Is modernity inherently secularizing? Do certain basic features of modern life implacably diminish the plausibility and power of religion? To many in the Catholic Church today, the answer would likely be an anxious yes. Certainly the church over recent centuries has found modernity to be a challenging adversary. Individualism and relativism are rampant in the United States and Europe, and church teachings seem decidedly out of sync with contemporary cultural assumptions. The last European strongholds of Catholic faith, countries such as Ireland and Poland, are losing committed Catholics quickly. Many Catholics in the West today feel chastened and defensive, worried about the future of the church.

Steve Bruce believes they have good reason to be worried. A prominent sociologist of religion at the University of Aberdeen, Bruce argues that the historical rise of monotheism and the Protestant Reformation set in motion a series of large social forces—ranging from the spread of literacy to democratic egalitarianism and the triumph of science and technology—that corroded and weakened religion. Drawing on the works of sociologists from Max Weber and Talcott Parsons to Jürgen Habermas, proponents of this secularization theory view the corrosion as irreversible. Yet, as the subtitle of Bruce’s new book suggests, a resurgence of religion over recent decades has forced a rethinking of secularization theory—and many scholars have abandoned it. Bruce is not one of them. He has continued to carry forward his argument in a series of books and articles, with an insistence that has made him an increasingly lonely voice among social scientists.

In my view we have good reason to treat Bruce’s argument with skepticism. And not least because it is a stagnant and increasingly outdated one. Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory contains very little that Bruce did not already say almost a decade ago, in God Is Dead: Secularization in the West (2002). Readers have a right to feel disappointed when a writer fobs off retreads as new work. More important, something is amiss when a major proponent of a big theoretical paradigm does not actually advance the argument over the course of many years.

Part of the problem is that Bruce fails to address the full range of critiques of, and alternatives to, secularization theory. He engages rivals selectively. One position that emerged in American sociology in the late 1990s, for example, argues for a “subcultural identity theory” of religion, which describes conditions that explain why some modern religious groups wither while others thrive. Bruce shows no awareness of this theory, despite its relevance to his argument. Elsewhere, he dismisses a certain work (one that might actually contribute to his own case) by quoting not the actual argument of the book itself, but a dustjacket description. Such superficial criticism will not convince readers who aren’t already sympathetic to Bruce’s case.

Secularization suffers from a debilitating parochialism. The strength of Bruce’s case rests on the indisputable secularization of Western Europe. But Western Europe does not chart the inevitable destiny of the rest of the world. Bruce’s general intellectual perspective seems to reflect his geographical location, in the northeast corner of the northernmost part of the United Kingdom. Very little of Bruce’s work suggests much exposure to realities beyond his homeland. And the world beyond the United Kingdom and Western Europe remains a huge blindspot in his case for secularization. Forced to account for the reality of massive and public religious belief and practice in the Global South, the Middle East, and other places, Bruce devotes a lone chapter to it, misleadingly titled “Secularization Elsewhere,” near the end of the book. In it he meekly defers to the explanation advanced by other secularization-theory advocates, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, in their 2004 book, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide—a work that has some serious problems, which others and I have spelled out elsewhere.

At a deeper level, the entire project put forth in Secularization suffers from the positivist empiricist philosophy of science that underpins it. Bruce happily confesses to being a positivist, and it shows in his work. Though (to be fair) his account begins with some nuance, by the end of his book it has devolved into boilerplate positivism. Positivists understand scientific explanation to consist of identifying “nomothetic covering laws,” by which any given empirical case can be explained. What would be a covering law of religion in modernity? Since Europe pioneered modernity and also became largely secularized, secularization theory must be the relevant covering law. And since covering laws are assumed to operate at general levels, then secularization must be generalizable to every other case.

Ultimately what Bruce needs is a different philosophy of science. In my view, he should dump positivism and adopt critical realism instead. The intellectual resources and explanatory approach of critical realism would enable him to see that while much of his theory is correct, at least in particular social contexts under certain conditions, so too—in their own ways—are most of the alternative theories he is arguing against. In other words, Bruce needs to extricate himself from the either/or mentality of positivism and let his thinking be shaped instead by the both/and/sometimes approach of critical realism. Are there forces at work in modernity that undermine religion? Definitely. Bruce has named some. Are there also other forces at work that strengthen, legitimate, and promote religion in the contemporary world? Absolutely. But Bruce’s positivism blinds him from seeing this greater complexity. He could understand it better as a critical realist. But that would force him to drop his secularization-theory-straight-up argument and identity.

I should say that I find certain things in Bruce’s account both correct and admirable. His critique of contemporary alternative spiritualities, for instance, is right on target. I sympathize with his emphasis on how the demands of believers shape religious experience and institutions and with some of his criticisms of supply-side, rational-choice theories of religion. Bruce is also right, I think, about the importance of religious institutions in sustaining religious beliefs and cultures. His causal model of the secularization paradigm contains numerous useful explanatory mechanisms that could be helpfully reframed in a critical-realist account. And at times his insistence on quantification provides a good antidote to the wishful thinking of some other scholars. Bruce has some good ideas in his bag, but he has been led astray by positivist-empiricist dogmas.

What does all of this mean for American Catholics? For starters, the fact that modernity does in fact secularize in many ways, including ways evident in American Catholicism, does not mean that secularization is inevitable or irreversible. In the complex, multicausal, and often contradictory world that critical realism tells us we live in, there are many forces impinging upon the church—some secularizing, some neutral, and some strengthening. Where, how, why, and when they operate depends on a variety of factors. The future is not determined, in other words. And how it finally plays out for the church remains to some degree dependent on what Catholics do to strengthen or weaken it, sustain or change it. So if you happen to hear someone arguing for (or against) the secularizing effects of modernity, you might respond, “Sure, some of that is going on, but also a whole lot else that can work in other directions as well. Meanwhile, how do we live our lives to make a difference?”

As for Bruce, my suggestion is that he spend less time at his keyboard and more time traveling in Africa, Latin America, South and East Asia, and even Florida, California, Utah, and Kansas. When he does, he should take with him some of the important works related to his interests that he seems to have missed. If, somewhere along the way, they help him discard his positivist presuppositions and learn about critical realism, I’m betting he’ll have a lot more of value to share with us down the road.

Related: Peter Steinfels reviews Charles Taylor's A Secular Age

Published in the 2011-11-04 issue: 

Christian Smith, professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of What Is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up.

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