Viewpoint: New Shepherd, Same Wandering Flock

Secularization is a global phenomenon, but it's not irreversible

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Eric Gaillard / REUTERS

A crowd cheers as newly elected Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, appears on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on March 13, 2013.

On the surface, as the global thumbs-up from excited Christians goes to show, the surprise election of former Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a.k.a. Pope Francis, signals some bold new directions for the Catholic Church.

Geographically, the choice moves the center of gravity away from Europe and into the New World. As a matter of public relations, it re-directs attention away from the Ameri-centric and Euro-centric sex scandals (mercifully, many would say). And the very name “Francis” suggests a papal demeanor arguably more simpatico to many of the faithful than the fierce intellectualism of the preceding two popes — a Catholicism of the barrio and not just the baldacchino.

(MORE: Pope of the Americas: Can a New Pontiff Unite a Divided Flock?)

In reality, though, and despite the hopes in some precincts for a radically overhauled Church, these departures amount to mere atmospherics. That’s because the chief conundrum facing the new Pope is the same as it was for the exceedingly aware emeritus Pope before him. It is a problem as vexatious for Rome whether in the Global South or in the affluent West, and more than any other earthly force it will decide the fate of all the churches: namely, the secularization of large parts of the formerly Christian world.

Evidence abounds that creeping godlessness is not just some European thing. According to Baylor University’s Philip Jenkins, one of the foremost authorities on these numbers, across Latin America “signs of secularization appear that would have been unthinkable not long ago.” Nine percent of Brazilians now report themselves “nones,” for instance, as in “none of the religious above,” and as with the “nones” in America, the number is higher among the young. Forty percent of Uruguayans now profess no religious affiliation. Nor is the new Pope’s home country exempt from the trend – quite the contrary. Political dictatorship may be over, but the “dictatorship of relativism” deplored by emeritus Pope Benedict is alive and kicking in an increasingly secular Argentina.

(MOREFast Facts About Pope Francis)

Then there is state-of-the-art god-forsaking Western Europe. Across the Continent, elderly altar servers shuffle in empty, childless churches; monasteries and chapels are remade into spas, apartments, or mosques; protests, including violent protests, now regularly greet any Pope who leaves Rome. Yes, there are remarkable renewal movements here and there, for the sheer ferocity of aggressive secularism has inadvertently energized a Christian counter-culture. But the secular forest still grows faster than the religious trees. One recent British survey found that about 20 percent of respondents could not say what event was commemorated by Easter.

As for the United States, it remains true that Americans are more religiously inclined than Europeans. Even so, here too the trend is clear. To judge by statistics on items like attendance and affiliation and out-of-wedlock births, say, America’s religious tomorrow is just Denmark’s yesterday.

(MOREViewpoint: New Pope Inspires Less Hope Than We Hoped)

So what’s a Pope to do? He can start by understanding one critical truth that has not been well understood so far: the puzzle of secularization is not only his to solve. Secular sociology has written the intellectual script about how godlessness happens but has gotten it wrong.

Secularization is not, for example, the inevitable result of affluence, as many have said; statistically, men and women who are better-off in the United States today, for example, are more likely to believe and practice faith than are those further down the economic ladder. The same was true of Victorian England, as the British historian Hugh McLeod has painstakingly shown. Mammon alone does not necessarily drive out God.

(MORE: Empty Pews: Everyone is Misreading the Numbers of Religious “Unaffiliated”)

Is secularization then the inevitable result of increased rationality and enlightenment, as the new atheists and other theorists claim? Here again, the empirical fact that the well-educated Mormon, say, is more likely to be someone of faith would appear to confound that theory. Is secularization then the result of the world wars, as still others have supposed? If so, it is hard to see how countries with different experiences of those wars – neutral Switzerland, vanquished Germany, victorious Great Britain — should all lose their religions in tandem, let alone why countries untouched by the wars should follow suit.

And on it goes. Modern sociology can tell us many things, but about the elemental question of why people stop going to church — or for that matter, why they start — the going theories have all come up short. Contrary to what secular soothsayers have believed, evidence suggests that secularization is not inevitable, and neither is it a linear process according to which decline is an arrow pointing ever downward. Rather, and crucially, religion waxes and wanes in the world — strong one moment, weaker the next — for reasons that still demand to be understood.

