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SECULARIZATION . The term secularization came into use in European languages at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, where it was used to describe the transfer of territories previously under ecclesiastical control to the dominion of lay political authorities. The term secularis was already in use, and the distinction between sacred and secular, roughly equivalent to the differentiation of Christian conceptions of the supernatural from all that was mundane or profane, was widely invoked to assert the superiority of the sacred. Furthermore, the church had long distinguished between those priests called "religious" and those designated as secular priests, that is, between those clergy who functioned within a religious order and those who served the wider society. Later, the term secularization was applied in a different, though related, sense, to the dispensation of priests from their vows. The term was applied in even more diverse ways once the concept acquired a more general, sociological connotation in the twentieth century. Sociologists have used this word to indicate a variety of processes in which control of social space, time, facilities, resources, and personnel was lost by religious authorities, and in which empirical procedures and worldly goals and purposes displaced ritual and symbolic patterns of action directed toward otherworldly, or supernatural, ends.

The term was later applied to denote a pattern of social development that earlier sociologists, including Auguste Comte (17981857), had already recognized before the term secularization was in general sociological use. In the process thus described, the various social institutions become gradually distinct from one another and increasingly free of the matrix of religious assumptions that had earlier informed, and at times had inspired and dominated, their operation. Prior to this change, social action over a very wide field of human activity and organization (including work, decision-making, social and interpersonal relationships, juridical procedures, socialization, play, healing, and life-cycle transitions) is regulated in accordance with supernaturalist preconceptions. The process of structural differentiation in which social institutions (the economy, the polity, morality, justice, education, recreation, health maintenance, and familial organization) become recognized as distinctive concerns operating with considerable autonomy is also a process in which conceptions of the supernatural lose their sovereignty over human affairs, a pattern broadly identified as secularization. Conceptions of the supernatural are gradually displaced from all social institutions except those specifically devoted to cultivating knowledge about, and maintaining relationships with, the posited supernatural order. While those agencies still seek to influence other areas of social life, they become recognized as separate and increasingly circumscribed religious institutions.


This brief discourse already indicates the changing nature of the concept of secularization and the difficulty of providing a fully encompassing definition for it. The concept is distinguishable from secularism, with which it is sometimes confused. Secularization relates essentially to a process of decline in religious activities, beliefs, ways of thinking, and institutions that occurs primarily in association with, or as an unconscious or unintended consequence of, other processes of social structural change. Secularism is an ideology; its proponents consciously denounce all forms of supernaturalism and the agencies devoted to it, advocating nonreligious or antireligious principles as the basis for personal morality and social organization. Secularism may contribute in some degree to processes of secularization, but the evidence, even from officially secularist societies such as those of the former Soviet Union, suggests that it does so only very gradually and much less fundamentally than do broad processes of social structural change such as industrialization and urbanization.

Definitions of secularization are intimately bound to definitions of religion. As long as religion is defined substantively, as beliefs, orientations, attitudes, activities, institutions, and structures pertaining to the supernatural (the definition assumed in this article), it is possible to assess the extent to which religion declines or loses significance for the operation of society. Some sociologists, however, have defined religion in functional terms, that is, as any set of beliefs, ideas, and activities that fulfills certain social functions. (The use of functionalist analysis, which is a standard sociological method, does not, of course, imply commitment to functional definitions; indeed, the combination may produce circular arguments.) Where religion is defined functionally, a wide variety of ideologies and activities that have no reference to the supernatural, to morality, faith, destiny, ultimate meaning, or final purposes, may sometimes be held (by definition) to be religion. Insofar as certain functions are regarded as indispensable for the continuance of society or for its cohesion, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, once functionalist definitions are used, to speak of secularization, since religion is identified by definition with whatever supplies certain indispensable functions. The very discussion of secularization and of the social processes that lead to the decline of supernaturally orientated activities and beliefs implies that a substantive definition of religion is being employed. When reference is made not to religion but to specific religions or religious systems, the definitional problem (itself partly an artifact of the sociological penchant for abstract universalistic concepts) disappears.

The concept of secularization lacks a standard definition. The associated phenomena to which it refers occupy a wide social range. What those phenomena have in common is a pattern of diminishing recourse to supernaturalist explanations, diminishing resources employed for supernatural ends, and diminishing support of agencies or activities that promote relationships with, or dependence on, supernatural forces. Other, somewhat narrower terms that allude to some of the same developments include desacralization, laicization, and dechristianization. Desacralization refers specifically to the loss of the sense of the sacred as it pertains particularly to places, properties, and activities; it has less relevance to religious organization and is less applicable to thought processes. This essentially negative term fails to specify the character of what replaces the dislodged sense of the sacred once sacrality disappears. As a concept, it allows less gradation than does secularization. Laïcisation in French is sometimes used as synonymous with sécularisation, but the English term secularization has a narrower connotation: It refers specifically to the abrogation of priestly offices and functions or to the transfer of certain functions, such as judicial roles, teaching, and social work, to specialists for whom theological qualifications are no longer deemed necessary or appropriate. Laicization refers also to the disavowal of the explicitly sacerdotal claims of religious professionals. Dechristianization is clearly more concerned with the decline of only one religious tradition, particularly in its control of institutional activities. As a term it lacks the ethical neutrality of the term secularization.

Briefly defined, secularization is the process in which religious consciousness, activities, and institutions lose social significance. It indicates that religion becomes marginal to the operation of the social system, and that the essential functions for the operation of society become rationalized, passing out of the control of agencies devoted to the supernatural.

Indices of Secularization

Analysis of social structure will reveal in broad terms to what extent the order and operation of society depend on conceptions of the supernatural and activities related to it; that is, the extent to which a society is secularized. Short of a complete analysis of the social system, various social facts may serve as indications of secularization, although these vary in specificity and relevance from one social and cultural context to another. Broadly, it may be said that the increasing specialization of function and role entailed in structural differentiation has invariably reduced the influence of religion over other social institutions. Religion in the West has generally become merely a department of the social order rather than the pervasive, or even determinant, influence it once was.

One may say that religious consciousness declines as empirical and matter-of-fact attitudes develop. Depictions of the supernatural become increasingly abstract, and its operation is regarded as remote, while individual convictions concerning obligation, dependence, and remorse appear to be less compelling. Recourse to the supernatural declines, whether as a means for the cognitive understanding of the world or for personal emotional support. There is less allusion to God's will as the guide for attitudes, comportment, and action, and resort to prayers or curses is less frequent. Religious symbols lose their vibrancy and meaning, and charms, rosaries, and crosses become largely decorative items, while magicfor example, in the form of popular astrologybecomes a titillating amusement. Everyday life is negotiated by pragmatic attitudes and cause-and-effect thinking.

As religious action (action directed toward the supernatural) is regarded as less effective in relation to worldly experience, so it diminishes in scope and scale. Religious observances cease to be obligatory to members of society and become entirely voluntary; this indicates, at the least, a diminished regard for such practices by state authorities. While the abandonment of obligatory religious practice may eliminate one set of extraneous motivations for religious action, it does not eradicate others; for example, traditional habits of life, conformity with custom, or the search for social prestige may continue as possible extrareligious inducements for participation in religious rituals and collective performances. The same social act, for instance churchgoing, baptism, or religious marriage or burial, may be prompted by different motives and carry widely different meanings in different cultural contexts. However, despite these considerations, church attendance, church memberships, rites de passage, grace at meals, public prayer, pilgrimages, votive offerings, fasting, penances, religious festivals, and church weddings all decline in incidence and in the depth of their sacrality.

To be significant in modern society, religion must be public and organized, a potential resource for all collective and public concerns, influencing the social system to operate in conformity with religious principles and with due regard to the supernatural. In the early evolution of modern societies, religious institutions occupied just such a position, but that influence has waned everywhere throughout the Christian West. This loss of social significance is manifested most explicitly in the diminishing proportion of social resources (taken, for instance, as a proportion of the gross national product) devoted to religion and to the maintenance of the personnel and property that serve supernaturalist goals. Labor, energy, skill, wealth, and time are increasingly employed for other than supernatural ends. Relative to population, the number of churches declines, as does the number of religious functionaries. The monetary remuneration and social status of clergy diminish relative to those of other professions. Ancillary agencies (schools, colleges, hospitals, social welfare facilities) pass from religious to lay, secular, and state control.

The application of the concept of secularization to society at large has an analogue in the process of change occurring within religious institutions per se. Not only is the wider society less influenced by religion, but religious institutions and behavior are themselves increasingly influenced by values and standards that prevail in the secular society. As society increasingly orders its affairs in accordance with technical and scientific criteria, religious institutions themselves are affected. The sacramentalist and sacerdotal orientations of religion become less congruous with the assumptions of everyday life, and the tendency in religious performance is for the distance between sacred and secular to diminish. The special language of liturgy is changed to accommodate secular understanding, organization is increasingly rationalized, economies of scale are sought through ecumenism, and activities necessarily adjust in duration, scheduling, style, and tenor to accommodate external secular constraints and preferences. Church leaders become less certain about the nature of the supernatural, less committed to dogma or the formal creeds to which on induction they subscribe, and increasingly devote themselves to good works, general moral exhortation, community activities within their congregations, fund raising for their churches, and occasional commentary on political issues. This pattern of change has been designated as the internal secularization of the churches.

Secularization as a Historical Process

Secularization has occurred throughout history, unevenly but in a broadly discernible pattern. In preliterate societies, apprehensions that may be considered supernaturalist were both ubiquitous and inextricably intermingled with empirical knowledge and rational techniques. Explanation invoked superempirical entities, social goals were confused with symbolic acts, and magical means were intermixed with pragmatic procedures. Steadily, the process, which Max Weber designated die Entzauberung der Welt ("the disenchantment of the world"), drained natural phenomena of their magico-religious meaning as people acquired more matter-of-fact, positivistic orientations.

In this analysis, magic may be subsumed with religion under the general rubric of supernaturalism; indeed, the establishment of a distinction between them may in itself be regarded as one aspect of the process of secularization. The development of monotheistic religions involved the rationalization and systematization of conceptions of the supernatural. This process, very evident in the history of Judaism, steadily extinguished the preexisting plethora of random, local magical ideas and local deities; it introduced a more universalistic spirit, made religious apprehensions ethical, and gradually established a coherent conception of an increasingly transcendent and universal deity. The monotheistic religions were themselves agencies of rationalization, and hence, insofar as they reduced the belief in supernaturalism, they were agencies of secularization. Magical beliefs and practices were not immediately eradicated; they sometimes persisted as subterranean currents reappearing periodically. Judaism and Protestantism were generally more effective secularizing agencies than Roman Catholicism, for although all three formally excoriated magic and folk belief, and sought to disseminate orderly, internally consistent teachings and practices, the Roman Catholic Church sometimes countenanced, absorbed, or accommodated pagan elements.

It is sometimes objected that to regard secularization as a cumulative, long-term historical trend necessarily implies the existence at some unspecified time of an unparalleled age of religious faith. Against this implication, it is argued that Christian history reveals the recurrent complaints of clerical authorities about unbelief, laxness in religious observances, and a variety of contingent derelictions. The historical evidence cannot be denied, but religiosity should not be equated with Christianity. Paganism and heresy were often indicted in the complaints about laxity, but these are manifestations not of the secularity of society but rather of its religiosity. Further, church religion and attendance are only two among many indicators of relative secularity; they intimate nothing either of religious consciousness or of the significance of religion (and its institutions) for the operation of the social system. As long as supernaturalist conceptions (of whatever sort) were effective in everyday life, or as long as religious institutions were sustained by the secular authorities and fulfilled functions as agencies of legitimation, official ideology, and social control, society had not yet experienced any radical modern process of secularization.

In recent Western history, dissociation of religious and political institutions, seen most conspicuously in the separation of church and state (now generally effective despite vestigial links that persist, for example, in England, Scotland, and the Scandinavian countries), implies the secularization of society. At times, ethnic and regional minorities have reinforced their distinctive identity and their political dissent by reasserting religious differences (as in Northern Ireland throughout this century, as in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, or, much less dramatically, as in the Netherlands). In this same manner, societies in which religion has been associated with national independence have found religion to be a conveniently available means of rallying opposition to politically oppressive regimes (as in Communist Poland). Religion may, then, become a form of surrogate politics, but the continuing vigor of religion in such circumstances is artificially sustained by the prevailing political, ethnic, or regional situation. Where no such conditions prevail, the general course of secularization results in the increasing separation of religion from other institutions, most rapidly and markedly from those on which societal arrangements depend (law, politics, economics, and, eventually, education) and more slowly from those rooted in local community life (marriage, the family, and personal morality).

Against the dominant trend, there are occasional revivals of religion. What such movements achieve has not always been contrary to secular tendencies. Reform movements that seek to purge religion of cultural, traditional, or superstitious accretations may be almost explicitly secularizing in their impact. Even religious revivals that seek a return to what are taken to be pristine ideas and single-minded dedication may have the incidental consequences of eliminating elements of folk religiosity, of widening the gap between religion and other social institutions, of more narrowly specifying religion's social role, and of encouraging privatization by emphasizing personal piety. Reform movements such as Renaissance Humanism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Deism, and Unitarianism were all secularizing forces within Christianity, purging faith and practice of immanentist conceptions of deity, progressively applying the canons of reason to doctrine, and reducing mystical, miraculous, sacramental, and sacerdotal claims. Revivalism, recurrent in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Christendom (in Methodism, Holiness movements, and Pentecostalism, for example), ostensibly sought to enhance individual emotional commitment and certainly not to put religion to the test of rationality. Yet, expressive religiosity also came to demand discipline and order. When such movements, unencumbered by traditional liturgy and ritual, sought to socialize and organize their followings, they tended to do so by systematic rational procedures, sometimes adapting these from the secular society. Worship assumed forms closer to everyday styles, and the emphasis on subjective awareness, rather than on the supposed objective power of external ritual forms, led to a systematic demand for sustained and calculable performances from individual members. Arcane elements were replaced by goal-oriented methods of propaganda, mission, education, and mobilization. The demand for consistency, methodical regularity, and self-sustained individual responsibility conformed fully to the nature of demands being made in the context of secular employment. Even revivalist religion channeled secularizing tendencies into sections of the population as yet unso-cialized.

Contemporary Manifestations

Just as religious institutions have ceased to be central in society, and just as society no longer endorses religious goals as its primary ends, so religious consciousness, although less visible as a phenomenon, appears also to have diminished. These different aspects of religiosity reveal varying degrees of persistence. Thus, the formal civic representation of the church in public life is more evident in societies, such as England, with established national churches than in the United States or Germany. Religious schools are more numerous in France and in Belgium (where state and church institutions are alternatives in many departments of social organization) than in England or the United States. Church attendance is significantly higher in North America than in northern Europe, and church membership in the United States is significantly higher than in England. Such national variations reflect different patterns and degrees of secularization. They do not predicate specific consequences (such as, for instance, a growth of atheism) or a determinate loss in church affiliation or in religious observance, even though these consequences often occur. Nor do they preclude the endurance of enclaves of persisting spirituality or the emergence of new expressions of religious commitment. The patterns vary and, despite other indicators of secularization, spiritual survivals and new religious initiatives do occur.

