Due in large part to the concurrent modernization of Europe and the general arch of progressive secularization in Western countries over the last two centuries, in many sociological circles, it has become a foregone conclusion that the institutions, technological advancements, and social reforms that made the former possible will necessarily drive and continue to drive the latter forward. Understood as such, a necessary consequence of the modernization of any state is the increasing secularization of public life, or said in another way, the increasing privatization of religion. Many argue that with this privatization of religion comes ever decreasing levels of the relevancy and influence of religion in the public sphere, effectively representing the cloistering away of religion from the public life of the society.
While modernization can be understood (at least in the West) as having dethroned religion from its universal authority in society to dictate values and norms, the effect has been actually much larger in that religion could also no longer apply its values and norms narrowly in pursuing exclusively religious solutions to societal problems. What many sociologists fail to acknowledge is that modernization did not remove religious values or norms from the public sphere but rather added legitimate alternatives to them. Whereas before modernization, the functional and performative domains of religion were one and the same in that there were no other legitimate institutions offering values and norms from which publicly legitimate solutions could be developed (e.g. Galileo and the rejection of astronomy decoupled from the Catholic church and theology), after modernization, the privatization of a number of key aspects of religion became the new norm.
It is critical to note, however, that this privatization in no way negated religious performance or exiled it from influence. Religion continued and continues to have influence in the public sphere to this very day in every Western country. It is this realization that much of sociology has failed to appreciate in their predictions of the decline of religion. Religion re-enforces its own values and norms internally, while at the same time externally promoting these values and norms in the wider marketplace of ideas via their activity in public life. Thus, while political modernization has caused significant changes in the ways religious institutions function and perform, at the very same time, religious values and norms have shaped the modernizing process and continue to act in political and civic life. The two, especially in highly religious societies, affect and respond to one another dialectically, the former informing the latter and vice versa.
While this dialectic plays out in some form to varying degrees depending on the role religion plays in the collective social identity of a society, one of the underlying and highly problematic assumptions made by many Westerners, in general, and sociologists, in particular, is what they believe it is that actually constitutes religion. As Andrew March explains in his analysis of the liberal response to the debate surrounding free speech and the sacred, “Much [of] secular thought about religious injury (and free practice more generally) is premised on unacknowledged “Protestant” conceptions of what real religion is…(religion-as-belief)…[however] religion is often not experienced so much as a discrete set of propositions which one accepts or rejects but as something inherited or naturalized through habitus and which is manifested in bodily practices lived social relationships and public institutions.” March rightfully rejects the attempts by many sociologists to treat the world’s religions as if they must abide by Western religious conventions and ought to be understood in solely Western terms.
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