Author’s Note: The following is a brief essay written back in 2011 which is only now being made public. It is one of a series of such essays that I have produced examining the causes and results of spiritual belief. It is not meant to be a full-length research paper, but rather an initial overview leading to more in-depth work in the future: please keep this in mind when reading it.
Is the secularization of the world inevitable? Not so long ago, any number of scholars would have been ready to answer “yes” to that proposition. Unfortunately for them, time is a funny thing: it does not always play out as one would expect. The world today seems to be just as religious and perhaps more so than it ever has been. Rather than taking a back seat, the realm of the spiritual is at the center of our great political and sociological debates. Why is this, and does it represent an inevitable urge of humanity or merely the last death throes of a world unwilling to embrace change?
The Enlightenment and subsequent Industrial Revolution in Western Europe led to the triumph of several related “-isms”: materialism, humanism, secularism, modernism, etc. The achievements of the human mind and the revelation of material explanations for previously inexplicable phenomena led many to believe that religion was merely an outdated and unnecessary form of superstition. Moreover, they concluded that religion did not have a particularly good influence on society. For capitalists, the conflict it brought about was bad for business. For Marxists, it was the “opium of the people” that allowed the haves to dominate the have not’s.
So amazed was the West by its achievements that it had absolute faith in the inevitable continuation of human progress and the creation of some form of utopia. Salvation would no longer be found in superstition but in steel: the ability to harness both nature and the human mind to bring about continually higher levels of enlightenment. It was a good plan until it failed. Two generations of European men soon lay dead on the field of battle, slaughtered by the very weapons and ideologies that progress had encouraged. Totalitarian regimes in Germany, the Soviet Union and China killed millions more of their own people. The optimism of the pre-war years was reduced to rubble just as the cities that harbored it.
Despite these setbacks, secularism did remain strong in Western Europe, with modernism simply evolving into postmodernism. With the United States locked into a strategy of containment with the Soviet Union, the portion of Europe outside the Iron Curtain was able to attain a standard of living far higher than anything enjoyed by the war generations. It is perhaps partially for this reason that the continual march of secularization was able to continue. Scholars became understandably convinced that industrialization throughout the world would naturally lead to an abandonment of religion in favor of a more secular, materialistic approach. If it had happened in Western Europe, why wouldn’t it happen everywhere else?
Of course, it did not happen that way, and instead we find ourselves where we are today. Religion has certainly changed, with globalization and democratization leading to a much more open society where ideas are weighed one against the other. In the case of the United States, it is pluralism, relativism, and general spirituality which have proven quite popular, although there are certainly corners of the planet in which religion remains an entirely exclusive affair. What can be said for certain is that religion is not going away anytime soon. It is merely adapting to changes within individual societies and the global community as a whole.
This begs the question, Why is secularism so deeply entrenched in Western Europe and yet so deeply unpopular elsewhere? I believe the answer is that humanity, regardless of its material and intellectual progress, has a tendency toward the spiritual. Yes, religion will continue to change and evolve, but it will never disappear entirely, because it is based on fundamental desires within the heart of every human being. Rather than curing the world of its need for the spiritual, the events of the past few centuries have merely left people feeling empty and pessimistic. Human beings always need something to live for; more than that, they need something to die for. In their emptiness, they have turned back to religion or at least to spirituality.
But once again, why is Europe different? Do the English and the French simply not possess this desire which is common to the rest of humanity? Hardly! The fact is that the secular Western Europeans are just as religious as the rest of us, only their religions are humanism and materialism. They believe that the universe originated and is maintained through scientific laws and that the highest good a person can achieve is to experience and promote individual happiness. Thus, it is not surprising that these should be the gods they bow down to (in a metaphorical sense). As hinted earlier, I doubt that such a worldview could be equally maintained were it not for the unique conditions within Western Europe in the past century – that is why we are witnessing this particular regional phenomenon.
Greater secularization in the public sphere may well continue in many parts of the world over the next several decades, but I doubt that it will ever translate into complete secularization of the private sphere. It is high time to admit that, in some ways, we are not all that different from our primitive ancestors. Our needs, hopes and desires are very similar, and they are not all physical. Human beings require something beyond this small world we live on, and until we find extraterrestrial life, this desire is going to necessitate a certain curiosity about the supernatural, spiritual realm. Then again, I’ve been wrong before…