The Secularization of Early Modern England: From Religious Culture to Religious Faith

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Contents

  1. Secularism & its discontents | American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  2. Religion and Culture in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1800
  3. UK one of world's least religious countries, survey finds

It is worth bearing in mind, however, a certain imbalance in scholarly accounts: most scholars who write about secularization consider it a rational, even natural, point of view, while most scholars who write about fundamentalism are skeptical about the value of religious politics. At the same time, it has become increasingly clear in country after country that the political struggles between religious and secular forces are far from over — whether in Iran, India, or even the United States.

Even though worldwide a great many people think religion should not affect legislation and policy-making, those who disagree are a growing force. In the survey that follows, I shall focus on parts of the world where institutions of major world religions held power that created significant obstacles to secularization. I will therefore concentrate on areas that had either monotheistic scriptural religions with exclusive claims — namely Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; or a number of conflicting religions with strong incompatible claims, as in South Asia. These are the areas where important struggles over secularization have occurred.

Before the sixteenth century, religion was a major organizing principle of civilization in most of the world — and certainly in Western Europe.

There the authority of the Roman Catholic Church was unrivaled: it may well have been the most powerful religious institution the world has ever seen. From the late eleventh century until about , canon law had priority over secular law, and kings had to perform significant penance if they violated Church edicts. Later it also played a leading role in dividing the New World into Spanish and Portuguese domains. The rise of Protestantism initially increased religiosity in Western Europe by provoking intense personal concern about religious doctrines and loyalties, among both Protestants and the reformed and aroused Catholics of the Counter Reformation.

Ultimately, however, the proliferation of sects and the exhaustion of the combatants in long, bloody, and inconclusive religious wars led to increasing religious toleration. Governments gradually granted equal civil status to those holding a variety of religious and irreligious beliefs — a key condition for creating secular states. But rulers in Western Europe now had to contend with a great variety of religions. The political implications of these changes evolved over several centuries, in a series of sometimes violent struggles that pitted rulers against established religious groups.

In France, the struggle between the government and the Church, begun in during the French Revolution, culminated between and in the confiscation of religious property and in a strict separation of church and state. In Spain, Portugal, and many nations in Latin America, analogous struggles followed a broadly similar course. Regarding these trends, Western thinkers drew a variety of conclusions. Some thinkers, such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill, advocated religious tolerance, while others, particularly in France during the Enlightenment, harshly criticized organized religion.

Secularism & its discontents | American Academy of Arts and Sciences

But even some of the harshest critics Voltaire, for one believed that religion might be good for the lower classes, keeping them honest, diligent, and peaceful — a proposition that came to seem especially credible after the anticlerical violence unleashed during the French Revolution.

The French Revolution also made it clear that nationalism — a growing sentiment of shared moral, political, and social attachments expressed through the institutions of the nation-state — might well rival, or even replace, religiosity in the minds of newly self-conscious citizens. Traditional religious loyalties potentially conflicted with the priorities of emergent nation-states; even before the rise of modern nationalism, European regimes tried to weaken religious institutions that interfered with their secular power.

Nationalism created an ideological basis for nonreligious loyalties and also made it easier to extend equal rights to citizens professing different religious beliefs, and possible to encourage national networks of production and consumption. The period from to was probably the heyday in Europe of expansive secularization, just as it was the heyday of optimistic theories of evolutionary human progress, from Karl Marx to Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer.

As Eric Hobsbawm describes the period:. Traditional religion was receding with unprecedented rapidity, both as an intellectual force and among the masses. This was to some extent an almost automatic consequence of urbanization. In the Roman Catholic countries, which comprised 45 percent of the European population, faith retreated particularly fast. These changes were accompanied by a surge in secular control over education and a rise in Marxist socialism, especially among workers. In Eastern European countries, where orthodox Christianity prevailed, secularism was also a rising trend between the seventeenth and early twentieth century.

