HideShow resource information
  • Created by: Amy
  • Created on: 23-05-13 15:49


Secularisation refers to the declining influence of religion on society. There are two views of secularisation: firstly, that it is occurring and religion is becoming less important and, secondly, that religion does still remain important but the way we use religion is changing.

1 of 15

Evidence of Secularisation: Church attendance

Church attendance in England and Wales has significantly declined, from 40% of the adult population in 1871 to about 15% in 1960 to 7% in 2005. This can be shown by the number of churches that have closed and been demolished or converted into other use.

Attendance at Sunday school has also declined. Baptisms have declined from 55% in 1995 to 41% in 2005. There are fewer weddings in churches, declining from 60% of weddings in 1971 to 30% in 2006. There has also been a large decline in church membership in England and Wales of the main religions such as Church of England; this decline has not been matched by an increased membership of non-Christian religions.

Declining Church attendance doesn’t mean people have stopped believing because commitment levels are low.

2 of 15

Declining religious belief

Gill found that less people today hold religious beliefs about a personal God, heaven and hell, an afterlife etc. Furthermore, there has been an increase in people saying they have no belief, and fewer people describing themselves as religious or belonging to a religion.

However, statistics about religious belief may lack validity because people may be reluctant to reveal or discuss their beliefs in a survey, or people may lie to give socially desirable answers. Furthermore, defining what ‘belief’ is can be problematic, and may mean different things to different people.

3 of 15

Explaining secularisation: Rationalisation

Weber argued a religious worldview has been replaced by RATIONAL AND SCIENTIFIC thought. In Medieval times, it was thought that God controlled events and that humans could influence God through prayer. However, the PROTESTANT REFORMATION in the 16th Century brought a new view of God the creator who left the world to run itself – therefore, prayer no longer made a difference and rational thought explained events. This led to DISENCHANTMENT – the loss of magic and mystery of religious ideas. 

Bruce argues we now have a technological worldview where religious explanations are replaced by scientific and technological explanations e.g. if a plane crashes it is due to a technical failure, not the action of God. Illness is cured by science, and prayer is a last resort when all else has failed. Consequently, religious ideas are increasingly rejected or ignored.

4 of 15


Many of the church’s traditional roles have been lost to specialist institutions. This process is known as structural differentiation. For example, education, social welfare and law and order are today run by the state through specialist institutions such as the education system, the welfare system and the courts and police. Furthermore, the media provides people with a source of moral guidance rather than the church.

This has led to a process of disengagement, where the church becomes separated from the state. This means the church has little influence over social and political aspects of daily life: e.g. the church no longer educates the majority of children (even faith schools must still follow state education such as the National Curriculum), and politicians may ignore the views of the Church e.g. Church opposition to gay marriage may not prevent this becoming law.

5 of 15


BERGER argues that there is no longer one religion but many. This is known as RELIGIOUS PLURALISM. This means that there is no longer a SACRED CANOPY which covers society with beliefs shared by all. Religious pluralism has created a PLURALITY OF LIFE WORLDS where there are lots of different beliefs.

This is evidence of secularisation because religious pluralism undermines the credibility of the established religion – its beliefs, values and claims to the truth are challenged by alternative faiths.

BRUCE believes religious pluralism to be the biggest cause of secularisation. However, Berger later argued that religious diversity can, in fact, stimulate interest in religion, rather than lead to its decline. 

6 of 15


BRUCE suggests that religion can act as a means of both cultural defence and cultural transition. Although these can lead to higher levels of religious participation, Bruce argues they are still evidence of secularisation.

CULTURAL DEFENCE: religion becomes a focal point for the defence of national, ethnic or group identity e.g. in Poland before 1990, the Catholic Church helped assert Polish identity and resist the influence of communism over Polish culture.

CULTURAL TRANSITION: religion acts as support for those who moved to a different country or culture and can help new arrivals settle into the way of life of a new culture.

Bruce suggests these are evidence of secularisation because the church is being used for reasons other than an expression of religious belief. Therefore, religion is more likely to survive in cultures it performs functions other than meeting people’s religious needs.

7 of 15

A spiritual revolution? The Kendal Project

THE KENDAL PROJECT by HEELAS and WOODHEAD tested whether New Age holistic spirituality had taken over from traditional Christianity. The New Age includes a range of therapies and practices including crystal healing, yoga and meditation.

They found a decline of the congregational domain – i.e. those who attend traditional Christian services and an increase of the holistic milieu – i.e. New Age spirituality.Although the holistic milieu involved a smaller number of people, the numbers were growing.

Heelas and Woodhead suggest this is due to a SUBJECTIVE TURN in our culture, meaning a move away from doing one’s duty and obeying a higher authority, such as God, to a focus on oneself and exploring one’s own inner spirituality.

