By Vexen Crabtree 2008 Nov 30
Secularisation Theory: Will Modern Society Reject Religion? What is Secularism?Anti-Religious Forces - The Specific Social Forces Fuelling SecularisationSecularism - The belief that religion should be a private, personal and voluntary affairAtheism and Secularism
“...the ongoing, growing, and powerful movement called secularism, a way of understanding and living that is indifferent to religion -- in fact, not even concerned enough to pay it any attention, much less oppose it.”
National Council of Churches1
Secular means without religion. Non-religious people lead secular lives. Secular government runs along rational and humanistic lines. This is the norm in democratic countries. The individuals that make up the government are rightly free to have whatever religion they want, as are the populace. Because of this freedom, in a multicultural world, there is a requirement for governments not to cause resentment or divisions by identifying itself with a particular religion. The most well-known phrase proposing secular democracy as an ideal is Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state" [paraphrased].
Secularism, promoted by secularists, is the belief that religion should be a private, personal, voluntary affair that does not impose upon other people. Public spaces and officialdom should therefore be religion-neutral. Secularism ensures that religions are treated fairly and that no bias exists for a particular religion, and also that non-religious folk such as Humanists are treated with equal respect. It is the only democratic way to proceed in a globalized world where populations are free to choose their own, varied, religions.
Secularisation is the process of things becoming more secular. Most of the Western world has seen this paradigm come to dominate politics and civil life, starting from the time of the Enlightenment. Religion, because it causes issues, retreats from the public sphere as people prefer to meet on neutral terms, in peace.
Secularisation Theory is the theory in sociology that as society advances in modernity, religion retreats. Intellectual and scientific developments have undermined the spiritual, supernatural, superstitious and paranormal ideas on which religion relies for its legitimacy. Therefore, religion becomes more and more "hollow", surviving for a while on empty until loss of active membership forces them into obscurity. The evidences and shortcomings of this theory are discussed later in this text.
Some take the process of secularisation as a personal affront, and think that mere lack of bias from government implies an active attack. They see any reduction in (their own) public religion to be bad, and apparently they do not understand the causes or reasons behind the secularisation of officialdom. Hopefully this page will address this.
Secularisation theory explains that as modern society advances it will become increasingly secular, and religion will become increasingly hollow. Since the rise of science in the 17th Century, sociological commentators have realised that religion may be in a permanent decline, and some have proposed the science and intelligence, both rooted in the Enlightenment, are anathema to religious faith. Karl Marx (1818-1883), Durkheim (1857-1917), Max Weber (1864-1920), the founders of sociology, and William James (lectures from 1901-1902) are four eminent men who all noted this decline. My page Religion in the United Kingdom: Diversity, Trends and Decline page show examples and charts of what this long-term decline looks like, in terms of memberships, attendance and beliefs, etc.
“The three 'classical' sociological theorists, Marx, Durkheim and Weber [all] thought that the significance of religion would decrease in modern times. Each believed that religion is in a fundamental sense an illusion. The advocates of different faiths may be wholly persuaded of the validity of the beliefs they hold and the rituals in which they participate, yet the very diversity of religions and their obvious connections to different types of society, the three thinkers held, make these claims inherently implausible.”
“There is a notion in the air about us that religion is probably only an anachronism, a case of "survival," an atavistic relapse into a mode of thought which humanity in its more enlightened examples has outgrown; and this notion our religious anthropologists at present do little to counteract. This view is so widespread at the present day that I must consider it with some explicitness before I pass to my own conclusions.”
One modern oft-quoted definition of secularisation by Bryan Wilson (1982) is “that process by which religious institutions, actions, and consciousness, lose their social significance”4, which is quite wide and includes most theories as to why religion is declining, but, specifically ties the description to social ( - public) significance. Whereas other sociologists such as Steve Bruce have collected data that proves that private religion is also declining5. Another definition by William Sims Bainbridge goes too far in stating that "secularization theory, which in its simplest form holds that social and intellectual progress is rendering religion obsolete"6. Few are far between are the brave anthropologists or sociologists who theorize religion will become obsolete! Roger Finke (1997) gives secularisation theory a more useful definition that doesn't concentrate on just social effects: “religion will decline as modernity erodes the demand for traditional religious beliefs”7. Here the word "traditional" takes into account the fact that it seems that new-age, individualistic and self-help religions are rising in popularity - although this rise is nowhere near enough to curb the overall downward trend in religious involvement.
