Review: Secular Conversions

Notice: The final version of this review is published in Contemporary Sociology 46(6):695-696, 2017, doi:10.1177/0094306117734868z. For quoting or citing, please refer to the published version.

Religious groups in many countries battle to include religious practice in public education, insert religious teaching into public school curricula, and acquire public funding for private religious schools. Most theories of secularization predict that countries as similar as the United States and Australia would resolve these conflicts in similar ways. But they haven’t. So why have secularization theories got it wrong?

In Secular Conversions Damon Mayrl compares the distinct Australian and American histories of secular settlements in conflicts over religion and education. Unlike survey-based secularization scholarship focused on individual measures like declining belief, church attendance, or existential security, Secular Conversions highlights historical and contemporary processes that have unfolded within each country’s political institutions. Along the way Mayrl also shows how secularizing actors are only half of the story, why it’s a mistake to attribute secular outcomes to secular actors, how the influential New Paradigm might have its causal story backward and, most important, why we can’t study religion without studying other institutions.

First, some background. Australia and the United States each contain large and diverse religious populations in which the vast majority professes some variety of Christianity. Each country also has a federal government, regular democratic elections, and separation of powers. In the US, religious conflict over education has resulted in a mostly secular approach to educational policy: little to no public funding for private religious schools, a general denial of religious activity in public schools, and well-established case law supporting the separation of church and state. But in Australia it’s been a different story. Major government education funding initiatives support private religious schools alongside public schools, the notion of “establishment” is narrowly construed in terms of a state religion, and public school curricula included religious instruction throughout most of the twentieth century.

To explain this surprising divergence in policy between two similar countries, Mayrl traces three key processes that recur over time within each country’s political institutions: state-building, religious conflict, and professionalization. The key underlying argument is that differences in how these processes unfolded in the US and Australia created different pathways for change and, notably, constituted different kinds of actors to seek that change.

Take professionalization, for example. In Australia’s highly-centralized educational apparatus, teacher professionalization involved increasing compliance with standardized curricular requirements, and teacher organizations focused on labor issues. In America’s decentralized educational apparatus, teacher professionalization involved introduction of innovative techniques and experimental content to the classroom, and teachers organized independent professional societies in addition to labor unions. These differences created distinct pathways to curricular change, and presented unique challenges and opportunities for religious groups seeking such change in each country.

But this isn’t simply a story about political opportunity structures. Mayrl shrewdly notes that there’s rarely a waiting reserve army of secularizing actors. Quite the opposite, in many cases. To take a simple example, for decades Australian public school curricula included time for religious instruction taught by local religious representatives. Yet religious groups often failed to take advantage of this clear opportunity to gain purchase in public education. They simply lacked personnel qualified to offer religious instruction to students.

Secular Conversions takes the point about secularizing actors even further. When it comes to religion and politics, institutions do not simply present opportunities to interested actors engaging in strategic secularization, as influential recent work on secularization suggests. Rather (or additionally) institutions often constitute those actors’ interests in the first place. Consider the teachers again. In each country teachers could be said to have interests in their careers. But in Australia and the US, different educational and professional institutions constituted those career interests differently. In the US career interests included reform efforts, while in Australia career interests precluded reform efforts. By constituting actor interests, existing institutions constituted the actors who might take advantage of opportunities.

So who are these secularizing actors, anyway? If you buy into a secular vs. religious binary, you might think they are atheist activists seeking to suppress religion. But Secular Conversions shows how, time and again, it is actually political conflict between religious groups that generates secular settlements. In the US religious conflicts often have unfolded through courts and local school districts, since individual taxpayers have legal standing to challenge government spending and can choose favorable venues for test cases. In Australia religious conflicts have unfolded at much larger scale through electoral institutions, for example as Catholics in the 1960s mobilized critical religious voting blocs within that country’s preferential voting system. Minority religious groups might never be able to outvote or outspend their (usually Protestant) religious rivals, but they could, and did, use their particular leverage to seek secular settlements that leveled the playing field.

Which brings us to the so-called New Paradigm, an influential perspective originating in 1990s sociology of religion. The New Paradigm’s core idea is that secular institutions generate religious vitality by driving market-based competition for religious consumers. It’s an intuitively appealing idea that launched several academic careers. But Secular Conversions convincingly demonstrates that in practice the converse is true: religious competition often generates secular institutions in the first place. This empirical finding raises questions about the New Paradigm’s entire causal argument. Sociologists of religion should take note.

Mayrl wraps up the book by considering what the future will hold for the American secular settlement. Given broader access in the US to political and legal institutions, and taking into account a seeming trend in court cases and public policy toward religious accommodation rather than strict separation, Mayrl envisions a future US secular settlement that looks a lot like Australia’s. Such a shift would likely favor larger religious groups and do little to settle ongoing religious conflict. Still, like previous secular settlements, any future settlement will be contingent and open to contestation within political institutions. The more general point is that you can’t understand religion without understanding other institutions as well. Any theory of secularization that fails to account for these institutions will be incomplete.

Secular Conversions is very good. It is not perfect. Despite general references to “education” throughout, it spends little time on higher education. Phrases like “weakening of the passions” (p. 208) or “ecumenical zeitgeist” (p. 238) please the reading eye, but at the cost of specificity and clarity. And, as with many historical arguments, readers will at times disagree with the author over the level of detail required to support a given point.

But overall the strengths greatly outnumber the weaknesses. If you’re a sociologist of religion, you should get this book. It complements recent work on secularizing actors. It delivers a gut punch to the New Paradigm. And it demonstrates how much more sociologists of religion can accomplish when they rethink old ideas rather than simply respond to them.

Even if you’re not a sociologist of religion, Secular Conversions is still worth your time. It’s rich in insight and packed with interesting historical examples. Sociologists and students of education, politics, institutions, law, and culture will all find something useful here.

Michael S. Evans
Dartmouth College

Secular Conversions: Political Institutions and Religious Education in the United States and Australia, 1800-2000, by Damon Mayrl. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 298 pp. $34.99 paper. ISBN: 9781107503236.

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2019