A Political Paradox: Secularity Is on an upswing, but Secularism Is in Trouble Globally

Barry Kosmin

In the United States and around most of the world, recent trends in the economy and communications technology have advanced the process of secularization, which Max Weber referred to as disenchantment. Organized religion’s “three Bs”—believing, belonging, and behaving—all show declines in most societies. The general public has become less obedient to religious authority and less interested in its rituals and precepts. Readers of Free Inquiry are aware that this has created complacency among the rising generation of Nones in the United States. Young Nones display little interest or concern with church-state separation and little inclination to boost its institutional weakness. Nor do they seem to want to join secular organizations. By default, organized religion has maintained cultural, civic, and political influence out of proportion to its declining number of adherents even in Western democratic countries. Yet ironically, the weakening of religion and its loss of popular support in general society has made it more reliant on political connections to achieve its agenda. The most obvious example is President Trump’s alliance with the religious Right.

Similar developments are playing out internationally. Religion appears to be gaining in political influence, while political secularism is in retreat in several of the most important countries on the world stage. The trend is for the current crop of elected “strong” leaders to use traditional religion, with its cultural ties to national heritage and its organizational infrastructure, to bolster new nationalist-populist regimes. The clearest example is Turkey, where the Islamist AKP party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has continuously undermined secular reforms put in place after 1923 by the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Erdoğan has appealed to Muslim chauvinism and popular nostalgia for the Ottoman Caliphate of Turkey’s imperial past. A similar process has begun in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has become a keen sponsor of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose Patriarch Kirril is a loyal supporter and constant attendant at national public events. Like a throwback to the Tsars and “Holy Mother Russia,” the former Communist Putin has recently made a large personal donation for the building of a new military cathedral.

Then there is India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have successfully overcome the secular Congress Party in successive elections by advancing an exclusive ideology of Hindutva in partnership with Hindu priests and temples. None of these regimes has resorted to establishing a state religion, because it was happy with the current situation, which ensured clergy subservience to the political establishment. Of course, each case is slightly different. Erdoğan and Modi are genuine believers and practitioners of their faiths. Putin, like Trump, is a cynical opportunist seeking the respectability that clerical ties can still provide in some circles in Russia—as is also the case in the United States.

Knowledgeable students of secularism should not be surprised by such developments. In his Letter Concerning Toleration of 1689, John Locke argued that in relations between “the Church and the Court,” the church and clergy would always willingly succumb and pander to the court in their pursuit of privilege and power. The most obvious proponent of this religious tradition of raison d’etat is the Roman Catholic Church, which in the 1930s happily entered into Concordats with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The Vatican’s newest and highly significant demonstration of realpolitik is an agreement with the Peoples’ Republic of China. This involves mutual recognition and nomination of Catholic bishops and so unifies the previously rival Catholic Churches in China. The supposed human rights enthusiast Pope Francis seems unconcerned that this treaty gave a public-relations victory to the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party even while it is actively persecuting other Christians, Muslims, and the Falun Gong.

The willingness of religious leaders across the theological spectrum to lend their prestige to authoritarian leaders, and to work hand-in-glove with distasteful regimes when it is convenient for them, highlights their lack of integrity and moral fiber. Their hypocritical justification is that the end justifies the means. This amoral attitude can be contrasted with the outlook of so many Nones I meet, who demand purist positions from secular organizations and are oblivious to the need for organized secularism to be more worldly.

Barry Kosmin

Barry Kosmin is Research Professor of Public Policy and Law and the director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Connecticut. He has been principal investigator of the American Religious Indentification Survey since 1990. His books include Religion in a Free Market: Religious and Non- Religious Americans (with Ariela Keysar, Paramount Market Publishers, 2006).


In the United States and around most of the world, recent trends in the economy and communications technology have advanced the process of secularization, which Max Weber referred to as disenchantment. Organized religion’s “three Bs”—believing, belonging, and behaving—all show declines in most societies. The general public has become less obedient to religious authority and less …

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