Even so, none of these manifestations of religiosity refutes the evidence of general secularization. Indeed, as religion loses significance in the public arena, it may expected that it will appear correspondingly more conspicuous in private life, commitment becoming more distinctive as it becomes more exceptional. Again, in some societies, involvement in church life may fulfill cultural or social functions little related to intrinsic religiosity, and its persistence at relatively high levels of participation (for example, in the United States) may relate more to traditions of voluntarism, the need for community identity, or a generalized search for surrogate national ideology than to the societal, or even the personal, significance of religious faith. Numerous new religious movements have emerged in recent decades, and these may even be seen as a response to general secularization: Because they provide meaning, purpose, association, and support for particular sections of the population, their appearance testifies to the inadequacy, irrelevance, or ineffectiveness of the mainstream churches, at least for this particular clientele. Given the traditional exclusivism of Christianity, religious pluralism, to which these new movements are conspicuous testimony, occurs only where secularization is relatively far advanced.


To unravel completely the complex tissue of causal agencies contributing to secularization would be tantamount to reconstructing the entire web of social history. Any trend as pervasive and persistent in the course of human affairs as this one must be extensively related to all other facets of social change. This article has noted the way in which conceptual order was developed and rationalized within the evolution of religion itself. Intellectuals (who themselves were often religious functionaries) were responsible for early secularization, but the initial marginalization of all supernaturalism is attributable to a deepening and more reflective apprehension of the natural order. The beginnings of science and, more generally, the development of empirical inquiry, detachment in observation and experimentation, and the sensed need for ordered, general concepts (incipient universalism) introduced new assumptions about nature and society. The rational and systematic coordination of empirical knowledge led both to the confutation of received supernaturalist conceptions and to an enhanced awareness of humankind's own capacity to harness nature and to organize its own economic and social well-being. Eventually, skepticism became steadily institutionalized in science, providing an implicit challenge to untested and untestable hypotheses, even though many early scientists such as Roger Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, and Michael Faraday were persons whose thought encompassed both rationalist and mystic concerns.

The application of science, particularly to productive activities, and the evolution of new techniques reduced humans' sense of dependence on the divine. As society became industrialized and urbanized, increasing proportions of the population came to live their lives and make their livelihoods in ways more removed from nature. The possible intervention of the supernatural into everyday life became less plausible except in the interstices of social organization, that is, in marginal pursuits and interests, and even here only for the minority. New ways of thinking evolved as humans came to inhabit an environment that was progressively more and more a product of their own making. Magical, mystical, and metaphysical patterns of thought became steadily less congruous, particularly in all manifestly functional activities, which are governed by well-articulated structures of specific roles. Humanity's increased capacity to assess and supply its own needs led to the assumption that social well-being depended not on God's providence but on social planning. Whereas in earlier epochs the past had dominated the presenta past sacralized by the supposedly timeless truths of religionmodern society was future-oriented, and that future was mundane and material, no longer the future of postmortem salvation in some supraterrestrial existence.

Social and geographic mobility, which occurred with increasing intensity in order to accommodate the productive demands and distributive rewards of technological society, promoted individualism and detached people from the stable communal contexts and the settled order of past generations in which religious predilections had themselves been rooted. Simultaneously, social organization became less dependent on the local community. The role-articulated social system necessarily made human beings into its calculable parts, while the social environment, following the natural environment before it, became increasingly human-made. Its rational structures elicited, through the role system, rational patterns of instrumental and impersonal action and neutralized, in relations with others, those personal, affective dispositions that religion had traditionally sought to summon and sustain. Eventually, even personal and intimate relationships became invaded by impersonal techniquesfor example, in the matter of birth controlso that issues once thought to be very much in the realm of the sacred became matters of rational, calculated planning. Thus, the wider course of social change produced secular contexts and induced patterns of rational social action, as well as changes in individual consciousness that expunged ideas and assumptions about the supernatural and its derivative dispositions.

Secularization in Other Contexts

Secularization is a Western concept descriptive principally of a process that has occurred in Western society, most conspicuously during this century. Certainly, all the world religions in some degree disciplined and systematized immanentist conceptions and magical apprehensions and practices, but they did so with varying persistence and effectiveness. Hinduism and Buddhism, unlike Judaism and Christianity, absorbed or tolerated more primitive supernaturalism rather than excluding or eradicating it. Islam, although theoretically even more rigorously monotheistic than Christianity, lacked effective centralized organization with which to regulate local magical dispositions, which have widely persisted in Muslim societies into the present day. The long-term historical processes favoring secularizationthe extension of rational principles to all areas of social lifewere less intense and persistent in the Middle East and in Asia. Nonetheless, as industrialization occurs in developing societies, similar pressures accumulate toward the routinizing and rationalizing of work roles, social relationships, and the framework of social and civic order. Technological development brings similar consequences by reducing the significance of religion for the operation of the social system. Yet, since so many local manifestations of immanentist religiosity persist in these contexts, the paradox of a close juxtaposition of overtly magical practices alongside sophisticated industrial techniques is often found. The course of secularization follows a different path and occurs in different sequence from that familiar in the West.

In Latin America, profound religious changes have occurred with the still incipient process of technologization, and developments that were sequential in Europe have been contemporaneous on that continent. Thus, in recent decades there has been a rapid spread of Protestantism (apparently still carrying many facets of the work ethic); political radicalization has occurred (affecting the Roman Catholic church in significant respects); some separation of the Roman Catholic church from the dominant political structure has been effected; and quasi-magical movements (such as Umbanda and Kardecism in Brazil) have significantly rationalized their teaching and organization. Supernaturalism is being relocated within the social system by diverse patterns of change of a secularizing kind.

Some Islamic countries (e.g., Turkey, Egypt, and Tunisia) have undergone considerable secularization, but in others (e.g., Iran) the resurgence of fundamentalist movements indicates the strains accompanying this process and the extent to which, in the least sophisticated sections of society, religious dispositions can still be mobilized against modernization. A religion in which a specific and concrete system of law occupies so important a place cannot but find itself compromised by the exigencies of modern life. A similar situation, which is a source of conflict between orthodox and liberal (or nonreligious) parties, prevails in Israel, a secular state in which religion retains a unique ideological significance as the locus for a people so often exiled from its mythically promised land. In both Islam and Judaism, religiously enjoined behavior is subject to growing challenge from certain indispensable elements of a modern social system: a rational framework of law (both as an agency of social control and as a regulative instrument for contract); a systematic use of economic incentives and deterrents (whether through a free market or by socialist controls); the use of education to disseminate empirical knowledge, inculcate pragmatic attitudes, and teach rational procedures; and a political system concerned with economic well-being rather than with the implementation of religious principles. Nor is private life exempt from such challenges; for example, a prerequisite of rational social organization, in contradiction of Muslim and Jewish assumptions of male superiority, is equal rights for men and women, an idea that affects such matters as divorce, birth control, custody of children, remuneration for work, and even such customary matters as dress and comportment.

If secularization implied that what had decayed was necessarily a well-integrated and coherent religious tradition, then it might be maintained that this term was inappropriate to Japan, where diverse, loosely related, symbiotic religious traditions never constituted anything remotely equivalent to the "age of faith" of Christian Europe. Nonetheless, it is apparent from the plethora of its traditional magico-religious practices that Japan was eligible for secularization. The Japanese social system operates with only token reference to supernatural assumptions: The emperor is no longer divine. Most Japanese are only loosely attached to Buddhist temples or Shintō shrines. Ancestor worship has sharply declined in recent decades, and in the homes of young people, both the god-shelf (kamidana ) and the memorial altar (butsudan ) have become less common. Japan's technological advance has been so rapid, however, that magico-religious dispositions are still far from eclipsed; various magical practices continue in healing, fortune-seeking, and propitiatory acts, some of them institutionalized by the temples or in new religious movements. These phenomena occupy the interstices of institutional life, but they are as little accommodated to the increasingly rational socioeconomic order as is the Confucian precept of filial piety, which, today, is challenged by the premium that modern technology puts, not on age, but on youth.

In the largely village-centered society of India, religious dispositions remain perhaps more powerful than in most other parts of the world, even if they have less hold in the centers of population and industry. In a society with such strong religious and mystical traditions, the secularizing effects of social change are slow. Even so, the state now stands above religious particularism, declares itself to be a secular state, and has acted against religious tradition in official disavowal of the caste implications of Hinduism. Nor is secularization very apparent in Africa, where christianization and islamization are still proceeding and magic is far from displaced. If the term is to be applied to Africa, it must refer to a relatively early stage of a long-term historical process. Even among the dominant social strata in African states, not everyone has renounced magic, but as the echelons of technical and administrative personnel proliferate, education and experience of urban life are likely to make bush witchcraft less common. Christianity is still growing and still plays a significant role in various institutional spheres, particularly education and health, despite secularization of facilities by some states. Churches remain a powerful focus of voluntary allegiance and provide important links between local, poorly organized communal life and the incipient secularized societal system.

See Also

Modernism; Modernity; Politics and Religion; Society and Religion.


There is an extensive, chiefly sociological, literature on various aspects of secularization and diffuse and scattered comment in the general literature on contemporary religion and society. For a comprehensive overview, see the "trend report" and bibliography by Karel Dobbelaere, "Secularization: A Multi-Dimensional Concept," constituting the entire issue of Current Sociology 29, no. 2 (Summer 1981). For theoretical discussions, see Richard K. Fenn's Towards a Theory of Secularization (Storrs, Conn., 1978) and his "The Process of Secularization: A Post-Parsonian View," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 9 (Summer 1970): 117136. See also Niklas Luhmann's Funktion der Religion (Frankfurt, 1982). An account of secularization in diverse cultural and political contexts is provided in David Martin's A General Theory of Secularization (New York, 1978). Various facets are treated in the volume edited by Phillip E. Hammond, The Sacred in a Secular Age (Berkeley, Calif., 1985).

Secularization is a subject of controversy. For approaches that challenge the secularization thesis, see Talcott Parsons's "Christianity and Modern Industrial Society," in Sociological Theory, Values, and Sociocultural Change, edited by Edward A. Tiryakian (New York, 1963); and Thomas Luckmann's "Theories of Religion and Social Change," Annual Review of the Social Sciences of Religion 1 (1977): 128. A range of controversial opinions and a debate is found in The Culture of Unbelief, edited by Rocco Caporale and Antonio Grumelli (Berkeley, Calif., 1971); and La Secolarizzazione, edited by Sabina S. Acquaviva and Gustavo Guizzardi (Bologna, 1973).

For non-Western countries, see The Protestant Ethic and Modernization: A Comparative View, edited by S. N. Eisenstadt (New York, 1968); Ethel Dunn and Stephen P. Dunn's "Religious Behaviour and Socio-Cultural Change in the Soviet Union," in Religion and Atheism in the U. S. S. R. and Eastern Europe, edited by Bohdan R. Bociurkiw and John W. Strong (Toronto, 1975); Tamaru Noriyoshi's "The Problem of Secularization: A Preliminary Analysis," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 6 (MarchJune 1979): 89114; and Cultural Identity and Modernization in Asian Countries (Tokyo, 1983), published by Kokugakuin University.

New Sources

Barker, Eileen, James Beckford, and Karel Dobbelaere, eds. Secularization, Rationalism, and Sectarianism: Essays in Honor of Bryan R. Wilson. New York, 1993.

Bruce, Steve. God Is Dead: Secularization in the West. Religion in the Modern World series. Malden, Mass., 2002.

Crimmins, James, ed. Religion, Secularization and Political Thought. London, 1989.

Dobbelaere, Karel. "Towards an Integrated Perspective of the Processes Related to the Descriptive Content of Secularization." Sociology of Religion 60 (1999): 229247.

Fenn, Richard, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Sociology of Religion. Malden, Mass., 2001.

Smith, Christian, ed. The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflicts in the Secularization of American Life. Berkeley, 2003.

Starck, Rodney. "Secularization, RIP." Sociology of Religion 60 (1999): 249273.

Bryan R. Wilson (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 14 2018


Secularization is the process by which the sacred gives way to the secular, whether in matters of personal faith, institutional practice, and political power. It involves a transition in which things once revered become ordinary, the sanctified becomes mundane, and the otherworldly loses its prefix. Whereas the term "secularity" refers to a state of sacredlessness and "secularism" is the ideology devoted to that state, secularization is a historical dynamic that may occur gradually or suddenly and may be replaceable (if not reversible).

The concept of secularization has been both an organizing theme and a source of contention among scholars of religion since the beginning of the European "Enlightenment" in the seventeenth century. One might expect an increasing consensus on a matter so long on the scholarly agenda, but discord has crescendoed in recent years. Secularization has taken on different meanings in different camps. It matters whether the reference is to religion's displacement, decline, or change; to the sacred at the level of the individual, the institution, the community, or the culture; or to a pattern that is long term, linear, and inevitable or short term, cyclical, and contingent.

The object of this essay is to disentangle both the issues and the combatants. After describing the early protagonists and more recent sociological proponents of secularization, this article considers recent arguments against their theses. In the face of a seemingly intractable conflict, it is important to describe the issues in dispute. This will lead to a consideration of secularization and sacralization as opposite phenomena that actually are more mutually linked than mutually exclusive.


Any conception of the sacred is likely to engender skeptical—if often marginal—detractors. While both the process and the thesis of secularization have precursors early in Western history, it was the Enlightenment that provided their first codification.

The term "secularization" dates back to France in the mid-seventeenth century. The first high priest of this antichurch was the French bourgeois intellectual Voltaire (1694–1778). A professed "deist" whose belief in impersonal forces stood in sharp contrast to "theistic" conceptions of a personal God, Voltaire railed against the Catholicism's superstitions and ecclesiastical trappings (Voltaire 1756). However, Voltaire was not the most materialist figure of his day and he was distinguished more by the expression of his views than by their substance, including his sense that the end of religion was near, possibly in his life-time. The main thrust of his views was shared by many Europeans and Americans, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

The prophets of secularization soon multiplied. By the second half of the nineteenth century, they included the father or at least namer of "sociology," the French positivist Comte (1852). Comte's conception of a future that belonged more to the social sciences than to religion was shared by Britain's Spencer (1874), whose sales rivaled those of Dickens. Marx ([1844] 1963) envisioned a denarcotized future once the masses learned the real secret of their misery, substituted class consciousness for false consciousness, and exchanged otherworldly sighs for this-worldly action.

