beliefs in society

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  • Created by: Natasha
  • Created on: 17-01-10 00:12


in Britain

  • Based on evidence from the Census of Religious Worship, Crockett eastimates that in yeat, 40% of more of the adult population of Britain attended church on Sundays. this is a much higher figure than today and this led some sociologists to claim that the 19th C was a golden age of religiosity
  • for example
    • a decline in the proportion of population going church
    • increase in average age of churchgoers
    • fewer baptisms and church weddings
  • in 1966, Wilson argued that Western societies had been undergoing a l-term process of S
  • he defined S as the process whereby religious beliefs, practices and institutions lose social significance
  • e.g. church attendance in England and Wales had fallen from 40% of the population in the mid 19th C to 10-15% by the 1960s
  • church weddings, baptisms and sunday school attendance have also declined, leading Wilson to conclude that Britain had become a secular society
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church attendance today

  • the trends Wilson identified have continued
  • only 6.3% of adult population attend church on sundays in 2005. churchgoing in Britain has therefore halved and is predicted to fall further to 4.7% by 2015
  • the English Church Census shows that attendance and membership of large organisations such as the Church of England have declined more than small organisations, some are which remains stable or have grown
  • in 1971, 3/5ths of weddings were in church, but by 2006 the proportion was only a 1/3. similarly, baptisms of childrens fell from 55% in 1991 to 41% in 2005.

religious beliefs today

  • evidence about religious beliefs from over 60 years of opinion polls and attitude surveys shows that:
    • more people claim they hold Christian beliefs than actually belong or go to church
    • religious belief is declining in line with attendance and membership
  • Robin Gill et al reviewed almost 100 national surveys on religious beliefs from 1939 to 1996 - they show a significant decline in belief in a personal God and in traditional teaching about the afterlife and the Bible
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religious institutions today

  • although the church has some influence on public life, this has declined significantly since the 19th C
  • in particular, the state has taken over many of the functions the church used to perform
  • for example, until the mid 19th C, the church provided education, but since then it has been provided by the state
  • one measure of the institutional weakness of the church is the number of clergy, which fell from 45,000 in 1990 to 34,000 in 2000 - at a time the population had almost doubled in size
  • summing up the overall trend, Bruce agrees with Wilson that all the evidence on S has now been pointing in the same direction for may years
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  • a common theme is modernisation, involving the decline of tradition and its replacement with rational and scientific ways of thinking that tends to undermine R
  • S theory also emphasises the effect on social change on R. e.g. industrialisation leads to the break up of small communities that were held together by common religious beliefs
  • a major theme in explanations of S is the growth of social and religious diversity
  • people are increasingly diverse in terms of their occupational and cultural background as well as religious institutions being much more valued


  • refers to the process by which rational ways of thinking and acting come to replace religious ones
  • Weber argues that the Protestant Reformation began by Martin Luther King in the 16C started a process of rationalisation of life in the West
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  • this process undermined the religious worldview of the Middle Ages and replaced it with the rational scientific outlook found in modern society


  • the Protestant Reformation brought a new worldview, instead of the interventionist God of medieval Catholicism, Protestantism saw Gad as transcendant - as existing above and beyond or outside this world
  • all that was needed to understand the workings of natural forces was rationality
  • using reasons and science, humans could discover the laws of nature understand and predict how the world and control it through technology
  • the Protestant Reofrmation beings the disenchantment to the world. this enables science to thrive and provide the basis for technological advances that give humans more and more power to control nature, this further undermines the religious worldview
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a technoloigcal worldview

  • Bruce argues that the growth of a technological worldview has largely replaced religious explanations of why things happen
  • a technological worldview leaves little room for religious explanations in everyday life, which only survive in areas where technology is least effective , e.g. we may pray for help if we are suffering from an illness for which scientific medicine has no cure
  • Bruce concludes that although scientific explanations do not challenge R directly. scientific knwoeldge does not in itself make people into atheists, but the worldview it encourages results in people taking R less seriously

structural differentiation

  • a process of specialisation that occurs with the development of industrial society
  • separate, specialised institutions develop to carry out functions that were previously performed by a single institution
  • according to Parsons, SD leads to the disengagement of R. its functions are transferred to other institutions such as the state and it becomes disconnected from wider society
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  • Bruce agrees that R has become separated from wider society and lost many of its former functions. it has become privatised
  • even where R contributes to perform functions such as education or social welfare, it must conform to the requirements of the secular state.

social and cultural diversity

  • Wilson argues that in pre-industrial communities, shared values were expressed through collective religious rituals
  • however, when R lost its basis in stable local communities, it lost its vitality and its hold over individuals.
  • Brice sees industrialisation as undermining the consensus of religious beliefs that hold small rural beliefs together
  • social and geogrpahical mobility not only breaks up communities but brings people together from many different backgrounds, creating more diversity
  • diversity of occupations, cultures and lifestyles also undermine R
  • Bruce agrues that the plausability of beliefs is undermined by alternatives
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  • the view that the decline in community causes the decline of R has been criticised
  • Aldridge points out that a community does not have to be in a particualr area:
    • R can be a source of identity on a world wide scale
    • some religious communities ineract through the use of global media
    • Pentecostal and other religious groups often flourish in impersonal urban areas
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religious diversity

