Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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In social scientific usage, encompasses the distinctive features of modern societies and the distinctive problems associated with social change in the modern era; also used to refer to intellectual discussion of such matters, that is, the discourse of modernity.

Modernism/modernity is the central concern of sociology as a discipline. Many of its classic texts systematically reflect on the differences between "modern" and "traditional" societies. In its early period, sociology aimed to illuminate, with new theoretical tools, the changes that were remaking Europe and America. Concretely, it dealt with the consequences of industrialization and urbanization in leading nation-states. More generally, it was part of a broader debate about the meaning of change, which had long pitted conservatives against more liberal intellectuals. Since at least the French Revolution, the place of religion had been a central issue in these debates, with conservatives arguing for the validity of the Christian faith and its central role in upholding an authoritative hierarchical order. Sociology addressed many problems first raised by conservatives, but generally did not provide support for the conservative position. That position was articulated clearly by the Roman Catholic Church, which resisted the theological implications of the scientific and democratic revolutions at the end of the nineteenth century. Pope Pius X condemned modernism as the "synthesis of all heresies."

Since the nineteenth century, students of modernity have answered five questions, implicitly or explicitly: What is new? How did it come about? Is it viable? Is it valuable? Is it still here? Each of the classic contributions to sociology offers an argument or narrative touching on all five. Each also had specific implications for religion. Marx offered the critical view: Under capitalism, religion is part of the dominant ideology, a relatively insignificant part of the superstructure; it cannot prevent the demise of capitalism and is unlikely to survive the coming revolutionary changes. Weber's stance was more skeptical: Certain Christian ideas historically played a central role in making the rise of Western capitalism possible, but religious faith becomes a matter of hard individual choice in a rationalized world no longer governed by shared tradition. Durkheim's version was progressive: New sacred symbols will arise to express and bolster the more complex solidarity that is typical of modern societies; this maintains a role for religion, although not in any of its traditional forms. For them, as for many nineteenth-century authors, religion was crucially involved in identifying what was new; their arguments about the viability and worth of modernity often presumed a traditional religious foil. By advocating the dispassionate study of religious phenomena, the social scientists already allied themselves with the forces of modernity lamented by religious conservatives. Indeed, sociology itself could reasonably be viewed, then and now, as one agent of secularization.

Much of the subsequent debate about the place of religion in modern societies revolved around the issue of secularization. Extending Durkheim, Talcott Parsons held that at least modern American society had generalized originally Christian values in a manner that could integrate a modern social structure. Peter Berger countered with a more Weberian view of religion as bound to be privatized. Similarly extending Weber, Bryan Wilson came to view religion as the culture of community, no longer viable in a gesellschaft context and thus bound to lose its social significance. Critics of the latter two arguments contend that they overestimate the extent to which modernity produces a break with the past, that they assume an untenable golden age of religion, that religion remains a vital presence in the lives of many individuals and groups, and that our overall conceptions of religious modernism remain beholden to misleading nineteenth-century debates. The ongoing debate about secularization in fact reflects broader trends in analyses of modernity.

One of these trends is the growing inclination of scholars to question whether modernity represents a genuinely new historical phase. Historical evidence suggests considerable continuity in many areas, and older interpretations of modernity often imposed simplifying stories on that evidence. To contemporary skeptics, for example, postmodernists, such accounts often aimed uncritically to prove the viability and value of modernity. Whatever features they singled out as characteristic of modernity now appear irrelevant in any case, because all societies are being drastically transformed—or so such postmodernists might hold. But in all these areas, the debate about modernism—its historical status, viability, and value—continues. Contemporary modernists would hold that, taken together, the last two centuries of change have indeed transformed the lives of people in the West. Their societies, democratic-capitalist nation-states, now display a high degree of structural differentiation and cultural pluralism. In this world of rationalized institutions, religion indeed is "deregulated" (Beckford 1989), as one set of institutions and worldviews among many, still providing sustenance to individuals and symbolic tools to the society at large. Although they have not produced a clear consensus, the social sciences themselves have helped to provide a more profound and coherent interpretation of modernizing change. Liberal modernity has demonstrated an unreasonable viability, and so has the scholarly enterprise to make sense of it.

In the now-classic period of sociology, religion was a prominent concern; today this is no longer true for many scholars interested in the viability and value of modernity, however conceived. Secularization has made inroads. This is not to say that the study of religion has lost any connection with the broader study of modernity in all its facets. For example, the debate about secularization continues, although the ambivalence of many participants is telling. The comparative study of religious institutions and movements promises to shed light on the variable role and vitality of religion in different societies. Students of religion also have much to offer with analyses of ostensibly antimodern movements staged by self-professed religious conservatives or fundamentalists, which have repeatedly challenged the premises and consequences of modernity. Indeed, their studies of that subject help to lay bare some critical fault lines in modern societies. Finally, religion remains an important dimension of global conflict. The study of globalization likely will change the conventional understanding of modernity as a property of individual nation-states. Thus the study of religion as a global phenomenon and of religious leaders as global actors will preserve its relevance to the scholarly analysis of modern culture.

See also Postmodernism

Frank J. Lechner


J. A. Beckford, Religion and Advanced Industrial Society (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989)

P. L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967)

A. Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990)

H. Haferkamp and N. Smelser (eds.), Social Change and Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992)

L. R. Kurtz, The Politics of Heresy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986)

F. J. Lechner, "The Case Against Secularization," Social Forces 69(1991):1103-1119

F. J. Lechner, "Against Modernity," in The Dynamics of Social Systems , ed. P. Colomy (London: Sage, 1992): 72-92

B. Turner, Theories of Modernity and Postmodernity (London: Sage, 1990)

B. Wilson, Religion in Sociological Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University, 1982).

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