Some decades ago Peter Berger became convinced that secularization theory isn’t true. Science, technology, and modernity do not necessarily lead to the decline of religion. Secularization is the exception—a parochial western and central European phenomenon that is also characteristic of what Berger calls “an international secular intelligensia.”

Now Berger is revising his views. In “Further Thoughts on Religion and Modernity” he writes, “ I held the misleading notion of some sort of unified consciousness, religious or secular. I had overlooked the (in retrospect obvious) possibility that an individual may be both religious and secular.”

Berger is surely right. We’re complex animals, fully capable of operating in different ways at different levels, which explains why an Evangelical minister can tweet gospel passages without somehow experiencing a conflict between his use of modern technology and his biblical faith. We live in plural worlds.

Secularization, thinks Berger, is not a matter of replacement but instead relative displacement. With modernity comes a robust secular discourse (science first and foremost, but also modern moral and political views that are not based in theology). This discourse both feeds upon and advances the development of a secular form of life that displaces religiously defined reality in many areas of life. For example, when we get sick we call the doctor first rather than visit a church to offer a prayer.

But Berger’s point is that calling the doctor does not preclude offering a prayer. We can alternate between secular and religious definitions of reality. But secular discourse, he think, is the default discourse in societies that have become modernized, and religious faith becomes more a conscious choice than the default setting.

That’s right, I think. But Berger draws an irenic conclusion that is too dependent on conceding the public realm to secularity while limiting the religious to private life. Given our ability to toggle back and forth between secular and religious ways of thinking, he advocates a “peaceful coexistence of a secular discourse in the public sphere with a plurality of freely chosen religious discourses.”

Secular modernity is not medical knowledge or technical know-how, or even modern science. It is a diverse and often merely tacit set of claims about our ultimate ends as human beings unified by the consensus that our final end is not to know and worship God.

I can toggle back and forth between my faith and scientific, technological, economic, sociological, and psychological ways of thinking. But I can’t live both the modern secular vision of human flourishing and the Christian one. As St. Augustine observed, we are either members of the City of God or the City of Man. No peaceful coexistence there.

Articles by R. R. Reno

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