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Religious belief and practice are fading at an accelerating pace.

The United States was long the great exception to the sociological generalization that secularization was an inevitable by-product of economic modernization. In fact, by every measure, the United States became a more religious society as it developed economically, from the First and Second Great Awakenings into the early 1960s (a topic well covered by the great religious historian Jon Butler in his stunning 2020 study, God in Gotham, from the 1880s to the 1960s).

But in recent years, the trend toward secularization has become unmistakable.  Spearheaded by the Millennial generation, the drift away from organized religion is apparent in a wide variety of surveys and studies. Not only has church membership and attendance fallen sharply, but the share of adults who identify as Christian has decreased noticeably. Meanwhile, the percentage who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” has markedly increased.

Equally striking is the diminishing share of Americans who say that religion is very important in their personal lives, even as the proportion who say that religion should have no role in shaping public policy has increased.

At the same time, there has been a growing acceptance of values and behaviors previously viewed as contrary to religious doctrine. This includes increased support for LGBTQ+ rights, the legalization of same-sex marriage, acceptance of premarital cohabitation and sex, support for the right to abortion, and approval of assisted suicide.

The result is a growing religious divide within the United States.  A chasm has emerged that has had profound political consequences, but that has also entered into our classrooms, as fewer and fewer students recognize biblical references that would have seemed obvious a quarter century earlier. 

Indeed, I’d say that the biggest gulf within my classes is between those students who are religiously observant and those who aren’t—and who are often openly hostile toward religiosity.

Inside and outside the university, religious belief and its antithesis have grown increasingly tribal.

I think it’s high time for humanists to devote much more attention to religion and secularization. I can scarcely think of a better way to grapple with the complexities of modernization, the roots of contemporary society’s political and ideological divisions, and the long-standing debate, which dates from the late 18th century, about whether morality can exist independently of religion.

Done right, a class on religion and secularization needs to begin by defining key terms. Religion can refer to:

  • Creeds and doctrine: Formal, authoritative statements of a religion’s core tenets and shared beliefs.
  • Ritual practices: Activities that facilitate a connection with the divine, the sacred or the transcendent; give symbolic expression to religious beliefs; strengthen community bonds; transmit religious traditions and teachings; provide moral guidance and psychological comfort; and mark rituals mark important transitions or changes in life, such as birth, puberty, marriage or death.
  • A cultural system: A body of worldviews, texts, sacred places, prophecies and morals that connects individuals to the supernatural, the transcendental or the spiritual realm.
  • An Institutional structure: This system might be centralized or decentralized, hierarchical or not and include a specific class of priests, shamans or teachers.
  • Personal beliefs: For example, a belief in a divine entity, a deity who takes a personal interest in oneself or one’s society, or deities, divine beings or certain supernatural forces that exert a controlling power.
  • Religious experiences: The subjective psychological and emotional states that individuals go through as the result of an encounter with divinity. These might include visions, near death experiences or conversion experiences.

Secularization, in turn, also takes on many different meanings. It can refer to:

  • A decline in ecclesiastical or clerical influence.
  • The separation of church and state.
  • A decrease in personal religiosity.
  • A growing indifference to or the outright rejection of religion.
  • The sense that religious considerations should not dictate personal behavior, economic decision-making or public policy.
  • The rise of secular values and science.

Next, such a class should examine secularization as a gradual, uneven historical process. Most historical interpretations link the initial drift toward secularization to the religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation and to the European Enlightenment. With its emphasis on science and reason and its attack on superstition, the Enlightenment challenged a host of older systems of belief, from astrology, divination and witchcraft to Christian theological doctrines including original sin, human depravity, predestination, transubstantiation and the virgin birth.

Nineteenth-century biblical criticism, which subjected Scripture to close textual analysis, raised additional questions about the Bible’s authorship and composition and cast doubt on the Bible’s historical accuracy.

Politics, too, contributed to secularization, as efforts to separate the state from religious institutions mounted. In the United States, disestablishment of state churches was complete by the 1830s (when the last states—Connecticut and Massachusetts—eliminated a state church and direct tax support for churches and, in response, established their first public school systems).

