Book Review: Sacred and Secular

Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris (2004) is an empirical study into the postmodern society, which sounds like an oxymoron; however, postmodernism as a field is too vast, by definition, to result in useful knowledge. Here, Norris and Inglehart use decades worth of research to determine to what extent religion will be important, and if it is fading, what will replace it. Their interest lies in the centuries old belief that religion will become less and less important. Their research is contingent upon modernization theory, which they argue is not the end game. After modernization, societal changes continue to take place. These changes are the basis of the postmodern society.

sacred and secular

They demonstrate two main points that appear to contradict one another at first glance: First, during the last half-century people in industrial societies have grown more secularized, giving up religious practices in many areas of life usually monopolized by the church; and second, “The world as a whole now has more people with traditional religious views than ever before – and they constitute a growing proportion of the world’s population” (page 29). If one takes into consideration religion’s impact on fertility rates (that is, religious people tend to have more children, particularly in lesser-developed regions), then these two points do not seem as contradictory as they initially appear.

Norris and Inglehart test six hypotheses: first, religiousness is negatively correlated with security (the more secure a society is, the less religious it is); second, religious traditions wane in postindustrialized societies; third, this has resulted in fewer religious practices (such as going to church); fourth, higher religious participation puts pressure on the electorate to support religious parties; fifth, poor societies have more religion and higher fertility rates; and sixth, the supply of religion correlates with religious participation.

They make three conclusions: first, human security is rising, and thus, in these societies where human security is rising (the industrial and postindustrial societies) secularization is also rising; second, because religious societies have higher birthrates than secular societies, the world, in general, is becoming more religious; and third, they predict, but cannot say with certainty, the gap between the secure-secular societies and the insecure-religious societies “will have important consequences for world politics, raising the role of religion on the international agenda.”

Essentially their argument is as follows: Existential insecurity causes people to seek religion to create norms with which to ensure survival. As existential security increases, religion becomes less important, and secularization becomes the norm. Insecure societies will, then, attempt to react against these changing norms around them. In other words, insecure societies will force their religious beliefs into the international arena (think Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill).

Norris and Inglehart’s book is, in my opinion, one of the most important religious studies out there. Not only does it suggest what the future holds for industrializing societies, using empirical evidence, it also implies that the vacuum left by the absence of religion will be filled with social justice. It is also the perfect marriage of the disparities between postmodernism and empirical research. Although the theory is not, per se, postmodern, the result seems to support the theory of postmodernism.

Sacred and Secular is ten years old, but their methods and findings still hold up to scrutiny. Indeed, it might be mandatory reading in some graduate programs. The final takeaway: This is a perfect book to discuss over wine with your religious friends and family. If you want to discuss something empirical but still related to religion and secularism, Inglehart’s and Norris’ book is a good choice.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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1 Response to Book Review: Sacred and Secular

  1. Pingback: “Nones”: The Rise of Religiously Unaffiliated Americans (SS#6) | The Atheist Papers

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