In this post Paul McClure reports on the End of Religion Symposium. He outlines contributions from Rodney Stark, Phillip Jenkins, Jeff Levin, Bryon Johnson and J. Gordon Melton who contributed to the symposium from multiple disciplinary perspectives. McClure, however, notes the absence of work on “spiritual, but not religious” (SBNRs) phenomena.
A cohort of researchers from the Institute for Studies in Religion (ISR) at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, recently hosted a symposium entitled “The End of Religion? An Essential Corrective to the Secularization Myth.” True to the symposium’s title, the panel of experts—featuring Rodney Stark, Philip Jenkins, Jeff Levin, Byron Johnson, and J. Gordon Melton—questioned many assumptions of the traditional secularization hypothesis. In their view, too much fuss has been made about recent upticks in Nones, despite the Pew Forum’s recent release of yet another report confirming their numerical expansion in the United States. These findings, according to the symposium speakers, while profitable in the American context, miss the fact that religion is alive, well, and moving furiously throughout many parts of the world.
The first discussant to tackle traditional secularization theory was Rodney Stark, whose work over the last three decades has challenged the idea that secularization is a natural outgrowth of modernity. Interestingly, Stark’s recent work has focused less on the American case than on other parts of the world. His talk, entitled “A Godless World? Signs of a Global Religious Revival,” drew heavily from his research partnership with Xiuhua Wang, who joined Stark in coauthoring A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China (Templeton Press, 2015). Though the growth of Nones in the U.S. has attracted the attention of many scholars, Stark argued in the symposium that researchers should be less hidebound to the American context and instead look at what is happening in the rest of the world, especially China. Finding a 7% growth rate in a country that already had 60 million Christians as of 2007, Stark projected that by 2030 there could be 295 million Christians in China, making it the most Christian nation on earth.
Following Stark, historian Philip Jenkins examined religious trends outside the United States in his lecture, “Godless Europe?” Normally considered the prime example of secularization in the modern world, Europe is far from a secular monolith, he argued. While there has been a definite drop in institutional affiliation, Europe is religiously varied. To argue his case, Jenkins pointed to the enormous popularity of modern day pilgrimages, the growth of Russian monasteries, and the popularity of religious films such as The Island (2006) and Letters to Father Jacob (2009). Whether these patterns are exceptions that prove the rule or not, Jenkins’ reminder is a helpful one: as he stated, if we only look at Britain and the Netherlands, then the numbers will slant towards secularization. If we look somewhere else, or perhaps at something other than church attendance, we may be surprised to find that religion is still a guiding presence for many Europeans.
The next speaker, Jeff Levin, shifted the subject toward religion and health studies. Levin, a professor of epidemiology and population health at Baylor, discussed the variety of findings from religion and health studies that have emerged in the last few decades. Though Levin did not directly assess the state of religion or the growth of secularity, the findings detailed in his report have implications for social scientists of various stripes. For instance, after conducting a meta-analysis of health studies on everything from depression and anxiety disorders to self-destructive behaviors and psychological functioning, he showed that religious variables consistently demonstrated positive health effects. Of course, it’s impossible to know whether the health benefits of religion come from the social welfare provided by faith communities or some other (supernatural) source, but at a time when Baby Boomers are approaching retirement and more hospital visits, studies of various links between religion and health will prove fertile ground for scholars in the coming decades.
Byron Johnson then delivered a presentation on American piety and religious practice. Keeping with the spirit of the symposium’s main theme, Johnson questioned the notion that modern social forces drift inevitably towards greater secularity. Without denying some changes in reported religious affiliation, Johnson nevertheless wanted to add some important qualifiers. First, Johnson refuted the findings of the Barna Group and the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) by challenging their methodological approaches. Second, Johnson warned of overstating other findings, such as the Pew Forum’s 2007 Landscape Survey that 44% of Americans have left the religious affiliation of their youth. As Johnson noted, that may be factually true, but switching from one Christian denomination to another hardly warrants a major headline. Finally, Johnson noted that on the Baylor Religion Survey, 30% of all self-identifying Nones listed a congregation with which they had some affiliation. Such findings, then, support Johnson’s main point that America continues to be both remarkably religious and religiously stable.
