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Secularisation describes the process by which religious bodies – churches in particular – have lost their social and political influence. This loss has been reflected in:

  • the decline of belief and observance,
  • the confiscation by governments of church property,
  • the transfer to government control of jobs formerly performed by religious institutions,
  • a fall in the priority given by people to religious concerns,
  • an allied decline of faith-based groups such as Sunday schools, and
  • the replacement of religious beliefs by “this-wordly” or naturalistic conceptions of life.

Evolution of religion's role in the community

A leading nineteenth-century witness to secularisation such as Emile Durkheim maintained that religion’s traditional role in forging a shared sense of community was not tenable, because modern society was no longer united by bonds of faith. Since cultural fragmentation had become a fact of life, people should depend less on beliefs deriving from religion than from sources such as class, ethnicity and political organisations. Other secular-minded observers have drawn attention to the role of social workers and psychotherapists, among other groups, in discharging functions that were once the preserve of the clergy.

Differing states of secularisation around the world

Although there is certainly much evidence pointing to a decline in the place of religion in the lives of Europeans, especially, during the past two centuries, claims about the twilight of faith have proved premature. Early theorists of secularisation were wrong to treat the European experience as central Africa and Latin America form potent challenges to assumptions about the apparent inevitability of church decline. The United States also provides an important counter-example. Religion stands at the heart of national life in a society where the churches have never been identified with establishment power, as in Europe. Worldwide, all the mainstream Christian denominations are now growing.

Muslim communities which have taken root in formerly Christian heartlands face a different challenge, since their tradition knows nothing of the separation of Church and State central to the polities of countries such as the United States and France. In consequence, many Muslim immigrants in the West view the prospect of assimilation with deep unease. Although this has led in some cases to a strident rejection by Islamists of the pluralist societies that welcomed them in the first place, the broad picture defies simple description. The once-familiar Protestant complaint that Catholic countries are inherently unsuited to democratic pluralism now stands in need of heavy qualification. The same applies to over-hasty verdicts on Islam, as is witnessed by examples including Indonesia.

In short, secularisation does not consist of one universal or single-track process capable of being encapsulated by a single grand theory. Rather, as the Christian sociologist David Martin has suggested, it refers to particular histories in given places at given times.


Author: Rupert Shortt