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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Structural Differentiation and Religion

According to Talcott Parsons, the disengagement of the church from social life might not necessarily mean that the church is any less important at a social level.

Parsons argues that societies evolve through a process of ‘structural differentiation’ – as societies become more complex, a greater variety of more specialized institutions evolved.

Parsons accepts that religious institutions play less of a role in politics and in the socialization of children than they did in the past, but these functions are taken over by newly evolved institutions – such as representative government and education.

Traditional institutions such as the church evolve to limit themselves to performing a smaller number of functions than previously, but these functions are still vital to the maintenance of the system as a whole.

In modern societies, religious institutions perform three important functions:

  • They form the basis of morality and the legal system – for example, the 10 commandments form much of the basis of the legal system in modern Britain.
  • They help people deal with social changes such as the death of individuals – through providing rituals that help them cope with transition. This helps maintain social order.
  • They help people deal with social contradictions – such as lazy people being rich… according to Christian doctrine, they will go to hell.

For more on Parson’s functionalist perspective on the role of religion in society – please see this post

Links to other parts of the course….

NB – Parsons argues that all institutions undergo a process of structural differentiation. His view on how religion changes with social modernization is similar to his view on how the family changes – as outlined in his ‘Functional Fit Theory‘ of the family.

This theory of structural differentiation is part of his general functionalist theory of social change as evolution.

Disengagement as Evidence of Secularization

Within the secularization debate, disengagement is the process of religious institutions becoming less involved in political and social life. It is the general withdrawing of religious institutions from wider society.

If we take a long term view and compare the role of the church in British society today with its role in medieval times, religious institutions certainly seem to have disengaged from politics and society.

James VI Scotland In the 16th Century for example, church and state were tightly bound together, through the doctrine of the ‘Divine Right of Kings‘. This doctrine was famously developed by James VI of Scotland, also James I of England. It held that the King, who was also the head of state, could only be judged by God, and no other human being.

However, as argued by Max Weber, the spread of Protestantism and especially Calvinism, laid the foundations for the collapse of this tight interweaving of church and state. Protestantism preached that individuals should get to know God personally, which led to more individualistic forms of worship. This in turn led to the decline of institutional religion – people no longer relied on the church for their spiritual sustenance, they could get this themselves in their own way.

This came to a head in the English Civil War of 1641-52, which established the English Commonwealth, and subjected the monarch to the will of Parliament rather than the ‘will of God’. From the mid 17th century forwards, the Divine Right of Kings, and the ‘total union’ of church and state was thus broken.

Although the Church of England still played a prominent role in politics for many centuries, the establishment of the Commonwealth nonetheless laid the foundations for ordinary people being able to challenge the monarch and play more of a role in politics, thus making the church more beholden to the power of a larger number of people rather than just the king.

Over the next few centuries, people became less religious and democracy became more representative, so gradually the church came to play less of a role in politics.

Institutional Disengagement in Britain Today

There is a lot of evidence that the church plays a less significant role in politics and society. 

Even if political leaders have strong religious convictions, they generally keep these convictions out of politics. Tony Blair, for example, was a fervent Catholic, and yet his spin Doctor, Alistair Campbell was adamant that New Labour ‘didn’t do God’.

Some human rights legislation actually outlaws some religious practices on the basis of equality. 

For example, Christians who believe homosexuality is wrong have been banned from being foster parents by the courts. This follows the 2010 Equality Act, which protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of a range of ‘protected characteristics’, one of which is sexuality.

The Church of England has become increasingly critical of government policy, and the government has largely ignored many of these criticisms. 

For example, the C of E has recently criticized the Tories ideological decision to cut spending of public services. it has highlighted the horrific consequences these cuts have had on the poorest sectors of British society. The Tories, being Tories, have just ignored the C of E and carried on harming the poor.

Evidence against Disengagement 

Jose Casonova argues that the trend towards disengagement in Britain and Europe are the exceptions to the global trend. Casonova suggests that globally, there are many examples which show that religion is becoming more prominent in social life. It is especially easy to find examples of religion playing a prominent role in political conflicts globally:

  • The Arab Spring uprisings across Northern Africa and the Middle East
  • The ongoing conflict between the Arabs and Jews in the Middle East
  • The growth of Christian Fundamentalism in the USA.

Casonova effectively argues that since the 1980s, when we look at religion in global perspective, a process of deprivatisation has been occurring.

 

 

 

Evidence for Secularization

Secularization is the declining social significance of religion in society.

The extent of secularization is usually ascertained (for the purposes of A-level sociology) by using three broad indicators: belonging, behaving, and belief, and there are numerous specific measures associated with each indicator.

This post aims to provide brief revision notes on some of the contemporary evidence for secularization.

Evidence for secularization: statistics on religious belonging 

According to a recent British Social Attitudes Survey (1) based on a sample of just under 3000 respondents (conducted 2016, published 2017): 

  • Only 15% of UK adults describe themselves as ‘Anglican’, compared to around 33% of the population at the turn of the century and more than 60% in the early 1960s (1)
  • Just 3% of those aged 18-24 described themselves as Anglican, compared to 40% of those aged 75 and over (1).
  • 53% of UK adults describe themselves as having ‘no religion’, up from 31% in 1983 (1)
  • 71% of 18-24 year olds describe themselves as having ‘no religion’ up from

According to the United Kingdom Census of 2011 (3), which is based on a near 100% sample of the UK population:

  • 59.3% of the population reported to be Christian, down from 71.7 per cent in 2001 to 59.3 per cent in 2011, and
  • 25.1% of the population reported having ‘no religion’, up from 14.8 per cent of the population in 2001.
  • There was an increase in all other main religions. The number of Muslims increased the most from 3.0 per cent in 2001 to 4.8 per cent in 2011.

