The issue is secularization. The term has many definitions and contours, and many have offered various descriptions and explanations.

Steven Weinberg is a Nobel particle physicist, working presently at the University of Texas.

Weinberg recently published a piece in the Times Literary Supplement in which he claims 1. a loss of religious “certitude” in the West (meaning among Christians), and 2. that this loss of certitude can be laid at the door of what he terms “science,” the primary factor in the secularization of the West.

As a scientist, it is to be expected that Weinberg would claim for science the fruits of all good things, and to him secularization (as well as his perceived loss of religious certitude) is a good thing.

These claims contain some debatable implicit assumptions (such as a claim that in some previous time most Christians were filled with religious “certitude”), and raise a whole host of questions about the relation of religion, science, and secularization.

Bartons Swaim at First Things said this about Weinberg’s thesis:

‘ “Much of the weakening of religious certitude in the Christian West,” Weinberg says, “can be laid at the door of science.” The problem with this formulation is that it conflates, or anyhow fails to distinguish between, the religious character of a person and that of a society. People of a skeptical disposition commonly suppose that because modern science has provided them with a reason to disbelieve the claims of religion, or because they think it has, modern science must therefore be the generating force behind secularization itself—that historical progression, evident in the West since the Renaissance, in which habits and institutions are less and less influenced by religious doctrine.

This supposition is mistaken. Secularization has to do above all with outward practice, not with inward conviction. It is a cultural transformation that allows people to cease observing what they don’t really believe. Its driving forces are commerce and urbanization, not scientific “proofs” for the nonexistence of God or the unreliability of the Bible or even discoveries about the nature of the material world. These last factors, whatever their merits, have been around for thousands of years and as antagonists of religious faith are neither stronger nor weaker than they ever were. The number of “Christians” in the West, defining that term loosely, has obviously and dramatically dropped off in the last half-century. Still, I find it difficult to believe that the number of people who now believe in, say, the bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ is substantially fewer than was the case two hundred or five hundred or a thousand years ago. And even in Western Europe, where Western secularization has reached its furthest point, people disbelieve not because they’ve consciously rejected Christianity but because they know scarcely anything about it.

The point here is not that secularization is unimportant or that it hasn’t had profound (and in recent decades woeful) consequences for Western societies. The point, rather, is that Steven Weinberg and people like him are committing a grave error in historical interpretation when they posit a causal relationship between secularization and the advance of modern science. Such theories are always dangerous, tending as they do to cultivate contempt—and eventually hatred—for whatever stands in the way of what is determined to be “progress.” Inevitably, at some point, “religious certitude” will cease merely to irk skeptical intellectuals and will be perceived as a concrete obstacle to that progress. And then what?”

I don’t agree with much of what Swaim says, but the larger issue raised by Weinberg is an interesting one. As for myself, what is generally called “modern science,” in its strictest terms, has contributed to my faith, not lessened it. Many people I have known through my life, who have claimed that “science” presents obstacles to their faith (or, more commonly, in their minds to my faith), haven’t known much of anything about science, nor how it might possibly relate to their faith or anyone else’s; it’s merely presented as a bogeyman to support a currently comfortable position and the use of the term “science” is supposed to serve as a show-stopper.

I don’t think science has had much to do with secularization at all. After all, the medieval churchmen were as committed to their Aristotelian science as moderns are to their Platonic science (and the Franciscans railed at them for it). But that didn’t seem to bring on any broad movement of secularization in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Secularization in the West is a very difficult problem to analyze. I diverge from Swaim when he claims that secularization has to do with “outward practice” and not “inward conviction.” I wouldn’t use the term “inward conviction,” but I would claim it has had very much to do with inward experience and the ways of understanding both the world and our participation in it. Some of these ways are decidedly “secular,” and some aren’t. They obviously influence “outward practice,” but not always. And, they make claims for our allegiance, sometimes provoking the most bitter suspicions and epithets for deviation. This isn’t just a matter of the form of “outward practices.”

3 thoughts on “Secularization”

  1. The Anti-Christ
    Thought for the day:

    “[T]he Antichrist presents himself as a pacifist, ecologist and ecumenist. He convokes an ecumenical council and seeks the consensus of all the Christian confessions, conceding something to each one.

    The crowds follow him, except for tiny groups of Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants. Chased by the Antichrist, they tell him, “You have given us everything except for the one thing that interests us, Jesus Christ.”

    —Giacomo Cardinal Biffi, meditation at Lenten Retreat for the Papal Household, February 2006. ”

    From an article by Scott Richert:

  2. Swaim’s radical
    Swaim’s radical distinction between outward practice and inward conviction goes much too far. The decline of Christianity seems real, and it does seem to have something to do with the rise of the modern natural sciences.

    I think it was Abraham Maslow who said that when what you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Modern natural science is a stupendously effective tool for finding out how to make nature do what we want through close observation of measurable properties, mathematical modeling, an emphasis on prediction and verification, and so on. Since science is such an impressive hammer, the impression arises that the world consists wholly of the corresponding nails (spatial and temporal phenomena that can be fully described mathematically). The impression can’t possibly be correct, but scientists have impressive expertise, and it’s hard to stay sober in the midst of all the excitement. If there’s something scientific methods obviously can’t deal with people can always say that science just hasn’t gotten there yet, and what you’re making is a “God of the gaps” argument that no one should take seriously.

    My own expectation is that the heroic age of science will eventually come to an end, maybe it’s ended already, and the limitations of the method will become more obvious so it can be seen in perspective as a very useful but partial method for dealing with things and making sense of them.

    Rem tene, verba sequentur.

    • Act as if you have faith….
      “Many agree that the decline of religion may be a cause of the decline of the family. But what if it’s the other way around? Mary Eberstadt speculates…”,

      I think she ‘s saying we get tuned into or turned on to God and religion by big events —love, sex, war, etc., and for most people over most time, that big event was family, and more specifically, starting one and having a child. For several reasons, we cut down on family, put off marriage, limited the numbers of children, etc. This not only left some at the margins completely out of the family business and hence without the religious triggering experience of, for instance, becoming parents, but also reduced the power of the family overall, all of which went to reducing the numbers led into religious belief. Thus we didn’t think our way out of religion, but thought and felt our way out of family, and that, far more than any other one thing, had the (possibly unforeseen) effect of leading us away from religious belief and practice.

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