Living in 21st century America can feel like standing with Matthew Arnold by the Strait of Dover, watching the sea retreat into the night:
The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d;
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.
(Arnold, Dover Beach)
For many of us American Catholics, worried for our Church and for our country, the widespread loss of faith can seem inexorable. Sometimes it feels as if modern history has a built-in trajectory toward secularization. Science and technology develop, faith disappears, and we’re powerless to stop the change. If you believe this, then you’ve accepted something that sociologists call the “secularization theory,” which predicts that religious faith will inevitably disappear from modern life.
Today, sociologists have reached a consensus that the secularization theory is false. Predictions of the disappearance of faith have been around a long time. But, as sociologists Swatos and Christiano tell us, “the predicted demise of religion is probably wrong… Virtually no empirical research supports a societal slide from a peak of sacrality into a valley of secularity.” And, as Andrew Greeley points out, “it should be remembered that the prediction has generally been wrong every time it has been made.” Back in 1710, Thomas Woolston predicted that Christianity would disappear by the year 1900. Voltaire was confident that Christianity would be gone by the early 1800s. Thomas Jefferson predicted the late 1800s. These were followed by predictions from Comte, Engels, and then a host of sociologists. Today, however, sociologists have learned not to make such predictions. And they show that the secularization theory has been refuted by history. Many point out that America saw an increase in religious devotion during much of the twentieth century, and some argue that religious identification and practice in America is still at higher levels today than it was during much of our nation’s history (on both these topics, you can look at the work of Rodney Stark and Roger Fink). In general, sociologists are as likely to predict religious revival in the West as decline in faith. Even the most secular of sociologists think that Christian faith has a vital future. Shouldn’t we Christians think the same?
In the mid 19th century, around the time that so many intellectuals were convinced of the secularization theory and Matthew Arnold wrote ‘Dover Beach,’ Herman Melville wrote his 500-page epic poem, ‘Clarel.’ One of his characters, Rolfe, gives an answer to the secularization theory. He reminds us that just before the coming of Christ belief in the pagan gods was on the wane. The intellectuals at the time thought religion was bound to fade away. Yet, they were very wrong.
[Cicero’s] age was much like ours: doubt ran,
Faith flagged; negations which sufficed
Lawyer, priest, statesman, gentleman,
Not yet being popularly prized,
The augurs hence retained some state—
Which served for the illiterate.
Still, the decline swiftly ran
From stage to stage, that To Believe,
Except for slave or artisan,
Seemed heresy. Even doubts which met
Horror at first, grew obsolete,
And in a decade. To bereave
Of founded trust in Sire Supreme,
Was a vocation. Sophists throve—
Each weaving his thin thread of dream
Into the shroud for Numa’s Jove.
Caesar his atheism avowed
Before the Senate. But why crowd
Examples here: the gods were gone.
Tully scarce dreamed they could be won
Back into credence; less that earth
Ever could know yet mightier birth
Of deity. He died. Christ came.
And, in due hour, that impious Rome,
Emerging from vast wreck and shame,
Held the fore-front of Christendom.
The inference? The lesson?—come:
Let fools count on faith’s closing knell—
Time, God, are inexhaustible.
(Herman Melville, “Clarel”)
These words were true before the coming of Christ. They were true in the 19th century when Melville wrote them. And they remain true today.