Last modified on 21 September 2012, at 19:54

Sociology of Religion/Secularization

Sociologists have been theorizing about religion since the inception of sociology. The earliest and still most commonly used theorem in the sociology of religion is the secularization paradigm. The name was borrowed from the Catholic Church that has used the term “secular” since the dark ages to describe priests working outside religious orders. It gained new meaning in sociology where it began to describe the idea of a decline and negation of religion (Beckford 2003). Casanova (1994) has argued that: 'The secularization theory may be the only theory which was able to attain a truly paradigmatic status within the modern social sciences. In one form or another … the thesis of secularization was shared by all founding fathers: from Karl Marx to John Stuart Mill, from August Comte to Herbert Spencer, from E. B. Taylor to James Frazer, from Ferdinand Toennies to George Simmel, from Emile Durkheim to Max Weber…' (p.17)

Secularization theory can be traced back to Saint-Simon (1975) who argued that association between church and state had gone through three stages. In ancient Greece and Rome, religion and state were ruled by the same class, which resulted in the interlocking of the two. In medieval times, these two became distinctly separate institutions, with the church being the predominant one. In recent times, the state has become the stronger of the two (Saint-Simon 1975).

At this point, we can distinguish four discrete variations of the secularization theory. Comte (1974) argued that the progress of sciences will result in the disappearance of religion. Weber (1990) accepted Comte’s idea of science undermining religion; however, he did not believe that disappearance of religion is altogether possible. His approach to secularization theory called for decline in religiosity (Weber 1990). The third approach, presented by Luckmann (1963, 1967, 1990), suggested that indeed religion will decline, although a distinction is made between organized religion (which, in his view, is on the decline) and private religion, which will compensate for losses in institutionalized religion. This shift from public to private religions is identified as privatization theory (Luckmann 1963; Luckmann 1967; Luckmann 1990). Parsons (1977a, 1977b) is credited with the fourth approach, which predicts transformation in religiosity. He said that the influence of organized religion is on the wane and shifting towards the personal sphere. However, Christian values are intertwined in western society and, in effect, became a sacred core of our social system (Parsons 1977a; Parsons 1977b).

Apart from the four core theories within the secularization paradigm there are numerous additional conceptualizations that attempt to fuse the original four. The most popular one is described by Berger (1967) who crossbreeds transformation and privatization theories and argues that religion does affect society, although increasingly only in the private sphere (Berger 1967). Another theory combines disappearance premise with Weber’s decline hypothesis and states that religious values are entrenched in the customs of established communities. Additionally, the conversion to industrial societies creates a challenge to these values’ authority (Wilson 1982; Wilson 1985).

The critics of the secularization theory have argued that that there is no sufficient empirical support for the theory which sociologist “sacralized” and that, since the founding fathers of sociology on both sides of the Atlantic were staunch critics of religion itself, this paradigm should be abolished from the theoretical discourse (Hadden 1987; Stark 1999; Swatos and Christiano 1999). However, as Yamane (1997) argues, this “sacralized theory” offers “a paradigm in the strict Kuhnian sense of being grounded in a concrete scientific community which shares a core set of concepts, an infrastructure of ‘exemplars,’ even if there is a diversity at the theoretical level within the paradigm” (p.110). The attacks on the secularization paradigm brought on further modifications in the theory described as “neo-secularization” (Phillips 2004; Sommerville 1998; Yamane 1997). This new approach calls for not connecting secularization with falling rates of religious participation but, instead, describing it as a “descaling scope of religious authority” (Chaves 1994). This is associated with differentiation of once entwined religious and secular institutions, which became increasingly separated from their religious sphere. As Sommerville (1998:251) explains: “…we are not saying that differentiation leads to secularization. It is secularization.” Thus, it appears that the paradigm has been shifting from an emphasis on the outcome to an explication of the process itself.