5. Secularisation and Pluralism

“One of the limitations of the social scientific study of religion within the secularization episteme has been a tendency to overstate the political and institutional dimensions of religion while failing to recognize the growing importance of economics in structuring all spheres of social life since at least the 1980s, under the guise, namely, of consumerism and neoliberalism…How should phenomena such as ‘detraditionalization’ and religious individualization and ‘subjectivization’ be related to wider economic shifts and the spread of consumerism?”

François Gauthier, Tuomas Martikainen, and Linda Woodhead, “Acknowledging a Global Shift: A Primer for Thinking About Religion in Consumer Societies,” Implicit Religion 16, no. 3 (2013): 263.


There are no doubt many complex drivers behind the fear which seems to frame this particular response of religious populism. One long discussed looks at the loss of Christian political power. This can be diagnosed in two related ways: the processes of secularisation and the rise of pluralism (cultural and religious) within western societies.

Secularisation helps explain the some of the concerns regarding juridical power seen in week three, but it also includes something termed “differentiation.” This idea is, of course, open to interpretation. At its most simple, it speaks to a differentiation of social spheres. On the one hand, it means a withdrawal of religious influence from other social spheres–religion loses its integrating function. On the other, it means that each sphere develops its own authority with coordinated creation of elites (religious, educational, legal and political). This serves the development of technocracy as each sphere forms its own “best practices,” “professional standards,” bureaucracies, and managers which produce and manage this complex knowledge and regulation. The populist reaction against the domination of elites, even while needing to retain them functionally, speaks to much of the suspicion and frustration. While there is a need to differentiate European and American forms of secularisation, José Casanova does a good job in addressing the similarities and differences and the role religion plays in the political sphere.

Benjamin Ziemann’s contribution focuses on Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory and its meaning for historiography. It requires some translation for this context. However, it is suggestive of the lack of stability evident within public discourse, promoting perhaps the type of epistemological uncertainty of which false news is the extreme end. “Luhmann’s theory of emergent differentiation [pictures] a society without a top or a centre. This is a consequence of his argument that the different system-perspectives (with their respective communicative codes such as immanence / transcendence, winning / losing etc.) have to be seen as an environment for each other, with the implication that no stable set of relations between them exists” (p. 224).

For a rather comprehensive overview of the different language of the secular and its significance for theology, see:

  • Dalferth, Ingolf U. “Post-Secular Society: Christianity and the Dialectics of the Secular.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78, no. 2 (2010): 317–45.

One concept oft-repeated by those using the interpretive framework of “culture wars” is that of a Judeo-Christian worldview, especially as this was basic to the formation of the US constitution. This may permit some idea of diversity, but it affirms some form of coherence. David Machacek regards the existence of such to be a myth, one which promoted a unifying narrative. The challenge it offers, along with romantic notions of the “American experiment,” is the assimilationist approach migration. Where one does not assimilate, cultural conflict is the consequence, according to this logic. To put and interpretive spin on Machacek’s argument, pluralism of belief and culture which does not trend towards becoming diverse expressions of the imaginative ‘one’ erodes the one itself and the accompanying narrative.

  • Machacek, David W. “The Problem of Pluralism.” Sociology of Religion 64, no. 2 (2003): 145–61.

Another way of reading this problem is through the lens of understanding America as a “Christian nation” and the challenge diversity presents to this.

  • Wuthnow, Robert. “Religious Diversity in a ‘Christian Nation’: American Identity and American Democracy,” In Democracy and the New Religious Pluralism, edited by Thomas Banchoff, 151–70. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Further Reading: