A Sociology of Religion for Secularism

Joseph O. Baker and Buster G. Smith. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. NYU Press, 2015. 

Reviewed by István Kamarás OJD

Joseph O. Baker and Buster G. Smith’s book American Secularism, published in 2015, is an excellent work in the sociology of religion, one that addresses a gap in the literature. Few studies have focused on the question of non-religiousness as thoroughly as this one. For readers who connect diminished levels of religiosity with secularization or secularism (and these types even crop up among sociologists of religion), the title of this review may come as a surprise. The title is warranted by the central thesis of Baker and Smith’s book, namely, that secularism and religion are two dimensions of the same phenomenon, or more precisely, they represent two endpoints on a continuum of faith.

Most sociologists of religion view secularization as related to modernization. They think of it as part of a process in which the integrating and governing role of social super-systems – most notably religion – weakens or disappears completely, while other social alternatives begin to emerge, such as irreligion, non-institutional religion, or new kinds of institutionalized religion. Today no serious sociologist would closely connect secularization (understood as an irreversible process) with irreligiosity. Bryan Wilson views secularization as the privatization of religion; Thomas Luckmann sees it as the replacement of traditional forms of religion with new forms; Miklós Tomka believes secularization is the weakening of traditional forms of religion, something which occurs as individuals place greater emphasis on personal value systems.

A number of sociologists, including Miklós Tomka, view secularization as a distinctly European phenomenon, more the exception than the rule. In the United States the process of secularization has only started to accelerate in the past few years. The degree of secularization, however, still does not approach that of Europe. In the US, the non-religious and those who never or rarely practice religion is only 28%. By contrast, in Holland that percentage is 54%, in Germany 47%, in Sweden 66%, in France 52%, in Great Britain 49% (and similar numbers are found for Japan, South Korea, and Australia). The United States by comparison is still exceptionally religious even today. This makes it all the more interesting to read about American secularization.

In Baker and Smith’s terminology, “secularization” denotes a process of conversion from religiousness to secularism which can take place on an individual, organizational, or institutional level. This corresponds to what Hungarian sociologists of religion refer to as “elvilágiasodás.” One of the key terms in the book, “secularism,” is harder to translate into Hungarian. In the book “secularism” designates a comprehensive system of faith which provides an expressly non-religious explanation of the world. Although the suffix “-ism” inevitably suggests an ideology, I will use the word “secularism” here, since “világiság (worldliness) and other similar terms mislead the reader. The book’s second key term, “secularity,” designates a personal identity or social status that does not rest on religious presuppositions. This I will translate into Hungarian as “szekularitás.”

Types of secularity

“Secularity” as used in this book is not an ideological or social category, but designates a strategy for interpreting the world that provides answers to ultimate questions that do not contain religious or anti-religious elements. The authors identify four types of secularity, and illustrate (in a manner to make Hungarian researchers envious) how these models are influenced by dependent variables like social status, social, political and cultural changes, ethnicity and assimilation, gender and sexual orientation, marital status, family, socialization and social networks, as well as secularizing movements. In constructing their typologies, the authors – and this is a great innovation – consider the same factors one considers when studying religiosity; namely, organizational commitment, faith, and practice.

The authors demonstrate that those who are religiously uncommitted do not necessarily consider themselves to be non-religious. Two of the four types are clearly non-religious, while two represent a religious alternative to traditional religious practice. The first type is atheism (3% of American adults), consisting of those who do not believe in God. The second type is agnosticism (6%), consisting those who believe that humans lack the ability to know whether or not God exits. Within both types one finds a certain measure of acceptance of supernatural phenomena (e.g., spirits). A percentage of atheists and agnostics participate in the life of a religious community without believing, due to friends or social support, or as a way of expressing ethnic identity, or because of family connections. (This subtype contains a higher than average percentage of Jews). The third type is the opposite of the“belonging without believing” type. It consists of believers who do not belong to any denomination (11%).  In Hungary this type would perhaps correspond to the majority of those whom we classify as “religious in their own fashion.”  People of Jewish background are overrepresented in both the “believing without belonging” and the “belonging without believing” categories.

The first three types consist of those who do not practice religion – although the belonging without believing group practices a little. The fourth type consists of persons who are culturally religious or members of a church, but who only rarely attend a religious service or pray only privately (8%). Religious symbols contain emotional and cultural power even for persons separated from communal religious practice. All four types include people who abandoned the religion of their childhood as adults as well as persons socialized according to the characteristics of the four types.

