Secularization | Sociology for CUET by Vikash Ranjan | Sociology Guru


(Relevant for Sociology optional for UPSC CSE)
Paper-1 ,Unit-8 : Secularization


Bryan Wilson defines secularization as ‘the process whereby religious thinking, practice and institutions lose social significance’. Like all key concepts in sociology, the concept of secularization has been used in a variety of ways.

  1. In other words, secularization is the process in which social institutions gain considerable autonomy and religious consciousness declines whereby instead of being the pervasive, religion becomes “a deportment of the social order”. Wilson gives three features of a secular society:
    • The prevalence of Instrumental Values
    • The prevalence of Rational Procedures
    • The prevalence of Technological Methods.
  2. Peter Berger defines secularization as the “process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols”.
  3. Harvey co
    • Urbanization
    • Pragmatism
    • This worldliness attitude.
    • Pluralism Tolerance.
In General Secularization is indicative of the following changes:
  • Withdrawal of religion from social spheres like education, marriage etc.
  • Development of pluralism in world views
  • Emergence of rational and scientific view
  • Development of critical consciousness.


Secularism: on the other hand, can be defined on the basis of three perspectives

  1. People-Centric,
  2. State-centric and
  3. India-centric (in the context of India)
  1. People-centric secularism emphasizes on the idea of separating religion from politics, economy, education, social life and culture.
  2. State-centric secularism emphasis on the need to keep the state protector to all religions.
  3. India-centric secularism underlines the importance of the unity of all people against communalism.

Secularism being an ideology consists of the following five ideas:

  1. It stresses on human autonomy. It recognizes individual to be master of his own life. Human beings are responsible for their own destinies. It places faith on human rationale, rather than divine guidance.
  2. It asserts that separation of religion from states and stresses that family relations, education, morality, knowledge and values are also free from clutches of religion.
  3. It puts stress on reason and inquiry.
  4. Secularism welcomes pluralism and religious toleration. Pluralism of religion is supported by an attitude of tolerance towards other religions.
  5. It is not anti-religion.

Secularism : European experience :

Secularism was the main goal of reformation and the renaissance that took place in Europe in 15th and 16th centuries. Martin Luther, the principal initiator of the protestant reformation, had advocated that it is the right of individual to understand the words of God without taking the guidance of the church.

  1. Reformation was basically a religious movement which later on becomes reactionary. Two important features or effects of reformation were:
    • It did not produce more toleration and religious liberty.
    • Illiterate masses i.e. popular masses were unaware of the reformation process religion continued to be a mainstay of talk.
  2. The renaissance advocated rational thinking and challenged the theological uses of cosmos. To make this idea reachable to people, mass education, free press and social movement were used. Charles brad laugh, the great secularist, belived that extensive propaganda played crucial role in ensuring secularization.

Secularization Process:

Secularization for its development required social milieu. It can be further elaborated in the following way:

  1. In the context of feudal lords and bourgeoisie: In England and the Netherland, the conflict between feudal lands and bourgeoisie started in eighteenth century. Feudal lords led a lavish life. They made huge donation to religious institutions and these institution prayed to God for lord’s well-being. Bourgeoisie in order to attack feudal lords took the help of scientific and rational outlook. As a. result of which, feudal privileges based on heredity, oppression on the basis of sovereignty the “divine rights” of feudal lords to rule was challenged on rational grounds.
  2. In the content of the capitalist class and the wage-earners : Disraeli divided the capitalist society into two nations viz. the wage earners and the capitalists. The wage-earners were devoid of means of ownership of production. After being paid a subsistence wage, these workers were alienated from the fruits of their labour. They welcomed religion in order to tolerate such a harsh situation. Capitalists also made use of religion to bullet their brutal deeds. They also used religion to pacify violent wage earners. However, in the emerging modern nation states, democracy was proclaimed in England, France etc. The right of freedom of conscience was granted to them which happened to pass through three stages.
    • In first stage people struggled for religious tolerance
    • In second stage religious freedom of conscience was asserted.
    • In third stage genuine freedom of conscience was accomplished.

Secularization and Other Institutions:

  1. The Church of England is subordinate to the British sovereign.
  2. French government shows no preference for any religious group and prohibits clerics from teaching in the public schools.
  3. Monaco, where Catholics comprised 92% of the population in 2000, has implemented the most anti-clergy legislation in the west.
  4. Church property belongs to the state.
  5. Worship services outside the church were forbidden.
  6. The government can open any place of worship and determine the number of clerics in it.
  7. The clergy cannot vote, participate in politics.
  8. The Church cannot own radio and television stations.

Studies of secularization have been classified in terms of some of the many ways in which process has been conceptualized and measured.

