Exploring different definitions and explanations of secularisation

Exploring different
definitions and explanations
of secularisation
Starter: What do we know already?
•Auguste Comte?
•Karl Marx?
•Max Weber?
Simple definition:
The idea that the influence of
religion has declined – and
continues to decline – in
contemporary societies
(Sachs 2004)
"the process whereby
religious thinking, practice
and institutions lose social
What are the problems with this definition?
•How can we measure ‘decline’?
•What features of religion should we
measure to test decline?
Analyse the following statistics and
sort into pro-secularisation and
anti secularisation
What does data from
the 2011 Census tell
In 2011,
52,037,880 people
in England & Wales
answered the Census
question on religion
Muslim (Islam)
4,038,032 did not.
This bar chart shows
the main religious
5,000,000 10,000,000 15,000,000 20,000,000 25,000,000 30,000,000 35,000,000
Mixed Religion
240,530 people
in England & Wales
stated a religion
the Office for National
Statistics classed
as ‘other’.
This was 0.4% of the
Believe in God
In 2011,
This was up from
around 151,000
people in 2001.
This bar chart shows
the ones which more
than1000 people said.
1,949 Own Belief System
In 2011,
14,097,229 people
in England & Wales
were classed as
having ‘no religion’
by the Office
for National Statistics.
Jedi Knight
This was 25.1% of the
This was up from
around 7.7million
people in 2001.
This bar chart shows
the most common
answers in this
Heavy Metal
Free Thinker
20,000 40,000 60,000 80,000 100,000 120,000 140,000 160,000 180,000 200,000
Does the mori poll
research support this?
There has been a 50% decline in membership this
The percentage of the adult population as members of
Churches has declined from 30% - 12%.
The Church of England has seen its membership decline
form 13.5% of the adult population to 4% of that
Brierley argues that there has been a decline
in attendance over this period from a high of
50% of the adult population in the 1850's to
a low of 10% in 1989.
Approximately 1 in 10 of the adult population
attend some form of religious service each week
(and if we make allowances for the unreliable way
these statistics are collected, it is probable that
the figure is significantly lower...).
The percentage of Christian Church members (Church
of England and Roman Catholic - The Trinitarian
Churches) is relatively small in terms of the population
as a whole (15% in 1992).
Church membership has declined significantly in the
period covered by the figures.
General increase in religious participation Non-Christian denominations in our society
over the past 25 years
Immigrants into Britain, bringing with them their own religious practices, tend to have
higher levels of religious practice that reflect feelings of persecution, common cultural
identity and so forth. In this respect, on of the functions for religion amongst such groups
might be as a focus for the retention of some form of common identity and values, rather
than it being an indication of greater religiosity.
As first generation immigrants settle and start families, their numbers increase. Thus, what
we may be seeing is simply an increase in the numbers of former immigrant groups
meaning that there are more people in the religious participation age-bracket, rather than
an increase in religious practice.
Ethnic participation
Muslims and Jews have higher levels of religious practice which may
reflect feelings of persecution, common cultural identity in a “hostile”
world and so forth
Amongst sects and cults, it does seem evident
that there has been growth in participation over
the past 25 years and this may well reflect a
growing interest in these types of religions
(Scientology, Transcendental Meditation, the
Moonies and so forth).
Sects and cults
These sects and cults are, proportionately, very small in number - most number a
few hundred members.
Patterns of participation tend to quite different to the patterns established
amongst the major denominations. Scientology, for example, does not demand a
church-type attendance (members are simply required to buy courses as an when
It is notoriously difficult to establish membership numbers and participation rates
because, firstly, these are difficult to measure and, secondly, the sects themselves
tend to inflate their membership numbers to present themselves as rather more
established religious forms than their size would normally warrant...
Bruce (2001)
Over past 100 years in the UK the number of full time
professional clergy has declined by 25%
Brierly (1999)
In 1990, 67% of weddings in England were celebrated in an
Anglican church; in 2000, it was 20%
What could these images
be used as evidence for?
Others ways to spot secularisation (Shiner 1967)
- ‘disappearance’
- conformity (religion is more concerned with
secular issues than the spiritual)
- disengagement (less public role for religion)
- transposition (ideological challenge to religion)
- desacralisation (demystification of natural world –
- movement (from small scale to complex societies)
Can you think of any examples from last lesson that
fit this?
