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F or decades commentators assumed that secularization was inevitable. By the

latter part of the 20th century, however, it was being argued that religion
was changing rather than declining. Yet just as there are many ways of being
religious, so there are many ways of not being religious. What is becoming
abundantly clear is not only that religiosity but also that both secularity (as
a description of individual orientations) and secularism (as a description of
society) are far more complicated, even paradoxical, than had been recognized.
While more than 80% of Danes are formally members of the established state
religion, less than 5% attend church on a weekly basis—and there are fewer
official members of the Church of England (26%) than non-members who feel
they belong (29%). Depending on what is understood by the concept, between
one and 46% of the population of the United States can be defined as “secular,”
yet 67% of Americans who say they have no religion believe in the existence of
God—and, at the same time, there are self-identifying Lutherans and Roman
Catholics professing that they do not believe in God.
This book presents a fascinating account of the inconsistent evidence as
it valiantly struggles to chart the diversity to be found among the neglected
variables of disbelief and unbelief. We have recently become familiar with the
category “spiritual but not religious” without really knowing what this means
to those who identify themselves as such. We are less familiar with the range
of beliefs that include ideologically inspired atheism, agnosticism, apathy,
indifference and what Voas calls the muddled middle between the religious and
the secular.
At the social level, comparative analyses reveal even more variation than
we find at the individual level. One widely accepted definition of secularization
has been “a process whereby religious thinking, practice and institutions lose
social significance.”1 This can happen almost absent-mindedly, as in England.
In countries such as Canada, Australia and most of Western Europe, individuals
may engage in religious and/or spiritual practices, but this is as a private, leisure
pursuit; institutionalised churches no longer play the central role they once did
in education, welfare or politics, and secular values of maximization of profit or
consumerism have been replacing concerns about salvation. But few processes
are irreversible—and desecularization can also appear in a variety of forms, one

Secularism & Secularity

apparently being revivals of dormant Christian consciousness in parts of Europe

as a result of growing immigrant Muslim populations.
Sometimes secularization has been the result of state-imposition. There is,
however, a world of difference between Albania during the rule of Enver Hoxha
when no religious observance whatsoever was permitted, and the laïcité of France
where a variety of religious and secular worldviews may flourish. India’s secular
position has been described as more of a political arrangement than a secular
philosophy—and in Israel, an avowedly secular state, marriage and divorce are
possible only within a recognised religion.
Important issues are broached: To what extent, for example, does our
unprecedented globalization result in the fear of loss of identity and, hence, the
strengthening of national or local religions? Can secular (enlightenment) values
be incorporated into the sort of theocratic regime that Iran has experienced since
its 1979 revolution? When the 3Bs (belonging, belief and behavior) cease to be
religious, does nothing—or anything—fill the gap?
This book may not give us a definitive picture of what the situation is in
the contemporary world but it offers us a much fuller one than most of us had
before—and if it raises more questions than it answers, that is not a bad thing.

Dr. Eileen Barker

Professor Emeritus of Sociology with Special Reference to the Study of Religion
London School of Economics

1. Bryan R. Wilson, 1966. Religion in Secular Society. London: Watts p. 14