The Human Truth Foundation

Secularisation Theory
Will Modern Society Reject Religion? What is Secularism?

By Vexen Crabtree 2008

#atheism #religion #secularisation #secularism #sociology

1. What do Secular, Secularisation, and Secularisation Theory Mean?

#modernism #religion #Secular #secularisation #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. ⇒ See Secularism.

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. For example in 1864 the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) published a document as a hostile response to fledging secularisation, as growing tolerance for other religions and the growing power of democracy was challenging the RCC's power to implement its doctrine in the countries of Europe2. Thus as the world develops morally and tolerance and public equality come to the fore, 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 and becomes increasingly hollow. The theory holds that intellectual and scientific developments have undermined the spiritual, supernatural, superstitious and paranormal ideas on which religion relies for its legitimacy, and, the differentiation of modern life into different compartments (i.e. work, politics, society, education and knowledge, home-time, entertainment) have relegated religion to merely one part of life, rather than an all-pervading narrative. As this continues, religion becomes more and more shallow, surviving for a while on empty until loss of active membership forces it into obscurity - although most theorists only hold this happens for organized public religion, not for private spirituality. ⇒ See: Definitions of Secularisation Theory: Why is Religion Declining?

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.

2. Which are the Least Religious Countries?3

#atheism #belief #god #humanism #religion

Disbelief In God (2007)4
Pos.Higher is better
17S. Korea30
Religiosity (2009)5
Pos.Lower is better
5Hong Kong24
20S. Korea43

Atheists (those who do not believe in any god), and humanists (those who embrace a morality that does not appeal to any supernatural source), and others who consider themselves non-religious, are a large and growing population across the world. A detailed survey in 2012 revealed that religious people make up 59% of the world population, while those who identify as "atheist" make up 13%, and an additional 23% identify as "not religious" (while not self-identifying as "atheist"). The report by the Gallup International Association (available at is in line with other recent global surveys. It shows that atheism and the non religious population are growing rapidly - religion dropped by 9% and atheism rose by 3% between 2005 and 2012 - and that religion declines in proportion to the rise in education and personal income, which is a trend that looks set to continue.

"Freedom of Thought" by IHEU (2012)6

2.1. Religion in Europe

#christianity #estonia #europe #france #islam #judaism #malta #religion #religion_in_europe #secularisation

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 God7 and 25.4% directly say that they have no religion8. There is much variation from country to country. Only 16% of the populace of Estonia believe in God and the Scandinavian countries are highly atheist. But 95% believe in Malta. 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.7. For a discussion on secularisation in general, see: "Secularisation Theory: Will Modern Society Reject Religion? What is Secularism?" by Vexen Crabtree

Despite the low rate of belief in God, many Europeans still claim to belong to theistic religions. 49.5% of the population of Europe say they are Catholic Christian, 15.7% say they're Muslim, 12.7% say they're Protestant Christian, 8.6% say they're Orthodox Christian and 0.4% say they are Jewish8. These numbers mean that at least 30% of Europeans are putting down a religion despite not believing in the very basic first principal of the religion they put down. In some places, this percent is higher. In France only 52% of Catholic believe in God and "only 18 percent define God according to the teachings of the Catholic Church"9. This is all because most people in Europe confuse religion and cultural heritage, and for many the actual beliefs of a religion don't really matter. For a discussion of this, see: "Institutionalized Religions Have Their Numbers Inflated by National Polls" by Vexen Crabtree.

Sociologist Peter Berger says that secularisation in Europe has made the continent "more amenable to political and economic unity"10 as religious divides between communities have been removed.

For more, see:

2.2. Secularisation in the non-Western World

#buddhism #chile #christianity #costa_rica #hinduism #india #indonesia #japan #morocco

Some scholars say secularisation is a typically Western phenomenon11, with the implication being that it will not occur elsewhere. More discerning folk say that secularisation is limited to 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. In his survey of the research done into clergy and other castes of religious professionals, sociologist Dean R. Hoge reports that in Western nations in general (not just in Europe) the status of Christian clergy has been declining for 300 years both amongst Protestants and Catholics, as religious professionals are suffering from a gradual loss of perceived authority12. Hoge also notes that across Asia, Buddhist priests are also losing their authority13.

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"14.

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 involvement15. Secularism and materialism are here seen hand in hand.

Japan is the example given by Steve Bruce (1996) as the prime non-Western country that is deep in the throes of secularisation16.

In the Islamic world, some scholars sometimes detect signs of secularisation even from within communities where any such thing is illegal to a deadly degree. In Morocco and Indonesia the studies of sociologist Clifford Geertz (in the 1960s) led him to declare that people are finding it harder and harder to employ religious symbols as representing "the deepest grain of reality"17. 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"18. In many Islamic countries, politics is now the reserve of politicians rather than of religious councils19, although it appears to make little difference to the dominance of fundamentalist Islam in nearly every Islamic country. Places like Indonesia have, since those comments were made in the 1960s, fallen continually deeper into strict and violent Islamism.

3. Secularisation Theory

3.1. Introduction


Academics have noted that weekly attendance of religious events (going to Church, etc), as well as the opinion that religion is 'very important', are both at their highest in agrarian communities, and at their lowest in developed post-industrial societies20. My page Religion in the United Kingdom: Diversity, Trends and Decline page show examples and charts of what this long-term secularisation looks like, in terms of memberships, attendance and beliefs, etc.

These ideas became incorporated into standard sociological thinking in the 19th century, and were developed by all of the core social theorists of that time:

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.

"Sociology" by Anthony Giddens (1997)21

By the turn of the 20th century, William James alludes to secularisation theory being widely accepted:

Book CoverThere 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.