- ‘disappearance’
- conformity
- disengagement
- transposition
- desacralisation
- movement
Peruse the newspapers and see if you can
find any examples of the categories:
- ‘disappearance’
- conformity
- disengagement
- transposition
- desacralisation
- movement
A historical perspective
Why might some sociologists
argue that ‘feudal’ Britain was
more religious than today?
The church’s role in feudal Britain?
Monopolised knowledge.
Had a close relationship with the State and secular
Exercised powerful social controls over the individual
(such as confession, excommunication and so forth).
In effect, in pre-industrial societies, the Church
is viewed as being pre-eminent in terms of its
ability to organise and control knowledge - not
only in relation to such ideas as socialisation
and education, but also in terms of the idea
that it is unchallenged in its ability to provide a
coherent, “rational”, ideological interpretation
of the natural / social worlds.
However, once scientific ideologies begin to develop (for example, the Theory of
Evolution), the Church’s role as sole interpreter of the world will necessarily decline and with this will come political decline. Religious frameworks lose their relevance,
their plausibility and hence their influence...
Berger sees this process not as evidence for secularisation, but merely evidence of a
changing role for religious institutions. While scientific rationalism has clearly
triumphed over religion in some areas, religious values, ideas, norms and so forth still
provide people with moral guidelines by which to live their lives.
In this respect, in the process outlined above, we may simply be witnessing a “reversal
of ideological dominance” rather than a replacement of one by the other, insofar as
religious and scientific ideas may always have coexisted - the difference, in modern
societies, is that scientific frameworks are more plausible in some areas of life than in
the past.
Modern day Britain
Monopolised knowledge.
Had a close relationship with the State and secular
Exercised powerful social controls over the individual
(such as confession, excommunication and so forth).
Victorian Britain
Many see Victorian Britain as a Golden age – what evidence is there
that this society was very unchristian?
(child prostitution, lack of political representation, the exploitation of
child-labour, slavery, military adventurism and Imperialism and the
Victorian Britain
Martin: “In Victorian Britain, the emergent middle classes tended to use
Church attendance as a means of ‘creating and maintaining’ a sense of
respectability. regular Church attendance, for this class, was more a means
of being seen, by others as ‘pious’, devout’ and ‘respectable’ than as
necessarily being indicative of strong religious beliefs...”.
Or, as Demaroth and Hammond (“Religion in Social Context”, 1969) note:
“We should avoid the quick assumption that Church members are always
highly religious in their personal beliefs and activities, or that Church nonmembers are otherwise non-religious”.
Sort the arguments into
pro and anti secularisation
Talcott Parsons
Talcott Parsons (“Social Structure and Personality”, 1970), for example, has argued
that, while religious institutions no-longer have a direct influence over things like
education and politics, their indirect influence is still relatively strong (in terms of such
things as norms, values, moral guidelines for behaviour and so forth).
In “Social Structure and Personality”, Parsons’ basic argument involves a similar form
of reasoning about the role of religion as he applied to the family in industrial
societies. Thus:
As societies industrialise, they become increasingly differentiated - that is, different
institutions arise to cater for changing structural needs (the education of the masses,
for example, is so essential to modern industrial production that it can no-longer be
left in the hands of the Church, voluntary organisations and worthy individuals). In this
respect, the Church as an institution becomes more specialised in its functions.
Privatised religion/The
differentiation thesis:
• Religion is becoming a private affair.
• Grace Davie (1994), argues that there has been a separation of ‘belief
• She claims that religious belief remains widespread but is less likely to be
expressed in an institutional setting.
• People no longer feel they belong to a religious organisation.
• Privatised religion is showing that religion is losing social significance
Berger have argued that, as levels of
knowledge and understanding develop in any
society, a “natural” or “expected”
consequence will be a decline in the
organisational role of religious institutions.
Berger and Thompson
“Religious institutions become marketing agencies and
the religious traditions become consumer commodities”.
Thompson (“Religion”, 1986) :
“The religious views which at one time could be imposed,
now have to be marketed and sold to potential
Berger Denominations have become more bureaucratic and more “businesslike”, those who seek a “truly religious form of experience” are attracted to sects
which attempt to isolate themselves from secular society.
Wilson, amongst others, interprets this as a retreat from religion - as evidence
of the fragmentation, isolation and neutralisation of religious beliefs
Greely (“The Persistence of Religion”, 1973), on the other hand, sees this as
evidence of what can be termed “resacralization”. That is, the growth and
diversity of new religious movements as evidence of the renewal, vitality and so
forth of religious beliefs in modern societies.