Moojan Momen (1999) says there are five ways of looking at secularisation:
"Decline of popular involvement in institutionalized religion. This can be seen in the decline in church attendance, with fewer marriages, baptisms and funerals being performed under religious auspices."
"The loss of prestige of religious institutions and symbols" and the decline in influence of religious organisations.
"The separation of society from the religious world, so that religion becomes purely personal matter."
The loss of the idea of the sacred. "As science increases our understanding of humanity and of the world, the area of 'mystery' and the supernatural decrease."
"Religious groups themselves become increasingly concerned with the things of this world rather than the spiritual world."
Point one is comprehensively illustrated on my page on statistics of religion in Britain. Point five is clearly illustrated by the reaction of modern religionists to secular advance: fundamentalists are much more engaged in the processes of politics than any other religious group in the West. Momen also notes that in Europe, secularisation came to the fore in the nineteenth century:
“Secularization has gradually permeated the Christian world. It led to the situation in which, by the nineteenth century, Christianity had ceased to have much real influence on the social and political life of Europe. The form was maintained, in that political leaders usually made a great show attending religious ceremonies and were often personally pious. Religion no longer had a role, however, in the shaping of political and social policy. Other considerations and other secular ideologies had taken over. Following the loss of social and political influence, religion became increasingly irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people also.”
Another sociologist of religion, in his survey of new religious movements, reported similar findings in modern countries and gives a partial explanation as to why this is occurring:
“Looking back over the past couple of centuries it would seem to be overwhelmingly evident that religious beliefs, practices and symbols are gradually being abandoned at all levels of modern society. [...] Central to this apparent decline of religion is religious pluralism. Communities in which people shared the same religious beliefs and morality [...] are rapidly disappearing. [...] In modern societies there are few shared values to which one can appeal. Believers are constantly aware that their faith is chosen from a spectrum of beliefs on offer. Consequently, beliefs that were once taken for granted as exclusively and absolutely true seem increasingly implausible.”
"Anti-Religious Forces: Specific Factors Fuelling Secularisation" by Vexen Crabtree (2011) is my comprehensive analysis of the historical and modern forces at work behind secularisation. Its menu is:
The Dalai Lama proved himself to have a good understanding of what secularism is when he defended it, in 2006, as a route to respect all religions through its doctrines of non-interference and non-promotion of any particular religions:
“DALAI LAMA SAYS SECULARISM IS THE TRUE ROUTE TO HAPPINESS
The Dalai Lama has come out in defence of secularism. Speaking in Tokyo, the Tibetan spiritual figurehead said: "Secularism does not mean rejection of all religions. It means respect for all religions and human beings including non-believers. I am talking to you not as a Tibetan or a Buddhist but as a human being having a friendly discussion and sharing my experiences on the benefits of cultivating basic human values."
In a lecture on "A Good Heart - The key to Health and Happiness" the Dalai Lama emphasises that cultivating secular ethics - which he said has nothing to do with religion - benefits all human beings. He said strengthening inner values of warm-heartedness and compassion benefits both believers and non-believers in leading a happy and meaningful life. He said, "Love and compassion attracts, hatred and anger repels. [...] Peace does not mean absence of conflicts. Differences will always be there. Peace means solving these differences through peaceful means; through dialogue, education, knowledge; through humane ways," the Dalai Lama said amidst a thunderous applause.
Terry Sanderson, vice president of the National Secular Society, said: "It is not often that we can raise a cheer for a religious leader, but the Dalai Lama is sensible to say that a universal ethic is better than one based on religion. Secularism asks us to keep our religion to ourselves, which enables us as human beings to share what unites us rather than what divides us."”
Steve Bruce (1996)5 looks at the major comments made by those who do not believe that increasing secularisation is causing a decline in religious belief. "Despite the fuss made by a few sociologists keen to challenge the secularisation thesis, that consensus is very clear: our medieval past was considerably more religious than our modern present.". He looks at the assertion that although modern Church membership is plummeting "religious belief" is still just as strong and refutes it by showing the relevant stats, sociology and history.