Therefore, traditional religions, with an emphasis on duty and obedience, are in decline. However, given the small numbers involved a spiritual revolution – where New Age is more popular than traditional Christianity – has not yet taken place.

8 of 15

evidence to challenge secularisation: postmodernis

Postmodern society is characterised by globalisation, the mass movement of people, changing identities and the development of information and communication technology. This has given more people more choice to construct their own identities and lifestyle. However, this choice and change also brings with it uncertainty and risk.

Postmodernists argue religion is not disappearing but changing. HERVIEU-LEGER argues that people have become consumers of religion and can go SPIRITUALITY SHOPPING: trying out different religions until they find the one that suits them. People can also pick and mix religions to create their own, personal religion by selecting elements from a range of different religions that appeal to them.

This creates their own religious identity and belief. This is possible because postmodernism is characterised by choice, globalisation and the media.

9 of 15


Lyon argues that belief without belonging is becoming increasingly popular and reflects changes to religion caused by postmodernism. These changes include globalisation, developments in ICT and the growth of consumerism. 

GLOBALISATION refers to the greater interconnectedness of societies, with values and beliefs crossing national boundaries due to the mass movement of people and the widespread use of ICT. However, this has led to these beliefs and ideas becoming DISEMBEDDED – removed from their context. Religion can be accessed through the TV or internet but these televangelists take religion out of its context in a church and place it on TV so people can express their beliefs without attending church.

Lyon also recognises that people can develop their identity through the products they consume (see spirituality shopping and pick and mix). Lyon argues religion is part of a SPHERE OF CONSUMPTION – people do not abandon religion but choose the parts which are best for them. This has led to a decline of metanarratives because traditional versions of the truth are now less dominant and people can choose from a range of new religious movements.

Lyon's society does not simply replace religion with increasingly rational and scientific ideas. The late 20th century has seen a growth of RE-ENCHANTMENT – a growth of unconventional beliefs, practices and spirituality. Traditional religion may have declined, but non-traditional beliefs remain important.

10 of 15


Bruce argues religious consumerism creates a weak religion because it requires little commitment from followers who can change their religion if they choose to. Religion, therefore, has little impact on the lives of its followers.

11 of 15

Religious Market Theory

The secularisation debate tends to focus on Europe and ignores the flourishing natures in the USA and elsewhere. RMT seeks to readdress this and is based on the assumptions that people are naturally religious and religion meets human needs, and that people can make rational choices.

Religion provides us with compensators. It compensates our inability to gain real rewards by offering supernatural rewards. For example, immortality is not possible, but religion offers life after death to compensate for this. Secular beliefs such as humanism and communism do not provide this.

S&B criticise secularisation theory for ignoring the increase of new religions. They believe religion is in a cycle of decline, revival and renewal some religions decline, others grow. Churches operate like companies selling goods. They compete with each other to offer particular religious products – those that meet the needs of ‘customers’ survive, those that don’t, wont.

12 of 15

Criticisms of RMT

  • Bruce argues that religion is declining in the USA as well as Europe
  • Norris and Ingelhart argue religion remains popular in countries with a monopoly of truth e.g. Catholicism in Ireland; however religious participation is low in some countries where there is religious diversity e.g. Holland, Australia. This contradicts religious market theory.
13 of 15


N+I reject religious market theory for being too focused on the US. Instead, they argue religions varies between societies because of different levels of existential security. EXISTENTIAL SECURITY is the feeling that survival is secure enough to be taken for granted.

In poorer, third world countries, there are many life-threatening events that mean survival is not secure. Consequently, these countries have a higher level of religiosity. On the other hand, wealthier Western societies do not have these life threatening events, so survival is secure, meaning low levels of religious participation.

Furthermore, demand for religion is higher amongst poorer groups and lower amongst wealthier groups within one society. This can also be used to explain different levels of religiosity between Europe and USA because European countries have high levels of welfare, so the state takes care of those in need. The USA lacks this, and social inequality is greater there, hence a higher need for religion.

14 of 15


WILSON found in 1962 that 45% of Americans attended church on a Sunday. However, he argued this was evidence of a secular society because attendance was more to do with the American way of life – being seen as a ‘good American’ – rather than an expression of religious belief. BRUCE also argues the USA is more secular due to:


There is evidence Americans exaggerate church attendance. Head counts in church are much lower than the attendance statistics and that the gap between the two has widened since the 1970s. This suggests the attendance statistics lack validity.


The traditional emphasis on Christian belief and glory of God has declined and religion has become ‘psychologised’ into a form of therapy. Therefore, religion is only popular because it is less religious.


Religious pluralism has led many Americans to conclude there are alternative views of the truth and recognition that others are entitled to their own beliefs. By 1977 only 41% of American Christians believed Christianity was the absolute truth. 

15 of 15


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Religion and beliefs resources »