Everything That Can Go On Is Going On


A Review of Peter Berger’s The Many Altars of Modernity and James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular

“One could, of course, run an entire Augustinian analysis of this as the doomed project of loving some part of creation instead of the Creator… But Taylor doesn’t invoke ‘idolatry’ as a conceptual frame here, for obvious strategic reasons.” — Footnote, How (Not) to Be Secular

Since the publication of the Pew Research Center’s report on the subject in 2012, there has been a great deal of commentary on the Nones, people who claim no religious preference or affiliation. Unfortunately, most of this commentary has been hamstrung by narrow, partisan interpretations and an undue reliance on opinion polling as a substitute for robust philosophical and sociological investigation. While neither author is likely to have been particularly motivated by this surge of interest in self-described secularists, both Peter Berger and James K.A. Smith have recently published books that offer an alternative to the thinkpiece mainstream for those interested in the future of religion (or lack thereof). Both are working from a rich background: Berger builds upon his own decades of research and analysis of the sociology of religion, while Smith is working directly from Charles Taylor’s monumental text, A Secular Age, for which Smith’s own work serves as a kind of reader’s guide or summary.

During the twentieth century, the dominant view of the future of religion was the so-called “secularization thesis,” which proposed that religion would continue to decline as a result of economic and technological development. Roughly, the belief was that as mankind grew more capable of generating social stability and material abundance through scientific management techniques, the crutch of religion would become obsolete and ultimately be discarded. Peter Berger was himself a proponent of the secularization thesis in his early works such as The Sacred Canopy (1967). As his views have evolved, Berger’s most recent contributions, including Many Altars, are in direct challenge to that conceptual frame. Likewise, James K.A. Smith is also responding to the secularization thesis in How (Not), adopting Charles Taylor’s alternative definition of “the secular.” This pivot radically changes the secularization thesis’s picture of both the present and future of religion. However, it should not be forgotten that Berger and Taylor are just two voices among many, and the secularization thesis remains a powerful narrative within both philosophy of religion and the culture at large.

Berger and Smith propose alternative conceptual frames that seek to account for at least four phenomena, two of which are generally compatible with the secularization thesis. First, in contrast to the pervasive animism or spiritualism of past ages—the Romans had rites for at least four different gods who governed doorways, including a goddess of hinges—there are broad swaths of modern life that are apparently disconnected from religion. In Many Altars, Berger provides the following example:

I know a very successful surgeon in Boston. He is an observant Orthodox Jew. He expresses his religious commitment in his office, where of course he does not do surgery, by wearing a skullcap… All the same, when he puts on his surgeon’s garb and starts working in the operating room, all of this is irrelevant in that situation. Every move he makes, and every thought he has at that moment, occurs ‘as if God did not exist’—as would happen if he were a Christian, or a Buddhist, or an atheist.

The thrust of Berger’s argument is that as modern life has become gradually dominated by technical activities, the language provided by one’s religious commitment is used less and less. Modern subjects spend most of their lives enmeshed in a secular discourse.

Berger is primarily concerned with how participating in multiple discourses produces a kind of pluralism within the subject—the surgeon is an Orthodox Jew in his office but a None in the operating room—whereas Smith is focused on the growing number of modern subjects with no transcendent relevance structure whatsoever. Following Taylor, Smith refers to this condition as “exclusive humanism,” which he defines as “a worldview or social imaginary that is able to account for meaning and significance without any appeal to the divine or transcendence.” That is, while all modern subjects spend much of their lives in activities apparently divorced from transcendence, some modern subjects go further, living entirely within this “immanent frame.”

Both Berger and Smith also discuss a second phenomenon, which they call “relativization” or “fragilization.” Berger writes, “In our globalized modernity, almost everyone talks with everyone else, whether directly or indirectly… Any extended interaction with others who disagree with one’s own view of the world relativizes the latter.” In a similar vein, Smith writes, “In the face of different options, where people who lead ‘normal’ lives do not share my faith (and perhaps believe something very different), my own faith commitment becomes fragile—put into question, dubitable.” Thus, insofar as technological progress has enabled more communication between those with radically different worldviews, it has weakened the kind of stable, unreflective commitments that Berger and Smith suggest were possible—or even typical—in the past.

Up to this point, Berger and Smith have not made any observations that are strictly inconsistent with the traditional subtraction story of the secularization thesis. Economic and technological progress have changed conditions such that areas of life once thought to implicate the divine may now be managed solely by human ingenuity. It is only a short step from this conclusion to the conclusion that the so-called Nones, living their whole lives within the immanent frame, are merely the avant garde of a future secularized humanity. However, the other two phenomena Berger and Smith are concerned with offer reasons to doubt this position.

Berger’s main reason for rejecting the secularization thesis is essentially empirical. As the twentieth century drew to a close, rather than witnessing the gradual disappearance of religion, humanity saw major revivals break out across the globe, even in regions that were experiencing the most rapid modernization in their history. Berger’s most significant examples of this phenomenon are the tremendous popularity of charismatic strains of Christianity in the developing world, as well as the resurgence of traditionalist Islamic faith across its historical zone of influence and in the Muslim diaspora. In light of these movements, the secularization thesis appears more and more to be a hasty generalization from the experience of Western Europe that does not hold true for humanity in general.

