• Secularisation

    What is secularisation ?

    Secularisation is a contested concept in the sense that there are deep and controversial theoretical and methodological debates about what it is, how to measure it, and whether or not it is occurring.

    One of the most commonly used definition of secularisation comes from Wilson who claims that it is the process in which religious institutions, practices, and beliefs lose their social significance or importance.

    Wilson identified three aspects of secularisation:

    • Religious beliefs – the influence of religion on people’s beliefs and values, such as the importance of religion in their lives, whether they see themselves as religious people, whether they believe in things like Gods, spirits, god and evil and life after death

    • Religious practice – the things people do to carry out their religious commitment, such as the extent to which they take part in acts of religious worship and devotion, like attending church, mosque, or temple.

    • Religious institutions – the extent to which religious institutions have maintained their social influence in wider society, and how far they are actively involved and influence the day-to-day running of society.

    Defining secularisation

    Secularisation is the decline in the influence of religion. ‘Religion’ can be defined in two ways:

    • exclusivist model of religion = narrow definition of what constitutes ‘religion’

    • inclusivist definition = much broader possibly including political movements and value systems like humanism, neither of which would be seen as religious by more exclusivist approaches.

    The more broadly ‘religion' is defined, the less likely it is to be seen to be in decline as there is always likely to be some form of activity going on which fits this definition of the 'religious'.

    Possible definitions of secularisation

    • the level of participation in organised religion

    • the level of religious belief in a society

    • the possible loss of function in industrialised society

    • how far religious institutions are themselves truly ‘religious’

    • how far people explain and understand the world in secular rather than religious terms.

    • what the apparent growth in religious sects and the increasingly multi-faith nature of modern society mean in terms of identifying any process of secularisation.

    Why is the issue of definition so important?

    • it affects the outcome of research

    • which of these different ways to define secularisation is most important

    • how many of these dimensions need to be considered before we can decide whether religion is in decline?

    • societies may experience the process of secularisation in differing ways

    • some but not all aspects of secularisation may happen at different times in different societies

    Measuring secularisation

    Problems with measuring some aspects of secularisation

    Some aspects of secularisation are very difficult to measure. How can sociologists measure:

    • loss some of its function

    • internal secularisation of religious institutions

    • the level of secular ‘mindsets’

    • disengagement from religion?

    Problems with quantitative measurements of secularisation

    Church attendance/participation:

    • under-estimates of participation

    • over-estimates of participation

    • problems with self-collected data

    • different definitions of membership and attendance

    • historical participation data is unverifiable

    • some religious organisations do not keep records

    Opinion poll evidence about beliefs

    • measuring abstract 'belief' is problematic

    • interpretation of questions varies

    • meaning of responses

    • how far do beliefs influence behaviour?

    Evidence and arguments supporting secularisation

    Health warning:

    These arguments have been organised into points for and against secularisation to make it easy to understand how they fit together. However, you should be aware that it isn’t quite this simple – some of the points offer quite qualified support for or opposition to secularisation. For many it is a matter of interpretation.

    The decline of religious practice

    The strongest evidence for secularisation in the UK comes from church attendance statistics. According to the 1851 Census approximately 40% of the population attended church. By 2005 this had dropped to 6.3% according to the 2006 English Church Census. Attendance at religious ceremonies such as baptisms, communion and confirmation have also dramatically fallen. Wilson, like the New Right, sees the decline in church marriages (down to 33%% in 2005), the rising divorce rate and the increase in cohabitation and number of children born outside marriage as evidence that religion and its moral value system exerts little influence today.

    However, Interpretivist sociologists suggest these statistics should be treated with caution for the following reasons. Statistics relating to the previous century are probably unreliable because sophisticated data collection practices were not in place. Contemporary statistics may also be unreliable because different religious organisations employ different counting methods. Bellah argues that people who attend church are not necessarily practising religious belief and those who do believe may not see the need to attend. Religion is a private experience for many and consequently cannot be reliably or scientifically measured.

