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Secularisation - Is Society Becoming More Secular?

AS, A Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 17 Jul 2018

What is the evidence that society is becoming more secular?

  • There is no reliable measurement of church attendance. Church census data and congregation counts only reveal how many attended on a particular day. If there were previous knowledge about the date, this could boost attendance in order to reflect well on the church. When data is provided by a religious organisation itself, it is likely to present itself in a positive light. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that when people complete questionnaires asking about their church attendance, they overstate how often they attend. Research in the US, such as that by Hadaway, indicates that this overstating could be very considerable indeed. He found that more than half of people describing themselves as religious lied to surveys about whether they attended church.
  • Church attendance does not necessarily correlate with religiosity, so a lot depends on how one chooses to define secularisation. After all, church attendance in the 1850s was not just about religious belief but also social interaction, social status, and indeed sometimes compulsion.
  • Sociologists like Grace Davie argue that, rather than religion declining it is instead changing. Davie argued that today people believe without belonging. The idea is that belief has become more privatised. There is evidence to suggest that people maintain religious belief but choose to keep their beliefs private, rather than join and participate in a traditional religious organisation.
  • Davie further suggested that people practise their religion vicariously. Professional religious figures (like priests) practise religion on behalf of believers who remain at home. People still turn to religion for “hatching, matching and dispatching” (baptisms, weddings and funerals) and for festivals like Christmas and Easter.
  • David Lyon (2000) added to this with the idea that people could “pick and mix” religious beliefs as if they were purchasing consumer commodities. Such an approach to religion takes place outside churches, mosques or temples.
  • However, Bruce counter-argued that this is a very weak form of belief and that most people today neither believe nor belong.
  • Berger, after having initially predicted complete secularisation, has argued that there has been a significant desecularisation of the world and that western academics did not predict this because they were blinded by their own atheism. Western academics existed in a particular secular “bubble” and imagined other people shared their experiences. Actually, as we shall see in the next section, most of the world is highly religious. According to Berger, it has become more religious in recent years (hence desecularisation and resacrilisation).
  • Berger argues that secularisation theory is Eurocentric and the nature of contemporary religion, globally, is pluralism rather than secularism. Actually there is plenty of evidence that religious belief is in fact growing rather than contracting. The percentage of people in the world who are religious is increasing (this is partly down to demographic change where population growth is higher in the developing world, which is more religious, than in the developed world).
  • Stark and Bainbridge (1996) agree with Berger that secularisation theory is Eurocentric and they put this down to what they call religious market theory or rational choice theory. They argue that there was no “golden age” of religion (others agree but for different reasons) and that religiosity remains largely constant, because people are “naturally” religious and it meets various human needs. When people make any decision – and religiosity is no different – they make a rational cost/benefit analysis. They further argue that religious organisations act like businesses, selling a product. Where there is competition then the churches will try and make themselves attractive, whereas where there is a monopoly, things become stale and unattractive. They suggest there is a cycle where, as a church declines, new products come onto the market (sects, cults, etc.) which eventually leads to diversity and a religious “revival”. They use this argument to explain why (compared with Europe) religion has remained strong in the USA. No one church has ever been dominant there, and so there has always been a lively competitive marketplace. However, this does not explain the way religion has remained very strong in societies with one dominant faith in the developing world, such as in the Middle East and parts of Africa.
  • Norris and Inglehart (2011) propose an alternative explanation called Existential Security Theory which suggests that religion remains a key part of societies where there is a lack of economic security. This explains the way in which developing countries have retained high levels of religiosity, but they argue that this also explains the situation in the USA. While the USA is a wealthy country, their lack of a “safety net” through a European-style welfare system means that there is still a good deal of economic and material insecurity among the population and religion fills the void as a compensator. Essentially these are right (Stark and Bainbridge) and left (Norris and Inglehart) explanations for similar phenomena.


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