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Assess the view that we are now living in a secular society Essay

Secularization is described by Bryan Wilson as, ‘the process whereby religious thinking, practice and institutions lose social significance’. Contemporary sociologists argue that society is becoming more secular due to science and rationality, the decline of traditional values and the specialized division of labour. This appears to be confirmed by statistics, who claim that church attendance has fallen from 1,200,000 in 1980 to 850,000 in 2001.

However, David Barrett has documented the emergence of some 6,300 New Religious Movements since the 1960s and the number of UK Muslims has increased from 40,000 to 1,400,000 which suggest that religion is developing to meet the needs of people in a modern society rather than decreasing altogether. On an international level Gilles Kepel states that there is little evidence of a general trend towards secularization and that in fact there is much evidence, such as the popularity of the Christian New Right in the US, Islamatization movements in Algeria and the Jewish political group Lubavitch in Israel, to suggest a religious revival.

Item A agrees with the views of Gilles Kepel and is critical of the secularization thesis. It cites the popularity of churchgoing in the USA (40% of US adults attend church on a Sunday compared to 10% in England), New Age Movements in Western Europe, the growth in fundamentalist movements and the evangelical revival in Latin America as examples of ‘religious health and vitality’.

It also mentions the ‘upsurge of ethno-religious conflict in international affairs’, with all recent conflicts such as the Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland and the Muslims, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia all being based on religion. Islamic terrorism has also ensured that religion is consistently at the forefront of current affairs. However, many sociologists have found that religion is incompatible with modern society.

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Weber predicted desacrilization in his idea of disenchantment, whereby magic and myth would be less important in modern society. Bryan Wilson felt that the rational organisation of society and greater knowledge of the social and physical world have encouraged the development of a rational view, and that due to this religion is difficult to accept as it cannot be quantified, tested or proven. Steve Bruce agreed, claiming that scientific beliefs undermine religion and that technological advances reduce the number of things that need to be explained in religious terms.

Bruce also claims that religion has become less important in society as the majority of its previous functions, such as education, health, social welfare and social control have been taken over by other, non-religious, institutions. Bryan Wilson partially supports this view in terms of the loss of the social welfare and control functions, stating that due to societalization the church is no longer a focal point, people no longer rely upon the local priest for advice and cannot decide what to believe due to cultural diversity.

David Matin blames disengagement for society allegedly becoming more secular, saying that the wealth, influence and prestige of the church has declined, it is no longer a major employer (one in thirty adults were employed by the church in previous times) and its ideological power has decreased. Functionalist Talcott Parsons disagrees, arguing that although the church may have lost its functions and become disengaged from the state and politics, religion can still be significant in everyday life and encourages shared values in society.

However, Bruce did admit that religion is still used as a last resort when all rational and scientific options have been exhausted, stating that, ‘when we have tried every cure for cancer, we pray… ‘. Postmodernists suggest that society has begun to move beyond the scientific rationality of modernity as they have started to mistrust science, due to its failures and negative effects such as disease and global warming. This suggests that the society we are living in is not secular, and will not become so. However, it is difficult to determine the extent to which society has become more secular.

Although statistics suggest that this is the case, with church attendance decreasing from 40% in 1850 to 8% in 2000 and the amount of Christians in the world decreasing by one million between 1970 and 2005, they are unreliable. For example, church attendance is measured in different ways (varying from telephone polls to counting the amount of cars in car parks) and churches have motives to over or underestimate the congregation (for example, the Roman Catholic Church reduce their number to lessen capitation fees).

Furthermore, different sociologists have different meanings for the concepts of religiosity and secularization, with those defining religion in terms of the structure and content of people’s beliefs (substantive definitions) being more likely to agree to the secularization thesis that those who consider the functions performed by religion for individuals and society (functional definitions). Glock and Stark believe that in order to measure the degree of religiosity in society (essential for determining whether or not society is secular) the five dimensions of religion must be applied.

These are the essential beliefs of society, the acts of worship and ritual, the substantive feelings of being associated with a higher power or being, the depth of understanding of religious teachings and beliefs and the impact of being religious on daily activities. However, these dimensions further illustrate the difficulties of measuring religiosity, such as what needs to be taken into account, whether religion has to satisfy all of these dimensions, and which is the most important. To conclude, the secularization process cannot be proved or disproved, with the term ‘secularization’ being used in many different ways by sociologists.

As Glock and Stark pointed out, as we have not adequately defined religion or religiosity, one cannot accurately test the secularization thesis and many sociologists also agree that religion varies according to national, regional, ethnic and class differences and so it is difficult to relate the secularization thesis to the whole of society. Therefore how secular contemporary society has become cannot be determined. However, society is not entirely secular, and with the emergence of New Religious Movements and New Age Movements religion appears to be developing and changing rather than declining altogether.

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