The Institutional Approach

You are here

The Institutional Approach

There are two main approaches in the study of secularisation:

  1. The Institutional approach, which focuses on the church and church attendance, for example. The assumption is that since church attendance is a significant element in a definition of religion that any move away from institutional participation involves religious decline.
  2. The Societal approach which studies the role and impact of religion on society and the individual.

Four areas are examined:

  1. Participation.
  2. Disengagement and differentiation.
  3. Religious pluralism.
  4. Secularisation of religious institutions.

The Institutional Approach

There is little doubt that church attendance has declined. The British Social Attitudes Survey, 1991 showed that while many people claim a belief in god, very few attended church (Bruce 1995). According to Bruce, the high point for British churches was between 1860 and 1910, when around 28% of the adult population were members. The corresponding figure for 1995 is around 12%.

However, like all social statistics the figures need to be interpreted.

Do attendance figures really measure religiosity?

Since it appears there has been a decline in church attendance is this necessarily an indicator of secularisation?

Surveys consistently show that people identify themselves with a church. In the USA, the number of people claiming to be Christian exceeds 90%. Additionally, some denominations, such as Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, have grown, as have some non-Christian religions.

The assumption that higher attendance equals greater religiosity is questionable. It is important to ask why people attended church. Certainly in Britain, the past attendance at church was customary and an indicator of respectability - attendance was based on social rather than religious reasons. Thus, a decline in church-related activities (even assuming the figures are accurate) does not necessarily provide evidence of secularisation.

This focuses on the declining influence of the church in social life - its disengagement from wider society - its loss of wealth, prestige and power. Now the church seems to have little influence in society as specialised state agencies have taken over many activities formerly carried out by the church.

Wilson, (How Religious are We? 1977) points out how - except for the occasional ancient ceremony, such as a coronation - the church has ceased to preside over national life. That the mass media has virtually eclipsed the pulpit as a source of information and guidance; that armies of specialists offer education, counselling and pastoral functions, and that the workplace, in particular, is alien to religious values. He concludes that the church today is merely involved in symbolic rites of passage - hatching, matching and dispatching, and has become disengaged from wider society.

The Institutional Approach

However, it is clear that the church continues to involve itself in the wider society; its welfare services continue, for example, The Salvation Army. Bradley, Religious Revival, (1987), points out that religious programmes are watched or listened to by nearly 60% of the population. Every week between 7 and 8 million people listen to 'Songs of Praise' on the BBC. The church is also involved with secular concerns such as the 'arms race', nuclear weapons and the condition of the inner cities.

Writers such as Martin, suggest that church power is a rather inadequate indicator of the importance of religion. While the church may have been more powerful in the past, it was also corrupt. Thus the church's confinement to religious matters may be a purer form of religion.

Indeed, Martin goes further and suggests that the process of secularisation in Britain has probably reached its peak, and that the process is about to reverse. Martin associates secularisation with a number of factors, such as large urban areas, that may now be waning. Parsons also criticises the view that disengagement means a decline of the importance of the church. He argues that in a structurally differentiated society religious institutions may become more specialised, but this does not mean less important.

For the American sociologists - Stark and Bainbridge - secularisation is, in any event, a self-limiting process because it always generates religious revival. In their view, those who argue that religion is in decline focus on conventional religious organisations, and ignore the equally constant cycle of birth and growth of new movements.

Writers such as Wilson see the increase in the variety of religious beliefs as evidence of secularisation. It is argued that religious pluralism has reduced the power of religion in society since no one faith/belief is seen to have a monopoly on 'truth'. The competition between religions undermines their credibility. This plurality also means that religious values are no longer 'community values'. Consequently, religion does not reinforce the values of society as a whole and similarly cannot promote 'social solidarity'.

The Ecumenical movement is regarded by Wilson as evidence of the process of secularisation. Ecumenism, he suggests, developed out of the weakness of the church. Ecumenism involves the smoothing out of doctrinal differences between churches in the hope of attracting people back to the church, and, as such, is a tacit admission of the impact of secularisation

The growth of sects has been interpreted in the same way - evidence of decline. Berger sees sects as evidence of secularisation since it suggests that belief in the supernatural can only survive in sectarian form in secular society. Similarly, Wilson argues that sects are: 'A feature of societies experiencing secularisation, a response to a situation in which religious values have lost social pre-eminence.'

However, others interpret the growth of sects and the plurality of religions as evidence of the continued vitality and dynamism of religion. Glock and Bellah, for example, regard the new religious movements as demonstrating a new spiritual sensitivity and search for meaning: they have provided a stable social setting and coherent set of symbols for young people disorientated by the drug culture or disillusioned with radical politics.

Others suggest that the religious ideas of sects are much closer to 'true' religion since they have not compromised their beliefs to fit in with the wider society.

On the numbers front - while membership of mainstream Christian bodies fell by 17% in the UK between 1975 and 1990, that of other world religions more than doubled. Muslims now outnumber Methodists in Britain by 2 to 1. While this growth does not compensate for the losses, they are growing at a faster rate then the churches and denominations are declining. Consequently, some writers suggest that religion is in a state of change rather than decline.

This approach suggests that secularizing tendencies exist within the church itself. In the USA, church attendance is high, but the church itself has abandoned religious aims to focus instead on issues such as fundraising.

The Institutional Approach

Thus, Hersberg, Protestant. Catholic, Jew, (1955), claims that the church in the USA has become obsessed with secular concerns, and most major denominations have compromised their religious principles to make them 'fit in' with society.

A number of factors have led to the secularisation of religious institutions; large-scale immigration created the need for a sense of identity and community. This is especially the case with third generation immigrants who see themselves as 'American' and for whom membership of the church and church attendance is a symbol of their identification.

Church membership provides a sense of belonging, and demonstrates a commitment to the 'American way of life'. But the emphasis is on religious practice not belief. A kind of religion without god.

American churches echo the American dream, religion has been subordinated to the American way of life. Churches place little emphasis on theology (belief) but stress the values of democracy, freedom, attainment and success. As Scharf notes: 'Being American includes being religious, and finding in religion a sanction for the American values of individualist, activist efficiency and self-improvement.'

Religion has become a commodity to sell like any other product, and religions have responded to this by modifying their product in accordance with consumer demand. This, it is suggested, is why there is a contrast between church attendance in Europe and the USA. In Europe, beliefs have not been compromised so much and the churches are empty. In the USA, the church has adapted itself to a changing society and the churches are full.

There are, however, problems with this argument:

A basic problem arises from the fact that this view of secularisation is dependent on a particular view of what religion 'is' - an emphasis on the supernatural, for example. Others with a different definition sight, suggest that rather than 'selling out' the churches, they have simply adapted themselves to the needs of their members.

It is suggested that in the USA, religion has always been secularised. For example, 19th century visitors noted the lack of depth in religious belief and practice. There might have been no 'golden age'.

It is precisely those organisations that Hersberg identifies as most secular which have declined the most in the USA. 25% of Americans are 'fundamentalists', and TV evangelism is making a comeback.