How (Not) to be Secular [book review]

[This is a 3 part reflection on James K.A Smith’s book How (Not) To Be Secular]

Secular_SmithHardly a month passes without HuffPost Religion publishing another piece on the decline of religion.

Few can argue with the data. Religious affiliation and attendance have indeed declined in recent decades in the West (not worldwide, as I have argued elsewhere). Even America, historically a bulwark of religious faith, is witnessing a meteoric rise of religiously unaffiliated individuals.

But how should we interpret these studies?

If the Facebook comments beneath these articles have any predictive power, the narrative is clear: Religion has entered an inevitable death spiral. In a few years, global society will resemble the “religion-less” humanity of the Star Trek universe.

Scholars occasionally [and more tactfully] have echoed this prediction, positing a “secularization theory” that predicts religion will decline in influence throughout the 21st century.

Although such theories seem “obvious” to many, James K.A. Smith’s book How (Not) To Be Secular disputes the secularization theory and offers a timely alternate interpretation of our secular age.

Smith’s first critique of the secularization theory starts by redefining our popular understanding of religion.

If by “religion” we mean the great historic faiths or even explicit belief in supernatural beings…then, yes, perhaps “religion” is indeed declining. However, as Smith argues, if we broaden our definition of religion to include spiritual or semi-spiritual beliefs, can we truly say these have declined? Probably not if we consider the growing popularity of people claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.”

Smith argues that we are not so much seeing a decline in religion, but a diversification of available religious options. Secularization is therefore not a subtraction process in which we subtract religious belief from society, but rather, an addition process in which we have added new religious options such as exclusive humanism.

The cultural shifts that made way for this addition process are complex, but Smith goes into much greater detail to identify them if you are interested in learning more. In essence, he argues that secularity occurred when humans started viewing the Universe as an infinite, empty, indifferent space, rather than an ordered, hierarchical Cosmos shepherded by God. Science allowed for humans to conceive of the Universe as completely immanent, lacking any window to a spiritual or transcendent realm.

For me, Smith’s book is mindblowing. It is hard to avoid buying into the secularization theory considering how frequently pundits repeat its inevitability. Although the secularization theory seems self-evident, though, Smith masterfully shows this is not the case…and scholarship is always most exciting when it controverts what we think is self-evident.

Smith also ably cuts the middle-ground between apologetics and incisive research—an impressive feat as a Christian scholar working at a Christian college (Calvin College, Michigan). Stay tuned in the coming days as I reflect more on this in future posts.



Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.


  1. Interesting…
    So, is Smith arguing that science has become a type of spiritual/religious belief, with the Universe replacing a Deity?

Speak Your Mind