America is well known as the least secular of all the advanced industrial democracies on Earth. More Americans believe in God, attend church, and so forth than in any of the other wealthy countries. This has been true for decades, and the best data suggest that it remains the case. Yet there seems to be persistent worry from several quarters that America is, or is becoming, secular. What might these concerns mean? Do they have any validity? Can one be simultaneously secular and faithful?
Relations between the sacred and the secular have been a recurring theme in LDS general conference talks. A search for the word “secular” on the http://www.lds.org archive of such talks returns 72 results. One rather positive usage of the word is prominent and of little interest here: a distinction between sacred and secular education or knowledge, i.e., between learning the gospel and learning accounting, calculus, physics, French, art history, etc. Talks which use “secular” in this sense generally regard such education or knowledge as important and positive, if less relevant to the church than the sacred.
However, more negative usages have arisen. Consider these examples:
Developed nations of the world are becoming so secular in their beliefs and actions that they reason that a human being has total autonomy. An individual does not have to give an account to anyone or anything except to himself and, to a limited extent, to the society in which he lives. Societies in which this secular lifestyle takes root have a deep spiritual and moral price to pay. The pursuit of so-called individual freedoms, without regard to laws the Lord has established to govern His children on earth, will result in the curse of extreme worldliness and selfishness, the decline of public and private morality, and the defiance of authority. Such secular societies are described in Doctrine and Covenants 1:16: “They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world.” (from What Seek Ye, L. Tom Perry, April 2005)
Here “secular” seems to mean “libertarian,” and Perry seems to be arguing for a more organic or corporate (in the mideval Thomist sense) view of society. Society, he seems to suggest, shouldn’t be built around the secular idea of individual liberties, but rather around reciprocal duties between individuals within an organic society and hierarchical lines of authority between individuals and God as mediated by the church. Perry on my reading sees three major categories of evils that arise from this vision of secularism: economic, sexual, and anti-authoritarian. I find his remarks fascinating. Certainly there are major reasons to be uncomfortable with the individual-libertarian framework for society that has been predominant in America and some other Western societies for the last few centuries. At the same time, it seems hard to imagine the LDS church ever arising in a society that wasn’t at least somewhat secular in this sense. Deference to religious authority would seem to preclude the kind of acts of religious rebellion that Joseph Smith engaged in when founding Mormonism, after all.
Another category of distinctive usages belongs to Neal A. Maxwell, who seems to have used “secular” more times in conference speeches than anyone else. Maxwell’s usages imply that the secular is a realm of tawdry evil associated with institutional prominence outside of the church.
Finally, a collection of different remarks use “secular” in one of the ways it is most often used outside of Mormonism: to refer to that which is not religious. Consider W. Eugene Hansen’s April 1998 remarks:
In desperation, society turns to the secular. Social programs are spawned. Government agencies are enlisted to provide public funding and programs in an attempt to change the destructive trends. While some spotty successes are observed, general trends remain alarming. I submit that if real and lasting change is to occur, it will come only as we return to our spiritual moorings. We need to be listening to the counsel of the prophets. (from Children and the Family).
Often, speakers push the term somewhat further to mean that which is opposed to religion. Thus, in April 1994, Boyd K. Packer remarked:
Moral values are being neglected and prayer expelled from public schools on the pretext that moral teaching belongs to religion. At the same time, atheism, the secular religion, is admitted to class, and our youngsters are proselyted to a conduct without morality. (from The Father and the Family)
Here, the secular is said to be equivalent to atheism, i.e., active belief that God does not exist, rather than mere inattention to or disinterest in the religious. It may be worth noting in passing that, to the best of my knowledge, the factual assertion in this quote is incorrect for the U.S.; preaching atheism is no more often accepted than preaching any other faith claim.
As a final example, let us consider one further usage from Packer:
Beliefs are born of philosophies, of doctrines. Doctrines can be spiritual or secular, wholesome or destructive, true or false. (from Little Children, October 1986)
Here, by literary construction, the secular is connected with doctrines that are destructive and false. I would assume that such doctrines, like atheism, must be actively hostile to, and not merely unconnected with, the sacred.