The "trend is clear. Those marks of an enduring interest in religion that persist outside the churches are themselves becoming weaker and more rare. If one wants to call those residues 'implicit religion', then one has to recognize that the implicit is decaying in the same way as the explicit. It is not a compensating alternative"
He continues: "Secondly, it should be no surprise that, though there are more avowed atheists than there were twenty years ago, they remain rare. Self-conscious atheism and agnosticism are features of religious cultures and were at their height in the Victorian era. They are postures adopted in a world where people are keenly interested in religion".
"The European Union: Democratic Values, The Euro, Crises and Migration: 8. Religion In Europe: Secularisation, Tolerance and Freedom" by Vexen Crabtree (2007)
"Religion in the United Kingdom: Diversity, Trends and Decline" by Vexen Crabtree (2012)
Over the last 60 years, religion in Europe has seen a strong decline. On average throughout the 27 EU countries, only half of its people believe in God11. There is much variation from country to country. Only 16% of the populace of Estonia belief in God, but 95% do in Malta. Scandinavian countries are highly atheist. Two main social groups are particularly prone to belief in God; those over 55 years old and those whose education did not proceed beyond the 15-year-old stage. Finally, females are more likely to believe in God than males.11
In English, we can use either -ise or -ize. Although in American secularization is exclusively spelt with a 'z', in English we use both.
“The -ize spelling is called Oxford Spelling and is used extensively by Oxford University Press and the OED. Cambridge University Press, quite predictably, have the opposite stance and consider -ise to be the norm. Historically, English has seen both variants used in abundance. Neither one is more correct or more modern.
Because the Americans have limited themselves to the -ize spelling, for whatever reason, many in the rest of the English-speaking world have reacted by calling it "the American spelling" and therefore limited themselves to the -ise spelling. This is pointless sectarian reactionism and people should be corrected when they call z-spelling "AmericaniZation"! It is not.”
Bryan Wilson (British, the intellectual father of secularisation theory) used the -z spelling throughout his "Religion in Secular Society" (1966) and other writings. Although his obituary in The Guardian (2004 Nov 02) consistently spelt it secularisation with an s. So, the choice is yours!
The world is not secularising evenly. Some of the exceptions (even in the developed world) are so pronounced that some question the entire Secularisation Theory; some (erroneously) believe it is only a European phenomenon12. It is these critics that Steve Bruce had responded to above, pointing to Japan as an example of a non-Christian country that has also secularized extensively.
The USA still has a very high religiosity rate, as high as third-world countries, and is, with the possible exception of parts of Scandinavia the most advanced country in the world. So this is a serious exception that needs explaining. Most explanations have concentrated on the high level of immigration, something which tends to harden people's religions. See: What Causes Religion and Superstitions?: 2.4. Identity Reinforcement
The developing world is highly religious; there are countries and cultures that can hardly imagine what life without religion is like. Critics imagine that these countries will not lose their religious beliefs as they develop higher rates of education and technological development.
Sections of society within secular countries remain highly religious. The middle-ground believers are now swayed into areligiosity by the same inertia that used to lead them into religion. Now these are largely gone, what is left behind are the hardcore believers, who are both more vocal, more educated and more activist about their beliefs. These fanatical groups show no signs of dissipation. A report in The Economist (2007) reads: "It is the tougher versions of religion that are doing best - the sort that claim Adam and Eve met 6,003 years ago. Some of the new converts are from the ranks of the underprivileged (Pentecostalism has spread rapidly in the fevelas of Brazil), but many are not. American evangelicals tend to be well-educated and well-off"13.
The growth of New Religious Movements in secularized countries makes some doubt the depth of secularisation. However, the numbers involved in NRMs are small in comparison to the numbers lost by world religions in the developed world, and their middling increase in numbers is simply part of the decentralisation process of religions14. It is just that the NRMs are often newsworthy, hence, have a higher profile.15
Some Muslim countries are modernizing without secularizing. In contrast, some of these states are seeing dwindling minority religions and increasing power of Islamic institutions16. Yet, the type of science accepted is often engineering and branches of science that lack teleological and theological implications. Evolution is, for example, still comprehensively rejected in all gulf states17. So we are not seeing a true adoption of modernism in these countries, just an uptake of pragmatism.18
"Formerly communist countries are also getting hooked again on the opium of the people. Russia's secret police, the KGB, hounded religion: its successor, the FSB, has its own Orthodox church opposite its headquarters"13. Communism was once a heavy factor in the de-religionizing of large areas of the world.
