Impacts of Secularization on Religious Practice
If surveys like PEW are accurate in stating that 84% of the world population believe in a Divine Creator. How do we account for a sharp and accelerating decline in religious practise?
In this essay we will seek to explore and discuss why the concept of secularisation is a contentious topic in sociology. In doing this we will review a range of definitions presented by current sociological thinking for secularisation and religion. We will briefly review the history of secularisation and religion. We will then explore recent interactions and trends between secularisation and religion. Our primary references are Sociology Introductory Readings by Anthony Giddens, A Sociology of Ireland by Tovey, Share and Corcoran and Sociology a Global Introduction by Macionis and Plummer. Finally we will seek to analyse and summarise from this exploration, what factors contribute to making secularisation a contentious topic in sociology.
Is the topic of secularisation in sociology a contentious issue?
When a major change takes place in society it is not unusual for sociologists to disagree about the exact nature the extent and the timing of the change. ‘It is not usually the case that they disagree that the change has taken place. This, strangely, is the case with secularisation’. So here we have a leading author in sociology stating the case that there is a disagreement amongst current thinkers in sociology not about the extent or implications but about whether any real change has or is taking place in this context. We need to explore what gives rise to this difference of interpretations on the extent if any of change influenced by secularisation. In order to do this we need to explore and seek to define what exactly what is meant by religion and secularisation in a sociological context.
What is religion?
Throughout most of human history human beings living in small societies attributed birth death and even what happened in between to the operation of supernatural forces. Over the course of the last several hundred years, however science has emerged as an alternative way of understanding the natural world and scientific sociology offers various explanations of how and why societies operate as they do.
Key aspects of religion include the following. Sacred symbols, rituals and special behaviour, a feeling of reverence, a community of believers. A sociological analysis of religion quoting Restivo (1991p150) states:
A sort of map of the social geomorphology, and the correlations between types of societies and types of religions illustrate the relationship between technological and economic development on the one hand and religious beliefs on the other.
This analysis goes on to advise us that religions are active instruments in the creation of societies. This approach to relationships can be found in the works of Durkheim, Weber and Marx.
Emile Durkheim points out three major functions of religion for the operation of society.
1. Social cohesion- religion unites peoples through shared symbols, values and norms.
2. Social Control- Every society uses religious imagery and rhetoric to promote conformity.
3. Providing meaning and purpose- religious beliefs offer the comforting sense that the vulnerable human condition serves some greater purpose.
What is Secularisation?
Secularisation has been defined by Berger ... ‘as the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols. In its broadest sense it refers to the separation of the profane and the sacred and the gradual downgrading of the latter.
Recent trends and interactions between secularisation and religion:
We have reviewed some of the broad definitions of religion and secularisation which are most relevant to the context of our exploration. We will now review the background to religious development and explore recent trends and how these trends may be influenced by secularisation. We will start our exploration with Ireland, as broadly outlined in Sociology of Ireland. We do this as we are clearly most familiar in terms of first hand experience with developments and trends in Ireland, and may therefore may be more able to discern the impact if any of secularisation. We will then review the more global world situation in terms of religious development and recent trends.
Impacts of secularisation on religion in Ireland
Two key aspects stand out as we complete a broad summary of these developments in Ireland, as outlined in Sociology of Ireland. The section on religion which is primarily from where we will draw our summary does open with a qualification. It states that ‘Irish sociologists have failed to produce much description or analysis of the power of the churches in contemporary Irish society. Much of the sociological analysis has come from the churches themselves’. Never the less we do have some critical analysis authored by historians, novelists etc.
1. The first aspect is the fundamental and all embracing influence religion has had on Irish culture and society. This is reflected from the earliest days of Irish history and is best summed up in the title Island of Saints and Scholars. In more recent times this comes in the form of the Christian churches and in particular the positive influence of the Catholic Church on education, healthcare and its influence on the formation of the Constitution.
2. The second aspect which relates to the more recent impacts and influence of secularisation is more ambiguous. On the one hand if measured by attendance at religious services, mass attendance etc. It would appear that a weakening or falling away from religion has started and is accelerating. Examples quoted are mass attendance from the period 1981 to 1998 has declined from 87 per cent of Catholics to around 65 per cent ( Fahey2002b p51) to a reported 44per cent in 2003. On the other hand belief in God has risen from 95% in 1981 to 96% in 1999 (European Values Survey source: Cassidy 2002 p23).
The ambiguity which appears to emerge in aspect two of our summary on Ireland may be a pointer into why there is some debate and contention amongst sociologists surrounding the concept of secularisation. If so it appears to arise around exactly what we choose to measure in seeking to quantify impact of secularisation on religion.
The social shape of global religion
We will next review the more global world situation in terms of religious development and recent trends. In doing this we will seek to explore and summarise how these trends may be influenced by secularisation.
Religion is found in virtually all societies and the diversity of religious expression is almost as wide ranging as culture itself. ‘Religion predates written history. Archaeological evidence indicates that our human ancestors engaged in religious rituals over 40,000 years ago.’
