Christopher Smith’s Atheist Awakening). American Secularism (NYU Press, $27), by Joseph O. Baker and Buster G. Smith, is especially good at teasing apart the various meanings and identities of “secular” people; secularity has fuzzy edges with the inclusion of hard-core atheists, as well as people who hold to a religion nominally, apostates, and agnostics who may open to spiritual experiences. Furthermore, many people cycle through periods of secularity throughout the course of their lives. Using various surveys, the authors estimate that one-quarter of the U.S. population can be categorized as “secular.” The authors see secularism as growing through the high rates of retention it has developed (those brought up in secular homes tend to remain secular), but losing out through seculars’ low rate of fertility. They also note that disorganized secularism may have a brighter future than organized expressions, as they often lack the unity and personal investment in their communities compared to their religious counterparts.
Stephen LeDrew’s The Evolution of Atheism (Oxford University Press, $27.95) is more of an examination of the new atheism and the recent growth of the organized atheist and secular humanist movements. LaDrew sharply critiques the new atheism as quite different “humanistic atheism” (as found in Karl Marx, for instance) in that it functions as a form of fundamentalism, promoting a scientific worldview that is intensified with an emphasis on evolutionary biology and psychology. It seeks to eliminate religion and other anti-Enlightenment schools of thought. The book then examines how the new atheism has served to revive the once moribund organized secular movement, even though the rank-and-file take a more pragmatic approach that uses identity politics such as “coming out” as an atheist. Also noteworthy is LeDrew’s chapter on the “atheist right,” arguing that the new atheism has had strong influence in turning organized secularism in a pro-market and “neoconservative” direction and away from its older humanist, liberal-socialist background.
Losing Our Religion (New York University Press, $27), by Christel Manning, is a very different book on secularism that looks at how unaffiliated (or “none” parents) are raising their children. Manning’s ethnographic work is based on interviews with 48 of these parents, only a quarter of whom can be defined as committed atheists while others are classified as non-churched believers, indifferent, and spiritual seekers. Manning defines nones and their parenting style as marked by choice, yet family/peer pressure that is often dictated by the regions and cities yields various outcomes and strategies. Where the public culture is shaped by evangelicals (Florida or parts of Colorado), for instance, the parents tend to either feel pressure to join churches to participate in social life or seek alternative means of support, such as a humanist group. In a high none region such as New England where such “protection” was unnecessary, parents tended not to get involved in any community. Just the questions of their children about the family religion or the parents concern about instilling moral values in their children can drive even atheists back to organized religion (even if for a short time). Manning, who is open about her emerging atheist stance, raises more questions than answers in the conclusion. However, she acknowledges that the wide-open choices none parents see themselves as giving to their children may be more limited by their own backgrounds and orientations than they realize.
02: The Handbook of Religion and the Asian City (University of California Press, $150) strongly challenges the idea that urbanization, especially in the global cities of Asia, is having a secularizing effect. In his Introduction, editor Peter van der Veer argues that, even in the West, the idea that cities “are modern and therefore secular” is a “tenacious misunderstanding” that informs the “radically secular perspective of urban theorists.” Even if European cities have followed a secular trajectory (which itself is uneven and “and not causally connected to nineteenth-century industrialization”), the opposite seems to be the case in such cities as Seoul, Mumbai, Beijing, Singapore and Bangkok, where even in their most hi-tech and consumerist aspects show a fascination with magic and spiritual and moral self-help, he adds.
The contributors flesh out these arguments in ethnographic studies that seek to show how “urban aspirations” of the masses in these global cites (or “megacities”) are colored by traditional and new religious ideas, rituals and traditions. Some of the chapters challenge the urban-rural divide, by which urban scholars posit the secular nature of cities; for instance, cities like Shanghai, Singapore and Shanghai are far from spatially contained but carry currents of religious heritage from the transnational and rural backgrounds and connections of its inhabitants. Especially interesting are the chapters on the political dimensions of the ritual processions in Mumbai; the contested urban space in Jakarta, Indonesia between a Reformed evangelical megachurch and the Buddhist charitable group Tzu Chi; and how Catholic youth in Manila in the Philippines face challenges from secular pop culture.
03: China’s Urban Christians (Pickwick Publications, $11.40), by Brent Fulton, is a brief (145 pages) but informative account of how large-scale urbanization is changing both the status of Christianity in China as well as the internal life of congregations. The change from a largely rural composition of China’s churches to its urban context today has brought new diversity and professionalization to Chinese Christianity. Fulton writes that four types of churches have emerged in such an urban center as Beijing: those affiliated with the registered church group, known as the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), those composed of believers from the Chinese city of Wenzhou (considered the Bible-belt of China for its large number of believers and relatively lax restrictions on religion), migrant churches (from rural areas), and “urban newly formed churches.”
The latter congregations have attracted the latest wave of university-educated new Christians in their 30s and are the most professionalized, having full-time pastors. These churches also show the trend of China’s Christianity moving from family-based (and home-based), often authoritarian rule to a more visible, democratic and participatory church. But because these churches are often large and get support from outside the country, they have faced more government restrictions. In response, church leaders have become more antagonistic toward authorities, a factor that can limit their growth. The book also looks at the growing public involvement of urban Chinese Christians’ in ways that go beyond the formation of a Protestant work ethic, and the Chinese church’s new interest and involvement in world missions. Fulton provides valuable information on the internal strife of China’s urban Christians—often marked by theological pluralism and divisions over heresy. The trend is intense enough that the large unregistered non-denominational sector is actively seeking new denominational connections (often in the Reformed tradition) for oversight and stability.