Peter Kivisto: Religious Pluralism

section of the 2010 Palio banner by Ali Hassoun


Secularization, the Post-Secular, and Religious Pluralism


Peter Kivisto


For much of the second half of the twentieth century sociologists were inclined to argue that secularization would result in the steady erosion of religious beliefs and practices, a perspective shaped by prominent figures such as Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, and Bryan Wilson. They argued in somewhat different ways that modernity undermined the plausibility of religious belief. This in turn set in motion the erosion of the institutional matrix that sustained religion as a collective enterprise. The secularization thesis has had plenty of critics and one of the three scholars just mentioned, Peter Berger, changed his mind along the way. But there are also those who continue to embrace the view. They muster empirical evidence that religious belief and practice among European Christians continues its steady decline, lending credence to the claim of one book title in this vein, God Is Dead. The book’s cover nicely conveys the message: it portrays a former Yorkshire church converted to a discount carpet store.

Berger had once taken Europe to represent the master trend of history, with the United States constituting a stubborn anomaly because of its high level of religiosity. However, he concluded that he had it wrong. Thus, ours is a post-secular world. To make sense of this, one first needs to distinguish institutional secularism from secularization as the erosion of religious belief and practice. When secularization refers to the differentiation of society into relatively autonomous institutional arenas or spheres—the economy, politics, religion, and so forth—the West has most definitely not entered into a post-secular world, and this is a good thing. Crucially important here is both the separation of church and state and state neutrality in matters related to religion, for, as Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor convincingly argue, they are essential for protecting religious freedom and encouraging mutual respect.

However, when secularization refers to the growth of disbelief and a sense of the irrelevance of religion, it would appear based on empirical evidence that there may be a limit to its advance. Since Europeans are less religious than their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic, they represent a good test case. A recent Eurobarometer survey found that 51% of EU citizens believe in God, while another 26% believe in a spirit or life force, and 20% believe in neither. While the percentage of people who attend religious services is quite low, it is worth stressing that only one in five Europeans could be defined as either atheists or agnostics. It is here that the idea of the post-secular gains traction, for it points to the possibility that while irreligion is a significant reality, it has not prevailed the way some secularization theorists would have predicted.

The United States persists in maintaining a higher level of religiosity compared to Europe. A Gallup poll conducted in 2014 found that 86% of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit, with 12 percent responding that they do not. The believers cannot be seen as collectively homogeneous. Of particular significance here is the fact that religion’s advocates—and we are speaking here specifically about Christianity—are divided into two camps, which have been described using various terms. For our purposes, we will call one side fundamentalist and the other ecumenical. David Hollinger perceptively contends that the former tenaciously hangs on to “home truths” and assertively advocates on their behalf while the latter is characterized by openness to secular thought and recognition of religious pluralism.

Fundamentalists engage the world in order to save the fallen, but also build protective barriers to insure that the world and other religious traditions do not encroach on their home truths. They are motivated according to Terry Eagleton by anxiety, or in Marilynne Robinson’s view by fear. Ecumenical engagement is different insofar as it does not attempt to flee from the secular world, but to embrace it fully.

On both sides of the Atlantic one finds secularists, the religious ecumenicals, and fundamentalists, and the question is how they will relate to one another in the future. Jürgen Habermas, perhaps the most vigorous defender of the Enlightenment tradition alive today, has come to realize that religion is not going to disappear. Moreover, it will not be confined to the private realm, but instead the faithful expect or demand to express their voices in the public sphere. And this is critical for Habermas because throughout his career he has treated the public sphere as the arena where liberal democracy either flourishes or dies. His theory of communicative action is committed to finding ways to insure that reason in the interest of the common good defines that sphere. He believes an increasingly important aspect of the task at hand involves finding ways for the religious and the secular to communicate with each other.