Weber and Durkheim continued the tradition in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Both provided key statements about the importance of religion: Weber's "Protestant ethic" as a precondition of capitalism and Durkheim's conception of religion as the latent worship of society. However, neither was personally religious, and both envisioned a secularized future without predicting it directly.

For Weber ([1905] 1993), secularization was an implication of the "rationalization" that was uniquely characteristic of the West. He was ambivalent about the results. On the one hand, he appreciated its cultural underpinnings of everything from capitalism and bureaucracy to architecture and music. On the other hand, he wrote in the tradition of German historiography and a concern for the spirit of every age. Weber lamented a dark side of rationality that would lead to secularized disenchantment. Toward the end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he commends the cynical sentiment:

Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved. ([1905] 1993, p. 182)

Durkheim worked selectively within the tradition of Comte and French positivism and therefore was more positive about secularization. Durkheim (1961) was optimistic about a secular morality and an autonomous ethic for society. Although religious beliefs would be displaced by science, the sense of society as a sacred collectivity would remain. On the eve of World War I, he described France as undergoing a period of "moral mediocrity," but he was certain that it would soon be revitalized through a sense of "collective effervescence" and sacred renewal, possibly independently of conventional religion (Durkheim 1912).

By the middle of the twentieth century, secularization had become one of the master motifs of the social sciences. It was at least implicit in major transitional distinctions such as Durkheim's "mechanical versus organic solidarity" Toennies's ([1887] 1957) "Gemeinschaft" versus "Gesellschaft" societies, and Redfield's (1953) "folk" versus "urban" cultures. At the same time, prophecies had given way to theories as sociology began to develop more nuanced versions of secularization. The 1960s produced a bumper crop of new works, among the most influential of which were Berger's The Sacred Canopy (1967) and Wilson's Religion in Secular Society (1966).

Berger dealt with both the rise and the decline of religion. Having described religion's importance as a source of meaning for a cosmos that is often inchoate, he then noted factors involved in religion's erosion. These included privatization, pluralism, and a new religious marketplace, all of which contributed to a secularization he defined as "the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols" (1967, p. 107). Berger did not place all the blame for the decline of religion on external factors. Liberal clergy and theologians were often ahead of the process in diluting religion to avoid conflicts with a secular society.

If Berger's conception of secularization suggests society pulling away from a still-religious core, Wilson conveys a scenario in which religion recedes to the margins and suffers a diminution of influence. For Wilson, secularization is "the process whereby religious institutions, actions, and consciousness lose their social significance" (1966, p. xiv). However, Wilson was aware of a profound difference between the declining influence of the established churches and the surging growth of sectarian movements (Wilson 1998): As society becomes more complex, all its institutions become more differentiated from each other and have more autonomy but less influence. However, the process does not occur equally, and traditional institutions such as religion are more affected by these changes. Often seen as part of a larger process of "modernization," differentiation has been a prominent theme among functionalists such as Parsons (1977) and Luhmann (1982) and neofunctionalists such as Bell (1976) and Habermas (1988).

Differentiation takes different forms and exacts different tolls. The Belgian scholar Dobbelaere (1981) draws a parallel between secularization and the French term "laicization," which Durkheim and others used to denote a loss of priestly control, with a consequent decanonization of religion. While developing the concept for European settings, Dobbelaere draws two sets of distinctions: between the processes of differentiation, decline, and change (1981) and between the levels of the individual, the organization, and the society (Dobbelaere 1985).

By this time, secularization had become a major priority for social scientists examining religion. In analyzing the United States, Fenn (1979) stresses that secularization involves a blurring rather than a sharpening of the boundaries between the sacred and the secular; more recently, Fenn refers to secularization as the "domestication of charisma" (1993). Meanwhile, the concept is at least a subtheme of Bellah et al. (1985) in a work that depicts the community's losing struggle with individualism, perhaps the ultimate form of differentiation at the personal level.

Roof and McKinney (1987) describe a similar pattern as a "new voluntarism" that has displaced old denominational loyalties. Similarly, Wuthnow (1988) notes how other forces of differentiation have shifted religious action away from the denominations and congregations and in the direction of "special-purpose groups" whose single-issue agendas are often more a reflection of political morality than of religious doctrine or theology. Wuthnow also describes a differentiation between America's liberal and conservative "civil religions" and the rise of a third national faith in the form of secular technology.

Finally, Chaves (1993) documents the emergence of differentiated "dual structures" within denominations. This duality represents a split between declining "religious" authority and increasing secular "agency" authority. This formulation is consistent with other traditions of organizational analysis in religion, including the classic distinction between "sects" and "churches" and the process by which the purity of sects is compromised by their transformation into accommodating churches.


Originally, the detractors of secularization were defenders of the faith. More recently, they have portrayed themselves as critics of a very different faith, which they have played a large role in constructing. Recent years have seen the attribution of a full-blown "secularization thesis" that is not so much a series of questions for investigation as a definitive answer with all the qualities of an epochal narrative. Here the older eighteenth-century prophetic vision of secularization has been substituted for more recent and less sweeping versions. Secularization is presented as a tenuous article of faith that is suspended between two mythical points. The first point involves the fiction of a deeply and universally religious past; the second involves the conceit of a religionless present and future (Stark 1992). Thus, secularization has been recast as a sweeping saga that serves as a sort of antisacred doctrine, in its own right—though it is important to bear in mind that it is the critics of secularization who have both popularized this version and savaged it.

The British anthropologist Douglas (1982) was among the first to chastise proponents of secularization for imagining a mythical past against which the present inevitably comes up short. In her case, the past involved those simple, undifferentiated societies studied by anthropologists but used by others as convenient foils. Thus, even here religious piety and participation are not always deep or universal. If these societies are the beginnings of the neoevolutionary process of modernization, their religion has inconvenient similarities with the religion of complex societies toward the end of the process.

Stark (1998) elaborates this point for early Western societies. To the extent that a secularizing trend depends on a contrast with a pious ancient and medieval Europe, Stark cites evidence suggesting that this past is also mythical. Once one looks beyond the public displays of ecclesiastical officialdom, the masses appear to be antichurch, if not antireligious. Attitudes toward organized faith were conspicuous for their alienation, corruption, and raucousness. Many "Christian" nations founded in the late middle ages were only inches deep as surface monopolies atop an impious base.

What of the myth of religious demise? Martin (1969) was among the first to find religion in the midst of putative nonreligion, in this case in "highly secularized" Great Britain. In fact, Martin called for dropping the term "secularization" because of the confusion it had elicited, though ten years later he adopted the semantic fashion by publishing A General Theory of Secularization (1978).

Stark has also been a relentless critic of the second myth, and he has had company. His book with Finke, The Churching of America (Finke and Stark 1992), uses actual and reconstructed church membership data to argue that the real "winners" over the past two centuries have been conservative churches while liberal (and more secular) churches have been the "losers." Critics note that the work is not without problems; for example, its thesis refers to rates of growth and decline rather than absolute size, and it assumes that membership is a reliable measure of general religiosity over time (Demerath 1992).

Many other scholars have noted the continued vitality of religion in America. Warner's "new paradigm" (1993) provides a systematic description of how the American case may differ from the European scene that spawned secularization theory. Meanwhile, Stark has taken his methods and "market" model of religion abroad. He and the economist Iannaccone (1994) developed a nonmonopolistic, "supply-side" interpretation of European religion, arguing that its death and secularization have been greatly exaggerated. This argument has had both supporters (Davie 1994; Swatos 1997) and detractors (Bruce 1995; Dobbelaere 1993; Wilson 1998).

Meanwhile, the dispute over secularization is not restricted to the West. In fact, the Western version of the debate is comparatively innocuous because it is confined largely to scholars removed from political conflicts and because the politics of religion has generally been laid to rest except in a few cases, such as the tragic violence in Northern Ireland and the anticlimactic decision of Sweden to sever state ties with the Lutheran Church as of 2000. Once one leaves the West, however (Demerath 2000), assessments of secularization and secularity have become volatile public issues exacerbated by the ideological conflict between forthright proand antisecularists.

Moving from Poland and eastern Europe through the remains of the Soviet Union to Afghanistan, from the Balkans through Turkey and into Iran, from Algeria through Egypt to Israel, from Pakistan through India to Sri Lanka, and from Indonesia through China to Japan, one sees countries whose national identities are being defined by a prolonged conflict over secularization ( Juergensmeyer 1993). In each case, the struggle involves less one religious group versus another than religion generally versus secular alternatives.

In addition to what might be termed a "bottom-up" process of seeping secularization, there are instances of a "top-down" coercive scenario, and the two are not mutually exclusive. The former Soviet Union, Turkey, and China illustrate the latter process through political systems headed by Lenin, Ataturk, and Mao Tse-Tung and their followers, respectively. This structurally imposed secularization had cultural effects as specifically defined state rituals became common alternatives to traditional religious ceremonies. However, in all these countries, traditional religion remains in evidence in the private sphere and occasionally bursts into the public arena.

Although there are examples of externally coerced secularization (e.g., the U.S. insistence on Japan's abolishing "State Shinto" after World War II), secularization generally takes a far less direct form. Consider India as a case in point. Over the centuries, the south Asian subcontinent has given the world Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, but from the early sixteenth century until the mid-twentieth century, it was dominated by outside rulers representing first Islam in the Moghul period and then Christianity under the British "raj." When independence was won in 1947, the partitioning of Pakistan and India created two states, one Muslim and the other dominantly Hindu. The religious resorting involved a massive cross-migration as long-time residents of each area moved to the other so that they could live among their coreligionists. The violence that ensued is estimated to have left from 250,000 to 500,000 people dead.

Religious conflict has continued in both areas, but in each case, it is not simply one religion against another but also religion versus secularity. After independence, India instituted a national government that followed the Western model of a secular and thus religiously neutral state. However, after a half century, a series of violent conflicts between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs have left a cloud over India's state secularity. In the 1990s, the dominant and secularist Congress Party lost its voting plurality to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Momentum is gathering on behalf of a Hindu state that would reflect the country's Hindu majority. Nor is the movement confined to right-wing religious zealots. A number of India's most prominent intellectuals have entered the fray and produced a series of strident exchanges (Nandy 1990; Madan 1998 Beteille 1994). For many people, the commitment to state secularity has ebbed; paradoxically, secularism has been secularized.


Today it is common to hear that secularization has been categorically "disproved" and that anyone who still uses the term is more of an ideological antediluvian than an au currant scholar. Yet one must be wary of throwing out the baby with a bathwater both drawn and drained by the critics themselves. And certainly one must always be suspicious of prophets who predict the vindication of their own ideology. Most of the early visionaries of secularization and a disproportionate number of the theorists who have followed have been personally nonreligious, if not necessarily antireligious. At the same time, the ranks of the antisecularizationists have included a number of theorists with personal religious loyalties. Although a scholarly discipline should provide methods to avoid or transcend these biases, history indicates otherwise.

A full review of the empirical literature on the secularization debate is beyond the scope of this article, and it is not feasible to conduct an investigation that would constitute a critical test. However, this is not an issue that can be settled empirically. Statistical arguments will be irrelevant until a series of pressing ideological and conceptual issues are confronted.

One must decide what to test before deciding how to test it. Because the two great myths attributed to the secularizationists by their critics are by their nature overblown, they are not hard to puncture. Debating the matter at such mythical levels lends an all-or-nothing quality to the dispute: Insofar as the thesis fails to document a shift from all to nothing, it is suspect. However, no recent secularization theorists stake their claim in those terms.

It is not difficult to refute the first myth of secular dynamics concerning a seamless and universal religiosity in tribal settings and in the historical past. However, for the past to be more religious, it is not necessary for it to be either consistently or totally so. For a society to have been dominated by religion as political power, it need not have been more religious at the level of the individual and vice versa. Even at that level, of the individual, the past may be more religious in terms of personal piety and belief without necessarily being more religious in terms of formal institutional participation. Also, to say that one group or society's past was more religious than its present is not necessarily to say that another's must be the same. Finally, there are multiple pasts, none of which need be linear in their linkages.

Meanwhile, the second myth of secular dynamics is even easier for critics of secularization to deflate. The notion of religion's actual death and disappearance has shifted from the sublime to the ridiculous, especially in the formulations of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century figures, some of whom foresaw the end in their own lifetimes (Stark 1998). Somehow religion survived the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, not to mention the twentieth. Again, however, it is not clear that this is either necessary or sufficient to disprove a more nuanced conception of secularization. Today it is common to reject the concept of secularization simply because religion persists, but mere persistence masks a host of questions concerning religion's changing terms and circumstances.

The "secularization thesis" with a mythical beginning and a mythical end is erroneous, but it is a largely noninstructive error akin to "denying all climatology and the particular hypothesis of global warming because we have not yet been burned to a crisp and the nights do, after all, still get cooler" (Demerath 1998b, p. 9).

Clearly secularization as a textured social process remains a fruitful concept. In fact, once the focus shifts to a less extreme version, the consensus widens considerably. Consider two recent remarks from arch critic Stark:

This refers to a decline in the social power of once-dominant religious institutions whereby other social institutions, especially political and educational institutions, have escaped from prior religious domination. If this were all that secularization means, there would be nothing to argue about. Everyone must agree that, in contemporary Europe, for example, Catholic bishops have less political power than they once possessed, and the same is true of Lutheran and Anglican bishops. . . . Nor are primary aspects of public life any longer suffused with religious symbols, rhetoric, or ritual. (1998, pp. 4–5)

Of course, religion changes. Of course, there is more religious participation and even greater belief in the supernatural at some times and places than in others, just as religious organizations have more secular power in some times and places than in others. Of course, doctrines change—Aquinas was not Augustine, and both would find heresy in the work of Avery Dulles. But change does not equate with decline. (1998, p. 29)

These statements greatly narrow the gap between secularization's advocates and one key antagonist. For many of the former, Stark's first passage suggests a battlefield conversion, though it is not a new position for him (Stark and Bainbridge 1985). While the second remark is correct in that change and declension are not identical, the implied invitation to deconstruct the two should be welcomed.

There is little question that secularization has come to connote decline. Whether in its long-range mythical or short-term process form, secularization posits some variant of religious erosion, if not extinction. However, all these versions represent a myopic and one-sided perspective compared to the alternative that follows.


At a time when work on secularization might be expected to yield a consensually validated paradigm (Tschannen 1991), it is far closer to producing a new set of divisive paradoxes. Much of this conflict results from the terms at issue. Both "secular" and "sacred" are mutually referential in that each makes a statement about the other. To be secular is to be nonsacred; to be sacred is to transcend and transform the secular. The same is true when one shifts from semantics to social processes. Just as an object must have been sacred for it be subsequently secularized, it must have been secular for it to be subsequently "sacralized." Just as secularization marks a decline of the sacred, sacralization denotes an increase in the sacred in one form or another and at one level or another.

