This article will explore several views on secularization, what it is, and where it has been believed to challenge traditional religion. We will also conclude with a brief critique of the secularization hypothesis, which states that as the world becomes progressively more technologically and scientifically advanced religion will necessarily fall by the wayside.
What is Secularization?
A common view of secularization is a social phenomenon denoting a decline in religious authority and in the extent of religious observance within a given society (1). Sociologist José Casanova has outlined three versions of secularization (2):
 The differentiation hypothesis – this claims that religion is no longer the single, most pervasive organizing structure for a society. Religion has become one of several specialized social subsystems, each of which has its own place in society and none of which can be said to organize all the rest.
 The decline hypothesis – this notes how religious practices are waning. Emphasis is put on the fact that people are becoming less inclined to identify as religious or to participate in religious rituals and institutions.
 The privatization hypothesis – this suggests that religion is increasingly becoming a private affair of diminishing public significance.
All three versions have purportedly been taking place within western cultures that have undergone a gradual process of secularization over the last two centuries or more. Prior to secularization, religion played a very important role in the lives of people, particularly during the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods. At that time, religion was infused with social and intellectual life. However, in many contemporary western cultures, religion plays a very small part and in some contexts no part at all. According to Gordon Graham the “secular realm of politics, economics, science and technology outgrew and overwhelmed the sacred. Religion lost its influence in public life, and in the past century or so has even lost much of its influence in private life as well” (3). To some people, the decline of religion is a positive development because religion is perceived as a facet of the unenlightened mind and something that needs to be replaced. But for others secularization has trivialized what is for them a most important component to life. Secularization would suggest that religion is no longer being taken as seriously as it once was, which is to say that it has been trivialized or made into a hobby or excluded from the public square.
Secularization and Progressive History
Secular proponents adopt a Hegelian notion of history as they share Georg Hegel’s conception of history as a story of the progressive development of human culture. It is a dialectical process in which better social forms emerge from less good ones and that through succeeding stages the human mind reaches higher levels of self-understanding. This progressive development within western culture emphasizes the importance and centrality of modern science and technology, and perceives religious mentality, which includes belief in the supernatural and the magical, as no longer acceptable for the enlightened mind. As such, secular consciousness has emerged from the lesser and inferior consciousness of religion. “The modern world has been emptied of devils and angels, along with fairies and goblins”, so to speak, “and no one nowadays believes that water can miraculously turn into wine” (4)
How Has Secularization Challenged Religion?
In his essay New Religions, Science, and Secularization, William Sims Bainbridge points out that progress in science and technology has weakened traditional faiths in two ways (5).
First, is that scientific development includes new discoveries that challenge traditional ways of understanding the world. Darwinian evolution, for example, has for many undermined the intellectual credibility of belief in a personal God who has intervened in the course of nature on a regular basis, or that this God created human beings unique. Many now believe modern medicine is a surer cure to illness than is prayer. The challenge is that secularism has replaced any theological interpretation of the world with a natural scientific interpretation. For some secularists, as Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked, this has resulted in the so-called “death of God”, namely “the withdrawal or dispersion or disappearance of the metaphysical, the supernatural, or the supersensuous world upon which hitherto the sensuous, natural, physical world relied for its substance, meaning, and value” (6). Bryan Sentes and Susan Palmer put it this way,
“The social effects of this change in dominant worldviews are well-known. Existing religions were increasingly required to justify themselves against the theoretical and practical worlds articulated and constructed during the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, often fighting a losing battle, so that today secular consciousness understands the earth to be but one planet orbiting one of billions of stars, it and its sun billions of years old, this planet the home of Homo sapiens who are only one of millions of species, each but a momentary genetic variation proper to the momentary environment within which it lives” (7).
Second, is that secular institutions have taken control of many basic social services, notably in the areas of education and charitable work. These areas have been traditionally dominated by religious organizations but because secularism has made inroads in these places religious institutions are much less prevalent in the day-to-day experiences of many people. However, as Bainbridge observes, these developments have not changed the fundamental human need for meaning, belonging, and purpose, which, as some scholars such as Mircea Eliade have argued, are to be found in religious consciousness that can never be replaced. Bainbridge posits that at some point in the future, a new religion could emerge that will exist in a mutually supportive, rather than antagonistic, relationship with science. Secularism isn’t the only challenge to traditional religion as postmodernity is too exerting force in contemporary western societies. Philosophical postmodernism holds to an “incredulity toward metanarratives” such as the overarching and universal explanations and messages characteristic of many religions.
Religion Still Thrives Despite Secularization
The secularization hypothesis which claims that as the world progresses both technologically and scientifically religious belief and adherence will inevitably decline is problematic (8). We know this because proponents of this hypothesis are highly selective of the facts. Graham explains,
“What contemporaneously existing people who are familiar and make extensive use of the latest technology are prepared to believe is surprisingly varied. Modern medicine is certainly dominant, but alternative forms of remedy are still common and faith healers abound. Astrology is certainly not respectable among scientists, but modern politicians, especially in the Far East, are known to consult their stars. Talk of devils and angels is not widespread, though perhaps it never was, but there are plenty of witches’ covens in Western Europe, and the Roman Catholic Church, which has created large numbers of saints in recent years, has no difficulty in finding witnesses to miracles. Even amongst intellectuals, belief in the supernatural cannot be said to be dead. There are physicists who believe in the traditional God of theism, and biologists who think that there is evidence of design in nature…” (9).
