The Societal Approach

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The Societal Approach

This approach is concerned with the decline in the influence of religious belief on social norms, values and attitudes.

There are two main areas:

  1. Transformation versus generalisation.
  2. De-sacrilisation versus individuation.

Each of these aspects is based upon a particular definition of religion and religious behaviour. Thus, generalisation argues that religious beliefs are still important as guides to moral behaviour (hence, secularisation is not taking place): transformation suggests that social values have cut their connection with religion (hence, secularisation is occurring).

De-sacrilisation argues that the notion of the sacred has little or no place in contemporary western society (secularisation is taking place). Individuation suggests that humans are still engaged in a 'search for meaning' in life, a search that remains basically religious (secularisation is not taking place).

This approach argues that religious belief has become transformed into secular guides for action. While social values may have had religious origins, that connection has now been broken. For example, the pursuit of wealth has been stripped of its religious meaning (The Protestant Ethic) and is now not a means to an end but an end in itself. The Protestant Ethic has been transformed by the secularising influence of wealth. It is further argued that religion is no longer important in the advance of capitalism - machines do not need motivation.

The Societal Approach

Problems here include:

  1. Weber's analysis of the relationship between capitalism and Protestantism has been disputed.
  2. Dispute as to whether religious beliefs have been transformed or generalised. Some suggest, for example, that the Protestant Ethic still survives, in that hard work is regarded as a virtue and almost a moral duty. Certainly it was a tenet of 'Thatcherism'. Others suggest that leisure values have replaced the work ethic.

This viewpoint is that religious ideas are still important in society, although the link to religion is latent rather than manifest. Religious values have become generalised because social values are grounded in Christian principles. Habgood, Church and Nation in a Secular age, writes:

'Religious bodies... nurture both directly and indirectly many of the values and general attitudes on which the conduct of public life depends... it is not claimed that they are the sole source of such values, only that they are an important source.'

The problem with generalisation is that it is a very vague thesis with little supporting evidence - how can it be proved? For example, that societal values are 'Christian' or even religious values?

This is the idea that the sacred has little or no place in contemporary western society - the world is no longer seen as being in the control of supernatural forces. Instead, humans are viewed as in control of their own destiny, and with the advent of bio-technology, humans have the opportunity to play god. Our consciousness has been secularised. This growth of rational or scientific thinking is seen as a clear indicator of secularisation.

This approach is particularly associated with Weber, who saw de-sacrilisation as the 'disenchantment of the world' - the world loses its mystery and magic. Wilson, Religion in a Secular Society, presents a similar analysis:

'Men act less and less in response to religious motivation: they assess the world in empirical and rational terms.'

Wilson argues that the development of this rational view has been encouraged by several factors:

  1. Ascetic Protestantism - the protestant ethic was rational and anti-emotional.
  2. The rational organisation of organisations in society - which impose rational behaviour on their members.
  3. The greater use of computers - which makes people more aware of the need for rationality.
  4. Our greater knowledge of the social and especially the physical world - science explains life and confirms its explanations with practical results.
  5. The development of rational ideologies and organisations - which solve social problems.

The Societal Approach

Wilson, therefore, argues that the rational view of the world is Berger and Kellner, The Homeless Mind, expands the notion of secularisation of consciousness - the interpretation of the world without reference to religion.

They compare industrial and pre-industrial society. Pre-industrial society was closely integrated, it had a single 'life world': work, family, leisure, politics were closely integrated. The pattern of life was easily understood through a single 'universe of meaning' based on a religious foundation. In comparison, industrial society is highly fragmented, there is a plurality of 'life-worlds', each with a different reality.

The problem with the concept of de-sacrilisation is that it is difficult to operationalise and therefore 'prove'. It seems to depend upon impressions rather than hard data. It also demands some form of comparison, usually with belief systems that are seen as irrational.

Similarly, does de-sacrilisation overestimate the extent and power of rational thought in modern society?

Large numbers of people not only claim to believe in God, but also in astrology and spiritualism, for example.

Finally, it is suggested that while science is capable of explaining things at one level, at another things are still regarded as inexplicable. Religion is still turned to at times of stress and anxiety, and is still used to explain the ultimate meaning of events.

A number of sociologists have argued that while institutional religion is in decline, this is only one form of religion, and that other aspects of religion (for example, the search for some meaning in life) continue in a variety of forms in modern society. Individuation, is the idea of religion as an individual search for meaning. Therefore, the importance of religion has not declined, but its form of expression has changed.

This idea is closely associated with Bellah, New Religious Consciousness and the Crisis in Modernity (l976). For Bellah, the decline of institutional religion is not a sign of secularisation, but an indicator of the idea that: the individual must work out his/her own ultimate solutions and that the most the church can do is provide him/her with a favourable environment.

Luckmann provides a similar analysis in which people make sense of their experiences by selecting from a wide range of sources, including religion and astrology, for example, religion becomes individual and private.

However, how do we 'know' that people are involved in a quest for meaning?

Additionally, if any such quest is seen as religious, then perhaps the concept has been stretched so wide as to be meaningless.