From Academic Kids

Secularization is a contentious term because the concept of secularization can be confused with secularism, a philosophical and political movement that promotes the idea that society benefits by being less religious, whereas the opposing view is that the values and beliefs implicit in religions support a more moral and, therefore, better society. As understood by philosophers and sociologists, secularization has many levels of meaning, both as a theory and a historical process. Theoreticians such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim, postulated that the modernization of society would see a decline in levels of religiosity. The study of the process seeks to determine the manner in which, or extent to which religious creeds, practises and institutions are losing their social significance (if at all). Both rely on the concept of a secular state: one that separates governmental and religious institutions, and bases its authority on man-made law, not in religious doctrine.



Most people understand that this is a reference both to the cultural shifts in society following the emergence of rationality and the development of science as a substitute for superstition — Max Weber called this process, "the disenchantment of the world" — and to the changes made by religious institutions to compensate. There is a slow transition from oral traditions to a writing culture that diffuses knowledge. This reduces the authority of clerics as the custodians of revealed knowledge, and, as the responsibility for education has moved from the family and community to the state, two consequences have arisen:

  • the collective conscience as defined by Durkheim is diminished; and
  • through the fragmentation of communal activities, religion becomes more a matter of individual choice rather than observed social obligation. But the fact that attendances in places of worship may have declined in some countries is not evidence that people have lost their faith. It simply shows that those people no longer publicly affirm their beliefs through communal worship, i.e. it is not necessary to belong to an institution to believe in a deity.

One key question is whether this topic is exclusively Christian. To illustrate the answer, Kemal Ataturk (1880-1938) abolished the Ottoman Caliphate and founded the Turkish republic in 1924. This placed the sovereignty of the people in a secular republican framewok and characterized theocracy in dialectical opposition to democracy. As one of many examples of state modernization, this shows secularization and democratization as mutually re-enforcing processes, relying on a separation of religion and state, not a separation of religion and politics. In a secular society, there is a marketplace for ideas, and religious institutions are free to express their political views in competition with all the other institutions. So even though Marxists consider religion to be the opium of the masses, blunting class-consciousness and revolutionary fervor, and liberal theorists consider traditional religious values to be obstacles to modernization, there is no conceptual justification for limiting this topic to any single religion. Rather the questions it poses should be seen as part of a more general inquiry into the tranformative and evolutionary processes leading to modernity and relativism. In this, religion may legitimize modernization by adaptation or polarize by engaging in fundamentalism. But one distinction should nevertheless be made. In expressly secular states like India, the need was to legislate for toleration and respect between quite different religions, whereas the secularization of the West was a response to intra-Christian tensions between Catholicism and Protestantism. Some have therefore argued that Western secularization is radically different in it is deals with autonomy from religious regulation and control. This is a mistake. Both considerations of tolerance and autonomy are relevent to any secular state, though perhaps not always in the same proportions.


A first step in addressing this broad and diffuse topic is to consider the following more specific meanings identifed in the scientific literature by Sommerville (1998). The first five are more along the lines of 'definitions' while the sixth application of the term is more of a 'clarification of use' issue:

  1. When discussing macro social structures, secularization refers to differentiation: a process in which the various aspects of society, economic, political, legal, and moral, become increasingly discrete in relation to each other. European sociology, influenced by anthropology, was interested in the process of change from the so-called primitive societies to increasingly advanced societies. In the U.S., the emphasis was initially on change as an aspect of progress, but Talcott Parsons refocused on society as a system immersed in a constant process of increased differentiation, which he saw as a process in which new institutions take over the tasks necessary in a society to guarantee its survival as the original monolithic institutions break up. This is a devolution from single, less differentiated institutions to an increasingly differentiated subset of institutions. All these tasks can only be performed if there is strong co-ordination arising from a shared system of values defining society's goals. Each newly differentiated institution also becomes internally differentiated to enable it to adapt and attain different sets of goals.
  2. When discussing individual institutions, secularization refers to the transformation of a reglious into a secular institution. Examples would be the evolution of institutions such as Harvard University from a predominantly religious institution into a secular institution (with a divinity school now housing the religious element illustrating differentiation).
  3. When discussing activities, secularization refers to the transfer of activities from religious to secular institutions. In most Western countries, government, the not-for-profit sector and the private sector have taken over the provision of social welfare functions, but in Germany, secularization has not occurred to the same degree. There are still about 100,000 Church-based charitable foundations providing services from pre-school education to health care for the elderly, making the two major Churches the second largest employers after government. This is funded partly by the Churches out of their own revenues, with the the balance coming from general tax revenue. Critics argue that by allowing the Churches to play such a major role, the State is breaching its duty of neutrality under Article 4 of the Grundgesetz, and they consider it inappropriate for such heavy subsidies to be given to the Churches. For their part, the Churches see this work as a natural part of their Christian mission.
  4. When discussing mentalities, secularization refers to the transition from ultimate concerns to proximate concerns. Individuals in the West are now more likely to moderate their behavior in response to more immediately applicable consequences rather than out of concern for post-mortem consequences. This is a personal religious decline or movement toward a secular lifestyle.
  5. When discussing populations, secularization refers to broad patterns of societal decline in levels of religiosity as opposed to the individual-level secularization of (4) above. This understanding of secularization is also distinct from (1) above in that it refers specifically to religious decline rather than societal differentiation.
  6. When discussing religion, secularization can only be used unambiguously to refer to religion in a generic sense. For example, a reference to Christianity is not clear unless one specifies exactly which denominations of Christianity are being discussed.

Current Issues in the Study of Secularization

At present, secularization as understood in the West, is being debated in the sociology of religion. Some scholars (e.g. Rodney Stark) have argued that levels of religiosity are not declining (though their argument tends to be limited to the U.S., an admitted anomaly in the developed world). As there appears to be some merit to this position, other scholars (e.g. Mark Chaves, N.J. Demerath) have countered by introducing the idea of neo-secularization, which broadens the definition of individual level religious decline by arguing that secularization can also refer to the decline of religious authority. In other words, rather than using a-religious apostates as the solitary measure of a population's secularity, neo-secularization argues that individuals are increasingly looking outside of religion for authoritative positions on different topics. Neo-secularizationists would argue that religion is no longer the authority on issues like whether to use birth control and would therefore argue that while religious affiliation may not be declining in the U.S. (a debate still taking place), religion's authority is declining and secularization is taking place. More research on secularization in the Middle East and the remaking of the Islamist states is being undertaken not only for its theoretical implications, but also to counter the stereotypical portrayal used to scapegoat the Islamist movements (see Edward Said and other authors on the use of the discourse to encourage unity in one community by focussing on other groups, alleging a threat in behavior characterized as irrational, undemocratic and violent).


  • Chaves, M. Secularization As Declining Religious Authority. Social Forces 72(3):749-74. (1994)
  • Sommerville, C. J. "Secular Society Religious Population: Our Tacit Rules for Using the Term Secularization. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (2):249-53. (1998)
  • Said, E. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin. (1978).
  • Stark, Rodney, Laurence R. Iannaccone, Monica Turci, and Marco Zecchi. How Much Has Europe Been Secularized? Inchiesta 32(136):99-112. (2002)
  • Warrier, Maya. Processes of Secularisation in Contemporary India: Guru Faith in the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission, Modern Asian Studies (2003)

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