    Disengagement

    Wilson argues that the church is no longer involved in important areas of social life such as politics, and politicians do not ensure that their policies meet with the approval of religious leaders. People are more likely to take moral direction from the mass media than the church. Public apathy to religion now means that it only has symbolic meaning today, with people only entering church for ‘hatching, matching and dispatching’ ceremonies. Wilson concludes that the church occupies a marginal status in modern society.

    However, religion is still a major provider of education and welfare for the poor. Also, the media still shows a great interest in religious issues such as women priests or more recently the offer made by the Pope to offer disgruntled Anglicans the chance to become Roman Catholics but retain their particular religious rites and practices. Some sociologists (notably Parsons) say that disengagement is probably a good thing because it means that the churches can focus more effectively on their central role of providing moral goals for society to achieve.

    Disenchantment

    According to Weber, the increasing rationalisation of the world has squeezed out magical and religious ways of thinking and starts off the process that leads to the dominance of rational modes of thought. This enables science to thrive and provides the basis for technological advances that give humans more power to control nature. This in turn undermines the religious worldview in which events can be explained in terms of the will of God.

    However, people's belief in science also depends on irrational faith. People don't often see the empirical evidence for science or understand it but accept it without question because scientists have been elevated to high priest status in society. Lyon argues that the last four decades have been a period of re-enchantment, with the growth of unconventional beliefs, practices and spirituality.

    Technological/scientific worldview

    In a similar argument to Weber, Bruce argues that the growth of a technological worldview has largely replaced religious or supernatural explanations of why things happen. For example, when a plane crashes with the loss of many lives, we are unlikely to regard it as the work of God, or God’s punishment of the wicked. Instead, we look for scientific and technological explanations. Bruce concludes that although scientific explanations do not challenge religion directly, they have greatly reduced the scope for religious explanations.

    However, religious explanations survive in areas where technological and scientific explanations are less effective. For example we may prey for help if we are suffering from an illness for which scientific medicine has no cure.

    Disneyfication

    David Lyon’s ideas about the ‘Disneyfication’ of religion can also be used to support the idea that the nature of religion has been changed and compromised by increasingly secular societies. Disneyfication is the process that diminishes human life by trivialising it or making taking part in i appear to be little more than a joke. In post-modern societies religion is forced to market and package itself in many different guises, for example the ‘electronic church’ on the internet and televangelism on TV, in order to compete with a whole host of other leisure products. Lyon suggests that religion has been disneyfied and packaged as a commodity like washing powder or Mickey Mouse, for sale in the spiritual supermarket where it jostles with other rival manufacturers to sell variations of the same product to a declining market.

    However, Postmodernists claim that the growth of religious media and the electronic church is evidence against secularisation. However, research shows that people choose to view programmes that confirm their existing beliefs. It is unlikely, therefore, that the religious media attract many new converts. Bruce argues that the consumerist religion of the type Lyon describes is weak religion – it has little effect on the lives of its followers. As such, he sees it as evidence of secularisation.

    Secularisation from within

    Bruce argues that the way American religion had adjusted to the modern world amounts to secularisation from within. The emphasis on traditional Christian beliefs has declined and American religion has been ‘psychologised’ or turned into a type of therapy. This change helped it to fit in with a secular society. In other words, American religion has become less religious in order to remain popular. The purpose of American religion has changed from seeking salvation in heaven to seeking personal improvement in this world.

    However, Roof and McKinney argue that Bruce has ignored the growth of conservative Protestant religions (sometimes called the New Christian Right) which seem to combine a serious commitment to religious teachings, a strong element of theological doctrine and a refusal to compromise religious beliefs. As such, they seem to directly contradict Bruce’s claims about secularisation within religious institutions.

    The decline of metanarratives and the rise of ‘spiritual shopping

    Postmodernists like Lyotard argue that metanarratives like religion have lost their power to influence how people think about, interpret and explain the world in postmodern societies. People are now taking more control over their own lives and are less willing to be told what to believe religious authorities.

