When I started my career as a sociologist of religion in the 1960s, just about everyone in the field took for granted that the so-called secularization theory was empirically valid (whether one was happy about this or not). I shared in that assumption, even contributed to the theory (for example, by proposing that pluralism has been a contributing factor to secularization). It took me over twenty years to conclude that the theory could not be empirically supported. I rather noisily stated this conclusion in the preface to a book I edited, The Desecularization of the World (1999). This change of mind was not due to any change in my personal religious position (which since my youth had been that of an incurable Lutheranism), but because of my re-assessment of the evidence. The majority of social scientists dealing with religion shared this re-assessment.
However, a vocal minority continues to affirm the central thesis of secularization theory, that more modernity means less religion. One of these has been the British sociologist Steve Bruce, who amicably criticized me in an article, “The Curious Case of the Unnecessary Recantation: Berger and Secularization” (in Linda Woodhead and Paul Heelas, eds., Peter Berger and the Study of Religion, 2001). Bruce did not convince me to recant my recantation, but I admire him and others who feistily refuse to march in step with the majority. (Someday I will write an article titled “Steve Bruce and the Gods”.)
Secularization theory was not completely mistaken. It does fit some parts of the world better than others (notably western Europe), and some groups (such as an international intelligentsia; I call it the “faculty club culture”). Most of the world today is as religious ever, with powerful religious explosions (such as Evangelical Protestantism and resurgent Islam—respectively through huge numbers of conversions and through very high fertility). Looking at the controversial theory from my present vantage point, I would say that its/our basic mistake was what logicians call the fallacy of pars pro toto—taking the part for the whole. Modernity inevitably generates a powerful secular discourse, without which essential parts of a contemporary society could not exist, first of all those based on science and technology. One cannot fly an airplane on principles of Islamic law nor use the Talmud as a handbook for heart surgery. I have argued that a theory of pluralism should replace the untenable secularization theory. But there are two pluralisms that must be managed politically: Religious pluralisms as commonly understood—several religions co-existing within the same society, and the pluralism of several religious discourses co-existing with the powerful secular discourse. I think that these insights lead to a very useful new paradigm for modernity and religion.
When I first used the term “desecularization” I simply meant the continuing strong presence of religion in the modern world. That use was a bit sloppy. Vyacheslav Karpov (a sociologist on the faculty of Western Michigan University) sharpened the term in an article “Desecularization: A Conceptual Framework” (in Journal of Church and State, 52:2, 2010). Karpov makes two very useful points: The term implies that there was a chronological sequence between secularity and a return of religion; it does not fit situations in which religion was there all along. Also, secularization and its reversal are not impersonal forces; there are always specific actors and their interests pushing both processes. Karpov (who is originally from Russia) proposes that the term, if it fits anywhere, perfectly fits what happened during the Soviet era and after its demise.
I have just read two books that nicely illustrate Karpov’s argument: Michael Walzer, The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions (2015), and Christopher Marsh, Religion and the State in Russia and China (2011). (I mention them in the sequence I read them, not the sequence of their publication.)
Michael Walzer, a political philosopher, has been an influential public intellectual for many years, is still associated with the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study (where, I imagine, the ghost of Albert Einstein still stalks through empty corridors in some nights). In this book Walzer discusses in some detail what he calls the “paradox” of secular liberation movements being taken over by religious forces, with results never envisaged or desired by the original leaders. He deals with three cases, India (its independence achieved in 1947), Israel (1948), and Algeria (1962).
Of course there are significant differences, but the parallels are amazing. While the Indian independence movement received a religious legitimation of sorts by Gandhi marching around in the loincloth of a Hindu holy man, it was Jawaharlal Nehru, a thoroughly secular individual steeped in the British tradition of Fabian socialism, who actually achieved independence. His Congress party ruled India for decades and produced the constitution that defined it as “a secular republic” (which in no way implied an anti-religious ideology, but loudly proclaimed “we are not Pakistan!”—a country in which Hindus, Muslims, Christians and other faiths were equal citizens). David Ben-Gurion, the founding father of Israel, was equally secular, animated by the ideas of east-European socialism which were carried on by his Labor party. When Israel was proclaimed to be a Jewish state, this did not refer to Judaism as a religion. Ahmed Ben Bella in Algeria, was just as secular, very much in the culture of the French Left. In the three cases the secular elite was alienated from the traditional religious communities—respectively Hindu, Orthodox Jewish, and Muslim. In India and Algeria these religious masses were always there, in Israel the Orthodox constituency steadily grew through immigration from the Middle East and from the much higher fertility of the Orthodox. India and Israel were democracies from the beginning, religious citizens voted, and ousted the secular elites from their political hegemony. In Algeria the anti-secular forces of the Islamic Salvation Front resorted to civil war against the regime set up by Ben Bella; that conflict ended with an uneasy cease-fire; attempts at reconciliation between the secular and the Islamist communities continue. India today is ruled by a government with deep roots in Hindu nationalism (though Narendra Modi, since his election as prime minister about a year ago, has distanced himself from his nationalist past), Israel by a right-wing government in coalition with Orthodox religious parties.