  • according to Berger, another cause of S is the trend towards religious diversity where instead of their being only one religious organisation and only one interpretation of the faith, there are many
  • in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church had an absolute monopoly - they had no challengers and the church's version of the truth was unquestioned so had greater plausability
  • this all changed with the Protestant Reformation. since the Reformation, the number and variety of religious organisationgs has continued to grow, each with a different version of the truth
  • society is thus no longer unified the single sacred canopy provided by one church
  • Berger argues that this creates a crisis of credibility
  • diversity undermines R's plausabiltiy structure
  • when there are alternative versions of R to choose between, people are likely to quesion all of them
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cultural defence and transition

  • Bruce identifies two counter-trends that seem to go against S theory. both are associated with higher than average levels of religious participation
    • cultural defence is where R 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
    • cultural transition is where R provides support and a sense of community for ethnic groups such as migrants to a different country and culture. Herzberg describes this in his study of R and immigration to the USA
  • however, Bruce argues that R survives in such situations onlt because it is a focus for groups identity
  • cultural defence and transition do not disprove S, but show that R is most likely to survive where it performs functions other than relating individuals to the supernatual
  • evidence supporting Bruce's conclusion is that churchgoing in Poland declined after the fall of communism
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  • Berger has changed his views and now argues that diversity and choice actually stimulate interest and participation in R
  • Beckford argees with the idea that R diversity will lead some to question or even abandon their religiou beleifs, but it is not evitable
  • opposing views can have the effect of strengthening a religiou groups commitment to its existing beliefs rather than undermining them

a spritiual revolution

  • traditional Christianity is giving way to holistic spirituality or New Age beleifs and practices that emphasise personal development and subjective experience
  • increased interest in spirituality can be seen in the growth of a spiritual market
  • in their study of Kendal, Heelas and Woodhead investigate whether traditional R has declined and, if so, how far the growth of spirituality is compesating for this. they distinguish between two groups:
    • the congregational domain of traditional and evangelical Christianity
    • the holistic milieu of spirituality and the New Age
  • within the congregational domain, the traditional churches were losing support, while evangelical churches were holding their own and were relatively well. although fewer were involved in a holistic milieu, it was growing
  • Heelas and Woodhead offer an explanation for these trends
    • New Age spirituality has grown because of a massive subjective turn in todays culture
    • as a result traditional R's, which demand duty and obedience are declining
    • Evangelical churches are more successful than the traditional churches
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  • in the spiritual market place, therefore, the winners are those who appeal to personal experience as the only genuine source of meaning and fulfillment, rather than the received teachings and commandments of traditional R
  • Heelas and Woodhead argue that a spiritual revolution has not taken place
  • although the holistic milieu has grown in popularity since the 1970s, its growth has not compensated for the decline of traditional R
  • they, therefore conclude that S is occurring in Britain, because the subjective turn has undermined the basis of traditional R
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in America

  • in 1962, Wilson found that 45% of Americans attended church on sundays
  • however, he argues that churchgoing in America was more an expression of the American way of life rather than deeply held religious beliefs
  • Wilson claimed that America was a secular society, because R there had become superificial
  • Bruce uses 3 sources of evidence to support his claim that America is becoming increasingly secular
    • declining in church attendance
      • opinion poll research asking people about church attendance suggests that it has been stable at about 40% of the populationg since 1940
      • however, Kirk Hadaway found that this figure did not match the Churches own statistics
      • Hadaway et al studied church attendance in Ohio to investigate their suspicion that opinion polls exaggerate.they found that the level of attendance claimed by interviewees were 83% higher than their estimates of church attendance
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    • Bruce concluded that a stable rate of self-reported attendance of about 40% has masked a decline in actual attendance in the US. the widening gap may be due to the fact that it is still seen as socially desirable or nomative to go to church, so people who have stopped going will still say they attend if they are asked in a survey
  • secularisation from within
    • the emphasis on traditional Christian beliefs and glorifying G has declined and R in America has become psychologised. thuse change has enabled it to fit in with a secular society
    • the purpose of R has changed from seeking salvation in heaven to seeking personal improvement in this world
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  • Religious diversity
    • churchgoers are becoming less dogmatic in their views
    • Bruce identifies a trend towards practical relativism among America Christians, involving acceptance of the view that others are entitled to hold beliefs that are different to ones am
    • Lynd and Lynds study found that 94% of young churchgoers in 1924 agreed with the statment 'Christianity is the one true R and all people should be converted to it'. however, by 1977 only 41% agreed
    • the counterpart to practical relativism is the erosion of absolutism - that is, we now live in a society where many people hold views that are completely different to ours, which undermine our assumption that our own views are absolutely true
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  • opponents of S theory highlights the following points
    • R is not declining but simply changing its form
    • S theory is one-sided. it focuses on decline and ignores religious revivals and the growth of new Rs
    • evidence of ailing church attendance ignores people who believe but dont go to church
    • R may have declined in Europe but not in America or glabally, so S is not universal
    • the past was not a golden age of faith from which we have declined, and the future will not be an age of atheism
    • far from causing decline, religious diversity increases participation because it offers choice. there is no overall downward trend
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