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secularization

‘Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?’1 [1] [2] Charles Taylor’s question points to a fateful change in Western societies during the past few centuries. However, public unbelief in God was close to being ‘virtually impossible’ more or less until the First World War. Describing its present forms, Taylor distinguishes three meanings of secularization: (1) public places have been emptied of God or any reference to ultimate reality, (2) religious belief and practice are falling off and (3) ‘the shift to secularity consists ... of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace’.[3] The third meaning of secularization entails the first two. The most striking change in our societies is that today faith in God is rarely part of public discourse and unbelief is accepted as a natural option. In Western culture, faith has become a private matter so that even religious communities do not encourage public representations of their own faith. Anti-secular arguments, such as those of John Milbank, are limited to circles of experts.[4] As a result, faith in God has lost its earlier status and collapsed into a conviction of individuals and small communities in a pluralistic society. In some analyses, the earlier dominance of faith in Western societies is seen as the hotbed of totalitarianism and so the option of freely choosing one’s faith today is considered a genuine benefit.[5]

  • [1] Elie Wiesel, Night, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006). See also Pope Benedict XVI’smeditation: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2006/may/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20060528_auschwitz-birkenau_en.html. Accessed 18 March 2014.
  • [2] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 25.
  • [3] Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 26.
  • [4] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (London: Blackwell, 1993).
  • [5] For example, see Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (CrowsNest: Allen & Unwin, 2007), p. 212. Hitchens emphasizes that not only Judaism and Christianity butevery religious form connects ‘racism and totalitarianism’ with some faith.
 
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