However, linking the processes of secularization and sacralization can have paradoxical results. The following eight propositions can serve as examples:

  1. Religious revivals and "great awakenings" require previous eras of religious decline and secular "naps." American religious history has been charted in terms of its eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and possibly twentieth-century awakenings (McLoughlin 1978), but an opposite focus has equal merit (May 1949; Erikson 1966; Turner 1985). It is the combination of the two that establishes the basic rhythm of a country's religious history.
  2. Modernization may lead to both secularization and sacralization. The grand narrative of the secularization thesis is that religion beats a steady and linear retreat in the face of mounting modernization. There is considerable truth to this but also some half-truth. This is what Berger referred to in recanting some of his earlier writing on secularization (Berger 1997). Modernization often leads to forms of secularization, but those often spark a sacralizing response—one that uses the means of modernity to protest the ends of modernity. This characterizes "fundamentalisms" everywhere, whether in the original Christian version in the United States or in the Islamic and Hindu variants around the global girdle of religious extremism. As was noted earlier, many countries demonstrate religion's continuing presence, but these countries also bear witness to the incursions of secularity as a perceived threat to religious interests. If either religion or secularity were fully dominant in these settings, the conflicts would be obviated.
  3. The rise of a vital "religious marketplace" is evidence of both secularization and sacralization. An increase in religious competition often reflects the decline of religion's structural monopolies and/or cultural hegemonies. Religious dominations once taken for granted are now subject to doubt and dismissal, yet the new consumer's mentality may involve more stained-glass window shopping than long-term buying (actually joining a church). The debate over changing patterns of religiosity turns on this point, as does a current dispute over the significance of religious "switching" in the United States (Demerath and Yang 1998a).
  4. Because movements that go against the societal grain often create more friction than do trends that go with it, one must be careful not to mistake the sacred exceptions for the secular rule. It is tempting to interpret the flames of a small religious movement as being more important than the smoking embers of its larger and more secularized context. In the same spirit, one must be wary of confusing growth rates with size. Both have their place, but even small, conservative religious movements with high growth rates may be marginal to the larger population and culture. As an example, see the "winners" and "losers" cited by Finke and Stark (1992).
  5. Sacred manifestations may reflect secular forces, and vice versa. The relationship between any form of behavior and the motivations behind it is problematic. Standard indicators of religiosity such as civil religious loyalty, church membership, church attendance, and religious belief are all subject to myriad interpretations, not all of which are unambiguously sacred (Demerath 1998a; Haddaway et al. 1993). It may be more the case that the civil is religious than that the religious is civil: Church membership and attendance reflect a variety of sacred and secular meanings that vary across a population and across time, and affirming a religious belief may be less a matter of cognitive conviction than of cultural affiliation and continuity. Even the various "fundamentalist" movements may not be as uniformly or fanatically "religious" as they are often portrayed. Many of their members have a predominantly secular agenda that religion legitimizes (Demerath 2000). Similarly, a withdrawal from conventional religious frameworks may coexist with a more privatized faith (see the "little voice" of the pseudonymous Sheila Larson in Bellah et al. 1985, p. 221). Finally, there are any number of conventionally secular commitments that take on sacred valences for their devotees (see below).
  6. Moderate secularization can be a prophylactic against ultimate secularization. Changing social conditions require changing forms of the sacred. Hence, some degree of secularization may serve as a form of sacred adaptation. This has been a tactical assumption in the trajectory of liberal Protestantism over the last century as pastors and theologians have made concessions to their secularizing adherents (Berger 1967; Demerath 1992). This tactic has been challenged by advocates of strict doctrine and strict churches (Kelley 1972; Iannaccone 1994), but cleaving to strictness may have cost the churches far more defections than has the alternative.
  7. Secularization and sacralization are engaged in a dialectical oscillation in which each is contingent on and responsive to the other. The presence of one does not necessarily involve the absence of the other. As was noted above, a secularization that goes too far is likely to elicit a sacralizing reaction. Similarly, sacralizing may exceed the bounds of pertinence, propriety, credibility, or convenience in a complex social context. Thus, lapsing and laicization of various sorts result in a secularizing adjustment. Without suggesting that secularization is always balanced by a corresponding sacralization to create a religious equilibrium, one can say that this mutual responsiveness is an important reason why secularization, like a sense of the sacred itself, will always be with us.
  8. Focusing on the fate of old forms of religion may deflect attention from new forms of the sacred. An obsession with secularization in the past may preclude an analysis of sacralization in the present and future. Just as conventional religion may not necessarily be sacred, new sources of the sacred are not necessarily religious. Today one hears a good deal of talk about a growing distinction between religion and spirituality and about profound sacred commitments in everything from socialism to sex. Just because they have attained cliché status does not mean that these concepts should be jettisoned as possibilities for deeper investigation.

These eight propositions lead to a series of issues beyond the scope of this article: Does every individual need a sense of a sacred commitment and a regimen that is self-consciously maintained and ritually reinforced? Does every collectivity and society require something similar that is shared among its members? If the answers to these questions are affirmative, what is the relation between the sacredness required and conventional religion on the one hand and more secular sources on the other? To what extent can the sacred reside in high and low culture, moral and ethical convictions, and movements on behalf of political causes, personal identities, and nationalist ambitions? Is it possible to investigate these matters without falling into tautology and teleology? Precisely because these questions are so old, it is time for freshly conceptualized and newly researched answers.

The alternation of secularization and sacralization is a crucial historical dynamic not just for religion but for culture as a whole. Secularization without sacralization is a nearly defining characteristic of putative postmodernity, with its loss of grand narratives and collective bearings. At the other extreme, sacralization without secularization is a similarly defining characteristic of stereotypic premodernity, where the sacred is static and unchallenged. However, it is in historical modernity that secularization and sacralization play off each other in both producing and responding to change. Whether causes or effects, these are critical processes in the world of time as opposed to timelessness.


The importance of any scholarly issue is revealed in the debates it engenders. By this standard, secularization qualifies as very important indeed. As a matter that seems to defy either empirical or ideological consensus, it has become a kind of Gordian knot for social scientific scholarship on religion.

Clearly, it is possible to construct versions of secularization that are either outrageous or reasonable. It matters greatly how the concept is deployed. For some, it is a prophecy of religious demise, whether a tragic jeremiad or a triumphant anticipation. For others, it is a set of historically and sociologically specified processes that move less linearly and with less certainty through time. For still others, secularization converges with sacralization to form a stream of constantly shifting conceptions and locations of the sacred. Whichever option is at issue, the stakes are high, and the sight of scholars impaled upon them is not uncommon.


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N. J. Demerath III


views updated May 18 2018


Hartmut Lehmann

In his famous speech "Intellectual Labor as a Profession," delivered in Munich on 7 November 1917 and subsequently published as Science as Vocation in 1919, Max Weber explained that increasing intellectualization and rationalization, the hallmarks of the modern world, had caused not only the growth of science but also that of disenchantment (Entzauberung). In his 1954 Cambridge inaugural lecture, "De descriptione temporum" (Description of the course of the ages), C. S. Lewis spoke eloquently of the "un-christening" of Europe as a fundamental process of change that had occurred sometime between the age of Jane Austen and his own time and that surpassed the kind of change Europe had undergone "at his conversion," or, as he called it, the "christening." As a result, Lewis considered most of his contemporaries "post-Christian."

Weber introduced the term "disenchantment" as a synonym for "secularization," and Lewis used the term "un-christening" for the same phenomenon. Historically the roots of the term "secularization" are the Latin noun saeculum, which translates as "age," "epoch," or "century," and the Latin adjective saecularis, which means "long-lasting," that is, lasting for a whole century. In the Middle Ages, under the influence of the theology of St. Augustine, the meanings of saeculum and saecularis became more specific. Both terms were applied mainly to worldly or secular matters as opposed to the realm of the spiritual and the divine. As a result, "to secularize" began to mean to liberate certain areas of life from the influence of the church, of the clergy, of theology, or of an attachment to the divine. With these different and in some aspects vague meanings, the term "secularization" was used in a special sense to describe the transfer of property from ecclesiastical to civil possession. Specifically the term represented the view that public education and other matters of civil policy should be conducted without the introduction of religious elements or theological considerations. Moreover, between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries "secularization," in many similar linguistic variations, became an integral part of western European languages.

In the course of the twentieth century, "secularization" acquired new and specific meanings as it was linked to specific theories of modernization. As the terms used by Weber and Lewis indicate, "secularization" joined a distinct group of terms that try to define and describe the various aspects of the liberation of modern science from theology, modern ethics from the Ten Commandments, and therefore modern lifestyles from Christian tradition—in short, the modern world from a world shaped and governed by the teachings and examples found in the Old and New Testaments.

Many synonyms for secularization are closely related to terms that attempt to define the opposite. Therefore, the concept of secularization includes "sacralization." Accordingly, terms such as "christianization" or "rechristianization" are linked to the notion of "dechristianization," a term mainly used in modern French scholarship. "Anticlericalism" is a special term for opposition to the clergy, mainly within Catholicism, and "profanity" is a special word for disrespect for God and things holy. Furthermore, the verb "demythologize" characterizes skepticism vis-à-vis all things religious, and related verbs are "deconfessionalize," "despiritualize," and "desacralize." Terms describing the forces opposed to secularization include "revival," "awakening," "spiritual awakening," and "reawakening."


The respective range of the synonyms for secularization has no precise definition, and to complicate matters further, the terms have somewhat different meanings in the various western European languages. This is true even for "secularization" itself, which cannot be translated into French or German without an additional specification of the precise meaning.

The rapidly changing scholarship on the processes of modernization in the fields of sociology, economics, and history accounts for the difficulty in defining secularization. For a scholar like Weber at the beginning of the twentieth century, secularization or disenchantment was mainly a topic of intellectual history; but research later in the twentieth century located the processes, causes, variations, and consequences of secularization in the everyday lives of common people as well as in economics and politics. What had been a problem of intellectual history, that is, the philosophy and the literature of the cultural elite, was transformed into a problem of the history of behavior and mentalities of all social strata. In the same manner, what had been defined as a matter related to theology and the church only became a matter of religiosity in a wider sense.

Interesting debates about the nature and the meaning of secularization emerge. First, where are the beginnings of this process? Leaving aside the view that Europe was never fully christianized in the early Middle Ages and remnants of a pre-Christian worldview were present in European society throughout the Middle Ages, two main theories address the origins of the secularization of Europe. Some scholars have argued that the Western world started to become more secular during the Renaissance, particularly in relation to Renaissance court life, the rise of modern science in the era of Francis Bacon, and the rapid changes in economic development, technology, and warfare in the Thirty Years' War. According to this view secularization commenced in the late sixteenth century, but other scholars have pointed to the eighteenth century and the enormous impact of the Enlightenment. For them secularization was caused by the new philosophical outlook propagated by thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, John Locke, and Voltaire, by new secular subjects introduced into university curricula, and by political theories that advocated the basic rights of the people over the divine right of kings. The first to argue explicitly that the modern world began in the eighteenth century was the theologian and philosopher Ernst Troeltsch, a friend and colleague of Weber at Heidelberg. In the years before 1914, almost all scholars, German and non-German alike, were convinced that Martin Luther and the Reformation had led the way to the modern world. Much to their dismay, Troeltsch insisted that the Middle Ages had lasted well into the eighteenth century and that it was the Enlightenment that had brought about the decisive change.

The causes and chronology of secularization are further complicated by the vantage point of social history. While the rise of science had some impact on popular views of religion even during the eighteenth century, other developments also competed with religious concerns. Thus growing interest in material consumption could be part of a popular secularization process. But other developments, like increased sexual activity, did not, in the minds of those who participated, necessarily indicate a renunciation of religion, even when clerics attacked the behaviors in question as irreligious. Working-class disaffection from formal churches during the throes of nineteenth-century industrialization did not always mean secularization. The transitions from religion to socialism were often complex and incomplete.


After the 1950s scholarly opinion held almost unanimously that secularization, once started, had progressed continuously until its culmination in the twentieth century. By the end of that century another argument proposed that the theological view of secularization was much too simple, a self-assertion out of the mouths of secularized people. Instead of the steady progress of secularization, the argument suggested a complicated scenario of phases of secularization and sacralization or dechristianization and rechristianization. The forces that supported secularization coexisted with others that advanced sacralization in the Western world after the eighteenth century.

Understanding the impact of these forces requires complex models. According to this theory, secularization of European society and culture did indeed commence in the Renaissance, but early secularization met much resistance. The Renaissance and the baroque period that followed were also characterized by movements such as Puritanism in Britain, Jansenism in France and Italy, and Pietism in Germany, Sweden, the Baltic countries, and Switzerland. These revival movements were redefined in the context of this interpretation as the first major forces of the rechristianization of post-Reformation, pre-Enlightenment Europe. With the Enlightenment, however, another tidal wave of secularization swept through most countries of Europe, only to be countered by another wave of Christian revivalism in Methodism, the success story of the Moravians or Herrnhuter, and the First and Second Great Awakenings. In this sense early nineteenth-century missionary societies and Bible societies in Britain and elsewhere were Christian efforts to turn back the tide of radical rationalism in the late Enlightenment and to overcome the secularizing effects of the French Revolution. This struggle between pro- and anti-Christian elements continued throughout the nineteenth century and well into the second half of the twentieth century.

This interpretation has some major problems, however. Perhaps most vexing, secularization was vastly different in most countries of Europe and North America. While in North America politics and culture seemed firmly in the grip of Fundamentalist pressure groups in the last decades of the twentieth century, in Europe the scales seemed to tip from interest in the sacred to interest in the secular. In contrast to North America, twentieth-century Europe appeared largely secularized if not dechristianized. Within the European context, forces such as urbanization and industrialization seemed to result in secularization. By contrast, the same factors seemed to support rather than hinder the triumph of Fundamentalism in the New World.

Without doubt, the juxtaposition of Europe and North America may be much too simple. Explanations of the variations of secularization in the Western world need a closer look at the development of individual European nations and even certain regions within those nations. The Netherlands, for example, became the most secularized country of Europe, but that occurred late in the twentieth century. All through the nineteenth century the Dutch people considered theirs a Protestant nation with a Catholic minority. By the end of the nineteenth century, most people in the Netherlands adhered to one of three political camps, neo-Calvinism, Catholicism, or socialism. In the 1970s these "columns," as they were called, dissolved, and at exactly that time secularization started to progress rapidly. In another instance, Ireland experienced rising religiosity in the nineteenth century, delaying secularization until the late twentieth century.

