Problems of assessment

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Problems of assessment

This is where the problems start. Wilson 1966, Religion in a Secular Society, gives the following definition:

'The process thereby religious thinking, practices and institutions lose social significance.'

This seems a general enough catch all statement, and is one that has been widely adopted but:

  • What is religious thinking?
  • What is meant by significance?
  • How can you measure significance?

Like many other sociological concepts, secularisation contains a number of difficulties and hidden assumptions. Any account of the secularisation process depends on the definition of religion adopted in the first place. Glock and Stark wrote:

'Perhaps the most important attribute of those who perceive secularisation to be going on is their commitment to a particular view of what religion means.'

Inclusive and exclusive definitions

The major distinction is between inclusive and exclusive definitions of religion. Exclusive definitions, such as that of Berger, concentrate on belief in the supernatural/god, and some see a decline in these beliefs as evidence of secularisation. Berger's approach encompasses most systems of belief, which provide possible answers to questions of ultimate meaning. But he makes a distinction between religious and non-religious belief systems.

Problems of assessment

However, Berger adds another twist to the secularisation debate, because although by his reckoning, secularisation is occurring it has not led to a decline in religion. Instead, he argues that secularisation has led to a decline in the credibility of Christianity in producing a comprehensive universe of meaning, but the increasing number of sects and movements attest to the fact that religious belief still thrives.

Berger then argues that secularisation has led to religious belief being expressed in a different form, not that secularisation leads to religious decline.

Inclusive definitions are far wider than exclusive definitions. They would include political beliefs such as fascism or communism as religions, since this approach defines religion in terms of its societal function, the integration of society. Religion in this approach is the institution that achieves social solidarity. In The Invisible Religion 1967, Luckmann argues that Marxism is a religion in that any human attempt to comprehend our place in the cosmos is by its religious nature. By this standard, until the late 1980s, millions of people throughout the world could be viewed as living in states build upon the religious doctrine of Marxism.

Lyon (1985) argues that the secularisation thesis rests on the notion of the incompatibility of rational or 'scientific' thinking and religious belief. However, recent changes in science, especially in quantum mechanics, have made it less easy to maintain the incompatibility of science and religion. It is also worth observing that the argument about the development of different forms of knowledge seems to assume an almost evolutionary character, with primitive beliefs giving way to more sophisticated answers to ultimate questions, Not only then may science and religion not be incompatible, religion might return as a major knowledge system. Indeed, there is clear evidence in some societies of religious revival.

In addition to the already mentioned problem of significance, there seems no adequate way of testing religious commitment (or even defining it). Thus, many people in the UK say that they believe in the existence of a personal god or in 'some sort of spirit or vital force that controls life' (Svennevig, 1987).

What does this mean?

Does this belief, for example, have any impact upon behaviour?

Thus, Luckmann (1983) says of the secularisation thesis:

'This theory is shaky and its operationalisations in research are simple-minded.'

A fuller account of different ways in which sociologists have used the concept of secularisation comes later, but here we can illustrate the problem of measurement by reference to Shiner (1967), who showed six different versions of secularisation used by sociologists in empirical work:

Problems of assessment

  1. Decline of religion - where religious symbols, doctrines and institutions lose their social significance.
  2. Conformity with the world - where religious movements become orientated to the goals of 'this world' rather than the 'next'.
  3. Disengagement - where the church loses functions to other institutions, and becomes less significant in moral and political terms.
  4. Transposition of religious beliefs and institutions - where what were previously regarded as grounded in divine power become seen as 'human creations'.
  5. Desacralisation of the world - scientific and rational explanations take precedence over religious faith.
  6. From sacred to secular society - religion moves from its central position and takes its place in a 'market' of other possible philosophies.

Comparison points

It often seems that the secularisation thesis rests on the assumption that in the past there were 'fully religious societies'. It is against such societies that our 'godless' society is then compared. There seems to have been no 'golden age of religion' in Europe, indeed can we know anyway, how could we measure the influence of religion in the past?

Thomas writes:

'We do not know enough about the religious beliefs and practices of our remote ancestors to be certain of the extent to which religious faith and practice have actually declined.'

The idea of a more religious past remains, however, a potent belief. Williams, in his study of Gosforth, showed consistently low levels of church attendance over some 400 years, yet each vicar believed it to be a recent phenomenon.

Problems of assessment

At what level is secularisation thought to be occurring?

The Sociology of Secularisation, (Glasner, l977) identifies three levels of analysis:

  1. The interpersonal - religious beliefs do not guide individual behaviour/attitudes.
  2. The organisational - the church is no longer important.
  3. The cultural - society is not influenced by religious ideas.

Clearly, it is possible that secularisation could occur at one level but not necessarily at others.

Some researchers criticise the way that secularisation is used to explain individual behaviour. The thesis seems to be based on a social systems approach to society and human behaviour. Secularisation is envisaged as a process imposed an individuals. Social action theorists would point out that it is individuals and groups of individuals that are responsible for secularisation, if it is in fact occurring, rather than impersonal abstract forces.

Undoubtedly, there has been a decline in attendance at least among Christians in Britain, but Britain is now a multi-cultural and multi-faith society. To assume secularisation on the basis of an analysis of the fortunes of Christianity is to dismiss the importance of other major world faiths. At the global level, there are occurrences that are enhancing the importance of religion.

Religion may assume an organising-enhancing and a solidarity-enhancing function that is very much of this world, rather than constituting for its adherents a guide to the next. The processes of cultural defence and cultural transmission are significant for religious developments in some societies (Bruce, l992).

Cultural defence operates when there are two competing faiths jostling for prominence and religious loyalty is strengthened, for example N.Ireland. Cultural transmission helps to strengthen faith by offering migrant communities a sense of cultural identity within a new and often hostile, environment, for example Asian communities in Britain.

Thus, Glock suggests that the secularisation thesis cannot be tested because of the failure to conceptualize religion or religiousness. Indeed, it gets worse - the same empirical evidence can he used by different researchers to 'prove' both that secularisation 'is' or 'is not' occurring. Martin suggests removing the term altogether, and Luckmann (l983) argues:

'To the extent that secularisation is a myth rather than a reasonably objective sociological or historical construct, it misdirects our observations of religion as a social reality in late industrial society.'

The central problems of the secularisation debate therefore are:

  1. The different definitions.
  2. The problems of measurement.
  3. Assumptions about the past and the future.
  4. Levels of analysis.