 

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Source: United Kingdom Census 2011

 

NB – This final piece of evidence: the increasing reported popularity of all other religions besides Christianity cannot really be taken as evidence against secularization because the overall increase of all these other religions is smaller than the increase in the number of people reporting ‘no religion’ in the same period. It does, however, suggest increasing religious diversity.

Evidence for secularization: statistics on religious behaviour

According to the Church of England’s own data (4), both church attendance and attendance at ‘hatching, matching and dispatching’ (baptism/ marriage/ funeral) ceremonies are falling.

The 2016 figures show: 

  • Usual Sunday attendance at Church of England churches in 2016 was 740,000 people (86% adults, 14% children under 16).
  • There were 120,000 Church of England baptisms and services of thanksgiving for the gift of a child – representing 10% of live births.
  • There were 45,000 Church of England marriages and services of prayer and dedication after civil marriages – just 20% of marriages.
  • There were 139,000 Church of England-led funerals during 2016, 57% of which took place in churches and 43% at crematoria/cemeteries – 28% of funerals. The higher percentage probably reflects the greater proclivity for people near death to ‘find’ ‘comfort’ in ‘religion’.

The church of England notes that most of its headline indicators show a decline of 10-15% over the last decade, since 2006.

Evidence for Secularization: Statistics on Religious Belief

Religious belief is a notoriously subjective concept: while the statistics in the first section above suggest secularization is taking place, it is possible to declare that you belong to ‘no religion’ while still having religious beliefs, so we need to dig a little deeper into the exact nature of individuals’ spiritual beliefs in order to properly assess whether secularization is taking place.

When we do  this, most of the evidence suggests that secularization  is occurring, although possibly not as quickly as the decline in support for traditional religion would suggests.

  • A 2015 YouGov poll revealed that 33% of Britons ‘do not believe in God or a higher spiritual power’, up from 29% in 2012.
  • The same poll revealed that younger people are more likely to not believe in any type of higher power compared to older people – only 25% of 18-24 year olds believe in God or some other kind of higher power compared to over 40% of over 60 year olds.

Related Posts 

Essay plan: evaluate the view that the extent of secularisation has been exaggerated.

Evidence for secularization: Sources

(1) British Social Attitudes Religion Survey, 2017.

(2) The Guardian (2017) – More than Half the UK Population has No Religion, Finds Survey.

(3) Office for National Statistics: Religion in England and Wales 2011.

(4) Church of England Research and Statistics (2016) – Statistics for Mission 2016.

(5) Daily Telegraph: Church of England Attendance Plunges to an All Time Low (2016)

(6) YouGov Poll on religious belief, 2015.

 

Theories of Secularization: Rationalization and the Disenchantment of Society

According to Weber, the rationalization of society led to the disenchantment of society and as a result religious motives for action were replaced by rational motives for action. This post considers arguments and evidence for and against this theory.

desacrilization religion.png

Max Weber argued that modern society was ‘characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, ‘by the disenchantment of the world’ (1)

In traditional society, in which religious beliefs were strong, actions were primarily motivated by religious beliefs or superstitions. People were motivated to act out of a religiously motivated desire to go to heaven and avoid hell. (Or at least to avoid the social sanctions of those with religious power.)

However, with the Enlightenment and the Industrial revolution, the power of the of the church was increasingly questioned, and over a period of many years religious ways of thinking came to be replaced with more scientific or rational ways of thinking. Science and the scientific method became more central to social thought: knowledge was increasingly constructed through empirical, rational methods, rather than being dictated through religious channels.

From the Enlightenment onward, society went through a process of ‘disenchantment’ – the role of religion, magic, mystery, superstitions and faith became less prominent, and replaced by more rational motives for acting: rather than acting because faith leaders or religious tradition dictated that you should act in certain ways, without thinking about it, people were increasingly free to act for themselves. People en mass started to think more about how they should act, what they should do, and the best way to achieve their goals.

Four factors which encouraged rationalization and undermined religion

Following Weber, Bryan Wilson (1966) argued that the following four factors encouraged the development of rational thinking (2)

  1. Ascetic Protestantism. Largely following the theory outlined by Weber in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Wilson argued that protestant varieties of Christianity encouraged a rational approach to worshiping God – your ‘faith’ was essentially measured by your productivity.
  2. The rational organisation of society – the establishment of schools, workplaces, governments all imposed systematic ways of acting on people.
  3. A greater scientific knowledge of the social and natural world – Wilson argued that science provided more satisfactory explanations of many social and natural phenomenon than religions ones, and were better able to help people in tackling such problems.
  4. The development of rational ideologies – such as Marxism which offered more immediate solutions to our problems in this life further challenged and undermined religion.

Wilson argued that the rational world view fundamentally undermined the religious worldview, because it was based on the principle of systematic procedures to assess ‘truth claims’, whereas religious knowledge could not be tested and verified.

Criticisms of the idea that rationalization undermines religion

  • Steve Bruce has argued that although science and especially technology have challenged some religious beliefs, people may still turn to religion when technology fails.
  • Postmodernists point out that some people are skeptical of the promises of science. In some ways, science has made the world a riskier place.
  • The rise of the New Age Moveement and continued influence of the Christian Right in the USA show that religion is still important to many.

Sources

(1) Harlamabos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives

(2) Wilson –  ‘Religion in a Secular Society’ (1966)