The Aim of this Study Pack is provide an understanding of:
1. The question of whether or not secularisation is taking place / has taken place in modern, industrialised, societies.
The Objectives of this Study Pack are to provide an understanding of:
1. The way in which the concept of secularisation can be operationalised through the use of three main indicators:
a. Religious practice.
b. Religious organisation.
c. Religious belief.
2. Problems of definition associated with the concept of secularisation.
3. The reliability and validity of statistics relating to religious practice in Britain.
4. The relative level of influence exercised by the Church in “secular” societies
Define what Secularisation is:
The concept of secularisation is not, as we will see, a particularly easy one to come to terms with in relation to religious activity in any given society. To be sure it is a reasonably simple concept to describe, since it merely relates to the process whereby “religious activity” in any society progressively declines over time.
For example, as the arch proponent of the secularisation thesis, Bryan Wilson, defines it (“Religion in Secular Society”, 1966), secularisation is:
“The process whereby religious thinking, practices and institutions lose their social significance”.
To put this another way, Peter Berger (“The Social Reality of Religion”, 1969) argues that it is:
“The process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.”.
The concept of “institutions” in this respect relates to the way religion is socially-organised in any society, while the reference to “symbols” relates to particular religious beliefs and their presence or relative absence in any society.
The “problem” to which I’ve just referred is not, as I’ve noted, particularly one of definition (although, as with most sociological concepts, definitions do vary); rather, it relates to the way we can, as sociologists, operationalise such definitions.
The concept of operationalization, in this context, refers to the way we can put such definitions into practice; in effect, the extent to which it is possible to use such definitions in the measurement of ideas like “religious activity”, “religious vitality and decline” and so forth.
Not only are we faced with operational problems relating to the concept of secularisation, we are also faced with problems that relate to how we can define “religious activity” in the first place, because if we are trying to measure whether or not it has declined (and if so, by how much) we clearly need to know what, if any, level it has declined from. As Glasner (“Sociology and Secularisation”, 1977) puts it:
“The assumption is that, since a common usage definition of Christianity, for example, is concerned with Church attendance, membership and the presence of rites of passage, these constitute significant elements of a definition of religion and that any move away from this institutional participation involves religious decline”.
The extent to which this assumption is justified / justifiable is something that we will need to explore in some detail in the following sections…
Like the concept of “religion”, therefore, the concept of “secularisation” clearly poses problems of definition. Not only does it present such problems, however, but as Berger has noted, it also creates problems. For example:
1. Secularisation is an ideological concept – to define it is suspect that it is an occurring social process.
2. In turn, in order to evaluate the concept, we have to devise some means of measuring the extent of secularisation across and, most importantly, within different societies.
3. Measurement must, by definition, involve some form of historical comparison between levels of religious practice in the past and current levels of religious activity (since the concept of secularisation involves the question of whether or not present-day societies are more – or less – religious than in the past).
4. In order to do this, we must also be able to define what we mean by such terms as “religious practice”, “religious organisation”, “religious belief” and so forth – in short, we must come-up with an all-embracing definition of “religion”.
5. As Wilson implies, there are at least three distinctive levels of analysis that it is important to address when we start to talk about both religion and secularisation:
a. Religious practice – the extent to which people involve themselves in Church membership, attendance and so forth.
b. Religious organisation – the extent to which the Church, for example, is involved in the day-to-day secular order in any society (in short, the extent to which religious organisations are able to exert influence and control over the running of the society in which they exist).
c. Religious thought – the extent to which people believe in concepts such as God, good and evil, sin, or whatever. This level may be significant in terms of secularisation, since religious activity, while possibly showing a relative decline in terms of practice and organisation, may still exert a powerful influence over people’s lives in terms of personal beliefs.
In these Notes we will be looking specifically at the secularisation debate in terms of the various ways it is possible to test the idea that secularisation either is occurring or has occurred. In this respect, we will necessarily refer to the kind of problems that Berger has outlined. However, before we start to examine this concept in more detail it would be useful to note the following:
REASONS FOR & AGAINST:
On a commonsense level of understanding, the whole question of whether or not our society is “less religious” now than in the past might appear to be a foregone conclusion. It seems self-evidently obvious that religion has lost its grip on our society – the evidence of its decline is apparently all around us. A few examples taken at random would seem to confirm this on a number of different levels:
a. On an institutional level:
ï¿½ Fewer and fewer people seem to attend Church services.
ï¿½ Declining numbers of people willing to make religion their vocation.
ï¿½ Churches are closed, sold-off or fall into terminal dereliction.
b. On a personal level:
ï¿½ Fewer people get married now than in the past.
ï¿½ Fewer people are baptised in to the Church of England and even less of these are confirmed into the Church.
ï¿½ The great Christian festivals (Christmas and Easter, for example) seem to have only a residual religious meaning in British society. For most people such festivals are simply the excuse to have a welcome break from work or to indulge in an orgy of overeating and drinking…
However, it is important to remember that, whatever our personal feelings may be, sociologically we should be wary of prejudging the issue. As sociologists one of the tasks we set ourselves is the examination and interpretation of evidence, rather than the simple acceptance of “what everyone knows…”.
2. When we looked at perspectives on religion it was clear that each contained a view about the extent to which religion was either:
a. An essential part of the human condition (that is, it performed certain functions that could not be performed by any other institution) or,
b. An institution, once powerful, whose time had passed and was now in decline under the twin onslaught of social modernisation and the development of increasingly rational interpretations of the social and natural worlds.
As should be evident, therefore, sociological theories tend to be implicitly bound-up with questions of religious decline or vitality. Before we look at some of the ways we can test the concept of secularisation, therefore, it would be useful to refresh your memory about some of the basic features of sociological perspectives on religion.
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