Explaining Secularization

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Other factors, though, contributed mightily to the decline of religion, apparently making Europe a wonderful model of secularization theory in action. If these explanations are correct, this would have dramatic implications for the fate of other religions in that same environment, and particularly of Islam.

Secularization theory portrays traditional institutional religions as fitting best in a premodern or prescientific setting dependent on agricultural production. Circumstances change when new economic arrangements disrupt older communities and advance urbanization and industrialization. Modernity is characterized by the rise of "empirical science and technology, of industrialization and capitalism, of urbanization and social mobility, of legal bureaucracy, democracy and the nation states." Modernity promotes individualism, privatization, and the dominance of a scientific worldview that makes obsolete religious claims to provide healings or miracles. The modern welfare state provides the social services and education once supplied by religious-based charities or movements, so that citizens know they can comfortably rely on government-provided assistance in time of crisis. Once ordinary believers can assert with confidence that "the state is my shepherd," organized religion declines sharply. This does not mark the end of religion as such, since a notion of higher powers appears to be hard-wired into our consciousness, but now the religious instinct is manifested in a more personal, autonomous, nondogmatic and nonjudgmental spirituality.37

At first sight, Europe seems to fit this pattern splendidly, offering an impressive negative correlation between economic development and traditional piety. European churches have felt the full force of secular rivalry usurping their traditional functions, with the growth of social welfare systems from the start of the twentieth century. Secular-minded Europeans are happy to accept this explanation of religious decline, which they use to rebuff pessimistic American accounts about Europe's alleged moral and social collapse. In this view, Europe has suffered neither a loss of faith nor of its will to survive: there is no Europe Problem. To the contrary, the United States should worry that it has not matured socially and economically to the point that it can afford to abandon the crutch of religion.

The best argument in favor of secularization theory is the gradation of religious decline across Europe and how well that correlates with economic development. The deepest-rooted welfare states are those of Scandinavia and northern Europe, where orthodox Protestantism has been in free fall for many years, while Great Britain has long been the most urbanized and industrialized section of the continent. Classic secularization theory would predict the most advanced decline in traditional religion in nations such as Britain, the Netherlands, and Sweden, and that is what we find.

Since the 1950s, industrial growth has been marked in areas that had largely escaped the earlier waves of development, and it spawned mass migrations from rural areas in Spain, Italy, and France. It is not just a coincidence that the areas of western Europe demonstrating the most marked and rapid secularization in the last quarter of the century were exactly those that experienced conspicuous economic growth and modernization in those years. These included Ireland, following its accession to the European Community in 1973; Spain, after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975; and Italy, which boomed during the 1980s. All three were economic laggards in the 1960s: as late as 1975, 43 percent of Italy's economically active population worked in agriculture, and over a quarter of Italians lived in small towns or villages. In 1987, though, Italy triumphantly celebrated its Sorpasso, the moment when its GDP (temporarily) overtook that of Great Britain. Irish GNP per capita grew from just 60 percent of the EU average in 1973 to match that average in 2001, while Ireland's per capita GDP actually exceeded the British figure during the 1990s. Ireland became the Celtic Tiger, an Atlantic counterpart to the then-booming economies of the Pacific Rim. And in these very years—roughly, the last quarter of the century—levels of church attendance and vocations were declining rapidly. Conversely, countries like Poland maintained both a strong rural and agricultural sector and high levels of religious practice.38

Adding to the crisis of traditional religion and morality was the growing social status of women in an economy founded on the information and service sectors. Women entered increasingly into the world of paid employment, and also into the public sphere. Business and the mass media recognized the importance of women as consumers of both material goods and of popular culture. Soaring divorce statistics indicate both new expectations by women and stresses on traditional concepts of family and gender roles. Britain and Germany have long held the unenviable record for the fragility of marriage, but since the early 1990s, divorce rates have grown sharply in what were once the most solidly Catholic lands of Europe. Between 1995 and 2004, the divorce rate grew by 89 percent in Portugal, 62 percent in Italy, and 59 percent in Spain. While Irish rates are much lower, the country finally legislated the possibility of divorce in 1997, following a contentious referendum in which the Yes side gained a paper-thin margin of 50.28 percent.39

Doubts about the chances of lifelong commitment make people more cautious about entering into marriage, especially when no stigma is attached to unmarried couples living together, or to illegitimacy. The word, illegitimacy, is itself fading into disuse because of its judgmental connotations. In Britain and France, around 40 percent of births involve unmarried mothers, and the Norwegian figure is 49 percent. Even in Ireland, the illegitimacy rate is over 30 percent. Across Europe, households are smaller, and people are far more likely to be living by themselves or in transient relationships. Between 1971 and 2004, the number of British households containing just one person grew from 18 percent to 29 percent of the national total.40

By the 1980s, family and gender issues increasingly played a central role in national politics, with a growing social focus on themes of enhancing women's rights and protecting women from harassment and sexual violence. Other powerful issues on the social agenda were child protection and the struggle against child sexual abuse, both increasingly defined in much more ambitious ways than hitherto. Meanwhile, working women were more concerned about regulating their fertility, resulting in greater social pressure for easy access to contraceptives and, in many nations, to abortion. The growing separation between sexuality and reproduction made it vastly easier to present a case for gay rights, which advanced alongside political feminism. If the bearing and raising of children was no longer the primary goal of married heterosexual couples, by what right could marriage be denied to homosexual pairs?

Moreover, while European economies have experienced all the same pressures as the U.S.—a move to a postindustrial economy, a huge upsurge in female employment, the growth of feminism—these changes have been still more far-reaching in Europe because of the greater tradition of enforcing social change through law. The European Union has strongly encouraged women's emancipation and equality, using measures that many Americans would find startlingly interventionist, and some individual nations have gone still further. In Spain, long one of Europe's most entrenched social backwaters, the national government proposed in 2006 that women must make up at least 40 percent of the candidates from any political party and provide the same share of the members on corporate boards. Portugal now requires that women must comprise a third of the names on all electoral lists.41

The changing role and expectations of European women contributed massively to the decline in family size in west European nations, and the birth dearth commonly cited as a looming potential crisis for the European Union. These social transformations also had religious consequences, especially for the Catholic Church, with its male-dominated character and its staunch opposition to contraception and abortion. In a society marked by women's social emancipation, an institution that appears determined to resist that trend in every possible way is likely to be regarded as outmoded and unacceptably antimodern. When abuse scandals further suggest that that church tramples the interests of children as well as women, it is bound to become the target of pervasive hostility.

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