Some say that secularisation is limited to highly Protestant countries where individual choices came to be viewed as more important than communal worship. They make Europe out to be an "exceptional case"; however, there is growing evidence of secularisation in most parts of the world, and some countries such as Japan are even less religious that some European countries.
South America: Although it is easy to assume, if you will, that some of the areas where religion is rapidly expanding are areas where secularisation theory is being challenged, there are hints that suggest otherwise. The ballooning success of evangelical Protestantism in South America is one such area; Pentecostalism has had a massive and rapid success there. Yet sociologists, in conducting systematic surveys, have found that beneath the surface the increase in religiosity is unstable. A 1989 survey in Costa Rica found that 8.1% of the population who had once been Protestant had now moved on: 31% of them had stopped professing religion at all. And "in 1990, in Chile, only 48 per cent of a sample of self-identified Evangelicals (predominantly Pentecostals) attended church weekly and 38 per cent very seldom or never attended"19.
India: Signs of early secularization amongst India's Hindus includes the growth of informal 'do it yourself' omnipraxy and that religious icons are being produced increasingly unreligiously, whereas previous their production involved personal and ritualistic involvement20. Secularism and materialism are here seen hand in hand.
In Islamic Morroco, and Indonedia: The studies of sociologist Clifford Geertz led him to declare that in these countries, people are finding it harder and harder to employ religious symbols as representing "the deepest grain of reality"21. Richard Fenn comments that "Clearly Geertz fears that Indonesia shares the fate of a Western Christianity emptied of its monopoly of the sacred and he shows that religion in Indonesia is moving in the same direction"22.
Japan is the example given by Steve Bruce (1996) as the prime non-Western country that is deep in the throes of secularisation23.
There are plenty of civil religions that perform fine in a secularized world; the more domineering and totalitarian ones (such as those that largely describe the defiers above) are the ones that resist secularisation most loudly and effectively. Unfortunately, most activist secular groups tend to emerge from anti-religious groups, which creates a skewed battlefield where it appears that secularists oppose religion in general, when this isn't necessarily the case (the Dalai Lama (see above) is a case in point). Hopefully, secularisation can be seen as the only way to guarantee religious freedom in a world where competing religions would otherwise lay claim to the State's education systems, etc, and inhibit freedom. A secular world guarantees maximum religious freedom, free of public religious coercion.
By Vexen Crabtree 2008 Nov 30
Second edition 2006 Aug 04
Originally published 2002 Aug 23
Last Updated: 2013 Jan 27
Bainbridge, William Sims
Atheism (2011). This essay is chapter 17 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011).
From Sacred Text to Internet (2001, Ed.). Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, UK, in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. This was a course book for the OU module "Religion Today: Traditional, Modernity and Change" which ran until 2011.
Bowman, Herbert & Mumm
Religion Today: Tradition, Modernity and Change: Course Introduction (2009). Second edition. Originally published 2001. Part of the Open University religious studies module AD317.
Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults (1996). Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK [Book Review]
"Religion In Europe: Secularisation, Tolerance and Freedom" (2007). Accessed 2013 Jan 27.
"Anti-Religious Forces: Specific Factors Fuelling Secularisation" (2011). Accessed 2013 Jan 27.
Fenn, Richard K.
Key Thinkers in the Sociology of Religion (2009). A look at what 11 sociologists of religion think of "the sacred". Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, London, UK. [Book Review]
Sociology (1997). Hardback 3rd edition. First edition was 1989. Published by Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers Ltd. The Amazon link is to a newer version.
The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). From the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902, first Edition printed 1960. Quotes from fifth edition, 1971, Collins. [Book Review]
Encyclopedia of New Religions (2004, Ed.). Hardback. Published by Lion Publishing, Oxford, UK.
Religion in Secular Society (1966). Penguin Books softback first edition.
Global Religious Movements in Regional Context (2002, Ed.). Published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd in association with the Open University. This was a religious studies textbook in the AD317 OU course.