The Secularisation of Consciousness and Evangelisation

I said I would post from time to time on some themes I’m exploring as I study (more about that here). The vast backdrop of my study is of course the secularisation of the West. Undeniably, the inability of our parishes to grow, attract new people, make disciples is owing to the success of secularisation (read more here). A book that has triggered a lot of thought for me is Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy – Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. His theory is that, as the social structures of our world become more secular, there is a parallel secularising of people’s consciousness; they stop looking at the world with a religious outlook or interpretation. This is what he calls “subjective secularisation”, or the secularisation of consciousness.

It might seem an obvious point to make that, as there are fewer objective signs of religion (I’m thinking mainly of Christianity) in our culture (for instance, church attendance, celebration of religious feasts, display of religious symbols, etc), the less likely someone is give a religious interpretation to the phenomena they experience. Objective facts in the world are internalised in an individual’s consciousness, and in this way, society socialises a person. Socialisation is successful to the extent that there is a symmetry between the objective world of the society, and the subjective world of the individual. I think we would hardly disagree with this… The more religion is absent from one’s experience, the less a person thinks in terms of religion.

An interesting question in relation to my project on parishes is this: Is it possible for parishes to become strongholds where people can resist the powerful forces that ‘secularise’ our consciousness? Clearly, this is what the Church needs to be; it has a social, structural role in strengthening our religious consciousness, what Berger calls, the “re-enchantment of the world.” In working with Confirmation groups in the past, I have been left exasperated, knowing that one hour a week with these young people is a tiny “David” in the face of the “Goliath” of the world they inhabit in the other 167 hours, a world that relentlessly whispers the message, “There is no God.” In facing this challenge, our Church and our parishes need to become bigger in people’s consciousnesses, not smaller! More integral to their lives, more credible, stronger in its outspokenness and rejection of secularising forces…  There is so much to comment on here, especially considering the minimalism we heedlessly accept in the majority of parishes. My guess is we are doing pretty well at playing into the hands of secularisation, unintentionally secularising ourselves.

A final interesting point from Berger. He comments that it is generally accepted among sociologists that Protestantism secularises more rapidly than Catholicism. He describes the Catholic universe as “a more secure one for its inhabitants” owing to its being a universe saturated with the divine. There are fewer channels of grace in Protestantism, where God is seemingly more distant from the world. In contrast, the sacramental worldview of Catholicism provides innumerable channels of grace, thanks to a more incarnational outlook. And this, Berger holds, is what makes it harder to secularise Catholics (this assertion is backed up by figures: the Catholic Church has a stronger retention rate than other Christian communities, see here).

While Berger’s theory might not speak to how we evangelise those outside the Church, it does raise implications for evangelising and retaining those who are already Catholic. So, what is our takeaway message for evangelisation? These are somewhat simplistic, but basically correct, I would suggest:

  • Resist minimalism in our parishes: The less impact Catholicism makes in a person’s life, by default, the stronger the secularising influence in that person’s life will be;
  • Maximise the sacramental and incarnational: Let’s not underestimate the power of these elements to increase our consciousness of the reality of the sacred.

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4 Responses

  1. Katie Dawson says:

    Hannah, You may find the Book HOW (NOT) TO BE SECULAR by James Smith to be of interest. There is a podcast of him being interviewed on The Art of Manliness about this book – I listened to it 3 times, sent it my entire family and bought the book.

  2. Colby says:

    I’m replying late, but I just stumbled on your blog from the FID Forum. I poked around a bit and love what you are doing. You write eloquently and I’m always excited to see Christo-centric evangelization make inroads in academia. I wish you all the best in your studies.

    Perhaps it goes without saying, but are you familiar with Charles Taylor’s work “A Secular Age”? It seems to be the magnum opus in philosophical study related the the effects of a secular consciousness on maintaining religious belief. But the book is 900 pages long and very dense.

    I recently picked up a stand-alone summary/accompaniment titled “How (Not) To Be Secular” by James Smith. It’s only 200 pages and much more accessible. In it he describes the conditions that make up a “secular age”, going way beyond the simple idea that ‘less people practice religion’. He shows the ways that cross-pressures of pluralism, subjective truth, etc. make it very difficult to “believe”. I’ve found his insights incredibly useful for my own ministry – describing the struggles so many people outside the Church have with the philosophical priciples of Catholicism. I highly recommend it to all Church leaders. Perhaps it could aid your research.

    https://www.amazon.com/How-Not-Be-Secular-Reading/dp/0802867618

    • Transformed in Christ says:

      Thanks so much. I haven’t yet read either, but James Smith is definitely on my list to read. Thanks for your comment!

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