By the end of the 19th century, the depth of the conflict between religious and secular values was apparent in the title of a two-volume 1896 book by Cornell University co-founder Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom.

Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, secularization in Western Europe gained added impetus as a growing number of liberals and radicals attacked what they perceived as an alliance between Catholic and Protestant churches and conservative or authoritarian governments and as Communist governments triumphed in Russia, Eastern Europe and parts of Asia.

One consequence of secularization was to silo Christianity off from other domains of life. Religion’s purview became increasingly narrow. More and more, religion was confined to a separate sphere, detached from economics and increasingly from education and law.

From the late 20th century onward, the trend toward secularism has spread not only to other high-income countries, but globally. An analysis published in Foreign Affairs in 2020 found that “From about 2007 to 2019, the overwhelming majority of the countries we studied—43 out of 49—became less religious.”

Some scholars argue that what’s occurring in the United States isn’t secularization but de-Christianization, especially among the more affluent, highly educated, politically liberal segments of society that dominate public discourse. These scholars note that religious belief and practice remain strong among Orthodox Jews and immigrants, including Catholic immigrants from Latin America; Muslim immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa; and Buddhist and Hindu immigrants from Asia.

De-Christianization, a term originally used to describe the attempt to abolish Catholicism during the French Revolution, has in recent years been weaponized by religious conservatives to denounce the supposed “war against Christmas,” the prohibition against prayer in public schools and efforts to legalize gambling and euthanasia.

But we shouldn’t quibble over terminology. At stake in the controversies surrounding de-Christianization are the broader issues raised by secularization. One question that needs to be asked is whether secularization truly represents a break from the past.

After all, many people who do not identify with an organized religion nevertheless consider themselves spiritual, and many individuals who claim to be secular pray, undergo psychological experiences that resemble those traditionally associated with religion—out-of-body experiences, what William James called “the dark night of the soul,” and what Søren Kierkegaard termed “dread.”

Most strikingly, there is reason to think that many secular movements might be best understood in terms of a projection or displacement of various religious impulses, such as the quest for communion, redemption, salvation and transcendence.

Several ideas closely associated with Christianity (which are also evident in other religious traditions) have an especially powerful impact on supposedly secular movements.

One is the notion of the sanctity of life. I would contend that those who are pro-choice and those who are pro-life in fact both embrace the idea of the sanctity of life, only to define this idea in starkly contrasting and conflicting ways.

Another is the idea that all human beings are made in the image of God. It was the defenders of slavery and of eugenics who rejected this idea. One key theme in U.S. history is the gradual expansion of those who are “created equal” and “endowed with certain inalienable rights.”

A third central impulse lies in the yearning for what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called a beloved community—“void of oppression, discrimination, violence and bigotry” and “fueled instead by friendship, good will and deep human connection.”

Much of this country’s reform impulse rests upon these religiously rooted ideas.

In grappling with religion and secularization, we must address head-on a question asked by Immanuel Kant over two centuries ago: Is it possible to sustain morality without religion? Even as religion’s critics condemn churches for defending exploitation and inequality, promoting tribalism, and justifying violence and abuse, it is also the case that secular society’s record is profoundly blemished.

It was modern science that developed the pseudo-scientific conceptions of race and racial hierarchy that were used to justify slavery and imperial conquest and that later promoted eugenics. Those who led the efforts to resist these pernicious ideas were deeply religious women and men.

And it was the modern state that was responsible for many of the worst evils of the past century, including, in this country, institutionalized inequalities rooted in race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. Again, religion helped drive movements for reform. It’s not an accident that the most prominent civil rights leaders were religiously devout.

I am certainly not alone in viewing today’s social justice ideology, often derided as wokeness, as only the most recent of a succession of great awakenings and as a secular manifestation of a distinctively American brand of religion, with its emphasis on moral purity, its concern with atonement for sin and its hostility toward unrestrained consumerism. It is, I believe, the successor to earlier religious revivals that brought about waves of reform, which the Nobel Prize–winning economist Robert W. Fogel described in his 2002 volume, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism.

I say this not to cast aspersions on those who struggle to advance equity and promote social and environmental justice, but to remind us how deeply certain religious impulses are embedded in American culture and that a knowledge of the past is essential if we to understand the present.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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