The Myth of the Twentieth Century: The Rise and Fall of Secularization

Obituaries about famous-and less famous-persons usually tend to be eulogic and certainly do not leave much doubt that the person in question indeed passed away. Obituaries about famous-and less famous-concepts and theories in the human and social sciences, however, are often of a different nature. N...

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Bibliographic Details
Published in:Japanese journal of religious studies
Main Author: Cox, Harvey Gallagher 1929-
Other Authors: Swyngedouw, Jan 1935-2012
Format: Electronic Article
Language:English
Check availability: HBZ Gateway
Published: [2000]
In:Japanese journal of religious studies
Year: 2000, Volume: 27, Issue: 1/2, Pages: 1-13
Further subjects:B Theology
B Obituaries
B Pentecostalism
B Islam
B Religious Studies
B Myths
B Secularization
B sociology of religion
Online Access: Free Access
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Summary:Obituaries about famous-and less famous-persons usually tend to be eulogic and certainly do not leave much doubt that the person in question indeed passed away. Obituaries about famous-and less famous-concepts and theories in the human and social sciences, however, are often of a different nature. Not only are they frequently critical of their subject matter, but they are often liable, paradoxically, to create doubts as to whether its supposed demise is after all so certain a fact. The article on "the rise and fall of secularization" by Harvey Cox that follows might well be a case in point. Far from closing a debate in the sociological study of religion-what it apparently purports to do-it rather stirs up renewed discussion about how to read our present time and the role religion plays in it. Harvey Cox is not unknown in Japan. A guru of the secularization theory in the 1960s, the American Christian theologian Cox was admittedly, together with many other colleagues in the field, instrumental in awakening the attention of sociologists of religion all over the world to the fate of religion in what was universally acknowledged as a new age in human history. "Secularization" was the buzzword, and sociologists of religion in Japan also jumped on the bandwagon. Even if they claimed that their enthusiasm for dealing with this subject was constantly mixed with hesitancy and caution, for many reasons, they did participate in the debate quite wholeheartedly. This journal also was one of the exponents of this trend; its most notable expression being the publication in a special issue (March-June 1979, 6/1-2) of the "Proceedings of the 1978 Tokyo Meeting of the Conférence Internationale de Sociologie Religieuse," which indeed was focused upon the secularization debate. We should of course also mention that many other articles in the JJRS referred to the topic. This time Cox is back on the scene debunking what he calls the "myth of the twentieth century"; yet, interestingly enough, he sees "more continuity than discontinuity between [his] earlier work on the theology of secularization, especially as it was voiced in The Secular City (first published in 1965), and [his] current work on the theological significance of new religious movements." His arguments for claiming a religious revival that gives the lie to secularization are very powerful. While he refers mainly to his recent work on the rise of Pentecostalism in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, he also mentions in this respect the rapid spread of Islam and-although briefly-what he perceives as a certain revitalization of Shinto in Japan. Of course, Cox is not alone in arguing this way. Moreover, we should not forget that, even from the very beginning of the debate on secularization, voices were already raised which sounded like those we are hearing now, including the proposal that the concept of secularization should be eliminated from sociological language. Nothing indeed is new under the sun! In this connection we should perhaps mention that the latest issue of Sociology of Religion, the quarterly review of the (American) Association for the Sociology of Religion (vol. 60/3, Fall 1999), is completely devoted to the secularization debate. It contains obituaries of secularization-in terms that are still stronger than those Cox uses, such as Rodney Stark's "Secularization, R.I.P." It also contains, however, very powerful defenses of the concept and the theory, proving again that the debate is far from closed. Moreover, while many Japanese scholars keep repeating that whether or not "secularization" was an appropriate concept for understanding the relationship between Western society and religion, it is so culture-bound that its cross-cultural applicability should be deeply questioned. This is true even today as not a few young Japanese students of religion have chosen it as their theme of research. Admittedly, their voices are mostly critical, but it shows again that the debate itself is still going on, in Japan as well as elsewhere. Nobody can deny the claim that in the past thirty or forty years the secularization thesis has indeed functioned as a sort of myth in the minds of many people, scholars of religion and society included. This is certainly the case when the thesis was propounded in terms of the decline of religion. Yet, academic honesty requires us to admit that more is involved here. In the secularization debate, gradually a process of conceptual refinement took place that aimed to more clearly define what the concept actually signified and, especially, what it did not. Unfortunately -or is it unavoidably?-even in this process of refinement, quite many misunderstandings arose. Some were simply the result of that eternal problem of whether and to what extent objectivity in reading reality and in expressing it in concepts and theories is possible. Others were due to the fact that the whole debate indeed straddled the domains of philosophy, theology, and the social sciences, creating more than a little confusion in the minds of some people. (Harvey Cox's dealing with the subject might be one of the best examples of this mixing of approaches.) And, if it might be said, still other misunderstandings were apparently caused by a conscious, or unconscious, negligence among scholars in earnestly listening to each other's arguments. (Something similar is nowadays also taking place with regard to the concept and theory of "globalization," the new buzzword!) All this has also been true in Japan. Apart from the question of whether secularization itself has been a myth or not, it has sometimes looked as if secularization necessarily had to mean "decline of religion," and this latter interpretation became a sort of myth. However, an attentive reading of what most Japanese scholars wrote on "religion in a secularized society" reveals that they were very much aware of the subtle difficulties the debate implied. Perhaps all of us have to do our homework and reread from time to time what now is considered "outdated stuff" A last point is this: When the secularization thesis was introduced in Japan some thirty or forty years ago, its relevance for sociological research on religion in this country was acknowledged with "hesitancy and caution." That was a time when Japanese scholars became increasingly aware that they should no longer blindly rely on Western concepts and theories for dealing with the role of religion in their own society. Since then, contacts between Japanese scholars and colleagues in other countries of the world have steadily increased, and this journal too has endeavored to promote them. Moreover, while the awareness of cultural differences has deepened, there also has been at the same time the growing interconnectedness and mutual influencing of cultural trends-indeed an aspect of globalization-that have become undeniable facts of life. In this connection, also the debate on secularization, including both its alleged mythical nature and the problem of the cross-cultural applicability of its conceptual framework, cannot but gain a renewed relevance. The reader is of course totally free to agree or disagree with Cox's concluding statement that "the myth of secularization is dead." Ultimately history will prove the correctness of that obituary. Yet, what in my opinion is certainly not dead is the debate itself on secularization and on the obituaries Cox and others write about it. In our globalizing world, interpreters of Japanese society and religion are more than ever before called to join in this debate, let us hope this time with less hesitancy and caution.
Contains:Enthalten in: Japanese journal of religious studies