Steve BRUCE. Secularization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, Hard Cover, 243 pages, ISBN 978 0199584406.
Reviewed by Professor Richard RYMARZ, St Joseph’s College, University of Alberta

The indefatigable Steve Bruce’s latest book continues his longstanding advancement of the case for the explanatory relevance of the classical definition of secularization. Bruce is at the forefront of arguing that religion in the modern world is best understood as being in various stages of a terminal decline. Furthermore, there is no need to mitigate secularization theory by proposing modifications such as religion taking a less prominent place in the public square but still exerting some influence in the private and personal sphere.

Bruce marshals a range of statistics to support his case, many of these are provided by his colleague David Voas. As he points out, however, these indicate a trend but do not provide an explanation. This is offered in what is the most important part of the book, chapter 2, where he presents a robust explanation of secularization. Following Weber he proposes that the key in understanding the place of religion in the modern world is the Protestant Reformation. This, amongst other things, splintered the homogenous cognitive and affective world of Christianity. In time this lead to both social and structural differentiation, facilitating the development of liberal, personalized value systems. These enshrined the core principle of the contemporary social order, that of insurmountable individual autonomy. In such a cultural context the collective shared ideologies on which religion – especially Christianity –

depended were fatally compromised. These cultural developments brought with them a range of other changes. All of these made the salience of religion more and more problematic as religious communities lost both the means and the intent to use coercive practices to maintain ideological monopolies. The end product of this historical process is the triumph of relativism which Bruce sees as simultaneously the product and guarantor of liberty in the social order.

It is important to note that Bruce offers this explanation of secularization as a theory that does not allow for any long term religious resilience. Indeed once secularization begins its progress is irreversible and inevitable given enough time – but more of this point later. To be sure there are specific developments such as the alignment of religion with nationalism in oppressed regions which can slow down the process of secularization. These do not detract, however, from the central proposition, namely, that religion, at least as it is classically understood, has no future. Neither can religious belief and practise be diverted into new categories such as spirituality or Davies’s concept of believing without belonging. Bruce argues that the importance of these movements is vastly overstated. In countries such as the United Kingdom, most people are well and truly advancing along a path where their beliefs and behaviours can best be explained without reference to any supernatural or transcendent descriptors.

Bruce has long been challenged on his reliance on what he sees as historical trends to support his strong contentions. So when, for example, he is confronted with tenacious religious views such as belief in God, even in very secular northern Europe he refers to an overall trend that will see these beliefs weaken and disappear given enough time. Although using Weber as an inspiration he does not make use of his argument that in any population there will always be a proportion of the population that will be uncharacteristically religious. In the march of history Bruce does not acknowledge the existence of such subsets and in doing so rejects the vibrancy of what many would call the religious marketplace. In a similar vein, Bruce’s insistence on the impossibility of any new shared value system arising that could replace the ideological consensus of the past rests on two contentious assumptions. Firstly, Greeley and the rational choice theorists would question if such a religious consensus ever existed or at least to the extent that Bruce postulates. They would see the religious salience of the West, in particular, to be far more cyclic and responsive to cultural trends. Secondly, does the rise of personal autonomy presuppose that shared values not longer exist? The secular Danes, for instance, have very high and constant rates of reception of Lutheran confirmation. On one level this is a very inclusive ritual only weakly connected to Christian dogma. But doesn’t the longevity of this practise speak to a common need for ritual expression of coming of age? And, in turn, are such behaviours indicative of a range of deeply rooted human needs that cannot be rationalized away as dying historical curios?

Those who follow Bruce’s work are never at a loss as to what his position is. He is to be congratulated for being prepared to take his views to their logical conclusion even it these jar with conventional sentiment. As always his view will stimulate further discussion.

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