    Hervieu-Leger agrees with the idea that there has been a dramatic decline in traditional institutional religion, caused by what she calls ‘cultural amnesia’ – religion is no longer handed down from generation to generation through extended families and parish churches. Social equality has also undermined the traditional power of the church to impose religion on people from above. As a result, young people no longer inherit a fixed religious identity and they are ignorant of traditional religion.

    However, religion itself has not disappeared. Instead, individual consumerism has replaced the collective worship tradition of the past. People today feel they have a choice as consumers of religion – they have become spiritual shoppers. Religion is now individualised as we develop our own ‘do-it-yourself’ religions that give meaning to our lives and fits in with our interests and aspirations. As a result of this, religion no longer acts as the source of collective identity that it once did. However, she does admit that religion still has an influence on society’s values. For example, the values of equality and human rights have their roots in religion. Such values can be a source of cultural identity and social solidarity, even for those who are not actively involved in religion.

    Evidence and arguments against secularisation

    Resacrilisation

    Heelas argued that data from his Kendal research found that although there might be secularisation of in terms of traditional religions, there is, at the same time, a process of resacrilisation – a renewal and continuing vitality of religious beliefs - as people shift from traditional religions to a more individualistic spirituality centred on the self. This research suggests that religious belief is not disappearing, but it is simply being reoriented – taking a new for in which people pick and mix their spirituality from the wide range of beliefs on offer, tailored to what they feel they need and what works for them.

    However, Glendinning and Bruce pointed out that the research collected by Heelas et al, often cited as evidence of a growing reorientation of religiosity and of a ‘spiritual revolution’, showed that fewer than one in fifty people in and around the area of Kendal were engaged in ‘New Age’ activities in a typical week, and fewer than half of them saw them as spiritual activities. They suggest that this is hardly evidence of resacrilisation or a ‘spiritual revolution’.

    Believing without belonging

    Grace Davie believes that religion is not declining but simply taking a different, more privatised form. For example, church attendance has declined because attendance is now a matter of personal choice rather than the obligation it used to be. As a result, we now have believing without belonging where people have religious views but do not attend church. Davie also notices the rise of ‘vicarious religion’ where a small number of professional clergy practice religion on behalf of a much larger number of people, who experience it second-hand at rituals such as baptisms, marriages and funerals.

    However, Voas and Crockett reject Davie’s claim that there is more believing than belonging. They use data from Social Trends which suggest that since 1983 there has been a continual decline in both attending and believing. Bruce adds that if people are not giving up their time to attend, than this represents a decline in the strength of their belief.

    Growth of fundamentalism

    Contrary to the secularisation thesis, there are many parts of the world where religion appears to be thriving or reviving under the influence of fundamentalist ideas that advocate unwavering obedience to religious laws throughout society. Almond et al identify the growth of fundamentalism among Jews in Israel, Muslims in Pakistan, Palestine, Egypt and parts of the former Soviet Union, Sikhs and Hindus in India, Christians in the USA, and even Buddhists in Sri Lanka.

    Roof and McKinney argue that the growth of conservative Protestant groups in the USA demonstrates that secularisation is not occurring. Members of these groups are more likely than any others to attend church and strongly support traditional morality. Almond et al point out that many of these conservative religious groups have grown massively in recent years at the expense of more mainstream denominations.

    However, Bruce questions the significance of the growth of the New Christian Right. He agrees that they have slowed down the growth of secularisation within their own religious institutions but they failed to achieve much more than this. Whilst they are a significant political force in the USA, they have not achieved any fundamental changes in American society and conservative politicians often have to distance themselves from these groups to get elected to political office. He argues that they have gained so much attention only because their supporters are unusual for holding strong religious convictions in a largely secular world.

