In 1967, Peter Berger published The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. In 1968, George A. Romero released his film, The Night of the Living Dead. While these two pieces of cultural insight might not seem linked in any sort of comparative way, an argument can be made that they do, in fact, share similar discursive perspectives concerning the theory of secularisation. The intent of this post is to discuss, as well as defend, those similarities.
The Secularisation Thesis (in brief)
The idea that religion would eventually wane in social importance as humanity moved closer and closer to ‘modernity’ has its roots in the theoretical conclusions of Freud, Weber, and Durkheim. Arguing that religion would eventually lose its social significance by means of modernisation, there eventually arose a Theory (or, rather, Thesis) concerning secularisation.
Heavily determined by the notion of ‘differentiation,’ of the divorce between religious/state cohabitation, this thesis is perhaps best be summarized by Casanova (1994), who defines it thus:
the conceptualization of the process of societal modernization as a process of functional differentiation and emancipation of the secular spheres—primarily the state, the economy, and science—from the religious sphere and the concomitant differentiation and the specialization of religion within its own newly found religious sphere [Casanova, 1994, 20.]
Adding to this definition the equally essential sub-theses of ‘decline’ and ‘privatization’—the idea that ‘secularization’ would eventually lead to a ‘progressive shrinkage’ of public religion until it ultimately disappeared—Casanova’s is merely a contribution to this particular discourse, linked back to a mid-twentieth-century re-conceptualization.
As Berger (1990) states, its original significance was to signify the “removal of territory or property from the control of ecclesiastical authorities” (Berger, 1990, 106), such as in the wake of the Wars of Religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, or more specifically, the “return to the ‘world’ of a person in orders” under Roman canon law (Ibid.). Under the influence of academic criticism, the term has come to embody a number of differing ‘types’ of secularization, all inherently anchored to a ‘modernized’ resolution of societal differentiation from religious authority.
As a central voice in this discussion, Berger’s (1967) early definition, “the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols” (Berger, 1967, 107), has often been considered the foundation for the thesis in general, and has thus been amended on a number of occasions.
For instance, by citing the term’s reliance on ‘modernism,’ Bruce (2002) defends the thesis’ validity by pointing out the modern value bestowed upon certain ‘non-religious roles and institutions,’ which he sees as equally signaling the ‘declining importance’ and ‘social standing’ of religion, particularly in the extent to which people ‘engage in’ or ‘display’ their beliefs publically (Bruce, 2002, 3). Additionally, and in localizing this discourse into a more specific ‘Christian’ context, Smith (2010) and Martin [(1969)1978] remove the concept of ‘secularization’ from the more general framework of ‘religion.’ Smith offers a more theologically-centered insistence, to the point of stating that secularization is nothing more than the “latest expression of the Christian religion” (Smith, 2010, 2), so that what we perceive as the differentiation or decline of ‘religion’ is merely a representation of what he calls the ‘fluid,’ and ‘evolving’ identity of “Christian ethics shorn of its doctrine” (Ibid. 7).
Martin, whose conception might be considered just as ‘foundational’ as Berger’s, offers a more general theory, framed within what he refers to as a ‘Christian ambit’ (Martin, 1978, 2). Built upon the results of certain antecedent processes or ‘crucial events’—the English Civil War (1642-60), the American Revolution (1776), the French Revolution in 1789, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 (Ibid. 4-5)—this ambit forms a type of ‘continua’ that, with respect to individualism, pluralism, and modernity, he marks as being uniquely influential on later thought systems “most central for the secularization process” (Ibid. 8-9).
Taken up in later discussions pertaining to cultural issues beyond just significant ‘shifts in mood’ (see Davie, 1994, 4) concerning the place of religion in people’s lives, such as gender-specific discursive changes about the roles played by men and women in relation to ‘piety’ (Brown, 2001, 9-10), or the inherent ‘double burden’ between in-, and out-of-home female labor (Woodhead, 2008, 189), this discourse has substantial social scientific roots as well.
