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What seems the be one of the most striking characteristics of social reality is that, in

its mind-puzzling complexity, allows one to find arguments for very different or even
opposed theoretical positions, especially when it comes to not so easy to define issues as
secularization. Of course, what makes secularization hard to define is its direct reference to
religion, thus the problem of defining religion becomes the problem of defining
secularization, since secularization could be put in two words as the decline of religion.

For instance, what has been called believing without belonging is a theoretical
perspective that seems to do a lot of justice to the social reality, if one considers the high
degree of diffuse religiosity encountered in even the most secularized countries in western
Europe ( The UK being the best example here, since that is where the sociological formula
believing without belonging was brought into the social theory arena and probably for the
same reason the UK being the place where this formula applies at its best, although a few
other countries have similar characteristics).

Thus believing without belonging becomes one way, a particular successful one as
most of those theorizing about secularization would agree, of turning secularization theory
on its head, so to speak, by showing that what was thought to be straightforward
secularization is actually pretty far from being so. Nevertheless, the same British society has
been the birth-place for a very different theoretical position, one that competes with and
directly confronts the believing without belonging approach to secularization.

Arguing in the same social context, with reference to the more or less the same body
of indicators of religious live, Steve Bruce (following Bryan Wilson) holds the position that
secularization is marching triumphant, maybe with stops here and there and with religious
revivals that far from refuting secularization are in fact predicted by it, as he sees it, towards
the point where religion will have no more social relevance than a football match, or even
less. People are willing to pay the ticket for a football match, since that is the way it is and it
has always been, but, although it is hard to imagine what religion would look like after
secularization has finished with it, we can imagine that no one will be willing to pay for a
ticket for anything religious, so it would be safe to say that religion, in Bruces view, will
become less relevant than football.

So it seems that the same social reality, in the case, the British one, allows for
opposing theoretical positions. The problem of which one is closer to the truth may be put
on stand by for a moment in which to reflect that actually both are based on a particular
truth and that is the mind puzzling complexity of social reality already mentioned that
makes both of them able to find legitimization in the very same social reality.

This may be seen as showing that the social researcher or theorist, prior to any
sociological movement in the social reality, has already done a selection, or if not a selection
proper, than a hierarchization of facts according the relevance he or she sees in the facts
forming the sea of available social facts surrounding him, a selection that in a way reflects
his own view on the matter. This, I think, rises the highly problematic but equally interesting
question of whether in sociology is possible to let the facts speak for themselves. Although
this may not be the best research question to start with, it really is hard to avoid it, as the
controversy around believing without belonging shows, in which two of the best social
theorist in the world find themselves holding opposing positions that claim the same
sociological ground as legitimization.

The realization of this situation probably opens the gate for a relativization of all
theoretical positions. But this relativization should not mean that none is true or all are
equally true. If anything, it should mean that no one has yet reached any final truth and that
is very unlikely that one should ever get there. Even is sociology rises some special
methodological issues, one of them being that pre-theoretical commitment involved in the
selection and hierarchization of facts already mentioned, this is the case even with the
natural sciences. The scientific enquiry is likely to never be finished as long as there will be
someone enquiring. This, far from putting science in a bad light, is what gives the particular
character of science and what makes the distinction between science and ideology, as can
be clearly seen in the case of the Marxism, where those who believed it were convinced of
the ultimate truth of it by something that could be called an act of faith rather than a
scientific commitment.
Coming back to secularization theory, even though is unlikely that any particular
position to be true in an absolute sense, it is nevertheless true that some positions represent
better approximations of the truth than others. So one important question is if religion is
actually going down to the underground of social consciousness, the way Bruce suggests, or
if, on the contrary, religion remains relevant, perhaps one of the most relevant social
aspects of social reality, in a way that allows formulations such as believing without
belonging to approximate the essence of modern religious life. Even though this is not at all
a black or white situation, an answer is possible and it can be only one in terms of mostly
yes or mostly no. A situation in which the sociology of religion would say yes and no at
the same time and in the same place or, somewhat less self contradictory, perhaps, is
unacceptable in the context of any science.

