Matthew Bowman: Why ‘more secular’ may not mean ‘less religious’

Americans and others around the world may have less devotion to institutions like churches, but that doesn’t mean they are losing faith in God or a higher power.

(Plinio Lepri | AP Photo) The Creation fresco by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel is pictured. Religious scholar Matthew Bowman notes that rising secularism may not mean that individuals are becoming less religious.

A few weeks ago, the French government announced public schools would be banning abayas, the full, flowing dresses some Muslim women wear.

In France, “laicite,” the principle that the state and public life should not be influenced by religion, has led to such policies as the banning of religious markers deemed “ostentatious.”

The move has drawn critics from all sides, some arguing that it is a relic of European colonialism. Others, particularly Christians, note that the word “laicite” is sometimes translated as “secularism,” and see the move as another step in the marginalization of religion in the Western world.

“Secularism,” of course, is a hot-button word in U.S. politics, and there is little agreement on what it means. For some American believers, France is a frightening symbol of how religion might be eliminated entirely in a secular society.

Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, observes that “Europe is now experiencing a civilizational crisis. Once the cradle of Western civilization, Europe is transforming itself into a hyper-modern culture of nearly undiluted secularism.” For many Christians, a “secular” society will persecute believers and lack any internal sense of morality.

On the other hand, many nonbelievers maintain that it is, in fact, American Christianity (a category they usually imagine as white evangelicals and the religious right) that is creeping toward authoritarianism. They argue that as religious faith fades, Americans will become freer.

Both groups point to the rising number of “nones” — that is, Americans who say they are no religion in particular — as evidence for their assertions. That group makes up around a quarter of the U.S. populace. For some believers, the nones’ emergence is scary; for some nonbelievers, it is a sign of coming liberation.

Either way, a basic question remains: What exactly does it mean to be “secular”? And does it make sense to talk about the “nones” using that term? Both groups tend to assume they know what the word means, but drilling down into the concept reveals a lot of messiness.

Many ‘nones’ pray

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) A woman prays at Catholic Mass on Ash Wednesday in West Jordan in 2022. Some 40% of U.S. "nones" — who claim no religious affiliation — still pray.

One possible definition of secularization is that people are abandoning belief in things usually associated with religion, like God or angels, or spiritual practices such as prayer. In the mid- and late-20th century, people used the word this way a lot. It’s how the famous “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins use the word “secular.” Dawkins and others who subscribe to this way of thinking argue that, as the world becomes modern and scientific, religion will fade. That’s called the “secularization hypothesis.”

But according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, whose surveys are among the most respected in the field, 90% of Americans say they believe in God or some sort of higher power. This includes nearly three-quarters of the “nones.” Some 40% of nones pray. A third say they have had a “religious or mystical experience,” compared to half of those who say they belong to some religious organization. And they are slightly more likely than the religiously affiliated to say they are interested in spiritual practices, like energy work with crystals or yoga as a religious endeavor. A number of researchers have observed a surge of interest in practices like astrology, crystal work and psychics among millennial nones.

The nones, then, are not necessarily “secular” — if “secular” means nonpracticing or nonbelief in ideas and activities understood to be religious, like God or prayer. More so, the secularization hypothesis does not appear to be correct. In even the theoretically “secular” countries of Western Europe, where 1 in 5 people attend religious services monthly, nearly three-quarters identify as “Christian.” In addition, even as Christianity declines, other belief systems emerge. Some 20% of British people who say they don’t believe in God or a higher power say they do believe in guardian angels. And so on.

If the secularization thesis is not right when it comes to individuals, perhaps it’s more useful in thinking about institutions. Some scholars argue that “secularism” makes sense only when we talk about government policy in the modern world. So, in France, “secularism” means that public spaces controlled by the state will have no involvement with religion. But, in India, “secularism” means that the state will interact with religions but must treat each one equally; the state can regulate religion but must not treat one differently than the other. In the United States, “secularism” means something in between those two. But note that this way of thinking about the term has nothing to do with what individuals believe.

Institutions vs. individuals

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Church Office Building towers over the Church Administration Building of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. Americans are increasingly turning away from institutional religions.

A final possible way of understanding secularism — and perhaps making sense of what is happening in America today — is to think of secularization as the status of religious institutions. It is clear that participation in traditional religious organizations in the United States is in decline, as happened in Europe in the late 20th century. According to the Pew Forum, between 2007 and 2019, the number of Americans who called themselves Roman Catholic declined from 24% to 20%; the number of Americans who identified as Protestant fell from 51% to 43%; and the number of Americans who said they attend religious services at least monthly dropped from 54% to 45%.

If we were, then, to describe secularization as the process of disaffiliation with traditional religious institutions, we might have a sustainable argument that the United States is secularizing. However, that process seems only loosely bound to “secularism” if it means the exclusion of religious practices or ideas, which, as we’ve seen, seems not to be fading, but rather to be transforming away from traditional Christian practices and belief and toward fascination with other, more esoteric forms like the zodiac or tarot.

Paying close attention to what the word “secular” may mean seems to lend support neither to terrifying visions of an entirely mechanical, immoral and atheistic society nor a rationalist wonderland. The word “secular” turns out not to mean the utter absence of religion, but just a way to describe what religion looks like, and how it changes.

(Courtesy) Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of the recently released “The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America” and, in 2012, “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”