Chapter 2 A Work of Demolition and Reconstruction: David Martin Defies the Establishment

In: The Post-Secular City
Paolo Costa
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An Unlikely Sociologist

Whilst Blumenberg was duelling with Löwith in Münster, on the other side of the Channel, David Martin, a maverick sociologist nine years younger than the philosopher from Lübeck, began his quixotic battle against the misuses of the concept of secularization. In the end, he was able to produce a theoretical model destined to exert a lasting influence on those who have since looked with distrust and scepticism at interpretations of the modern age based on the image of a zero-sum game between religion and unbelief.1 Martin’s contribution to the new secularization debate, though underestimated and sometimes blatantly ignored, should be measured according to the metrics of paradigm shifts. After him, in fact, the doubt about the framing and not just intraparadigmatic quality of the classical thesis of secularization – in other words, about its status of scientific doxa – has emerged from the penumbra, in which ideological conflicts and the proselytism of converts usually proliferate, to take on the profile of a fully-fledged scientific diatribe. Just as Blumenberg, in his erudite adovacy of the legitimacy of the modern age, was able to change the tone of the discussion by adopting unusual interpretative angles and a non-linear narrative style that made the theorem of secularization appear as a sort of aetiological myth – a ‘just so story’ – so Martin, with his scholarly rebellion against the sociological common sense of the age, broke down the apparently simple question of the decline of religion as light entering a kaleidoscope, inducing in the reader a state of mind of disorientation conducive to the reformulation of the investigated issue.

However, shedding light on this axis shift in the debate is no easy task. To make my work easier and allow the readers to fully appreciate Martin’s intellectual trajectory, some biographical information is in order. As J.S. Reed remarked with a mixture of irony and admiration in one of the rare reviews of his insightful autobiography, “they don’t make sociologists like David Martin any more – but they never did. The man is a one-off.”.2 If theoretical originality is enabled also by unusual life experiences, fortune granted Martin the ideal conditions to become an unconventional sociologist of religion by providing him with a privileged and eccentric point of view on his own time.

Born in London in 1929, Martin grew up in a humble family (his mom was a maid, his dad a chauffeur), dominated by the personality of the father: a man with an ardent Christian faith, follower of a Pentecostal Protestantism where the emphasis on the action of the Holy Spirit, dedication to Christ and the universal mandate of believers are notoriously the cornerstones of a militant devotion. His primary socialization within a minority (nonconformist, in fact) religious denomination is a crucial factor in understanding Martin’s attitude towards secularization. As he proudly avows in his autobiography, it was precisely his Bible-embedded upbringing that schooled him in doubt and inoculated him “against the shibboleths of the university”.3

As it was the case for Blumenberg, the key to Martin’s uniqueness is to be sought in the point of view of the outsider. Although growing up in a social environment that today would be called “fundamentalist”, Martin developed during his childhood and adolescence a passion for art (music, above all, but also poetry, painting and architecture) and, more generally, for culture, which was at the basis of his choice to continue his studies and become an elementary school teacher. In the second half of the 1950s, with two years of civilian service in the Non-Combatant Corps4 behind him, a son, a failed marriage and a dream of a degree in English Literature thwarted by his lack of knowledge of Latin, Martin began to study sociology by correspondence at the suggestion of a colleague. After graduating with top marks at the unusual age of thirty, he began his career as a researcher at the London School of Economics, where he remained until moving to Texas in 1986. Martin’s outstanding and lifelong scientific productivity is partially contingent on the short-circuit produced by the collision of the tenacious son of a Methodist preacher with the radically secular environment of the LSE.5

In addition to his background, Martin’s intellectual originality is the result of the breadth of his interests and the inventiveness of his theoretical tools, which make him a sociologist sui generis. In some respects, his thematic agenda is more akin to that of a theologian than a sociologist – the most suitable disciplinary label for his work is no less idiosyncratic than his academic itinerary: ‘socio-theology’ – and his concern for the religious dimension of experience is also attested to by his parallel liturgical experience that led him to the priesthood. David Martin was a Methodist preacher from 1953 to 1977, when he converted to the Anglican Church. In 1983 he attended Wescott House Theological College in Cambridge, becoming a deacon the same year and a priest the following year. Since then he served as Honorary Assistant Priest at Guildford Cathedral (Surrey).6

