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 CNS Story:

SECULARIZATION Dec-10-2007 (880 words) xxxn

Modernity does not mean religion inevitably retreats, say panelists

By Beth Griffin

Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) -- Modern life does not inevitably entail the retreat of religion from the public forum, concluded participants in a Dec. 5 Fordham University panel discussion on the myths and realities of secularization.

Those who equate modernization with secularization oversimplify the argument and fail to distinguish between social theory and actual examples found in diverse countries around the world, they said.

The discussion between Peter Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, and Jose Casanova, professor of sociology at New School University in New York, drew an audience of 200 people to the Lincoln Center campus of the Jesuit-run university. It was co-sponsored by the department of sociology and anthropology and the religion and culture center.

Secularization, which once referred to the movement of priests from monasteries to parishes, is now generally understood as a society's movement away from religious influence as its primary guiding force.

Steinfels said the discussion of secularization engages many people, some of whom fearfully equate it with a loss of religion and heritage. Casanova said one could argue the world is growing both more secular and more religious.

"The emergence (mostly in Europe) of secular institutions not controlled by the church has been accompanied by religious decline, (but) everywhere, as societies become more modern," he said, "religion becomes a more active part of politics."

Casanova said the United States is "an almost ideal model of the separation, without conflict, of the national political and religious communities. The U.S. is out in front (of other countries) in differentiating between religion and the sphere of the state."

He made a distinction between the separation of church and state and the separation of religion and politics, saying, "American politics has always been moved by and intertwined with religious movements."

The speakers agreed that secularization and modernization might be inseparable, but not causal.

"China was secular before being modern," said Casanova. "East Germany is probably the most secular society, with 51 percent claiming to be atheists, but clearly East Germany is not more secular because it is more modern."

Modernization cannot explain why countries with similar histories have different degrees of secularization, said Casanova. As examples, he cited Poland and Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland and Holland.

There is a difference between religious practice in the United States and in Europe, said Casanova. "Americans believe that they ought to be religious and they feel guilty for not being more so. It's the opposite in Europe," he said.

"America is not immune to secularization," said Casanova. "Ninety-five percent of the population in the U.S. claims a belief in God. There is a growth, from 8 to 14 percent, in the number of people who claim no religion at all."

Steinfels described a theory used to explain the persistence of religiosity in American society and its decline in Europe.

"It's an economic approach, where there's a potential steady demand for religion" in both places, he said, but "the difference is on the supply side. In a free market of competitive religious bodies, the Americans have been able to be more innovative."

Such creativity is not possible in European countries where there is a state religion, he said.

Casanova said secularization and toleration are not causal. "Both the communists and the Nazis were very secular, but neither was very tolerant," he said. "And the genocides of the 20th century had nothing to do with religion -- they were totally secular."

He said he once thought secularization was a condition of democracy. "Not anymore. You cannot have democracy without the free exercise of religion."

In Europe, an established state religion might be largely meaningless to the people who live there, said Casanova, but "the growing presence of Muslims in Europe is forcing Christians to reflect on their Christian identity."

Casanova said, "Pluralism is a fundamental fact of modern societies. Plural groups reinforce the identity of the individual group. Immigrants, in retaining their religion, can voluntarily and reflectively build and strengthen religious identity of the group and its individual members."

He said "the current discourse on Islam is similar to the discourse on Catholicism from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, (when critics said,) 'Catholicism is premodern and unenlightened. It's a transnational religion and people will be loyal to their religious leaders, so (they) can't be real American citizens. It indulges in barbaric customs.'"

In response to a question from the audience, Casanova said Mormonism could be considered "the American religion par excellence, because it had humble beginnings, the members were persecuted and they have successfully expanded around the world."

The movement of thirtysomethings away from organized religion in the United States has to be taken seriously, said Casanova, and ties in with a "spirituality where people describe themselves as spiritual, not religious."

Steinfels said "a significant factor is the prolongation of the time between finishing secondary school and getting married and starting a family," which are traditional times for a return to the practice of religion.

Pope Benedict XVI has decried the secularization of Europe. Speaking about the prospect for a religious revival there, Casanova said, "People will be open to a revival only when they challenge the implicit assumption that to be modern means to be secular."


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