Although sociologists have disputed whether religion encourages or inhibits social change, most agree that changes in society will lead to changes in religion. Furthermore, many have claimed that social change would lead to the weakening or even disappearance of religion.
In the nineteenth century it was widely believed that industrialisation and the growth of scientific knowledge would lead to secularisation, which very broadly can be defined as the process of religious decline.
Functionalist Durkheim did not agree that religion was ‘doomed’ to total obsolescence. He once commented that there was ‘something eternal in religion’ (Durkheim, 1961). Nevertheless, he did anticipate that religion would be of declining social significance. In an industrial society in which there was a highly specialised division of labour, religion would lose some of its importance as a force for integrating society. Social solidarity would increasingly be provided by the education system rather than the sort of religious rituals associated with the more ‘simple societies’.
Weber too anticipated a progressive reduction in the importance of religion. He thought that in general people would act less in terms of emotions and in line with tradition, and more in terms of the rational pursuit of goals. ‘Rationalization’ would gradually erode religious influence.
Marx did not believe that industrial capitalism as such would herald the decline of religion, but he did believe it would set in motion a chain of events that would eventually lead to its disappearance (Marx, 1950). Religion, according to Marx, was needed to legitimate inequality in class societies, but capitalism would eventually be replaced by classless communism, and religion would cease to have any social purpose.
Many contemporary sociologists have followed in the footsteps of the founders. They have argued that science and rationality, the decline of traditional values, and the increasingly specialized division of labour, would tend to undermine religion in particular and faith and non-rational beliefs in general.
Modern societies are seen to be incompatible with the retention of a central role for religion. That is not to say that supporters of the secularisation thesis necessarily believe that religion will disappear completely. Instead they argue that in some sense religion will decline in significance. For example, Bryan Wilson defines secularisation as ‘the process whereby religious thinking, practise and institutions lose social significance’ (Wilson, 1966).
Despite widespread support for the theory of secularisation, a number of doubts have been raised. Some sociologists have questioned the belief that religion was as important in the past as has been widely assumed. If pre-industrial societies were not truly religious, then religion may have declined little, if at all.
The role of religion in different modern societies also varies considerably. It is possible that secularisation is a feature of development of some modern societies, but not of others. For example, religion appears to be much more influential in the USA than it is in the UK.
Furthermore, the concepts of secularisation are not given the same meanings by different sociologists. Problems arise in evaluating the theory of secularisation because of the absence of a generally agreed definition. Stark argues that ‘perhaps the most important attribute of those who perceive secularisation to be going on is their commitment to a particular view of what religion means’ (1969). Thus, one researcher might see the essential characteristic of religion as worship in a religious institution. As a result he or she may see a decline in church attendance as evidence of secularisation. Another might emphasise religious belief, which is seen as having nothing necessarily to do with attending a religious institution. A third might see the issue in terms of the role religion plays in shaping public life, for example politics and education; while a fourth might see it in terms of the extent to which religious teaching has influenced the moral values of a society.
Some researchers have seen religious institutions and the activity associated with them as the key element in religious behaviour. From this viewpoint, they have measured the importance of religion in society by statistical evidence of factors such as church attendance, church membership, and participation in ceremonies such as marriages which are performed in church.
In these respects, a good deal of the statistical evidence does seem to point towards secularisation. However, some of it does not appear to support the secularisation thesis; the evidence varies between countries; and the reliability and validity of many of the statistics are open to question.
Some of the strongest evidence for the secularisation thesis as applied to Britain seems to come from church attendance statistics. The earliest available survey statistics on church attendance originate from the 1851 ‘Census of Religion’. This found just under 40 per cent of the adult population attending church. In England and Wales the figures dropped to 35 per cent by the turn of the century and 20 per cent in 1950.
Attendance at special Christian ceremonies such as baptisms and marriages has also declined. In 1900, 65 per cent of children born alive in England were baptised. By 1970 it was down to 47 per cent, and in 1993 had fallen as low as 27 per cent (Bruce, 1996). There has also been a noticeable drop in the number of marriages conducted in church. According to Bruce, nearly 70 per cent of English couples were married in the Church of England at the start of the twentieth century. By 1990 it had fallen to 53 per cent. According to the UK Christian Handbook, 47 per cent of marriages in England and Wales in 1995 took place in a religious building.
