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Church attendance

Does declining church attendance necessarily indicate a reduction in religiosity of society?

·      Hamilton points out that the notion of an 'age of faith' in the past is an illusion partly created as a result of concentrating on the religious behaviour of the elite, about which we have more information than the vast majority of ordinary people. This may mean that the past has no more or less religious than the present, as the spiritual life of most people went unrecorded.

·      Greater levels of personal freedom and individualism may be causing people to see churches as inappropriate these days because they think that religion is a private matter.

Is secularisation best measured through church attendance?

·      To assume secularisation on the basis of an analysis of the fortunes of Christianity is to dismiss the importance of other major world faiths. Many young Muslims have returned to Islam having being politicised by the widespread perception that Islam is under attack.

·      Glock and Stark argue that not enough attention has been paid to the detail of defining religion and religiosity, and that, because of this; the secularisation thesis cannot be actually tested. 

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What is the evidence for secularisation?

Church attendance and membership - It is likely that declining attendance is, at least to some extent, reflecting a decline in the significance of religion for many people. The growth in evangelical religious practice and increased membership of NRMs has not countered the millions lost from established churches.
- However, the fall in numbers of those in the Christian community is not as rapid as the fall in church attendees. Furthermore, Sunday attendance has fallen from 1.2 million to 850 000.

Age Bias - Briefly estimated the age profile of the various groups of denominations. With the exception of the Pentecostal churches, he notes the increasing percentage of the congregations in the older age groups being matched by the declining percentages of younger people.

Reduced moral influence: Sanderson argues that the church seems to be losing its 'core business', that is, to 'hatch and dispatch' (i.e. baptise, marry and bury people):
·      Weddings now only make up approximately 40% of marriages compared with about 75% back in the 1970s.
·      In the early 1930s, 7 out of 10 of all children were baptised into the Church of England. Figures in 2005 show that the proportion has fallen to 1 in 7.
·      The Church of England carried out 207 300 funerals in 2005, down from 232 550 funerals in 2009, when figures were first collected.

Lower status of clergy - In 1900, there were over 45 000 clerics in Britain; this had declined to just over 34 000 in 2000; despite the fact that the population had almost doubled. In a patriarchal society, the very fact that women are now being ordained may in itself reduce the perceived status of the clergy.

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Societal aspects of secularisation

Desacrilisation and rationalisation
·      This is the idea that the sacred has little or no place in contemporary Western society - the world is no longer seen as being in the control of supernatural forces. Instead humans are viewed as in control of their own destiny.
·      Our consciousness has been secularised. The growth of rational or scientific thinking is seen as a clear indicator of secularisation. This approach is particularly associated with Weber, who saw desacrilisation as the 'disenchantment of the world'- the world losing its mystery and magic.

·      The disengagement, or separation, of the church from the wider society is an important aspect of secularisation. The church is no longer involved in important areas of social life, e.g. politics, and has become disengaged from wider society.
·      People are now more concerned with their material standard of living, rather than with spiritual welfare, and are more likely to take moral direction from a variety of sources other than the church.

Religious pluralism
·      Bruce suggests that industrialisation has fragmented society into a marketplace of religions and other community organisations. Wilson argues that, as a result, religion no longer acts as a unifying force in society as social life becomes more fragmented.
·      He points to the ecumenical movement as an attempt by institutionalised religion to reverse secularisation because such unification only occurs when religious influence is weak. 

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Religion in the USA: the Religious Economy Theory

·      Scharf suggests American churches have developed in a secular way. They echo the American dream and religion has been subordinated to the American way of life. Churches place little emphasis on theology but stress the values of democracy, freedom and success.

·      Warner puts the popularity of religion in the US down to the fundamental separation of religion from the influence of the state. The 18th-century American founders distinguished a series of principles of religious liberty. These principles encouraged religious pluralism without any centralising influences. Religion has become a commodity to sell like any other product.

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Evidence against secularisation in the UK

The growth of the immigrant populations is cause an increase in religiosity in certain localities and regions in the UK. Islam is the fastest-growing religion in Britain.

Vicarious religion
·      Davie compares the UK with other European countries e.g. the Scandinavia. She suggests that religion is not practised overtly by the majority but that most engage with religion. In this sense, religion involves rituals and practices performed by an active minority on behalf of a much larger number.

