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Sociology of Religion

Sociologist Peter Kivisto on the attitude to religion, post-secularists and ‘The Secular age’

videos | June 27, 2015

Why does the attitude to religion change with time? What does it depend on in different cultures? Why has religion become a more private matter? These and other questions will be answered by an Augustana College Professor of Social Thought, Peter Kivisto.

The sociology of religion is a really broad subfield in sociology, and it’s one of the subfields that has been sort of part and parcel of the discipline right from the start. And one can talk about it from a variety of angles, such as the institutional or organizational structure of religious communities and so on, but I want to focus on this one powerful debate that has been going on in the sociology of religion, that maybe kind of structures everything else, and that has to do with the issue of secularization.

At the moment, there is a current discussion going on among sociologists of religion that is called ‘post-secularism’, the post-secular debate or discussion. And, you know, post-secularism is one of those ‘posts’ that you find all over the place, ever since we started talking about ‘post-industrial society’, ‘postmodernism’ and so on and so forth. Post-secularism is almost inevitable. But what exactly are we talking about? And what are people who are ‘post-secularists’ reacting or responding to, when they make the claims that they make?

And I will say this: there’s no one unified position in terms of post-secularism. But I think if we step back and look at the history of the sociology of religion, what we will see is that there’s a general notion that religion in a modern world is going to wane in significance. It’s either going to disappear or, probably more likely, it’s going to become less and less consequential in a variety of ways.

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You can think about Karl Marx, who talked about religion being the “opium of the masses”. He had this dream that it would disappear. And, if you talk about someone like Durkheim, who thought that religion was an important kind of glue that held society together at some level, but he himself didn’t seem to be somebody who could embrace religion. But probably the most consequential person in terms of shaping the way we thought about secularization was Max Weber, the great German sociologist born in 1864. Weber’s major, this one kind of theme that runs through his work. And if you look at Marx, Marx was primarily interested in two things: alienation and exploitation. And if you look at Durkheim, you’d say probably the theme that runs through his works is solidarity and how does a society hang together.


For Weber, it seems to be rationalization. You can’t go to any work of his and say ‘see, he says as much’. It’s people who have been commenting and doing exegetical studies of his work for decades and decades and decades now have come to the general consensus that rationalization is the kind of thread, the key theme that kind of permeates his thinking. And, you know, it means a lot of things, but among other things, the rationalization suggests that we begin to explain and interpret the world in ways other than religious ways, in particular because of science, the presumed tension between science and religion. But this kind of thinking percolated into sociology as it became a full-fledged discipline. When Weber was writing sociology was really trying to get grounded, he really didn’t have much of a presence in the universities in Europe or North America. It was there, but it not been there for a very long time and it was kind of insecure in terms of its status.

But jump ahead to the post World War II period, which was kind of a highpoint for sociology, and where in particular American sociology lunged large in part because of the devastation of World War II, you know, we ended up being fairly unscathed and this meant that while Europe was trying to rebuilt its everything, including its universities, the United States was in a kind of privileged position. There are any number of people who became important spokespersons or advocates for the secularization thesis. But the person I’ll point to, because he was probably the most influential, was a person by the name Peter Berger who argues that, in fact, if you want to trace the origins of secularization, you can actually go back to the Protestant Reformation, because Protestantism starts to strip away the kind of corporate and collective character of religion, it promotes a kind of individualism.

You know, Martin Luther said, in talking about so called “Priesthood of all believers”, that individuals have a direct relationship with God as opposed to having a Church body, shaping it, which is found both in Eastern Christianity and in Roman Catholicism. So, the seeds of secularization, he said, were planted within religion itself, in the West, and, not surprisingly, where those places in Western Europe and then spilling over into North America, because they were predominantly protestant you see it in the second half of the XX century secularization taking root.

Religion becomes a far more private matter, it’s sometimes becomes sort of invisible, it’s there, under the surface, but it’s not there in terms of shaping people’s lives.

You don’t decide your career based on what you think God wants you to do, you’re not looking for a vocation, what actually Luther talked about, you’re not choosing your friends. If you’re ill, you’re not going to a faith healer or praying to get better, you’re going to a doctor, who’s using modern science and technology. In place after place, sphere after sphere of everyday life religion gets squeezed out.

