Moderate and Extreme Secularization of Religion: What’s the Difference?


In an earlier article we looked at secularization and religion, in particular how the secularization of society has proven a challenge to religion’s influence and some challenges to extreme secularization theories. Here we look briefly at a distinction between what some sociologists have titled ‘moderate’ and ‘extreme’ forms of secularization.

Moderate Secularization

Scholars have proposed various ideas concerning how secularization is taking place, the factors contributing to it, what the future of the West and its religions look like in light of these processes, and so on. Most would agree, however, that secularization means religion’s influence has diminished and can no longer be seen as the organizing structure for a society. Rather than being the most, if not one of the most, influential force in many Western societies, religion is now one of several specialized social subsystems. Each subsystem has its own place in society and none of these can be said to organize the rest. This is the ‘moderate’ hypothesis of secularization as explained by Inger Furseth and Pål Repstad as follows,

“One must admit that religion in the Western world has lost power and influence in social institutions. In several countries, the status of the welfare system has taken over the functions of church diaconate. This is the main trend, even if more recent liberal policies have led to a greater need for private care. State schools have removed instruction in religion or changed its focus toward inter-faith knowledge and dialogue. The influence of religion and the church has also been withdrawn from the legal courts, the military, and penal institutions. Even if publicly financed army chaplains and prison chaplains may still be found in some Western countries, they normally do not participate in formulating war strategies or reaching verdicts. The fact that they still may legitimized the political system is another matter” (1).

The same is easily said of science as scientific explanations and legitimations have long since replaced religious explanations. When a planet orbits the sun, it is not the work of Lord Krishna but rather the laws of nature, such as Kepler’s law of planetary motion, for example. Secularization has also penetrated art and literature, both of which for many centuries took their cues from religion, and the same can be said of leadership. Certainly, religious leaders in the West have far fewer opportunities than they once had to exercise authority over other areas in society. In educational institutions like modern universities, theology has long ceased to have a dominant position. Separate secular faculties have been established for medicine, mathematics, politics, law, and much else. Even in economics there is no appeal to divine revelation.

Extreme Secularization

This brings us to the next form of secularization, namely extreme secularization that proposes a far more radical notion. Auguste Comte, for example, envisioned that at all religious/theological thought would become irrelevant as people came to adopt positive science. Comte’s hypothesis is that society (and human consciousness) passes through three major stages: first the theological, then the metaphysical, and finally positive-scientific. Of course, Comte afforded positive-science the superior status. He maintained that at this stage the mind no longer seeks after causes of phenomena and limits itself strictly to laws governing them. The mind is strictly seeking empirical and scientific explanations and that, by consequence, the philosophers and theologians ought to yield authority to the men of science. However, Comte’s view is a radical one as it supposes the possibility of religion and philosophy becoming obsolete. If persons were to ever think like Comte suggests, which strong evidence suggests that they do not (even when they are scientists themselves), there would be no more religion. But most realize that the prospect of such a reality, even in the West, is far from likely. Unlike its moderate version, extreme secularization has been met with fierce criticism leading Furseth and Repstad to state that “Today few sociologists envision the disappearance of religion. The most rigid secularization theories are hardly relevant to contemporary sociology of religion” (2).

Debates in Moderate Secularization

The current location of debate in religion studies and sociology of religion is almost exclusively on moderate theories: “The debate is now between what we may call moderate secularization theories of religion’s diminishing importance in society, and theories that question these predictions” (3). But of course, this debate is a far cry from anticipating religion’s demise or total disappearance. There also exists within this debate some dissent that has influenced many sociologists. Sociologist Mary Douglas, for example, criticized the idea that modernization (often claimed to be a major force, of several, propelling the process of secularization) leads to secularization (4). She argues that for as long as there exist social relationships and a collective ethos, the likes of religion, rituals, and myths will continue to persevere. Religion, to Douglas, is created in social relationships and there is little reason to suppose that such relationships will ever cease. Further, religion, rather than simply disappearing, will change through the processes of modernization. Evidence suggests this from a wide array of sources, from many religious persons viewing science and their religion to be mutually enforcing, how science is being manipulated and appropriated in new and alternative religious movements, and how it is sequestrated by fundamentalist religious movements, such as brands of creationism and Intelligent Design. There is even a far greater number of Western scientists who are religious than is normally thought. Douglas also contends that most people view religion and science to address different problems, therefore never viewing them to constitute mutual threats.

Many other sociologists have developed Douglas’ insights and, although we will examine the extreme hypothesis’s demise in a separate treatment, sociologists ultimately lost their confidence in the extreme secularization hypothesis in the face of the continued emergence of new religious movements in the latter part of the twentieth century. Scholars also began seeing how extreme (and moderate) secularization put far too much weight on the Western world when the West is, as Peter Berger remarked, but a secular island in a religiously vital ocean (5).


1. Furseth, Inger., and Repstad, Pål. 2017. An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 84-85.

2. Furseth, Inger., and Repstad, Pål. 2017. Ibid. p. 84.

3. Furseth, Inger., and Repstad, Pål. 2017. Ibid. p. 84.

4. Douglas, Mary. 1988. “The Effects of Modernization on Religious Change.” Daedalus 117(3):457-484.

5. Berger, Peter. 1999. The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

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