Martin’s theoretical non-conformism can be to some extent accounted for by his double religious non-conformism. On the one hand, he had direct experience of Christian faith, not as a rearguard historical phenomenon, but as a powerful factor of personal and social mobilization and renewal, in his home environment. In other words, for him religion was something entirely modern. On the other hand, his passion for sociology was sustained by the conviction that the study of human society represents a crucial element in a dialectical theological outlook focused on the factual, not merely psychological, obstacles with which Christian communities have had to contend throughout their history in order to translate the essence of the Gospel message into practice. “I had never imagined”, he wrote in his autobiography

there could be an academic discipline that dealt with the questions I asked and provided some of the answers I sought. Here was a subject corresponding to my commitments. Opinion and indignation could be fortified by arguments and evidence. I was a natural for sociology.7

In Martin’s sociological reflection, a personal concern is thus turned into a powerful epistemic interest that focuses his investigation and demands a systematic empirical control: a sort of compelling urge to fact-checking that is the distinctive feature of the work of the English sociologist and of his unusual combination of hermeneutics and empiricism.8

In short, Martin’s outsider status, coupled with an intellectual vocation rooted in history and personal identity, made him sensitive to the tendency of the irreligious nonconformity of the ‘learned’ to inadvertently spill over into a refined form of conformism destined to hinder the exercise of dispassionate and avaluative judgement in the investigation of religious phenomena. And it is thanks to the strength of this insight, reinforced by a typically youthful recklessness and naivety, that in the mid-1960s Martin set himself the at first sight ill-advised task of settling the score with the concept of secularization once and for all.

Breaking up Secularization

I wish to draw attention, now, to an apparent contradiction, often pinpointed by his readers, between the deconstructive and constructive intentions animating the work of David Martin.9 He is, after all, the author of a fundamental triptych on the topic of secularization, at the centre of which stands out the 1978 volume, A General Theory of Secularization (conceived in broad outline at the end of the 1960s). This book was preceded by the pioneering The Religious and the Secular (1969) and followed by On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory, a collection of essays appeared in 2005.10 Underlying the trilogy, however, is a short essay that Martin was commissioned to write for a sociological anthology edited by his former colleague Julius Gould and published by Penguin Books in 1965. The article was unabashedly entitled “Towards Eliminating the Concept of Secularization” and began with a statement that left no doubt as to its iconoclastic intent: “This is a work of ‘demolition’”.11

Mixing an outsider’s bravado with a Biblical and Baconian impulse, Martin accounts for the blatant empirical underdetermination of the classical thesis of secularization by tracing it to its being an idol at once tribus, specus, fori, theatri – of the (sociological) tribe, of individual and collective anti-religious prejudices, of ideology. Once the background is set up, the dismantling proceeds in four stages. To begin with, (a) the concept of secularization, understood as the “decline of institutions labelled ‘religious’”, is described as an obstacle to the progress of the sociology of religion, since (b) it is interpreted as the expression of an ideological dogma rather than a healthy induction from experience. More precisely, its ideological aspect consists in (c) arbitrarily identifying its polemical target – usually a caricatured and one-dimensional view of faith and religious institutions – with religion ‘in itself’. In short, it is rebuffed as an equivalent of the puppet argument in logic. The ideologies (d) that Martin calls into question as hidden engines of the secularization thesis are, finally, rationalism, Marxism and existentialism.

Martin is aware that he is on a collision course with scholarly common sense and that his work of demolition will appear pointless to those who – and they are an overwhelming majority in his field of study – consider the decline of religion in modern societies as a process so obvious “that it hardly requires serious sociological attention”.12 To counterbalance this sensus communis, however, there is a sensus rerum based on the following observation. The supporters of the secularization theorem have a suspicious tendency to close their eyes to case studies (such as that of the United States) that disprove the equation between modernization and the decline of religious vitality. They do this, moreover, by means of a questionable escape route: i.e., by resorting to a stipulative definition of what characterizes a true religion as opposed to a fictitious religion on its way to extinction.

