Is Secularism Inevitable?

In my previous discussion of liberal modernity, I considered the origins of ‘liberal values’ in terms of wider technological changes and their ramifications. In this piece, I will be considering the implications that this might have for the future of secularism in the 21st century. For this, I will be drawing heavily on the work of Eric Kaufmann, a political scientist, particularly his 2010 book ”Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?” The big question I’ll be grappling with is whether modern shifts will lead to a more secular or more religious society.

A Fragmented World

As I argued in my previous article, two major technological changes have pushed western society in a more individualistic and self-expressive direction. Namely, modern transport and screens. Modern transport, particularly the car, has led to urban sprawl and facilitated sharper distinctions between a person’s work life, home life and various social engagements, disrupting the formation of a more local sense of identity rooted in place. Screens have sapped time away from people’s lives which might have previously been invested in their local communities.

This has fragmented people’s sense of identity, giving modern secular piety a much more individualistic flair. It’s also had a noticeable effect on religious communities. More liberal or ‘moderate’ religious communities have absorbed much of the socially liberal, individualistic piety of the secular world. Conservative religious communities have also been affected, albeit in a different way.

Prior to the 1960s, conservative religious expressions tended to be bound up with all sorts of other allegiances, especially national and local interests. However, the fragmenting effect of modern society has caused a redefining of norms within conservative religious communities away from more local concerns and towards a faith which can transcend national boundaries and appeal directly to the individual. Usually this involves a much stricter adherence to the central religious texts as a universal standard. We see this in religious movements such as Evangelical Christianity, Salafi Islam and Haredi Judaism.

Another aspect of this ‘return to the text’ has to do with a reaction against encroaching liberal norms. Sensing that society is no longer friendly towards a traditional way of life, religious conservatives are returning to their roots as a way of safeguarding their identity in a fragmented world.

A Demographic Revolution

Given all this, one might expect that conservative religious communities would be experiencing numerical decline and liberal religious and non-religious communities would be growing in the western world. In actual fact though, the opposite is much closer to the truth. Although non-religiosity appears to be growing across the west, it’s mostly drawing new converts from the liberal religious crowd, with conservative religious communities seeing numerical growth and the liberal religious rapidly declining in number.

Why might this be? Eric Kaufmann argues that it has mainly to do with the question of who has more children. He divides society into three groups similar to the ones I’ve outlined above, the secularists, the religious moderates and the fundamentalists. He demonstrates quite conclusively from the data that since the 1960s, the average birth rate of the fundamentalists tends to outstrip that of both the religious moderates and the secularists across the western world, with both of the latter experiencing a negative birth rate.[1]

Prior to the 1960s, all three groupings would have had children at broadly similar rates. However, after the liberalisation of sexual norms and the wide adoption of contraception following the sexual revolution, the number of children per family has become largely a personal choice. Since that time, religiosity has arisen as one of the most significant predictive factors determining fertility rates, even when accounting for several other possible factors such as wealth.

Ramifications

The implications of this are quite significant. If trends continue as they have for the last 40 years or so, conservative religious groups will become a much more significant force in many western nations than they are today. Once the liberal religious decline past a certain point, the non-religious will start to see decline as well. Far from being inevitable, the demographic changes brought about by the sexual revolution may well imply the beginning of the end for secularism.

What does this mean for Christians living in the west today? It means several things. Firstly, we need to continue to faithfully disciple our children in the faith (Ephesians 6:4), not taking for granted the faith of the next generation but instructing them in the ways of Christ. Secondly, we must be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). As conservative religiosity grows, the risk of tension between different religious groupings is heightened. We need to show how the Gospel of Christ, far from leading to anger and strife, can bring peace to a divided world.


[1] This growth of religious conservatism in the west is compounded further by immigration from the (significantly more religious) developing world.

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