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Retraction: We're Not So Atheistic Anymore

An interview with Massimo Introvigne, by Roberto Beretta
(English translation from the Web site of the Italian weekly "Avvenire")

Professor Introvigne, is the theory of secularization dead?

«I don't think it is in Europe, but certainly in the United States you could count its supporters on your fingers. In its classical form, the theory postulates that modernity is a poison for religion, and that the sacred is destined to decline with the growth of progress. It was a theory that originated in the Enlightenment myth of progress, with Auguste Comte and after him, and it grew in environments that were often anti-religious. In the 1980's, the tendency was to consider the United States as the only exception to the theory: the U.S. is, in fact, at the apex of rationalization, and yet it is the country where the most people attend churches, temples, and synagogues. Now, instead, some think - in view of the vigorous return to religion seen in Africa, Asia, and Latin America - that the exception to the theory (in the opposite direction of the U.S., obviously) is Europe. We hold more simply that the theory of secularization has been eclipsed because the data do not support it. In fact, in countries subjected to very strong currents of modernization, like the so-called "Asian tigers" the number of believers and religious practitioners has grown.»

But perhaps religion has reawakened somewhat all over because the walls have fallen and the era of Marxist ideological censorship is over. Or maybe young people are turning to spirituality in reaction against their excessively atheistic or agnostic parents.

«This is also true. But the theory of the religious marketplace sees things differently: we postulate that there is a constant religious demand among young people, in various forms, and that the different results depend upon the quality of the supply and state interference. As the legislative obstacles to true religious liberalization are gradually removed, there will be a religious awakening in Europe. Those who have no privileges, in fact, are driven to seek the reasons for their faith with greater determination, and thus become better able to transmit it.»

Do you then hold that competition is good for religion?

«It happened in the Middle Ages, too, when the most active missionary orders had the most vocations. It's logical: where there is competition, even within the same Church, people's interest and religious participation grow.»

And what about when there was one Church for everyone in Italy?

«Today in Italy there is still not much pluralism on the religious front; the fact that non-Catholics are only 3.5 percent of the population should demonstrate this. But various scholars have underlined the existence of a vigorous religious market within the Catholic Church, with different proposals and movements that compete with each other. Perhaps this explains the enduring vigor of religious practice in Italy. As for the situation in the 1950's, are we sure that the statistics on attendance at mass were really representative? If anything, the mass Catholicism of the time had a strong qualitative thrust.»

Then should Catholics not be concerned about the numerical growth of other religions?

«This is one of the theories that we uphold, "with a grain of salt" naturally. Religious pluralism of itself creates conditions favorable to conversion in the modern world, and competition certainly promotes improvement. But be careful: this applies only to the rules of the game, which are good for all of the players. It doesn't mean that each Church must not seek to affirm its truthfulness; on the contrary. One of the most recurrent errors is the belief that the theory of the religious marketplace is independent of doctrinal content. But in a marketplace the quality of the product being offered matters - and it matters a lot.»

In fact, you maintain that some theologies succeed and some don't.

«Yes, there's a sort of Darwinian battle even in the religious sphere. The most demanding religious proposals tend to prevail: among the Jews, the orthodox; among Muslims, the fundamentalists; and among Catholics, the most rigid movements and congregations.»

If nothing else, your theory completely demolishes the ideal of a comprehensive and accomodating Church.

«Sociological theory cannot make moral judgments. If we're talking about the historical records, however, adapting oneself to fashion is a losing strategy. The Churches that both ask and offer little are on the decline. Look at some of the Scandinavian confessions, or the 'liberal' Churches that have accepted everything: divorce, abortion, homosexual unions, women priests. In the end, they lose a lot of their faithful. But the ones that firmly maintain more costly demands have not registered the same macroscopic decline.»

Another corollary would seem to be: mission is necessary for survival. Without an explicit proclamation, a Church will die.

«Catholics have known this for a long time. But the theory of the religious marketplace puts us onto another wavelength. Even the 'liberal' Churches, if they were to carry out missionary activity, would have more adherents; but in their relativistic theology, according to which everyone is saved whether he is an unbeliever or even an atheist, mission is not considered. And so these Churches languish not so much because they are lazier than the others, as because of a theological problem.»

It seems that, in order to succeed, a religion should do the opposite of some of the trendy Catholic pastoral theories.

«It's true; ultramodern pastoral theory has shown itself to be bankrupt. But it's also true that after the Second Vatican Council sixty million Catholic charismatics sprang up in the world. There's decline on one side, blossoming on another - and for a reason.»

Rodney Stark - Massimo Introvigne
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Piemme, Casale Monferrato (AL) 2003

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