· Secularisation – The Concept
Classical thinkers such as Hegel, Marx, Saint-Simon, Durkheim, Comte and Weber developed theories of social change, all of which involved interpretations of the changing significance of religion in society. However the notion of secularisation is not a purely rational construct that is open to proof or disproof. McGuire describes it as a mythological account because it is empirically impossible to disconfirm. According to Thomas Luckmann, the secularisation thesis is essentially an attempt to “explain the emergence of the modern world,” since many thinkers feel that modern society differs absolutely from what came before it. As a result the secularisation debate is closely linked with theories of modernisation.
Much of the debate over secularisation hinges upon definitions of religion. In general, sociologists using substantive definitions of religion (what religion is/the object of religious attention) conclude that religion in modern society is declining in significance. By contrast, sociologists using functional definitions (what religion does) tend to agree that the location and manifestation of religion haves changed in contemporary society but that this reflects a transformation, not a decline in religion.
· Secularisation as Religious Decline
The image behind this thesis is that once people were highly religious and that religion informed all aspect of society. Accordingly society is becoming less and less religious, and individual lives a decreasingly influenced by religion. From this perspective, religion will eventually disappear. This understanding of secularisation is either condemned or welcomed. Representatives of religious organisations and interests are understandably against the decline. Proponents of counter ideologies such as positivism, Marxism and Freudianism typically welcome the decline.
The exact nature of the ‘decline; of religion, however, is difficult to specify. There is no
Clear-cut empirical evidence to show that religion is declining. Generally though, there are two areas of imputed decline: the religiosity of individuals and the scope and power of religious institutions.
(Let’s watch a short video to illustrate this.)
· Secularisation as Religious Transformation
An alternative interpretation of secularisation is that religion is not so much in a decline as it is in a transformation.
o Religious Evolution: Bellah
Bellah suggests that the change is one of religious evolution and this it is not the religious person or the ultimate religious situation that changes, rather it is religion as a symbol system that evolves. Bellah clarified that evolution is not inevitable, irreversible or unidirectional; it does not imply that what results is necessarily “better”. He characterises five stages of historical patterns of religion:
1. Primitive religion – with a symbol system of a mythical world which serve as paradigms for the detailed features of the actual physical and social world.
2. Archaic religion – the development of religious cults with gods, priests, worship, sacrifice and sometimes divine kingship. Mythical beings are more objectifiedand are seen as actively influential and controlling the human and natural world (they have become gods).
3. Historic Religion – “world religions” such as Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam. There is a development of cosmological dualism, referring to the image of two realms: one is the human world and the other a higher realm of universal reality. The empirical world of everyday human life is seen as subordinate or less real. At this stage, the concept of the supernatural develops. The transcendent deities of historic religions also contribute to the universalism of these religions through the image of all humans being responsible to the supernatural deity (or deities) rather than individually relating to a particularistic cult. Religious action is characterised by the pursuit of salvation by individuals orienting themselves to the high spiritual reality.
4. Early Modern Religion – based on the case of the Protestant Reformation, this is the collapse of the hierarchical structuring of both the empirical and transcendental worlds. “This” world is not rejected but the focus is now on a direct relation between the individual and the transcendental reality. Religious action is identified with the whole of life and the world is a valid sphere to work out the will of God. Religious organisations are also affected by the collapse of hierarchical structures as illustrated by the motto “the priesthood of all believers.” The outcome of this stage, according to Bellah is the image of the self-revising social order, expressed in a voluntaristic and democratic society.
5. Modern Religion – while this may be only part of a transition to a further new stage, it is clearly different from the historical and early modern religions because there is a collapse of the dualism that characterised those earlier stages. Instead of a single world replacing the double one, an infinitely multiplex one has replaced the simple duplex structure. Religion is no longer the monopoly of explicitly religious groups. The mode of action implied by this image is one of continual choice, with no firm, predetermined answers and the social implications of modern religion include the image of culture and personality as perpetually revisable.
o Church-oriented Religion as Peripheral: Luckmann
Luckmann proposes that the specialisation of religion into a single institution is only one social form of religion The characteristics of the institutional specialisation of religion include the emergence of specifically religious organisations (such as churches), the standardisation of doctrine (as in a creed), and the differentiation of religious roles – especially the emergence of religious specialists (such as the clergy). The clear distinction between religion and society is possible only if religion is differentiated in special social institutions, in this social form of religion.
