Theories of Secularization

Secularization has a long history of theory relating to the idea that religion will become less powerful as a social institution with the progress of “modernity.” For example, Berger defines the term as meaning: “The process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols” (1967:107). Secularization perspectives are varied, but in general there are three levels upon which secularization is theorized to occur (see Tschannen 1991). These are: 1) Macro – social differentiation; 2) Meso – the decline of significance of religion in organizations; and 3) Individual – a reduction in levels of practice, belief, or affiliation at the individual level. A hotly debated topic concerns the degree to which secularization is an inevitable process as societies “modernize,” or whether instances of secularization are “exceptions” (see Davie 2002; Martin 1991). Another source of contention is whether all three levels of secularization are necessarily linked together or whether processes at one level may occur without those at another.Secularization was for a long period the dominant perspective on religious change in the social sciences. Yet there has never been a single theory of secularization.

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A family of theories drew on classical sociological theory. Durkheim posited that increasing social differentiation as a result of the expanding social division of labor would lead to the separation of the sacred and secular realms. Secular institutions would become predominate, the “collective conscience” generated by religious participation would erode, and the functions performed by religion would be taken over by newly specialized institutions, such as the nation-state and the education system. Weber proposed that the increasing dominance of instrumental rationality in economic and political institutions was leading to the “disenchantment” of everyday life, and eventually the eclipse of religious reason. Marx saw religion as little more than an ideological system for the justification and perpetuation of class domination, arguing that as class consciousness and materialism advanced religion would disappear. In general, contemporary proponents of various secularization theories observe that modernity tends to erode religion’s plausibility, intensity, and authority. Further, these theories tend to posit the contemporary retreat of sacred institutions, the privatization of faith, and the “progressive shrinkage and decline of religion” in public life (Casanova 1994). Within this broad consensus, however, there are a variety of theoretical positions.

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