The rise and fall of secularism

About 50 years ago,  in 1966, the distinguished Canadian-born anthropologist Anthony Wallace confidently predicted the global demise of religion at the hands of an advancing science: “belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge.” Wallace’s vision was the norm in those days.The modern social sciences since 19th  century took their own recent historical experience of European secularisation as a universal model.  It assumed that all cultures would eventually converge on something roughly approximating secular, western, liberal democracy. 

This has not been the case, writes Peter Harrison, Australian Laureate Fellow and the author of  The Territories of Science and Religion in BigThink.  “Not only has secularism failed to continue its steady global march but countries as varied as Iran, India, Israel, Algeria and Turkey have either had their secular governments replaced by religious ones, or have seen the rise of influential religious nationalist movements.” 

?It is true that many western countries continue to witness decline in religious belief and practice. The most recent census data released in Australia, for example, shows that 30 per cent of the population identify as having ‘no religion’, and that this percentage is increasing. International surveys confirm comparatively low levels of religious commitment in Europe and Australasia. Even the United States, “a long-time source of embarrassment for the secularisation thesis,” there has seen a minimal rise in unbelief.  Still, globally, the “total number of people who consider themselves to be religious remains high, and demographic trends suggest that the overall pattern for the immediate future will be one of religious growth.” 

Intellectuals and social scientists expected that the spread of modern science would drive secularisation —that science would be a secularising force. That has not been the case. If we look at those societies where religion remains vibrant, their key common features are less to do with science, and “more to do with feelings of existential security and protection from some of the basic uncertainties of life in the form of public goods.” As the British sociologist David Martin concluded in his 2011 book The Future of Christianity “There is no consistent relation between the degree of scientific advance and a reduced profile of religious influence, belief and practice.”

The story of science and secularisation becomes even more intriguing when we consider those societies that have witnessed significant reactions against secularist agendas. Harris quotes India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who  “championed secular and scientific ideals, and enlisted scientific education in the project of modernisation. Nehru was confident that Hindu visions of a Vedic past and Muslim dreams of an Islamic theocracy would both succumb to the inexorable historical march of secularisation.”  Nehru asserted emphatically: “There is only one-way traffic in Time.”  The same thing is true of present Turkey.

The conflict model of science and religion offered a mistaken view of the past and, when combined with expectations of secularisation, led to a flawed vision of the future. “Secularisation theory failed at both description and prediction, asserts Harris. Historical evidence simply does not support  the theory. In fact, “the association of science with a secularising agenda has backfired, with science becoming a collateral casualty of resistance to secularism,” claims Harris.

Secularisation is not inevitable and not always caused by science. When science becomes a promoter of secularism, it damages science. He concludes that “enlisting science as an instrument of secularisation turns out to be poor strategy.” It may be recalled that the 17th century, modern science relied on religious legitimation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, religion helped to popularise science. Today science and religion can be mutually critical collaborators.

(The writer is professor of science, religion and philosophy and author of Gratefully and Gracefully)