People are right to call attention to the artificial, detached, static, and rigid character of typologies.  Sometimes the exception and borderline cases are more common than the type, or the non-typical “other” (cases which do not fit into the types) are more widespread than all the types taken together. Although Baker and Smith’s types are intended for contemporary American reality, one might expect that to some extent they would be appropriate for those religious and non-religious phenomena in Europe and Hungary that do not differ too much from America.  In Hungary, in addition to the categories of agnostic and atheist, many who do not consider themselves religious self-identify as “humanist,” “practical,” “believing in love,” “non-religious believer in God,” and “non-religious believer in the supernatural.” These are a little difficult to squeeze into Baker and Smith’s categories, although I imagine that were we to offer Hungarians the four types listed in the book, a significant percentage of them would accept the categorizations as suitable for their self-identification.  I suppose that in the birthplace of New Age movements – even if most respectable sociologists of religion believe New Age is now in decline – many individuals could be listed in the “non-religious believer in the supernatural” category. How would the researchers of secularism handle adherents of Scientology, who do not consider themselves religious, but also do not consider themselves non-religious?

Although New Age movements are not explicitly discussed in the book, the authors are aware of the weaknesses of their typology. Evidence of this, for example, is found in the subsection titled “Fuzzy Edges of Secularity.” We know, for example, that agnosticism is only relevant in relation to theism, not Buddhism and universalism. Additionally, a portion of those who regularly practice religion do not live according to its ethical principles. The authors are also aware that secular status is fairly unstable, that fluctuations and oscillations are fairly strong, and that it is fairly difficult to locate “religious consumers” on a map of worldviews. Nevertheless, Baker and Smith’s typologies function sensitively; they correspond to real people, and they come to life in the course of nuanced interpretations. Distinctions can be made among them, including between closely related atheists and agnostics. Also important is their determination that on a scale from atheism to active religiosity, the third and fourth types (religion without membership, and cultural religion, respectively) stand closer to active religiosity (that is, traditional religious practice) than to the other types of secularity.

The historical and cultural view of secularity

Similar to Tamás Nyíri, who has stated correctly that atheism is the religious outcome of a badly working theism, Baker and Smith recognize that thinking about God is a catalyst in the formation of non-theist explanations of the world. Free thinking played an understandably important role in the emergence of secularity, just as deism was frequently linked with criticism of orthodoxy, dogmatism, and the traditional power of organized religion. According to the authors, two related factors have shaped the cultural face of secularity; namely, the interaction of secularity with politics (particularly church-state relations), and politically conservative Protestantism. The authors assert a strong relationship between politically conservative Protestantism and the development of secularity.

In 1957 the percentage of non-religious in America was less than 3%, but religiosity weakened in the 1960’s because of the individualistic forms of spiritual searching found in the counter-culture movements, the growing emphasis on personal authenticity and self-fulfillment, the expansion of the religious market, and the rapid growth of eastern philosophies and New Age thinking. Between 1972 and 2010 the percentage of stay-at-home housewives shrunk from 53% to 18%; the percentage of divorced and single persons grew from 17% to 44%, and the percentage of persons who never married grew from 13% to 28%. These kinds of demographic and economic changes had a destabilizing effect on the dominant forms of religion, opening the way for authentic personal ethics.

The authors demonstrate convincingly the way in which religiously tinged rhetoric dominated political discourse from the 1930’s to the 1980’s. In the 1980’s Catholics and Protestants formed a political coalition on issues such as abortion, feminism, homosexuality, and prayer in school. The coalition of religion with conservatism gave rise to religious-political organizations like the Moral Majority and the Religious Roundtable which opposed secularism and liberal religion. Between 1980 and 2009 prophetic religious metaphors regularly appeared in Presidential addresses, and politicians frequently visited religious places. All this, according to the authors, proved counterproductive, as dislike of “fundamentalists” increased, mainly among the more educated and those who viewed political television shows in above average numbers. Meanwhile democrats grew increasingly secular.

Between 1960 and 1992 the groups of conservative religious and secularized Americans homogenized, and the distance grew between those who were religious without denomination and white fundamentalists. In the 2008 presidential election 78% of those who were religious without denomination voted for Obama, while only 29% of white fundamentalists did the same. In 2012, Obama was the first President to mention the non-religious in his Inaugural Address. Within a short time, the number of Americans without religion had tripled.

The non-religious faith system

Everyone needs to interpret life experiences and find answers for existential dilemmas such as suffering and death. In this respect religion and secularity are analogous phenomena, both of them containing rational and irrational elements, according to the authors. Secularity also has a social aspect, it connects people by giving them a position and role, and like religiosity, it helps people better understand their relations with others. The religious and secular person both have a comprehensive system of faith, both have a collection of fundamental doctrines concerning reality, a logically and socially coherent explanation of the word that embraces fundamental ethical values and guides behavior.

