The key theories that are applicable to the religious situation in the Fiji context are the disengagement or differentiation theory and what McGuire terms competing sources of legitimacy. According to the theory of disengagement or differentiation, society separates itself from the religious understanding which has previously informed it in order to constitute itself an autonomous reality and consequently to limit religion to the sphere of private life. 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. Particularly important in this interpretation is the loss of control over the definition of deviance and the exercise of social control.
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. 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.
The theory of competing sources of legitimacy in society holds 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.
As we learned in class, institutional secularisation can be traced to the rise of the “secular” state and its gradual assumption of the educational and welfare functions once performed by the churches. This is certainly the case in Fiji. Christian mission in Fiji which had focused on education, health and social assistance, have over the years been taken over by the government. In recent years with the widening economic gap in society meant that other institutions were needed to take up these functions of education and welfare. However the churches have had to compete with non-religious aid agencies and civil-society organisations to reclaim this role. This is also the case with the issue of social legitimacy. In many cases the church is relegated being one of many voices on social issues. The other voices are provided by Non-Governmental Organisations and Civil-Society Organisations who often specialise on issues and are thus recognised by mainstream media as the legitimate authority on that particular issue which is then accepted by society. The church’s loss of definition of deviance on issues such as homosexuality, de facto relationships, domestic violence and racism has also added to its increasing disengagement from these aspects of society as other institutions such as law and human rights become recognised as legitimate authoritative institutions for such definitions.
The issue of “secular” state has also had an impact on the disengagement of society from religion. The rise in religious fundamentalism and ethnocentrism within the dominant religious institution, the predominantly indigenous Fijian Methodist Church in Fiji, as a result of loss of social control and legitimacy in the face of pluralism (brought about by an increase in the population of Indo-Fijians, the majority of whom are Hindu) led to support for a “secular” state. The recent political crisis in Fiji which saw the military regime, remove the Methodist Church’s significant influence on politics has also been part of this disengagement.
At the same time the political and, by consequence, economic instability has led to an increase religious activity as a result of the anxiety caused by these situations and as a form of compensation for the deprivation experienced. However as disengagement has led to discovery of the self as unique individual within society and as an individual’s desire for meaning and belonging must be pursued in the private sphere, the individual is free to “shop around” to find the type of religious meaning that suits him or her, rather than having to conform to the institutional religious requirements in society.
The churches have recognised that their relevance in society is decreasing as a result of this differentiation. In Fiji and across the Pacific, due to low populations and traditional cultures that are still entrenched, the church still holds some traditional authority. The relative smallness of Pacific Island states also mean that the winds of change are recognisable when they blow. This means that these changes have not gone unnoticed and direct correlations have been drawn to globalisation and the shift towards secularisation. The negative impact of the economic aspects of globalisation, in which most other institutions seem to be contributing towards, has given the churches an area to reclaim its legitimacy.
As churches find themselves confronted by the consequences of the process of economic globalization, it has become apparent to them negative aspects of economic globalization are incompatible with the values they hold. As a result churches are able to argue that these so call private values are in fact institutional and important to society. By engaging with what it perceives as a competing vision competing, speaking out against the negative effects economic globalization has becomes an expression of defiance against the emerging global system of domination, of one ideology, one political system, one international coalition of the wealthy and the powerful. Churches and many individuals have come to recognize that this is a “kairos” - a time for resistance and a time for alternatives. By articulating these alternatives in the language of traditional culture and of religion, the churches have begun to reclaim their place as a legitimate source of authority in society. This and engagement on issues such as climate change and sustainable development is a counter process to intellectual secularisation which has attempted to separate sciences and ethics from the context of a particular version of the Christian world view.