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SECULARIZATION. On 15 February 2000, the Kentucky Senate passed a bill on a 37 to 1 vote that instructed the state's board of education to prevent the "suppression and censorship" of "Christianity's influence on colonial America." As the bill's sponsor, the Republican state senator Albert Robinson, explained, secular squeamishness about religion, along with distorted demands for inclusiveness, had created a "terrible injustice" to "Christians and the Christian history of this nation." This legislative episode suggests what a battleground narratives about the religious history of the United States have become, and much of that conflict centers on the sorts of assumptions held dear by Robinson and most of his allies: namely, that the nation was in its beginnings a predominantly Christian land, but that over time the paired forces of secularization and pluralism slowly eroded the foundations of a Christian America. Questions about the wider secularization of American culture as well as questions about the historical drift from a Bible commonwealth to a pluralistic, post-Christian present became political footballs. As historical problems, they were hardly less contentious.

Part of what makes these questions so vexing for historians is a statistical puzzle presented by changing rates of religious adherence from the colonial period forward. According to most calculations, church membership at the time of the American Revolution hovered around a mere 15 percent of the population, suggesting a nation at best thinly Christianized at its birth. In the nineteenth century, adherence rates climbed steadily, growing to about 35 percent of the population at the time of the Civil War. That upward march continued throughout most of the twentieth century, with membership rates leveling off at around 60 percent by the 1970s and 1980s. Little evidence can be found in these statistical measures for either a solidly Christian founding or a gradual secularization of the culture. With these calculations in hand, many sociologists and historians are ready to bury both the conservative vision of a once Christian America and the liberal delight in the forward march of secularization. As story lines, both appear vestigial—the one a residue of nineteenth-century Protestant presumptions of empire and dominion, and the other a hangover from freethinking Enlightenment toasts to secular progress.

The continuing growth and vitality of religion in the United States shifted much of the attention away from accounts of secularization and placed the historical emphasis instead on the growing "Christianization" or (more generally) "sacralization" of the culture. Whereas, in the other industrial nations of the north Atlantic world, rates of church attendance and adherence have moved downward, often dramatically, the American case stands in direct opposition. Why, historians ask, has religion, particularly Christianity, proven so resilient and booming in the United States? What explains the upward climb of religious adherence, the movement from sparsely planted and weakly established churches in the colonial period to the vital, oversubscribed religious groups of the present? Why did secular worldviews that accented religion's eclipse, which had become commonplace among European intellectuals from Karl Marx and Auguste Comte to Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Sigmund Freud, make so little headway in American social and political life?

The most common answer hinges on an economic analogy to a free market. With the elimination of any established church through the First Amendment and through the gradual legal and cultural elaboration of that principle, religious groups were thrown into an open marketplace of sectarian competition and denominational rivalry. The loss of a monopoly, feared by many as a potential disaster for Christianity, proved instead a great boon, unleashing a voluntaristic ferment in religion unlike anything known in Europe. The free market combined with a heady dose of democratization to reverse the colonial fortunes of the churches and to chase away the specter of radical Enlightenment secularism. The Deist Thomas Paine's revolutionary proposal at the end of The Age of Reason (1794–1796) that every preacher become a philosopher and "every house of devotion a school of science" proved uncompetitive in the new religious marketplace that evangelical Protestants took by storm.

This freemarket paradigm, as persuasive as it has proven to be, carries limits. First, there are various ways to challenge the statistics of everrising rates of religious adherence. At a basic level, some sociologists have argued that telephone polls estimating current levels of religious adherence and attendance are grossly inflated. When selfreporting, people claim levels of religious involvement that are not borne out by on-the-ground studies in church parking lots and sanctuaries. Also, being "churched" or "unchurched" could mean vastly different things from one period to another. The baseline of biblical literacy or doctrinal knowledge, for example, might well be much higher for both the affiliated and the unaffiliated at 1750 than at 1950. Gauging the gravity of devotional practices from one period to another—from prayers to sacraments to sermons to Bible reading—is much harder than calculating adherence rates.

