Secularisation is a contested concept that has debates about what it is, how to measure it and whether or not it is occurring.

One definition is Wilson, who says: the process in which religious institutions, practices and beliefs lose their social significance or importance.

Three aspects are:

Religious beliefs - influence of religion on people's beliefs and values. Whether they are religious, value religion or believe in a higher power. More people claim to hold Christian beliefs but don't go to church. DECLINED

Religious practice - activites that people do to carry out their religious commitment e.g. taking part in religious worship and devotion, attending church, mosque or temple. DECLINED

Religious institutions - how religious institutions have maintained their social influence in wider society and how they are actively involved and influence the day to day running of society. DECLINED

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Measuring 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

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
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The decline of religious practice

Census in 2005 showed church attendance has dropped to 6.3% from 40% in 1851.

Attendance in religious ceremonies such as, baptisms, communion and confirmation has dropped too

Wilson: decline in church marriages (down to 33% in 2005), caused a rise in divorces, increase in cohabitation, children born out of wedlock shows religion's moral value system has little influence today.

More people claim they hold Christian beliefs but they don't actually go to church

 Membership of small religious organisations has grown, this has not made up for the decline


Stats from the previous century may not be reliable because of lack of proper data collection practices

Contemporary statistics may be unreliable because different religious organisations may have different methods of operationalising concepts

Religion is a private experience so can't be scientifically measured

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Wilson: church is no longer involved in important areas of social life such as, politics and politicians don't make sure that their policies comply with approval of religious leaders

People take moral direction from the mass media rather than the Church

Religion only has symbolic meaning now, people use it to "hatch, match and dispatching" ceremonies.

The church occupies a marginal status in modern society

State has taken over functions the Church used to perform e.g. schooling


Religion provides education and welfare for the poor

The media show interest in religious issues, e.g. women priests and the Pope stepping down

Parsons: Disengagement is good, churches can focus more effectively on their central role of providing moral goals for society to achieve

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Weber: The increasing rationalisation of the world has squeezed out magical and religious ways of thinking.

Through reason and science we have discovered the laws of nature.

Enables science to thrive and provides the basis for technological advances that give humans more power to control nature.

This undermines the religious worldview in which events can be explained in terms of the will of God.

Although scientific explanations don't generally challenge religious beliefs directly, they have greatly reduced the scope for religious explanations


People don't often see the empirical evidence for science or understand it but accept it without questioning because scientists have been elevated to high priest status in society.

Lyon: Last four decades have been a period of re-enchantment with the growth of unconventional beliefs, practices and spirituality.

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Technological Worldview

Bruce: The growth of a technological worldview has replaced religious or supernatural explanations of why things happen

For example, if a plane crashes less likely to see it as God's punishment of the wicked instead we look for technological explanations.

Not challenging the religious explanations directly but just reduced the scope for religious explanations


Religious explanations survive in areas where technological and scientific explanations are less effective.

For example, praying when we are suffering from an illness for which scientific medicine can't cure. GOD OF GAPS

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Lyon: "Disneyfication" can be used to support that the nature of religion has changed and compromised by increasingly secular societies.

In post modern societies, religion is forced to market and package itself in many different guises, e.g. electronic church on the internet and televangelism on TV in order to compete with a whole host of other leisure products.

Religion has been disneyfied & packaged as a commodity like Mickey Mouse, for sale in the spiritual supermarket where it competes with other rival manufacturers to sell variations of the same product to a declining market.


People watch what they want so it is rare that religious media attracts many new converts

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Secularisation from within

Bruce:American religion had adjusted to the modern world amounts to secularisation from within

Emphasis on traditional Christiam beliefs have declined and American religion has been psychologised or turned into a type of therapy

The change enabled it to fit in with a secular society

American religion has become less religious in order to remain popular'

From seeking salvation in heaven to seeking personal improvement in this world


Roof and McKinney: Bruce has ignored the growth of conservative Protestant religions (New Right) who are commited to their religious beliefs and refuse to compromise their beliefs. 

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Decline of meta-narratives and the rise of spiritu

PoMo like Lyotard: metanarratives like religion have no power to influence how people think, interpret and explain the world in postmodern societies. 

People are taking control of their own lives and are less willing to be told what to believe by the Church

Hervieu-Leger: dramatic decline in traditional institutional religion, called "cultural amnesia" - religion is no longer handed down from generation to generation through extended families and parish churches. 

Social equality has 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. 


Religion has not disappeared. People pick and mix aspects of religion that they want. Consumers of religion. 

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Resacrilisation & believing without belonging

Heelas: From Kendal research; found that people are shifting from traditional religions to a more individualistic spirituality centred on the self.

Religious is not disappearing but being reoriented, pick and mix their religion to what suits them

Davie: Religion is taking a different, more privatised form. 

For example, attendance is now a personal choice, less of an obligation like before. So people don't attend church but hold religious views. 


Bruce: People are not giving up time to attend which shows a decline in the strength of their belief

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Growth of Fundamentalism

Other parts of the world are thriving or reviving religion under the influence of fundamentalist ideas.

Almond et al: growth of fundamentalism among Jews in Israel, Muslims in Pakistan, Palestine, Egypt and Soviet Union, Sikhs and Hindus in India, Christians in USA. 

Roof and McKinney: growth of conservative Protestant groups in the USA demonstrates that secularisation isn't taking place. 

Grown massively at the expense of the mainstream denominations. They attend church and strongly support traditional morality. 

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Existential security theory

Norris and Inglehart: the demand of religion varies both within and between societies. 

Demand is from low income groups and societies because they feel less secure and are at greater risk from life threatening events such as famine and disease.

Why 3rd world countries remain religious whilst prosperous Western countries have become more secular. Rest of the world is becoming more religious whilst rich countries are becoming more secular. 


Only use quantitative data about income levels - don't examine people's own definitions of "existential security".

Focus on negative response to deprivation 

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Cultural defence and transition

Bruce: When people use religion as a way of defending their nationality, ethnicity in a struggle against an external force. 

For example, Catholicism became popular in Poland before the fall of communism. 

The transition is when religion provides support and a sense of community for ethnic groups such as, migrants to a different country and culture. 

For example, religion performed similar functions for the Irish, Afro-Caribbean, Muslim and Hindu to the UK. 


Bruce: religion doesn't survive in such situations only because it is a focus for group identity. 

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