Zuckerman (2007) aptly summarizes this influence, which I believe is worth citing in full:
Norris and Inglehart (2004) found that 39 percent of those in Britain do not believe in God. According to a 2004 survey commissioned by the BBC, 44 percent of the British do not believe in God. According to Greeley (2003), 31 percent self-identify as ‘atheist.’ According to Bruce (2002), 10 percent of the British self-identify as an ‘agnostic person’ and 8 percent as a ‘convinced atheist,’ with an additional 21 percent choosing ‘not a religious person.’ According to Froese (2001), 32 percent of the British are atheist or agnostic. According to Gallup and Lindsay (1992:121), 29 percent of the British do not believe in God or a ‘Higher Power’ (Zuckerman, 2004, 49)
Secularisation is thus perhaps best described by Martin (2005) as a “semantically rich, contradictory, and paradoxical” concept (Martin, 2005, 58).
For my rather playful use of it here, let us pretend that the Secularisation Thesis is a means to decipher a discursive shift from the ‘religious’ to the ‘secular,’ that in this particular context signifies a transition from ‘myth’ to ‘science.’ Now, to the zombies.
Zombie Narratives (films)
My citation to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead above is not by accident. First, as a film it marks the sort of narrative I have chosen to focus on herein. This does not merely ‘dismiss’ any other sort of narrative example, such as novels or other media, but determines my conscious choice toward specificity. Second, because this film was released in the late 1960s it equally demonstrates a liminal stage in the transition I have chosen to focus on in using zombie narratives as representatives of the Secularisation Thesis.
Prior to this film’s release, zombie films were quite ambiguous about the term itself, to the point that we can isolate two specific categories:
Creature with the Atom Brain (1955)
Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Invisible Invaders (1959)
White Zombie (1932)
King of the Zombies (1941)
Voodoo Man (1944)
Voodoo Island (1957)
Zombies of Mora Tau (1958)
The Woman Eater (1958)
I Eat your Skin (1964)
While the former category appears to be the result of discursive influences concerning UFOs and Aliens (see David G. Robertson’s work for everything UFO based), the latter seems heavily influenced by an almost orientalist interest in the ‘unknown’ beliefs and practices of Haitian, Creole, and Caribbean religion. For more on this, check out Sheller’s Consuming the Caribbean.
What stands out, then, with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is that the zombies are never exactly explained (though we might also add here that they are ‘living dead,’ rather than merely under some form of mind control). That is, even though in the film an emergency broadcast tells us that there are a number of assumptions about their origins, including a theory concerning radiation from outer space, it is never made apparent. In fact, this lack of explanation carries on throughout Romero’s ‘Living Dead Series:’ Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2010).
These films are liminal examples, representing a point between the myth-based films wherein the zombies are the result of either alien or religious practices, and those that have been produced more recently. Moreover, we might even trace this transition to a single origin, out of which has spawned a whole new (secularised) genre characteristic.
In 2002, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later re-invigorated the zombie genre, while at the same time infected the narrative with an explanation of zombiism in distinct medical terms. While not a ‘zombie film’ in the sense that the creatures hunting the ‘living’ are infected with a significantly violent strain of rabies, rather than being ‘undead,’ the use of a viral infection as the source of the quasi-zombiism shifts the discourse from mythical to scientific.
Now, terms like ‘plague’ or ‘outbreak’ are used to describe the ‘zombie apocalypse,’ and epidemiology is often used as a narrative device as survivors search for a cure. After 28 Days Later, this discourse embodies nearly every single zombie film: Resident Evil (2002) and its many sequels, though it was based on the video game first released in 1996; Shaun of the Dead (2004); REC (2007), as well as its American re-make Quarantine (2008); and World War Z (2013) which was based on the phenomenal book of the same name.
