• Assess the nature and extent of secularisation in society today. (33 marks)

    In today’s society there are sociological arguments that say society is becoming more and more secular. A secular society is where religious beliefs and values have lost influence and importance in society. Some seem to think that this has happened in Britain. There is much evidence for this for example statistics show that there has been a decline in the proportion of the population going to church. There has also been an increase in the average age of churchgoers, fewer church weddings and baptisms, a decline in the numbers holding traditional Christian beliefs and greater religious diversity. Wilson has argued that Western societies had been undergoing a long term process of secularisation. Sociologists put forward different explanations of these trends and have reached different conclusions.

    A common theme that is put forward to explain the recent patterns that secularisation is taking place is modernisation. Weber comes up with the theory of rationalisation and the fact that rational ways of thinking and acting have come to replace religious ones. He argues that the protestant reformation started the process of rationalisation of life whereby rational scientific outlook found in modern society has undermined religious worldview. He says that this has contributed to the decrease in influence if religious beliefs in society today. He also argues that disenchantment of religion has taken place with the protestant reformation. This meant that events are no longer to be explained as the work of unpredictable supernatural beings, but as the predictable workings of natural forces. All that was needed to understand them was rationality. By using reason and science and, humans could discover the laws of nature, understand and predict how the world works and control it through technology. Therefore there is no need for religious explanations of the world, since the world was no longer an enchanted garden. In Weber’s view this lead to the disenchantment of the world. It squeezed out magical and religious ways of thinking and starts of the rationalisation process that lead to the dominance of rational mode of thought. Following this Bruce argues that the growth of a technological worldview has largely replaced religious or supernatural explanations of why things happen. He says that a technological worldview has leaved little room for religious explanations in everyday life. Bruce concludes that although scientific explanations do not challenge religion directly they have greatly reduced the scope for religious explanations. This has therefore shown that with modern society secularisation increases due to rational thinking and science undermining religion.

    Parsons argues that the development of an industrial society, structural differentiation has taken place, whereby specialised institutions developed to carry out functions that were previously performed by a single institution. He argues that this has happened to religion. In pre industrialised society it dominated but with industrialisation it has become smaller and more specialised institution. The fact that structural differentiation has happened he says that this lead to the disengagement of religion. The fact that its functions have been transferred to other institutions and have become disconnected from wider society. For example the church as lost influence on education, social welfare and the law. Bruce also agrees that religion has become separated from wider society and lost many of its functions. It has become privatised. Religious beliefs are largely a matter of personal choice and religious institutions have lost much of their influence on wider society and in a result traditional rituals and symbols have lost meaning. The fact that religion has lost its functions to wider society this shows that the level of secularisation is increasing in society today.

    Another explanation that contributes to the extent of secularisation in society today is the amount of social and cultural diversity. The move from pre industrial to industrial society brings about the decline of community and this contributes to the decline of religion. Wilson suggests that pre industrial communities shared values that we express through collective religious ritual that integrate individuals and regulate their behaviours. However when religion lost its basis in stable local communities it lost its vitality and it hold over individuals. Similar to this Bruce sees industrialisation as undermining the consensus of religious beliefs that hold small rural communities together. Social and geographical mobility not only breaks up communities but brings people together from many different backgrounds which creates even more diversity. However the view that the decline in community causes the decline of religion has been criticised. Aldridge points out that a community does not have to be in a particular area as religion can be a source of identity on a worldview scale. Also some religious communities are imagined communities that interact through the use of global media.

    Religious diversity according to Berger is another cause of secularisation, whereby instead of there being just one religion there are many. In the middle ages there was just one religion and absolute monopoly, which gave these beliefs greater plausibility because they had no challengers and the church’s version of the truth was unquestioned. But this all changed with the protestant reformation. Since then the number and variety of religious organisations has continued to grow and all with different versions of the truth. Berger has argued that this has created a crisis of credibility for religion. Diversity undermines religious plausibility structure. He says when there are alternative versions of religion to choose from people are more likely to question all of them. This makes religious beliefs become relative rather than absolute. This contributes to the nature and extent of secularisation in society today as the fact that time has gone on more religions have been introduced and have undermined each other and therefore can result in the decline in religious beliefs as people won’t know what to belief in. However as Beckford states that although religious diversity will lead some to question or even abandon their religious beliefs, but it is not inevitable. Opposing views can have the effect of strengthening a religious group’s commitment to its existing beliefs rather than undermining them.

    Some sociologists argue that a spiritual revolution is taking place in today’s society. This is where traditional Christianity is giving way to holistic spirituality and new age beliefs and practices that emphasise personal development and subjective experience. The fact that this is pushing aside religious beliefs and practices can show the process of secularisation and the extent of it in society today.

    There is also evidence that secularisation is happening in America too. This can also be show through statistics of church attendance. But also sociologist claim that America is becoming secular from within. Bruce argues that the way American religion has adjusted to the modern world amounts to secularisation from within. The fact that it doesn’t emphasis the traditional Christian values have declined and religion in America has become psychologised. This change has enabled it to fit into society. It has changed from seeking salvation to personal development and improvement in the world. So not only has this processed happen in Britain but also happening in America.

    There are sociologist that disagree with secularisation theorists. Some argue that religion isn’t declining it is simply changing its form, such as Davie and her theory of believing without belonging and vicarious religion. The fact that people still believe in religion but may not belong to a particular organisation. Some claim that secularisation theory is one sided. It focuses on the decline and ignores religious revivals and the growth of new religions. Also the growth in religious diversity can be seen as increasing participation because it offers choice. There is no overall downward trend. Religious trends point in different directions and people make use of religion in all sorts of different ways. The use of falling church attendance ignores the people that believe but don’t go to church and therefore can be unreliable.

    All this evidence can contribute to the nature and extent of secularisation in society today. There is a lot of evidence to support that the level of secularisation has increased over the years. The fact that rational thoughts have taken over religious ones have contributed to the decrease influence if religion and resulting in increasing the secularisation process. Structural differentiation and disenchantment have lead to increase the process of secularisation. Social, cultural and religious diversity has also contributed too. On the other hand some say that religion is just changing to fit into society and therefore secularisation isn’t happening. Also that it isn’t happening in other countries such as America to the extent of what it is in Britain so some argue that it is Europe centric and therefore the extent of it has to be considered form different countries. In conclusion there is significant evidence that show the secularisation is happening in society today.

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