Luckmann accepts the idea that the church-oriented religion has declined in influence and notes that vestigial (residual) strength of historic religion in modern societies lies among the peripheral members of society, that is those least involved in the major institutions of the public sphere. The decrease in traditional church religion may be seen as a consequence of the shrinking relevance of the values institutionalised in church religion, for the integration and legitimation of everyday life in modern society.
While this form is declining, religion itself is transforming into a new social form. A main feature of this new social form is personal choice: the individual constructs a private system of meanings, choosing from a wider assortment of religious representations (which include traditional religious representations). Such individual religiosity receives no significant support from the primary public institutions (such as work, education, law, politics); it is virtually totally privatised – supported by and relevant to relations in private life such as the family, social clubs, and leisure-time activities.
Like Bellah, Luckmann identifies as one of the central themes of modern religiosity. Luckmann suggests that individual autonomy has been redefined to mean the absence of external restraints and traditional limitations in the private search for identity. While themes of modern religiosity (self-expression and self-realisation) characterise this search, the institutions of the public sphere have real power over the individual; performance of one’s roles in these spheres must conform to institutional requirement and autonomy is limited to the private sphere. By endowing the increasing subjectivity of human existence with as sacred quality, the new social form of religion supports the functioning, power and control of public sphere institutions without explicitly legitimating them.
· Religious Change and Societal Change
The secularisation thesis implies several processes of societal change. While these processes are interrelated, McGuire emphasises four general themes - institutional differentiation, competing sources of legitimacy, rationalisation and privatisation – which emphasise significant aspects of religious change.
o Institutional Differentiation
Insitutional differentiation refers to the process by which the various institutional spheres in society become separated from each other, with each institution performing specialised functions. The contrasting image behind the concept of differentiation is that in simpler societies, the beliefs, values, and practices of religion directly influence behaviour in all spheres of existence, and religion is diffused throughout every aspect of society. In complex societies, by contrast, each institutional sphere has gradually become differentiated from others. The division of labour in complex societies is similarly differentiated, with specialised roles for each different function. In a highly differentiated social system, the norms, values, and practices of the religious sphere have only indirect influence on other spheres such as business, politics, leisure-time activities, educations and so on. This means that religion influences these other areas through the personally held and applied values and attitudes of people who are active in each sphere, rather than directly through specifically religious institutions such as the church. Some theorists point to differentiation as evidence of religious decline, interpreting the facts that religion is not diffused throughout the society and that specifically religious institutions have limited control over other institutional spheres as evidence of religion’s diminished strength and viability. Particularly important in this interpretation is the loss of control over the definition of deviance and he exercise of social control.
§ Implications for the Individual
For the individual, the process of differentiation involves conflicting development. On the one hand, differentiation appears to go hand in hand with the discovery of the self – the unique individual within society. On the other hand, differentiation results in segregation of the individual’s various roles in society. A woman’s role as a mother is not considered relevant to her role as mayor; a man’s role as religious believer is not considered relevant to his role as corporate manager. Values such as moral qualms or self-realisation are not necessarily negated; they are simply relegated to another institutional sphere and considered irrelevant if they do not contribute to achieving the goals of the organisation. The individual may experience a conflict between the needs and goals of the self and the demands of these social roles.
§ Implications for Society
Similarly the processes of differentiation contribute to society’s difficulty in mobilizing the commitment and efforts of its members. Values from one separate sphere do not readily motivate behaviour in another. The process of differentiation has important implications for the location of religion in contemporary society. The effective criteria of public institutional spheres – notably the economic – are separate from the values of the private sphere. Religion is relegated to the private sphere. An individual’s desire for meaning and belonging must be pursued in the private sphere. It would seem that the same differentiation that makes possible the “discovery of the self” also frees the institutions of the public sphere to ignore or counteract the autonomy of individuals under their control.
o Competing Sources of Legitimacy
Legitimacy refers to the basis of authority of an individual, group or institution, by which they can expect their pronouncements to be taken seriously. Legitimacy is not an inherent quality of individuals, groups, or institutions but is based on the acceptance of their claims by others. The location of religion in contemporary society reflects societal change in the bases of legitimacy. Relatively stable societies typically have stable sources of legitimacy. The key criterion in such societies is usually traditional authority such as the inherited authority of a patriarch or a king. Institutional differentiation often produces a different kind of authority: the authority of the holder of a specialised role of “office”. Claims to be taken seriously are based not upon who one is but upon what position one holds. The authority of a judge, for example, is based upon the role rather than the person.
