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Did the Reformation Secularize the West?

We’re all aware that the West is more secular than it used to be. Christianity no longer exerts the same influence over our public institutions as it did centuries ago, and at a personal level churchgoing and Christian belief have been declining in most Western countries for half a century or more.

Scholars’ attempts to explain this phenomenon can sometimes sound like a game of Clue, except instead of trying to explain the murder of poor Mr. Boddy—“It was Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the billiard room!”—they’re trying to find out who killed religion in the West: “It was the philosophes with the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century!” “It was Darwin with On the Origin of Species in 1859!” “It was the Sexual Revolution with the birth control pill in the 1960s!”

The Reformation Did It!

Each of those theories has its adherents. But in the past 10 years, several important books on the secularization of Western society have instead cast the Protestant Reformation as the prime suspect. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his book A Secular Age (2007), Scottish sociologist Steve Bruce in Secularization (2011), and American historian Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation (2012) all see the Reformation as a major cause—in Gregory’s case, as the main cause—of the secularization of the West.

I don’t have space here to address all of the thoughtful arguments made by these scholars, so I’ll focus on one that they share, which I’ll call the fragmentation argument. Although some version of this argument is important for all three authors, Gregory makes it most forcefully. It goes something like this:

Once, in the Middle Ages, Western Christendom was united in a shared faith under a single Roman Catholic church. All areas of life were suffused with religious influence and significance, and it was almost impossible to disbelieve in God or live one’s life as if he were unimportant. But the Protestant Reformation came along and shattered this unity, creating deep, irresolvable disagreements about fundamental questions of authority, doctrine, worship, and morality—even among Protestants themselves. The resulting conflicts could and did turn violent, as the various groups persecuted each other and doctrinal disputes provided pretexts for religious wars.

These events had two unintended long-term consequences: the privatization of religion and the rise of religious individualism. Privatization said, in effect, if we can’t agree about religion, let’s keep religion out of the things we do together as a society—science, philosophy, commerce, government, education. Individualism said, since we can’t agree, let every man be his own judge in religious matters. While privatization led to the stripping of religion from the public square, individualism led to a breakdown in religious authority in the church and at home, ending in full-blown relativism: what’s true for you isn’t true for me, and you have no right to tell me what to do. Thus, in the long run, the Reformation removed religion from most areas of life and undercut the viability of local church communities rooted in shared beliefs. Or, in Clue terms, “The Reformation did it with religious divisions in the sixteenth century!”

This argument has a lot of surface plausibility. Is it right?

Two Problems with the Fragmentation Argument

While I believe there is some truth to the fragmentation argument (more on this below), it also suffers from substantial flaws. Here are two of them.

First, plenty of disagreements existed in the church before the Reformation: bitter philosophical disputes, ruthless competition between religious orders, and life and death struggles over authority between the conciliar movement and various popes. Indeed, some of these disagreements had already produced structural breaks in the church: consider the East-West Schism of 1054, which permanently separated the Catholic and Orthodox churches, or the Western Schism of 1378-1417, which temporarily divided Europe between two—and eventually three!—rival popes. And this brief summary doesn’t touch on violent disagreement with those outside the church: heretics like the Cathars in southern France, Jews and Muslims in Spain, pagans in Lithuania. To the extent that some of these disagreements were resolved before the Reformation, the solutions tended to involve persecution, exile, and slaughter.

In sum, the problem of disagreement did not begin with the Reformation. What changed after 1517 was that there was no longer any single authority with the power to suppress disagreements and violently impose its will on all of Western Christendom. If the violent disputes following the Reformation are indirectly to blame for secularization, that blame rests just as much on people and events before the Reformation as on the Reformation itself.

Second, the fragmentation argument assumes that faith is less vibrant in a religiously divided society than in one where everyone belongs to the same church. On closer examination, however, it’s not at all clear that this is true, historically or today. Religiously mixed societies can be quite devout. Rubbing shoulders with people who have different views from your own can in fact lead you to take your own faith more seriously, as Christian Smith found in his national study of American evangelicals.

On the other hand, societies that are religiously uniform can also be religiously lukewarm: consider today’s Scandinavian countries, where virtually everyone is a Lutheran and hardly anyone attends church, or Europe in the Middle Ages, when there was widespread religious indifference at a time when the Catholic Church was the only option. If pluralism doesn’t necessarily lead to secularization, then the Reformation’s boost to pluralism doesn’t make it responsible for secularization.

Weighing the Reformation

More generally, even if it were true that the Reformation led to the secularization of the West, this would not settle the question of whether the reformers’ claims were right. And if the reformers were right, then they should not have remained silent. If it could have preserved the church’s unity, should Luther have submitted to church and emperor at the Diet of Worms, knowing that something at the heart of the gospel was at stake? As Protestants and gospel people, we cannot answer “yes” to that question.

Nevertheless, there is still some weight to Gregory’s argument. The violent, interminable doctrinal bickering after the Reformation did provide ample ammunition for those who preferred to keep God out of the conversation altogether. The religious divisions of Europe did make it harder to figure out how Christian convictions could play a role in public life without leading to persecution and political impasses. Some currents of thought in Protestantism did provide opportunities for the growth of unhealthy individualism. None of these things had to happen as a result of the Reformation, but they did.

Our work as Protestants includes wrestling with this unintended legacy. How can we live together amidst religious differences without either imposing our will on others or closeting our beliefs in public? How can we respect the rights of the individual conscience without succumbing to a culture of individualism? How can we build unity and cooperation among Christians without selling out key biblical convictions? These continue to be the challenges of the post-Reformation period, and we will need to continue to face them until the return of our Lord.


Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history and Director of Research at Redeemer University College. You can follow him @knflatt.