It is quite interesting to notice the significant transformations in the recent

formulations of secularization theory. The classical forms of secularization theory were more
radical, that is, they were endorsing the view that modernization will inexorably lead to the
extinction of religion from the scene of human affairs. Probably the most radical of all was
Compte, who was so convinced that this would be the case, that he started sketching a new
religion, one in which sociology would have a significant role to play. Later on, Weber and
Durkheim were also pretty confident that religion, defined as that human phenomenon in
which the supernatural is an essential point of reference, will be forced out of the world by
modernity. And so it has been with many generations of social scientists who took for
granted that religion is, sooner or later, bound to disappear. It was probably the end of the
20th century that most convincingly forced sociologists into making some radical changes in
the classical secularization theory. Some of them created the other side of the
secularization theory, that is, the side arguing that secularization is not at all what it was
thought to be, with some of the best theorists arguing (even if for a short while, like Martin
did) that the very concept of secularization was meaningless. Of course, secularization is a
reality in the modern world, the only problem being what exactly does it mean. Those on
the other side of secularization defined it so as to not necessarily mean the absolute
decline of religion, but rather a coexistence, perhaps not one without considerable trouble
for religion, but a coexistence nonetheless, of the religious and the secular.
But even those who remained in the classical secularization theory paradigm
turned out to be not so classical anymore, that is, they departed in significant ways from the
original formulations of the secularization theory. Thus, if the old school secularization
theory in its radical forms had as one of its essentials the hypothesis that religion will be
totally displaced by modernity, in other words, it will cease to exist as a social phenomenon,
in recent developments of secularization theory such a radical position is unlikely to be
found. The very fact that the qualificative radical can be applied to that form of
secularization theory endorsing the annihilation of religion, and I think it can, is highly
significant in this respect.

This leads us back to Steve Bruce, one of the leading theorists backing up the classical
secularization theory, but backing it up in such a way that it is not classical anymore. So for
Bruce religion is not bound to disappear from the large variety of social phenomenon, but it
will go on losing in social significance (following Wilsons definition of secularization
process). In his words, people will be too indifferent to religion so as to declare themselves
irreligious. Religion will simply disappear as an active point of reference shaping the
identities of future human beings. Today no one would argue that religion shines even
where it is absent, or perhaps it shines especially where it is absent. The word atheist is
formed by simply adding the negating prefix a to the word theist, and so it seems to be
with secularity today: it defines itself by negating the sacred, so to speak, rather than
creating a whole new and original reality with its own specific content. Given this state of
affairs, it is not so easy to imagine a world where religion would be less relevant than sport,
for example. It is always easier to describe the world as throwing away the old cloth of
religion than trying to actually say what that world would look like after doing that. But this
is not a major flaw in Bruces theory and no one could blame him for not taking on such a
highly demanding task. After all, the great Nietzsche was one of the few who actually tried to
think the world without God and that was not at all easy, as he found out.

While no one would argue that secularization understood as differentiation and

emancipation (Casanova) of specific social sectors from the once-upon-a-time overarching
force of religion is a reality in the modern world, and perhaps an even healthy social fact, if
one may make an evaluative judgment, there are many reasons not to subscribe to classical
forms of secularization theory or even to what one may call neo-secularization, as found in

One of these reasons makes itself manifest when one pays attention to a basic
feature of his argument. Bruce makes a good argument that, indeed, there was a golden
age of faith which modernity has swept away from the world, or lets say, to be safe,
Western-European world. Some sociologists tried to repudiate secularization by arguing that
the world was never thoroughly religious, not even when the Church was reigning supreme.
But Bruce shows beyond any reasonable doubt that there was a time when religion was an
essential part of every sector of social life and compares that situation with the present one
concluding that religion has lost its ground. And one should be blind not to agree with him.
But what was the exact nature of the ground that religion lost Bruce does not insist on
specifying or he does but making no clear-cut distinction between secularization as
differentiation, privatization or decline for the individual living in the modern world.

Religion has lost a lot of ground, he argues, and he proves it by referring to the
ground it once used to hold, concluding that secularization has been successful so far and
there are good reasons to consider that it will be even more so in the future. If secularization
as differentiation is a normal, even a sine qua non condition for the existence of the modern
world, and it is accepted by everybody as a fact, secularization as privatization, that is,
reduced social significance, and secularization as decline of religion as a valid option for the
modern individual, are much more problematic. And this problematic nature of
secularization as privatization and decline of religion is what is actually at stake. And if one
could prove that secularization as differentiation has operated without affecting in a decisive
manner personal religiosity of the individual (it remains to be further elaborated what a
decisive manner means) then there is a very dangerous breach in Bruces argument.