France seems to offer a different case. Following the French Revolution the French people divided into a progressive, anti-Catholic camp, with strong anticlerical and laical feelings, and a conservative camp, with close ties to popular Catholicism and the Catholic hierarchy. Remarkably, for many decades neither camp made gains in relation to the other. Representatives of both camps attempted to occupy public spaces with prominent buildings and signs of symbolic value, and they tried to fill public time with processions and other rituals. But neither made advances over the other side. In Poland—which had been divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria in the late eighteenth century—during the nineteenth century Catholicism and nationalism formed such a close union that it became almost synonymous to be Catholic and to be a Polish patriot.


In order to give some sense to what may otherwise appear as a play with casuistic distinctions, Hugh McLeod proposed a typology with five different categories distinguishing between

  1. "nations or regions with a dominant church, closely linked with traditional élites and conservative political parties," including France and Spain;
  2. "nations or regions with a pluralistic religious structure, but where ethnicity is relatively unimportant," including the Netherlands, Britain, and the Scandinavian countries;
  3. nations "with a pluralistic structure, where ethnicity is the main determinant of religious affiliation," such as the United States, Australia, and New Zealand;
  4. nations "where the population is polarized between two antagonistic religious communities," for example, Ireland and Germany in the Kulturkampf (cultural war); and
  5. nations "where the dominant church has become the major symbol of national or regional identity in the face of alien rule," such as nineteenth-century Poland (McLeod, pp. 21–33).

Each of these categories is a different form of secularization with a different story of the history of secularization.

Even though the typology developed by McLeod represented an important step forward, it was still far removed from a comprehensive explanation of the causes, variations, and consequences of secularization in Europe. Some problems deserve special attention as they have not yet been convincingly solved. Certainly the relationship between secularization and nationalism is the most sensitive issue, encompassing several aspects. First, one opinion is that nationalism is a kind of religion that, if fully implemented, replaces other forms of religion. Accordingly nationalism explains the past, defines the contours of the present, tells the people what the future holds for them, and spells out the sacrifices that will be necessary to achieve a brighter future. Through nationalism, with the help of rituals, episodes of the national past are sacralized, sites attain a sacred meaning, and persons appear to have performed sacred tasks for the cause of the nation. Interpreted this way, nationalism fulfills all the functions of religion. Disregarding the question of whether nationalism carries a certain amount of transcendental values and perspectives, one could call nationalism an "innerworldly" religion.

It is then a matter of further debate whether nationalism is the logical result of secularization, that is, the product of secularization carried to extreme conclusions, or nothing but a transformation or anaggiornamento of religion. This is a complicated issue that becomes even more so, considering the fact that in all European countries many people with strong religious feelings participated actively in national movements. This is true of people with progressive, liberal views and a critical distance from traditional Christianity as well as of people with strong conservative, orthodox feelings, that is, people who abhorred the ideas of 1789.

Similar difficulties confront attempts to interpret the relationship between Christianity and fascism and discussions of the role of religion in Adolf Hitler's Germany. On the one hand, the obvious pagan character of national socialism frustrates explanations of why Christians with some understanding of Christian tradition accepted the message of men like Hitler and Alfred Rosenberg, particularly why they accepted Nazi racism and anti-Semitism. On the other hand, most German church leaders, Protestant and Catholic alike, welcomed Hitler's rise to power and actively supported Hitler's regime well into the late 1930s, some even until 1945. The Catholic Church had special relationships with Benito Mussolini's Fascist Italy, Francisco Franco's Spain, Vichy France, and Fascist regimes in Portugal, Hungary, Romania, and other countries in Eastern and southern Europe.

The answer regarding communism, the other type of totalitarian rule, seems somewhat more simple. With few exceptions, under Communist rule churches were persecuted. It was only in the 1970s and 1980s that political pressure was reduced and that in some countries, like East Germany, attempts were made to develop a kind of coexistence between socialism, as it was called, and Christian churches. No doubt communism can be understood as an extreme form of secularization that possessed the qualities of an inner-wordly religion. It promised salvation to all who believed in the ideas of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin and who were ready to make sacrifices toward the victory of those ideas.

In all countries that had been under Communist rule for several decades, Christian traditions were weakened and in some cases severed. After 1989 the new generation of people in those countries knew practically nothing about Christian teachings. At the same time those people had a strong interest in all things religious, especially in esoteric doctrines and practices. Sectarian groups claimed impressive missionary successes. Therefore, secularization does not adequately describe these developments, but dechristianization is certainly appropriate for some aspects.

Another matter complicates a comprehensive theory of secularization. Secularization and sacralization attempt to describe processes of transformation, that is, short-term and long-term linear change. While it is relatively easy to describe the transfer of property, the transfer of buildings and land, from the church or religious orders into nonecclesiastical possession, it is extremely difficult to analyze and interpret changes of religious mentality, that is, changes in worldview, belief, and conviction. How can religiosity be measured? What indicators provide insight into the degrees of religious belief and the variations of religious practice? Where is the historical material that is suited for quantitative analysis?

One strategy for finding answers is the analysis of the books people possessed. The assumption is that the more books with a religious content people owned, the more likely it is that they felt strongly about religion. But did people in fact believe in the contents of the books in their possession? Perhaps some of these books were given to them as gifts or were inherited. How can the people whose libraries were not preserved be included? Another possible measure is the analysis of religious formulas in the last wills of people. The assumption is that the more often such formulas were used, the stronger was the attachment of those people to the church. But last wills are a special kind of document, more defined by the notaries than by the persons who signed. Moreover, they are formalistic documents that, in view of impending death, are open to religious formulas.

Other scholars tried to measure secularization using the records of church attendance or the records of persons who took part in the holy communion. However, whether those materials are valid proof of the acceleration, slowdown, or reversal of the process of secularization is questionable. Furthermore, people who felt strongly about religion went to holy communion only very seldom, that is, only when they were convinced that their souls were pure enough to confront God. Those pious men and women are statistically in the same category as those who did not attend church regularly and who refused the Sacraments because they did not believe in their value. Each case lacks sufficient historical records to trace the rise and fall of secularization.

When David Martin published A General Theory of Secularization in 1978, sociologists of religion were convinced that they had successfully deciphered one of the major mysteries of modern history. That optimism was short-lived. Historians puzzled over why secularization advanced in a remarkable manner in the era of urbanization and industrialization in Europe while the opposite occurred in North America, where fundamentalism gained strength in the late twentieth century. Equally puzzling were the factors that trace and explain the success, failure, and variations of secularization. Religious energies that in the twentieth century were no longer firmly embedded in the Christian tradition might have transferred into other kinds of belief. Strong indications suggest that the mentalities and practices of "Western" men and women did not become more rational than they were, for example, in the eighteenth century.

Is secularization, therefore, one of the main characteristics of modern Europe or a temporary phase of European history? Immigration into Europe increased during the final decades of the twentieth century. Many of those immigrants came from non-Christian cultures and had strong attachments to religion. Even those immigrants who were "uprooted" from their native soil and were without a clear religious orientation did not convert to Christianity or embrace the blessings of a sceptical, enlightened worldview. Rather they rediscovered the value of their own indigenous religious tradition as a means of stabilizing their identity in an often hostile environment.

The secularized post-Christians of Europe did not react with a new religious fervor of their own. Europeans engaged in charitable activities based on enlightened humanism on the one hand and xenophobic behavior, sometimes even racism and violent hostility, on the other. The difficult path to a multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious Europe has unpredictable cultural conflicts and confrontations and may result in the final triumph of secularization or a multifaceted coexistence of secular and spiritual norms and practices. A secularized Europe would be unique in a world dominated by several hegemonic cultures in which religion seems to play an ever more important part.

See alsoChurch and Society (volume 5).


Butler, Jon. Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People. Cambridge, Mass., 1990.

Davie, Grace. Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging. Oxford, 1994.

Finke, Roger, and Rodney Starke. The Churching of America, 1776–1900: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. New Brunswick, N.J., 1992.

Hutchison, William R., and, Hartmut Lehmann, eds. Many Are Chosen: Divine Election and Western Nationalism. Minneapolis, Minn., 1994.

Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte. Vol. 11, pt. 1: Themenschwerpunkt, "Säkularisierung, Dechristianisierung und Rechristianisierung." Göttingen, Germany, 1998. Special issue that includes contributions by Hugh McLeod, Peter van Rooden, Harry Lenhammer, Philippe Martin, Andreas Holzem, Stafan Plaggenborg, Paul Laverdure, Heinrich Schäfer, Hans-Jürgen Prien, William R. Hutchison, Jon Butler, Hartmut Lehmann.

Lehmann, Hartmut, ed. Säkularisierung, Dechristianisierung, Rechristianisierung im neuzeitlichen Europa: Bilanz und Perspektiven der Forschung. Göttingen, Germany, 1997.

Lübbe, Hermann. Säkularisierung: Geschichte eines ideenpolitischen Begriffs. Fribourg, Germany, 1965.

Martin, David. A General Theory of Secularization. Oxford, 1978.

McLeod, Hugh. "Dechristianization and Rechristianization: The Case of Great Britain." Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 11(1998): 21–33.

McLeod, Hugh, ed. European Religion in the Age of Great Cities, 1830–1930. London and New York, 1995.

Nowak, Kurt. Geschichte des Christentums in Deutschland: Religion, Politik und Gesellschaft vom Ende der Aufklärung bis zur Mitte des 20. Jahrhunderts. Munich, 1995.

Schlögl, Rudolf. Glaube und Religion in der Säkularisierung: Die katholische Stadt—Köln, Aachen, Münster—1700–1840. Munich, 1995.

Weber, Max. Wissenschaft als Beruf, 1917/1919. Edited by Wolfgang J. Mommsen and Wolfgang Schluchter. Tübingen, Germany, 1994.


views updated May 21 2018


SECULARIZATION. On 15 February 2000, the Kentucky Senate passed a bill on a 37 to 1 vote that instructed the state's board of education to prevent the "suppression and censorship" of "Christianity's influence on colonial America." As the bill's sponsor, the Republican state senator Albert Robinson, explained, secular squeamishness about religion, along with distorted demands for inclusiveness, had created a "terrible injustice" to "Christians and the Christian history of this nation." This legislative episode suggests what a battleground narratives about the religious history of the United States have become, and much of that conflict centers on the sorts of assumptions held dear by Robinson and most of his allies: namely, that the nation was in its beginnings a predominantly Christian land, but that over time the paired forces of secularization and pluralism slowly eroded the foundations of a Christian America. Questions about the wider secularization of American culture as well as questions about the historical drift from a Bible commonwealth to a pluralistic, post-Christian present became political footballs. As historical problems, they were hardly less contentious.

Part of what makes these questions so vexing for historians is a statistical puzzle presented by changing rates of religious adherence from the colonial period forward. According to most calculations, church membership at the time of the American Revolution hovered around a mere 15 percent of the population, suggesting a nation at best thinly Christianized at its birth. In the nineteenth century, adherence rates climbed steadily, growing to about 35 percent of the population at the time of the Civil War. That upward march continued throughout most of the twentieth century, with membership rates leveling off at around 60 percent by the 1970s and 1980s. Little evidence can be found in these statistical measures for either a solidly Christian founding or a gradual secularization of the culture. With these calculations in hand, many sociologists and historians are ready to bury both the conservative vision of a once Christian America and the liberal delight in the forward march of secularization. As story lines, both appear vestigial—the one a residue of nineteenth-century Protestant presumptions of empire and dominion, and the other a hangover from freethinking Enlightenment toasts to secular progress.

The continuing growth and vitality of religion in the United States shifted much of the attention away from accounts of secularization and placed the historical emphasis instead on the growing "Christianization" or (more generally) "sacralization" of the culture. Whereas, in the other industrial nations of the north Atlantic world, rates of church attendance and adherence have moved downward, often dramatically, the American case stands in direct opposition. Why, historians ask, has religion, particularly Christianity, proven so resilient and booming in the United States? What explains the upward climb of religious adherence, the movement from sparsely planted and weakly established churches in the colonial period to the vital, oversubscribed religious groups of the present? Why did secular worldviews that accented religion's eclipse, which had become commonplace among European intellectuals from Karl Marx and Auguste Comte to Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Sigmund Freud, make so little headway in American social and political life?

The most common answer hinges on an economic analogy to a free market. With the elimination of any established church through the First Amendment and through the gradual legal and cultural elaboration of that principle, religious groups were thrown into an open marketplace of sectarian competition and denominational rivalry. The loss of a monopoly, feared by many as a potential disaster for Christianity, proved instead a great boon, unleashing a voluntaristic ferment in religion unlike anything known in Europe. The free market combined with a heady dose of democratization to reverse the colonial fortunes of the churches and to chase away the specter of radical Enlightenment secularism. The Deist Thomas Paine's revolutionary proposal at the end of The Age of Reason (1794–1796) that every preacher become a philosopher and "every house of devotion a school of science" proved uncompetitive in the new religious marketplace that evangelical Protestants took by storm.

This freemarket paradigm, as persuasive as it has proven to be, carries limits. First, there are various ways to challenge the statistics of everrising rates of religious adherence. At a basic level, some sociologists have argued that telephone polls estimating current levels of religious adherence and attendance are grossly inflated. When selfreporting, people claim levels of religious involvement that are not borne out by on-the-ground studies in church parking lots and sanctuaries. Also, being "churched" or "unchurched" could mean vastly different things from one period to another. The baseline of biblical literacy or doctrinal knowledge, for example, might well be much higher for both the affiliated and the unaffiliated at 1750 than at 1950. Gauging the gravity of devotional practices from one period to another—from prayers to sacraments to sermons to Bible reading—is much harder than calculating adherence rates.

When qualitative rather than quantitative concerns are made primary, the rates of religious adherence appear as something of a distraction from deeper, more thoroughgoing questions about the day-to-day realities of American religious life. From this angle of vision, the stories about secularization and de-Christianization remain highly relevant, particularly the ways in which secularizing, rationalistic, consumerist, and therapeutic values have transformed American Christianity from within. The Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put this matter in plain terms in a diary entry in 1921 about a "good toastmaster" who "pathetically described his pastor's successful ministry by explaining that under his leadership the congregation had 'doubled its membership, installed a new organ, built a parsonage, decorated the church and wiped out its debt.'" The minister's success was measured wholly in business terms, and it left Niebuhr wondering if he was only being "foolish" to worry over "these inevitable secularizations of religious values." To give another example, one could in 1900 still prepare for the high holy day of Easter by penitential fasting or even by carrying a large cross in a Holy Week procession. One was more likely, though, to prepare for it by shopping for just the right fashions to parade in after church. Religion, not least Christianity, flourished in the American marketplace, but it often came to carry a substantially different set of cultural values and secular associations within that milieu. Secularization might move forward under the cloak of religion itself.

