Secularization as defined in the Oxford dictionary of Sociology (Marshall G, 1998) is the process whereby, especially in modern industrial societies, religious beliefs, practices, and institutions lose social significance. The secularization thesis argues that this has occurred in modern societies, due to a number of factors. This essay will assess whether this theory has value. I will present the main definitions of religion and the contrasting points of view, as the meaning of religion and both sides of the secularization thesis have to be understood in order to evaluate it.
To be able to comprehend the secularization thesis, religion must, first of all, be defined. There are two main approaches that have been presented by sociologists, the functional and substantive definitions (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000). The functional definition relates to the purposes of religion - what it does. It states that one of these purposes may be to 'provide solutions to ultimate problems' (Bruce, 1996). Religion can also provide guidelines for how to behave according to the functional definition, which in turn contributes to social order and stability. The substantive definition sees religion as what it is rather than what it does. So religion could be explained in the following way according to the substantive definition: beliefs and actions, which involve Gods and other supernatural beings (Jorgensen et al, 1997)
It is felt that there are problems with these meanings. Firstly, the functional definition could be seen as defining religion as an umbrella term. For it includes belief systems
which some might not view as a religion, for example nationalism could be seen as a religion under the functional definition as it offers answers to fundamental questions
(one of the purposes of religion). Secondly, it becomes difficult to say what an 'ultimate problem' is in different societies, what is an ultimate problem in one part of the world may not be in another. It is also felt there are problems with the substantive definition. The supernatural is mentioned in this meaning so it excludes religions that do not believe in the supernatural, Buddhism being an example of this. The substantive definition could also be seen as having a Western slant; most Western religions have a God and a belief in the supernatural. This approach can cause difficulties when it comes to identifying those belief systems, in other parts of the world, that do not have a god or a belief in the supernatural as religions.
Proponents of the secularization thesis argue that a change in society has occurred due to modernity and this social change has led to a change in religion resulting in secularization. Pre-modernity, religion namely Christianity was a dominant force and it pervaded all parts of society. All knowledge of the world came from religion and an individual's life was marked by religious events. The Reformation marked a change in the dominant religious tradition in Europe and paved the way for modernity (Bruce, 1996). Science and industrialisation, which were factors in modernity, were also said to add to the decline of religion as people looked to these understandings of the world rather than the religious understanding. Darwin's evolutionary theory is evidence of this as it explains the evolution of man rather than the creation of man.
The work of sociological theorists has given emphasis to the idea of secularization. The function of religion as seen by Durkheim was to promote social solidarity and to
reinforce social values; he claimed that religion was in fact the worship of society. Although he predicted religion would become less significant in an industrialised
society as other institutions such as the education system would provide social solidarity, he did not believe that religion would cease to exist as a result of modernity saying that there was 'something eternal in religion' (Durkheim, 1961 cited in Haralambos and Holborn, 2000). Rationalization was a cause in the subsidence of religion as Weber believed. He foresaw'disenchantment' with the supernatural as rational scientific thought emerged. Weber believed that as societies achieved scientific and technological understandings, people would cease to rely on religious meanings and explanations and instead use rational explanations to understand their world. He believed this was an inevitable outcome of modernisation. Religion as Marx believed was an illusion that kept the working class in their place and maintained the power of the ruling class (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000). He thought that religion was the 'opium of the people' (O'Donnell, 1988), which alleviated the pain caused by oppression and exploitation. For Marx, capitalism would aid the decline of religion. This would occur, as classless communism would replace capitalism which would mean that religion would no longer be needed, as the social system it helped to keep in place would no longer exist. be.
So what evidence is there to suggest that secularization has occurred and how is it measured? Much of the evidence that is given is focused on the Christian religion in Britain. Statistics are used to back up the secularization theory. A key theorist on this
issue, Brian Wilson uses statistics as indicators of secularization. These statistics take into account church attendance, church membership and participation in religious ceremonies. The statistics show that there has been a steady decline in formal religious practice (O'Donnell, 1997). Church membership of all Trinitarian churches has fallen from 8.8% in 1970 to 6.4% in 1995. Civil marriages as opposed to church marriages have risen from 40% in 1971 in Great Britain to 48% in 1988 in Great Britain. Other figures also indicate the decline of formal religious practice. The proportion of baptized Roman Catholics who actually attend mass has declined from 47% in 1900 to 33% in 1990. The decreasing number of clergy is also used as indicators of secularization. From 1900 to 1984 there has been a fall by 10,000 in the number of Church of England clerics and since 1975 there have been less than 100 ordinations a year of Catholic priests (Bruce, 1996).
