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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Secularization and Contemporary Religious Renewal in Europe


Event Recap

Declining religious belief and changes in the relationships between church and state have dramatically altered the European religious landscape over the past two hundred years. On November 16 Danièle Hervieu-Léger, a renowned sociologist of religions at l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (the premier French graduate school of social science), explored the process of secularization and religious renewal in Europe.

Hervieu-Léger began her presentation with a brief historical overview of European secularization. The term, she explained, is originally a legal one that indicates emancipation from religious authority in the modern period. In the wake of the Enlightenment “secularization” denoted the weakening of the Church’s influence in the public sphere as well as the general loss of meaning of religion in a European society increasingly governed by scientific reasoning. Hervieu-Léger pointed to two main European models of secularization: On the one hand, an Anglo-Saxon model originating in the Reformation has stressed the development of pluralistic societies accomodating various religious traditions. On the other hand, the French process of laïcité has emphasized the creation of a society void of religion, and finds its roots in the French Revolution. According to Hervieu-Léger, both movements have seen the excision of religion from the public sphere as a basic condition for modernity.

Hervieu-Léger surveyed three popular understandings of the relationship between belief and modernity. The first ignores any connections between religion and scientific thought and has been widely regarded as problematic. A second understanding looks to religions as interruptions and disruptions in the modernization process. That is, religion fills the gaps science has not or cannot explain. A third model is a variation on the second, and views the religious self as a pilgrim trying to construct a religious identity, or a convert that chooses religion as an autonomous expression of the self.

Given the large influx of Muslim immigrants in Europe in recent decades, the relationship between society and religion can’t be ignored, said Hervieu-Léger. Indeed, it still forms part of European political and social institutions albeit implicitly. Recent incidents in Western Europe suggest a need for better integration and a more nuanced account of religion in the public sphere.