In fact, even remakes of older films adopt this discourse: I am Legend (2007), which was based on the book by Richard Matheson and the films The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971), finds Will Smith’s Robert Neville a lone virologist trying to ‘cure’ the disease plaguing the mutated, seemingly zombified, remnants of humankind; the 2008 ‘loose’ remake of Romero’s Day of the Dead in which a viral outbreak has created ‘zombie-like’ creatures; and, perhaps most importantly, the incredibly popular The Walking Dead series, based on the graphic novel of the same name.
The latter is an important addition here, not just because of it’s massive popularity, but because of its longevity. Unlike the films cited here, which are given a limited amount of time to tell their stories, The Walking Dead has had five seasons, and is scheduled for a good deal more. It even has a spin-off, set in Los Angeles, that has begun shooting. What this equally means is that the show, which quite occasionally veers away from the source material, has taken the opportunity to explain, in detail, just where the ‘zombie disease’ came from, and how it affects us all. In the first season finale, “TS-19,” the zombie virus is revealed to us via an explanation from a lone CDC medical technician working tirelessly to cure the disease, to no avail. He gives us vivid details about it, even showing us how it works, using scanned footage of his wife’s brain as she died, and then re-animated. The name of the virus gives the episode its title. The website Nerdist.com has even provided a scientific explanation beyond the limits of the show’s dialogue, which can be viewed here:
With these examples we can trace a very distinct discursive shift, from mythological to empirical, a shift that, via zombie narratives, provides for us a unique perspective on the manner with which secularisation might manifest itself.
Perhaps more than anything else, I chose the playful nature of this post as a symbol of the utility of discursive perceptions. Just as we might perceive the influences that shaped the Alien and Voodoo-based categories prior to Night of the Living Dead as stemming from very specific sources, the shift from mythological to scientific in the zombie narratives after that latter film gives us an equal lens through which we might make sense of the secularisation thesis’ notion about the weaning away of religion in the face of modernity. This is perhaps not a perfect example, but it is apt.
To summarise: zombie narratives, once predominately based in mythical discourse, shifted to more scientific and medical language in reflection of cultural modernity. Now, though the idea of a horde of dead humans roaming the earth and feeding on the living is scientifically preposterous, the origins of such an apocalyptic vision are no longer justified by myth. Rather, science has stepped in, a symbol of our cultural shift from mythical explanations to empirical ones. These zombie narratives reflect our own shift, fiction representing our fact.
Which brings us back to everything is fiction. Using fictional texts as discursive sources balances itself quite precariously on the nexus between what we might determine as fictional (entertaining and made-up) and factual (designed and made-from). Yet it also gives us freedom to grow, experiment, and translate our ideologies via different sorts of thematic languages. Zombie narratives and the Secularisation Thesis might not, on the surface, seem like relatable subjects, but the discourses that shape them are nonetheless malleable when we try hard enough.
 Norris and Inglehart, Sacred and Secular, 2004, 186-191; Greeley, Religion in Europe and the End of the Second Millennium, 2003, 190 and 205; Bruce (2002), 192-194; Froese, “Hungary for Religion,” 2001, 251-268; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/wtwtgod/3518375.stm (accessed 24 February 2015); and http://www.peace.ca/gallupmillenniumsurvey.htm (accessed 24 February 2015).
Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1967).
Peter Berger, “The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview” in Peter Berger, ed., The Deseculariaztion of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999).
Callum G. Brown, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000 (New York: Routledge, 2001).
Steve Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2002).
Jose Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).
Grace Davie, Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing without Belonging (Oxford: Blackwell 1994).
Graeme Smith, A Short History of Secularism (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010).
David Martin, “Notes for a General Theory of Secularization” (European Journal of Sociology, Vol. 10, Iss. 2, 1969).
David Martin, A General Theory of Secularization (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978).
David Martin, On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005).
Linda Woodhead, “Gendering Secularization Theory” (Social Compass, Vol. 55, No. 2, 2008).
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