1.The decline in organized religious participation:
  1. Some researchers have seen religious institutions and activity associated with them as the key element in religious behaviour. From this viewpoint they have measured the importance of religion in society in terms of factors such as church attendance and marriages performed in church. From such measures they argue that secularization is occurring in most western societies. Wilson argues that, ‘the decline in organized religious participation indicates the way in which the churches are losing direct influence over the ideas and activities of man’.
  2. However, the decline in participation in institutional religion can be interpreted in a number of ways. David martin argues that in Victorian times, church attendance was more strongly motivated by non-religious factors such as middle-class respectability. Today, church attendance is no longer an indication of respectability for many members of the middle class. Thus, their absence from church may have nothing to do with a change in their religious beliefs. Robert n. Bellah argues that the decline in institutional religion cannot be taken as an indication of a decline in religious belief and commitment. Religion today may simply be expressed in a different way. Bellah argues that there has been a move from collective worship to privatized worship and from clerical to individual interpretation of doctrine. He claims that ‘the assumption in most of the major protestant denominations is that the church member can be considered responsible for himself’. While there is little dispute that participation in institutional religion has declined over the past century in most European countries, there is considerable disagreement over the interpretation of this process.
2. Disengagement and differentiation:
  1. A disengagement of the religious organizations from the wider society is seen as secularization. Compared to its role in medieval Europe, the church in contemporary western society has undergone a process of disengagement. In the Middle Ages, there was a union of church and state. Today, apart from the right of bishops to sit in the British house of lords, the church is hardly represented in government. Ecclesiastical control of education and social welfare has been superseded by secular organizations under state control. Church patronage of the arts & architecture was reflected by the fact that most art in the Middle Ages was based on religious themes. Today secular themes predominate.
  2. Bryan Wilson argues that the church of England today provides little more than traditional ritual to dramatize important turning points in the life cycle, namely, birth marriage and death. he sees its disengagement from the wider society as evidence of secularization. an alternative to the view that disengagement equals secularization is provided by
  3. Talcott parsons agrees that the church as an institution has lost many of its former functions. He argues that the evolution of society involves a process of structural differentiation. Various parts of the social system become more specialized and so perform fewer functions.
  4. However, the differentiation of the units of the social system does not necessarily lessen their importance. Parsons argues that religious beliefs still give meaning and significance to life. Churches are still the fount of religious ethics and values. As religious institutions become increasingly specialized, Parsons maintains that their ethics and values become increasingly generalized. In American society they have become the basis for more general social values. Thus, many of the values of American society are at once Christian and American. This has resulted in the ‘endowment of secular life with a new order of religious legitimation’.
3.Religious pluralism:
  1. Some researchers imply that the truly religious society has one faith and one church. Thus, picture is influenced by the situation in some small scale, nonliterate societies, such as the Australian aborigines, where the community is a religious community. In terms of Durkheim’s view of religion, the community is the church. Medieval European societies provide a similar picture. There the established church ministered to the whole society. But now a multiplicity of denominations and sects has replaced common faith and the established church. In particular, it has been argued that a range of competing religious institutions has reduced the power of religion in society.
  2. Bryan Wilson argues that if there are a number of denominations in society, each with its own version of the truth, they can at best only reflect and legitimate the beliefs of a section of the population. In this way, ‘religious values cease now to be community values. Religion no longer expresses and reinforces the values of society as a whole and so ceases to perform its traditional function of promoting social solidarity.
  3. Berger and Luckman make a similar point. Instead of one religious institution with a single, unchallenged view of the supernatural, there are now many with divergent views. Berger argue that the emergence of denominations weakens the influence of religion. No longer is a single ‘universe of meaning’ provided for all members of society. The continuing proliferation of sects has been interpreted by some researchers in much the same way as the spread of denominations. It has been seen as a further fragmentation of institutional religion and the therefore as evidence of the weakening hold of religion over society.
  4. Peter Berger sees the continuing vitality of sects as evidence of a secular society. He argues that belief in the supernatural can only survive in a sectarian form in a secular society. In order to maintain a strong religious belief and commitment, individuals must cut themselves off from the secularizing influences of the wider society and seek out the support of others of like mind. The sect, with its close-knit community organization, provides a context where this is possible. From this viewpoint, the sect is the last refuge of the supernatural in a secular society. Sects are therefore evidence of secularization.
  5. Bryan Wilson takes a similar view maintaining that sects are ‘a feature of societies experiencing secularization, and they may be seen as a response to a situation in which religious values have lost social pre-eminence’. Sects are therefore the last outpost of religion in societies where religious beliefs and values have little consequence.
  6. Bryan Wilson is particularly scathing in his dismissal of the religious movements of the young in the west, such as Krishna consciousness, which emerged during the 1960s in the USA. He regards them as ‘almost irrelevant’ to society as a whole claiming that, ‘they add nothing towards the culture by which a society might live’. By comparison, methodism, in its early days as sects, provided standards and values for the new urban working class, which helped to integrate its. Members within the wider society. In addition, its beliefs ‘steadily diffused through a much wider body of the population’. The new religious movements show no such promise. Their members live in their own enclosed, encapsulated little worlds. There they emphasize ‘hedonism, the validity of present pleasure, the abandonment of restraint and the ethic of “do your own thing”.
  7. Wilson is scornful of their ‘exotic novelty’ which he believes offers little more than self-indulgence, titillation and short-lived thrills. He believes that movements which seek for truth in Asian religions and emphasize the exploration of the inner self, for example Krishna Consciousness, can give little to Western society. They simply ‘offer another way of life for the self-selected few rather than an alternative culture for mankind’. Rather than contributing to a new moral reintegration of society, they simply provide a religious setting for ‘dropouts. They do not halt the continuing process of secularization and are ‘likely to be no more than transient and volatile gestures of defiance’ in the face of a secular society.
4.The secularization of religious institutions:
  1. To Herzberg, ‘authentic religion’ means an emphasis on the supernatural, a deep inner conviction of the reality of supernatural power, a serious commitment to religious teachings, a strong element of theological doctrine and a refusal to compromise religious beliefs and values with those of the wider society. This is just what Herzberg does not find in the established denominations in America. He claims that, ‘denominational pluralism, on the American plan means thorough-going secularization’. The major denominations have increasingly emphasized this world as opposed to the other world, they have moved away from traditional doctrine and concern with the supernatural, they have compromised their religious beliefs to fit in with the wider society. Because of this, they have become more like the secular society in which they are set.
  2. Despite this relatively high level of participation in religious institutions, Herberg argues that it is directed by secular rather than religious concerns. Herberg claims that the major denominations in America have undergone a process of secularization. They increasingly reflect the American Way of Life rather than the word of God. For the typical churchgoer, religion is ‘something that reassures him about the essential rightness of everything American, his nature, his and himself’. But from Herberg’s viewpoint, this has little to do with the real meaning of religion.
  3. Berger and Luckman are in general agreement with herberg’s thesis. Luckman argues that denominations were forced to undergo a ‘process of internal secularization’ in order to survive and prosper in a secular society. If they retained their traditional teachings, their beliefs would no longer have a ‘plausibility structure’ in a changed society. They would appear irrational, irrelevant or contradictory in a new social setting. Denominations have adapted to society and their teachings have, therefore, remained ‘plausible’. However, this has required a sacrifice of considerable religious content.
  4. Peter Berger likens American religious institutions to commodities sold in the marketplace. A successful sales campaign means that ‘’the “supernatural” elements are pushed into the background, while the institution is “sold” under the label of values congenial to secularized consciousness’. denominations have succeeded in attracting full houses ‘by modifying their product in accordance with consumer demands’ that is the demands of a secular society. This accounts for the differences in participation in organized religion between Europe and America. In Europe, religious institutions have remained largely unchanged in the context of changing societies. The result is empty churches. In the USA, religious institutions have adapted to a changing society and the result is full churches.
  5. Herberg’s views on American religion have been criticized by Seymour m. Lipset. He argues that there is some evidence to suggest that evangelical Christianity is growing at a faster rate than the traditional denominations. The debate on the secularization of religious institutions rests ultimately on the observer’s judgment of ‘authentic religion’. Herberg’s view may reveal as much if not more about his beliefs and values than it does about the nature of the religion in the USA.