When qualitative rather than quantitative concerns are made primary, the rates of religious adherence appear as something of a distraction from deeper, more thoroughgoing questions about the day-to-day realities of American religious life. From this angle of vision, the stories about secularization and de-Christianization remain highly relevant, particularly the ways in which secularizing, rationalistic, consumerist, and therapeutic values have transformed American Christianity from within. The Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put this matter in plain terms in a diary entry in 1921 about a "good toastmaster" who "pathetically described his pastor's successful ministry by explaining that under his leadership the congregation had 'doubled its membership, installed a new organ, built a parsonage, decorated the church and wiped out its debt.'" The minister's success was measured wholly in business terms, and it left Niebuhr wondering if he was only being "foolish" to worry over "these inevitable secularizations of religious values." To give another example, one could in 1900 still prepare for the high holy day of Easter by penitential fasting or even by carrying a large cross in a Holy Week procession. One was more likely, though, to prepare for it by shopping for just the right fashions to parade in after church. Religion, not least Christianity, flourished in the American marketplace, but it often came to carry a substantially different set of cultural values and secular associations within that milieu. Secularization might move forward under the cloak of religion itself.

On another point, would-be defenders of the secularization thesis appear to be on shakier ground, and that is on the question of "privatization." By this line of reasoning, the formal separation of church and state has effectively cut religion off from the public domain. It has been rendered a private, domestic matter of little consequence to social policy, state agencies, and learned public discourse. In this voluntaristic setting, people's religious commitments become their own personal concern with limited public consequence, and that privatization of faith is taken to be a potent measure of secularization. "My own mind is my own church," Thomas Paine had insisted, or "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know," Thomas Jefferson had concluded. Religion was thus safely tucked away within the confines of the individual conscience. The assumptions about gender that often inform such privatizing discourses render them problematic: that is, the more religion is associated with the private, the more it is also associated with women and domesticity, and hence somehow the less significant it becomes. This kind of secularization argument—religion has become a private, domestic affair, and it has been diminished thereby—is, as the historian Ann Braude suggests, almost inevitably also a negative commentary on the feminization of religion in American culture. There is little evidence to sustain the claim that domestic religion, supported especially by women (as was the case throughout the nineteenth century), is religion in decline. The home, as a religious location all its own and as a springboard to moral reform, has proven one of the most enduringly vital religious sites in the culture.

The old stories about secularization continually advancing at religion's expense have proven unsatisfying in making sense of American history. Whether the story moves from Puritan to Yankee or from superstition to science or from Protestant producers to insatiable consumers or from Social Gospel reform to state welfare or from Bible college to research university, stories of secularization founder on religion's tenacity and malleability. At the same time, newer stories about Christianization and sacralization, about ever new heights of religious growth and free-market buoyancy, fall short as well. What counts as the religious and what counts as the secular keep crisscrossing and blurring, so that marking out their respective domains is at best an elusive enterprise: Is a Nativity scene surrounded by reindeer and candy-striped poles really a secular cultural symbol as the Supreme Court decided in Lynch v. Donnelly in 1984? Clean distinctions are hard to come by, and what abides instead is the shifting, negotiable relationship between things secular and things religious in American history and culture. Whether couched as a woeful tale of decline from the glories of a once-Christian America or as a hopeful story of liberal progress against theocracy, bigotry, and ignorance, the secularization thesis serves to tidy up American history. American religion and American secularism are too messy, intertwined, and recombinant for such orderliness.


Braude, Ann. "Women's History Is American Religious History." In Retelling U.S. Religious History. Edited by Thomas A. Tweed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Bruce, Steve, ed. Religion and Modernization: Sociologists and Historians Debate the Secularization Thesis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Finke, Roger, and Rodney Stark. The Churching of America, 1776–1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Hollinger, David A. Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth-Century American Intellectual History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

———. "The 'Secularization' Question and the United States in the Twentieth Century." Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 70, no. 1 (2001): 132–143.

McLeod, Hugh. Secularisation in Western Europe, 1848–1914. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Leigh E.Schmidt

See alsoChristianity ; Religion and Religious Affiliation ; Science and Religion, Relations of .

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Secularization (Lat., saeculum, ‘age’ or ‘world’, i.e. this world). The (supposed) process whereby people, losing confidence in other-worldly or supernatural accounts of the cosmos and its destiny, abandon religious beliefs and practices, or whereby religion loses its influence on society. Secularization is an elusive and much-debated concept. In origin, the term referred to the alienation of Church property to the State, and thence to the loss of temporal power by the Church. It referred also to the process whereby ordained clergy reverted to the lay state. It then came more loosely to refer to the transition from the religious to the non-religious world. At this preliminary level, it is possible to treat religion and the secular at the level of ideology (despite the fact that ideology is itself a complex concept), and to understand the process as one in which one ideology is compelled to give way to another. This is the account offered by D. Cupitt in a widely read book, The Sea of Faith (1984).

