Monday, December 1, 2014

Understanding Secularism

Off the Wall 3/9/14

There has been a lot of discussion and debate around the issue of secularism since the 2013 Constitution and the secular state were enacted. For those who study sociology, secularism and secular state are not the same thing.

During my studies, one of my subject was “Sociology of Religion,” a required subject for many Masters of Theology students. I would like to share with you some of the learnings on this subject.

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.

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.

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’s definition of religion is a set of symbolic forms and acts which relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence. 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.

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.

 Next week: Religious Change and Societal Change

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