generally refers to the process of transformation by which a society
migrates from close identification with religious institutions to a more separated relationship. It is also the name given to a general belief about history
, namely that the development of society progresses toward modernization
and lessening dependence on religion
as religion loses its position of authority.
Secularization has many levels of meaning, both as a theory and a historical process. Social theorists such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim, postulated that the modernization of society would include a decline in levels of religiosity. The study of the process seeks to determine the manner in which, or extent to which religious creeds, practices and institutions are losing their social significance (if at all). Both rely on the concept of a secular state: one that separates governmental and religious institutions, and bases its authority on man-made law rather than religious doctrine.
The term also has additional meanings, primarily historical. Applied to church property, secularization involves the abandonment of goods by the church where it is sold to purchasers after the government seizes the property, which most commonly happens after reasonable negotiations and arrangements are made. In Catholic theology, the term can also denote the permission or authorization given for an individual (typically clergy, who become secular clergy) to live outside his or her religious colony (monastery), either for a fixed or permanent period.
Secularization as a phenomenon is sometimes credited both to the cultural shifts in society following the emergence of rationality and the development of science as a substitute for superstition — Max Weber called this process, "the disenchantment of the world" — and to the changes made by religious institutions to compensate. At the most basic stages, this begins with a slow transition from oral traditions to a writing culture that diffuses knowledge. This first reduces the authority of clerics as the custodians of revealed knowledge. As the responsibility for education has moved from the family and community to the state, two consequences have arisen:
- the collective conscience as defined by Durkheim is diminished; and
- through the fragmentation of communal activities, religion becomes more a matter of individual choice rather than an observed social obligation.
A major issue in the study of secularization is the extent to which certain trends such as decreased attendance at places of worship indicate a decrease in religiosity or simply a privatization of religious belief, where religious beliefs no longer play a dominant role in public life or in other aspects of decision-making.
The issue of secularization is discussed in various religious traditions. The government of Turkey is an oft-cited example, following the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate and foundation of the Turkish republic in 1923. This established popular sovereignty in a secular republican framework, in opposition to a theocratic system. As one of many examples of state modernization, this shows secularization and democratization as mutually re-enforcing processes, relying on a separation of religion and state. In expressly secular states like India, it has been argued that the need was to legislate for toleration and respect between quite different religions, whereas the secularization of the West was a response to intra-Christian tensions between Catholicism and Protestantism. Some have therefore argued that Western secularization is radically different in that it deals with autonomy from religious regulation and control. Considerations of both tolerance and autonomy are relevant to any secular state.
John Sommerville (1998) outlined six uses of the term secularization in the scientific literature. The first five are more along the lines of 'definitions' while the sixth is more of a 'clarification of use':
- When discussing macro social structures, secularization can refer to differentiation: a process in which the various aspects of society, economic, political, legal, and moral, become increasingly specialized and distinct from one another.
- When discussing individual institutions, secularization can denote the transformation of a religious into a secular institution. Examples would be the evolution of institutions such as Harvard University from a predominantly religious institution into a secular institution (with a divinity school now housing the religious element illustrating differentiation).
- When discussing activities, secularization refers to the transfer of activities from religious to secular institutions, such as a shift in provision of social services from churches to the government.
- When discussing mentalities, secularization refers to the transition from ultimate concerns to proximate concerns. E.g., individuals in the West are now more likely to moderate their behavior in response to more immediately applicable consequences rather than out of concern for post-mortem consequences. This is a personal religious decline or movement toward a secular lifestyle.
- When discussing populations, secularization refers to broad patterns of societal decline in levels of religiosity as opposed to the individual-level secularization of (4) above. This understanding of secularization is also distinct from (1) above in that it refers specifically to religious decline rather than societal differentiation.
- When discussing religion, secularization can only be used unambiguously to refer to religion in a generic sense. For example, a reference to Christianity is not clear unless one specifies exactly which denominations of Christianity are being discussed.
