Saturday, April 9, 2011

Secularization: Christianity fighting a losing battle in the West

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Secularization: Christianity fighting a losing battle in the West
By Dr R Balashankar

Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory, Steve Bruce,
Oxford University Press (HB), pp 243, £25.00

WE Indians are familiar with the word secular. It is used ad nauseum
in political discourse. But its real meaning is altogether different
from what is intended in India. Steve Bruce in his latest remarkable
book Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory has quoted
Bryan Wilson and defined "secularization as the decline in the social
significance of religion." Its meaning also includes "the decay of
religious institutions," and "the replacement of a specifically
religious consciousness... by an empirical, rational, instrumental
orientation."

The focus of his book is Christianity and the West. He asserts that
the number of church-goers has declined. In Britain, according to the
2001 census it was as low as nine per cent. Bruce gives a series of
statistics in various countries in the West to prove the point that
the people have moved away from religion. Not even the old notion of
'believing without belonging' is true, he says, as religious
affiliations and attendance have come down drastically. In Eastern
Europe, where communism forcibly took religion away, people have not
returned to it in any large numbers after the Churches, their property
and the bones of saints were restored.

In an absolutely dispassionate analysis, Bruce discusses the religious
institutions. "Most sects begin as primitive democracies, with little
formal organization, but as they grow they acquire an internal
division of labour and a distinct leadership cadre. Especially after
the founder has died, there is a need to educate and train the
preachers and teachers who will sustain the movement. There is an
organization to be coordinated and managed... with organization come
paid officials who have a vested interest in reducing tension between
the sect and the wider society. The movement's officers start to
compare themselves to the clergy of the established church... The once-
radical sect is compromised by its own officials." How true! We have
seen organisations defeat themselves like this.

Bruce emphatically demolishes the proposition that secularisation is
only a temporary, passing phenomena. He refutes arguments that there
would be revival of religious interest. "The obvious evidential
problem is that, in the British case, Christianity has experienced at
least 150 years of decline, and each wave of possible gap fillers (the
Pentecostal movements of the 1920s, the charismatic movements of the
1960s, the new religious movements of the 1970s, and the New Age
spirituality of the 1990s) has failed to make even a small dent in the
growing numbers of people free from any organized religious
interest."

Secularisation, Bruce says is a result of a variety of complex social
changes, which can broadly be called as modernisation. Some of these
factors are: rise of individualism, the decline of deference, a new
fluidity in social relations, and increasing levels of education.
According to Sociologist David Voas quoted in the book 'Of the 20 most
modern nations in the world...19 are becoming increasingly secular.
These countries have very different histories, speak 11 different
languages and are located on four different continents.' The exception
is America, where they are more likely than Europeans to claim a
religious identity, to go to church and to pray.

Secularisation has taken two forms: in Europe the churches became less
popular; in the United States, the churches became less religious.
"...many Americans do treat religion as a consumer commodity." "The
simplest way of describing the changes in content of much American
religion is to say that the supernatural has been diminished and it
has been psychologized or subjectivized" says Bruce.

He discusses Islam and many countries. In Asia he takes up China and
Japan, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East. But both
India and Hinduism are conspicuously absent from the analysis. On
Islam, after a disclaimer that it is "difficult to generalize about
millions of people from diverse backgrounds, in a variety of
countries" Bruce says: "The rise of Islamic fundamentalism, terrorist
attacks on Western targets, and the Western wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan offers all Muslims in Europe a cause that they can support
and an identity - as a member of a global radical Islam - that they
can adopt." In fact, conservative Christians see the increasing Muslim
presence in the West as an opportunity to revive Christianity. They
believe that "dislike of Islam will cause nominal Christians to
rediscover their faith." Though as of now, the "new competition is not
simulating a Christian revival in Europe." It is to be noted that in
several countries in the West various denominations of Christianity
have sought minority status, as a fall-out of the presence of non-
Christian religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and of course
Islam.

Steve Bruce is Professor of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen
and has authored several books and scores of articles on subjects
relating to religion and secularization. In this book, he has
brilliantly presented his arguments on the secularization of the West.
Unobtrusively he has introduced the subject of Islam and the social,
political and religious role and space it is occupying in a secular
West. A profound book on an issue that ought to set the reader
thinking.

(Oxford University Press, Inc. 198, Madison Avenue, New York, 10016)

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