As an example of such a stipulation, which reduces the complexity of the phenomenon in order to make it fit more easily into one’s own theoretical-ideological mould, Martin discusses the semantic stratifications contained in the binary opposition between the mundane and the ultra-mundane (internal or external transcendence, present or future, spiritual or material), from which a multiplicity of criteria can be deduced with which to measure the level of secularization of a society: investment in this world or in the afterlife, in life’s goods or spiritual goods, in present happiness or future goods, and so on. On closer inspection, however, this plurality of criteria for establishing the level of secularity of an age is more likely to be arranged horizontally in constellations than in a linear distribution ordered according to the oppositional polarities of the religious and the secular. After all, to take a classic example, the biblical prophets were concerned above all with the holiness of Israel hic et nunc and not with its improbable afterlife projection. Of course, the criteria for measuring such holiness were not worldly, but their effects were primarily earthly.

Martin’s conclusion in this regard is that, “if there are no exclusive associations between one polar alternative and any related set of alternatives, no sets of criteria can be utlized to distinguish between the religious and the secular”.13 And even a dynamization of the opposition along an evolutionary trajectory cannot be a solution, because the various stages of development do not allow for a disjunctive division between the purely religious and the purely secular.

No less unsatisfactory for Martin is a total identification of religion with a single side of the dichotomy (e.g. the ultra-worldly), since even the most spiritual religions are forced to operate in the beyond through worldly institutions. Such an analytical simplification is therefore bound to lead to notorious paradoxes, such as the need to rubricate a large part of the history of a religious movement under the label of secularization (one example for all: the history of the Catholic Church). It is in keeping with this commonsensical consideration that Martin proposes as a rule of thumb for scientific inquiry in this field the principle that “analytic definitions should not constitute so gross a violation of conventional usage as to arouse constant misunderstanding”.14

Hence the urge to base the study of religion today on an empirical definition of religion centred on the role played in society by institutions that are usually identified as ‘religious’. But it is precisely the rapprochement with experience that ends up making the concept of secularization empty. In fact, if one selectively applies it to a single religious experience, it will end up becoming superfluous, since its meaning will not differ from the generic meaning of decline. If, on the contrary, one applies it to a whole class of phenomena one falls into the problem indicated above.

At this point, Martin hastens to specify that such a terminological doggedness is not an end in itself, but serves to “clarify some wider issues”.15 The first is the realization that there is no “unitary process called ‘secularization’ arising in reaction to a set of characteristics labelled ‘religious’”.16 The process does not exist because religious institutions flourish and decline for a variety of reasons that cannot be traced back to a single lowest common denominator arbitrarily identified as religious. In short, there is nothing essential in the decline of the various religions that can be brought under a single all-encompassing category (i.e. “secularization”).

Secondly, “since there is no unitary process of secularization one cannot talk in a unitary way about the causes of secularization”.17 The causes of secularization are often not impersonal causes at all, but deliberate influences of collective agents guided by precise ideological goals. In this sense, the thesis of secularization is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.18 To support this interpretative hypothesis, Martin concludes the essay with a review of the three major secular ideologies of the time: optimistic rationalism, Marxism and existentialism. All three, in fact, convey in different ways the thesis of the inevitable demise of religion. Rationalism considers the decline inescapable because it sees religions as false theories. Martin opposes this tacit claim with the common-sense remark that “believers are not failed rationalists but human beings. Faith provides relatively little information about the world, and such as it does provide is incidental”.19 And, apart from that, all societies, in order to survive, need ideological systems (‘myths’ in the pejorative sense of the term) rather than truths, which “depend upon the constant production of distortions, upon incoherence and downright false images of how the social system operates”.20 In addition, human beings, along with punctual truths, need a “mythical framework [in the positive sense] which is more than the nonsense to which it is indissolubly wedded, since it can set all the major and minor events of life within a profoundly coherent framework of meaning”.21

Marxism, in turn, explains the inevitability of religion’s decline by tracing it back to its ideological function of supporting existing class domination. But this is only one of the functions performed historically by religions. In other words, only a deterministic view of history can rule out the possibility that the conditions for the flourishing of religion will not also be present within a fully socialist society.

