Growing Modernization Resulting in Religious Decline Proved Spectacularly Wrong?

I was doing some research a while back and I ran across this perspective by Bill Bishop in The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart.

Social scientists have been predicting for the past three centuries that religion would soon run its course and disappear. Sociologist Rodney Stark found he first forecast of religion’s demise in 1710, when Thomas Woolston calmly calculated that Christianity would no longer be with us in 1900. Voltaire (1694-1778) figured that religion would last only another fifty years. In 1822, Thomas Jefferson surmised, “There is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, Herbert Spencer, and Karl Mar all predicted that ascendant industrialism would eventually render religion meaningless. Society would simply “outgrow” the need for organized faith, and humans would be rid of ritual, superstition, and sacred traditions. More bluntly, sociologist Peter Berger announced in 1968 that “by the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.” Indeed, Berger wrote, “the predicament of the believer is increasingly like that of a Tibetan astrologer on a prolonged visit to an American university.”

The promise that religion would fall victim to modernization “has been regarded as THE master model of sociological inquiry,” one of the “key historical revolutions transforming medieval agrarian societies into modern industrial nations,” wrote political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart. Which means, of course, that a central tenet of the social sciences, over the past three hundred years has been proved spectacularly wrong. (Berger did have the good sense to recant in 1997). But a modernizing, industrial society did have an impact on faith in America. The economic panics of the late nineteenth century, the influx of immigrants, and the contradictions between scientific discoveries (say, evolution) and religious faith led to a split in the Protestant church [ME: Known as the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, which was an after effect of the theological divisions that led to the Civil War. See The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll.] The division that appeared at the tur of the twentieth century was not so much between denominations; it was more about how people viewed the world. On one side was what Martin Marty called “Private Protestantism” Private Protestants promoted individual salvation and promised that personal morality would be rewarded in the next life. On the other side of that great divide was “Public Protestantism,” a conviction that the way to God required the transformation of society. The latter laid the foundation for Democratic liberalism. The former provided the moral footing and rationale for Republican conservatism (109-110).

The idea, known as the Secularization Thesis, is that as societies “progress” through industry, technology, and modernization and the rise of rationalism, then religious belief will lose its grip on people as an authority in society and culture. This is one reason why Progressive Secularists have basically deified the role of Education in modern society. They believe that education will free people from old beliefs and superstitions that hold the human race back. Through education, we can reshape the mind and thus reshape humanity. Where education fails, we will then influence people through cultural pressure, rewards, and consequences for not adopting the thesis. This belief finds its origin in the West in the Humanism that flowed out of the Renaissance (1400-1600) and that flowered in The Enlightenment (1600-1790) and came to fruition in Modernism (1800-1990). Conversely, the more conservative view of culture and society came from the Reformation and the Great Awakenings of the 18th-19th centuries. This view of life and God’s order and structure found its highest expression in the American South before and even after the Civil War and became represented by Evangelicalism and political conservativism to the present day.

This approach has been used before in different settings, even by Christian missionaries. Years ago, I was sitting in a small home in North India with an aged Indian Christian leader. We were at the foot of the mountains where the Ganges River flowed down into the plains just a few dozen miles away. Indians see the Ganga as a source of life – the mother river – and they bathe in it for the purification of sins. This old leader told me the story of the British governmental leader named “Hough” who sought to modernize India in the mid 19th century and thus open it to the impact of the gospel. His motivation was to help the Christian missionaries liberate the people from old superstitions and bondage through education. He said (as related to me by my Indian friend) that when you teach an Indian that the Moon is just a moon and is not a goddess to be worshiped, then you have destroyed 50% of the power of Hinduism over his mind, will, and emotions. His hope was that Christianity would come and take its place as it was much more rational than Hinduism. That has happened to some extent, but the larger phenomenon is that the educated Indian is often religious culturally and ceremonially, but intellectually he is becoming a Modern. Thus, Hinduism is collapsing from the center while leaving the vestiges behind as a cultural unifier. My Indian friend said that Christians who run schools there in the rural areas still see this approach as being helpful in breaking the hold of Hinduism over the mind of their students.

So, this approach itself is a neutral tool, but the direction that you want to take it depends on what your actual meta-narrative is. For the Secularist and the Progressive, their larger goal might be to break the power of religion in general through education. For the Christian missionary, it might be to break the power of other religions or even of secularism so that the student will be more open to the gospel. Different groups use the method for different purposes. It is a “progressive” or liberal approach to bring change upon a people. The “conservative” approach seeks to build on tradition and honors the past.

But, the conservative approach can go wrong as well, and that is when it beco
mes open to the attacks of Progressivism. When it attaches to the wrong things and tries to hold on to a past that benefits certain groups over others and that does not encompass higher truths, it becomes open to the Progressive Critique and Secularization can do its work of whittling away at the authority structures that are propped up by Conservative assertions.

Consider this:

“We became distended – mired and stuffed with conservatism to the point of absolute rigidity. Our life had little or nothing to do with the onward movement of the world’s thought. We were in danger of becoming a civilization that was not a civilization, because there was not in it the element of advancement.” ~ George Washington Cable, 1882 – novelist and ex-confederate cavalryman addressing the University of Mississippi. He was speaking of the South before the Civil War. As quoted in Walker Percy’s, “Mississippi: The Fallen Paradise.”