In the view of sociologist of religion Mark Chaves,
“Religion’s stubborn refusal to disappear has prompted major reevaluation of inherited models of secularization. The “facts” are not much disputed: New religious movements continue to arise; older movements like Pentecostalism and Mormonism are expanding; religious fundamentalisms thrive throughout the world; and, at least in the U.S., substantial segments of the population continue to say they believe in God and continue to participate in orthodox organized religion” (10).
Being selective of facts means that the secularization hypothesis, in order to declare and affirm a so-called modern mentality, has to ignore many aspects of what modern people actually believe. In fact, it can be argued that any notion of the “modern mind” or of modern mentality must contain a good measure of belief in the religious, supernatural, and the magical because so many people still believe in these. This would undermine the secularization hypothesis. Further, on a statistical level, much evidence shows religion to be growing globally. Islam is on track to surpass Christianity as the world’s largest religion in 2050 while all major world religions, with the exception of Buddhism, are experiencing growth on a global level (11).
This is not to say that there is no decline in religion in certain areas and communities. There is evidence that in certain Western European countries Christianity is in decline in terms of numbers, church attendance, and observance. Christianity is declining in the United States too. In some countries, and in France in particular, fewer people are attending church, taking up roles as church officials, and fewer believe that religion is significant in their lives, or identify with a specific organized religion. However, this must also be viewed in the context of Christianity’s growth in other areas, such as in Eastern Europe, many Third World countries, and places like China. Finally, it is also important to note that some members of the unaffiliated group, which is a growing group in western countries that refers to atheists, agnostics, and those who have no religion in particular, also hold to religious beliefs. So although this group is growing it does not necessarily mean that religion is declining. Also importantly, in the context of secularization, other religious orientations have developed. This has seen a pronounced change in the use of the term “religion”. Growing numbers of people in western societies seem reluctant to describe their identity and practices as religious or secular, and prefer to portray themselves as “spiritual” (12). Spirituality is often defined in opposition to religion, as in the popular self-designation, “spiritual but not religious”, although most scholars view this as a form of religiosity (13).
Evidence also suggests that religion in the United States in light of the growth of religious special-purpose groups has increasingly enabled religious persons to become organized to participate in public affairs more effectively (14). This means that religious groups are making more collective efforts to influence the public space and sphere than before. Evidence suggests that religion is important during presidential elections, as candidates from parties have attempted to demonstrate their religiosity, and religious organizations and institutions still continue to be important providers of social services in the United States. Although secularization has indeed occurred in domains such as higher education which was once under religious control, religion has remained far from marginal in the lives of the majority of people in the United States.
Further, some theorists, such as the sociologist Bryan Wilson, have suggested that there has been a “resacralization” of society, at least in some places some of the time. Wilson notes how many religious institutions have resisted secularization and that many human beings, even within this modern day of technology and technological consciousness, seek to satisfy their deepest personal longings within religion (15). For some of these people, religion offers alternatives to the secular mentality. There has even been the emergence of new spiritualities and religions in the form of revived paganism and New Age Spirituality.
1. Chaves, Mark. 1994. “Secularization as Declining Religious Authority.” Social Forces 72(3): 749-774; Davaney, Sheila Greeve. 2009. “The Religious-Secular Divide: The U.S. Case.” Social Research 76(4):1327-1332; Graham, Gordon. 1992. “Religion, Secularization and Modernity.” Philosophy 67(260):183-197.
2. Casanova, José. 1994. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 41.
3. Graham, Gordon. 1997. The Shape of the Past: A Philosophical Approach to History. Oxford University Press. p. 183.
4. Graham, Gordon. 1997. Ibid. p. 189.
5. Bainbridge, William Sims. 1993. “New Religions, Science, and Secularization.” Religion and Social Order 3:277-293.
6. Tumminia, Diana. 2007. Alien Worlds: Social and Religious Dimensions of Extraterrestrial Contact. New York: Syracuse University Press. p. 61.
7. Sentes, Bryan., and Palmer, Susan. 2000. “Presumed Immanent: the Raëlians, UFO Religions, and the Postmodern Condition.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 4(1):86-105. p. 88.
8. Casanova, José. 1994. Ibid. p. 19-20.
9. Graham, Gordon. 1997. Ibid. p. 96-97.
10. Chaves, Mark. 1994. Ibid. p. 749-750.
11. Pew Researcher Center. 2015. The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050. Available.
12. Eisgruber, Christopher. 2006. “Secularization, Religiosity, and the United States Constitution.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 13(2):445-472. p. 457.
13. Huss, Boaz. 2015. “The Sacred is the Profane, Spirituality is not Religion: The Decline of the Religion/Secular Divide and the Emergence of the Critical Discourse on Religion.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 27(2):97-103. p. 101.
14. Eisgruber, Christopher. 2006. Ibid. p. 456.
15. Capps, Walter. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press p. 206.