Seminal thinkers of the nineteenth century — Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud — all predicted that religion would gradually fade in importance and cease to be significant with the emergence of industrial society. The belief that religion was dying became the conventional wisdom in the social sciences during most of the twentieth century.
During the last decade, however, the secularization thesis has experienced the most sustained challenge in its long history. Critics point to multiple indicators of religious health and vitality today, from the continued popularity of churchgoing in the United States, to the emergence of New Age spirituality in Western Europe, the surge of fundamentalist movements and Islamic parties in the Muslim world, the evangelical revival sweeping through Latin America, and the widespread ethno-religious conflicts in international affairs.
The traditional secularization thesis needs updating. Religion has not disappeared and is unlikely to do so. Nevertheless, the concept of secularization captures an important part of what is going on. Ronald Inglehart’s and Pippa Norris’ 2004 book, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, addresses the concerns of the current “new atheist” movement – mainly whether the human species will self-destruct due to the influence of religion and irrational thought – from the point of views of human values and needs. While not ignoring the serious dangers inherent in religious traditions, Inglehart and Norris take a big-picture look at why some nations embrace secularism while others, religion. They ask the questions few of the “new atheists” (including Bill Mahar in his new film, Religulous) have … Why does religious fundamentalism arise in the first place, why is religion a natural outgrowth of human social and biological evolution, and what can we do to temper the dangerous manifestations of religious belief?
While the “new atheists” may be surprised at what the research into these questions has informed scientists, it’s a good bet that those familiar with social science, as well as critics of current economic systems, will deem some vital information along these lines from this work.
To discuss these important issues as we head toward a post George W. Bush world, we will be joined by co-author Ronald Inglehart, and – for an evolutionary perspective – biologist David Sloan Wilson (Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society). Part one will air on October 16th at 6:30pm EST, to be followed by part two on November 2nd at the same time.