Two Views of Secularization

Sam Brewitt-Taylor is Darby Fellow in Modern History at Lincoln College, Oxford. His research explores moral and cultural change in 1960s Britain. His first book, Christian Radicalism in the Church of England and the Invention of the British Sixties, 1957-1970, was published by OUP in 2018, and jointly received the Ecclesiastical History Society’s 2019 Book Prize.

In the last 20 years, the 1960s has become increasingly recognized as a pivotal decade in the history of Western secularization. In British historiography, the seminal work was Callum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain (2001), which was soon followed by Hugh McLeod’s The Religious Crisis of the 1960s (2007). The resulting literature has created a series of complex sub-debates, especially about timing, causes, whether the religious crisis was an abrupt revolution or a culmination of longstanding trends, whether it came from above or below, and whether it originated inside or outside the churches.

Sitting underneath these debates, however, are two quite different models of what ‘secularization’ actually is, and the debate must understand this difference if it is to make real headway. The classic works in the debate, especially Brown (2001) but also to a considerable extent McLeod (2007), assumed a ‘secular’ model of secularization, which holds that all human societies were once dominated by a global phenomenon called ‘religion’, and that ‘secularization’ is when ‘religion’ undergoes large-scale decline, a process that automatically creates a post-ideological condition called ‘secularity’.

In this view, secularity is a default cultural condition: it has no positive characteristics of its own, but merely consists of the relative weakness of ‘religion’. Yet this model creates seemingly intractable problems about the timing of British ‘secularization’. Brown convincingly identifies the 1960s as witnessing an abrupt ‘secular revolution’, but others, especially Simon Green and Clive Field, compellingly identify a gradual process of Christian decline beginning either at the dawn of the twentieth century, or a little earlier. So how do we reconcile these two apparently opposing views?

In my book, I followed recent trends in postsecular and postcolonial theory, and assumed a ‘postsecular’ model of secularization. This model insists that secularity is not a default condition, but is instead an ideological culture in its own right; it therefore defines ‘secularization’ positively, as the rise of secularity.

In this view, secularity is a monist ideological culture that understands itself as post-ideological neutrality and labels all other cultures ‘religion’. Thus from a postsecular perspective the decline of Western Christianity is one thing, but ‘secularization’ is something quite different: the first is the decline of the West’s previously-dominant moral culture, the second is the rise of its new one.

This postsecular model makes it possible to reconcile these apparently warring perspectives in the historiography. On the one hand, we can agree with Green and Field that gradual ‘Christian decline’ was indeed occurring from the early twentieth century, or perhaps earlier, as the British population transitioned from being more strongly Christian to more vaguely Christian. But on the other hand, we can agree with Brown that widespread ‘secularization’, understood as the rise of secularity, was indeed a rapid and revolutionary development originating in the early 1960s. The tension between the two perspectives arises from the mistaken belief that ‘Christian decline’ and ‘secularization’ are the essentially same thing.

This postsecular model helps us with our chronological difficulties, but it also radically recasts the issue of causation. If the explicandum of ‘secularization’ is not the decline of Christianity but the rise of secularity, then we need to discover what secularity’s ideological tenets are, who was most influentially promoting them in the early 1960s, and how they managed to overthrow the prevailing Christian moral culture.

In more recent writing, I’ve identified secularity as possessing sociological beliefs, as opposed to the theological beliefs possessed by monotheisms. At the most basic level, secularity’s belief-system states:

  1. that all human societies were originally dominated by something called ‘religion’;
  2. that secular societies are historically unique because they have irreversibly abandoned collective ‘religion’; and
  3. that secular societies are also unique because they do not possess a collective ideology.

This secular vision of Western societies permanently transcending ‘religion’ was radically different from existing British conventional wisdom. This had insisted that all human societies need a ‘religion’, such that cultures abandoning Christianity and supernaturalism will eventually succumb to vicious political cults like Nazism and Stalinism. Thus before British culture could undergo a ‘secular revolution’, it first needed to be convinced that ‘secularization’ was a good and modern thing, rather than a shortcut to horrible totalitarianism.

If secularity is a specific culture, then it wouldn’t just occur to people spontaneously, any more than Christianity does. Instead, the secularization metanarrative needed to be widely disseminated and accepted before ‘secularization’ could be widely enacted.

In my book, I ended up arguing that Britain’s secular revolution was centrally caused by the confluence of three things: Cold War fears of thermonuclear annihilation, radical visions of a new ‘modern age’, and the public interventions of radical Christians. This third ingredient surprised me, since I wasn’t expecting it when I began the project. But there were four specific areas of evidence that drove me to this conclusion.

The first was the simple matter of who was publishing what: almost all the early influential Anglophone visions of irreversible ‘secularization’ were written by radical Christians, such as Ted Wickham’s Church and People (1957), John Robinson’s Honest to God (1963), and Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965). Sociologists joined the party a little later, exemplified by Bryan Wilson’s Religion in Secular Society (1966) and Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy (1967).

The second was the issue of cultural authority: in the Christian public culture of 1950s and early 1960s Britain, Anglican bishops and deans enjoyed cultural privileges that allowed them to disseminate radicalism publicly, whereas Humanist figures such as Margaret Knight and Eustace Chesser risked shaming and cultural marginalization. This dynamic rapidly changed once the secular revolution was underway, but the revolution needed to gain initial momentum somewhere: it could only reshape the rules of public discourse in favour of Humanists once it had already acquired some serious cultural authority.

Thirdly, there was the issue of language: today’s historiography is still discussing these issues using the distinctively Christian language of ‘religion’ and ‘secularization’, which implies that Christians were important in the original debates. Although Weber is often held up as the father of secularization theory, his vocabulary (‘intellectualization’, ‘disenchantment’) is not nearly so salient in present-day debates.

Finally, there’s the fact that secularity possesses an eschatology, which makes it an intellectual cousin of monotheisms. Christian eschatology narrates human history as a linear process in which ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular’ coexist until the end of time, at which point they become gloriously united: secular eschatology narrates human history as a linear process in which human societies transition from a ‘religious age’ to a ‘secular age’. The similarity between these two stories strongly suggests that the people who invented the second were familiar with the first.  

On this view, therefore, the ‘secular revolution’ of the 1960s created a new paradigm for thinking about ‘religion’ and modernity, which was so powerful that it still influences most of the relevant historiography today. If we remain within the paradigm, we must invoke massive social forces that inexorably marginalized Christianity and created today’s post-ideological neutrality. But if we step outside the paradigm, we can see its cultural constructedness, and come to the ironic realization that Christians were important figures in its invention and dissemination, but rapidly became its victims once it had became widely accepted.  

Thus the introduction of a postsecular model of secularization has the potential to alter our view of Britain’s secular revolution quite profoundly. The problem, however, is that the postsecular model involves Western historians being willing to undergo the postcolonial turn and radically historicize their own secular culture. This is certain to happen eventually; whether it will happen within this historiographical generation very much remains an open question.   

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