Theories of Religion and Secularization

We have looked previously at religion and secularization, noting some definitions and the common challenges it poses to religion. In this entry, the topic is again engaged to obtain a broader perspective through presenting several scholarly perspectives on secularization and religion. 

Sociologist Larry Shiner has reviewed the literature on secularization and distinguishes between six main interpretations of secularization (1):

[1] Religion is weakened as previously accepted religious dogmas, symbols, and institutions lose their prestige and importance.

[2] The content of religion changes by becoming more like other social commitments because attention is diverted from the supernatural and the hereafter towards “secular” issues.

[3] Religion becomes more inwardly focused resulting in society becoming less religious and for religion to cease affecting social life outside the religion itself.

[4] Religious faith and institutions lose their religious nature and are transformed into non-religious ideas and social institutions. Institutions that previously were seen as religious institutions of creation become secular human institutions.

[5] The world is de-sacralized as human life, nature, and society are explained from the premise of reason and not as the result of the actions of divine powers.

[6] A utilitarian and reasonable rationale for all choices and actions replaces traditional values and actions.

According to [1], because fewer people are embracing Christianity today in the West, fewer Westerners accept religious symbols like the Bible or Jesus Christ than has historically been the case. These symbols are, to many, no longer of ultimate and primary importance: God is something to pray to when life gets tough, the Bible is just a book detailing the events, exploits, and beliefs of ancient cultures, and Jesus Christ was merely a religious sage of great wisdom.

This coheres with Peter L. Berger’s view that secularization, as a societal phenomenon, is “the process by which sectors in society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols” (2). The diminished significance of symbols for institutions and persons is not suggestive of a lack of religious belief. In fact, most Westerners remain religious (by which we mean most hold to some kind of belief in the supernatural, a spiritual reality, God, an afterlife, a transcendent reality, etc.). Further, institutions that were previously located in the province of religion are now mostly secular organizations. Political bodies, hospitals, shelters, social welfare, and charities, for example, are mostly secular institutions that do not appeal to the divine or religious tenets. The same can be said for institutions of law and the faculties of the university. Inger Furseth and Pål Repstad explain that,

“One must admit that religion in the Western world has lost power and influence in social institutions. In several countries, the state welfare system has taken over the functions of the 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” (3).

Moreover, for many, the world has been de-sacralized. What has traditionally been viewed as belonging to the province of the sacred, such as morality, culture, the human being, etc., are now no longer necessarily religious. They are also in the domain of human reason, for example, most ethical theories in moral philosophy do not appeal to God, religion, or the divine, but use human reason to ground ethical/unethical behavior. 

Sociologist José Casanova has outlined three versions of secularization (4):

  • [1] 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 place in society and none of which can be said to organize all the rest.
  • [2] 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.
  • [3] The privatization hypothesis – this suggests that religion is increasingly becoming a private affair of diminishing public significance.

Where [1] is concerned, religion is, as Casanova stated, no longer the primary social force organizing the rest of society. In the West, a lawyer is unlikely to consult the Bible while making his case against an accused in court, just as the judiciary is unlikely to use the Bible when handing down a verdict. Most entrepreneurs are not likely to consult the Gospels when thinking about how to invest their money in the business market, and so on. Rather, reason, as it is defined by persons apart from the sacred, is society’s greatest organizing force. For example, mathematics, formulae, risk factors, and strategy are used by a business owner to inform his or her decision to purchase stocks in a company or to invest money in some venture.

According to Bryan Wilson, secularization refers to social functions of religion being undermined (5). Religion no longer legitimates political power and legislation in the same ways it once did, plays a lesser role in the socialization of children, has less domination over cultural life, and is no longer used for the interpretation of world events. In brief, secularization means that religion becomes less important for the functioning of the social system.

French sociologist Yves Lambert claims that the emergence of modernity might have four effects on religion (6): [1] Decline; [2] Adaptation and new interpretation; [3] Conservative reaction; [4] Innovation..

Of these four effects, only [1] is true to secularization because it supposes religion’s decline in overall participation and membership. However, [1] is controversial and has been undermined by sociologists and scholars of religion who argue that religion is as present today in the West, in terms of participation and membership, as it has ever been historically. The subsequent three effects, however, all suggest vitality and sustained growth and/or presence of religions. Such growth is seen in the frequent emergence of alternative and emergent religions worldwide (7).

As of 2019, INFORM, an organization that archives data on these religions, currently has over 5077 new and alternative religions on file, an increase of 577 since 2014 (8). There is every reason to believe new religions will continue to emerge globally and although many of these traditions are small and will die out within a generation or two, others prove significantly more successful and will go on to outlive their founder/s.

Religions and their founders are often also successful innovators who create and promote a product that proves attractive to certain segments of the population. One might think of Ron L. Hubbard who combined spiritual metaphysics and pseudoscientific concepts into a worldview and organization that has outlived him and is today embraced by several tens of thousands of people. Religions like the New Age and Transcendental Meditation combine Western and Eastern concepts into eclectic, innovative worldviews.

Further, in regards to [2], several modernist theologians have cultivated religious worldviews welcoming to scientific advancements, even if this is taken by a tradition’s more conservative members to be compromising. A Christian modernist theologian, for example, might claim to have faith in Christianity, but rejects miracles and thinks God is a projection of the human mind rather than an ontologically existing Being. Further, in regards to [4], with the rise of religious fundamentalism, especially Western fundamentalist movements in the twentieth century, secularization can inspire reactions that ultimately reinforce religious communities through unifying them and their ideas. The creationist movements are a good example of this, although statistics do suggest these fundamentalist movements are bleeding members despite maintaining an active presence in North America and many western European countries.