Smith’s principal objection to the secularization thesis draws upon the subjective experience or “feel” of post-transcendent existence: in Taylor’s words, the “generalized sense in our culture that with the eclipse of the transcendent, something may have been lost.” Smith frequently uses the language of “haunting” to describe this condition. This uneasiness associated with living without reference to the divine is something that the secularization thesis would not predict; the tidy subtraction story of humanity shedding its supernaturalist baggage does not comport with the ongoing “cross-pressure,” which drives modern subjects to search for meaning and significance in “something more.”

The alternative conceptual frameworks that Berger and Smith offer to modify and replace the secularization thesis have certain key points of agreement, some of which, like the development of secular discourse or exclusive humanism and the phenomenon of relativization or fragilization, have been noted above. Indeed, several of the disagreements between Berger’s pluralism and Smith’s redefined secularism can be explained as products of their belonging to separate discourses and methodologies, so that they end up talking past one another. Either framework probably accounts for contemporary phenomena better than the secularization thesis. However, the two frameworks may also share a critical, if not quite fatal, flaw.

In interpreting “this present age,” every conceptual framework must include a certain picture of the past, and there is considerable reason to doubt the picture of the past on which Berger and Smith base their interpretations. Specifically, both Berger’s pluralism and Taylor’s secularism posit that they represent novel situations, that the conditions of belief have substantially changed between the present and the past. Furthermore, they posit that this shift has been away from a condition of relative uniformity toward the diversity we see at present. However, both premises are contestable.

Writing in the middle of the twentieth century, C.S. Lewis had this to say about the contemporary debate over the future of religion:

Why do people… always talk about “religion”? Why not religions? We seethe with religions… Everything that can go on is going on all round us. Religions buzz about us like bees… Meanwhile, as always, the Christian way too is followed. But nowadays, when it is not followed, it need not be feigned. That fact covers a great deal of what may be called the decay of religion. Apart from that, is the present so very different from other ages or “the West” from anywhere else?

Lewis observes in his own time two essential features that Berger and Taylor seem to suggest are new in ours: an enormous diversity of competing religious claims and the option to reject any or all of them. Berger and Smith might be willing to moderate their claims—to the effect that radical pluralism and the availability of a secular alternative to religion are simply much more advanced in 2015 than in 1950. But what if Lewis is right, and rather than the Exception, “this present age” is very much the Rule?

In short, what if our “secular age” is not some new dispensation but merely the latest chapter in the persistent and endlessly creative idolatry of the human race? If this were true, then while perhaps very strategic within their own discourses, these new proposals from Berger and Smith would be reinventing the wheel for Christian practitioners. Certainly, there are already some prominent Christian voices, such as Tim Keller and Elizabeth Scalia, who have begun the work of reintroducing the conceptual frame of idolatry and applying it to contemporary issues. In his Counterfeit Gods, Keller exposes our culture’s idolatry of money, sex, and power, while Scalia chides Christians for serving the Strange Gods of relationships and politics rather than Christ (both discussed here in an earlier FF review by Enoch Kuo).

If there is work for the theorist to do with respect to “this present age” and the conditions of belief amidst which the Gospel is proclaimed, it may start with explaining the illusion of a less idolatrous past. If everything that can go on is going on, it is because, as Calvin observed, “The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.” Augustine said as much of his own day in City of God. If this bent toward idolatry is a fact of human nature, why does radical pluralism appear to be a recent development?

I propose that if we perceive past ages to have been less pluralistic than our own, it is because we neglect the power of cultural hegemony to create the appearance of unity. What we have in the West is a series of empires, each with its own cultural project, which is moderately successful in marginalizing alternatives to its own metanarrative, and then gradually fractures due to contingent historical circumstances. In each of these empires, everyone was always inclined to do what was right in their own eyes, but this radical pluralism was suppressed by cultural hegemony. The model for every other Western empire is, of course, the political empire of Rome, which propagated its state ideology very successfully through both political and religious means. This empire gave way to the less politically unified but more religiously compact empire of Christendom. And after Christendom?

The current empire in the West is not chiefly political, nor particularly religious. Rather, it is the empire of Anglo-American technocratic capitalism, the economic and technological empire of the WEIRD (the western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic). And the cultural hegemony of this empire is what goes by the name of the “secular discourse” in Berger or “exclusive humanism” in Smith, that is, the package of materialistic and utilitarian presuppositions that govern neoliberal thought. Not only true religion but even every other idolatry is presently chafing under this yoke.

Charlie Clark

Charlie Clark lives in his hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee with his wife Sarah. An alumnus of Dartmouth College and the University of Tennessee College of Law, he works in his family’s fourth-generation scrap metal recycling business. Charlie is a founding editor of Fare Forward and chairman of its board of directors.