Finally, the existentialist’s endorsement of the thesis of secularization rests on a different premise: i.e., the rejection of the prepersonal, institutional, sacramental, and communitarian dimension of religion. The latter is interpreted as a relict of the past so as to obtain a positional advantage that would be difficult to achieve if one examined the question sub specie aeternitatis, that is, as the expression of “an ageless tension between the experimental and the formalized, the objective and the personal, the individual and the institutional”.22

The conclusion of Martin’s essay sounds like an appeal to the common sense of unprejudiced scholars:

the vastly varied religious situation needs to be studied apart from the pressure to illustrate a philosophical position. Values doubtless intrude into every sociological formulation, but the more egregious versions of ideological distortion can be avoided. The word secularization is too closely linked to such distortions to be retained. Its very use encourages us to avoid studies of the impact, for example, of geographic and social mobility on religious practice, in favour of cloudy generalizations. Secularization should be erased from the sociological dictionary.23

The Mirage of a General Theory

As I noted above, this pledge was ignored by Martin himself only a few years later.24 Why? For the banal reason that, scepticism aside, there was still something important to be understood about what happened to religious aspirations, mentalities and practices in the life forms that emerged along with the modern revolutions.25

The theoretical framework within which he intended to make the iconoclastic move he had almost accidentally performed in the decade of the apparent triumph of secularization emerges with special clarity in the introduction to the volume where Martin re-proposed (only four years later) his 1965 article. Here, the standard thesis is contested with self-confident detachment as an aprioristic intellectual operation that starts from an ideological conviction disguised as a simple observation (“God is dead”) and builds on this premise a fallacious transcendental argument: “therefore secularization must be occurring: therefore, secularization is a coherent notion”.26

For Martin, however, the theory of secularization is not consistent because it is made up of separate elements, not easily amalgamated except in the deceptively systematic nature of an umbrella theory:

The concept of secularization [includes] a large number of discrete, separate elements, loosely put together in an intellectual hold-all. These discrete elements are not necessarily associated together in any positive empirical relationship although some obviously may be in given circumstances.27

The point, then, is not to aim for an unachievable absolute coherence or exhaustiveness, but, in the absence of certainty, to at least bring out the complexity of the issue by multiplying critical angles and standpoints. This means, in short, denying legitimacy to the idea that, as far as human religious attitudes are concerned, there is a “sociological master-trend which is not ultimately as well as temporally and locally reversible”.28 The invitation, in other words, is to make room for a view of history that is contingent and without a predetermined end.

Behind this “work of demolition”, one can see, first, the critique of modern philosophies of history’s unjustified faith “in the blind and inexorable laws of historical development” articulated by Karl Popper in The Poverty of Historicism (1957). Second, what stands out is Martin’s aversion to philosophical schools that unilaterally stress the freedom and will of the individual to the detriment of belonging to suprapersonal bodies such as traditions or faith communities (which are unilaterally pictured as merely oppressive realities).29 Third, another important element is the refusal to equate the religious/secular dichotomy with the antithesis between belief and unbelief. Drawing on an argument destined to become a topos in the criticism of the secularization myths, Martin shrewdly shows how the concept of “secularity” is indebted to the Christian worldview and “often embodies in reverse the contradictions of the image it mirrors”.30 The view, happily embraced by Löwith, of secularization as a metamorphosis within Christianity is recovered in this perspective, though its use is circumscribed and put at the service of a dialectical account of history “which brings out the complex interrelation of the religious and the secular rather than utilizing any notion of the transition to the secular”.31 Metaphorically speaking, one could say that, similarly to what S.J. Gould did with respect to human evolution, Martin favored the tangled picture of a “bush” over the linear image of the “ladder” of evolution, reiterating, if need be, his hostility to any staged view of history: “There is no clear sequence here although there is a history of changes, and of variations in balances and emphases”.32

This also means that linear developments in human history are restricted to very specific domains (e.g. the realm of knowledge, monopolized by scientific elites and shielded from the wider population). But religion is not one of these. Religion can be tentatively described, if you will, as a more or less coherent orientation towards the world that generally involves “a transcendent vision of man, society and nature”.33 Now, for Martin, these orientations not only are not “cognitive in the same way as empirical science is cognitive”, but they are also structurally intertwined with scientific notions, cultural models and political institutions that are by their nature obsolescent.34 This means that

alternatives remain open, they are not eroded as ‘rationality’ disenchants the world, but remain as the permanent structure of options. The history of these options is not linear anymore than it is cyclic, neither a chute nor a roundabout, nor is it random. But it is immensely complicated, and the trouble with the concept of secularization is that it attempts to simplify that complexity in the interests of ideology or of an over-neat intellectual economy.35