One great virtue of this work is that it does not contain exaggerated and unnuanced descriptions. The authors show that two-fifths of agnostics and believers without denominations, and even a third of atheists, attend religious services at least occasionally. They also pray occasionally in similar percentages. Two thirds of atheists and agnostics consider themselves to be neither spiritual nor religious. However, two thirds of those without denominational affiliation, and one fifth of agnostics and atheists, consider themselves spiritual but not religious. Not surprisingly, those who are religious but not spiritual are found in largest percentages (28%) among the culturally religious. It is striking that at least two thirds of those in each of the secular types agree with the statement that religion causes more conflict that peace. At the same time, providing a more subtle picture, 62-86% of the same group agree that many religions contain fundamental truths.

Religion is completely unimportant in the lives of the majority of atheists (74%), but the percentage of agnostics who hold this position is only 41%. Twenty-seven percent of those who are religious without denomination consider religion unimportant. Somewhat surprisingly, 18-33% of those in the four types meditate monthly, while 31-51% regularly experience spiritual peace. In terms of satisfaction and happiness, however, there is no significant difference between the actively religious and the non-religious.

Religion and science are incompatible primarily for atheists (50 %), much less so for agnostics and the culturally religious (28% and 18%). The differences are quite significant when it comes to accepting evolution (atheists and agnostics 90%, without denomination 72%, culturally religious 58%, actively religious 30%). Twice as many secular as actively religious agree with the statement that “the majority of problems can be solved with the help of science.”  At the same time, there is no difference when responding to the statement “there is conflict between religiosity and contemporary American culture.”  The researchers draw the conclusion that “the other” plays an important role in maintaining identify for both the religious and the secular.

The political viewpoints of secular America

The actively religious, the culturally religious, and those without denominational affiliation are more satisfied than average with how things are going in America. The secularized are more anti-institution than the actively religious, although both groups agree that it would be better to have a smaller government that helps more.  Although the authors do not state it, they leave the impression that the political attitude of citizens is more important than their worldview. In their attitude toward international affairs, the groups show small, but still noticeable and characteristic differences. For example, 59% of the actively religious, 63% of the culturally religious, 63% of those without denominational affiliation, and 73% of atheists and agnostics agree with the statement that it is better to create peace through diplomatic than military means.

One half of the secular consider themselves liberal, 1/3 moderate, and only 1/20th consider themselves conservative. Two-fifths of the actively religious are moderate, while only 1/5 are liberal. One tenth of atheists and agnostics, 1/7 of those without denominational affiliation, 1/5 of the culturally religious, and 1/3 of the actively religious are Republican.  Those who are more secular are more likely to participate in politics and public affairs.

The authors’ conclusions

In the concluding chapter the authors quote Pope Francis. They believe the head of the Catholic Church accepts the secularized as fellow travelers, emphasizing that “we must meet one another doing good.” They believe that with this statement Pope Francis marks off a prominent place for the secularized, or even atheists in a pluralistic world.

Among the authors’ conclusions, those which are especially important for us Hungarians are the observation that external threats increase religiousness, and the observation that the forced secularization of the communist world and the organic secularization of democracies are quite different. Organic secularization emerges in developed economies that have spiritual and physical well-being and a developed infrastructure. This show us that there is a strong correlation between secularization and the developmental index. An especially interesting and valuable aspect of this book is that the authors’ conclusions are equally valid for both religiosity and secularity. Both phenomena, for example, can be rational or non-rational, and both phenomena can be examined with the same paradigm, the same conceptual apparatus.  Thus, for example religion, non-institutionalized supernaturalism, and secularism can be all examined through the category of faith, since atheists believe in science, humanists in ethics, and agnostics in skepticism and humility.

If this were all that were in the book, then a sociologist of religion like myself, one trained in the schools of Max Weber, Peter Burger, Thomas Uckmann, Milton Yinger, Anthony and Miklós Tomka, would be more than satisfied. Yet the book also has an additional melody, composed in a different tone and with a different instrument. Every chapter includes a social, cultural, or religious case study (each written with social-psychological undertones), supplementing the typologies in exceptional cases with necessary nuance. From these we learn about the role played in American secularism by Thomas Paine’s revolutionary deism, Lester Ward’s secular monism, the thinking of W.E.B. Du Bois that gave expression to third world prophetic religion, Fanny Wright’s secular utopianism, David Tamayo’s widely influential free thinking, Cecil Bothwell post-theistic universalism, and Lord Lipman Brown’s humanistic Judaism.

I will definitely include Baker and Smith’s book on the literature review for my course in the sociology of religion.

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