Christian SmithOctober 24, 2011 - 12:37pm0 comments
In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory
Oxford University Press, $45, 243 pp.
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...