Peter L. Berger presents a fascinating view of secularization by claiming it to partly derive from religion itself (9). Referring to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Berger looks to the prophets of the Old Testament and their critique of the Israelites. Amos and Isaiah, for example, condemn the local fertility religions and try to form an ethical monotheism in which God is elevated above the world. God is conceived as the creator of the world, although the world in itself is secularized; it is not divine. God, however, desires persons to be moral, embrace fairness, and avoid sacrifices and temple prostitution. Berger sees in this image the seeds of secularization because human beings continue to act with a focus on the world without maintaining contact with God. Berger has been an ardent proponent of the secularization thesis, but has since come to renounce it, claiming that,

“Our underlying argument was that secularization and modernity go hand in hand. With more modernization comes more secularization. It wasn’t a crazy theory. There was some evidence for it. But I think it’s basically wrong. Most of the world today is not secular. It’s very religious” (10).

Perhaps most influential has been Rodney Stark who has brought into question many of the above assumptions and claims proposed by proponents of the secularization thesis (11).

Stark argues that the secularization thesis, which claims religious observance, belief, and practice has decreased since the Middle Ages, is false on many levels. He marshals an impressive amount of statistical, documentary, and archaeological evidence in support of the following claims:

[1] No fewer Western people today attend church today than was the case during the Middle Ages;

[2] religious belief is no less prevalent in the contemporary West than was the case during the Middle Ages;

[3] the piety of historical Western European societies has been greatly exaggerated, which renders it objectionable as a point of comparison to the religiosity of modern Western European societies;

[4] the “Christianization” of parts of Europe has been exaggerated and was not nearly as omnipresent as commonly assumed;

[5] so-called secular countries are not in fact secular given the evidence of their internal religiosity;

[6] scientists are no more irreligious today than they have ever been over the past century;

[7] religion has experienced a significant revival in countries where atheism and secularism were previously forced on the population through violent and coercive state means; and

[8] secularization is mistakenly universalized, which is disproven by religion’s vitality in Muslim countries.

Other theorists, like Stephen Warner, have pointed to what they believe the secularization theory is unable to explain, namely religion’s vitality in the contemporary United States despite it being the most technologically advanced society in the world (12). 

Roger Finke and Stark present a “new paradigm” that presents an image of contemporary religious movements that are active, influential, visible, modern, aggressive, and expansive (13). Stark has also maintained that supposed “secular” countries, of which Iceland is often cited as the most prominent example, are in fact very religious. The mistake secular proponents make, Stark argues, is that they equate church attendance (which is just 2% in Iceland) with a lack of religious belief. Despite Iceland’s minute church-going population, the majority of Icelanders are religious: 81% are confident that there is life after death, 88% believe in the human soul, and 40% believe in reincarnation. Regarding prayer to God, 82% said they prayed sometimes and one in four did so “often.” Only 2.4% of Icelanders claimed to be “convinced atheists.” Further, spiritualism is widespread in Iceland, popular even among leading intellectuals and academics (14). In light of these data, that Iceland is a secularized nation is a claim strongly contradicted by the facts.


  1. Furseth, Inger., and Repstad, Pål. 2017. An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 83.
  2. Berger, Peter L. 1967. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Doubleday. p. 167.
  3. Furseth, Inger., and Repstad, Pål. 2017. Ibid. p. 84-85.
  4. Casanova, José. 1994. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 41.
  5. Dobbelaere, Karel. 2006. “Bryan Wilson’s Contributions to the Study of Secularization.” Social Compass 53(2):141-146
  6. Lambert, Yves. 1999. “Religion in Modernity as a New Axial Age: Secularization or New Religious Forms?” Sociology of Religion 60(3):303-333.
  7. Barker, Eileen. 2014. “The Not-So-New Religious Movements: Changes in ‘the Cult Scene’ over the Past Forty Years.” Temenos – Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion, 50(2):235-256; Hunt, Stephen J., and Stein, Stephen. 2000. Alternative American Religions. Farnham: Ashgate. p. 10.
  8. INFORM. 2019. Annual Report: April 2018–March 2019. p. 16.
  9. Berger, Peter L. 1967. Ibid.
  10. Berger, Peter. 1997. “Epistemological modesty: An interview with Peter Berger.” Christian Century 114:972-975. p. 974.
  11. Stark, Rodney. 1999. “Secularization, R.I.P.” Sociology of Religion 60(3):249-273.
  12. Warner, Stephen. 1993. “Work in Progress Toward a New Paradigm for the Sociological Study of Religion in the United States.” American Journal of Sociology 98:1044-1093.
  13. Finke, Roger., and Stark, Rodney. 1992. The Churching of America, 1776-1990. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
  14. Swatos, W. H., and Gissurarson, L. R. 1997. Icelandic Spiritualism: Mediumship and Modernity in Iceland. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.



  1. Religion is similar to a rock, the rock disintegrates under the influence of the weather and religion under the influence of knowledge. But this cycle repeats itself regularly, as we can see in the new religion, that is now emerging.

    • As I noted it’s not that simple. Religions can be reactionary in that they become more resolute and strong in response to secularization and modernization, as in the case of Islam in several Muslim majority countries. Religions are very adaptive and many new religions will continue to emerge.

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