The Jesuits and 'Secularization'

It may seem a bit bizarre to encounter a title, "The Jesuits and Secularization," appearing close by the feast of Saint Ignatius. Surely, the sons of Ignatius have imbibed Ignatius' famous trope about "finding God in all things," such that the purely secular (i.e., a realm devoid of grace and God's presence) is a contradiction in terms. Nor does the title suggest somehow that modern day Jesuits have become secularized. Rather it refers to a conference I attended in mid-June, sponsored by the Jesuit Institute at Boston College, with some twenty-five Jesuits and distinguished sociologists, to probe the religious climate of our contemporary world. Sociologically, just what is the situation for religion in our modern world and what are the spiritual potentials to be found there?

When I was a young man, pursuing a doctorate in sociology, the so-called secularization thesis reigned supreme. It argued that the more modern, economically advanced and educated a society, the more likely it would be secular, i.e., a society where religion became privatized, with a concomitant decline of religious belief and practice. Peter Berger expoused that thesis in 1967 in his classic book, Sacred Canopy. Even at the time, some other sociologists, such as my teacher Robert Bellah (who passed away this week), disputed the thesis. Religion changed its modality in modern societies but it did not have to be privatized or decline. Moreover, several societies (notably, the United States) did not neatly fit the scheme. Berger who was present at our conference recoiled from his earlier position in his 1999 book, The De-Secularization of the World.


Berger came to see, as many sociologists have, following the 1994 study by Jose Casanova, Public Religion in the Modern World, that modernization involved differentiation of spheres (church separated from state; state not fully equated with society or economy). It also involved a kind of concomitant pluralization of world-views found in the same society (some of them purely secular but also multiple religious world views). These alternatives entailed that no tradition any longer could be concieved of as simply taken-for-granted. It had to be chosen, embraced, not simply seen as the only alternative way of being or seeing reality. This new state of affairs was a distinct challenge to any religon which used to have a monopoly position. But it did not, as such, automatically involve either the privatization of religion or its demise/decline.

As Berger noted at our conference, he confused, earlier, secularization with pluralization; secularity with plurality. He also thought of the secular and religious as polar opposites to each other. Later, he noted that someone could be both secular and religious at the same time, in reference to different spheres or aspects of activity or thinking.

At the conference, we heard a number of distinguished sociologists portray for us the state of religion in our world. Grace Davie, probably Europe's most distinguished sociologist of religion, reminded us of her studies about believing without belonging. Many non-adherents (non-belongers) in Europe and elsewhere, nevertheless, still believe ( e.g. in life after death, in God) and engage in private religious practices such as prayer. Many who claim "none," when asked about religious affiliation, nevertheless, still believe. Many non-belongers (and even some who do not believe) still expect formal religious adherents to provide what Davie dubs "vicarious religion." Thus, when a disaster strikes, such as, for example, the terrible shootings in Newtown, non-believers or belongers would be actually shocked if rabbis, priests or ministers did not provide opportunities for prayer and religious reflection on the event.

Daniel Levine, a scholar of Latin American religion, argued that there can be a kind of "secularization" with a concomitant religious vitality. He noted conversations he had with Catholic prelates in Colombia who decried the "secularism" of modern day Latin America and seemed oblivious to the growing (but non-Catholic) vitality of Pentecostalism. Indeed, rather than sheer secularization, Levine saw in Latin America a surge of religious innovation. He argued for a twin set of tolerances. True secularists needed to avoid secularism as an overall imposed policy platform, rather than as a procedure. They need to allow religious voices full parity in society, even if there is formal separation of church and state. The religious need to accept pluralization and autonomy of modern society. Levine thought that many of the Latin American bishops who railed against "secularism," in fact, objected to pluralism and a new kind of autonomy in their societies. They secretly longed for a religious monopoly they had once had (itself at its own price, which stifled much religious vitality).

Many of the participants evoked Charles Taylor's now classic book, A Secular Age. Taylor speaks of a move, in modernity, toward a regnant immanent (rather than transcendent) frame of reference. Yet immanence means one thing when it entails standing in an "open" space versus standing in a closed one. To be sure, some modern forms of secularization (e.g., in France after 1905; in Turkey at the time of Ataturk) did try to privatize religion, shut it out from public life. That needs to be fought against. But, willy-nilly, modernity entails a kind of wide reaching immanent frame of reference. This demands of religion an alternative stance to its earlier assumptions about trancendence as a language for all social spheres. Finding God in all things might mean trying to find kindred souls in an immanent, yet open, frame of reference, a this-worldly space.

Brian Grimm from the Pew Foundation reminded us that, in fact, 84 percent of people in our present world (5.8 billion) do identify with a religious tradition. Only 1.1 billion claim, in Pew surveys of international religion, to be un-affiliated. The majority of these are found in Asia, particularly China. Very few of those who claim to be "none" religiously are really what we would call atheists or agnostics. Most are spiritual but not religious.

It became clear to us that neither Jesuits nor their institutions nor the episcopal voice has any master narrative (and, therefore, coherent strategy) about secularization. They talk about secularism-secularity and mean different things by it. For some, the mere fact of a new pluralism, autonomy of conscience in society, differentiation of church from state or economy is seen as somehow egregious and to be fought against. For the Jesuit participants, not surprisingly, dialogue with non-believers and those of other religions in our pluralistic societies seems necessary to achieve a common good and a flourishing society. Discernment (that Jesuit word which assumes that God is bigger than our categories and is also a God of surprises, often found where we least expect her) was another of the code words for Jesuits at the conference. A serene acceptance of the differentiation of church and state which, nevertheless, does not entail a privatization of religious voices seemed called for. Surely, while those who claim to be spiritual but not religious can be self-deluded (especially if they do not have real spiritual practices), others of them do show us ways to be open to transcendence and to God in our pluralist societies. Mark Massa S.J, dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College, put the question this way: "How can a Jesuit institution sponsor openness and dialogue yet still try to embody our own heritage of a Catholic faith and truth? How is standing in an 'open space' a possible, fruitful apostolic stance?" Not at all bad questions to bring to our current situation for modern faith.

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Charles Erlinger
5 years 2 months ago
Ref: "As Berger noted at our conference, he confused, earlier, secularization with pluralization; secularity with plurality. He also thought of the secular and religious as polar opposites to each other. Later, he noted that someone could be both secular and religious at the same time, in reference to different spheres or aspects of activity or thinking." I am very encouraged to hear about the discussion concerning the making of rational distinctions between secularity and plurality. Plurality has been present to a greater or lesser degree throughout the history of western civilization, most of the time suppressed by monarchic and theocratic governments, or by pseudo democrats who could not accept that part of democracy which envisioned respect for minority beliefs. In those democracies in which minorities are not subject to the dictatorship of majorities, I guess you could say that the citizens espouse pluralism. My understanding is that only in pseudo democracies in which the majorities are secular, and in which non-secular minorities are subject to the dictates of the secular majority, should it be said that secularism prevails. That said, there is no doubt that in democracies in which the majority respects minorities, we always find that social, political and religious equilibrium is tricky to maintain and the situation needs constant attention. It seems that our fate is always to be on guard, because there are always pressures to invoke the power of the state to force , often under threat of imprisonment or worse, someone who simply disagrees, to change beliefs.


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