Acquavita (1979)
Britain is not alone (although the claim is
made that Britain has become “the most
secular nation in Europe”) - the influence
of Christianity has declined over a wide
range of societies.
has further suggested that the influence of religious institutions
has declined to such an extent in Britain that:
“Religion is no-longer news, except when a clergyman commits a
moral misdemeanour.”
In short, the pro-secularisation argument, based upon the
analysis of religious participation, is that secularisation is indeed
taking place.
Religion as dissent
In totalitarian societies (for example, Eastern Europe under
communism, some South American countries) where the State has a
monopoly of political organisation and expression, the channels for
political dissent that are open in democratic societies are closed.
Political / economic dissatisfaction in such societies cannot find its
expression in “normal” political activity.
The role of the Church, in such societies, may be one of a “focus of
dissent”, in that the Church may be the only “legitimate” way through
which people can express their economic and political dissatisfaction.
Berger argues that the evidence for secularisation is
inconclusive because religion has changed in form. In
modern societies religion has become pluralistic (involving a
number of different, competing, religious organisations) and
privatised (a matter of individual choice). Because religion is
seen, by Berger, as ideology (a meaning system for the
interpretation of the world), he argues that religion is, by
definition, “alive and well” because it represents, as far as
we can tell, an indispensable element of human social life /
Secularization debate.
He wrote
public religions in
the modern world.
He distinguishes three aspects of secularization & argues that
religion has not faded away from public life.
KEY CONCEPTS: differentiation, decline of religion beliefs,
privatization, deprivatization.
1) Casanova believes secularization starts with differentiation
where the state, politics and the economy become separate
from religion.
2) Another aspect of secularization is the decline of religious
beliefs and practices when fewer people take part in religious
activities or believe in God.
3) Privatization is another aspect of secularization and refers
to the way in which religion stops playing any part in public or
political life & no longer influences how politicians make
decisions or how individuals in society chose to live their lives.
* Casanova argues that religious beliefs and practices are not
dying out, and that ‘public relations’ have increasingly reentered the public sphere.
* Although religion is no longer as central and important to the
state it is has not faded away and still has a part to play.
* BUT in other countries across the world, Casanova argues
that deprivatization is taking place where religion is becoming
more active in public and political affairs.
WEAKNESSES: as with all theoretical works, this could do
with some empirical support, drawing on events in recent
history to illustrate and substantiate the concepts he uses.
* Martin argues religion is likely to increase in importance
i) religion is no longer closely associated with rich & powerful
elites, so religion has become more acceptable to those from
lower classes.
ii) rationalism has lost its appeal & there is growing interest in
the supernatural and the religious to give hope to people.
RESEARCH METHOD: some analysis of the role of religion in
other countries.
WEAKNESSES: This is rather out-dated and won’t be able to
take account of recent events such as growing Christian and
Islamic fundamentalism in response to the reactions of 9/11.
Is the secularization debate ethnocentric?
•Britain is a multi-cultural country: a melting pot of different
religious faiths. Modernization and industrialization have
brought with them social fragmentation of society into a
plurality of cultural and religious groups.
•Bruce argued that religion serves two purposes for ethnic
groups: cultural defence (a way of asserting ethnic pride in a
state of conflict) or cultural transition (gives sense of
continuity and security when emigrating to another culture).
Bruce believes the consequence of social
fragmentation is that the state can no longer
support a single religion without causing
conflict. The plurality of religions reminds
individuals that their beliefs are a personal
preference and no longer part of their
membership of society.
Secularization debate.
He wrote
religion in modern
Britain. 1995.
Argues opinion poll data shows weakening of religious beliefs.
Some are moving to NRMs but such vague beliefs have little
cultural influence & hardly affect people’s behaviour.
KEY CONCEPTS: social differentiation, societalization,
social fragmentation, strong religion, weak religion.
* Churches are more distant from the state now which has
freed them up to be more critical of the government (e.g.
* Agrees with Parsons, social differentiation means religion
performs fewer functions particularly as modern world is more
* Societalization means social life has become more
fragmented and is no longer locally based around communities,
like it used to be.
Bruce argues the decline of community undermines religion in
three ways:
1) without strong sense of community, churches can no longer
serve as a focal point for communities;
2) people’s greater involvement with broader society (work
etc), means they’re less likely to turn to their vicar for
3) cultural diversity means people hold their beliefs with less
certainty as they have been influenced by other religions.