Figures also reveal a substantial fall in the membership of Anglican, and Roman Catholic churches, although membership of Orthodox churches has risen. Overall membership of these churches fell by nearly 1.2 million between 1980 and 1995, or by around 19 per cent.
According to the UK Christian Handbook by 1995 only 10.8 per cent of the UK adult population were member of Anglican, Catholic, or Orthodox churches. In England the figure was just 7.5 per cent, compared to 8.8 per cent in Wales, 25.3 per cent in Scotland and 72.9 per cent in Northern Ireland.
The figures do not include Free churches such as Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal churches. Here the pattern of changes in membership is more variable. There have been rises in membership of new churches and Pentecostal churches but falls in the membership of Baptist, Independent, Methodist, and other ‘other’ Free churches. Overall Free Church membership declined slightly between 1980 and 1995, falling by around 3,400 or by just under 0.3 per cent.
Membership of some non-Christian churches and other religious organisations has been increasing. Much of this increase is accounted for by the rises in the numbers of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Scientologists (Cult?). Some other groups, including Theosophists, Unitarian churches and Spiritualists have declined. The number of Muslims has increased by 247,000, Sikhs by 200,000, Hindus by 35,000 and Buddhists by 28,000. There have been declines in some groups – for examples, Jews – but by some 545,000, or over 70 per cent. While much of this increase may be explained by births to parents following these religions, and by immigration, some has been due to conversions. For example, some people from a Christian background have converted to Buddhism.
New religious movements, which take the form of sects or cults, involve much smaller numbers than the major non-Christian religions. The UK Christian Handbook lists 18 such movements and has estimated the membership of these organisations along with that of other new religious movements rose by nearly 5,000 between 1980 and 1995, an increase of approximately 130 per cent.
All of the figures described here should, however, be viewed with some caution. Many of the figures are estimates, and, interpreting religious statistics is difficult and controversial.
Nevertheless, they do give some indication of membership trends. Overall there does seem to have been a decline in membership of religious organisations in the UK. Institutional, Christian religions have declined most, while many non-Christian and smaller religions have gained members.
A very different impression is given by statistics on religious participation in the USA. There, rates of religious participation are much higher than those in Britain and on the surface do not provide support for theories of secularisation. Writing in 1993, C. Kirk Hadaway, Penny Marlerm P.L. Church and Mark Chaves noted that rated of self-reported church attendance in the USA were around 40 per cent. By this measure, Protestants had about the same attendance rates in the early 1990s as they had in the 1940s. Rates of attendance in Catholics in the USA did decline in the 1960s and early 1970s, but had not fallen any further. For example, in 1991 a poll conducted by Princeton Religious Research Centre found that 42 per cent of Americans claimed to have attended a church or synagogue in the previous week; 45 per cent of Protestants and 51 per cent of Catholics claimed to have done so.
Most of the long-term evidence on membership and attendance in Britain seems to support the secularisation theory. Although recent years have seen a growth in smaller religious organisation, compared to the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century there is little doubt that fewer people attend a place of worship or belong to a religious organisation. In the USA, though, the evidence seems to support the view of those who question the secularisation thesis. However, the evidence from both countries is far from conclusive.
Both the reliability and the validity of the statistics are open to question. Nineteenth-century church attendance figures for Britain pose special problems because the methods of data collection used do not meet today’s standard of reliability. Most recent British figures may be hard to trust as well. Some commentators argue that attendance and membership figures may be distorted by the ulterior motives of those who produce them. Some churches – for example, the Roman Catholic Church – may underestimate the numbers in their congregation in order to reduce capitation fees they have to pay central church authorities. Others may overestimate the figures to produce impressive totals, particularly where there may be a risk of a church with a small congregation being closed down.
Some researchers have seen the truly religious society in terms of full churches. They have therefore seen empty churches as evidence of secularisation. Other have seen the truly religious society as one in which the church as an institution is directly involved in every important area of social life. In terms of this emphasis, disengagement or withdrawing of the church from the wider society is seen as secularisation. David Martin sees this view as concerned with decline in the power, wealth, influence and prestige of the church (Martin, 1969).
