Secularisation in Britain

  • In modern Britain there are some major changes concerning religion compared to 5 years ago: there’s been a decline in church going/belonging, fewer baptisms and church weddings, an increase in the age of average churchgoers, a decline in traditional Christian beliefs, greater diversity
  • Wilson argues that western societies have undergone a long-term process of secularisation (a process whereby religious beliefs, practices and institutions lose social significance)
  • Wilson identifies (church attendance today) that by 2015 only 5% of the adult population will attend church weekly, Sunday school attendance has also declined further. ‘Bogus baptisms’ prove that while infant baptisms have declined those of older children has increased due to many faith schools (high performing) only accepting baptised children
  • A person’s religious affiliation refers to their membership of identification with the church. Evidence shows that less people are identifying with the church e.g. between 1983 and 2014 the percentage of adults who identified as having no religion rose from one third to a half.
  • Evidence shows that religious belief is declining along with church attendance and membership (religious beliefs today)
  • Religious influence from institutions has also declined, it still has some influence on public life (e.g. church of England bishops has influence on law making in the house of lords) but the state has mainly taken over any functions that religious institutions used to handle. Where religion used to control most parts of peoples lives, it now remains in the private sector of their homes. One measure of the institutional weakness of the churches is the number of clergies, during the 20th century this fell from 45,000 to 34,000. The clergy are also an aging workforce, only 12% of them are under 40ys old.

Explanations of secularisation

Max Weber: rationalisation

  • Rationalisation refers to the process by which rational ways of thinking and acting come to replace religious ones. Weber believes that Western cultures have undergone mass rationalisation.
  • The medieval Catholic worldview that dominated Europe saw the world as an ‘enchanted garden’ in which God and angels and other supernatural beings were present and active changing and influencing the events of our lives. Humans could try to influence these beings through prayers, spells, fasts and wearing charms.
  • The protestant reformation brought by Martin Luther brought a new worldview, including a transcendent God (like a watchmaker). Weber sees this society as ‘disenchanted’ as all the religious mysticism is taken out and we are left without the influence of any supernatural powers and religious thinking.
  • This society then enabled the influences and developments of science, Bruce (2011) argues that the growth of a technological worldview replaced the religious view completely as it provided logical explanations and arguments for religious influences. Therefore, the religious scope has declined dramatically as it is taken less seriously

Structural differentiation

  • Parsons (1951) defines structural differentiation as a process of specialisation that occurs with the development of industrial society. Separate, specialised institutions develop to carry out functions that were previously performed by a single institution (religion)
  • Disengagement of religion is an outcome of structural differentiation, the functions of religion were passed to institutions like the state, it therefore became disconnected from wider society (e.g. the church lost influence over education, social welfare and the law)
  • Privatisation has also become an outcome, religion is now kept within the private sphere of the home and family. Religion is now seen more as a private matter and religious institutions have lost much of their influence on wider society as a whole.
  • Even in areas where religion still has a function and influence, it has to succumb to the rules and requirements of the secular state (e.g. in faith schools, teachers must hold qualifications given by the state)

Social and cultural diversity

  • Decline of community is a result from moving from a pre-industrial society to an industrial one and a contribution to secularisation, Wilson argues that when religion lost its hold over society, we became a more individualistic society.
  • Industrialisation have encouraged larger, more urban groups to overshadow the smaller, more close-knit ones that were influenced by the consensus of religion. Social and geographical mobility cause by industrialisation has brought people from different backgrounds together.
  • Diversity of occupations, cultures and lifestyles undermine religion. The overall believability of religion is undermined by the thousands of other beliefs that someone faces in a diverse society, also in the absence of a religion practicing society both religion and practices seem to decline
  • The view that community causes the decline of religion can be criticised, Aldridge points out that community doesn’t have to be concerned with a particular area: Religion can be source of identity which doesn’t have to be influenced by location, some religious communities are imagined communities that interact through global media, Pentecostal and other religions flourish in urban areas.

Religious diversity

  • Berger (1969) believes that another cause of secularisation is the many conflicting views of religion in a single society
  • The sacred canopy was the shared set of beliefs that everyone held in the Middle ages, this gave greater plausibility to people’s beliefs as there would be no conflict or questions. With the protestant reformation, there was no longer an unchallenged monopoly of truth, this then brought varied interpretations of what was the truth
  • Plausibility structure created the crisis of credibility for religion, when there are many options and versions of religion to choose from people are likely to question what’s true which erodes the absolute truth held by traditional religions. Religious beliefs therefore became relative rather than absolute.

Cultural defence and transition

  • Bruce identifies two counter-trends that seemed to distinguish the theory of secularisation which are associated with higher than average levels of religious participation: Cultural defence (where religion provides a focal point for the defence of national, ethnic, local or group identity in a struggle against a hostile foreign power) and cultural transition (where religion provides a sense of community for ethnic groups such as migrants in a different country or culture)
  • Bruce argues that religion only survives in these groups as it’s the focal point, they don’t disprove secularisation but shows how religion is likely to survive where it performs functions other than relating to individuals or the supernatural.

Secularisation in America

  • Wilson claims that secularisation in America has occurred not because people have abandoned the church, but because religion has become superficial. Bruce agrees and uses three sources to support his view that America is becoming increasingly secular:

Declining church attendance

  • Opinion polls found that a stable 40% of people attended church regularly in 1940, however Hadaway studied church attendance in Ohio and found that the claims of church attendance were 83% higher than the actual research estimates.
  • Bruce concluded that a stable rate of self-reported attendance of about 40% masked the actual decline in attendance in the US, the widening gap may be due to how church attendance is seen as socially desirable or normative so people who have stopped will lie to seem socially sound.

Secularisation from within

  • Bruce argues that the way religion has adjusted to the modern world amounts to secularisation from within, the emphasis on traditional beliefs has declined and religion is ‘psychologised’ or turned into therapy.
  • This shows that the purpose and commitment of religion has changed entirely, instead of focusing on seeking salvation, religion is less strict

Religious diversity

  • Bruce identifies a trend towards practical relativism among American Christians in how everyone is entitled to their owns beliefs. (in 1924 94% of churchgoers believed that ‘Christianity was the one true religion, in 1977 only 41% agreed)
  • The counterpart to practical relativism is ‘the erosion of absolutism’ which is that we live in a society where many people hold different views, this therefore undermines our assumption that out views are absolute.

Criticisms of secularisation theory

  • Religion isn’t declining just changing
  • Secularisation theory is one-sided (it doesn’t consider the religious revivals and the growth of new religions
  • Religion may have declined in Europe not globally
  • Religious diversity only causes an increase in choice not decline in belief overall