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Secularization Poses "Significant Challenge" to Religion, Says Noted Journalist, Educator

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

“You shouldn’t check your religion at the door to the public square,” said author Peter Steinfels, Ph.D., in a lecture to the St. John’s University community entitled “Secularization and Its Discontents: Is ‘Secular’ a Four-Letter Word?” on February 27.  Approximately 100 students, faculty, and guests gathered in the D’Angelo Center on the Queens campus to hear him speak.

University professor emeritus and founding codirector of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, Steinfels currently holds the 2014 Peter P. and Margaret A. D’Angelo Endowed Chair in the Humanities at St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal and wrote the “Beliefs” column in the New York Times. He is also the author of A People Adrift: the Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America and The Neoconservatives. He is spending the spring semester at SJU, teaching a graduate-level theology course, “Religion and Public Life,” in addition to delivering the public lecture, which he will present again at the Staten Island campus on April 7.

Steinfels explained how the debate over religion and public life in America was framed in modern society. “Church and state issues were explored in the context of secularization back in the 1980s,” he said. “It was the decade of the emergence of the religious right with Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority, and the prominence of the Catholic bishops with their pastoral letters.”

From different points of view on the political spectrum, religious forces were vying to shape the American political agenda, which provoked a counterresponse contending that religion does not belong in politics. “This is dangerously antidemocratic,” Steinfels said.

The moral principles of American citizens are faith-based, he asserted. If these principles are ruled out solely on that ground, society muzzles the majority of Americans from bringing many of their most important convictions to politics. Behind this rejection of religion in politics is a narrative called “secularization thesis” shared by modern historians and sociologists which argued that as the world grew more modern, it would grow less religious.

“Eventually this well-established narrative ran into serious problems,” Steinfels said. “One problem was the United States, which is the very exemplar of modernity, and yet it remained stubbornly religious.”

Steinfels also explored the critical differences in the terms secular, secularism, and secularization. “These words are seldom used with any precision, but they almost always have a negative connotation,” he said. “That’s what made me ask the question, ‘Is secular a four-letter word?’” 

He stressed that secular points to a state of mind opposed to religion; secularism is an ideology of unbelief; and secularization is a complex modern development of religion-neutral zones that can be favorable to religious belief. “People can use whatever term they choose,” Steinfels said, “so long as they don’t lump very different things under the same label.”

The question remains: does secularization lead to unbelief? “No,” Steinfels said. “But secularization poses a significant challenge to religion as long as believers and religious leaders confuse the two.”