Ethnocentric secularisation

Can it be – or has it just taken me this long to realise – that mainstream theories of secularisation are ethnocentric? Ethnocentrism is the belief that “one’s ethnic or cultural group is centrally important, and that all other groups are measured in relation to one’s own”. While we can only judge and examine other cultures from our own perspective, recent readings have led me to question if writings on the waning influence of and adherence to religious beliefs are too culturally specific. Two articles in recent days have brought me to this point. A paper in Innovation by Franz Hollinger, Max Haller and Adriana Valle-Hollinger and published in 2007 introduces its subject matter by stating:

In order to reduce the complexity of the subject, we concentrate on Christian churches and denominations. Accordingly, the term ‘religiousness’ in this article refers only to the characteristic forms of Christian religious behaviour and religious beliefs.

A journal paper cannot hope to cover every religious orientation, sect or church. I am glad that they were up front about the scope of the paper and its investigations. They go on to examine a series of datasets from the International Social Science Project in order to test a number of hypotheses such as this one: “Hypothesis 2a: in countries where one particular church has had the position of a state church over long periods, modern-day religiosity will be significantly lower than in those countries where this was not the case.” Fair enough. The data is presented and disaggregated using various statistical tests. And then the killer: the authors classify the countries involved in the ISSP surveys into four. It is worth repeating them at length here for the purposes of argument:

  1. State Church Systems
    Representatives of this type are the Protestant countries Sweden, Norway and Denmark, the Catholic countries France, Spain, Portugal, Austria and Slovenia, and the Orthodox countries Russia and Bulgaria. Great Britain, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia were also classified into this category.
  2. Denominational Systems
    The only country which corresponds fully to this type is the United States.
  3. Nationalist Popular Church Systems
    The Republic of Ireland, Poland and Cyprus are representatives of this type.
  4. Syncretistic Popular Religion
    ISSP-1998 also included two ex-colonial catholic countries, the Philippines and Chile. As in most other states which were colonized by Catholic European powers, Catholicism was established as a state church. However, there exist significant differences between these countries and the European state church systems.

Each of these groupings is justified according to their particular historical conditions. We might assume that it was only Christians in each of these countries were examined for the purposes of this paper. In other words, all other religious systems were taken out of the analysis. The Philippines and Chile (not to mention the ‘exceptional’ USA) are given their own group because what unites them is their colonial past. At various times over the last millennium Portugal, Cyprus, Ireland and Slovakia have all been colonised to one extent or another. See where I am going here?

The excellent Immanent Frame blog has a contribution from Darren Sherkat entitled Beyond believing but not belonging.  Sherkat’s contribution to their Religious Nones theme is an analysis of the General Social Survey data. I would agree with him that far too much research emphasis is placed on indicators of practice as causative agents. He argues that:

Family pressures, friendship ties, social status, and the desire to set an example for children are among the strongest predictors of religious behaviors, including whether or not people choose to belong to religious groups.

And then posits that:

if a person does not believe in  a god, then they cannot be presumed to prefer Christianity, nor any of the other Abrahamic faiths.

So far, so logical. In summing up though he uses the catch-all phrase “Americans” in describing a Grace Davie-modifying idea that they “increasingly don’t believe, and they are more prone to not belong”. The data does point to this summation and the argument is well served within the blog post. However, the central importance of ‘Americans’ in the analysis does not help the sense I am getting that secularisation theories are being repeatedly advanced from a particular position: from ‘above’. JP would not be happy. As I typed this today, a commenter has already responded to some of these problems in Sherkat’s analysis motivation for writing. When generalisable propositions about the nature of faith and religious movements take place in a ‘national’ context, with people unwittingly bound by ‘recognisable’ spatial units which ‘fix’ diversity, these propositions will invariably suffer from one’s own central importance. Where are the studies of secularisation processes at work in central Benin or the western Iranian provinces? In short, what is it about a bounded state that makes them ‘easy’ to compare?

I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Steve Martin: talking about music is like dancing about architecture.