As a result, explicit religious control over social and political life diminishes, but it still retains its ability to control and constrain individuals; it simply relies more on its individual adherents than formal church hierarchies and leadership.
This process has played itself out in a number of different contexts, and although the particular religious response to secularization differs according to nations and societies, in each case these responses disprove the secularization theory while reiterating the danger of religious influence in political and social affairs. For example, though the Enlightenment saw a somewhat dramatic increase in the secularization of Europe, particularly during the French Revolution, this secularization did not correspond to the expected decrease in religious influence over political and social affairs. This is because even when formal religious institutions lose some explicit power, religious belief remains an acceptable justification for the formation of public policy and social norms (Audi & Wolterstoff, 1997, p. 77). Direct religious power over political and social life might diminish, but this power does not simply disappear.
The French Revolution was dependent upon a certain conception of liberal democracy that included in it the ideal of a secular state (partially based as it was on the American Revolution), the supplanting of religious political influence with "the liberal political theory's 'procedural republic,' in which religion is privatized and made irrelevant to public deliberations," did not actually occur, or at least not to the extent that proponents of the secularization theory would believe (Smith, 2003, p. 3). Instead, this religious control simply became diffused and distributed, in the same way that political power itself is diffused and distributed in a liberal democracy (so long as that liberal democracy actually holds to its ideals; there has yet to be any real-world example of a democratic state where power did not ultimately end up in the hands of a relative few). While France has continued on a relatively steady course of secularization, the fact that it continues to face strong resistance for its attempts to ban religious symbols and iconography in public spaces demonstrates the lingering influence of religion over political and social life.
Where the case of the French Revolution demonstrates a more subtle religious response to secularization, the experience of Iran during and after its secularization under the rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Pahlavi came to rule as a result of British, Soviet, and American intervention. Though he originally ascended to the throne during World War II, he would not gain full control until a CIA-orchestrated coup deposed the democratically elected prime minister. Over the course of his reign Pahlavi instituted a number of reforms intended to increase the secularization and modernization of Iran, and according to the secularization theory, this would have been more than enough to ensure the continued secularization of Iran well into the future.
However, these reforms actually succeeded in galvanizing the powerful religious leadership, such that in 1979, he deposed in a revolution that resulted in one of the few newly established theocracies of the twentieth-century. Despite Iran's modernization, the new Islamic regime succeeded in imposing a number of religiously-informed rules onto society, such that much of the secularization which occurred under Pahlavi was reversed. Although there is some evidence to suggest that "the most militant Islamic movements will find it hard to maintain their present stance vis-a-vis modernity once they succeed in taking over the governments of their countries," this difficulty of reconciling modernization with religious dictatorship has only made the religious leadership of Iran more strict (Berger, 1999, p. 12). In effect, because modernization and secularization have been viewed as such close counterparts, the religious leadership of Iran has met increased modernization with increased religious imposition, and every attempt to perpetuate either modernization or secularization by internal or external forces is only met with harsher and harsher responses.
The cases of France and Iran are only two in a vast number of movements toward secularization that disprove the assumption that modernization necessarily means a decrease in religious influence over politics and society. Instead, one must consider the possibility that secularization and modernization have merely been contemporaneous phenomenon, rather than inextricably linked developments. This recognition leads one to a subsequent realization regarding the nature of secularist social and political movements; namely, that they are working against thousands of years of human history and evolution, and as such represent not so much the natural progress of human society, but rather a disruptive revolutionary movement. This stands in stark contrast to one of the central beliefs inherent to secularization theory, which is the notion that religious thought represents some kind of aberration or external intrusion onto the otherwise logical cognition of humans (Berger, 1999, p. 2). In reality, secularism is the aberration, because nearly all of human history and evolution has been characterized by the supreme dominance of religious thought.
In this light, the various religious responses to secularization makes perfect sense, because where the secularization theory imagines that secularism is a kind of righteous cleanser wiping out the viral infection of religion, nearly the opposite is true. Religion represents a kind of ideological organism which has evolved alongside humanity in a symbiotic relationship, and secularism represents a clear and present danger to that organism. Thus, in the face of this threat, religion has either evolved to accommodate it or responded with force in an effort to wipe it out entirely.
In those cases where the revolution seemed unavoidable, religion adapted, softening its explicit control in order to maintain whatever remaining influence it could on to. In those cases where the revolution could be crushed, it has been, and with a particular vengeance possible only when operating under the belief that a supernatural deity is there, justifying and guiding one's actions. In the same way that an authoritarian regime attempts to crush all resistance, but may give up when popular dissent becomes too overwhelming, so too does religion naturally attempt to violently rebut secularization until it becomes clear that the tide cannot be stopped.
Understanding secularization as a political and social movement free from the misconceptions that have characterized the discourse for some three centuries allows one to make some interesting and important predictions for the future. Despite the denunciations of secularism by any number of religious leaders, in reality "most of the world today is certainly not secular. it's very religious" (Berger qtd. In Stark, 1999, p. 270). Clearly, modernization does not necessarily mean further secularization, and in fact, it seems likely that increased secularization will only come from a concerted effort on the part of its proponents. However, before any substantial, worldwide secularization truly occurs, it seems likely that religious violence will only increase, because increasing secularization seems to bring with it an increase in radicalization.
Although the actual number of religious radicals will likely be dwarfed by those believers willing to adapt rather than fight, this marginalization will likely only strengthen their resolve. Of course, this has already been seen in countries in the Middle East such as Iran and Afghanistan, but it seems increasingly likely that this kind of violent radicalism will spread to other countries, and other religions besides Islam. In particular, based on all available evidence, it seems reasonable to presume that sometime in the next century, the world will see a substantial increase in Christian fundamentalism, because the hegemonic control of Christianity over much of the developed world has yet to be truly challenged by secularization. When it does, it seems extremely unlikely that the religion with perhaps the longest and bloodiest track record of religiously-informed actions will simply agree to disappear into the pages of history.
This study has attempted to explicate the nature of secularization as a political and social movement primarily by outlining how the phenomenon has been mischaracterized in the past. Understanding how both proponents and opponents have misunderstood the connection (or lack thereof) between secularization and modernization allows one to more accurately assess historical movements toward secularization, as in the case of revolutionary France or Iran under the Shah. Furthermore, this clearer conception of secularization, and the problems with the secularization theory, offers important insights into the likely future of religion and secularism as they continue to combat each other over the course of the next century.
Audi, R., & Wolterstorff, N. (1997). Religion in the public square. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.
Berger, P. (1999). The desecularization of the world: Resurgent religion and world politics.
Washington: Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2004). Sacred and secular: Religion and politics worldwide.