From the point of view of the new occupant of the Papal Apartments in a time of flickering faith, this is countercultural and potentially excellent news.

MOREHave We Evolved To Be Religious?


Once-a-week worship cannot significantly influence children towards specific religious or moral beliefs in the Internet age.  Five-times-a-day worship is another matter. 


Advanced nations are driven by the inevitable need of keeping the cycle of production and destruction, going in their countries. They are conscious of their superiority in material terms and they work for retaining this supremacy by protecting own wealth and acquiring that of the others. They are not very pleased with the attrition of their imperial and colonial strength of the past. They adopt a two-pronged strategy to sustain supremacy; self-protection by innovative satellite based defence systems, and muscle flexing by deploying highly mobile lethal weapon systems at strategic locations all around the world.

Prolonged deliberations and experimentation has given them an innovative gear, the financial imperialism, which is the technique for acquiring wealth from the developing countries without physically occupying their land. It comprises measures such as sale of high cost weapon systems, currency control, monopolistic trade practices, import of low cost labour forces etc.

The evolution of the civilised society has rendered the wars of the past, a bit out of vogue and possibly obsolete. In any case, it is expensive, cumbersome and dangerous to operate in that manner. Colonialism is therefore not an option any more. Even peacekeeping is a risky bet. Financial imperialism is the answer. Adam Smith’s magnum opus, ‘the wealth of nations’ needs to be rewritten now with the title as ‘the wealth of other nations’.

This reincarnated form of imperialism operates through financial and political processes and uses cultural imperialism as its associate. In contrast with the physical colonisation, the citizens would perhaps never awaken to demand freedom from financial imperialism; instead, they would wither in its slavery.

This mechanism operates on the economy of the victimised country by manipulating the mindset of its political leadership as well as its citizens. It uses political acumen to exploit the human weakness of the leaders of the prospective victim country, for money and power. This imperialism incorporates itself by three distinct mechanisms

·Firstly, it incorporates favourable clauses in international trade agreements by the consent of the political leadership of the victim country. The local financial systems and institutions then automatically fall into place.

·Secondly, it creates a hostile environment with the bordering countries. Different forms of conflict are introduced using political connections in both of the countries, the victim and its neighbour. Cross border terrorism, is the easiest of them to inculcate. This gives the politicians of both the sides, a plausible excuse to announce imminent threats from across the border and the need to acquire weapons and systems of cutting-edge technologies. Super-high cost weapon systems are then procured surreptitiously by both the vulnerable countries.

·Thirdly, use is made of cultural imperialism. Soft targets such as the teenagers are subjected to specially prepared soap operas that highlight the fashion and living style, which needs products produced in the advanced countries. Elderly audiences are barraged with discussions and coverage that highlight the usefulness of health or wellness products produced in the advanced countries. Travelogue is deployed highlighting even the ordinary tourist spots. In this way, the citizens are conditioned and encouraged to shop for foreign goods and services. They are enslaved voluntarily. It takes years before the citizens become aware that they are being exploited, but then it is too late to weed it out of the system. It is also too late for the domestic industry to recover from the reduced demand of their products.

This new paradigm of operations is not violent therefore; financial imperialism should be an easy battlefield to repel even with the docile nature of the Indian citizens. What use the creative, innovative and versatile mind of the Indians is if it cannot convert from being recipients of imperialism to manipulators of that game. Our advantage is that we have a large domestic consumer market, something that the others are seeking to target. One cannot direct the winds, but one can adjust one’s sails. Of course, all the systems of wealth generation ie agriculture, industry and trade must first be upgraded to high standard for this to happen. 


"Well-educated Mormon?" Now there's an oxymoron - or is it oxy-Moroni? - if ever there was one! Seriously, though, the miraculous side of religion has been a much harder sell in a critically minded age than in an "age of faith." Catholicism, with Mormonism, affects to live in harmony with science but in fact they are both in implicit antagonism to the very idea of empirical truth. For the possibility of divine intervention in the order of things precludes any possibility of universal scientific laws: if God is meddling with things, the scientist might as well pray as test for results. So as the crutch of fables falls away, the Church must learn to walk empirically on the moral necessity of God, a Kantian notion that's becoming more imperative with every passing day.