So, in this brief review, we have seen a variety of possible meanings for the term secular: education or knowledge related to matters other than religion; libertarianism; that which is not connected with religion; and that which is opposed to religion. Is there any evidence that the latter three definitions (the ones with negative connotations) reflect phenomena which are on the rise in America? Some form or other of the libertarianism that troubles Elder Perry has been quite dominant in America for centuries, so there would seem to be little room for an increase in that regard. What about the proportion of people who are disinterested in or hostile toward religion? On this front, there may be evidence of a rising secular tide in America — but the picture is complex and the evident causes of change are different than one might think.
A 2002 American Sociological Review article by Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer (Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations, ASA 67(2): 165-190) shows that, since about 1990, the proportion of Americans who state in surveys that they have no religious preference has basically doubled. The relevant data (taken, as with all charts in this post, from the U.S. General Social Survey), extended to 2004, are shown in the following graph.
Hout and Fischer show that about half of the change may be due to demographic changes such as later marriage and a gradual increase in the number of individuals raised without religion. However, none of the change is due to falling religious belief. Hout and Fischer show that belief in God, the afterlife, etc., have not fallen during the period in question. Furthermore, among those professing no religious affiliation, such beliefs have actually increased; only about a third of those reporting no religious preference are in fact nonbelievers. As an example, let’s briefly consider two charts related to belief in an afterlife. The first shows the overall proportion of Americans who believe in an afterlife:
Clearly, such belief has been relatively stable since the 1970s, but during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the overall level of belief was on average statistically significantly higher than it had been earlier. So America has not become any more secular in the harsh Boyd K. Packer sense of being hostile to religious belief. In fact, those who report no religious preference have become substantially more likely to report belief in an afterlife:
So America may be becoming more secular in the sense of less comfortable with reporting a religious preference. Furthermore, Hout and Fischer show that these same individuals have developed markedly negative attitudes toward organized religion and churches — and they typically never attend any church although they mostly do report praying on a fairly regular basis. Yet there is no evidence that Americans are losing religious belief. Why, then, the change? Hout and Fischer present evidence that more Americans are unwilling to report a religious preference because they disapprove of the strong link that has developed during the 1990s between conservative politics and organized religion. In effect, because society as a whole has become somewhat less secular, in the sense of maintaining a distinction between the realm of religion and the realm of politics, many politically moderate and liberal individuals are becoming more secular, in the sense of rejecting churches and describing themselves as having no religion. This shows the religious price of political activism by churches.
It is, perhaps, worth summarizing what we’ve seen so far. America may be more secular than it was 20 years ago in terms of church attendance and willingness to identify oneself as religious. Yet it is certainly not more atheistic or anti-religious. Instead, there is an increasing rejection of churches because many of the most powerful and visible churches in our country have tied themselves to a specific political agenda.
Let us turn, then, to the final question I asked in the introduction to this post. Can one be simultaneously secular and faithful? Obviously not if “secular” is interpreted in terms of atheism or even indifference to religion. Yet I think one can believe in the need for a secular society and still be a very faithful Christian, or even Mormon. A secular society, as I’m using the term, is one in which religion is an accepted private motive but is not an actor on the public stage. In such a society, any given person may have deeply religious motives for public action — but that action will be undertaken in a secular way. Such a society would erase the political motives that seem to be driving much of the rise in religious disaffiliation in the U.S. It would also facilitate coexistence across religious lines.
Mormons have tried building a society that is not secular in this sense. That was the failed theocratic experiment of the 19th century, failed because of the intense alienation it (perhaps inevitably) produced in non-Mormon Americans. While we continue to live in a world of multiple faiths, such theologically-based societies seem untenable and even dangerous to me. So, I personally do believe that it is possible to advocate a secular society while being personally faithful; I do so myself.