Comparative Secularization in Europe and North America: New Directions
In chapter 14 of Charles Taylor’s monumental book, A Secular Age, he summarizes much of the recent research on the differential secularization trajectories of Europe and the United States. In attempting to account for the apparently greater religiosity of the US, he draws attention to multiple explanations, including: the separation of church and state; the differential roles of social elites; contrasting processes of immigration and integration; the influence of commercialism, consumerism, and popular culture; the relationship between religion, political culture, and the perceived national project; the American capacity to found and establish ubiquitous congregations; the different ways in which institutional carriers of secularization function in Europe and the US; and the differential impacts of the shocks and aftershocks of the decade of the 1960s. In conclusion, his best guess in explaining the difference in religiosity between these two technologically advanced civilizations is to emphasize the “long-term factors” that cumulatively cast long historical shadows of small differences which, over time, collectively produce a different result.
Yet Taylor is at best agnostic about his explanation. He writes, “Here I confess that I am making stabs in the dark. A fully satisfactory account of this difference, which is in a sense the crucial question facing secularization theory, escapes me” (p. 530). Taylor’s honesty is commendable, but he also offers some tentative suggestions about how we might proceed to find better answers to the vexed questions of past, present, and future trajectories of secularization in the West. He asks, “Why were Europeans not more inventive in creating new forms? Why did they not even copy American models, which are after all not unknown in this age of rapid communication and international travel?” (p. 529). The aim of our exploratory seminar is to take Taylor’s suggestion as the jumping-off point for a much more adventurous comparison between European and American religiosity than is currently available in the literature.