Peter the Great r. Catherine the Great r. Violent nationwide campaigns against the Church, religious belief, and the clergy ensued. These policies changed during World War II, and in the regime accepted an accommodation with the Church that restored the patriarchate. The end of communism in the Soviet Union enabled the Church to recover considerable property and influence, but levels of religious belief and church attendance remained low, 17 indicating that even top-down secularization can succeed in undermining religious belief in some circumstances.

Similarly low levels of church and mosque attendance have been reported in post-Communist orthodox Bulgaria and Serbia, as well as in many other areas of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. European Jewry was also affected by a broad secular trend, especially in Western Europe. In countries like Germany and France, middle-class Jews welcomed the separation of church and state and the spread of civil equality.

Theodor Herzl and most of the other late-nineteenth-century founders of political Zionism were secularists — but many of their followers in Eastern Europe were not. Among European Jews, secularism and nationalism were not entirely congruent forces: many Zionists, especially on the popular level, were not secularists, and many secularists were not Zionists. Meanwhile, in the United States throughout the nineteenth century, though secular principles organized political life, a variety of religions flourished, partly because the equal treatment of different Christian churches in America left people free to join or found a religion of their choice.

But when religiously minded intellectuals in America moved toward more rationalist and socially reformist interpretations of religion in the latter part of the nineteenth century, it provoked a backlash from literalist Protestant conservatives, who fought the gradual secularization of behavior, belief, and public schooling. Even in European countries at the zenith of expansive secularization, religious groups did not accept the situation without a struggle.

In Germany, divided between Protestants and Catholics, a Catholic party formed and gained considerable strength. And in the past half century, a number of Western nations have experienced a renewal of political claims on behalf of religious values and institutions. Doubts about the wisdom of unmitigated secularism have been provoked by a variety of developments. One was the devastation caused by the two world wars and subsequent regional bloodbaths.

Another factor was the mixed performance of economic systems, whether capitalist or socialist, that were supposed to ensure the wealth of nations. Although most people living in the West enjoyed a steady rise in their standard of living, the new economic order created new uncertainties: cycles of boom and bust, increasing income gaps, high levels of unemployment. Recent rapid globalization of the world economy has exacerbated many of these problems and tensions and has lowered living standards for many.


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Working-class solidarity, trade unionism, and indeed the industrial working class itself have all proved weaker than socialists expected. The new secular social systems have also had mixed success, ameliorating some major problems but often creating new ones. The decline in racial barriers worldwide was a major advance, but was nowhere accompanied by adequate educational, health, and other measures to provide equality of opportunity among racial groups.

Ethnic tensions have sometimes worsened. Many parts of Europe have seen growing hostility to immigrants, especially to Muslims. Women have won greater equality, but very few countries have adequate child care and other services for working mothers. Some women, given current difficulties, long for a return to the days of the idealized two-parent, male-breadwinner family, often associated with religious morality. In short, secularism is nowhere in the West a simple fait accompli. The spread of secular beliefs and practices in Europe and the United States has involved slow change and continuing, sometimes sharp, debate.

As a result, it would be foolish to expect that secularist reforms would somehow be accomplished more easily in the Middle East and South Asia.

Religion and Culture in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1800

I would argue that the slow ripening of secular tendencies is more important than doctrinal differences in explaining the current strength of secularism in the West. As even a short survey indicates, the West was at first no more open to secularization than are parts of the Middle East and South Asia today. As I have argued elsewhere, the common idea that religion and politics have always been more inextricably intertwined in Islam than in Christianity is untrue.

Typically, governments in the Muslim world followed Islamic rules only to the extent they thought it was in their interest to do so. Secularism as an animating set of political beliefs came late to the Muslim world, as a by-product of the growing influence of Western political ideas.

While Christian Europe underwent its epochal series of struggles between church and state, most Muslim countries remained moderately religious in orientation. Throughout the early modern period, the majority of Middle Eastern rulers adhered to Islam, and Muslim religious leaders continue to play an active role in civil society, though without making claims to temporal authority of the sort advanced by the Roman Catholic Church before the Reformation.

Because secularization has progressed unevenly around the world, secularists in the Middle East now face some of the difficulties previously encountered in Western Europe. For example, just last century, secularists in France and Italy were hesitant to grant women suffrage, for fear that the majority of them would vote with the Catholic Church; some secularists in Arab countries today fear the majority of a free electorate will elect religious parties.

