I’m here today at this year’s Religion and Civil Society Conference, “The Changing Faces of ‘Religion’ and ‘Secularity,’” organized by the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Navarra and hosted by Harvard Law School. This morning’s first speaker was Harvard’s Mary Ann Glendon, who opened the conference by offering a helpful roadmap of the current social science literature regarding secularization.
Glendon argued against simplistic evaluations of religion’s place in civil society. Organized religion does seem to be in decline in the West, as the old secularization theory predicted, but there is also an upsurge in “political religion” in many parts of the world. She identified four new, competing “grand narratives” regarding secularization: (1) the “New Atheism” of writers like Hitchens, which celebrates the decline of religion; (2) the “Melancholy Secularism” of Habermas and Pera, which agrees that religion is in decline but views this as a sorry development that will lead to the abandonment of the Judeo-Christian values that support classical liberalism; (3) the “Cultural Secularism” associated with Charles Taylor, which describes, in a more or less detached way, a society in which religious belief is only one option among many; and (4) the “Positive Secularism” of Pope Benedict XVI, which advocates state neutrality, not hostility, toward religion. Ironically, Glendon noted, this last version, championed by the Catholic Church today, shows more sympathy for the Enlightenment value of religious liberty than the New Atheism, which sees itself as the heir of the Enlightenment. She closed with some reflections on the role of social scientists in assessing the contemporary place of religion in society.