“The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.”
Secularization and Modernity – a necessary connection or historically contingent phenomenon?
It has been over 150 years since these lines were penned, but the picture it paints seems to be an equally apt characterization of today’s landscape of faith in our culture. We know the story – for many decades, rates of church attendance and religious affiliation have been declining in much of the Western world, across denominations. Such a decline is often associated with the secularization theory: roughly, that modernization and the rationalization of society leads to a decline in the practice of organized religion.
It is a hypothesis that is perhaps too simple, but the thrust of it retains powerful explanatory value, and the picture it paints represents an intuitively plausible future. However, its defects also reveal those currents of contemporary life that are the greatest causes of such spiritual decline, and point to the contingency – and reversibility – of the trends that have gotten us to where we are today.
To our detriment or benefit?
There can be no question that many things associated with – though not the product of – secularization and modernity have yielded great benefits. They include greater tolerance of difference, freedom which is the precondition of a happy and moral life, lower levels of crime and violence, staggering material wealth, and greater equality of opportunity and dignity among people.
However, others have been detrimental to the quality of our lives. People lack a sense of purpose and transcendence, our cultural products and practices often do not elevate, but give voice to the basest passions of the spirit, unconnected to beauty and goodness. Our moral lives are often shallow and empty – tokenistic expression for abstract causes, unmoored from the vision of cultivating strong personal and social character that is the seed of deeper levels of happiness and contentment. Socially, we see these things in high levels of isolation and loneliness, mental health problems that stem from a lack of connection to community, and an emphasis on work and striving that debases rather than uplifts, to name just a few.
If it is the case that religion and secularization can both bring the good and the bad, what can a greater presence of religion in the public, private, and political spheres of life bring and what are its prospects for success?
Reasons for Optimism
The great promise of secularism is that it liberates persons and peoples from superstition, orients us to the goods of life by way of reason and science, and elevates the dignity of the individual by making her judge, jury and executive of her own life. Though today, secularity and its attendant worldviews are superstitions of their own, with a partial and contorted sense of reason, favouring scientism over science. That aside, the secular analogues to the most important aspects of life, and its deepest questions are partial, and incomplete.
Religion brings a sense, and practice of, community. Unlike relationships of choice and contingency, religious communities are brought together by a shared sense of understanding and purpose. We live together in our communities of faith, supporting one another on our path to come to know God and live in accordance with His nature and plan for creation.
Second, religion orients us to the transcendent dimension to which all of our daily pursuits ultimately point towards. Far from a lofty practice reserved for the philosopher, every person recognizes that each of his or her daily practices, desires and wishes, pains and pleasures are all nested in layers of purposive relations. I write to express my thoughts and feelings because I am a person with particular aptitudes and interests, given to me by my nature. I do so that I may share in a life with others, in whom I relate to as brother, son, husband, co-worker, friend, acquaintance and citizen. Each of these roles aim at certain purposes, whose objective meaning is found in ever larger webs of connection and causal relation. Continuing this line of reasoning with any practice or attempt at understanding, and you must arrive at the same place – that ultimate horizon, God, the source of all things.
When this is cut off from a person’s life, each practice loses its finality and purpose, and is warped and becomes disordered – flattened out and rendered dull as meaningless, or unduly elevated and idolized out of proportion, perhaps as the final end in itself. Religion is the grounding force that connects people to the source of all things, God.
Reasons for Pessimism
Though these reasons provide room for cautious optimism, there are equally many trends cutting against the ability of religion to take a more prominent role in the public sphere.
Across the political spectrum, social classes and faith groups, people are working more, marrying less, and having fewer children. The phenomenon represents the confluence of trends, including a de-emphasis on masculine and feminine nature and complementarity, which leads to a natural and healthy difference in role and higher fertility. Second, the increasing need for a two-person income, which is driven by multiple factors: the aforementioned gender egalitarian ideology; increasing competitiveness in the workforce from higher levels of workforce participation increases the need to work to stay afloat; and a public sector that has only grown over the past century, leading to more publicly funded programs, and deficits that have increased the total tax burden, which has been growing in Canada for many years.
On the one hand, it is foreseeable that technological change will continue to yield further efficiencies in the production of goods and services, cutting against the negative economic consequences of sharply declining birth rates and population levels. However, efficiencies seem to only ever lead to reductions in certain kinds of work, only for new ones to take their place. Regardless, people are meant to have families and live together in community. The inability of significant portions of the population to do so is a profound moral and spiritual problem confronting our society now, and in the future.
Secondly, to many a casual observer, the forms of Christianity on offer today seem reactionary, out of touch with contemporary currents, and lacking intellectual credibility. In general, they don’t seem to offer a live option for people to choose from. Furthermore, the rapid pace of change characteristic of liquid postmodernity puts institutions whose modus operandi is ‘change as the only constant’ at a certain kind of advantage. As Christianity has core messages to pass on and constantly apply to new circumstances, this is more difficult for Christian communities to do without fracturing and crumbling in the span of a few decades.
Lastly, the pluralistic nature of society makes it difficult to hold beliefs firmly and actively practice them in the public sphere. The reality of increasing cultural and religious diversity seems to make it a practical necessity to accommodate difference as much as possible. However, it comes at the expense of many other goods. In practice, it requires a lowest common denominator approach to the practice of religion in public life, stifling the ability of people to form lasting relationships and tight-knit communities.
How can Christianity fill the void?
Given the state of our society as I’ve laid out, it is crucial to find new ways of communicating and spreading the faith, such that it is attractive to people today.
In an increasingly pluralistic society, it is important to stress ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. The Christian must see the seeds of the word in all Creation because it is good, and seek to know, understand and appreciate differences, while being able to point out where they fall short. Second, grassroots cultivation of religious practices. As religion has retreated from the public sphere in Canada, it is crucial to start small, at the local level. Third, given the link to the transcendent nature of the life-giving and life-nurturing quality of family life, it is important to promote family-friendly policies geared to different lifestyles and live it one’s self.
Characteristic of our society is a person who is fluid and dispersed – an odd mix of comfortable, open, apathetic, anxious, and disconnected. Such a person wants to be called to something higher, but it is difficult when there are simultaneously so many distractions, so little time outside of work, an omnipresence of screens, and little social interaction or community to speak of.
Too often we preach without this vision of the life-giving force of the beauty of Christ’s teachings, and the liberating power of self-sacrifice to God and his commandment to love neighbour as self. The message must be one that is not preachy, and disinterested, but integral and authentic.
The call will be heard by more if it is attractive, inspiring, and challenging. Above all, it must be a call characterized by beauty and the joy of the gospel. It is time for a renewed vigour in its joyous promotion.
 “Dover Beach” in Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach and Other Poems, Dover Thrift Editions (New York: Dover Publications, 1994).
 Laurie DeRose and Lyman Stone, “More Work, Fewer Babies: What Does Workism Have to Do with Falling Fertility?,” Institute for Family Studies, April 31, 2021, https://ifstudies.org/ifs-admin/resources/reports/ifs-workismreport-final-031721.pdf.
 Milagros Palacios, Jake Fuss, and Nathaniel Li, “Canadians Celebrate Tax Freedom Day on May 24 2021,” Fraser Institute, May 24, 2021, https://www.fraserinstitute.org/sites/default/files/tax-freedom-day-2021.pdf.