The place that it seems to still have a role is that people end up – and Weber actually understood this – he said: “people need to understand, they need an account of why suffering takes place in the world.” How do you explain suffering, which includes the inevitability of death? Which is probably, by the way, what I think, where Marx got it wrong, about religion disappearing in his terms. Because he talked about exploitation and alienation, but you don’t end aging, sickness, and death. In effect what the secularization thesis does is – dealing with those ultimate private matters. And then, perhaps, people may find that they can deal with those in ways other than religion. So the assumption is that some people will become irreligious, areligious, but for many people, for most people religion will still be part of their lives, but it will be compartmentalized, that’s what secularization argues.

Now, compounding all that I just said, is something else in the modern world, and that is that we live increasingly in societies, especially the large, developed societies, that are religiously pluralistic. And one of the ways in which, if you’re going to be religiously pluralistic and you learn to get together with people and respect other people’s religions, then at some level it becomes a harder cell to say ‘but my religion is the one true religion’. Some people hang on to that, people that we call religious fundamentalists, they want to say ‘my religion is the one true religion, all other religions are false’. But others are prepared to say “this is my way to try and to deal and wrestle with these issues of ultimate meaning in life, but in fact, if I’m a protestant, my neighbour, who is a Catholic or who’s a Jew, is doing the same thing, and I respect that”.

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At some level then you don’t come away with the same kind of absolute certainty that your religious beliefs are correct.They’re more tentative, they’re more something that you embrace or endorse, you feel comfortable with them, or you’re going to stick with them, you’re just going to have faith in them, but you also understand that there are other options, other possibilities. And as pluralistic societies evolved, this means you actually have choices, so you can actually move from one religion to another, you can be born a catholic and become a protestant, you can convert to Judaism, or Jews can convert to Christianity, or what have you. One plausibility structure in all of this is that you’re not religious anymore.


One of the anomalies in all of this debate was that the United States is still a very religious country. So, how do you explain this thesis, if the United States is still highly religious? The argument that Berger suggested was that it’s an anomaly. Jump ahead in 20 years and what you’ll see is that a whole lot of evidence that religion in a world at large is alive and well. In Latin America not only is Catholicism thriving – a lot of Latin American Catholics are excited because they have Pope from their own region – but conservative evangelical Protestantism has taken hold and is doing all sorts of things. You have both an Islamic revival and Evangelical Christian revival in places like West Africa, Nigeria.

It is true that the secularization thesis argued that this was happening in the developed world, and it kind of ignored the world that had not caught up with the developed world. What Peter Berger ended up saying is that:“I used to think that the United States was the anomaly, but now I think Western Europe is the anomaly. The lack of religion in Western Europe stands in stark contrast to everywhere else.” So this is the basis for starting to talk about post-secularism.

We don’t live in a secular age, we live in this world, in which somehow religion has managed to survive despite science, technology, pluralism et cetera. That’s the argument of the post-secularists. In many respects it’s more descriptive, religion’s everywhere, we can point to it – here or here, but in fact one of the things that they raise is the idea that both religion, various kinds of religion, and non-religion, are options. One of the realities is people live in a world where you have the sense that you have an option. I would point to a very, very important article, not by sociologists, well, not an article – a book, a huge book, seven hundred paged book, by the Canadian political philosopher Charles Taylor and the title is significant, because it’s called ‘The Secular age’. A number of people who have been talking about post-secularism find this book very compelling. What he argues is in many respects, not quite the way Berger thought it, but we do live in a secular age.

The religion is still far more powerful, but in secular age religion is far more of an optional thing and far less something that people are just born into and then stay there.

I don’t know if people still talk about this, but people used to talk in the US about being so-called ‘cradle catholic’, somebody who hasn’t been to a mass for decades and so on will say “I’m a cradle catholic”. That meant you’re born a catholic and somehow you think ‘I’m still a catholic even though I’m not a good catholic or a practicing catholic’. Increasingly that kind of situation doesn’t exist in people. If they’re going to be religious, they end up choosing and shifting and moving. The very fact that you have to make decisions, make choices, and that one of the choices is not just among different religious options, but one is to be irreligious.

There is now a growing sort of movement, so-called ‘new atheists’, who are prepared to make their case that they need to be seen. Sometimes they call themselves humanists. Sometimes they have some kind of in-your-face attitude towards established religion other times they are simply saying ‘we need to have a place at the table here, too’. But this is the world that we live in. Sometimes I think the term ‘post-secular’, although interesting, is probably something that leads to more confusion than is necessary, and probably the more important thing to think about it and look at, is that we live in this widely religiously diverse world and the sheer diversity, the sheer pluralism of it, is what shapes people’s options and choices and so on.

Richard Swanson Professor of Social Thought, Chair of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Welfare, Augustana College, Visiting Professor at University of Trento, Research Fellow at University of Helsinki



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