God is Dead: Secularization in the West

Steve Bruce

Blackwell 2002
A book review by Danny Yee © 2002 http://dannyreviews.com/
The "secularization paradigm" is not a simple single concept. Bruce's explanation of it in chapter one of God is Dead begins with a diagram with 22 nodes (from "The Protestant Reformation" down to "Relativism" and "Compartmentalization and privatization") connected by 26 arrows — and followed by twenty five pages of explanation. But the core idea is that there has been "a long-term decline in the power, popularity and prestige of religious beliefs and rituals", brought about by modernization, or more specifically by "individualism, diversity and egalitarianism in the context of liberal democracy". Bruce also touches on the forces that can act against secularization when religion becomes tied up with ethnicity, nationalism, or even modernization itself, and on some of the common misunderstandings about the secularization paradigm — that it predicts the spread of atheism, for example, when it actually implies only growing indifference to religion, not opposition.

The remaining chapters consider different aspects of this paradigm, presenting the basic evidence for secularization, analysing the mechanisms behind it, addressing methodological issues, and appraising alternative views. Bruce's approach is sociological, drawing on the tradition running from Durkheim and Weber through to Niebuhr and Martin; and he incorporates some theory — for example an explanation of the "cult : sect :: church : denomination" typology — and enters into academic debates. But the overall result is broadly accessible, with a good balance between theory, statistics, and case studies. The chapters are also largely independent — some are based on articles published elsewhere — and could be read separately.

Bruce begins with responses to revisionists who have attempted to argue that there has not actually been a decline in religion. Chapter two looks back at medieval Britain: there may not have been any "Golden Age" of faith, and both knowledge of religion and orthodoxy may have been limited, but religious beliefs were still far more pervasive and influential than they are now. And chapter three looks at various indicators of the decline of Christianity in Britain over the last 150 years. While these may not be compelling in isolation, "[a]ll of them point the same way: declining involvement with religious organizations and declining commitment to religious ideas". "[D]ecline is not a sociological myth".

Many attribute secularization to the rise of science, but "no contemporary sociologist of religion argues that Christianity has been fatally undermined by science". The religious beliefs of scientists are, however, quite interesting, and Bruce takes some side trips to explore variation within disciplines, with mathematicians far more religious than anthropologists, and similarities in "cognitive style" and epistemological approach between some kinds of science and religion.

The New Age movement might appear to demonstrate the existence of widespread informal religious belief, perhaps of an "enduring need" for religion. But Bruce's examination of the extent, nature, and significance of that movement suggests otherwise. He concludes:

"The New Age is eclectic to an unprecedented degree and it is so dominated by the principle that the sovereign consumer will decide what to believe that, even if it were the case that we have some innate propensity to spirituality, we will not get from where we are now to any sort of religious revival. The principle of individual choice seems so firmly established in our culture that ... I cannot see how a shared faith can be created from a low-salience world of pick-and-mix religion. Furthermore, I suspect that the New Age, weak as it has always been, will weaken further as the children of the New Age prove indifferent to the spiritual questing of their parents."

The increasing presence of Eastern ideas in the West is, similarly, no evidence against secularization. Most of it is shallow:

"Interest in Feng Sui is no more evidence of a spiritual revival than the fashion of 'Shaker' furniture is evidence that Londoners want to revive the nineteenth-century American Protestant sect that originated the minimalist style."
And it draws on the least demanding and most pliable elements:
"[Britons] are adopting the most plastic philosophical strands and then adapting them. Central to those adaptations is the Western stress on the authority of the autonomous individual consumer."
The popularity of Eastern religions is also reinforced by their "underdog" status, whereas Christianity still suffers from its historical connections with imperialism.

A chapter "Regression to the Mean" offers a series of brief vignettes of minority communities that have tried to maintain distinct belief systems and ways of life, from Scottish Presbyterians to the Amish. The key to maintaining difference in the "uniquely hostile environment" of modern society lies in social organisation — and diffuse denominational and cultic spirituality can not sustain the kinds of social organisation needed to ward of secularization.

A chapter on the modern British charismatic movement outlines its history, scale and trajectory and asks if it is a counter to secularization. Bruce concludes that

"far from representing a radical religious alternative to the secularization of the wider society, the charismatic movement has been the route by which many previously conservative evangelical Protestants have become increasingly liberal and denominational. It is not a powerful example of a previously secular people rejecting modernity: it is an illustration of the staged way in which religion in Protestant cultures declines. People raised in Baptist and Brethren churches in the 1950s used the language of religious revitalization and reform to move out of their stifling orthodoxy and into a setting that offered much more flexible interpretations of Protestant doctrines. In turn, some of their children will abandon Christianity altogether, some will continue in the New Churches and make them ever more liberal, and others will reject that trend and break away to form new sects. Those new organizations will be smaller than those founded by their parents and will gradually evolve in the same way"

Two chapters focus on academic debates. One is a critical look at "supply-side" theories of religion, which argue that "demand" is constant (and high) and that levels of religious vitality therefore depend on the supply, which is greatest when there is a free and competitive market for "providers". Bruce finds elements of the approach useful, but argues that it underestimates the possibilities for "auto-supply", or "subsistence" religion, and ignores important differences between religions. Another chapter highlights methodological problems with surveys which supposedly show high levels of "unofficial" religious belief: survey questions are biased, cut-offs are chosen to lump vague support for "something out there" in with genuine religious belief, and definitions are weakened, or twisted to redefine the secular as religious.

Most of God is Dead is about Britain, but there is a chapter on the United States. Bruce argues that a similar process of secularization is under way there, though it may be delayed by fifty years — and hidden by a tendency for people to claim more involvement with religion than they actually have (surveys don't match actual attendance figures). Possible reasons for the distinctiveness of the United States are its high intake of migrants, many from less modernized countries, and the latitude the looser federal political structure gives communities to keep themselves separate — political diversity allowing the freedom to avoid cultural diversity.

Finally, some have attempted to "hitch" religion to postmodernism, through the latter's attacks on rationality. Secularization is not driven by science or rationality, however, but by diversity and individual choice, both of which are also themes of postmodernism. Which brings Bruce to his conclusion:

"where diversity and egalitarianism have become deeply embedded in the public consciousness and embodied in liberal democracy, where states remain sufficiently prosperous and stable that the fact of diversity and the attitude of egalitarianism are not swept away by some currently unimaginable cataclysm, I see no grounds to expect secularization to be reversed."

July 2002

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Related reviews:
- books about Christianity + Christian history
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- books published by Blackwell
%T God is Dead
%S Secularization in the West
%A Bruce, Steve
%I Blackwell
%D 2002
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0631232753
%P xv,269pp