Sociological Use and Differentiation
As studied by sociologists, one of the major themes of secularization is that of "differentiation": the tendency for areas of life to become more distinct and specialized as a society becomes modernized. European sociology, influenced by anthropology, was interested in the process of change from the so-called primitive societies to increasingly advanced societies. In the U.S., the emphasis was initially on change as an aspect of progress, but Talcott Parsons
refocused on society as a system immersed in a constant process of increased differentiation, which he saw as a process in which new institutions take over the tasks necessary in a society to guarantee its survival as the original monolithic institutions break up. This is a devolution from single, less differentiated institutions to an increasingly differentiated subset of institutions.
Following Parsons, this concept of differentiation has been widely applied. As phrased by Jose Casanova, this "core and the central thesis of the theory of secularization is the conceptualization of the process of societal modernization as a process of functional differentiaton and emancipation of the secular spheres – primarily the state, the economy, and science – from the religious sphere and the concomitant differentiation and specialization of religion within its own newly found religious sphere." Casanova also describes this as the theory of "privatization" of religion, which he partially criticizes. While criticizing certain aspects of the traditional sociological theory of secularization, however, David Martin argues that the concept of social differentiation has been its "most useful element.
In most Western countries, government, the not-for-profit sector and the private sector have taken over the provision of social welfare functions, but in Germany, secularization has not occurred to the same degree. There are still about 100,000 Church-based charitable foundations providing services from pre-school education to health care for the elderly, making the two major Churches the second largest employers after government. This is funded partly by the Churches out of their own revenues, with the balance coming from general tax revenue. Critics argue that by allowing the Churches to play such a major role, the State is breaching its duty of neutrality
under Article 4 of the Grundgesetz, and they consider it inappropriate for such heavy subsidies to be given to the Churches. For their part, the Churches see this work as a natural part of their Christian mission. (On the extensive secularisation in Germany at the beginning of the 19th century, see German Mediatisation
Current issues in the study of secularization
At present, secularization as understood in the West, is being debated in the sociology of religion. Some scholars (e.g. Rodney Stark, Peter Berger) have argued that levels of religiosity are not declining, while other scholars (e.g. Mark Chaves, N. J. Demerath) have countered by introducing the idea of neo-secularization, which broadens the definition of secularization to include the decline of religious authority.
In other words, rather than using the proportion of irreligious apostates as the sole measure of secularity, neo-secularization argues that individuals increasingly look outside of religion for authoritative positions. Neo-secularizationists would argue that religion has diminishing authority on issues such as birth control, and argue that religion's authority is declining and secularization is taking place even if religious affiliation may not be declining in the U.S. (a debate still taking place).
- Berger, Peter. The Sacred Canopy. (1967)
- Berger, Peter. The Desecularization of the World. (2000)
- Bruce, Steve. Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults
- Bruce, Steve. God is Dead: Secularization in the West. (2002)
- Casanova, Jose. Public Religions in the Modern World. (1994)
- Chaves, M. Secularization As Declining Religious Authority. Social Forces 72(3):749-74. (1994)
- Ellul, Jacques. The New Demons.
- Gauchet, Marcel. The Disenchantment of the World. (1985/tr. 1997)
- Martin, David. A General Theory of Secularization. New York: Harper & Row. (1979).
- Sommerville, C. J. "Secular Society Religious Population: Our Tacit Rules for Using the Term Secularization''. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (2):249-53. (1998)
- Said, E. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin. (1978).
- Skolnik, Jonathan and Peter Eli Gordon, eds., New German Critique 94 (2005)Special Issue on Secularization and Disenchantment
- Stark, Rodney, Laurence R. Iannaccone, Monica Turci, and Marco Zecchi. How Much Has Europe Been Secularized? Inchiesta 32(136):99-112. (2002)
- Warrier, Maya. Processes of Secularisation in Contemporary India: Guru Faith in the Mata Amritanandamayi Mission, Modern Asian Studies (2003)