The religious impact of secular worldviews: European religions and radical secularism in the 20th century

Todd Weir, University of Groningen

The crucial dynamics of contemporary religion in Europe have been a product of the events since the 1950s. Declining church attendance amongst the traditional religious communities met with religious pluralization caused by migration, decolonization, and the rise of new spiritualities. Yet, we lack an adequate understanding of how these recent developments tie onto the long history of religion in Europe. Many scholars now contemplating “the secular age” have sketched a line between the widely accepted conclusions about the nineteenth century and the problems facing religion and secular governance today. This omits the crucial problem presented by the radical alternatives to religion that emerged in the first half of the twentieth century. This project reconnects the encounters of religion and secularism of the first half of the twentieth century to the second half.

This study also entails a revision of histories of religion that have taken secularization to be the major challenge to religion in the modern era. In fact, until the 1950s, many religious leaders considered antireligious worldviews, or secularism, to the chief danger. Once sufficient attention is brought to the problem that secularism posed for broad theological traditions a century ago, one can more precisely approach more recent encounters of secularism and religion, whether in the form of American evangelicalism or Islamic conservatism.

This project relies on two methodologies. First, it studies the generative effects of apologetics, as a constellation of dynamics that develop around the struggle of religious groups with secularism. Second, it undertakes a conceptual history of the terms worldview and secularism, and examines how these terms were exchanged across the apologetic front and, in the process, helped provide the conceptual framework through which we have come to understand both secular and religious phenomena.

Todd Weir is also director of the Centre for Religion and Heritage (CRH), a research and policy hub within the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen. It combines scholarship with professional training and service to the government offices, churches, museums and foundations that are grappling with the challenges facing the religious heritage across Europe. Over the coming years, the CRH is carrying out two programs: Dutch Historic Religious Buildings: Laboratories of the Postsecular and Heritage in a Religiously Diverse Society. Both programs take as their starting point the recognition that the emptying of the historic churches and synagogues of the Netherlands is not merely a story of loss. Rather, with the shrinking of traditional church activity has come the creation of new meanings in which religion and secular motivations intermingle with heritage.

Laboratories of the Postsecular approaches historic churches and synagogues as sites of social innovation, in which the Netherlands is ahead of the global trends. The CRH will foster the scientific study of this process and lead conversations in public with religious and secular stakeholders. The aim of Heritage in a Religiously Diverse Society is to produce useful knowledge for Dutch and European heritage stakeholders, whose societies are wrestling not only with the growing vacancy of historic church buildings but also with the issue of social integration of new religious and non-religious groups. The processes of secularization and religious pluralization run parallel in Europe and together present major challenges to maintaining religious heritage. It is the conviction of the CRH that a forward-thinking strategy based in sound knowledge can help meet these challenges. In the process, heritage organizations can play a key role in promoting interreligious conversations and helping diverse ethnic and religious groups find their ways to new forms of community belonging.