Secularization and Academic Study of Religion: Suggestions for a Typology

Secularization, ushered in by the Renaissance, has now become a global phenomenon.[i] This short note is designed to provide a typology within which the responses from the academic community to this secularization process can be meaningfully studied.

One basically encounters four types of academic responses to the secularization process vis-à-vis religion: These may be referred to as Type One through Four responses – the first two approbative in nature, the last two not so.

Type one response consists in pointing out that a particular religion is essentially secular anyway. An excellent illustration of this genre of response is provided by Harvey Cox’s “The Secular City”[ii] which celebrates the progressive secularization of the world as the logical outcome of Biblical religion: there could as well be, conceivably, Judaic, Islamic, Buddhistic, Hindu and other acclamations as well.

Type two response consists of pulling the rug from under the secular feet by arguing that secularism is itself a religion! Perhaps the best example here is Robert N. Bellah’s thesis of a civic religion.[iii]

Type three response consists in identifying one particular religious tradition as best suited to combat the menace of secularism. The work of R.C. Zaehner[iv] is worth mentioning here, who regards Christianity primarily and Judaism secondarily as best fitted for the task. As for Islam “the time of testing is yet to come”[v], while the Oriental religions may well be written off! On the other hand, even primitive religions may have something to offer a la Mircea Eliade.[vi]

Type four response consists of maintaining that the menace of secularism must be combated collectively by the religions of the world as a whole.[vii] This has been long argued by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. There is also the suggestion that the “mystic tradition of the different religions” are least suited for this task.[viii]

[i] See however John Esposito, Darrel J. Fasching and Todd Lewis, eds., Religions and Globalization (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) pp. 541-544.

[ii] Harvey Cox, The Secular City, (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1971) Also see Daniel Callahan, The Secular City Debate, (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1967).

[iii] Robert Neelly Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 96 (1): 1 -21.

[iv] R.C. Zaehner, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1959) Conclusion p. 413-417.

[v] Ibid., p. 417.

[vi] See Huston Smith, The World’s Religions (San Francisco: Harper, 1991) p. 366

[vii] Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Fellowship of the Spirit (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961) p. 39.

[viii] S. Radhakrishnan, Eastern Religions and Western Though (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939) p. viii.


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