    Existential security theory

    Norris and Inglehart argue that the demand for religion varies both within and between societies. Demand is greatest from low-income groups and societies, because they feel less secure and are more at risk from life-threatening events such as famine, disease and environmental disasters. This explains why third world countries remain religious whilst more prosperous Western countries have become more secular. Norris and Inglehart point out that global population growth undermines the trend towards secularisation. Rich, secure, secular Western countries have low levels of population growth, whereas poor, insecure, third world countries have high rates. As a result, while rich countries are becoming more secular, the majority of the world is becoming more religious.

    However, Vasquez argues that Norris and Inglehart use only quantitative data about income levels – they don’t examine people’s own definitions of ‘existential security’. Furthermore, they view religion as a negative response to deprivation. They ignore the positive reasons people have for religious participation and the appeal that some types of religion have for the wealthy.

    Cultural defence and transition

    Bruce identifies two counter-trends that seem to go against secularisation theory because they are associated with higher than average levels of religious participation. Cultural defence is where religion provides a focal point for the defence of national, ethnic, local or group identity in a struggle against an external force such as a hostile foreign power. Examples include the popularity of Catholicism in Poland before the fall of communism and the resurgence of Islam before the revolution in Iran in 1979. Cultural transition is where religion provides support and a sense of community for ethnic groups such as migrants to a different country and culture. Herberg describes this in his study of religion and immigration to the USA and religion could be said to have performed similar functions for Irish, African Caribbean, Muslim, Hindu and other migrants to the UK.

    However, Bruce argues that religion survives in such situations only because it is a focus for group identity. Therefore, these examples do not disprove secularisation but show that religion is likely to survive where it performs functions other than relating individuals to the supernatural.

    Evaluation of the secularization debate

    The debate about secularisation is often complex and involves a wide range of different views and issues, which require careful evaluation and the ability to understand and use concepts in a flexible manner. The precise nature of your evaluation of these issues will depend on the specific question, but there are a number of evaluative issues that may be useful to consider in your conclusions:

    Religious decline or change ?

    Most sociologists would agree that the evidence suggests that traditional religious thinking and beliefs, practice and institutions are declining, at least in the UK and much of Europe. However, the key disagreements are over whether this represents a decline in the importance of religion or simply a change in its nature.

    Definitions of religion

    Conclusions about the secularisation debate are only possible if there is agreement over the nature of religion and what we should include within this definition. Some sociologists define religion in terms of adherence to traditional religious beliefs and institutions – such a definition is likely to lead to the conclusion that religion is in decline.

    However, more inclusive definitions of religion are likely to question the secularisation thesis because they can include ideas about belief in some form of ‘spirit’ or ‘life force’ in their definitions of religious beliefs. You should remember though that some sociologists, such as Bruce, argue that these vaguer claims to some sort of religious belief are themselves an indicator of growing secularisation, not of continuing religiosity – it simply represents a halfway house, in which people place themselves as they move away from religious belief, but can’t yet bring themselves to admit that they are non-believers.

    Definitions of secularisation

    One of the most fundamental difficulties for reaching conclusions on the secularisation debate is agreeing what secularisation means. Sociologists are likely to reach different conclusions according to whether they are looking at secularisation in terms of a decline of religious belief and practice, declining influence of religion in other spheres of life or secularisation within religious institutions themselves.

    Variations between and within societies

    Conclusions about secularisation will also be influenced by where sociologists are looking at it. Lots of the evidence in the UK and Western Europe might be seen as supporting the secularisation thesis (depending on how we define secularisation) but the evidence is much less clear in the USA and religion can be seen as dominating society in some parts of the world. It should also be remembered that certain groups within society are more religious than others (e.g. minority ethnic groups in the UK), which can raise further questions about the extent of secularisation in the UK.

    What is clear is that secularisation is not a universal process but, on the other hand, few supporters of the secularisation thesis would argue that it is. It can therefore be argued that the national, regional, ethnic and social class differences in the role of religion make it necessary to relate the debate about secularisation to specific contexts.Secularisation

    What is secularisation ?

