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Exploring Religion

Session 15: Overview


Learning objectives

  • Understand the evidence for and against the United States secularizing.
  • Understand the dominant theoretical explanations for why religion is declining (secularizing) or persisting.

The topic of secularization is a complex one. As a term, secularization has taken on many definitions, but it can generally be thought of as the process by which society becomes more secular (that is, not religious). Contentious academic debates have taken place for decades about what “counts” as secularization, whether it is happening, and if it is happening, what that means for the future of religion and society. As you will see in the main reading for this week (Chapter 2 of Religion in Sociological Perspective), there are many, many ways to approach this topic.

As a backdrop, we should first consider that secularization is often theorized as a long-term process that happens over decades, at least, or centuries. There are certainly changes that can happen abruptly to a society (e.g., a government outlawing religion), but even these changes usually result from long-term processes that began many years prior. This is important background because when social scientists think about secularization, they are simultaneously thinking about how society is changing over time in other ways.

For example, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber all wrote about how modern society would affect the place of religion in society. Marx believed that religion could be used as a tool by those in power (e.g., the “bourgeoisie”) to pacify exploited classes (e.g., the “proletariat”), but that modern society would produce a revolutionary class-consciousness that would ultimately free people from oppression and abolish the need for religion. Durkheim believed religion to be a force for solidarity (i.e., group unity and cohesion) in early societies but believed that the individualism of modern society would force it to transform. Finally, Weber believed that religion – once an integrated force throughout society – would respond to industrialization and rationalization in modern society by being relegated to its own, small sphere of influence, just like many other social institutions (e.g., think of how work and education mostly take place in their own institutional settings outside of the family). All of these illustrate how the historical, long-term changes of society are tightly intertwined with speculation about the place and future of religion.

There are many other theories of secularization that you will read about this week. For example, some scholars have argued that the presence of multiple worldviews within a society could weaken religion by exposing people to new alternatives – each of which could increase uncertainty about religious truth. Yet, other scholars have argued that having multiple worldviews within a society could strengthen religion by forcing groups (e.g., religions) to “compete” with each other for adherents, ultimately improving their “products” in the process.

Other theories argue that secularization is not so much about the religiosity of individuals, per se, or the presence (or absence) of religious groups in society, but about the amount of authority that religion has in society. These ideas are often a part of “neosecularization theory,” as Roberts and Yamane will discuss. Here, religious authority can be conceptualized at three levels, which we can think of as the macro level, meso level and micro level. Importantly, secularization happening at one level does not necessarily mean it is happening at other levels, and scholars disagree about which of these levels is the most important. However, it remains a helpful way to think about secularization as complex and multilayered process.

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One critique about secularization theory (and its various forms) is that many of its ideas, and many historical considerations of societal changes, have been 1) written by men and 2) focused on men. As you will read this week, Linda Woodhead pushes back upon these trends and has us consider what it would look like to “gender” secularization theories. Hopefully, in this reading, you will see some connections to work from earlier in the course on gender.

As a result of secularization, and on the flip side of religion, is the rise and presence of “no religion.” That is, if and when religion diminishes, what takes its place? This week you will read about the rise of “no religion” and several explanations for it. In the United States, there has been a particularly strong rise in the presence of religious “nones” (those with no religious affiliation) since around 1990. However, most “nones” are not atheist or agnostic; rather, they simply have no religious affiliation. In fact, and perhaps to your surprise, many “nones” still engage in religious behaviors, hold religious beliefs and/or engage in a wide array of spiritual practices outside of institutional religion.

Religious “nones” are a very diverse group. Some are committed atheists, some are curious agnostics and some simply defy labels. Often, an important task of this group is to address the uncertainty that comes from not having a religious home. That is, whereas a Christian or Muslim may have certainty in both 1) their religious identity and 2) their religious beliefs (e.g., the existence of God, explanations for good or evil), those without a religious tradition often face uncertainty in either, or both, of those domains. How do they handle it, and is uncertainty necessarily bad or unhealthy? As you will read this week in the Frost article, this group handles (un)certainty in diverse ways, and those different approaches come with multiple meanings and outcomes for those involved.

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