Finally, J. Gordon Melton, a prolific historian whose work includes Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions (Gale, 2009) tracked the historical movement of Nones from their origins to the present. For a symposium whose focus covered the interplay between American religion and secularity, Melton’s presentation was particularly helpful in situating American Nones within their historical context. Though a substantial portion of Melton’s career has investigated new religious movements (NRMs), his presentation (“Toward a Godless America?”) generally subverted the notion that Nones represent something different within America’s religious history. Instead, Melton argued that Nones are the heirs of a tradition that began at least as early as the Protestant Reformation and found continued expression with Enlightenment Deism and the later Freethought movement. The large and thriving atheist organizations in Houston and Dallas, while still minority religious groups in America, are therefore manifestations of America’s long history of secularity.
For the most part, the symposium succeeded in offering a different perspective on secularization theory. Baylor’s ISR, while not officially tied to other departments, has amassed an impressive array of religion scholars whose voices should not go unnoticed. For my own part in the sociology department, I eagerly look forward to reading Stark and Wang’s newly available A Star in the East (Templeton Press, 2015). I also thought Stark and Jenkins sensibly pointed to new horizons for sociologists of religion. If secularization theory in its strongest Comtean form is true, then it becomes difficult to explain what’s currently happening in China, the Global South, and even some parts of a not-entirely-secular Europe.
At the same time, many of those attending the symposium may have exited wondering what to make of all those recent Pew Reports about the decline of Christianity. My own research maintains that the well-documented growth of Nones is a real phenomenon and should be taken seriously. Ironically, researchers at Baylor’s ISR generally agree with their secular counterparts in thinking that there’s no cause for alarm. The difference, however, is that while the former think the growth of secularity is overstated and thus unproblematic, the latter think the rise of Nones is understated (but true) and thus a signpost of better things to come.
What the symposium did not directly address, to my disappointment, was the ongoing surge of the “spiritual, but not religious” (SBNRs). The most recent wave of the Baylor Religion Survey (forthcoming) for example, shows that self-identifying SBNRs now comprise 27% of the American population. To put that into perspective, 28% of respondents identified as Evangelicals, 25% identified as Catholics, and 14% answered “No affiliation.” The real trend to watch, then, might be the continued growth of SBNRs, who more than double in size those who are “neither religious nor spiritual” (NRNS, at 11% of the population). These findings suggest that the End of Religion symposium, though profitable and informative in many respects, missed out on a big opportunity. That is, they expended much time and effort deconstructing traditional secularization theory instead of advancing a new theory. Prominent scholars such as Eisenstadt (2000), Davie (2013), and Berger (1999, 2014) have already called for a new paradigm to supplant the older secularization hypothesis. Perhaps there’s some nostalgia in fighting old battles, but with new skirmishes on the horizon come new opportunities for doing research in previously unexplored theoretical and empirical ways.
Berger, Peter L., ed. 1999. The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Washington, D.C. : Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Berger, Peter L. 2014. The Many Altars of Modernity: Toward a Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age. Boston: De Gruyter Mouton.
Davie, Grace. 2013. The Sociology of Religion: A Critical Agenda. Second Edition edition. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Eisenstadt, S. N. 2000. “Multiple Modernities.” Daedalus 129(1):1–29.
Paul McClure is a PhD student in sociology at Baylor University whose research interests include the place of Nones and SBNRs in American culture and the effects of technology and social media on religious beliefs and practices. Prior to his work at Baylor, he graduated with a BA in Philosophy from Washington & Lee University (Lexington, VA), taught high school world religions and ethics courses at Episcopal High School (Houston, TX), and graduated from Regent College (Vancouver, British Columbia) with an MA in Theological Studies.