    Secularisation is a contested concept in the sense that there are deep and controversial theoretical and methodological debates about what it is, how to measure it, and whether or not it is occurring.

    One of the most commonly used definition of secularisation comes from Wilson who claims that it is the process in which religious institutions, practices, and beliefs lose their social significance or importance.

    Wilson identified three aspects of secularisation:

    • Religious beliefs – the influence of religion on people’s beliefs and values, such as the importance of religion in their lives, whether they see themselves as religious people, whether they believe in things like Gods, spirits, god and evil and life after death

    • Religious practice – the things people do to carry out their religious commitment, such as the extent to which they take part in acts of religious worship and devotion, like attending church, mosque, or temple.

    • Religious institutions – the extent to which religious institutions have maintained their social influence in wider society, and how far they are actively involved and influence the day-to-day running of society.

    Defining secularisation

    Secularisation is the decline in the influence of religion. ‘Religion’ can be defined in two ways:

    • exclusivist model of religion = narrow definition of what constitutes ‘religion’

    • inclusivist definition = much broader possibly including political movements and value systems like humanism, neither of which would be seen as religious by more exclusivist approaches.

    The more broadly ‘religion' is defined, the less likely it is to be seen to be in decline as there is always likely to be some form of activity going on which fits this definition of the 'religious'.

    Possible definitions of secularisation

    • the level of participation in organised religion

    • the level of religious belief in a society

    • the possible loss of function in industrialised society

    • how far religious institutions are themselves truly ‘religious’

    • how far people explain and understand the world in secular rather than religious terms.

    • what the apparent growth in religious sects and the increasingly multi-faith nature of modern society mean in terms of identifying any process of secularisation.

    Why is the issue of definition so important?

    • it affects the outcome of research

    • which of these different ways to define secularisation is most important

    • how many of these dimensions need to be considered before we can decide whether religion is in decline?

    • societies may experience the process of secularisation in differing ways

    • some but not all aspects of secularisation may happen at different times in different societies

    Measuring secularisation

    Problems with measuring some aspects of secularisation

    Some aspects of secularisation are very difficult to measure. How can sociologists measure:

    • loss some of its function

    • internal secularisation of religious institutions

    • the level of secular ‘mindsets’

    • disengagement from religion?

    Problems with quantitative measurements of secularisation

    Church attendance/participation:

    • under-estimates of participation

    • over-estimates of participation

    • problems with self-collected data

    • different definitions of membership and attendance

    • historical participation data is unverifiable

    • some religious organisations do not keep records

    Opinion poll evidence about beliefs

    • measuring abstract 'belief' is problematic

    • interpretation of questions varies

    • meaning of responses

    • how far do beliefs influence behaviour?

    Evidence and arguments supporting secularisation

    Health warning:

    These arguments have been organised into points for and against secularisation to make it easy to understand how they fit together. However, you should be aware that it isn’t quite this simple – some of the points offer quite qualified support for or opposition to secularisation. For many it is a matter of interpretation.

    The decline of religious practice

    The strongest evidence for secularisation in the UK comes from church attendance statistics. According to the 1851 Census approximately 40% of the population attended church. By 2005 this had dropped to 6.3% according to the 2006 English Church Census. Attendance at religious ceremonies such as baptisms, communion and confirmation have also dramatically fallen. Wilson, like the New Right, sees the decline in church marriages (down to 33%% in 2005), the rising divorce rate and the increase in cohabitation and number of children born outside marriage as evidence that religion and its moral value system exerts little influence today.

    However, Interpretivist sociologists suggest these statistics should be treated with caution for the following reasons. Statistics relating to the previous century are probably unreliable because sophisticated data collection practices were not in place. Contemporary statistics may also be unreliable because different religious organisations employ different counting methods. Bellah argues that people who attend church are not necessarily practising religious belief and those who do believe may not see the need to attend. Religion is a private experience for many and consequently cannot be reliably or scientifically measured.