It's really very simple.  If one is sane, then one does not believe in the supernatural.  Those who "believe" in religion are delusional. The only reason religion continues to have adherents is due to child indoctrination, brain washing.  This is a terrible form of child abuse, equal to any other. Though religion is so obviously false, it continues on because the priest class, a class of predators/charlatans/con-men/scammers/hucksters/frauds exploits the credulous masses for their power/money/sexual gratification.  What a sad state of affairs.  In time the truth will out.


There have always been pendulum swings historically and from one generation to the next in families regarding faith vs. doubt, belief vs. unbelief.

We have not suddenly "evolved"  at this point in time to where  there is no God or  a need for one.

We have made that choice and opted for moral relativism and the  near collapse of a moral absolute, jettisoning moorings that have held earlier generations together.

James Holms of Colorado serial killer fame MAY be mentally ill as with a physical problem in his brain itself.

I suspect though that all the biological determinism he was inundated with as a neuroscience major as the determining factor for human behavior -- devoid of a transcendent revealed Truth that says there is a real right and a real wrong (based on a Lawgiver of the universe having determined such) --  contributed to his ability to squeeze that trigger time and again with gleeful impunity.

Survival of the fittest one in the room. was his game. Last laugh on a morally relativistic society who suddenly was surprised they needed a moral absolute  related to gun control for those outside the womb but not in the womb.

I fully expect America will decay morally from within in a matter of 20 more years as is Western Europe, and this decay will precede a return to faith for many in a subsequent generation.

This period we are going through will be written about as was the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.

One Pope won't change things around, but then again, it only takes a spark, to get a fire going.  People who have been living in the muck too long just may be ready to hear what this Pope says and desperate to hear the words of Christ via him in the Beatitudes: "Blessed are those who know their need of God."


Ms. Eberstadt's article omits several glaring reasons why Catholism is in global decline: the rise of alternative religions, the Church's refusal to allow woman into the clergy, muzzling dissenting nuns, their stand on homosexuality and women's right to choose. Miss Mary also ignores the long-standing sex scandals, instead preferring to babble on about borders and geography.

If Pope Francis hopes to stem the flood of people leaving the church, he'll need to be more 21st century than the Dark Ages.


It is quite a leap to equate non-affiliation to "godlessness".  Perhaps an avenue to explore would be the impact of modern cities and technology on the locus of spirituality. Historically the Catholic Church was the source of news, health care, wealth and community in a defined geographical location. Clerical is so closely associated with literacy and the ability to write it now serves to identify lower level support staff along with priests. Just like the advent of the printing press triggered changes in the power and influence of the Vatican, the rise of hospitals, universities and communication channels that are secular means that to survive the Church must find a way to be relevant to people who don't depend on it for physical or economic necessities. 

Just like the Jews and Dali Lama, the Church must find a way to survive in their secular diaspora.


Mary, speaking of modernization,  many people don't read books not available for their e-reader, mostly Kindle.  You might want ask your publisher about that.


With the rise of science and knowledge, religious belief is increasingly losing its believers, and facing the challenges of atheism, agnosticism.and free thinkers--the products of rational thinking, skeptical inquiry and critical analysis. The further decline of religion in the western world seems unavoidable

It took mankind about 2000 years to reach a kind of spiritual, cultural and social revolution against theism and God-based religion, which is growing in strength and scope.   More and more people are not going to church, more and more people think that religion and God are unnecessary, more and more people reject the existence of God--this is not going to be a short-term phenomenon, nor is it reversible.

The increase of atheists, secular people and free thinkers represents the emergence of a culture of non-religion, which is characterized by self-belief, reason and open-mindedness. It is fair to suggest that the world and mankind will be more secular with the passage of time.


Why, Mary, your writing skills spell versatility and readers' respect!  I agree that the peoples of the world tends to increasingly deviate from safe paths of the  God-fearing fathers. In the Philippines where the clergy has become more and more politicized, this trend is grimly accelerating. One Christian religious sect, for example, imperiously dictates whom to vote for in an democratic election, effectively stifling conscience and free agency. For all the negatives in America, you're still more blessed than any other country in the world.