The Secularisation Debate

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  • Created by: Lilly
  • Created on: 09-05-14 10:01

Two approaches to the secularisation debate:

1) Disapperance thesis- religion is declining in importance and is losing signifance in overall public and individual life.

2) Differentiation thesis- religion in moving from a public issue into a more privatised, individual practice, is not declining but nature of religion is changing.

Wilson - identified 3 aspects of secularisation:

  • Religious belief- influence of regligion on people's beliefs and values.
  • Religious practice
  • Religious institutions.

Hanson- makes distinction between secularisation on level of social system (broad approach) and level of individual (narrow approach)

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Defining Secularisation

  • Is the decline in influence of religion. 'Religion' can be defined in 2 ways:

1 - Exclusivist model of religion- narrow definition of what constitues a religion

2- Inclusivist definition- much broader possibly including political movements and value systems like humanism, neither of which would be seen as religious by more exclusivist approaches.

The more broadly it is defined the less likely it is to be seen to be in decline as there is always likely to be some form of activity going on which fits this definition of the 'religious'

Wilson (1996)- Secularisation is the process whereby religious thinking, practice and institutions are declining.

Bruce-  challenges Wilson, arguing that there is no one secularisation theory. Rather there are clusters of descriptions and explanations that cohere resonably well.

Possible sec definitions, level of participation in organised society, level of religious belief in soc, possible loss of functions in industrialised society, how far reg institutions are themselves truly 'religious' and how far people explain and understand the world in secular rather then reg terms.

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Issue with defining and measuring secularisation

Issue of defining is so important:

  • Affects outcome of research
  • Which of these different ways to define it is most important
  • How many of these dimesions needs to be considered before we ca decide whether religion is in decline?
  • Socities may expereince process of sec in different wats.

Casanova- 2 approaches to defining secularisation: 1) decline in importance in social structure and it's significance, seperation from public sphere  2) decline in religious belief and practices amongst individuals.


Problems with measuring aspects of it, how can loss of functions, internal secularisation, level of secular mindsets and disengagement be measured?

Probs with quantitative- under-estimates participation, problem with self-collected data, different definitions of membership and attendance, some reg organisations don't keep records.

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Evidence and arguements supporting secularisation:

Decline in religious practice:

  • Church attendance statistics- 1851 census approx. 40% of population went to church. By 2005 had dropped to 6.3% (2006 English Church consensus)
  • Attendance to ceremonies such as baptism, communion etc also declined.
  • Wilson (similar to New Right) sees decline in church marriages (33% in 2005), rising divorce rate and increase in cohabitation and number of kids born outside of marriage as evidence that reg and moral value system exerts little influence today.

HOWEVER, Interpretivists suggest stats should be treated cautiously. Stats relating to previous century probs unreliable because sophisticated data-collection practices not in place. Bellah- people who attend church are not necesarily practising religious belieg and those who believe may not need to attend. Reg is private experience for many and therefore cannot be reliably or scientifically measured.

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  • Wilson- church no longer involved in important areas of social life (politics) politicians do not ensure that their policies meet approval of religious leaders.
  • People more likely to take moral direction from mass media than churhc. Public apathy to religion now means that it only has symbolic meaning today, people only entering church for 'hatching, matching and dispatching' ceremonies.
  • Church  now occupies marginal status in society.

HOWEVER- reg still major provider of education and welfare for poor. Media still shows interest in reg issues (women priests or more recently Pope's offer to disgruntled Anglicans chance to beocme Roman caths but retain particular religious rites and practices)

Some, notably Parons, say that disengagement is probably good thin because means churches can focus more effectively on central role of providing moral goals for society to achieve.

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  • Weber, increasing rationalisation of world has pushed out magical and reg ways of thinking an dstarts off process that leads to dominance of rational modes of thought.
  • Enables science to thrive and provide basis for technological advances that give human more power to control nature. This in turn undermines the religious worldview in which events can be explained in terms of the will of god.

HOWEVER- People's belief in science depends on irrational faith. People don'y seen empircal evidence for science of understand it but accept without question because scientists have been elevated to high-priest status of soc. Lyon argues that in last 4 decades have been period of re-enchantment with growth of inconventional beleifs, practices and spirituality (NRM/NAM)

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Technological/ Scientific worldview

  • Bruce (similar to Weber) argues growth of technological worldview largely replaced religious/ supernatural explanations of why things happen.
  • EG- plane crash, unlikely to regard it as will of god.
  • Instead to look to science and tech explanations. Concludes that although scientific explanations do not challenge reg directly, they have reduced scope of religious explanation.

HOWEVER- re explanations survive in areas where tech and science are less effective/

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  • Lyon- can be used to support idea that nature of religion has been changed and compromised by increasingly secular socities.
  • Disneyfication- process that diminishes human life by trivialising it or making it take part to appear little more than a joke. Post mod socities reg forced to market and package itself in many differnt guises (electronic church,) in order to compete with range of other leisure actitives.
  • Religion has been disneyfied and packaged as commodity, for sale in spiritual supermarket where it josteles with other rival manufactureres to seel variations of same product in declining market.

