The Limits of Secularization

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For the sake of argument, let us assume that secularization is indeed closely connected with social and economic modernization, and especially with the changes in gender attitudes wrought by those processes. From some perspectives at least, it is a deeply optimistic idea, since it assumes that recent immigrants, especially Muslims, will experience the same collapse of religious fervor when exposed to European culture and society, and that present signs of militancy or extremism represent a last-ditch effort to defend traditional religious systems that are already under siege. This is a critical conclusion for the fate of European Islam and, by implication, for the practice of Islam in the countries from which Europe's Muslims derive, in Pakistan and Turkey, Morocco and Algeria.

But are current theories of secularization correct? Interpretations that seem to work well in Europe perform abominably badly when tested in the United States. Claire Berlinski, for instance, uses a familiar secularization model to explain what she sees as the annihilation of European Christianity in modern times: "The rise of modern science facilitated the death of Christianity ... by replacing religion as a framework to interpret human experience." But the obvious retort is to ask how the United States experienced the impact of modern science, not to mention very much the same range of social and economic forces, but with quite different outcomes. As conventionally stated, secularization theory provides only a part of a much more complex story.45

Following rapid industrialization, the United States experienced an early decline in its rural population, with the 1920 Census the first to show the urban population representing a majority. The United States has continued to thrive and innovate economically, usually far better than its European counterparts. In terms of overall wealth, measured by GDP per capita, Europeans are 25 percent worse off than Americans, and the gap is widening. By the same measure, a leading European nation like France is about as rich as one of the poorer American states, such as Alabama or Mississippi. And although they may fall short of European standards of comprehensive welfare provision, Americans can expect extensive public support in times of poverty, unemployment, or old age. In terms of gender equality, too, and the proportion of women in the workplace, the United States is comparable to the most developed nations of western Europe.

Particularly strange is the demographic divide. The United States experienced its own baby boom, of course, followed by a plunge in birth rates that between 1970 and 1985 actually left the country with lower fertility than western Europe, and with a relative dearth of children. Yet far from that decline being manifested in a collapse of religious loyalties, churches and religious institutions of all kinds flourished in these same years. Subsequently, despite all the factors apparently promoting small families, U.S. birth rates bounced back impressively in the 1990s, and have remained high. Today, the United States is one of the few nations in the world—not just among the advanced countries—to resist the trend to sharply falling fertility.

Whether we are measuring statistics for belief or attendance, religion does survive in the United States. Moreover, its strength is evident throughout the country, and not just in the red states of the South and Midwest, where Republican candidates dominated in the opening years of this century. European visitors are usually amazed not just by the public affirmations of faith in political life but by the evident signs of religious life—the abundance of active churches, the proliferation of new church buildings, and not least, the vast car-parks designed to accommodate legions of congregants. Of course, some American churches have floundered, and some Protestant mainline denominations may be entering terminal crisis. Yet decline in these groupings has been more than offset by the growth of other churches, often of more conservative and evangelical temperament. And many of the most successful new churches and denominations operate in areas of vigorous economic growth and innovation.

Roman Catholics present a surprising component of the story. After years of internal dissension in the church, largely involving debates over gender roles and sexuality, American Catholics were battered by the sexual abuse scandals that reached new heights with the revelations in the Boston Archdiocese in 2002. Yet even in such an atmosphere, the proportion of Catholics who report attending mass at least weekly held steady from 2000 through 2005, at a solid 33 percent. To say the least, the American model poses difficulties for secularization theory.

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