    Disengagement

    Wilson argues that the church is no longer involved in important areas of social life such as politics, and politicians do not ensure that their policies meet with the approval of religious leaders. People are more likely to take moral direction from the mass media than the church. Public apathy to religion now means that it only has symbolic meaning today, with people only entering church for ‘hatching, matching and dispatching’ ceremonies. Wilson concludes that the church occupies a marginal status in modern society.

    However, religion is still a major provider of education and welfare for the poor. Also, the media still shows a great interest in religious issues such as women priests or more recently the offer made by the Pope to offer disgruntled Anglicans the chance to become Roman Catholics but retain their particular religious rites and practices. Some sociologists (notably Parsons) say that disengagement is probably a good thing because it means that the churches can focus more effectively on their central role of providing moral goals for society to achieve.

    Disenchantment

    According to Weber, the increasing rationalisation of the world has squeezed out magical and religious ways of thinking and starts off the process that leads to the dominance of rational modes of thought. This enables science to thrive and provides the basis for technological advances that give humans more power to control nature. This in turn undermines the religious worldview in which events can be explained in terms of the will of God.

    However, people's belief in science also depends on irrational faith. People don't often see the empirical evidence for science or understand it but accept it without question because scientists have been elevated to high priest status in society. Lyon argues that the last four decades have been a period of re-enchantment, with the growth of unconventional beliefs, practices and spirituality.

    Technological/scientific worldview

    In a similar argument to Weber, Bruce argues that the growth of a technological worldview has largely replaced religious or supernatural explanations of why things happen. For example, when a plane crashes with the loss of many lives, we are unlikely to regard it as the work of God, or God’s punishment of the wicked. Instead, we look for scientific and technological explanations. Bruce concludes that although scientific explanations do not challenge religion directly, they have greatly reduced the scope for religious explanations.

    However, religious explanations survive in areas where technological and scientific explanations are less effective. For example we may prey for help if we are suffering from an illness for which scientific medicine has no cure.

    Disneyfication

    David Lyon’s ideas about the ‘Disneyfication’ of religion can also be used to support the idea that the nature of religion has been changed and compromised by increasingly secular societies. Disneyfication is the process that diminishes human life by trivialising it or making taking part in i appear to be little more than a joke. In post-modern societies religion is forced to market and package itself in many different guises, for example the ‘electronic church’ on the internet and televangelism on TV, in order to compete with a whole host of other leisure products. Lyon suggests that religion has been disneyfied and packaged as a commodity like washing powder or Mickey Mouse, for sale in the spiritual supermarket where it jostles with other rival manufacturers to sell variations of the same product to a declining market.

    However, Postmodernists claim that the growth of religious media and the electronic church is evidence against secularisation. However, research shows that people choose to view programmes that confirm their existing beliefs. It is unlikely, therefore, that the religious media attract many new converts. Bruce argues that the consumerist religion of the type Lyon describes is weak religion – it has little effect on the lives of its followers. As such, he sees it as evidence of secularisation.

    Secularisation from within

    Bruce argues that the way American religion had adjusted to the modern world amounts to secularisation from within. The emphasis on traditional Christian beliefs has declined and American religion has been ‘psychologised’ or turned into a type of therapy. This change helped it to fit in with a secular society. In other words, American religion has become less religious in order to remain popular. The purpose of American religion has changed from seeking salvation in heaven to seeking personal improvement in this world.

    However, Roof and McKinney argue that Bruce has ignored the growth of conservative Protestant religions (sometimes called the New Christian Right) which seem to combine a serious commitment to religious teachings, a strong element of theological doctrine and a refusal to compromise religious beliefs. As such, they seem to directly contradict Bruce’s claims about secularisation within religious institutions.

    The decline of metanarratives and the rise of ‘spiritual shopping

    Postmodernists like Lyotard argue that metanarratives like religion have lost their power to influence how people think about, interpret and explain the world in postmodern societies. People are now taking more control over their own lives and are less willing to be told what to believe religious authorities.