Steve Bruce argues that the state churches have lost their power as they have become more distant from the British state (Bruce, 1995). This distancing has given them the freedom to be more critical of governments.
The concept of disengagement is, however, questioned by Jose Casanova. Casanova is actually a supporter of the theory of secularisation, but only in the sense that he believes differentiation has taken place. He does not believe that religion has withdrawn from public and political life.
Increasing attention was paid to religion by politicians, social scientists and the general public, and religious leaders were increasingly willing to enter public and political debate. Casanova says that ‘During the entire decade of the 1980s it was hard to find any serious political conflict anywhere in the world that did not show behind it not-so-hidden hand of religion’. Examples included the conflict between Jews and Muslim Arabs in the Middle East, between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland and between Muslims, Serbs, and Croats in Bosnia. Religion played an important part in the revolts that led to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the former USSR.
The continuing proliferation of sects has been interpreted by some researchers in much the same way as the spread of denominations and religious pluralism in general. It has been seen as a further fragmentation of institutional religion and therefore as evidence of the weakening holds of religion over society.
Accurate measurements of the numbers of sects and the size of their memberships are not available, but estimates have been made. Although Roy Wallis (1984) believed that there was a decline in new religious movements in the late 1970s and early 1980s, more recent figures suggest that they have been growing. Amongst established sects, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ membership rose from 62,000 in 1970 to 116,000 in 1990 and 131,000 in 1995.
Stark and Bainbridge (1985) have shown that the 1960s had the highest rate of cult formation in the USA. Some 23 per cent of the cults they uncovered were formed between 1970 and 1977, 38 per cent in the 1960s, 14 per cent in the 1950s, and the remaining 25 per cent before 1950.
Despite contradictions in the evidence, the apparent vitality of sects seems to provide evidence against the secularisation theory. World-rejecting sects are perhaps the most religious type of organisation, since they demand greater commitment to the religion than other organisations. If they are stronger than in the past, it suggests that religion retains a considerable appeal for the populations of advanced industrial societies.
Stark and Bainbridge also deny that secularisation has taken place. They believe that some established churches may have lost part of their emphasis on the supernatural, but secularisation never advances far because new religious groups with more emphasis on the supernatural constantly emerge. Stark and Bainbridge put forward statistical evidence to support this claim.
As the views of sociologists such as Martin and Kepel illustrate, the secularisation thesis has not been definitively proved or disapproved. This is partly because sociologists from Weber to Wilson and from Comte to Casanova have used the term ‘secularisation’ in many different ways. This has led to considerable confusion since writers discussing the process of secularisation are often arguing about different things.
Martin (1969), states that the concept of secularisation includes ‘a large number of discrete, separate elements loosely put together in an intellectual holdall’. He maintains that there is no necessary connection between the various processes lumped together under the same heading. Because the range of meaning attached to the term ‘secularisation’ has become so wide, Martin advocates its removal from the sociological vocabulary. Instead, he support a careful and detailed study of the ways in which the role of religion in society has changed at different times an in different places.
Glock and Stark (1969) argue that researchers have been unable to measure the significance of religion because they have not given adequate attention to defining religion.
There is some evidence that contemporary theorists of secularisation do pay more attention to differentiating between different issues that have been considered under the heading ‘secularisation’. For example, Steve Bruce (1995, 96) accepts that religion can remain an important part of the individual beliefs, but he believes that religion has lost its social and political significance.
Casanova believes that recent history shows that religious beliefs and practices are certainly not dying out, and that ‘public religions’ have increasingly re-entered the public sphere. Thus, to him, it is only in the first sense that secularisation has taken place. Religion no longer has a central position in the structure of modern societies, but neither does it fade away.
Most theorists who either support or stack the theory of secularisation are now willing to admit that the theory cannot be unproblematically applied to all groups in modern societies. It can therefore be argued that the national, regional, ethnic, and social class differences in the role of religion discussed by Martin and others make it necessary to relate theories to specific countries and social groups.