As such, he is advocating an ecumenical sensibility from a secular vantage. He does so keenly aware that manifestations of intolerant and insular fundamentalism permeate all of the major world religions, many minor ones, as well as ideological currents among secularists (e.g., the “new atheists”). Fundamentalists demand to be heard, and indeed can be very loud, but they have no interest in listening. And it is no doubt in part because of the conflicts caused by fundamentalists that Habermas’s “awareness of what is missing” has led him into dialogue with religious figures, none more significant than Joseph Ratzinger.

Post-secularism does not mean that secularization is not part and parcel of the modern world. Indeed, as Charles Taylor sums it up in The Secular Age, we live in an “expanding universe of unbelief.” In such a world, as Hans Joas puts it, religion is “an option,” and the Christian variant but one particular religious option. This is a recognition of the pluralistic character of modern society, one in which not only is religious switching (within faith traditions and between them) an aspect of the possible, but so is movement from embracing to abandoning faith in favor of a secular frame, or vice versa. In such a pluralistic and fluid religious universe, there is a pressing need for practices and temperaments that facilitate increasing levels of tolerance and mutual respect.

Fundamentalists will resist this goal. They will do so because they see pluralism as a threat, one that calls into question the plausibility structure of their beliefs. What separates fundamentalists (including secular ideologues) from non-fundamentalists is that they place a premium on certitude, on the conviction that theirs is the one, true religion and all other worldviews amount to the worship of false gods. They are engaged in what Donald Levine described as a “flight from ambiguity.” The ecumenical, in contrast, are prepared to live with ambiguity and doubt. They see their particular religious or secular worldview as one among other belief systems worthy of respect. In this regard, theirs is a commitment to live in a thoroughly modern world and to do so as moderns.

The situation today on both sides of the Atlantic has become considerably more complex due to the fact that as a consequence of mass migration since the middle of the past century, the major immigrant receiving nations have become more religiously diverse. Instead of discussions about the thinning out of religion, attention has turned to its multivocal vibrancy. That former Yorkshire church would just as likely today have been converted to a mosque than a carpet store. And it is certainly not news to anybody that where there is conflict over religious diversity, Islam is at the center of it. In part this is due to the fact that a quarter of all immigrants are Muslim (to put that in perspective, nearly half are Christian). Though the presence of these newcomers is having real consequences for the immigrants themselves and for the receiving societies, this is far from an “invasion”—the sort of language favored by Islamophobes.

The challenge of integration of Muslims and adherents to other religions will depend to large extent on whether that much maligned phenomenon known as multiculturalism is given a chance. If it is, one can expect good faith efforts to respond to newcomer claims-making, which largely involves calls for reasonable accommodation and recognition, while the newcomers come to terms with and embrace the values inherent in pluralistic liberal democracies. If multiculturalism—which at root entails, to borrow from the EU motto, being “united in diversity”—is repudiated, one can expect the persistence of marginalization and second-class citizenship. Reactions to Ali Hassoun’s banner for Siena’s famous Palio can serve as a litmus test separating inclusionists from exclusionists. His banner depicted the Virgin Mary with a crown containing the Star of David, the cross, and the crescent, and in the background Arabic calligraphy pointing to the nineteenth chapter of the Qur’an, which is dedicated to the Madonna. The mixed reactions it received offer a succinct summary of the contemporary religious landscape in North America and Western Europe.

Kivisto - portraitPeter Kivisto is the Richard A. Swanson Professor of Social Thought at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, USA. He is also a Research Fellow and Visiting Professor at the University of Trento and Head of the Research Laboratory on Transnationalism and Migration Processes at St. Petersburg State University. His recent books include Solidarity, Justice, and Incorporation: Thinking through The Civil Sphere (with Giuseppe Sciortino, Oxford University Press, 2015) and Religion and Immigration: Migrant Faiths in North America and Western Europe (Polity, 2014).

Banner Image: A section of the 2010 Palio banner produced by Ali Hassoun, a Lebanese-born Muslim artist married to an Italian Catholic and residing in Milan.



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