So what other evidence is given as a sign of secularization? The way that people are living their lives could be an indicative sign of religion losing its social significance (Browne, 1998). The disapproval of the church regarding divorce, abortions, homosexuality, contraception and other social issues seems not to have had an impact on people's behaviour. With a recent report stating that 4 out of 10 marriages are expected to end in divorce (Morrison, 2002). This could be said to show a declining importance of religious morals and beliefs in people's lives. Yet there is also evidence that secularization is happening in religion itself, as easier divorce laws, allowing divorced people to remarry in churches, the abolition of Latin in Catholic services and the ordination of women priests can point to the church becoming secularised and abandoning its traditional beliefs.
Other evidence used is the decline of religious institutions and the fact that the power and influence of the church in society has declined. The union that once existed between the state and the church is no more and the church is now in the position where it can disapprove of the governmental policies, which it did with the Conservative government from 1979-1997. Yet the government did not appreciate the views of the church. Other institutions have emerged to take over the roles that the church once played, for example the welfare state now cares for the disadvantaged groups in society. This process of religion withdrawing from and having no influence in public and political life is known as differentiation.
There have been criticisms made of the secularization thesis for a number of reasons. There is evidence to show that while people who are not regular attendees at places of worship or members of religious organisations still preserve religious beliefs (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000). The British Social Attitudes survey found that 72% of people claimed to believe in some sort of supernatural power while only 10% claimed they did not believe in God (Bruce, 1996). This shows that religious beliefs are not losing their social significance and that people may feel they do not need religious institutions to have a belief and a relationship with God..
Another point raised is the assumption that religion was as important in the past as claimed. Regular church going in Victorian Britain could have been influenced by non-religious factors as David Martin views it (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000). He argues that going to church was purely to achieve respectability and not because they
had religious beliefs. Therefore, the reason for a decline in church attendance may be that there is less social pressure to attend rather than a decline in religious beliefs. If religion was not as important as it has been assumed then it could be the case that there has not been a decline of religion at all and that we are viewing the past as some sort of 'golden era' regarding religion.
The growth of non-Christian religion in Britain can also be used against the secularization thesis. Britain is a modern industrial society yet the number of Muslims for example continues to grow. From 1980 to 1995, the number of Muslims has increased by 274,000, Sikhs by 200,000, Hindus by 35,000 and Buddhists by 28,000 (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000). These numbers show that religion is highly significant to these groups in Britain disproving the secularization theory. It also shows that Christianity appears to be the only religion in Britain that is in decline.
Critics cite the USA as a case that proves the secularization thesis wrong. It felt that is a highly industrialised urban modern society yet religion seems to be influential and is an integral part of people's lives. The statistics show a very different picture to Britain. Participation is at a higher rate than that of Britain with 42% of Americans claiming to have attended a church or synagogue in the previous week with 45% of Protestants and 51% of Catholics making up this statistic compared to 10% in Britain (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000). A total lack of religious belief is much lower in the USA with the number of Americans claiming to have no religion being between 7 to 8% in the USA compared to 30% of people in Britain (Bruce, 1996).
In conclusion, the secularization thesis does have validity although the theory can only be applied in certain cases. For example, there has been a decline in the influence
of institutional religion on society as a whole yet examples such as America show the theory cannot be applied to all modern nations. The thesis cannot be confirmed yet it cannot be discredited as secularization to some extent has taken place although it has
not gone as far as some supporters of the secularization thesis have claimed. Secularization can be said to have occurred in that there has been a decline in Christian churches regarding membership and attendance and that the influence of the church has abated yet the growth of non-Christian religions and the ongoing religious beliefs that people hold is evidence that modernity does not necessarily mean an occurrence of secularization.