But, provided that there is no point in telling a simple, linear, systematic story about secularization, what routes remain open to those who are nonetheless exercised by the fate of religion in modernity and aspire to produce the best possible account of this socio-historical phenomenon? Martin’s answer, exemplary for its laboriousness, is contained in A General Theory of Secularization. The theory presented in broad outline in this book presupposes the preliminary work of conceptual cleansing carried out almost a decade earlier, whose aim was to clear the ground of the most simplistic or ideological approaches and make it possible a sideways-on view of history from which patterns or generalizations of different range could emerge.36

Pattern is the key term here. For Martin’s goal is precisely to map an extremely complex territory. The ambition of the undertaking is such that it confronts him with the famous Borgesian paradox of the map of the empire.37 How detailed must the map be if it is to stay faithful to the phenomenon it strives to make sense of? The strategy adopted by Martin in his tentative general theory relies upon a fruitful dialectical tension between epistemic ambition and humility. On the one hand, a definition of religion is advanced that is broad enough to avoid the common fallacy of elevating a particular historical case (e.g. an idealized image of mediaeval Christianity) to a universal model. This characterization, though, has to be sufficiently definite to allow the reader to grasp secularization as a specific historical process situated in time and space.

“By ‘religious’”, Martin argues, “I mean an acceptance of a level of reality beyond the observable world known to science, to which are ascribed meanings and purposes completing and transcending those of the purely human realm”.38 The definition, in short, identifies an “area of concern” within which the object of study is more precisely delimited: the loss of influence of religious institutions and the transformation of the conditions of belief in industrial society. What is secularized in different patterns is therefore not ‘religion’ as such, but the combination of institutions and religious beliefs. The theory, therefore, albeit based on refined methodological premises, is essentially empirical: that is, it aims to photograph a change that must to some extent be visible, recordable and measurable. This means that ‘religion’ quickly acquires a name (Christianity in its various forms: Protestant, sectarian, Catholic, Orthodox) and the generic reference to ‘history’ is qualified in terms of distinctive historical circumstances.

In brief, what the theory aims to establish are typological correlations between long-term trends and particular historical configurations.39 The problem is that macro-trends are idealtypes (differentiation, urbanization, disenchantment, dynamization) that never occur in their pure form, i.e. without a (contingent and responsive) context affecting the linear relation between cause and effect (given a, b and c, then x, y and z). Although Martin’s account does aspire to produce nomothetic knowledge, since the facts to be correlated can never be isolated in a pure form, it ends up zigzagging towards a form of idiographic knowledge in which the emphasis constantly falls on complexity. In such perspective, the dialectical tension between the epistemic polarities finds a precarious balance point in the identification of what we might call “mesopatterns”, i.e. historically contingent models of the relationship between the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ embodying an unresolved, non-static type of connection between reality and its schematic theoretical representations.

Thus, in the modern age, the systemic thrust towards a redefinition of the social role of religious institutions and the content of personal beliefs had different consequences depending on whether it took place in a context of: (a) a denominational monopoly or quasi-monopoly (the “Latin” or “French” model); (b) a moderate or high denominational pluralism (the “British” and “American” models); (c) a rigid separation or blending of civil and religious power, (d) national success or marginality, etc. But even intermediate or local patterns must in turn come to terms with historical contingencies and accidents (wars, revolutions, natural disasters, the presence or absence of charismatic individuals), which often have a decisive impact on the political, social and cultural evolution of a community.40 This theoretical complexity is then reflected in a narrative entanglement where the plurality of angles and the overwhelming profusion of details can have a disorienting effect on the reader and frustrate the author’s explanatory intent, which is contingent on the possibility of significantly reducing the complexity of the explanandum. This is precisely the paradox illuminated by Borges’s parable, and which is apparent in the structural tension in Martin’s writings between the double urge for fact-checking and sense-making, between empiricism and a taste for enlightening historical contextualizations.41 In this regard, the English sociologist was well aware of the risk of lapsing “from explanation to description and from generalization to tautology”.42

