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Secularization theory in the USA

In 2023, there is a renewed interest in the “secularization theory,” which posits that as societies progress economically and education improves, they become more secular due to modern science explaining phenomena previously attributed to religion.

A book titled “Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society” by three experts presents compelling evidence supporting this theory. However, the United States has long been an outlier, maintaining a more devout population despite its advanced education, economy, and science.

Recent data suggests that even in the United States, secularization is on the rise, with a significant increase in “nones” – people identifying as atheist, agnostic, or having no religious affiliation. Historian Daniel K. Williams challenges the applicability of the secularization theory to the United States, arguing that it doesn’t hold, especially in the post-World War II era when religious vitality was strong alongside economic and educational growth. He contends that the decline in religious participation is not primarily due to a shift towards scientific explanations but rather a moral credibility crisis within Christianity.

Williams predicts that the United States will not follow the secularization pattern seen in countries like Britain and Canada but will become more religiously and culturally polarized, with some regions experiencing “dechurching” while others remain strong in their religious beliefs. The religious landscape will be less homogeneous, with a shift toward evangelical and charismatic Christianity, particularly in the Sunbelt region. The United States is expected to be neither entirely Christian as in the past nor nearly entirely post-Christian as in other Western countries. This suggests a complex and evolving religious future in the country.

Get Religion writes:

Journalists should be aware that 2023 turns out to be big for the much-discussed “secularization theory” framed by the 19th Century founders of sociology.

The nub of theory claims that economically advancing societies with improved education inevitably become more secular, largely because modern science explains matters formerly left to the religious realm.

The NYU Press states that its 2023 release “Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society” demonstrates “definitively that the secularization thesis is correct, and religion is losing its grip on societies worldwide.” Steve Bruce of the University of Aberdeen, author of the classic “Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory” (Oxford, 2011), blurbs that this new title “will be the defining text on the undeniable proof” that supports the concept.

The three co-authors of “Beyond Doubt,” all experts, are Ryan Cragun (University of Tampa), Isabella Kasselstrand (also at Aberdeen), and Phil Zuckerman (founder of Pitzer College’s Secular Studies program). They take on such noted U.S. critics of the theory as Christian Smith, Rodney Stark, and the late Peter Berger. Though such theorizing has focused on the West, this book (which The Guy has yet to read) is distinctive in drawing together elaborate data from several dozen varied countries.

Read the full article.

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