Religion legitimates authority indirectly in traditional societies by its pervasive interrelationship with all aspects of society. Myth and ritual support the seriousness of all spheres of life. The chief, priest, or matriarch can speak with authority because their roles correspond to or reflect the authority of divine beings. Historic religions legitimate authority more directly. Such historic religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism have similarly given authority to pronouncements on education, science, economic policy, law, family life, sport, art, and music. Whether directly or indirectly invoked, the images and symbols of the sacred are a source of legitimacy.
§ Competing Sources of Authority
The main feature of legitimacy in contemporary society is that the differentiation process has resulted in competition and conflict among the various sources of legitimacy of authority. In contemporary society religious institution must actively compete with other sources of legitimacy. Personal, social, and political authority are more uncertain.
One particular source of this uncertainty of legitimacy is pluralism, referring to a societal situation in which no single world view hold a monopoly. Pluralism is sometimes used in a narrower sense to describe the political or societal tolerance of competing versions of the truth. Pluralism, in both limited and broader senses, is a key factor in the secularisation process. Where world views coexist and compete as plausible alternatives to each other, the credibility of all is undermined. The pluralistic situation relativises the competing world views and deprives them of their taken-for-granted status. In a pluralistic situation, no single world view is inevitable. This results in various world views in society also competing for legitimacy. Pluralism, furthermore, made it possible to conceive of religions; the very concept implies a stance of some distance, a meaning system that one does not personally believe.
§ Pluralism and Legitimacy
One general impact of pluralism and differentiation is to create a problem of legitimacy for both the individual and the society. The problem of legitimacy at the societal level involves society’s very basis for authoritative decision making and its grounds of moral unity or integration. At the individual level, the problem of legitimacy makes the individual’s meaning system more precarious, voluntary and private.
§ Problems at the Societal Level
As world views and authoritative claims complete in a pluralistic situation, the sources of legitimacy are diffused among many agents in society. These competing claims may appeal to sacred or quasi-sacred sources of authority, even if not using explicitly religious symbols. The problem of legitimacy results from the collapse of a societal shared conception of order. Without agreement on the way to live together, claims of moral authority make no sense. This problem affects both individual and societal decision making. How is it possible for human values to determine public policy in a pluralistic society? Is the role of religion in political decision making reduced to that of one more interest group vying with opposing interest groups? Or is it even possible for a pluralistic society to agree on human values on a societal level? And if so, does the society consider human values relevant or important to decisions in the public sphere?
§ Unstable Sources of Legitimacy: Fenn
Richard K. Fenn’s defines secularisation as a process of dealing with uncertainty or ambiguity of boundaries between the sacred and the profane. It involves conflict among groups, individuals and the nation. It both disturbs and clarifies the sources of legitimacy of social and political authority.
· The first stage of this process is the differentiation of religious roles and institutions. Fenn emphasises the extent to which certain changes are qualitatively different, suggesting that even the very concept of “religion” becomes problematic.
· The second step is the demand for clarification of the boundary between religious and secular issues. The demand for clarification may produce a desire for some general, overarching symbols to which all competing groups can subscribe.
· The third step is the development of generalised religious symbols or ideology. The generalised symbols may take the form of a civil religion such as America developed in the 19th century. This third step is typically unstable. Dissident minorities attack the generalised symbol system, especially its “inappropriate” uses of religious symbols.
· The conflict of world views results in two seemingly disparate situations in Fenn’s fourth stage: the development of minority and idiosyncratic definitions of the situation, together with increasingly secularised political authority. On the one hand is pressure to desacralise the political authority – for example, removing and ideological notions of what is “good” from decision making and replacing them with criteria such as due process and technical procedures. On the other hand, challenging the civil religious synthesis results in spreading access to the sacred. Thus individuals and groups develop their own particular (that is, “idiosyncratic”) views and symbols for which they claim the same seriousness as recognised religions. Individual and group claims to social authority multiply as the uncertainty of boundaries become evident. According to Fenn, “secularisation increases the likelihood that various institutions or groups will base their claims to social authority on various religious grounds, while it undermines the possibility for consensus on the meaning and location of the sacred.”
· Two contrary tendencies are found in Fenn’s fifth step. One is the separation the individual from corporate life. The other tendency is varying degrees of group pressure toward integrating personal value systems with activities in the public sphere. This tendency is expressed in different modes of religious organisation: church, sect, denomination, cult. Each mode has a characteristic stance toward the integration of value systems. At one extreme is satisfaction with minimal integration from groups that consider their values irrelevant to the public sphere. At the opposite pole are groups seeking totalistic solutions; these would include seemingly secular ideologies as well as overtly religious totalism.
