The stepping stones of secularisation

by Dr Silvianne Aspray

14 May 2021

Western European nations have seen a dramatic decline in people associating themselves with an organised religion. Nowhere else in the world (except for Australia) are there more people who consider themselves “not religious”. But this was not always the case. Almost everyone in the Britain of 500 or 600 years ago would have considered themselves Christian, even though the degree of religious commitment varied significantly from one person to another. The process between then and now, when being religious ceased to be the default position, is what is commonly called secularisation.

European religious revolution

'Luther at the Diet of Worms', 1521, (1890). Photo by The Print Collector via Getty Images.

But why is Europe so much more secular than, say, the Americas? What was it, historically, that led Western European nations down a more secularised path? Some suggest that the European Reformation, the religious revolution in the 16th century associated with Luther, Calvin, Cranmer and others, has something to do with it. This seems plausible because many of the most secular nations in Western Europe are historically speaking Protestant: Sweden, the Netherlands or the UK, for instance. The association between the Reformation and secularisation also seems probable because the beginnings of secular modernity are often said to coincide with the time of the Reformation.

Disenchantment of the world

The most famous figure behind the idea that the Reformation has something to do with secularisation is Max Weber, a 19th-century German sociologist. Weber suggested that modernity comes with a disenchantment of the world, where older, supposedly ”magic”, ideas about how the holy is present in the world gradually disappear. But more importantly, he claimed that the Judeo-Christian religious tradition was the driving force behind this process. For Weber, the early beginnings of the process of disenchantment lie in Judaism, specifically the ancient prophets’ critique of idolatry, and it culminates in the 16th-century Reformation. It was this role Weber gave to the Reformation in his disenchantment thesis, which led to the widespread popular belief that the Reformation was a first step towards secular modernity. It is often said that the Protestant Reformation led to the rise of more rational and more democratic ideas, compared with the medieval church which was allegedly focused on hierarchy and the supernatural.

Historical research has since shown that this picture is inaccurate, both about the church in the Middle Ages – which saw important lay revivals and reforming movements – and about the Reformation. Protestantism produced its own “enchanted” objects, such as pocket Bibles that were said to have repelled showers of bullets. Equally, stories of ghosts, miracles and (the fear of) witchcraft by no means cease with the Reformation, but are common until well into the 18th century. This means that the Reformation cannot be the cause of secularisation insofar as this refers to the disenchantment of the world. We need to look elsewhere for answers about possible driving factors behind the process of secularisation.

The rise of a new theology in the High Middle Ages

Colour illustration of God tracing the limit of the universe, using a typical medieval compass instrument, dated 13th century. Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

A newer thesis about the beginnings of secularisation suggests that the beginnings of secular modernity go back as far as the High Middle Ages, when a new theology arose that made it possible to imagine the world in isolation from God. Before (roughly) the 13th century, theologians tended to focus on how God gives reality to the world in each moment, making it impossible to imagine the world as a separate entity from God. The world was quite literally unthinkable if God were not there. But in the 13th century there arose a different understanding of reality disentangled from any connection to God as the giver of reality. This made it possible to conceive the world without an inherent connection to or dependence on God. This newer understanding of reality as something neutral is thus a prerequisite for the process of secularisation. What this thesis shares with Weber’s is that it argues, surprisingly perhaps, that the story of secularisation begins with a development or reconfiguration in Christian theology. But it is also different from Weber in that it does not put the Reformation centre stage in the story. In fact, the Reformation hardly plays any role in these genealogies of secularisation.

This leads to an important question: what role did the Reformation play in this new story? This is what my monograph Metaphysics in the Reformation: The Case of Peter Martyr Vermigli addresses. Through a case study of one lesser-known reformer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, I argue that Reformation theology was transitory in that it both inhabited the earlier participatory understanding of the world’s reality as a gift, and at the same time also displayed the newer neutral understanding of reality. If this is correct, then it is not wrong to say that the Reformation was one of many stepping stones in the history of secularisation, but it was no decisive turning point.

Dr Silvianne Aspray is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and author of Metaphysics in the Reformation: The Case of Peter Martyr Vermigli, published as part of the British Academy Monographs by Oxford University Press.


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