Historical Ebbs and Flows

To sum up: Martin’s approach to secularization can be described as a multi-layered account that combines a preliminary work of conceptual cleansing, a causal explanation and an interpretative contextualization of causal links. At the preliminary level, we have meticulous descriptions of exemplary cases which, combined with a scrupulous conceptual critique, demand the assumption of a cautiously sceptical attitude motivated by the problematic nature of any universal assertion.43 A further key step in the process leading to the explanation of a controversial historical transition is the recognition of general patterns, i.e. the frames that set the limits within which “subsequent events persistently move”.44 These frames, in turn, are purely ideal constructs insofar as they indicate how events “tend to occur other things being equal”. But, as Martin wittily observes, things “are [never] the same”.45

The story told by the English sociologist is accordingly at the antipodes of the modern metaphor of the train of progress proceeding towards its final station and leaving behind a plethora of negligible intermediate stops. It presumes, on the contrary, an open ending and a trail “full of cunning alleyways, and the future prone to turn whimsical or unexpected”.46 The human odyssey, as he was fond of saying, is a matter of “ebbs and flows”.47 Like Blumenberg, Martin therefore meant to replace a simple narrative with a complex, multi-layered one that does not impart a single lesson. To this end, he made use of a Judoka-like argumentative move – i.e., the opponent is knocked down using her own impetus – which aims to expose the opponent’s claim of embracing a matter-of-factly mentality, denouncing it (at best) as a pious illusion. When examined in detail, the secularization theorem is in fact anything but uncontested empirical evidence: “Who is to say what is and is not the ‘natural’ direction of history, with respect to religion or indeed anything else?”48

There is an ironic side to this refutation, and Martin was more than willing to admit of the paradoxicality of the situation. His primary goal, after all, had always been to reverse the charge of dogmatism against mainstream secularization theorists. “I prepared my critique of secularization by making a series of moves”, he noted tongue-in-cheek in his autobiography. The first “used the sceptical tools of sociology against its dogmatic assumptions. We prided ourselves on being brave nonconformists against something called ‘the Establishment’ when we were ourselves an establishment demanding conformity on pain of excommunication”.49 And he himself was living proof of the reliability of this diagnosis.

Another efficient refutative technique, honed over the years, aimed to revive the sense of contingency and historical complexity in order to promote a “mode of understanding circumscribed by humility”.50 This meant, first of all, combining the esprit de finesse of historians with the esprit géométrique of sociologists. “I had a strong sense of the contingent in history”, Martin observes in his autobiography, and he was confident that “mankind is not condemned by fate nor forced to proceed helplessly along predetermined tracks. I had therefore to expose the illegitimate transfer of a theological telos or immanent direction into the domain of social science. So much sociology is over-organized history”.

His goal, on the whole, was to “unsettle the sociology of religion itself, in particular by investigating everyday religious practice in the past as well as now, and not taking some arbitrary point in the past as normative, whether Victorian piety or the faith of the High Middle Ages”.51 The truth is that there is no secular destiny with “ringing grooves of change” (Tennyson).52 Thus, the habit of selecting “a given period as normative for what ‘religion’ essentially meant” is itself suspicious, because, from such premises it follows all too easily that any change implies religious decline. “I was not arguing secularization was impossible”, so ends Martin’s self-interpretation, “but interrogating what counted as real religion and a truly religious period”.53

With the benefit of hindsight, then, the outcome of Martin’s work of demolition, begun almost by accident several decades before the tide change, turned out to be not only constructive, but a real breakthrough: the beginning of a new era. It is this unintended consequence, more than anything else, that warrants the use of the image of the paradigm shift:

I had nothing to lose, and invented the kind of relatively modest and contingent secularization theory I believed would not fall foul of my critique of the Great Transition. I sketched out a historically contingent theory of secularization […] It was amazing no one had combined these various elements before, and much later Charles Taylor marvelled something so patently true had so long evaded notice. Paradigms are powerful, as Thomas Kuhn noted in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: another truism that evaded notice until someone said it. It was my good luck to live when ‘the obvious’ could seem a baleful metaphysical revelation. […] only a Nonconformist born and bred dared defend it.54


Cf. Cox, Jeffrey, “Secularization and Other Master Narratives of Religion in Modern Europe”, in: Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte (14/2001), pp. 24–35.


Cf. Reed, John S., “Review of The Education of David Martin: The Making of an Unlikely Sociologist”, in: Society (52/2015), p. 513.


Cf. Martin, David, The Education of David Martin: The Making of an Unlikely Sociologist, London: SPCK 2013, p. 232.