Interruptions in 'normality'
·      One way to unravel what is happening is to observe societies when 'normal' ways of living are suspended and something fare more expressive comes to the fore. An example of this is, in Sweden in 1994, the ferry Estonia sank with the loss of some 900 lives. Large numbers of Swedish people went to their church, some lit candles etc.
·      The Estonia example is simply large scale versions of what goes on in the life-cycles of ordinary people. People expect that they will have the right to the services of the church at critical moments in their lives, e.g. birth. Churches must exit in order to meet such demands, so churches do not belong exclusively to those who use them regularly.

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Evidence against secularisation in the UK 2

Religious belief
·      According to the 1998 British Social Attitudes survey, 21% of those surveyed agreed to the statement 'I know God exists and have no doubt about it', whereas only 10% said that they did not believe in God at all. This shows that despite very low levels of church attendance and membership, surveys show that there seems to be a survival of some religious belief.

·      Bellah argued that, while institutional religion is in decline, this is only one form of religion, and that other aspects of religion continue in a variety of forms. Individuation is the idea of religion as 'finding oneself' through an individual search of meaning.

Other criticisms of the secularisation thesis
·      There is evidence that people prefer 'religious' explanations for random events e.g. the early death of loved ones. Many people still subscribe to the concept of 'luck' and 'fate', as evidenced by the growth of gambling opportunities e.g. the National Lottery.
·      There can be little doubt that religion plays less of a political role than it did in the earlier centuries. However, national debates about issues such as homosexuality, abortion and so on are given a moral dimension by the contribution of religious leaders.
·      According to Hamilton, decline in religious practices may be part of a more general decline in organisational membership and increasing privatisation. E.g. fewer people join trade unions. It may be that they still 'believe', but are more committed to spend their time on individual priorities.

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The secularisation cycle - Stark and Bainbridge

·      According to Stark and Bainbridge, secularisation is not an end to religion in itself but part of a dynamic cycle of secularisation, innovation and religious revival. Stark and Bainbridge argue that religion can never disappear nor seriously decline. They see religion as meeting the fundamental needs of individuals.

·      Whilst the privileged may have more of what they desire, individuals sometimes want rewards which are so great that the possibility of gaining them can only be contemplated alongside a belief in the supernatural- for instance.

·      The need for religious compensators is a constant whenever, wherever, and for whom, desired rewards are not obtainable. The less privileged, relatively lacking in rewards in life, may find that the increasingly secularised religions of the more privileged provide insufficient compensation and so seek alternatives.

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Religious pluralism as religious revival?

·      Greeley and Nelson argue that the growth of NRMs indicate that society is undergoing a religious revival. Nelson argues that, in the 1980s, institutional religion lost contact with spiritual needs of society because it had become too ritualised and predictable.

·      Nelson argues that a religious revival is underway, and is being helped by the success of evangelical churches. These churches offer a more spontaneous religion, which is less reliant on ritual and consequently more attractive to the young.

·      Bruce and Wallis point out that neither NRMs nor those churches that have increased membership have recruited anywhere near the numbers of those lost from the established churches.

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The secularisation myth?

A global perspective
·      Religion is as overwhelming and dominant a force as ever. Berger has formally retracted his earlier claims, 'the world today with some exceptions is as furiously religious as it ever was and in some places more than ever'. Religious revival among Christians in the USA and Jews in Israel has gone unexplained by proponents of the secularisation thesis.

The postmodernist view
·      Postmodernists see the development of New Age beliefs as a rejection of science and modernity in the postmodern age. The true extent of New Age beliefs cannot be known, but the number of internet sites feeding such interests indicates that they are widespread.

·      However, as postmodernists argue, consumption is the way society runs now, or is at least a very significant factor, so this is precisely where we should look to find openings for religious activity.

Secularisation: an over generalisation?

·      As far as the UK is concerned, it is fairly obvious that profound changes are occurring in institutional religion. However, whether these changes can be described as secularisation is difficult to ascertain. Religious participation through organised religion has declined, but the extent and nature of continuing belief still proves difficult to determine. Further, increased globalisation has mean that religio-political events elsewhere have global significance and his is bound to have an impact upon religious influence in Britain.

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