With the risk of bringing in a player from a different game, we have nonetheless to
make something of what a very deep observer of the religious reality of his time once said.
As Nietzsche statement that God is dead is as much a sociological one as it is philosophical,
there has to be something a sociologist can use in making his assessments about
Kierkegaards observation : The lives of most men, being determined by a dialectic of
indifference, are so remote from the good (faith) that they are almost too spiritless to be called
sin, yes, almost too spiritless to be called despair. Leaving aside the philosophical and
religious drives behind Kierkeegards assertion, we can discern a specific sociological core in
his statement. First, although Kierkegaard was living in the 19th century, long after the so
called age of faith (of course, even Bruce who has an interest in showing that there was
indeed such an age, expresess his lack of enthusiasm to this rather poetic formula), he is not
outraged by the lack of religious belonging. On the contrary, he is literaly outraged by the fact
of universal belonging (as he was living in a Denmark). For Kierkegaard, belonging and
practicing a certain Christian faith did not mean being a Chiristian. Of course, the sociologist
has no interest whatsoever in the radical Christianity defined by Kierkegaard, but he should
have some interest in his dialectic of indifference, if for no other reason, at least for the
striking similarity to the future predicted by Bruce for religion. So for Kierkegaard the great
majority of so-called Christians were in fact indifferent to Christianity. They had a social form
of Christianity, but not the faith. The incredible sociological insight in Kierkegaards
analisys of his own time, is that one can now make a radical rupture between the social,
durkheimian forms of religion, and thid was the type that constituded the age of faith, and
the personal forms of religiosity. Religion used to be, as it were, the default position (Taylor)
for the individual living in a society where secularization as differentiation was yet to assert
itself, but that in no way meant that the individual could not not be lead by a dialectic of
indifference as Kierkegaard put it. So, we can now ask, in what way is the future as Bruce
sees it for religion, where people will be indifferent in regard to religion, from the past that
make Kierkegaard blame his own contemporaries of a general indifference towards religion?

Much has been said about the radical transformasions that modernity has brought into
religious life. But one of the esential changes can be put in a short proposition: it used to be a
social obligation, so to speak, no it is an individual choice. Berger and others have described
in great detail how the mutual fragilization of different world-views has affected modern
religious life. Of course, one should not jump to conclusions, but there is only one thing that
the sociologist can in full confidence say has changed, and that is the social-imposing nature
of religion. In other words, there are no more Churches, but only sects, in the modern world,
understanding the sect as an essentialy voluntary association.

The nature of religious life in the present has enough features to allow for quite
different and even opposing theoretical positions. On the one side, the proponents of
secularization are happy to see religion loosing its ground, as they see it. Perhaps it is not
wise to associate feelings with theory, but it is impossible not to notice how, even the classical
fathers of sociology, have sometimes expressed joy, optimism, regret or even sadness in
describing some effects of modernization, for example. On the other side of the secularization
debate, those who for one reason or another are nostalgic after the good old days when the
world was more religious, are perhaps not so happy when facing the continual retreat of
religion as institution and social actor, so to speak. It could be said without fear of being to far
away from the truth that somebody like Kierkegaard would be more than happy with the
present evolution of religious life. For him, the retreat of religion as a social force would be
nothing more and nothing less than a possibility condition for the development of a more
authentic kind of religion, one that has its roots not in some socialy imposed faith but in the
individual. Again, this may seem irrelevant to the sociologist, but it is not necessarily so. The
insights of some highly influential individuals should not be ignored by sociology, but they
should be used at least as alternative points of view thus acknowledging they potential for
iluminating old matters in new and, why not, suprising ways.

We are now in the position of contemplating, from the very much unlikely
juxtaposition of Steve Bruce and Kierkegaard- one being a sociologist of the 21st century, the
other a philosopher of the 19th century, one not so much caring about religion per se, the
other one deeply religious- how the dialectic of indifference seems to be not a recent feature
brought about by secularization, but rather an old and one may say constant way of relating to
religion. If this is so, than not much has changed, except in the societal-structural forms of

Perhaps in recent modernity more and more people care less and less about religion,
but that, among other factors, is because they have a social space that allows them not to care.
Of course, modernity has of way of imposing irreligiosity (the immanent frame, as Taylor has
shown) as the default position of the modern individual, but there are reasons to believe that
the force of modernity in imposing irreligiosity is less powerfull than the force of old-society
or the so called age of faith was in imposing a form of religiosity. So what seems to be the
most significative feature of modernity is that it is a social space of freedom in which religion
may or may not assert itself, but if it does, it is likely to have highly individualistic forms
rather than traditional ones.