Martin’s interest in pacifism and, more generally, in the question of violence dates back to this crucial personal choice. He dealt with the theme throughout his scholarly career, all the way from his doctoral thesis (Pacifism: A Historical and Sociological Study, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1965) to the recent Ruin and Restoration: On Violence, Liturgy and Reconciliation, London: Routledge 2016.


On Martin’s scientific standing see Künkler, Mirjam, “David Martin In Memoriam (1929–2019)”, in: Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (58/2019), pp. 905–912. One of the latest fruits of Martin’s labour is a retrospective look at the secularization debate entitled Secularization, Pentecostalism and Violence: Receptions, Rediscoveries and Rebuttals in the Sociology of Religion, London: Routledge 2017, part 1.


On the socio-theological nature of Martin’s thinking see Davie, Grace, The Sociology of Religion, London: Sage 2007, p. 65, note 8: “Quite apart from his writing in the social sciences, Martin is an accomplished theologian. Increasingly, his work is best described as a form of socio-theology”. The label is accepted by the author himself; see Martin, David, “The Essence of an Accidental Sociologist: An Appreciation of Peter Berger”, in: Society (49/2012), p. 168: “I first read Peter Berger browsing through new books in the London School of Economics library and drawn by a title that promised something different, The Precarious Vision, published in 1961. It was in a genre I have myself practised from time to time which I call socio-theology”. Cf. also Martin, David, On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory, Aldershot: Ashgate 2005, p. 7: “the distinctive character of my approach lies in the intimate correlation between the theological and sociological accounts, so that faith is understood in terms of its social incarnations and in its dialectic relation to nature as observed in action”.


Cf. Martin, David, The Education of David Martin, p. 99; see also p. 227: “My Evangelical childhood pushed me to undertake a very different kind of personal schooling, motivated by the need to get straight what was still ‘true’ about Christianity once you had worked your way through modern critical thinking about the Bible and modern science”.


Charles Taylor speaks of Martin’s “hermeneutic turn” in the secularization debate in his preface to Martin, David, On Secularization, p. ix. The “empiricist” or realist impulse depends instead on the desire to come to terms with what Wittgenstein would have pictured as the bedrock against which the spade (of theory) is turned: namely, the ‘brute’ (in the most literal sense of the term) facts of the human condition. On this point see Christiano, Kevin J., “Clio Goes to Church: Revisiting and Revitalizing Historical Thinking in the Sociology of Religion”, in: Sociology of Religion (69/2008), pp. 19–21.


Cf. Tschannen, Olivier, Les théories de la sécolarisation, p. 292 et seq.; Cox, Jeffrey, “Secularization and Other Master Narratives”, p. 27.


Cf. Martin, David, A General Theory of Secularization, Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1978; Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular: Studies in Secularization, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1969; Martin, David, On Secularization.


Cf. Martin, David, “Towards Eliminating the Concept of Secularization”, in Julius Gould (ed.), Penguin Survey of the Social Sciences, London: Penguin Books 1965, pp. 169–182, here p. 169.


Cf. Martin, David, “Towards Eliminating the Concept of Secularization”, p. 169; see also Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 9.


Cf. Martin, David, “Towards Eliminating the Concept of Secularization”, pp. 172; see also Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 13.


Cf. Martin, David, “Towards Eliminating the Concept of Secularization”, p. 173; see also Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 13.


Cf. Martin, David, “Towards Eliminating the Concept of Secularization”, p. 176; see also Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 16.


Cf. Martin, David, “Towards Eliminating the Concept of Secularization”, p. 176; see also Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 16.


Cf. Martin, David, “Towards Eliminating the Concept of Secularization”, p. 176; see also Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 16.


On this topic see De Vriese, Herbert, “The Charm of Disenchantment”.


Cf. Martin, David, “Towards Eliminating the Concept of Secularization”, p. 178; see also Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 18.


Cf. Martin, David, “Towards Eliminating the Concept of Secularization”, p. 178; see also Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 19.


Cf. Martin, David, “Towards Eliminating the Concept of Secularization”, p. 179; see also Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 19.


Cf. Martin, David, “Towards Eliminating the Concept of Secularization”, p. 181; see also Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 21.


Cf. Martin, David, “Towards Eliminating the Concept of Secularization”, p. 182; see also Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 22.


