Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk




"Secularization refers to the decline of religion as a coherent identifiable system of beliefs and practices."  This definition of "secularization" is useful because it is a  sociological definition in the sense that it defines the concept of secularization with reference to visible behavior. Thus, it can be reasonably assumed that a person who attends a house of worship and there engages in ritualistic conduct such as singing hymns, kneeling before icons, reciting prayers or eating or drinking specially designated foods such as "unleavened bread" is motivated to do so by beliefs associated with religion.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.E. "Before the Christian Era"), explains  in "De Natura Deorum" or "On the Nature of the Gods," that the word religion is derived from "relegere", meaning to "read again". He observes that believers read the same texts over and over again so as to influence the gods. Despite this explanation Cicero uses the word in that same book to also mean "to bind together" or "res ligare", hence, "the thing that binds." The English word league is of the same origin.  These Latin origins of the word religion are significant because both relate to behavior and interaction and recognize the sociological nature of religion.  

It must be understood that some would dispute the trend towards secularization here discussed because they make no distinction between "religion" as an institution involving conduct and "the religious", which refers to subjective attitudes concerning personal beliefs as to the meaning of life, the nature of the universe, the existence of G-d, "life" after death and other so-called spiritual matters. It is however impossible to deal with "the religious" in the present context because the subjective feelings of millions of people cannot be observed. In short, any effort to discuss "the religious" must remain in the realm of speculation while a discussion of religion can rest on such visible facts as church attendance, financial contributions, baptisms, bar mitzvah celebrations, wedding ceremonies and a host of other events depending on observable behavior.

 Since it has long been established by numerous studies in the field of social psychology that what people say they think or feel does not accurately correspond to what people do it is behavior which indicates far better than anything else to what extent a population adheres to religion.

Now religion is one means of conferring identity on an individual or a group of individuals. Nationality is another means of identifying people as is family, economic status, occupation, education, club membership and a host of other measurements and criteria.

Prior to the seventeenth century religion was a more useful means of identifying various populations and individuals than is true today. The reason for this change is that philosophical and scientific changes have made religious identification irrelevant while nationality, education and its consequence, occupation, are very important in an age and in complex nation - states which depend on the division of labor for their existence.  The evidence for this contention is found in every newspaper in America, where people are identified as "German business men" or "American baseball players" or "British actors" while the religion of the persons described is either not mentioned at all or given as an afterthought in a paragraph buried at the end of the news story.

Until the rise of science religion was a unifying force, as it still is in non-Western cultures such as the Moslem states. In Western cultures, however, religion cannot unify large populations. The dream of unifying all men in one church died with the advent of the Reformation, which made it plain that religious consensus could never be achieved in Christian lands.  Therefore nationality has been and is now the unifying force in all of Western culture where history is viewed as the experiences of nation - states in terms of wars, depressions, migrations and scientific achievements. Religion is seldom, if ever, part of the content of modern historical writing. 

Historical events have a direct influence on social change.  The origins of secularization go much further back in time than the nineteenth century when the word secularism was first coined by the then popular writer George Holyoake (1817-1906), who defined secularism as "the improvement of life by material means".

While Holyoake made no distinction between secularization and secularism it is the process of secularization which is of concern here. That process is summarized by noting that secularization occurs when large scale urban societies steadily absorb small, traditional societies holding a religious world view; that these societies are governed by rational, scientific rules and regulations which void supernatural ideas; that therefore religion becomes marginalized outside the dominant economic and familial concerns of most people and that religion ceases to be public and becomes entirely a private affair.

These aspects of secularization in earlier centuries became much more visible in  nineteenth century Europe than ever before and became particularly obvious with reference to the Jewish population of that continent. This means that the Jews of Germany in particular, but also the Jews of other European countries became or appeared to be the leaders in the secularization process then under way. 

Because after the Reformation Christianity could no longer integrate Europe as evidenced by the religious hatred produced by Martin Luther and his numerous enemies, unity of the nation became the watchword of those who sought security in unity and certainty in uniformity. Thus, the extremes of nationalism became the substitute for religious loyalty in most European countries and in particular in Germany, the leader in science, art and literature in the 19th century Western world.

This means that the process of secularization which had begun when Christianity was still dominant in the minds of most Western men could not be halted by appeals to religious unity.   Now it turned out that appeals to nationalism were equally incapable of halting the progress of secularization.  Fearing the progress of the secular many nineteenth and early twentieth century Americans and Europeans clung to traditions which they hoped would save them from constant social change. In America this lead to Prohibition, quotas on immigration, revivalism among Protestants and isolationism.

In Europe the fear of social change and the advent of secularization finally led to fascism and its most excessive manifestation, Nazism.

The reasons for this are easily enumerated. First, secularization meant that numerous privileged groups lost influence and power  to people who were consulted by governments and others because of their expertise in science and technology. Thus, beginning with the nineteenth century, engineers or chemists or physicians, including Jewish experts, were asked for advice concerning public affairs while traditional elites whose influence and power rested on land holdings or family connections were ignored. As a consequence of this "democracy of expertise" demands for political democracy grew rapidly in nineteenth century Europe as it is growing in Asia and South America at the end of the 20th century.  

This development then led traditional elites to promote the view that democracy is somehow foreign and selfish. Traditional elites then in Europe and now in Asia and in Iran, for example, decry individualism, which always accompanies technological and scientific expertise, and point to the "old" values to which these elites like to appeal as "community" values. Such traditional elites consistently appeal to these "old traditions" in which they claim the community took precedence over the individual because they, the elites, benefit from so-called community values solely because of their birth and not because of their achievements. In short, secular, technological society rewards ability and personal achievement while traditional society rewards inherited status sanctioned by religion. Thus, the introduction of the right to choose one's life work, the development of free public education, the growth of large impersonal industries and  the increase in financial accumulations by newly rich citizens of any origin led to great fear and insecurity both for the European aristocracy and for all those ordinary citizens who could not or would not participate in these new developments and who could easily be led to believe that this "new world order" was caused by the illegitimate manipulations of Jews, Communists, Capitalists and a host of other "enemies".

Meanwhile it is obvious that European Jews, whose status had for centuries been no better than that of blacks in Mississippi before the civil rights movement, made every effort to emancipate themselves precisely by the means which were so resented by the conservatives among the traditional elites and the unsuccessful populations whom the aristocrats dominated.

All this therefore led to great anxiety among the Jewish populations of Europe in earlier years and America now to make certain that individual achievement and not tradition or group association be the criteria for success. This is precisely the formula for success in secular America today and is the key for understanding the success of the American Jewish community at the beginning of the 21st century.

Shalom uívracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of Stigma:  How We Treat Outsiders (Prometheus Books, 2001) and over 60 other publications.


Home ] Up ]