    Hervieu-Leger agrees with the idea that there has been a dramatic decline in traditional institutional religion, caused by what she calls ‘cultural amnesia’ – religion is no longer handed down from generation to generation through extended families and parish churches. Social equality has also undermined the traditional power of the church to impose religion on people from above. As a result, young people no longer inherit a fixed religious identity and they are ignorant of traditional religion.

    However, religion itself has not disappeared. Instead, individual consumerism has replaced the collective worship tradition of the past. People today feel they have a choice as consumers of religion – they have become spiritual shoppers. Religion is now individualised as we develop our own ‘do-it-yourself’ religions that give meaning to our lives and fits in with our interests and aspirations. As a result of this, religion no longer acts as the source of collective identity that it once did. However, she does admit that religion still has an influence on society’s values. For example, the values of equality and human rights have their roots in religion. Such values can be a source of cultural identity and social solidarity, even for those who are not actively involved in religion.

    Evidence and arguments against secularisation

    Resacrilisation

    Heelas argued that data from his Kendal research found that although there might be secularisation of in terms of traditional religions, there is, at the same time, a process of resacrilisation – a renewal and continuing vitality of religious beliefs - as people shift from traditional religions to a more individualistic spirituality centred on the self. This research suggests that religious belief is not disappearing, but it is simply being reoriented – taking a new for in which people pick and mix their spirituality from the wide range of beliefs on offer, tailored to what they feel they need and what works for them.

    However, Glendinning and Bruce pointed out that the research collected by Heelas et al, often cited as evidence of a growing reorientation of religiosity and of a ‘spiritual revolution’, showed that fewer than one in fifty people in and around the area of Kendal were engaged in ‘New Age’ activities in a typical week, and fewer than half of them saw them as spiritual activities. They suggest that this is hardly evidence of resacrilisation or a ‘spiritual revolution’.

    Believing without belonging

    Grace Davie believes that religion is not declining but simply taking a different, more privatised form. For example, church attendance has declined because attendance is now a matter of personal choice rather than the obligation it used to be. As a result, we now have believing without belonging where people have religious views but do not attend church. Davie also notices the rise of ‘vicarious religion’ where a small number of professional clergy practice religion on behalf of a much larger number of people, who experience it second-hand at rituals such as baptisms, marriages and funerals.

    However, Voas and Crockett reject Davie’s claim that there is more believing than belonging. They use data from Social Trends which suggest that since 1983 there has been a continual decline in both attending and believing. Bruce adds that if people are not giving up their time to attend, than this represents a decline in the strength of their belief.

    Growth of fundamentalism

    Contrary to the secularisation thesis, there are many parts of the world where religion appears to be thriving or reviving under the influence of fundamentalist ideas that advocate unwavering obedience to religious laws throughout society. Almond et al identify the growth of fundamentalism among Jews in Israel, Muslims in Pakistan, Palestine, Egypt and parts of the former Soviet Union, Sikhs and Hindus in India, Christians in the USA, and even Buddhists in Sri Lanka.

    Roof and McKinney argue that the growth of conservative Protestant groups in the USA demonstrates that secularisation is not occurring. Members of these groups are more likely than any others to attend church and strongly support traditional morality. Almond et al point out that many of these conservative religious groups have grown massively in recent years at the expense of more mainstream denominations.

    However, Bruce questions the significance of the growth of the New Christian Right. He agrees that they have slowed down the growth of secularisation within their own religious institutions but they failed to achieve much more than this. Whilst they are a significant political force in the USA, they have not achieved any fundamental changes in American society and conservative politicians often have to distance themselves from these groups to get elected to political office. He argues that they have gained so much attention only because their supporters are unusual for holding strong religious convictions in a largely secular world.