On another point, would-be defenders of the secularization thesis appear to be on shakier ground, and that is on the question of "privatization." By this line of reasoning, the formal separation of church and state has effectively cut religion off from the public domain. It has been rendered a private, domestic matter of little consequence to social policy, state agencies, and learned public discourse. In this voluntaristic setting, people's religious commitments become their own personal concern with limited public consequence, and that privatization of faith is taken to be a potent measure of secularization. "My own mind is my own church," Thomas Paine had insisted, or "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know," Thomas Jefferson had concluded. Religion was thus safely tucked away within the confines of the individual conscience. The assumptions about gender that often inform such privatizing discourses render them problematic: that is, the more religion is associated with the private, the more it is also associated with women and domesticity, and hence somehow the less significant it becomes. This kind of secularization argument—religion has become a private, domestic affair, and it has been diminished thereby—is, as the historian Ann Braude suggests, almost inevitably also a negative commentary on the feminization of religion in American culture. There is little evidence to sustain the claim that domestic religion, supported especially by women (as was the case throughout the nineteenth century), is religion in decline. The home, as a religious location all its own and as a springboard to moral reform, has proven one of the most enduringly vital religious sites in the culture.

The old stories about secularization continually advancing at religion's expense have proven unsatisfying in making sense of American history. Whether the story moves from Puritan to Yankee or from superstition to science or from Protestant producers to insatiable consumers or from Social Gospel reform to state welfare or from Bible college to research university, stories of secularization founder on religion's tenacity and malleability. At the same time, newer stories about Christianization and sacralization, about ever new heights of religious growth and free-market buoyancy, fall short as well. What counts as the religious and what counts as the secular keep crisscrossing and blurring, so that marking out their respective domains is at best an elusive enterprise: Is a Nativity scene surrounded by reindeer and candy-striped poles really a secular cultural symbol as the Supreme Court decided in Lynch v. Donnelly in 1984? Clean distinctions are hard to come by, and what abides instead is the shifting, negotiable relationship between things secular and things religious in American history and culture. Whether couched as a woeful tale of decline from the glories of a once-Christian America or as a hopeful story of liberal progress against theocracy, bigotry, and ignorance, the secularization thesis serves to tidy up American history. American religion and American secularism are too messy, intertwined, and recombinant for such orderliness.


Braude, Ann. "Women's History Is American Religious History." In Retelling U.S. Religious History. Edited by Thomas A. Tweed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Bruce, Steve, ed. Religion and Modernization: Sociologists and Historians Debate the Secularization Thesis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Finke, Roger, and Rodney Stark. The Churching of America, 1776–1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Hollinger, David A. Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth-Century American Intellectual History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

———. "The 'Secularization' Question and the United States in the Twentieth Century." Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 70, no. 1 (2001): 132–143.

McLeod, Hugh. Secularisation in Western Europe, 1848–1914. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Leigh E.Schmidt

See alsoChristianity ; Religion and Religious Affiliation ; Science and Religion, Relations of .


views updated May 14 2018


three phases of secularization
three main areas of secularization

Understood as a retreat of the sacred under the onslaught of the profane, and as the relaxation of religious control in face of the widening reach of the state, secularization manifested itself before 1789. But it was the French Revolution, and above all the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, published on 26 August 1789, that initiated a period, lasting until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, during which the process of secularization accelerated and touched every corner of European societies. It affected the churches by radically transforming the role of religion, which lost ground in public life and was increasingly confined to private life.

Article 10 of the Declaration is indeed an essential starting point for understanding the nature of secularizing tendencies in the nineteenth century. "No one," it states, "shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law." The change implied by this Article was tantamount to a Copernican revolution. It meant that religion, hitherto the central reference point of civilization, became a mere matter of opinion, a function of the free exercise of individual consciousness. State religion, by extension, was destined to disappear.

three phases of secularization

Over the course of the "long nineteenth century," secularization went through three main phases. The first coincided with the Romantic generation. The Revolution, especially its antireligious violence, was severely criticized by some (Edmund Burke, Louis de Bonald) who sought to rehabilitate Christianity and what François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) called its "genius" as the creator of civilization. In Germany, Novalis (Friedrich Leopold von Hardenberg; 1772–1801), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), and Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805) exalted experience, including religious experience, as opposed to the reason acclaimed by the Enlightenment.

This reaction in its turn precipitated a second phase, influenced by a radical criticism of religion epitomized by Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach's Das Wesen des Christentums (1841; The Essence of Christianity), a work that opened the way to Karl Marx (1818–1883) and atheist materialism. At the end of the century Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900) went so far as to announce "the death of God" while the anarchists, following the recommendation of Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876), declared their intention to "have done with God. " To such philosophical and political challenges were added the development of positivism (Auguste Comte; 1798–1857) and of "scientism" (Joseph-Ernest Renan's L'avenir de la science, 1890; The Future of Science), according to which religion must give way to reason and science.

In a third phase, between 1890 and 1914, the certainties of the proponents of scientism were contested by philosophers such as Henri-Louis Bergson (1859–1941) and Edmund Husserl (1859–1938; in his 1913 Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie; English translation, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, 1931) and by a number of intellectuals, among them Maurice-Édouard Blondel (1861–1949), all of whom were concerned to restore faith and spirituality as well as experience and action to the religious sphere.

three main areas of secularization

During the period with which we are concerned, secularization may be said to have occurred in three main areas: in social life, in the relations between the churches and the state, and in the sphere of intellectual and artistic activity.

Traditional religious authority over social life was eroded by the combined forces of technological progress, urbanization, and scientific advance. Meanwhile, the creationist theory of the scriptures was cast into doubt, first by Charles Lyell (1797–1875) and then by Charles Darwin (1809–1882).

As for the relationship between the churches and the state, secularization took the form of a long confrontation with two aspects: on the one hand, states gradually disentangled themselves from religious control in the name of civil rights and freedom of thought; on the other, they sought to impose their own authority on the religious institutions, as in the case of the established churches of the United Kingdom, Prussia, and Scandinavia. A cardinal shift was the channeling of religious fervor into patriotism, into a kind of secular religion committed to the service of the nation.

In the cultural realm, the newly emerging social sciences lent secularization a dimension that was deeply troubling to the main European religions. In the wake of the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), a historicist approach intruded on fields such as scriptural exegesis and sacred history, hitherto considered the preserve of religious teaching. A tendency of German origin, represented by the French Catholic priest Alfred-Firmin Loisy (1857–1940), promoted the reading of the Bible, and especially the New Testament, with the methods of critical history, going so far as to separate a historical Jesus Christ from the Christian one. Sociology, meanwhile, from John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) to Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), acknowledged religion's importance as a social phenomenon but announced its ineluctable relegation to the realm of private life, as one form of cultural identity among others. Such changing attitudes were intimated in Gustave Courbet's realist painting A Burial at Ornans (1849–1850), a work deemed scandalous in 1851.


Threatened, the Catholic Church reacted to these challenges either by condemning or by looking for new ways to reconcile religious traditions with modernity. In 1791 Pope Pius VI (r. 1775–1799) vigorously rejected the principles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, denouncing the very idea of liberty—especially the freedom to choose one's religion or to do without one—and the retreat of the divine right of kings in face of electoral democracy. God alone had rights, according to the pope; man had only duties. This was the foundation of Roman Catholic intransigentism, a posture upheld subsequently by the popes Pius IX (r. 1846–1878), Leo XIII (r. 1878–1903), and Pius X (r. 1903–1914), reflected by the doctrine of papal infallibility, declared by the Vatican Council I (1869–1870).

Another religious response to secularization was the clinging of the faithful to the rites and practices surrounding the most important events of life (birth, marriage, burial), or likewise to the tradition of pilgrimage. The manifest advances of social secularization in no way ruled out the survival of traditional expressions of faith, often reinforced by conversions or by collective outpourings of piety (as in Germany and Italy on the great liturgical feast days). For some scholars such survivals represented a process of re-Christianization driven forward by women, by dissident movements (Revivalism or English nonconformism), and by such enthusiasms as that attending the mystical experience of Thérèse de Lisieux (1873–1897).

Despite its extent, then, secularization in Europe was not a linear process. Though it provoked serious conflicts in the nineteenth century, especially those between church and state, it was continually subject to reverse tendencies and movements of resistance. This was as true of Protestants and Jews as of Catholics, especially when modernization, in conjunction with national unification and pressure for assimilation into new forms of collective life, gave the faithful cause to fear for their identity.

See alsoBergson, Henri; Catholicism; Chateaubriand, François-René; Comte, Auguste; Darwin, Charles; French Revolution; Marx, Karl; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Religion; Renan, Ernest; Young Hegelians.


Baumer, Franklin L. Religion and the Rise of Scepticism. New York, 1960.

Chadwick, Owen. The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1975.

McLeod, Hugh. Religion and the People of Western Europe, 1789–1970. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1981.

McLeod, Hugh, ed. European Religion in the Age of the Great Cities, 1830–1930. London and New York, 1995.

Miller, J. Hillis. The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers. Cambridge, Mass., 1963.

Tackett, Timothy. Religion, Revolution, and Regional Culture in Eighteenth-Century France: The Ecclesiastical Oath of 1791. Princeton, N.J., 1986.

Wagar, Warren W. The Secular Mind: Transformations of Faith in Modern Europe: Essays Presented to Franklin L. Baumer, Randolph W. Townsend Professor of History, Yale University. New York, 1982.

Wilson, A. N. God's Funeral. New York, 1999.

B. Delpal


views updated May 17 2018



Before the French Revolution the term secularization had a precise meaning in Catholic usage, where it denoted a change in status as a result of which a person or thing passed from the sacred to the profane. Only later was the word used—in a sense first acquired in North America—to designate a set of tendencies affecting relations between church, state, and society. Thereafter secularization and its French, Italian, and German cognates took on many connotations. Broadly speaking, secularization meant the "disenchantment of the world," to use Max Weber's expression. In other words, it embraced all those processes in the intellectual, social, political, legal, or ethical spheres that tended to create greater independence relative to religion by invoking modernity and relativizing the role of suprahuman or supernatural agency. It is important to note, however, that this does not mean that secularization was antireligious: rather, its spread resulted not in the eviction of religion from European history but merely in a change in its place.


Religion in no way disappeared at the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe. A first wave of secularization even made it clear that religion and modernity were not necessarily at odds. The German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), and later the German scholar Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923), revealed the links between the Reformation, economic modernity, and social progress. Reform, far from cultivating the past or nostalgically embracing an unchanging tradition, was called on to transform the world. In parallel fashion, a movement developed within Catholic culture that sought to abandon intransigence toward modernity and embrace the nation-state, democracy, and liberalism. There was a strong feeling, in short, that Christianity, instead of resisting the modern world, could become an agent of it that was preferable to non-Christian alternatives such as materialism. It was thus possible, by the eve of the First World War, to discern secularizing movements within the Christian religion itself. In France, for instance, where in 1905 the state had detached itself from the churches and no longer recognized them formally, members of minority faiths—Protestants and Jews—tended to support the legislation. As for the Catholics, there was deep condemnation of the end of the Concordat, or agreement between church and state, by the Holy See and the clergy, but there were others who supported the Law of Separation of 1905, the foundation of the secular French system. These dissidents made two arguments: first, that this secularization of the state gave their church more freedom, and, secondly, that the institution's new place in society would inspire renewed militancy among the faithful.

Such considerations have led some historians to view secularization as a two-pronged movement: on the one hand, it implied a religious mutation in society, which is to say a change in a given society's relationship to religion; and on the other hand it meant that religions themselves were affected as they accepted the pressure to adapt to the secularization and modernization of society at large and even to undertake some measure of "internal secularization" (Rémond). In the 1980s, the French philosopher Marcel Gauchet offered a hypothesis, considered far-reaching by some and risky by others, according to which Christianity (meaning Roman Catholicism and Protestantism—the Orthodox Church, like Islam, being a separate issue) was itself a motor of the modern. One reason among others was that it embodied secularizing and transformative forces tending, precisely, to "disenchant the world." In Gauchet's account, history will eventually come to view Christianity as "the religion that pointed the way out of religion."

This approach has been at least partially thrown into doubt by reiterated claims that, if not religion per se, then at least religiousness enjoyed a renaissance in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Reviving an idea first mooted over a century ago by the French sociologist É mile Durkheim (1858–1917), sociologists and historians have evoked a permanent presence of religious phenomena in contemporary society, while at the same time stressing the difficulty of pinpointing them in view of secularization's dual impact—that on religious faiths and that on society in general. From this point of view religion is said to have taken new forms, less visible, more highly diluted within the social body, and capable of colonizing realms seemingly far removed from religion, such as sports or the ecology movement. The idea is that once secularization has occurred, religion undergoes a series of metamorphoses, but continues to play its part in the social construction of everyday life and continues to render parts of life sacred.

Other authors, while dropping the claim that organized religion has a pivotal social function, have nonetheless stressed those features of religious belief systems that have survived two centuries of secularization. In some cases such features have succeeded in exercising great influence in the late twentieth or early twenty-first century; examples would be evangelical movements or the congregations of "churchless" believers. Evangelicals and devotees of television preachers reflect trends of American provenance initiated in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. And—again as in the United States—Europe is experiencing a proliferation of philosophico-religious, existential, and charismatic groups promising adepts personal self-fulfillment.

Such groups do not always enjoy good relations with ensconced religious authorities. The same may be said, as well, for the various intransigent and fundamentalist versions of Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Judaism, and Islam. Within all these major faiths, dissident or radical tendencies have arisen that appeal to the double authority of tradition and scripture. Fundamentalisms built on such foundations demand that secularization be resisted, that the sole authority should be that of sacred texts, and that the state and society should likewise comply with their teachings. This is the basis, for example, of the French Catholic fundamentalism of Monseigneur Marcel Lefebvre (1905–1991), as it is of the Islamic fundamentalism of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF), whose constituency is Belgian and Swiss as well as French.


Such orientations, however, run counter to the historical progression of secularization in the twentieth century, the main features of which are worth recalling. First of all, with respect to the triangular relationship between state, church, and society, the twentieth century was characterized by a continual rearrangement of the links between states and the religious faiths practiced within their borders. The general tendency in Europe had two aspects. On the one hand, states gradually wrested law, customary practices, science, public offices, and the formal acts of private life from the control and regulation of religious institutions. On the other hand, again in a gradual way, they gave up intervening in internal church affairs. Exception must be made for the recent past of countries where the church is an established one (as in Great Britain) or a state institution (as in Prussia, Denmark, or Finland). In eastern Europe, the autocephalous Orthodox churches were long the creature of state power, used to assert national identity, and this has left traces still readily discernible at the beginning of the twenty-first century in Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia. So far as social mores are concerned, secularization produced great changes, including the continual spread of civil marriage, divorce, secular schooling, the liberalization of common law, contraception, legal abortion, equitable treatment for different religious faiths, the emancipation of women, and the extension of marital rights to sexual minorities.