Western European regimes were inconsistent in their application of secularizing principles — especially in their colonies. While the French and some other colonial powers were suppressing religious schooling at home, they encouraged it in their colonies as part of a wider cultural project.

UK one of world's least religious countries, survey finds

The French colonies, where conservative diplomats and military officers dominated, were exempted from anticlerical laws, as the Catholic orders continued to receive French government subsidies and support for colonial educational institutions by arguing that local nationalists would otherwise take over. After studying at Western-model schools or returning to the Middle East and South Asia from schools in the West, several of them opted for secular nationalism, which after World War II became a dominant mode of decolonization not only in India, Turkey, and Tunisia, but also in Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

While some have compared the politico-religious ferment in the Muslim world today with the rise of Protestantism, a closer, though still inexact, parallel is the history of religious-secular struggles in Catholic countries. In both possible parallels, religion claimed power in politics, law, personal behavior, and the regulation of gender and family roles.


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  • But whereas some version of secularism has emerged victorious in almost every Catholic country, the past few decades have seen a dramatic growth in the influence of so-called Islamists — Muslims who want to consolidate religion and politics in novel combinations that they present as traditional. Contrary to Christian practice, in Islam there has never been a central body to decide religious dogma; even the central institution of Islamic law has never been universally applied.

    Here my discussion will center on the Middle East and Pakistan, which include the strictest regions of Islam; and it should be noted that in Southeast Asia and in Africa south of the Sahara, where Islam spread late and peacefully, Islamic law and practice has usually been less strict.

    Table of Contents

    Then, until roughly , secularists, nationalists, and socialists played a growing political role in the Muslim world, coming to power in several countries and carrying out secularizing programs as a concomitant to modernization. The Ottoman Empire and Turkey, its most central successor state, played a pioneering role in this regard. Under the Ottoman Empire, the state exercised an unusual amount of control over its religious institutions. For example, Muslim scholars, or ulama , were hierarchically organized and sanctioned by the state, and Ottoman sultans often issued decrees with the force of law.

    The powers of the central government grew after , enabling it to initiate a number of secularizing measures in the nineteenth century, often under Western pressure. These measures included significant government control over vakf mortmain property and the declaration of equal rights for Muslims and non- Muslims. Meanwhile, nationalism grew in the army and among the educated middle classes. A war hero, he had led the Turkish troops that repelled the European invaders, forcing the Allied powers to recognize Turkish control of enough territory to constitute a viable nation-state.

    The need for strong government action to establish a secular state was due both to the residual strength of existing Islamic institutions and the felt need to catch up with a West that had a long head start in centralization and modernization. His were the strongest measures against religious institutions anywhere outside the Communist world, as he and many Turkish nationalists adopted the French model of militant laicism. Even secular politicians wanting better relations with the oil-rich Arab world made gestures toward Islam.

    Mainly because of a deep economic crisis, a new Islamist-based but more moderate and formally secular AK Party won a plurality in the November elections and has since led the government. Periodic struggles continue over issues like the prohibition of Islamic head covering for women in state localities such as Parliament and universities. This is partly because Turkey has hopes of joining the European community, and partly because the active majority of Turks are still secular, though often willing to allow freedom of dress, and the ruling party is not threatening basic secularism.

    As in Russia, much of the population was successfully secularized by governmental fiat and policies. There is not as much religious backlash in Turkey today as in several Arab countries in the Middle East, and Turkey is unique in its renunciation of Islamic justifications for laws and institutions. In Iran, the ulama had far more independent power than anywhere else in the Muslim world, due to developments in Iranian Shiism after it became the state religion in Disgruntled ulama allied with merchants and nationalist reformers in a partially successful antigovernmental revolt in — Beginning in late , a revolution produced a constitutional parliamentary regime that continued in power until Russia and Britain intervened in He centralized his country — chiefly by forcibly settling nomads, improving education, transport, and communications, and promoting the secular nationalist view of Iran hitherto favored by intellectuals.