    Existential security theory

    Norris and Inglehart argue that the demand for religion varies both within and between societies. Demand is greatest from low-income groups and societies, because they feel less secure and are more at risk from life-threatening events such as famine, disease and environmental disasters. This explains why third world countries remain religious whilst more prosperous Western countries have become more secular. Norris and Inglehart point out that global population growth undermines the trend towards secularisation. Rich, secure, secular Western countries have low levels of population growth, whereas poor, insecure, third world countries have high rates. As a result, while rich countries are becoming more secular, the majority of the world is becoming more religious.

    However, Vasquez argues that Norris and Inglehart use only quantitative data about income levels – they don’t examine people’s own definitions of ‘existential security’. Furthermore, they view religion as a negative response to deprivation. They ignore the positive reasons people have for religious participation and the appeal that some types of religion have for the wealthy.

    Cultural defence and transition

    Bruce identifies two counter-trends that seem to go against secularisation theory because they are associated with higher than average levels of religious participation. Cultural defence is where religion provides a focal point for the defence of national, ethnic, local or group identity in a struggle against an external force such as a hostile foreign power. Examples include the popularity of Catholicism in Poland before the fall of communism and the resurgence of Islam before the revolution in Iran in 1979. Cultural transition is where religion provides support and a sense of community for ethnic groups such as migrants to a different country and culture. Herberg describes this in his study of religion and immigration to the USA and religion could be said to have performed similar functions for Irish, African Caribbean, Muslim, Hindu and other migrants to the UK.

    However, Bruce argues that religion survives in such situations only because it is a focus for group identity. Therefore, these examples do not disprove secularisation but show that religion is likely to survive where it performs functions other than relating individuals to the supernatural.

    Evaluation of the secularization debate

    The debate about secularisation is often complex and involves a wide range of different views and issues, which require careful evaluation and the ability to understand and use concepts in a flexible manner. The precise nature of your evaluation of these issues will depend on the specific question, but there are a number of evaluative issues that may be useful to consider in your conclusions:

    Religious decline or change ?

    Most sociologists would agree that the evidence suggests that traditional religious thinking and beliefs, practice and institutions are declining, at least in the UK and much of Europe. However, the key disagreements are over whether this represents a decline in the importance of religion or simply a change in its nature.

    Definitions of religion

    Conclusions about the secularisation debate are only possible if there is agreement over the nature of religion and what we should include within this definition. Some sociologists define religion in terms of adherence to traditional religious beliefs and institutions – such a definition is likely to lead to the conclusion that religion is in decline.

    However, more inclusive definitions of religion are likely to question the secularisation thesis because they can include ideas about belief in some form of ‘spirit’ or ‘life force’ in their definitions of religious beliefs. You should remember though that some sociologists, such as Bruce, argue that these vaguer claims to some sort of religious belief are themselves an indicator of growing secularisation, not of continuing religiosity – it simply represents a halfway house, in which people place themselves as they move away from religious belief, but can’t yet bring themselves to admit that they are non-believers.

    Definitions of secularisation

    One of the most fundamental difficulties for reaching conclusions on the secularisation debate is agreeing what secularisation means. Sociologists are likely to reach different conclusions according to whether they are looking at secularisation in terms of a decline of religious belief and practice, declining influence of religion in other spheres of life or secularisation within religious institutions themselves.

    Variations between and within societies

    Conclusions about secularisation will also be influenced by where sociologists are looking at it. Lots of the evidence in the UK and Western Europe might be seen as supporting the secularisation thesis (depending on how we define secularisation) but the evidence is much less clear in the USA and religion can be seen as dominating society in some parts of the world. It should also be remembered that certain groups within society are more religious than others (e.g. minority ethnic groups in the UK), which can raise further questions about the extent of secularisation in the UK.

    What is clear is that secularisation is not a universal process but, on the other hand, few supporters of the secularisation thesis would argue that it is. It can therefore be argued that the national, regional, ethnic and social class differences in the role of religion make it necessary to relate the debate about secularisation to specific contexts.

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