Beliefs in Society - Secularisation Theories

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Ther role that religion plays in political and social life.

  • Some sociologists see secularisation as a process whereby religion has become disengaged from society rather than just being a general decline in individual beliefs and practises.
  • This means tha religion exerts little influence over social institutions such as the political system, education etc compared with the past.
  • Two reasons are cited for this;
  • (1) It is argued that modern societies are rational societies that have largely abandoned superstitious ways of thinking.
  • (2) That religion has fragmented into a religious marketplace of competing belief systems which has diluted the power and influence that religion once had over society.

The Disengagement Thesis

  • The Church of England was once at the centre of British social and political life - this was greatly diminished, for example:
  • In 1936, the Church was instrumental in forcing the abdication of King Edward 8th because he wanted to marry an American divorcee.
  • However, today, apart from the right of 26 bishops to sit in the House of Lords, where they have some influence on legislation, religion has lost most of it's influence over politicians.
  • Wilson - the mass media had replaced religion and the family as the main source of moral and social values.
  • The media with its emphasis on hedonism (pleasure-seeking) and materialism has resulted in children becoming more individualistic and self-seeking.
  • Hervieu-Leger - The decline of religion has led to cultural amnesia amoung young people today.
  • For centures, children used to be taught religion in the extended family, at school and at Sunday school at the local parish church.
  • Now, young people today are less likely to inherit a fixed religious identity and consequently they are more likely to be ignorant of traditional religious knowledge.

Reason for disengagement

  • Bruce - In pre-industrial Britain, the Church of England was responsible for both consensus and community control over people's behaviour.
  • British society, therefore, in this period was based on a rigid hierarchy within which everyone knew their place.
  • The emergence of the capitalist system undermined the power of religion to control what people believed and how they behaved.
  • Capitalism resulted in what Bruce calls 'societalisation' which undermined the power of religion in three ways:


  • (1) It resulted in structural differentiation - specialised agencies developed, usually state-sponsored, which took over many of the functions of religion such as education and welfare.
  • (2) Urbanisation - the geographical movement from the countryside to large towns and cities led to the decline of tight-knit rural religious communities.
  • People were more likely to come into contact in the towns and cities with non-religious ideas which questioned the authority of religious institutions and leaders.
  • (3) In towns and cities, as people went to work for businesses they expereince upward social mobility for the first time - their skills and intelligence were judged and rewarded solely on the basis of the impersoanl bureaucratic rules which shaped examinations and qualifications.
  • Bruce - Societalisation has led to more individualism - people look out for their own…


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