“One of the most gloriously mistitled works in our field” is the caustic judgment with which Kevin Christiano dismisses A General Theory of Secularization in Christiano, Kevin, “Clio Goes to Church”, p. 20.


Peter Berger’s both admiring and perplexed reaction to reading Martin’s 1965 essay pointed in the same direction. Cf. Martin, David, “The Essence of an Accidental Sociologist”, cit, p. 168: “Something major had changed since the seventeenth-century (let’s say), and if we were to abandon the catch-all notion of secularization then we needed to formulate what that change was”. See also Martin, David, The Education of David Martin, p. 133.


Cf. Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 1.


Cf. Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 2.


Cf. Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 2.


Cf. Popper, Karl R., The Poverty of Historicism, London: Routledge 1957, p. 50. Martin has recognized the importance of this book for his intellectual development on several occasions. See, for example, Martin, David, The Education of David Martin, p. 104: “[Around 1957] I read Karl Popper and as I paused to pick up a coffee, I realized I did not have to believe certain things, especially about the inevitable course of history. I was free to make up my own mind rather than to replicate whatever was currently prescribed in the right-thinking world.” See also, in the same book, p. 128; Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 2; Martin, David, On Secularization, p. 19.


Cf. Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 3.


Cf. Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 4.


Cf. Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 5; Gould, Stephen J., “Ladders, Bushes, and Human Evolution”, in: Natural History (85/1976), pp. 24–31.


Cf. Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 5.


Cf. Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 5.


Cf. Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 6.


Cf. Martin, David, “Notes for a General Theory of Secularization”, in: European Journal of Sociology/Archives Européennes de Sociologie/Europäisches Archiv für Soziologie (10/1969), pp. 192–201.


Cf. Borges, Jorge L., “On Exactitude in Science”, in Jorge L. Borges, Collected Fictions, trans. by A. Hurley, London: Penguin Books 1998, p. 325.


Cf. Martin, David, A General Theory of Secularization, p. 12.


Cf. Martin, David, A General Theory of Secularization, p. 10.


Cf. David, Martin, A General Theory of Secularization, ch. 2.


For a more extensive discussion of this aspect of Martin’s thought see Costa, Paolo, “The One and the Many Stories: How to Reconcile Sense-Making and Fact-Checking in the Secularization Narrative”, in Hans Joas (ed.), David Martin and the Sociology of Religion, London: Routledge 2018, pp. 50–66. On his personal need for sense-making, see Martin, David, The Education of David Martin, p. 4: “My academic colleagues might well be very sharp, but they sometimes lacked focus. I was focused. I just had to make sense of the role of religion in society and the nature of power and politics, especially sincerity and violence”.


Cf. Martin, David, A General Theory of Secularization, p. 14.


Cf. Martin, David, “The Secularization Issue: Prospect and Retrospect”, in: The British Journal of Sociology (42/1991), pp. 465–474, especially p. 468. See also Martin, David, “Secularization: An International Debate from a British Perspective”, in: Sociology (51/2014), pp. 464–471, especially p. 467: “All this was part of my original critique of secularization theory in the decade from the mid-sixties to the mid seventies. I was worried by constant recourse to what I regarded as steamroller concepts obliterating complex realities in order to clear the way for an assured future, and many of these steamroller concepts are what I call ‘nouns of process’, like secularization, modernization, rationalization, privatization”.


Cf. Martin, David, A General Theory of Secularization, p. 15.


Cf. Martin, David, A General Theory of Secularization, p. 3.


Cf. Martin, David, On Secularization, p. 138. In this sense, the most emblematic event for Martin is, not accidentally, that of the expansion of Pentecostalism. Here personal history and world history end up intersecting significantly. Cf. Martin, David, Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America, Oxford: Blackwell 1990; Martin, David, Pentecostalism: The World Their Parish, Oxford: Blackwell 2001.


A good example of ebb and flow is the oscillation between science and superstition in the modern world, see Martin, David, The Religious and the Secular, p. 116.


See Martin, David, The Education of David Martin, p. 127.


Cf. Martin, David, The Education of David Martin, p. 128.


Cf. Martin, David, The Education of David Martin, p. 102.


Cf. Martin, David, The Education of David Martin, p. 128.


Quoted in Martin, David, On Secularization, p. 138.


Cf. Martin, David, The Education of David Martin, p. 129.


Cf. Martin, David, The Education of David Martin, pp. 133–136.

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