College Quarterly
Spring 2005 - Volume 8 Number 2
Reviews Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide
Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Social conservatives, Biblical literalists and opportunistic politicians in North America have, with the able assistance of what Christopher Hitchens calls "Islamofascists," "Hindu nationalists" and various zealots of other creeds, managed to restore religious fundamentalism to centre stage—both domestically and internationally—in public debate. In Canada and the United States people are getting very worked up about everything from sex (especially same-sex marriage) and science (evolution vs. "intelligent design") to the definition of life (abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia). Elsewhere, the stakes are higher as this group or that tries to expel from their territory or exterminate from the globe those who disagree with or do not look like them. What North Americans metaphorically call "culture wars" are, elsewhere, taking the form of the real thing.

It was not supposed to happen this way. From the "enlightenment" on, Western society, at least, has increasingly preached tolerance of other faiths and has practiced a growing secular attitude that seemed to be putting bigotry behind us. The cataclysm of World War II was followed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, decolonization, global urbanization and the possibility that we were on the path to relative peace and prosperity. Science and technology were rising; prejudice was in retreat. For the more optimistic among us, racism, sexism and religious fanaticism seemed to be giving ground to humane values and the triumph of reason. Even extreme national chauvinism was becoming unpopular as jingoism in thought and imperialism in practice were shown to be both foolish (no more Colonel Blimps!) and impractical (no more Vietnams!). What is now derisively called "secular humanism" was growing and some of us thought that this was good.

It hasn't worked out that way. Although no one worries about communism anymore, we are being treated to no less hatred, fear and ignorance about the "other" than when Winston Churchill proclaimed the impenetrability of the "iron curtain" and Ronald Reagan went on at length about the "evil empire." Whether what is at issue is the coming Crusade, the terror of the jihad, or the school books of Kansas, it is plain that the promises of civilization at its best must be put off yet again. In the meantime, discussions, deliberations and debates are becoming more and more dysfunctional, uncivil and tiresome in their predictability and intellectual woodenness. In the current circumstances, therefore, it is refreshing and rather reassuring to read a book that brings good sense and considered reflection to the study of the elemental issues of faith and forbearance.

Sacred and Secular is premised on the obvious fact that the predictions of diverse figures from Marx to Durkheim and from Spencer to Freud about the fragile future of religion have failed. The so-called "secularization thesis" has been sharply rebuked by current events. So, even if the return of fundamentalists to Tehran and creationists to the White House turns out to be a momentary blip on the historical radar, we can no longer be confident that religion is anywhere near its final demise. In some apocalyptic minds, the worst is yet to some.

In their study of the tension between the sacred and the secular, Norris (a specialist in comparative politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard) and Inglehart (a program director at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan) bring to the issue the skills of empirical social scientists and the wit to use those skills in a manner that sheds genuine light upon questions that are too frequently kept in the darkness and obscurity of passionate commitments and conceptual uncertainty. This, of course, will only provoke the hostility of those who disdain the implied "secular humanism" of the social sciences or, for that matter, any source of information not evident in the divine revelation; however, for less ossified intelligences, the consequences of reading their book can only be (dare I say it?) enlightening.

Not aspiring to universality, the authors content themselves with: an extraordinarily useful methodological introduction; case studies of the US and Western Europe, post-communist Europe and the Muslim world; a comparative study of the social and political consequences of secularization. This, I assure you, is plenty.

To the untrained, the notion of a "methodological introduction" may be daunting. In this case, it should be enticing. The authors treat complex issues such as how it is possible to understand vastly differing religious beliefs and practices in a way that can make comparisons meaningful, but they do so in a way that is accessible to any intelligent reader, even those lacking more than a passing acquaintance with statistics. A minimum of technical jargon and a clear explication of their approach to the data ensure that their methods will become transparent and their arguments all the more convincing.

