Religious Pluralism: Evidence of Secularization?

Durkheim’s view of religion implied that a truly religious society could only have one religion in that society. In Durkheim’s analysis this was the situation in small-scale, Aboriginal societies, where every member of that society comes together at certain times in the year to engage in religious rituals. It was based on observations of such societies that Durkheim theorized that when worshiping religion, people were really worshiping society.

However, in more modern societies, especially postmodern societies, there is no one dominant religion: there are many religions, or a plurality of religions. Sociologists describe such a situation as religious pluralism.

According to Steve Bruce (2011) modernization and industrialization in Northern Europe and America brought with them social fragmentation, such that a plurality of different cultural and religious groups emerged. We see religious pluralism most obviously in the growth of sects and cults and in the increase in ethnic diversity of religion in societies.

Two process happen as a result of this: people find that their membership of their particular group or religion no longer binds them to society as a whole; and the state finds it difficult to formally support one ‘main religion’ without causing conflict.

Bruce thus argues that ‘strong religion’, which influences practically every areas of people’s lives: shaping their beliefs and practices cannot exist in a religiously plural society. Strong religion can only exist in isolated pockets, such as the Amish communities, but these have isolated themselves from society as a whole.

Religiously plural societies are thus characterized by ‘weak religion’ – which is a matter of personal choice and does not dominate every aspect of people’s lives. Weak religions accept that there is room for other religious belief systems and have little social impact.

Examples of weak religions include modern Protestantism, the ecumenical movement and New Ageism.

Arguments against increasing religious pluralism as evidence of secularization 

It is possible that religion is just changing to fit a postmodern society rather than it being in decline. Why does a society need to have one dominant religion for us to be able to say that religion is important?

It might be that diverse religions which preach tolerance of other religions are the only functional religions for a diverse postmodern society.

There are societies which have more than one religion where religious beliefs are still strong: for example Northern Ireland and Israel.

Sources/ Find out More 

Religions Pluralism – Wikipedia

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