The formerly Communist countries offer the most important cases of desecularization, in the sense redefined by Vyacheslav Karpov—most importantly Russia and China (assuming that the latter can be classified as formerly Communist—its party by that name presiding over what is probably the most ruthless capitalist economy in the world today). Christopher Marsh is a political scientist presently on the faculty of the U.S. Army’s General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; he has a fluent command of both Russian and Mandarin (not a bad idea, since his special research area is religion under Communism).
In both Russia and China, Communist regimes came into power with an ideology in which “scientific atheism” had a central place; in both countries there were debates within the leadership whether one should wait until (as Marx expected) religion would “wither away” as socialism replaced capitalism, or whether one should nudge the inevitable withering process to come sooner by actively persecuting religion.
Beginning in 1922, after Lenin (not one to wait) felt that Soviet power was now firmly established in Russia, he ordered massive steps to destroy religious institutions, especially those of the formerly dominant Russian Orthodox Church. All monasteries were closed, as were many parish churches, tens of thousands of clergy were killed or sent to labor camps, and state-supported agencies such as the League of Militant Atheists and the Society of the Godless carried on relentless anti-religious campaigns throughout society. This policy of coercive secularization certainly succeeded in pushing religion out of public life, though it survived in families and underground groups. The policy was temporarily suspended after Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, after which Stalin decided to enlist the Orthodox Church in the mobilization of all segments of the population in support of the Great Patriotic War. After Stalin’s death the anti-religious policy was resumed, although less bloodily. All the more remarkable was the resurgence of religion after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Survey data show an increasing number of Russians declaring themselves to be religious and/or to be Orthodox. There are miscellaneous expressions of popular piety, such as pilgrimages and church fairs. Most remarkable (and disturbing to many observers) has been the ever-increasing closeness of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state, to the point close to an establishment of the ROC as the state religion. In recent years, the ROC and the government have collaborated in repressing other Christians, such as Uniats (Orthodox in ritual but subject to Rome) and Evangelical Protestants (especially Pentecostals).
The trajectory of religion/state relations in China, as traced by Christopher Marsh, has been quite different. In both Russia and China the Communist party maintained atheism as a core element in its ideology, following Marx’s description of religion as the”opium of the people”. In China the attack on religion focused on Christianity as a tool of Western imperialism. Foreign missionaries were expelled, Chinese clergy imprisoned or killed. The regime then set up “patriotic associations” of Protestants and Catholics controlled by the government. Non-Christian religions were paid less attention unless they served to legitimate separatist movements (Islam in the northwest and Buddhism in Tibet). There was less emphasis on atheist propaganda than in the Soviet Union. The most savage assault on all religions (including Buddhism, Taoism, even Confucianism and folk religion—all subsumed under the label of reactionary superstitions) took place during the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to about 1976, when Mao Zedong unleashed the Red Guards in a homicidal frenzy against all institutions, including even the party. This surreal combination of totalitarianism and (barely) controlled anarchy only ended after Mao’s death, and was followed by the re-establishment of order with the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping in 1979. Since then the regime followed a religion policy of “disease control”, which is arguably more Confucian than Marxist in inspiration (the present-day State Administration of Religious Affairs oddly resembles the Department of Rites of imperial China). The control of religion has been incomplete and spotty, subject to changes in party policies and varying by region. But beneath this veneer of political control there has occurred what has been called “religion fever”, a massive upsurge of popular piety, especially in the form of Evangelical Protestantism. It has been estimated that there are now over one-hundred million Christians in China, strongly increasing among urban elites (even including party members). The situation is volatile and hard to predict, but clearly the Chinese case fits quite neatly under the category of desecularization.
Different religious developments are occurring in different parts of the world. The overall global situation cannot be characterized as either secularization or desecularization (aka sacralization or return of the gods). Even the most ferocious projects of coercive secularization have thus far failed to produce the new godless man dreamed of by Enlightenment thinkers since the eighteenth century. But I can think of no better image of desecularization than an episode I heard about from a credible source in Moscow a few years ago. Museums were often used as locales for anti-religious propaganda in the Soviet Union. The famous Hermitage Museum in St.Petersburg, originally founded by the Empress Catherine the Great, has the largest collection of icons in the world. These could be tranquilly viewed as art objects throughout the imperial and Soviet periods until today. This essentially secular tranquility has recently been disturbed by ordinary Orthodox believers who lit candles, crossed themselves, kissed the icons and prayed before them, spontaneously transforming this wing of a secular institution into a place of Christian worship. The museum administrators and at least some of the tourists were disturbed by what they perceived as an inappropriate use of religiously neutral public space. I don’t know the outcome of this episode.