A survey quoted In Sociology a Global Introduction ends with stating approximately 75% of the world population or 5.25 of 7 billion people claim to be adherents to some form of religious grouping. Below is a broad summary of this by major religions of the world ranked by number of adherent’s: (some consolidation and rounding for ease of presentation)
· Christianity 2.0
· Islam 1.3
· Hinduism 1.0
· Other traditional & indigenous religions
· including, Judaism, Buddhism etc 1.0
It groups Secular/non religious /agnostic/atheist 0.850
All recent reports on trends related to religious practice in the western world. In particular those related to Christianity point to a decline in attendance at religious rituals i.e. mass attendance etc, similar in range to the declines we outlined for Ireland.
Macionis and Plummer in Sociology A Global Introduction, outline a number of counter points to this apparent trend of decline in religious beliefs. They fall under four broad categories.
· The declines we see reported, principally in the western world in particular in attendance at religious rituals in the Christian faiths. Are not necessarily reflected in the eastern world of Hinduism, Islam etc.
· They argue that through examples such as Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, in 1989. The suicide pact by 39 members of the Heaven’s gate cult in 1997. The September 11, 2001- terrorist attack on the twin Towers. Religion is re asserting itself in new and different ways.
· New age spirituality in many forms is emerging from being a minor hippy cult phenomenon of the sixties and seventies to being a global world movement.
· They postulate that while secularisation may often change the emphasis from other worldly issues, such as life after death to more worldly affairs, such as sheltering the homeless. This does not necessarily mean these activities have lost all or most of their religious significance.
They argue for a world view that acknowledges limited and partial secularisation. They postulate that even as traditional religious forms evolve and flourish. ‘Modernity and post modernity with their growing dis- enchantment with the world – create an ongoing requirement for something beyond itself looking for new forms of meaning.
Malcom Hamilton in Sociology concludes with. The evidence for secularisation is ambivalent and can be read either in favour or against the secularisation thesis. He observes a ‘loss of the supernatural element in traditional religions, while more conservative and traditional churches flourish. Yet new religious movements and sects grow up at a bewildering pace.’
We set out to explore and seek to answer the question why the concept of secularisation is a contentious topic in sociology. It is clear from our exploration that there are widely divergent views on the influence of secularisation on religion and consequently the implications for society as a whole. This appears to range from the view on the one hand that.
· Modern and post modern thinking postulates. That based on advances in science, technology, medical- science and human reasoning. Belief in the supernatural and therefore ultimately religion in all its forms, is in a rapidly accelerating and irreversible rate of decline. The primary evidence for the development of this line of thinking is often based on surveys of activities such as participation in religious rituals etc.
· The other extreme appears to provide evidence that belief in the supernatural and participation in religious activities has been and is changing, but is never the less alive and flourishing. In particular in new and more fundamental forms.
· There is a third view put forward by thinkers like Macionis and Plummer in Sociology A Global Introduction. They argue for a world view that acknowledges limited and partial secularisation.
An explanation and summary of the reasons for such wide divergence may lie first in the definitions for religion and secularisation that are adapted for the purpose of research, exploration and analysis.
Sociologists are seeking to analyse changes to the fundamental building block of human values, beliefs and cultural roots that pre date written history and have roots stretching back over 40,000 years. Recent surveys reflect that 75% of the world’s population continue to claim adherence to one religious grouping or another. Yet recent surveys clearly demonstrate a rapidly declining rate of participation in religious rituals across all religions. A part of the answer for the divergence and therefore contention may lie in the fact that the layers that compose what we call religious beliefs are many and deep. It may be that observation and analysis of any one or even a number of closely connected layers may not provide anything like the full picture on what comprises religious beliefs in culture a society, or an individual person.
 Malcom Hamilton, Secularisation - Sociology Introductory Reading’s ed. Anthony Giddens (Cambridge, UK: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.2007. p323.
 John J. Macionis and Ken Plummer, Sociology, A Global Introduction (London,UK: Pearson Prentice Hall, 3rd ed. )p 488.
 Perry Share, Hilary Tovey, and Mary P Corcoran, A Sociology of Ireland ( Dublin: Gill & Macmillan Ltd. 2007) p400.
 John J. Macionis and Ken Plummer, Sociology, A Global Introduction (London,UK: Pearson Prentice Hall, 3rd ed. )p 489.
 Perry Share, Hilary Tovey, and Mary P Corcoran, A Sociology of Ireland ( Dublin: Gill & Macmillan Ltd. 2007) p417.
 Perry Share, Hilary Tovey, and Mary P Corcoran, A Sociology of Ireland (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan Ltd. 2007) p398.
 Perry Share, Hilary Tovey, and Mary P Corcoran, A Sociology of Ireland (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan Ltd. 2007) p398.-427.
 John J. Macionis and Ken Plummer, Sociology, A Global Introduction (London,UK: Pearson Prentice Hall, 3rd ed. )p 493.
 Ibid p494-507.
 after. http//www.adherants.com/religious-By-Adherants.hmtl c 2002.
 John J. Macionis and Ken Plummer, Sociology, A Global Introduction (London,UK: Pearson Prentice Hall, 3rd ed. )p 487-507.
 John J. Macionis and Ken Plummer, Sociology, A Global Introduction (London,UK: Pearson Prentice Hall, 3rd ed. )p 503.
 Malcom Hamilton, Secularisation - Sociology Introductory Reading’s ed. Anthony Giddens (Cambridge, UK: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.2007. p329.