Beliefs in society: Secularisation



Secularisation refers to the decline in the importance of religion in society, usually measured by examining:

  •  Membership of religious organisations.
  • Attendance at church.
  • Influence of religion on the attitudes and behaviour of individuals.
  • The declining influence and power of the church.
  • Decline in religious belief and practice.
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Decline in church membership, attendance and parti

1. Decline in church membership, attendance and participation

Overall there has been a decline in church membership in Britain, although non-Christian religions and NRM’s have seen an increase in members.

Attendance at special Christian ceremonies such as baptisms and marriages has also declined. However, opinion polls show that many more people retain religious beliefs than are members of religious organisations. Over 90% of people in Britain still claim to believe in God.

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2. Disengagement and differentiation

Some sociologists have seen the truly religious society as one in which the church is very powerful. A disengagement, or withdrawing of the church from wider society, is seen as evidence of secularisation. Martin(1969) sees this view as concerned with decline in the power, wealth, prestige and influence of the church.Parsons(1965) agrees that the church has lost many of its original functions. He argues that the evolution of society involves a process of structural differentiation as parts of the social system become more specialised and so perform fewer functions. However, Parsons still believes that religious beliefs continue to give meaning and significance to life.

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Religious pluralism

3. Religious pluralism

Some researchers imply that the truly religious society has one faith and one church. Modernisation and industrialisation tend to create a plurality of cultural and religious groups. There is no longer a ‘sacred canopy’of Christianity that holds an absolute monopoly.

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Secularisation of religious institutions

4. Secularisation of religious institutions 

Some argue that the main cause is to be found in the decline of the religiosity of churches themselves. It is argued that they have compromised their religious beliefs to fit in with the wider society. Bruce(1988) believes that British churches have abandoned, or at least watered down, a number of their convictions.  One example is the fact that many churches will not remarry divorcees. However, this type of compromise is generally found in Christianity as opposed to other major world religions.

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 5. Desacrilisation

A number of sociologists have argued that the sacred has little or no place in contemporary Western society, that society has undergone a process of desacrilisation. This means that supernatural forces are no longer seen as controlling the world. Weber (1948) claimed that modern society is “characterised by rationalisation and intellectualisation and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.” In other words, the world is no longer seen as mysterious and magical, the supernatural is no longer part of society, a scientific view of the world has replaced a religious view.

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Social and cultural diversity

 6.Social and cultural diversity

The shift from pre-industrial society to industrial society saw a decline in community which leads to a decline in religion. While smaller close-knit communities generally share the same religious beliefs, but larger communities hold diverse beliefs and values.  

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