There is a wrong kind of conservatism that has no vision for the future and that just wants to keep things the way they are. It primarily wants to protect and preserve the status quo, even if the status quo is mired in oppression or evil. That was the situation in the American South before the Civil War and for over a hundred years after as Jim Crow Segregation gripped the South. Where the conservative church went along with this kind of conservatism, it opened itself up to the “secularist” critique of being backward, superstitious, and against advancement. The problem was not that the Church resisted society’s advance. That is often necessary. The problem is that the Church’s position was rooted in the wrong foundation. It was based in the hiearchical structures of the Agrarian planter society of the South rather than in the transcendant truths of the Kingdom of God, which calls for sacrificial love, putting others before yourself, and in walking in Way of the Cross instead of the Way of Glory. I cover this error in my book, When Heaven and Earth Collide.

So, it was not Modernism that weakened the Church, per se, and made it irrelevant. It was the Church too closely aligning itself with a larger society that was concerned more with its own advancement than it was with the Way of Jesus. But, Bishop’s contention is that the overall idea that religious belief itself declines upon the advent of industrial or modernizing forces has been proved spectacularly wrong. The whole underpinning of the Social Sciences in this regard has been shown to be false. People do not abandon religious belief entirely because society advances – they either become more ardent in their faith in the face of opposition, or perhaps their beliefs morph and shift to other emphases, as we saw with the emergence of “Public Protestantism” that found its home in the Progressive political movement in America. Around the world, religious belief is growing in many regards, even though every shepherd and farmer in North India walks through the villages and the fields with a cell phone and access to an internet connection.

Religious belief is with us inherently, even if it looks a lot like secularization at times. We cannot give up our belief in the transcendent. It is as though we were created to long for a connection with the gods, however we define them – as though eternity was written into the hearts of men. I have advocated for a long time that all people everywhere ask four essential questions and then answer them in a myriad of ways:

  1. Who/What is God/Ultimate Reality?
  2. Who Is Man? What is our purpose?
  3. What has gone wrong with the world?
  4. How do we fix it?
Every religion, philosophy, political movement, and cultural expression seeks to address these four questions. These questios define spirituality and people are thinking about them constantly. When we are trying to figure out our place in the world, how to be happy, or how to solve political problems, we are asking and answering questions along these lines. Based on our infuences and “worldview,” however, we will answer the questions in dramatically different ways.

Of course, the Bible tells us this in Ecclesiastes 3:10-11. God made us to long for Him. We intuitively know that there is some greater purpose to our existence. Modernization does not remove the quest for the transcendent, but it does perhaps change it or shift it away from traditional religious authority/submission social structures. Perhaps the quest becomes more individual. Perhaps allegiance will shift from one traditional expression to another. Maybe it goes towards a “change the world” political hope or or, perhaps the quest for transcendence just looks like idolatry, be it physical or emotional. But, the Quest for Transcendence and Meaning remains hardwired into the human experience. The role of the Christian missionary is to recognize that the search does exist in the hearts of men, even if it is skewed in various directions, and to then explain or broadcast real truth along the lines of St. Paul’s declaration at the Aeropagus on Mars Hill in Athens,

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22, 23 ESV)

He was speaking primarily to Epicurean and Stoic philosphers and debaters and truth-seekers and he is seeking to reshape their thinking through revelation from God. Many of them were not formally religious as we would understand it, although belief in a prime-mover as Plato had pointed to and to some form of god/gods was accepted along with other religious expressions. Foreign gods were not allowed to be proclaimed here. But, Paul recognized them as ” very religious”, even though much of their “religion” would be considered to me more in line with forms of philosophy today. Secularism today, however, has defined “religion” to the realm of formal, structured, cultic perspectives with identifiable places of worship, priesthoods, creeds, and hiearchical authority structures. But, Paul said that adherents of Epicurean and Stoic philosophy, along with other philosophical perspectives, were “very religious.” I wonder what he would say to the followers of different philosophies and worldviews in the supposed “secular” West today? Perhaps he would call us “very” religious as well. I think he would.

Paul spoke into this environment and said, “what therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Paul went on to declare the revelation from God this way (Acts 17:22-31):

22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your own poets have said,

“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Paul brought revelation from God into a confused and confusing situation. He recognized them as religious and he spoke to their deepest longings. His message was a revelation of the man, Jesus Christ, the Hinge of History. He called the people to reorient their lives to Jesus and to fall in line with the revelation that God provided of His Son, Jesus, the Savior of the World. Some believed his message. Others rejected. But, the reality is that Paul’s answer for their idolatry was Christ. It was always Jesus and orienting your life around Him.

Everyone is worshiping something – or everyone looks to something for his identity and purpose and meaning in life. We are all inclined in a religious, or what we call “spiritual” direction. We all pursue idols of some kind. Bill Bishop is right. The idea that the religious quest will vanish is just fundamentally wrong. It will simply morph and reshape itself into other forms. So, the question is, “What perspective will guide/shape the religious quest?” Will it be shaped by the world and its wisdom, by human passions, or by revelation from God through Christ? The role of the Christian missionary (which is every Christian) in our culture that is constantly shifting is to recognize this and proclaim Christ into the “unknown worship” of Modern and Post-Modern Western Man.

If the central tenet of the Social Sciences over the past 300 years has been proved spectacularly wrong, I wonder what else the “experts” might be wrong about? And, how might we engage in setting things right?

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