The weakness of this account is that it fails to recognize the fact that religions in novel circumstances react in vastly different ways, ranging from adaptation to resistance, but more frequently by failing to act as ideology at all, and by doing complementary, not competitive things. More responsibly, therefore, Bryan Wilson proposed the ‘secularization thesis’ (e.g. Religion in Secular Society, 1966). Defining secularization as ‘the process whereby religious thinking, practices and institutions lose social significance’, he argued, not that people have necessarily lost interest in religion, nor that they have adopted a new ideology, but more restrictedly that religion has ceased to have any significance for the working of the social system. Many problems in this position have been exposed, ranging from the measures and methods of social significance (in the past as much as in the present) to the relevance of a contingent observation about the distribution of power to the understanding of religion. Religions clearly duck and weave through the vicissitudes of history, and are not in some single and invariant conflict with a reality which can be defined as ‘secularization’.

For these (and other) reasons, T. Luckmann argued that ‘the notion of secularisation offers a largely fictitious account of the transformations of religion in Western society during the past centuries’ (Life-World and Social Realities, 1983), and called this spurious account ‘the myth of secularisation’: its basic mistake is to tie religion to the institutional forms it has happened to take, and then to measure religion by the fortunes (or misfortunes) of those institutions. It may be, therefore, that the phenomena which have evoked the term ‘secularization’ would be much better considered as a consequence of roughly three centuries of often bitter struggle to maximize the autonomy of individuals and (increasingly in contradiction) of markets. In political terms, the consequence of the struggle is referred to as ‘democracy’. It is a commitment to the maximum freedom of choice for individuals and groups within the boundary of law. It is, in brief, a preferential option for options. But quite apart from its pressure to disentangle Church from State, it also has had the consequence of making religion optional, where once it was less so. But this understanding of secularization, while it does indeed raise problems for institutions, and may drive them to ‘market’ themselves as though a commodity, does not threaten the basic ‘religiousness’ of humanity; for the supposition that Weber's ‘shift to rationalisation’ will leave religions behind has proved already to be false.

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secularization, secularization thesis Secularization is the process whereby, especially in modern industrial societies, religious beliefs, practices, and institutions lose social significance. The decline of religion is measured by religious attendance, commitment to orthodox belief, support for organized religion in terms of payments, membership, and respect, and by the importance which religious activities such as festivals assume in social life. It is argued that, on these criteria, modern societies have gone through a process of secularization in the twentieth century.

The secularization thesis maintains that secularization is an inevitable feature of the rise of industrial society and the modernization of culture. It is argued that modern science has made traditional belief less plausible; the pluralization of life-worlds has broken the monopoly of religious symbols; the urbanization of society has created a world which is individualistic and anomic; the erosion of family life has made religious institutions less relevant; and technology has given people greater control over their environment, making the idea of an omnipotent God less relevant or plausible. In this sense, secularization is used as a measure of what Max Weber meant by the rationalization of society.

Critics of the secularization thesis argue that it exaggerates the level of commitment to organized religion in pre-modern societies; implicitly equates secularization with the decline of Christianity, and these two issues should be kept separate; underestimates the importance of new religious movements in so-called secular societies; cannot easily explain important variations between industrial societies (such as the United States and Great Britain) in terms of the nature and rate of secularization; fails to consider the role of religion in nationalist culture such as in Poland and Ireland; and overlooks secular alternatives to religion (such as humanism) which may function like a religion without involving a belief in the sacred (see, for example, the works of D. Martin , such as his The Religious and the Secular, 1969, or A General Theory of Secularization, 1978

Peter L. Berger (The Social Reality of Religion, 1969) has argued that human beings require a ‘sacred canopy’ in order to make sense of the world, because meaninglessness is a threat to our need for an orderly universe. Thomas Luckmann (The Invisible Religion, 1963) suggests that modern societies have an invisible religion. Supporters of the secularization thesis, such as Bryan Wilson (see his Religion in Sociological Perspective, 1982)
maintain that the diversity, plurality, and fragmentary nature of new religious movements, youth cultures, and counter cultures is in fact evidence of the church's loss of social authority. Where religion appears to flourish, for example in the United States, it is primarily as a channel for nationalist sentiments. Therefore, when sociologists examine the complex relationship between ideology, nationalism, and religious change, it is clear that there are many different patterns of secularization. See also CIVIL RELIGION.

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