"The Varieties of Religious Experience" by William James (1902) [Book Review]22

To understand secularisation, you have remember that 'stated religion' and 'lived religion' are separate. For example, some Christians devoutly attend Church every Sunday and conduct daily acts of worship - other casual Christians have literally no engagement at all with Christian communities, and struggle to identify what beliefs they should hold as Christians. In-between those two extremes are the vast majority of Christians; secularisation isn't just about people ceasing to count themselves as religious, but is also about the movement away from the devout to the casual.

Moojan Momen (1999) says there are five ways of looking at secularisation:

  1. Book Cover"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."

  2. "The loss of prestige of religious institutions and symbols" and the decline in influence of religious organisations.

  3. "The separation of society from the religious world, so that religion becomes purely personal matter."

  4. 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."

  5. "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.

"The Phenomenon Of Religion: A Thematic Approach" by Moojan Momen (1999)23

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:

Book CoverLooking 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.

"Encyclopedia of New Religions" by Christopher Partridge (2004)24

3.2. The Causes of Secularisation

It would be ideal if definitions of Secularisation Theory mentioned the key forces that drive the social changes that lead to declines in religion. "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:

3.3. The Dalai Lama Defends Secularism as a Way to Respect All Religion

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:

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."

National Secular Society (2006)

Although this idea wasn't new, and the concept of neutrality granting peace stems from before the Enlightenment, which is when it gained prominence amongst social thinkers. Several years before the Dalai Lama, it was routine to see similar, if more succinct, statements in ordinary textbooks:

Book CoverSecular systems of government can help in situations where there is great diversity or intensity of difference between religions.

"Religions of the World" by Breuilly, O'Brien & Palmer (1997)25

4. The Defiers of Secularisation

#causes_of_religion #secularisation

Book CoverFor some, there remains an ongoing hope that religion will soon disappear and that the concern over denying religious freedoms will fade away with it. Needless to say, this is not a new hope. Writing in 1710, Thomas Woolston predicted that religion would be gone by 1900, and many scholars who followed Woolston thought the end would be much sooner. In the mid-1700s Voltaire gave religion another fifty years. These writers were followed by a long list of social scientists, including Comte, Freud, and Marx, who were equally convinced that religion would soon disappear. Even today there is no shortage of scholars offering predictions of the secularizing effects of modernity and the imminent demise of religion. But the evidence has proved stubbornly uncooperative.

"The Price of Freedom Denied"
Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke (2011)26

4.1. Uneven Declines and Resurgences

#brazil #christianity #hinduism #india #islam #japan #russia #USA

The world is not secularising evenly. Academics can be found asking "is the situation best captured by secularization theory, or by the notion of resurgence of spirituality? By the decline in traditional religiosity, or by the upsurge of fundamentalism?"27. Some of the exceptions to secularisation (even in the developed world) are pronounced enough to count as evidence against Secularisation Theory. Sociologist of religion Rodney Stark condemns secularisation theory "to the graveyard of failed theories"28. Others (erroneously) believe it is only a European phenomenon29. We will respond to these arguments below, for example Steve Bruce points out Japan as an example of a non-Christian, non-European country that has also secularized extensively.

4.2. S. Bruce Defends Secularisation Theory (1996)

#agnosticism #atheism

Steve Bruce (1996)37 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".

5. SeculariSation, or SeculariZation?


In English, we can use either -ise or -ize. Although in American secularization is exclusively spelt with a 'z', in English we use both.

In English there is no conflict between words that end in ize or ization versus those that end in ise or isation. The -ize spelling is the original British English ending and predates -ise by up to hundreds of years. Nowadays it is called Oxford Spelling and is used extensively by Oxford University Press and the OED. Cambridge University Press have the opposite stance and consider -ise to be the norm. Historically, English has seen both variants used in abundance. In American, the "ize" ending is proscribed however in standard English. neither one is incorrect.

"isation and ise, versus ization and ize" by Vexen Crabtree (1999)

Bryan Wilson (British, the intellectual father of secularisation theory) used the -z spelling throughout his "Religion in Secular Society" (1966)38 and other writings. Although his obituary in The Guardian (2004 Nov 02) consistently spelt it secularisation with an s. So, the choice is yours!

6. Civil 'Religion' and Secularisation

Civil religion describes a form of religious nationalism; sometimes it is clearly designed in order to control the people, but sometimes it is a genuine development amongst the citizenry. It is often described in terms other than religion, but, many sociologists have noted the similarity to religion, both in terms of ritual and behaviour, and expressed emotions and justification for its existence. In his mystical concentration on the concept of the 'sacred', Richard K. Fenn explains in his chapter on Catherine Bell that as organized religion disappears, civil practices become even freer to develop:

The more that religion is unable to control the sacred, the more the sacred may thrive in a wide range of ritualized forms and activities. Bell (1997: 201) is very clear that ritualized forms of the sacred may flourish in a society that is secular, in the sense that the sacred is no longer dominated, defined, or integrated by any particular set of religious beliefs or practices. 'The more widely shared rituals will be only vaguely religious, giving rise to a vast body of 'civic' rituals that include pledging, allegiance to the flag... [...] this type of secular society is also likely to emphasize moral-ethical commands over religious duties, even within the different religious subgroups, in part because moral-ethical injunctions are sufficiently abstract, universal ...'

"Key Thinkers in the Sociology of Religion"
Richard K. Fenn (2009) [Book Review]39

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.

7. Religious Extremism 40

Secularisation has a polarizing effect; often those who "cling to" religion are those who are naturally more fundamentalist and extremist. The result is that there are fewer moderates to reign-in extremists. By weakening the number and powers of moderates, secularisation tends to given extremists more power within their religions.

See: Growing Fundamentalism in Islam: How Moderates are Subjugated by Muslim Hardliners.

For more, see: