Secularization, the “Nones,” and the Reigning Paradigm of American Religious History

Secularization, the “Nones,” and the Reigning Paradigm of American Religious History

By: Dale M. Coulter
Monday, August 5th, 2013

I think what I and most other sociologists of religion wrote in the 1960s about secularization was a mistake. Our underlying argument was that secularization and modernity go hand in hand. With more modernization comes more secularization. It wasn’t a crazy theory. There was some evidence for it. But I think it’s basically wrong. Most of the world today is certainly not secular. It’s very religious. So is the U.S. The one exception to this is Western Europe. One of the most interesting questions in the sociology of religion today is not, How do you explain fundamentalism in Iran? but, Why is Western Europe different?Peter Berger

While this quotation is from a 1997 interview in Christian Century, Berger’s comments still resonate with the current situation, especially in light of a new book by another sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark. In America’s Blessing Stark attempts to sever any strong link between pluralism and secularization by arguing that competition among religions or even different forms of the same religion increases religious commitment rather than decreasing it. This secondary claim of the book reinforces Stark’s primary claim that strong religious commitment has a positive benefit on society in general.

Let me give some of the claims that Stark makes in the book and one of my own.

  • Contrary to the reports of mainstream media American religion is not in decline, but alive and well with around 70% of Americans belonging to a local congregation

Some of Stark’s data for this claim comes from The Churching of America in which Stark and co-author Roger Finke analyzed congregation growth against population growth among different denominations from 1776 through 1990. When compared against overall population growth rates, for example, about 30.5% of Americans were members of local congregations in 1850.

This statistic may be somewhat startling given that this was during the height of Protestant hegemony in the U.S. If Stark’s numbers are correct, then more Americans are connected to a local congregation in the early twenty-first century than were connected in the mid-nineteenth century.

  • The phrase Mainline Protestantism should be jettisoned as a reference to certain Protestant denominations (The Episcopal Church, USA, The Presbyterian Church, USA, The Disciples of Christ, The American Baptist Churches, The United Church of Christ Congregational, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) because it represents a by-gone era.

This is an interesting claim that fits some mainline Protestant denominations, but does not explain the United Methodist Church, which remains the largest.

  • Religious competition produced by religious pluralism has created more vibrant forms of Christianity for those congregations and denominations that make greater demands of their members

With this claim, Stark challenges Peter Berger’s idea that pluralism will demand weaker forms of Christianity, that is, those that dilute Christian commitments to make the faith more palatable to a secular public. The sociological data, according to Stark, suggests just the opposite.

  • The idea that America is in religious decline says more about the status of religion among certain cultural elites than its status among the populace

In fairness, Stark does not quite put the claim this way. Instead, he talks about an antagonism toward religion and religious people by the news media.

This is where I would modify Stark’s claim.

I prefer to see the promotion of religious decline in the media, including the rise of the “nones,” as a manifestation of the reigning historiography about American religion. This historical paradigm interprets much of American religion in terms of a long-standing debate between an emerging theological liberalism and a retrenchment of theological conservatism.

It is advocated by some evangelical historians who cannot seem to get beyond the Fundmentalist/Modernist controversy of the 1920s or the fractures within Congregationalism and Presbyterianism (Reformed Christianity) in the first half of the nineteenth century.

And by historians of Protestant liberalism like Gary Dorrien who claims at end of the first volume of his trilogy The Making of American Liberal Theology, that Protestant liberalism was a third way between Protestant orthodoxy and rationalistic atheism. Are these the only options by 1900? I don’t think so.

When the narrative is either orthodox entrenchment or liberal progressivism, everything else must be made to fit. A case in point is the Methodist Dorothy Tilly. She was a staunch supporter of civil rights, but did not allow alcohol to be consumed at her meetings with congressmen in Washington D.C. In his new bookDavid Hollinger claims her for mainline Protestantism as though the holiness movement never existed. She was for civil rights so she must be one of the liberals rather than a good ole southern Methodist who understood what social holiness meant.

It’s as though people don’t realize that Emmett Till, the African-American boy brutally murdered in 1955, was from a pentecostal family whose members were deeply connected to the Church of God in Christ.

Americans like Dorothy Tilly and the Till family are forced onto the Procrustean bed of American religious historiography. In a postmodern world that despises dualisms (black/white, male/female, etc.) this form of historical dualism persists.

Like a virulent strain of the flu, it continues to infect current analyses that pit evangelicalism against mainline Protestantism or a progressive vs traditionalist Catholicism without considering that many of the now dominant forms of American Christianity (in terms of the numbers) simply do not fit this paradigm. If these are the choices, no wonder millennials are interpreted as leaving.

My prediction: just as the secularization thesis Berger promoted in the 1960s has now been proven false, so the reigning paradigm of American religion (and this includes Canada) will come to an end. Yes, a paradigm shift.


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