* Strong religion which dominates people’s lives, can’t be
widespread in fragmented society while weak religion is more
suited to fragmented societies where there is an acceptance
that there may be more than one way to spiritual truth.
* Doesn’t accept that NRMs are soaking up people leaving
churches as there are too few of them. Bruce believes
secularization is still definitely happening in modern British
RESEARCH METHOD: theoretical – drawing upon survey data.
WEAKNESSES: again, empirical data would allow him to
operationalize his concepts with real people to see if they’re
really happening.
Secularization debate.
Heelas et al wrote
the spiritual
revolution: why
religion is giving way to
This was an empirical study carried out in Kendal, Cumbria
which found less people attending church, but more people
becoming involved in the New Age & alternative spirituality.
KEY CONCEPTS: secularization, congregational domain,
sacrilization, holistic milieu.
•They categorized conventional, ‘normal’ religious
congregations into three types of worshipper:
1) those that focused on people living their own individual,
unique lives;
2) those that emphasized living their own unique lives but with
clear guidelines on behaviour and
3) those that ‘pay little or no attention to unique lives, and
require them to be sacrificed on the altar of a higher good’ –
in other words, they look to God for guidance and will obey
Him, not their own spirit.
* The first type of group were most likely to become involved
in New Age religions whilst the last group were most likely to
remain in the bosom of the traditional church where teachings
of the religion are expected to be obeyed with no question.
* The New Age was growing while the traditional religions
were shrinking. This led the team to conclude that
secularization was happening in the congregational domain at
the same time as sacrilization (increased emphasis on the
sacred) was taking place in the holistic milieu.
RESEARCH METHOD: Between 2000-2001, a ‘body count’ of
attendees at religious ceremonies was carried out, along with
interviews, a street survey and ethnography.
STRENGTHS: this study has a lot of validity as it involved
strategic primary research.
They wrote
strong religion.
They agree with Bruce that secularization & modernization
cause fundamentalism but offer broader factors to explain this.
KEY CONCEPTS: structural conditions, contingency &
chance, human choice & leadership.
* They argue that fundamentalism can be understood on three
i) the structural level is concerned with long-term contextual
conditions like unemployment, war, persecuted ethnic groups
(Palestine / Israel) or dislocated people & social changes. This
misery can cause religious groups to mobilise.
ii) Contingency & chance, where although structural events as
described above do have an impact, fundamentalist activity
also depends on which specific historical events have occurred
(such as invasions etc).
iii) Human choice & leadership mean that fundamentalism will
not develop without religious leaders who can mobilise large
numbers of people in support of their religious beliefs.
* They think the nature of religious organisations is also
important, ones where individual congregations have some
independence are more likely to develop break-away groups,
including fundamentalist ones.
RESEARCH METHOD: a review of a major comparative study
of fundamentalist religious throughout the world, 75 case
studies carried out over 20 year period, interviews in Middle
East, North Africa and the US.
STRENGTHS: A thorough research method which has more
validity than purely theoretical studies. It is also dynamic in
that it allows us to apply wider social factors to the spread of
Examines the sociological causes of fundamentalism & sees it as
a ‘rational response … to social, political & economic’
KEY CONCEPTS: fundamentalism, ideological cohesion,
orthodoxy, ortho-praxis.
* Argues the main cause of fundamentalism is ‘the belief of
religious traditionalists that the world around them has
changed so as to threaten their ability to reproduce
themselves & their tradition.’
But what else..?
i) some religions have more potential for radicalism,
particularly those with a single sacred text (the Qur’an or the
Bible), this ideological cohesion makes it much easier to
mobilise people;
ii) fundamentalist beliefs are stronger in groups who feel they
have a common external enemy – such Islamic fundamentalist
groups united in hostility to the US & allies;
iii) the way in which belief systems are controlled within a
religion. Catholicism is centralized in Rome, but Islam and
Protestantism isn’t; this permits radical clerics to influence
iv) it needs a supply a potential recruits, particularly those who
are young, unemployed or poor;
v) the path fundamentalism takes is affected by its relation to
politics. In the US, New Right Christian fundamentalists have
had ample opportunities to promote their cause through
politics, where this opportunity is not present, fundamentalism
is more likely to take a violent turn.
* Christianity emphasizes being religious through holding the
correct beliefs (orthodoxy), whereas Islam places more
emphasis on being religious through one’s actions (orthopraxis).
* So the emphasis on action & power along with the lack of
democratic involvement, makes it more likely that Islamic
fundamentalists will turn to violence.