Secularisation both disturbs and clarifies the bases of social authority. It is disturbing because it undermines the ability of society to maintain belief in a symbolic whole that transcends the separate identities and conflicting interests of society’s component parts. Pluralism and institutional differentiation are generally important factors in this process because they break down the overarching world view – the symbolic whole. These processes make it impossible to achieve a new firm source of societal integration and legitimacy. At the same time, however, they increase the likelihood that people will need and seek this symbolic whole.
§ Problems at the Individual Level
As pluralism undermines the taken-for-granted quality of the world view, the individual’s own meaning system receives less social support and becomes precarious, voluntary, and private. This too can produce conflict for the individual. Pluralism increases personal ambiguity: What am I to believe? How am I to act? On what basis can I decide? Personal value decisions are important, but a more critical issue at the individual level is the impact of the problem of legitimacy for personal identity, which is influenced and supported by religion. The individual’s world view is an important element of personal identity. The individual’s subjective meaning system legitimates that persona’s hierarchy of goals, values, and norms. What happens then, if this key part of the individual’s identity is undermined?
Rationalisation is the process by which certain areas of social life are organised according to the criteria of means-ends (functional) rationality. Max Webber viewed an increasing emphasis upon functional rationality as the outstanding characteristic of modern society.
§ Rationality and Modernisation
According to Webber, modern Western society has a “rationalised” economy and an associated special “mentality”. A rational economy is functionally organised, with decisions based upon the reasoned weighing of utilities and cost. The rational mentality involves openness towards new ways of doing things (in contrast with traditionalism) and readiness to adapt to functionally specialised roles and universalistic criteria of performance. Although these forms of rationality originated in the economic order, they have extended into political organisation and legal order – the modern state. Weber argued that religious motives and legitimations played a central role in bringing about this form of organisation and mentality – for example, by the development of universalistic ethics (the norm of treating all people according to the same generalised standards) and by the development of religious drive for rational mastery over the world. Nevertheless this rationality, once a part of societal structure, became divorced from its historical origins and acquired an impetus of its own. If modern society is indeed moving in the direction of increasing functional rationality, this process implies problems at two levels: the location of individual meaning and belonging; and a conflict between corporate control and values verses personal autonomy and values. Personal meaning is not only relegated to the private sphere but is also undermined by the dominant rationality of other spheres. The individual seeking to apply meaning to personal experiences is in a weak situation relative to the powerful institutions for which individual meaning is irrelevant.
§ Disenchantment of the World
Another feature of rationalisation which undermines the individual’s personal sense of meaning and belonging was termed “disenchantment” by Webber. This is the process by which things held in awe or reverence are stripped of their special qualities and become “ordinary”. Protestantism thus brought about much disenchantment of what Roman Catholicism had held in awe, emptying the believer’s world of angles, saints, shrines, holy objects, holy days and elaborate sacraments. Rational science also promotes disenchantment, explaining natural phenomena without reference to nonnatural categories of thought. Phenomena previously attributed to miracles are reinterpreted by rational science as natural. The key figure of the rationalisation process is not so much the particular explanations of phenomena but the belief that all phenomena can be rationally explained. The way in which people think of the world becomes distinct from the way in which they think of themselves and each other. The process of rationalisation means that the rational mode of coginition applies to those institutional spheres that “really matter”; other modes of cognition are treated as frills of private life.
Privatisation is the process by which certain differentiated institutional spheres are segregated from the dominant institutions of public sphere and relegated to private life. This segregation means that norms and values of the private sphere are irrelevant to the operations of public sphere institutions; and that functions of providing meaning and belonging are relegated to institutions of the private sphere. Privatisation implies that the individual finds sources of identity increasingly only in the private sphere. This implies problems in legitimating oneself. Identity becomes problematic as sources of order, meaning, and community have been undermined; all have become increasingly voluntary and uncertain. Luckmann suggests that this voluntary quality contributes to a sense of autonomy in the private sphere, perhaps making up for the individual’s lack of autonomy in institutions of the public sphere:
Once religion is defined as a “private affair” the individual may choose from the
Assortment of “ultimate” meanings as he sees fit – guided only by the preferences that are determined by his social biography. An important consequence of this situation is that the individual constructs not only his personal identity but also his individual system of “ultimate” significance.
This “self-selected construction” is, according to Luckmann, the contemporary social form of religion. While church-oriented religion continues to be one of the elements that some people choose for their constructions, the other themes from the private sphere (autonomy, self-expression, self-realisation, familism, sexuality, adjustment, and fulfilment) are also available in a supermarket of “ultimate” meanings.