Secularisation in Britain


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  • Created on: 31-05-11 11:14

Church Attendance

- In 1966, Bryan Wilson argued that Western Societies had been undergoing a long-term process of secularisation. He defined secularisation as 'the process whereby religious beliefs, practices and institutions lose social significance'.

- Church Attendance in England and Wales had fallen from 40% of the population in mid 19th century to 10-15% by 1960's.

- Church weddings, baptisms and Sunday school attendance has also declined.

-  Only 6.3% of the adult population attended church on Sundays in 2005.

- Baptisms of children fell from 55% in 1991 to 41% in 2005

- Only a third of weddings are in church.

- Decline in belief in a personal God, in Jesus and in traditional teachings.

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Explanations of Secularisation

Weber: Rationalisation

Rationalisation refers to the process by which rational ways of thinking and acting come to replace religious ones. Many sociologists have argued that Western society has undergone rationalisation already.

- Weber argues that the Protestant Reformation begun by MLK started a process of rationalisation of life in the West. This process undermined the religious worldview and replaced it with the rational scientific outlook found in modern society.

- Weber believes the Catholic worldview that dominated Europe saw the world as an 'enchanted garden'. God and other beings (angels etc) were believed to be present and changed the course of events through their supernatural behaviours.

- However the Protestant Reformation brought a new worldview. Instead of the inventor God, protestantism saw God as transcendant, existing above and beyond this world. The believe thsat God left it running to its own laws of nature and the creator played no further part. Therefore, events were no longer to be explained.

- In Weber's view, therefore, the Protestant Reformation begins the 'DISENCHANTMENT' of the world - it removes religious ways of think and starts of the rationalisation process. This enables science to thrive, that gives human more power to control nature.

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Structural Differentiation

Parsons defines structural differentiation as a process of specialisation that occurs with the development of industrial society.

Separate, specialised institutions develop to carry out functions that were previously perfomed by a single institution. Parsons sees this as having happened to RELIGION.  It dominated pre-industrial society but with industrialisation it has become a smaller and specialised institution.

Structural differentiation leads to the DISENGAGEMENT of religion. Its functions are transferred to other institutions such as the sate and it becomes disconnected from wider society. EXAMPLE: the church loses the influence it once had on education, social welfare and the law.

Bruce agrees that religion has become separated from wider society. This is because it has become PRIVATISED - confined to the home and family.

Religious beliefs are now a matter of personal choice and religious institutions have lost much of their influence on wider society.

Traditional rituals and symbols have lost meaning.

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Social and Cultural Diversity

- The move from pre-indusrial to industrial society brings about the decline of community which has contributed to the decline of religion.

- Wilson argues that in pre-industrial communities, shared values were expressed through collective rituals that integrated individuals and regulated their behaviour.

-Bruce sees industrialisation as undermining the consensus of religious beliefs that hold small rural communities together. Social and geographical mobility breaks up communities but brings people together from many different backgrounds, creating even more diversity.

- Diversity of cultures, occupations and lifestyles undermines religion. Even where people hold religious beliefs, they cannot avoid knowing that many of those around them hold very different views.

- The absence of a practicing religious community that functions on a day to day basis, both religious belief and practice decline.

- Aldridge criticises this view:

- Religion can be a source of identity on a worldwide scale.

- Pentecostal and other religious groups often flourish in 'impersonal' urban areas.

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Religious Diversity

- Berger says another cause of secularisation is the trend towards religious diversity, where instead of there being only one religious organisation and only one interpretation, there are many!

- No church can no longer claim an unchallenged monopoly of truth.

- Diversity therefore undermines religion's plausibilty structure' - the reasons why people find it believable. When there are alternative versions of religion to choose between, people are likely to question all of them and this secularises religion.

- Religious beliefs become relative rather than absolute.

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Cultural Defence and Transition

Bruce identifies 2 counter-trends which seem to go against secularisation theory. Both are associated with higher than average levels of participation.

Cultural Defence: this is where religion provides a focal point for the defence of national, ethnic, local or group identity in a struggle against an external force. Example: The popularity of Catholicism in Poland before the fall of communism and the resurgence of Islam before the revolution in Iran.

Cultural Transition: is where religion provides support and a sense of community for ethnic groups such as migrants to a different country and culture. Religion has performed similar functions for Irish, Afro-Carribbean's, Muslim and Hindus who are migrants to the UK.

Bruce argues that religion survives in such situations only because it is a focus for group identity. These examples do not disprove secularisation but show that religion is most likely to survive where it performs functions.

Churchgoing declined in Poland after the fall of communism and evidence that religion loses imporance for migrants once they are integrated into society.

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Berger has changed his views and now argues that diversity and choice actually stimulate interest and participation in religion.

For example, the growth of evangelicalism in Latin America and the New Christian Right in the USA which point to the continuing vitality of religion, NOT it's decline.

Beckford agrees with the idea that religious diversity will lead some to question or even abandon their religious beliefs bur this is not inevitable.

Opposing views can have the effect of strengthening a religious group's commitment to its existing beliefs.

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New Age

- Some sociologists argue that a spiritual revolution is taking place today, in which Christianity is giving way to 'holistic spirituality' or New Age beliefs and practices.

- Increased interest in New Age can be seen in the growth of a 'spiritual market'.

- New Age spirituality has grown because of a massive subjective turn in today's culture. It allows you to explore your inner self by following a spiritual path.

- New Age emphasises the importance of spirtual healing and personal growth.

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Emily Gover


these are great... very informative and written from the book in note version.

Thanks you have helped me pass my mini test :)

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