It is not my purpose nor would it be possible to summarize the information and analysis that is presented in the case studies. One instructive table, however, nicely sets out one of the dilemmas which Norris and Inglehart are compelled to address. A common assumption about the decline of religion is that it is supposed to be correlated with Protestant cultures that display increases in economic development, education, mass media and urbanization. It is therefore not surprising to learn that Scandinavian countries have the lowest rates of religiosity and that Estonia (Lutheran and largely Scandinavian) and the United Kingdom show up in this group as well. But what are France (Roman Catholic) and Russia (Orthodox) and Japan doing in this mix? As well, it might not surprise to discover that among the most religious populations are those of Zimbabwe, Uganda, the Philippines, Mexico and South Africa. Special historical circumstances make it comprehensible that Ireland and Poland are also found (at least for the time being) in this group. But, how can we explain the presence of the United States, a largely Protestant nation which is arguably the wealthiest and among the most highly educated, media infiltrated and urbanized countries in the world in the company of mainly underdeveloped societies at the top end of the religious scale? Plainly something complicated is happening. The authors set out several compelling theories and test them against reasonably reliable data to come up with answers, and they do so convincingly.

While not discounting the venerable ideas of 19th-century sociologists such as Durkheim and Weber who taught us that the functional fragmentation and emerging rationalism of modern societies effectively pushed religious convictions out of the public realm and into the discretionary realm of individual choice, Norris and Inglehart offer a new thesis that deserves serious attention. They theorize a relationship between what they call "existential security" and secularization. Their position rests on two premises. First, they distinguish between countries in which populations feel more or less vulnerable. The more vulnerable people feel (e.g., in poor countries with life-threatening problems of malnutrition, disease, social disorder, etc.), the more likely are people to seek supernatural explanations of their plight and support for their salvation. Second, while they acknowledge that the specific content of religions differs and that many countries have long histories of religious consistency that have permitted particular doctrines to influence all other social practices and beliefs, comparative analysis was still possible. Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist and other religions are, to some important degree, sui generis; nonetheless, core values and practices (as distinct from doctrines and rituals) can be described and compared.

This means that social conditions (relative vulnerability) and variable beliefs both influence the degree of religious rigidity in specific populations. Why, then, do Americans find themselves in the same religious situation as people in "at-risk" Third World countries? Consider the following: a high level of domestic crime and violence, an absence of economic security for middle and lower class people, a growing gap between the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless, decreasing confidence in government and involvement in democratic processes (low voter turn-out, high level of cynicism). The United States is not a desperately poor nation, but it has more than its share of "desperate housewives." Add this to a political culture that has long been described as "messianic" and that has been labeled "paranoid" (cf. Richard Hofstader, The Paranoid Style in American Politics [1955]) and explanations of "creationism" and Jerry Falwell become less difficult, even in a country that simultaneously and quite legitimately boasts some of the greatest scientific, technological and cultural achievements of our time.

Why, then, do citizens of Egypt, Jordan and Iran display a lower level of religiosity, than Americans? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that they have a considerably greater level of confidence (faith?) in the potential of science and technology to improve their lives. Other hypotheses are tested. The relationship between religiosity and fertility is an instructive example. In subsistence societies where infant mortality is high and life expectancy is short, religious beliefs constitute an adaptive sociobiological "meme," an adaptive mechanism that opposes—no matter what the particular religion—any practice deemed to be threatening to the family including divorce, homosexuality and abortion. In the alternative, wealthy, secular societies produce fewer children (witness the plummeting birth rate in Quebec as its population has gone through its own "quiet revolution" in the past few decades, but where the US again is an anomaly with higher birth rates and lower life expectancies than most developed countries).

By the end, readers have been presented with a wide range of data and some forceful empirical interpretations that can help us make sense of the welter of information that comes to us from competing social interests about how religion is now re-emerging as a defining element of social life, global relations and cultural change.

Howard A. Doughty teaches Philosophy and Natural Science at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


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2005 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology