Has Fundamentalism Become Secularized? Part 1

Forty years ago, sociologists triumphantly crowed that in a very short time the last vestiges of religion would be found only in small pockets of disaffected people pining for the glory days of yore. Religious adherence in a society, so they thought, decreased in direct proportion to a society’s modernization. Secularization, the process whereby religion and its influences palsy.gifare gradually pushed to the margins of society, was a relentless force that could not be resisted. Since the West (Europe and North America) was the most modernized society in the history of the world, religion here necessarily had to be in decline.

This idea, known as “Secularization Theory,” was the standard sociological model for almost 100 years. It was as unassailable as Darwin’s theory of evolution from which it had sprung. And it has been proven to be dead wrong. Almost no reputable scholar (the British sociologist Steve Bruce being one exception) still holds to the core of the theory.

Yet modifications of the Secularization Theory (ST) that focus on how religion has changed in light of the advances of modernization have some interesting lessons to teach us about ourselves. Even fundamentalists (some would say especially fundamentalists) have been affected by modernity. In what ways, you ask?

I argue that fundamental Christianity has been affected in three primary ways: first, to some degree, the faith of many fundamentalists has become more privatized and flows less from a sense of community than it used to; second, there is more mixing and matching what fundamentalists believe because they feel disillusioned with institutions and therefore don’t trust the institutions to provide a complete worldview and unified theology (this is called “believing without belonging”); and third, Fundamentalism has been struck with the palsy of pragmatism as the guiding influence of its methodology.

While not every fundamental institution (churches, colleges, fellowships, etc.) has been significantly affected by secularization, many have. And not every one of them has been affected in the same way or to the same degree. But on the whole, I would argue that there has been enough contamination that our concern is warranted.

By taking a step back and peering through a seldom-used lens, we may gain a more objective view of who we are and how we’ve changed. I believe that any corrupting influences of secularization that may have afflicted Fundamentalism can be reversed if they are identified and repented of and that Fundamentalism, not broader Evangelicalism, is most suited to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Defining Terms

Before we begin to look at this theory, it is important to clear up confusion by defining terms. Secularism is “a set of beliefs and practices committed to the abolition of religion in society” (David Lyon, The Steeple’s Shadow: On the Myths and Realities of Secularization, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985: p. 31). Secularization, on the other hand, “represents a social scientific attempt to understand the relationship between religion and society” (Lyon, p. 30). It is a field of study seeking to study and document how changes in society affect religious adherence, belief, and practice. Secularization studies, then, can be done either from a Christian perspective or a secular one. Proponents of ST have always claimed to be doing unbiased work based on scientific evidence. It is widely recognized today that the theory was, in reality, more prescriptive than descriptive. The proponents of ST wanted it to be true more than they were able to prove it to be true. In this article, then, I am not talking about secularism, but secularization.

In a similar vein, the terms modernism, modernity, and modernization must be distinguished. Modernism, depending on the context, can mean theological liberalism (as in the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the early 20th century), or it can mean the naturalistic philosophy that claims that empirical science has all the answers and is the only true form of knowledge. In this essay, I am referring to the latter sense. Modernity is a term that describes an era of human thinking (as distinguished from premodern thinking before the Enlightenment and postmodern thinking that arose in the late 20th century). Finally, modernization is the process whereby a society is changed by technology and scientific advances. Sometimes these last two terms are used synonymously.

Now that our terms are defined, let’s return to the subject of secularization. Where did it come from, and how does it affect religion?

The History of an Idea

By the end of the 19th century, Darwin’s theory of evolution was being more fully developed and beginning to make its impact not only on the hard sciences (biology and chemistry, for example) but also on the budding “soft sciences” of sociology and psychology. In the field of psychology, Freud implemented Darwinian ideas into his thinking, and modern psychoanalysis was born. For Karl Marx, religion was an illusion and a symptom of social disorder that expressed pathological alienation. When reality was unveiled, thought Marx, religion would be unnecessary (Lyon, pp. 26-28).

In the field of sociology, the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) applied the Darwinian theory of natural selection to societies and predicted the “disenchantment of the world” because of rationalization. That is, as scientific discoveries explained more and more of the natural world, less and less was a mystery attributable to God. With the articulation of the laws of gravity, for example, the idea of God’s holding the universe together was no longer needed. Along with Frenchman Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), Weber predicted that as history unfolded, the church would become only one competing institution among many. Weber spoke of an “iron cage” of bureaucratic rationality, a quest for the most efficient way of organizing all human existence, which would displace all traces of religion.

Durkheim anticipated the “uncoupling of Church and society” as a result of the removal of church control over the economy and the transferral of some religious tasks to the state (such as education). The separation of the church from the state meant that the Protestant work ethic that had been at the root of capitalism was now free from any moral restraints. No longer were luxurious lifestyles and accumulation for its own sake frowned upon; and in this way, said Weber, Protestantism became its own gravedigger (Lyon, p. 39). This “uncoupling” led Weber and Durkheim to see church and society as incompatible and confirmed in their minds that religion could not survive the advances of modernity.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, new sociologists continued to perpetuate the secularization myth. In 1969, Peter Berger said that individuals increasingly looked on their lives without the benefit of a religious interpretation (Lyon, p. 44). While we recognize that he was, in fact, correct that institutionalized religion has less influence today, Berger was defining religion as referring to any divine Being. He was not able to perceive that while institutional loyalty was in decline, people were no less religious.

Berger’s misconception about secularization led him to the conclusion that churches had two options in the new secularized age: first, either accommodate themselves to the situation, play the pluralistic game of religious free enterprise and modify their product in accordance with consumer demands; or second, refuse to accommodate themselves, entrench themselves behind whatever socio-religious structures they could maintain or construct, and continue to profess the old objectivities as much as possible as if nothing had happened (Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1967: pp. 152-153).

As anyone analyzing his two options can see, both avenues have been tried. The church growth/seeker-sensitive movement has carried the first option to its logical conclusion, and this has been the movement’s downfall. Even though many ministries of this type are still being started and continue growing across the country, their accommodation has come at the expense of the clarity of the gospel and fidelity to the Scriptures and to sound doctrine. This is the worst of the failed New Evangelical experiment.

But Berger’s second option is what concerns most of those reading this essay. Many fundamentalists have chosen the second option. They have entrenched. They have turned up the volume on their pronouncements, and they have acted as if they could retain an ideal era, the time of Fundamentalism’s heyday in the 1940’s and 50’s. And in taking this option, Fundamentalism has opened itself up to the encroaching impact of secularization.

It is this influx of the influences of secularization that will be the subject of Part 2 of this series. I will examine the three major impacts of secularization that I listed at the beginning of this essay. In this next installment, I will also propose that Berger failed to see that there exists a third option for the church—one of neither accommodation nor entrenchment but a potent apologetic approach surrounded by a serious and well-communicated theology.

farnham.jpgMark Farnham is Assistant Professor of Theology and New Testament at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He and his wife, Adrienne, grew up in Connecticut and were married after graduating from Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Watertown, WI). They have two teen daughters and a 10-year-old son. Mark served as director of youth ministries at Positive Action for Christ (Rocky Mount, NC) right out of seminary and pastored for seven years in New London, Connecticut. He holds an M.Div. from Calvary and a Th.M. in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). He is presently a doctoral student at Westminster Theological Seminary (Glenside, PA) in the field of Apologetics.
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