In parallel with such trends, the churches have come to accept freedom of choice in religious affiliation—a shift reflected, for example, by the Second Vatican Council. They have adopted similar positions on schooling, and considerably softened their attitudes toward the divorced and the unmarried. Meanwhile, though, they have received substantial guarantees of autonomy from the state, especially with respect to the management of their own affairs. In this last respect, the negative experience of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes continues to exert an influence.

The effects of secularization on the social realm are pointed up most strikingly in two ways. First, by the continuing decline in religious practice, especially among the young: in 2000, 70 percent of Germans under thirty stated that they had no religious affiliation. Second, by a dilution of religious beliefs within society as a whole: sociological studies at the end of the twentieth century found that in many European countries, with respect to such articles of faith as the devil, hell, angels, or purgatory, the position of believers, whether practicing Christians or not, and that of people stating no religious affiliation were tending to become indistinguishable; similarly, the values invoked by both groups in connection with their individual lives were very similar, and derived from religious traditions. One author has described this phenomenon as a "privatization of the Ten Commandments."

In response to the constitution proposed for the European Union in 2005, representatives of the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches, while supporting the idea in general, deplored the absence of any explicit reference to Christianity. They nevertheless acknowledged that the values espoused in the document's preamble and charter of rights bore the clear stamp of Christian values. Jewish or Muslim leaders could undoubtedly have made a similar claim. Secularization has thus led to a blunting of claims that Europe is a Christian project, while diffusing Judeo-Christian values throughout the Continent.

See alsoCatholicism; Islam; Jews.


Chadwick, Owen. The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K., 1990.

Luckmann, Thomas. The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society. New York, 1967.

Rémond, René. Religion et société en Europe: La sécularisation aux XIXe et XXe siècles, 1780–2000. Paris, 2001.

Wilson, Bryan R. Religion in Secular Society. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1969.

Bernard Delpal


views updated May 17 2018


Secularization is a concept important to science, technology, and ethics, because it encapsulates influential general theories about how moral influence may be exercised over and by science and technology under different historical and social conditions.

Most societies incorporate practices, beliefs, and institutions that correspond roughly to the domain of religion in modern Western cultures. These religious features presuppose the existence of non-human entities with powers of agency (i.e., gods) or the existence of impersonal powers endowed with moral purposes (i.e., karma). Moreover they generally assume that these non-human agents or powers have an impact upon human affairs. Secularization is a process by which religion comes to have decreasing importance in society along several dimensions.

First there is a decline in the status, prestige, and power of persons, practices and institutions associated primarily with religion. Second there is a decline in the importance of religion for the exercise of non-religious roles and institutions, including those associated with politics and the economy. Third there is a decline in the number of persons who take religion seriously and the degree of seriousness with which those involved in religion continue to take it. Secularization is highly correlated with the extent of industrialization in a society and with the development of scientific practices and institutions. But there is serious disagreement regarding whether secularization is largely a consequence of the growth of science and industry; whether science, industrialization, and secularization are relatively independent features of a more general process of modernization; or whether secularization is a prerequisite rather than a consequence of the growing importance of science in a society.

Three Theories of Secularization

Though he did not use the term, Auguste Comte (1798–1857) offered the first major theory of secularization in articulating what he called his law of three stages in his Positive Philosophy, developed in the 1820s. According to Comte every domain of knowledge passes through three progressive stages—a religious phase in which aspects of the universe are anthropomorphized (that is, human attributes including will and agency are projected onto non-human entities), a metaphysical phase in which impersonal forces (such as gravitational or electrical forces) are presumed to cause effects in the world, and a positive or fully scientific stage in which abstract causal explanations of events are abandoned in favor of general descriptive laws. Within Comte's system the rise of more reliable scientific knowledge drives out inferior religious belief; so secularization is a natural and necessary consequence of the rise of science. Even some sociologists of religion at the end of the twentieth century, such as Rodney Stark, retain a strong element of this positivist vision.

A near mirror image of the positivist view combines elements from the works of Early Modern historians such as Stephen McKnight and modern historians such as Howard Murphy. In their view Christian Humanism in the Renaissance focused Christian concerns on the amelioration of the human condition, encouraging the growth of science for the purpose of manipulating nature to serve human ends. Such views were strongly supported by Tomasso Campanella (1568–1639) in Italy, Johann Andreae 1586–1654> in the Germanies, and by Francis Bacon (1561–1626) in England. Later, when many intellectuals became disillusioned with organized religion because of the religious wars on the continent or because of the failure of institutionalized religion to promote causes of social justice, they turned to science as an alternative source of values that could improve peoples lives. From this perspective, science in Europe was nurtured within a religious context and then became the beneficiary of secularizing trends that emerged first within the Christian community itself.

A third relatively simple explanation of secularization derives from an evolutionary understanding of religion prominent among anthropologists such as Roy Rappaport and David Sloan Wilson. From this perspective religions serve primarily to establish group cohesion and social solidarity by promoting altruistic rather than individualistic behaviors. The growth of commercial economies tended to break down cooperative tendencies within societies, to promote in-group competition and individualism, and simultaneously to encourage inter-group cooperation and culture contact. As a consequence the local authority of religion was undermined both internally, as egoistic, liberal, ideology increasingly governed forms of behavior, and from the outside, as it became clear that many varieties of religion existed in other societies without subverting the functioning of those societies.

Twenty-First Century Perspectives on Secularization

Most social scientists at the beginning of the twenty-first century accept variants of a more complex account of secularization developed by Peter Berger and David Martin that grew out of the ideas of Max Weber (1864–1920). Within this account there are at least three interacting strands. One is a rationalizing trend that seems to emerge in monotheistic religions, especially those which, like Christianity, incorporate a transcendent God and therefore encourage attempts to understand the natural world without reference to specific instances of divine agency, and likewise grant human agency a predominant role in human affairs. Science and technology thus become consequences of the implicit rationality of transcendent monotheism. This rationalizing strand would not necessarily by itself significantly reduce the authority of religion, but interacting with the others it does.

The second strand is a socioeconomic strand that begins from the Weberian claim that the protestant ethic promoted the rise of industrial capitalism. Industrial capitalism in turn encouraged the division of labor and promoted social differentiation into classes, breaking down the social homogeneity of pre-modern society and creating social and cultural diversity. The division of labor also transformed many social roles, which had once had important religious components, into specialized secular roles. Thus educators, health care professionals, government functionaries, and other professional groups developed specialized knowledge and institutions, creating new and non-religious sources of power and authority. Furthermore the breakdown of social homogeneity undermined the sense of communally shared values inculcated by religious practices and institutions.

Finally the Protestant Reformation promoted a sense of individualism that created a tendency for religious schism, the proliferation of competing sects, and a sense of religious relativism that was only exacerbated by culture contact with non-Christian cultures. One consequence of this relativism was the separation of Church and State, which found its most explicit separation in the first amendment to the U. S. Constitution. All of these tendencies—toward rationalization, science, and technological development; toward social differentiation and diversity; and toward religious pluralism—promoted the declining importance of religion relative to secular factors in promoting and controlling human activities. That is they all contributed to secularization.

In spite of such theories of secularization, it is clear that many issues associated with twenty-first century science and technology—from abortion to cloning, from nuclear weapons to internet piracy—are subject, even in such ostensibly secular societies as that of the United States, to religious interest-group influence. Thus the extent to which secularization adequately describes the general trend that shapes the context in which scientific, technological, and ethical interactions occur remains open to debate. There are even some proponents of cultural diversity and advocates of alternatives to modern European and North American industrial culture, who admit the importance of secularization, but who oppose the hegemony of the modern science and technology of those cultures and argue for a re-enchantment or re-sacralization of the world. These persons point to such earth-centered spiritual traditions as those of Native Americans, as models that might promote a healthier and ultimately a more sustainable science and technology.


SEE ALSO Comte, Auguste;Modernization;Urbanization;Weber, Max.


Berger, Peter. (1969). The Social Reality of Religion. London: Faber and Faber.

Berman, Morris. (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Influential updated Weberian account of secularization.

Bruce, Steve. (2002). God Is Dead: Secularization in the West. Oxford: Blackwell. Argues that science is more consequence than a cause of secularization, the chief driving force of which is cultural contact and a consequent awareness of the relativity of values.

Martin, David. (1978). A General Theory of Secularization. Oxford: Blackwell.

McKnight, Stephen A. (1989). Sacralizing the Secular: The Renaissance Origins of Modernity. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. Strong argument for the religious sources of modern science and, indirectly, of secularization.

Murphy, Howard. (1955). "The Ethical Revolt Against Christian Orthodoxy in Early Victorian England." American Historical Review (July): 800–817. Makes the argument that many nineteenth-century intellectuals turned to science as a source of values only as a consequence of a crisis of religious faith, rather than as a prelude to religious crisis.

Rappaport, Roy A. (1999). Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. One of many evolutionary accounts of the survival value of religion. This one emphasizes the role of religion in encouraging in-group truth telling.

Stark, Rodney. (1963). "On the Incompatibility of Religion and Science." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 3: 3–20. Updated version of the traditional positivist argument that superior scientific knowledge drives out inferior religious faith.


views updated May 23 2018


Secularization is a process in which religious belief and practice declines, people become less oriented toward the supernatural, and churches no longer have the same power within civil society, particularly over the state. It is sometimes difficult, however, to distinguish secularization from personalization, in which religion becomes more private and less formal and institutionalized. The fact that Catholics in Ireland in 2000 were going to mass less often than in 1950 and were disobeying church teachings, especially on sexual morality, could be seen as a sign of personalization more than secularization. Indeed, it could be argued that at the end of the twentieth century Irish Catholics were returning to a type of relationship with the institutional church that was prevalent before the Great Famine. Nevertheless, whatever the process of change that is taking place, Irish Catholics are still very religious by Western standards.

Three-quarters of the people on the island of Ireland are Roman Catholic—over 90 percent of people in the Irish Republic and almost 40 percent in Northern Ireland. This is not just some nominal affiliation. Being Catholic or Protestant is central to personal identity—to how people see and understand themselves. In Northern Ireland, but less so in the Republic, religious identity is closely tied to social and political identity. But this does not seem to make Northern Catholics more religious. There is very little difference between Northern and Southern Catholics when it comes to mass attendance. However, given the specific context of Northern Ireland, and the lack of comparable data, this analysis of secularization focuses on the Republic of Ireland.

Being Religious

The level of orthodox Catholic belief in the Republic of Ireland is high. The majority (around eight in ten) of Irish Catholics accept the fundamental principles of their faith, such as belief in God, the divinity of Christ, and, in relation to Our Lady, the immaculate conception and her assumption into heaven. Similarly, over three-quarters (78%) believe in life after death, and seven in ten believe in miracles.

But what makes Ireland unique is the extent to which religious belief is put into practice. More than six in ten (63%) go to mass once a week. This is the one of the highest levels in the West, easily surpassing, for example, U.S. Catholics (43%), Poles (42%) and Italians (29%). There are also high levels of prayer (72% at least once a day) and reception of Holy Communion (42% receive once a week). There have, however, been changes in religious practice in recent years. The proportion attending mass once a week has decreased from 91 percent in 1973.

Another aspect that makes the Catholic Irish unique is the level of engagement in traditional religious devotions. Each year tens of thousands make pilgrimages to religious sites such as Knock, Croagh Patrick, and Lough Derg. Similar numbers participate in nine-day novenas to Our Lady in different churches throughout the country.

The Catholic Church still has a monopoly over the meaning of life in Ireland, particularly when it comes to life transitions. Young people may not be going to mass as often as they once did, but the vast majority of Irish Catholics are baptized, make their first Holy Communion, are confirmed (as Catholics), married, and buried within the church. These are still major social as well as religious occasions in Ireland.

Becoming Secular

To understand the process of secularization, one must look beyond formal belief and practice to the extent to which people are oriented toward the supernatural and transcendental in their everyday life. There is plenty of evidence that the symbols and language of Catholicism—the statues, holy pictures, medals, greetings, and prayers around which daily life was once formed—are fading away. They do not have the same place in the rational lifestyle of modern bureaucratic society.

If being spiritual is one-half of the religious life, the other half is being ethical. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Catholic Church developed a monopoly over the rules and regulations of what constituted a good life and, thereby, how to attain salvation. What changed during the last half of the twentieth century was the nature of belief in the afterlife, the kind of behavior that was considered right and wrong, and the role of the church as a moral guardian.

Hellfire sermons have become a thing of the past. Only half of Irish Catholics believe in the devil and hell—in contrast to 85 percent who believe in heaven. There has also been a decline in acceptance of traditional church teaching, particularly in relation to sexuality. The proportion of people who believe that premarital sex is always wrong (30%) continues to decline. Less than half (42%) feel that the church gives adequate answers to moral problems and the needs of individuals.

For many years now there has been a decline in confession. In the 1970s almost half (47%) of Irish Catholics went at least once a month. This has declined to 9 percent. The change can be linked to Catholics distancing themselves from church teaching, particularly in relation to sexual morality. Young Catholics may be informed by church teaching, but they are increasingly making up their own minds about what is right and wrong.

While the church still has a monopoly over the religious field, it is rapidly losing its power in other social fields. Control of education has been crucial to passing on the faith from one generation to the next. Parents who had lapsed in their youth and early adult life were in the past easily persuaded to return to the fold once they had children. The development of multidenominational schools at primary level, and of community and comprehensive schools at secondary level, has facilitated disaffiliation from the church.

Health and hospital care is another field in which the church has lost its influence. In the past, people were often forced to use Catholic hospitals, or state hospitals whose medical ethics were essentially Catholic. It is becoming easier for Catholics to gain access to procedures such as sterilization and in vitro fertilization. A similar process is taking place in the administration of social welfare services. The state rather than the church now cares for the poor, the marginalized, and the disabled members of society. Social welfare is being disentangled from religious welfare.

The main reason for the decline in the church's influence in education, health, and social welfare has been the dramatic drop in vocations. In the 1960s the church could count on 1,400 new recruits to all forms of religious life each year. Now it has less than 100. There are still nearly 15,000 priests, nuns, and brothers, but they are aging rapidly. It is in this very real sense that the Catholic Church in Ireland is dying.

The church may have won the battle with the state over the Mother and Child Scheme in 1951, but it lost the war. The state has gained control of health and social welfare. It is slowly gaining control of education. Politicians gradually became less dependent on the symbolic authority of the church. The state pursued a different vision of Irish society based on materialism, consumerism, and liberalism. It has encroached increasingly into the family and sexuality, previous strongholds of the church.