HOWEVER- postmods claim growth of reg media and electronic church demonstrates a revival in reg, going against secularisation debate.

Bruce- consumerist religion of the type Lyon describes is weak religion- has little effect on lives of its followers.

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Secularisation from within

  • Bruce- the way USA reg has adjusted to modern world amounts to secularisation from within. Emphasis on traditional christian beliefs has also decline and American religion has been 'psychologised' ot turned into type of therapy.
  • Change has helped it to fit in with secular society. American religion become less of a relgion in order to remain popilat. Purpose of American religon has changed from seeking salvation in heavan to seeking personal improvement in this world.

HOWEVER- Roof and McKinney- argues that Bruce ignores growth of conservative prot religions (new christian right) which seem to combine a serious religious teachings, strong element of theological doctrine and refusal to compromise reg beliefs. As such sthey seem to directly contraditct Bruce's claim about sec within regs.

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Decline of metanarratives & rise of 'spiritual sho

  • Lyotard (postmod) metanarratives like reg have lost their power to influence how epople think about, interpret and explain world in postmod socities. People now taking more control over their own lives and less willing to be told what to beleive.
  • Hervieu-Leger- idea that there has been dramatic decline in traditional institutional religion, caused by 'cultural amnesia' reg no longer handed down from generation to generation through extended families and parish churches.
  • Social equality has also undermined traditional power of church to impose reg on people Young people no longer inhrit fixed reg identity and they are ignorant of trad regs.

HOWEVER- reg itself has not diappeared. Individual consumerism has replaced collective worship. Feel they have a choice as consuers of reg, become spiritual shoppers. Reg now individualised as we develop own 'do-it-yourselg' regs that give meaning to our lives and fit in with own interests and aspirations = reg no longer acts as source of collective identity/

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Evidence and arguement against secularisation


  • Heelas- data from Kendal research found that although there might be secularisation in terms of trad regs, there is at same time process of resacrilisation- renewal and continuing vitality of reg beliefs- as people shift from trad regs to more individualistic spirituality centered on self.
  • Research suggests that reg beleifs is not disappearing simply being reorientated, taking new form for in which people pick and mix their spirituality from wide range of beliefs on offer, tailored to hwat they feel they need and what works for them.

HOWEVER- Glendinning and Bruce- research collected by Heelas et al, showed that fewer than 1 in 50 people in around area of Kendal engaged in 'NA' activities in typical week, fewer than 1/2 saw themselves as spiritual activities. Suggest that this is hardly evidence of resacrilisation or 'spiritual revolution.'

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Beliving without belonging

  • Davie- religion is not declining but simply taking different more privatised form. Church attendance has declined because attendance is now matter of personal choice rather than the obligated it used to be.
  • Now have believing without belonging, where people have reg views but do not attend church. Also notices rise of 'vicarious religion' where smaller number of professional clergy practice religion on behalf of a much larger number of people, who experience it second-hand at rituals such as baptisms, marriages and funerals.

HOWEVER- Voas and Crockett- use data from social trends, suggests that since 1983 there has been continual decline in both attending and believing.

Bruce- if people are not giving up their time to attend, than this represents decline in strength of belief.

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Growth of fundamentalism

  • Reg appears to be thriving / reviving under influence of fundamentalist ideas that advocate unwavering obedience to religious laws throughout society.
  • Almod et al- identify the growth of fundamentalism among Jews, Muslims etc.
  • Roof and McKinney- growth of conservative protestant groups in USA demonstrates that sec is not occuring. Members of these groups more likely than others to attend church and strongly support trad morality.
  • Almond et al- many of these conservative reg groups have grown massively in recent yeats at expense of more mainstream denominations.

HOWEVER- Bruce Q's significance growth of New Christian Right. Agrees that they have slowed down the growth of sec within their own reg institutions but they failed to achieve much more than this. Whilst they are signifcant political force in USA they have no achieved any fundamental changes in American society and conservative politicans often have to distance themselves from these groups to get elected to political office.

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Existential security theory

  • Norris and Inglehart- demand for religion varies both within and between socities. Deman greatest from low-income groups and socities becase feel less secure and more at risk from life threatening events (famine, disease). Explains why 3rd world countries remain reg whilst more properous western countries have become more secular/
  • Global population gowth undermines trend towards secularisation.
  • Rich, secure, secular western countries have low levels of pop growth, poor have high rates.
  • As result rich countries becoming more secular, majorit of world is becoming more religious.
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Cultural defence and transition

  • Bruce- two counter trends that seem to go against sec theory because they are associated with higher than average levels of reg participation.
  • Cultural defence- reg provides focal point for defence of nation, ethnic, local/ group identity in struggle against external force such as hostile foreign power. (EG- popularity of catholicism in Poland before fall of communism.)
  • Cultural transition- where reg provides support and sense of community for ethnic groups such as migrantsto a different country and culture.
  • Herberg- describes this in his study of reg and immigration to USA and reg could be said to have performed similar functions for Irish, ACs, Muslims, Hindu and other migrants to UK.
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