Shifting the Spiritual Goalposts: Is Global Secularisation Intensifying?

Screen Shot 2013-04-17 at 11.42.59A recent column by the author and journalist Mustafa Akyol caught the attention of our CSO for its interesting take on a key sociological issue since the nineteenth century: secularisation. In The curious future of religion (Hurriyet Daily News, 17th April 2013), Akyol – writing his dispatches from Kansas City, where he appears to have researched his article – concludes that the widely-predicted secularisation of the world has not manifested itself; instead, in a world which will be more or less coloured by one belief system or other, religions or movements within religions which adapt to changing circumstances will survive, while those that don’t, won’t.

This is a seductive thesis. But on closer inspection (and after some contemplation), it is questionable whether it bears much resemblance to the facts on the ground:

1. Western Secularism Marches On. The late twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen secularism in the West – particularly, though by no means exclusively in Europe – intensify and broaden. The excellent Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper has pointed out that the recent trend towards legislating for gay marriage in some Western jurisdictions is profoundly consequential in this regard, representing as it does the categorical refutation of the primacy of the teaching of the various Christian churches. Both state and society agree in their rejection of what until the 2000s was an elemental religious principle which even most self-declared atheists did not think of contesting.

2. Eastern Secularism Marches On. It is true that on one level, statist secularism of the kind that dominated the Soviet Union (and to a lesser extent, France and Turkey) seems to be on the wane. Extreme laicism is no longer de rigeur in Ankara, and even the Communist Party of China is having to more or less accomodate a surge of new religious believers in its coastal engines of growth. But look a little bit deeper, and it becomes apparent that it is the secular modernist notions of the economy and society that have embedded themselves in religious or religion-flavoured institutions. The irony that historic Istanbul has been disfigured the most (possibly to the point of losing its UNESCO status) under skyscraper-happy governments that have been keen to stress their ‘religious’ credentials will doubtless be recognised by Akyol.

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2 responses to “Shifting the Spiritual Goalposts: Is Global Secularisation Intensifying?

  1. I think a lot of things are happening simultaneously. Religion as practised by its followers is changing in all sorts of different ways. Secularisation, extremism, literalism, cultism is happening. In addition I would say Mankind as a whole is becoming more critical and demanding of all institutions. The young in every religion are asking (not always openly) what is religion good for? And their parents cannot really answer the question. Ultimately though a truth can stand up to critical analysis, and where it cannot it will not survive. Religions in their present form won’t survive, and it does not matter. We will transition to new forms which will be better suited for Mankind’s needs.

    • There is definitely some kind of transition happening. With technology yielding the possibility of multi-directional, multi-network conversations, the days of hierarchical dominance are probably over. One thing to watch for: religious cross-pollination. Umberto Eco’s tongue-in-cheek ‘prediction’ of ‘Sunni Christianity’ may have a lot more truth to it than even he attributed to it.

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