The church has also lost most of the control that it once had over the media. At the heart of the modern mass media is a philosophy of liberal individualism that stands in stark contrast to the message of piety, humility, and self-denial which are the traditional hallmarks of being a good Catholic. The media have been to the forefront in leading Irish Catholics to see, read, and understand their world differently. There is a new self-confidence in Irish people, particularly among women. They no longer accept the traditional church image of them as virgins, servants, housewives, or chaste mothers. If there has been one major cause for the decline in the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland, it was the demise of the Irish Catholic mother. She was once the lynchpin in passing on the faith from one generation to the next. Now, like many others throughout the world, she is busy going out to work and consuming.

SEE ALSO Divorce, Contraception, and Abortion; Gaelic Catholic State, Making of; McQuaid, John Charles; Marianism; Mother and Child Crisis; Religion: Since 1690; Roman Catholic Church: Since 1891; Social Change since 1922


Flannery, Tony. The Death of Religious Life. 1997.

Greeley, Andrew, and Conor Ward, "How 'Secularised' Is the Ireland We Live In?" Doctrine and Life 50, no. 1 (2000): 581–603.

Hornsby-Smith, Michael, and Christopher T. Whelan. "Religious and Moral Values." In Values and Social Change, edited by Christopher T. Whelan. 1994.

Inglis, Tom. Moral Monopoly. 1998.

Kenny, Mary. Goodbye to Catholic Ireland. 1997.

Tom Inglis


views updated May 14 2018


It is often said that secularization is intimately related to the process by which the Christian West split religion from politics. The origins of this process are traced to Christ's oftquoted words: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's." Muslims, in contrast, have fused religion and politics in an attempt to maintain their unique cultural identity worldwide. This approach has endured a checkered history: a period of decline and external domination followed by a recent reassertion of civilizational vigor. Muslim leaders and ruling elites have been preoccupied with the exact nature of state and nation-building, the absorption of social change, and the adjustment to, or backlash against, the processes of secularization by which property, power, and prestige are passed from religious to lay control. Today, the term secularization refers to the overall process by which religious institutions have been deprived of their economic, political, and social influence.

It is important to realize, however, that the great achievements of the West in the economic, scientific, and technological realms, culminating in what is known as globalization, have spread the secular life throughout the world. The opportunities generated by enhanced higher education and mass communications have had profound impact on both women and men of the Muslim world, fostering an awareness of and a debate over new religious rethinking, public life, civil society, religious and ideological tolerance, and individual rights and responsibilities. To small but growing numbers of Muslims, human rights are the expression of the process of secularization.

The secularization process has also led to a religious revivalist backlash in both the Christian and Muslim worlds. In the Western tradition, religious revivalist movements did not necessarily conflict with secular orientations. In the Muslim world, contrary to the expectations of the first generation of modernization theorists, there has been an upsurge in antisecular movements even in those societies long exposed to modernization (for example, Turkey). Muslim experts have argued that modernization does not have to result in secularization and that modernization is a universal concept over which no single civilization or culture has monopoly. The premise that Muslim countries will inevitably grow more secular as they are exposed to Western notions of rationality and progress is not axiomatic. The secularization process has failed to permeate all aspects of life in the Muslim world; instead, reaction to it has become a major contributor to the social and political resurgence of Islam. While a small group of leaders has adopted a Western secular worldview, the vast majority of Muslims have not adopted secular perspectives.

Islam has not experienced a reformation analogous to that of Protestantism in Western Christianity. Islamic movements have sought to purify Islam of worldly and heretical accretions by reinforcing Islamic authority over society and law. In Western Europe, the rise of the nation-state in the seventeenth century led to secularization and decreased religious influence. Muslims, instead, gave allegiance to the umma, the community of the faithful as defined by common adherence to faith rather than by political or ethnic boundaries. The notion of the nation-state did not take shape in Muslim thought until the late nineteenth century. Whereas in Europe the secularization process was gradual and proceeded in tandem with socioeconomic growth, in the Muslim world it was treated as an externally imposed blueprint reflecting European imperial interests. While in the Muslim world secularization preceded religious reformation, in the European case it resulted more or less from such reformation.

To understand the secularization process in the Muslim world, it is important to examine the extent to which religious institutions and norms are pervasive in all areas of life. In the majority of Muslim societies, there is not a distinct separation between religion and other aspects of people's lives. Islam is both din wa dunya (religion and the world). The basic conflict here is not necessarily between religion and the world, as was the case in Christian experience; rather, it is between the forces of tradition and the forces of modernity.

In the Muslim world, secularism resulted entirely from European contact and influence. Many Middle Eastern countries adopted secular legislation, inspired mostly by European models, on a wide range of civil and criminal matters. These laws are now the target of the Islamists' attack. While conceding the value of Western technology, Islamists question those values and practices associated with modernization, including materialism, consumerism, individualism, and moral laxity. Contemporary reformists in the Muslim world vehemently resist any institutionalized control by religion over human life, arguing that such dominance fosters absolutist tendencies, destroys the existing intellectual life, and promotes less tolerant and antidemocratic forms of social and political control.

Since the 1970s, as a result of Iran's Islamic Revolution, the key question has become, if the struggle between Islamic reformists and Islamic conservatives is legal or political. Arguably the struggle between the two is both political and legal. Both reformists and conservatives have governed most Muslim countries since they gained independence from Western colonial rule. Emphasizing the separation of religion and politics, these leaders extensively secularized their legal and educational systems. Some nationalists, such as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Turkey, 1881–1938), Jamal Abd al-Nasser (Egypt, 1918–1970), and both Reza Shah (Iran, 1878–1944) and Mohammad Reza Shah (Iran, 1919–1980), adopted aggressive secularization methods and programs; others, such as Anwar al-Sadat (Egypt, 1918–1980) and Zulfaqar Ali Bhutto (Pakistan, 1928–1979), manipulated Islamic symbols and pursued a more subtle and circumspect approach to secularization.

A variety of governments—including monarchies, military dictatorships, and liberal authoritarian regimes—ruled Egypt for most of the twentieth century. They faced occasional challenges and threats from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic organizations. In both Iran and Turkey, the imposition of a secular state from the top has backfired, resulting in the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and by the brief takeover of political power by an Islamist prime minister in Turkey in 1996. In Algeria, nationalist rule since independence in 1962 has resulted in a bifurcated society like Egypt's. A secular society and culture for the urban bourgeoisie and intellectuals exist alongside an Islamic culture in the countryside and the urban slums. The abrogation of the 1992 electoral process, which prevented Front Islamique du Salut (Islamic Salvation Party or FIS) from controlling parliament, has plunged Algeria into a civil war. Secularism is now violently challenged by Islamists.

Since Pakistan's creation in 1947, that country's leaders have faced different forces vying with each other for political power. In Muslim countries where Islamists have ruled (e.g., Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan), they have failed to find long-term solutions to many contemporary ills. In Afghanistan, the Wahhabist Taliban regime immersed the country in a civil war as well as in a foreign war as a result of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Recent trends throughout the Muslim world point to the emergence of an intense debate over reforming Islam. Women in the Muslim world are beginning to demand greater freedom and to question the restrictive status that cultural traditions have imposed on them. Some Muslim leaders, such as the Tunisian Shaykh Rachid al-Ghannouchi, have demanded an Islamic constitution and resistance to "Westernization." Others, such as ˓Abd al-Karim Sorush, an Iranian political philosopher, have called for an inward-looking approach to consider the Muslims free and responsible individuals, capable of using their independent judgments. Sorush's views are capable of revolutionizing Muslim theology and mass religiosity. Neither the lay modernism of the ruling elites nor the rejectionist populism of traditional leaders has been able to offer a sustainable course for the future of the Islamic world. Sorush's synthesis may stand as a viable alternative. The Muslim world has increasingly become the site of an emerging cultural conflict over "who" controls the process of social change as well as over "whose interests" are really served by change or resistance to it.

See alsoPakistan, Islamic Republic of ; Reform: Arab Middle East and North Africa ; Reform: Iran .


Esposito, John L. The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Falk, Richard A. "The Monotheistic Religions in the Era of Globalization." Global Dialogue 1, no. 1 (Summer 1999): 139–148.

Filali-Ansary, Abdou. "Islam and Liberal Democracy: The Challenge of Secularization." Journal of Democracy 7, no. 2 (1996): 76–80.

Monshipouri, Mahmood. Islamism, Secularism, and HumanRights in the Middle East. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998.

Sadri, Mahmoud, and Sadri, Ahmad. "Let the Occasional Chalice Break: Abdolkarim Soroush and Islamic Liberation Theology." The Iranian, 26 (October 1998).

Voll, John Obert. Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World. 2d ed. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1984.

Mahmood Monshipouri


views updated May 29 2018


Secularization is commonly thought to be a process of religious decline, the eclipse of religious ideas and institutions by nonreligious ones. While this commonsense definition may seem obvious enough, both the concept and the evidence are among the most hotly debated topics among students of American religion. How should secularization be properly defined, and once defined, what will count as evidence for or against the hypothesis?

This debate is especially important because the idea of secularization has been closely tied to theories of modernization and thereby to the basic theoretical foundations of the social sciences. The German sociologist Max Weber, for instance, wrote of the "disenchantment" of the world, meaning that increasingly modern people do not perceive the world to be ruled by mysterious sacred forces, but by understandable processes that are subject to study. The French sociologist Émile Durkheim did not expect the sacred to disappear, but he did expect it to become highly generalized, amorphously resident in the ideals of our culture or in the idea of "sacred" human worth. Both were writing near the beginning of the twentieth century, in Europe, where "secularization" also meant the loss of property and power by the established churches.

These early ideas hint at the several ways in which secularization can be defined and the consequent variations in the evidence that might count toward a conclusion. The most basic definition has to do with the separation of religious authority from state authority, what is commonly known in the United States as "separation of church and state." In this sense, most modern nations are "secular." They are governed by political authorities that owe little, if any, allegiance to religious institutions. At least since the last of the colonial established churches gave up its privileges in the early nineteenth century, then, the United States has been secularized.

But that assertion seems to fly in the face of the immense institutional vitality of American religion and the fact that nearly all of the population regularly claims (in public opinion polls) to believe in God. The strength or weakness of religious institutions and religious ideas are additional dimensions to the secularization question that must be taken into account. While there is considerable debate about how many people can be found at religious services on any given weekend, estimates vary between 25 and 40 percent. In addition to the number who attend with some regularity, even if not every week, another 20 percent or more claim some affiliation with a religious body, while attending more sporadically. And still others are "mental affiliates," describing themselves as identified with a religious tradition even though not formally a member or a regular participant.

In this country, then, it is more normal to have a religious affiliation than not, a fact that contrasts dramatically with some European countries, where religious attendance is common among only a tiny fraction of the population. Overall levels of religious participation have remained relatively stable since the 1940s in the United States, despite a decline in membership and participation among the "mainline" Protestant bodies (Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and the like) that dominated American culture in the nineteenth century and remained strong until the 1960s. While they have lost members and organizational strength, many other religious bodies—evangelical Protestants, Catholic churches swollen by immigration, new immigrant religious bodies from Hindus to Muslims—have grown.

Recently, scholars have argued that the voluntarism of the religion system in the United States helps to account for this organizational strength. Because religion was not supported by the state, every religious organization had to generate its own support. Those that did not meet the needs of enough people would cease to exist. And when there were new people and new needs, no legal obstacles stood in the way of religious entrepreneurs who wished to begin new religious groups. Ironically, because government was "secular," ample social space was left for religious organizations to flourish.

But what of the influence of these religious organizations? Another way to understand secularization is to look for the ways in which religion is privatized. That is, having lost its legal authority, has religion also lost its ability to influence the public world of work and politics? Here the evidence is much less clear. Some argue that American culture has trivialized religion, making it merely an individual preference to be indulged in one's leisure time. Others argue that religious ideas often play a key role in public policy debates (from abortion to war) and that religious figures, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or the Rev. Pat Robertson, have clearly exercised influence in the public arena. Beyond politics, others point to the growing presence of religious symbols, characters, and narratives in the mass media. Few would argue that the public airwaves and policy arenas are pervasively religious, but it is also clear that American culture is not utterly devoid of religious content.

A final aspect of secularization that has often been debated is the plausibility of religious beliefs in an age of reason and science. Throughout the twentieth century, people have debated evolution and creationism, cloning and space travel. Science clearly has enormous respect as a source of knowledge about the world, but most people have found it quite possible to simultaneously accept science and also believe in the reality of divine presence and power. In the pragmatics of everyday life, most people do not seem to need the elaborate theological and philosophical theories of accommodation worked out by scholars. Indeed, the very religious communities whose ideas seem to stand most at odds with modern scientific ideas about the world have thrived, at least in part because a pluralistic situation favors those groups best able to articulate a distinct identity.

The question of secularization in contemporary American culture is, then, a complicated one. Legally, secularization was long since effected. Culturally, many aspects of everyday life and mass media operate without apparent religious influence. And there has been significant decline in the organizational strength of the religious bodies that formerly held privileged positions in American society. However, other religious bodies have gained in strength, and the overall picture is still one of organizational health, fostered in large measure by the country's voluntaristic religious system. The extent to which those organizations can influence public life varies, and no definitive case can be made about long-term decline (or growth). Religious ideas are sometimes questioned by science, but just as often exist alongside science, offering an alternative or supplemental way of understanding the world. While secularization is a commonsense assumption about American society, it is far from a uniform fact that is universally accepted.

See alsoBelonging, Religious; Church; Church and State; Church Growth Movement; Civil Religion; Freedom of Religion; Future of Religion; Implicit Religion; Material Religion; Popular Religion; Religious Communities; Religious Studies; Sociology of Religion.


Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy. 1969.

Casanova, José. Public Religions in the Modern World. 1994.

Demerath, N. J. III and Rhys H. Williams. A Bridgingof Faiths: Religion and Politics in a New England City. 1992.

Finke, Roger, and Rodney Stark. The Churching ofAmerica. 1992.

Hadaway, C. Kirk, Penny Long Marler, and Mark Chaves. "What the Polls Don't Show: A Closer Look at U.S. Church Attendance." American SociologicalReview 58(6) (1993):741–752.

Lechner, Frank. "The Case Against Secularization: A Rebuttal." Social Forces 69(4)(1991):1103–1119.

Smith, Christian. American Evangelicalism: Embattledand Thriving. 1998.

Warner, R. Stephen. "Work in Progress Toward a New Paradigm for the Sociological Study of Religion in the United States." American Journal of Sociology 98(5)(1993):1044–1093.

Nancy T. Ammerman

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