There is little question among sociologists that considered as a long-term trend, religion in the traditional church has declined in most Western countries – with the notable exception of the USA. The influence of religion has diminished much as nineteenth – century sociologists predicted it would.

Has the appeal of religion lost its grasp with the deepening of modernity? Such a conclusion would be questionable for a number of reasons:

  1. First, the present position of religion in Britain and other Western countries is much more complex than supporters of the secularization thesis suggest. Religious and spiritual belief remain powerful and motivating forces in many people’s lives, even if they do not choose to worship formally through the framework of the traditional church. Some scholars have suggested that there has been a move towards ‘believing without belonging’ (Davie) – people maintain a belief in God or a higher force, but practice and develop their faith outside institutionalized forms of religion.
  2. Second, secularization cannot be measured according to membership in main stream Trinitarian church by the Communist leadership. This enthusiastic support for religion around the globe is, unfortunately, mirrored by religiously inspired conflicts as well. Just as religion can be a source of solace and support, it has also been and continues to be at the origin of intense social struggles and conflicts.
  • One can point to evidence both in favour of and against the idea of secularization. It seems clear that secularization as a concept is most useful in explaining changes that are occurring within the traditional religion today- both in terms of the declining power and influence and in regard to internal secularizing processes affecting, for example, the role of women and gays. Modernizing forces in society at large are being felt within many traditional religious institutions.
  • Above all, however, religion in the late modern world should be evaluated against a backdrop of rapid change, instability and diversity. Even if traditional forms of religion are receding to a degree, religion still remains a critical force in our social world. The appeal of religion, in its traditional and novel forms, is likely to be long-lasting. Religion provides many people with insights into complex question about life and meaning that cannot be answered satisfactorily with rationalist perspectives.

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