Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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A controversial concept because of its distinct use in different disciplines, such as philosophy, social sciences, theology, canon law (Lübbe 1975). Even in the social sciences, various levels of analysis of the religious situation result in different definitions and divergent evaluations of the situation. If the founding fathers rarely used the term, concepts and views related to theories of secularization were already present, such as generalization and differentiation (Durkheim). Weber used the term—but to typify the way in which, in the United States, membership in distinguished clubs and fraternal societies replaced membership in Protestant sects, in guaranteeing moral rectitude and credit worthiness (1920:212). Later generations of sociologists continued to employ the term but attached different meanings to it (Shiner 1967). Not until the 1960s were several theories of secularization developed, most prominently by Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, and Bryan Wilson. These theories subsequently led to discussion concerning the existence and validity of such a "theory" (Hammond 1985, Hadden 1987, Lechner 1991, Bruce 1992).

Other sociologists have systematically analyzed existing theories because some discussions failed to scrutinize the ideas, levels of analysis, and arguments of those being criticized. Tschannen has suggested treating secularization theories as a paradigm (1992), and Dobbelaere has stressed the need to differentiate between levels of analysis (1981), suggesting convergences and divergences between theories (1984).

The current treatment is dependent upon Tschannen's "exemplars" of the secularization paradigm and refers to authors who have extensively written about them, without suggesting, however, that they were the only ones to do so. The exemplars are ordered according to the levels of analysis (macro, or societal, level; meso, or subsystem, level; and micro, or individual, level). Some exemplars are renamed, and one is added: institutional differentiation or segmentation (Luckmann 1967), autonomization (Berger 1967), rationalization (Berger 1967, Wilson 1982), societalization (Wilson 1976), disenchantment of the world (Weber 1920, Berger 1967), privatization (Berger 1967, Luckmann 1967), generalization (Bellah 1967, Parsons 1967), pluralization (Martin 1978), relativization (Berger 1967), this-worldliness (Luckmann 1990), individualization (Bellah et al. 1985), bricolage (Luckmann 1979), unbelief (Berger 1967), decline of church religiosity (Martin 1978).

According to Tschannen, three exemplars are central to the secularization paradigm: differentiation, rationalization, and this-worldliness. The other exemplars are related to these. Beginning with the macro level, it seems possible, using Luhmann's conceptual distinction between three types of differentiation (1982:262-265), to come to a more well-integrated perspective of the processes related to secularization.

The Societal Level

Because modern societies are primarily differentiated along functional lines, subsystems developed different functional domains (e.g., economy, polity, science, family). Each subsystem's communication is based on its own medium (money, power, truth, love) and each developed its own values (success, separation of powers, reliability and validity, primacy of love) and norms. Regarding religion, they claim autonomy and reject religiously prescribed rules—such as the emancipation of education from ecclesiastical authority, the separation of church and state, the rejection of church prescriptions about birth control and abortion, the decline of religious content in literature and arts, and the development of science as an autonomous secular perspective.

Diagnosing the loss of religion's influence in the so-called secular world, members of the religious subsystem were the first to talk about secularization. In this context, Luhmann speaks about secularization in the sense of a specifically religious conception of society as the environment of the religious system (1977:225-232). Denominations, most crucially the Roman Catholic Church, reacted with a counteroffensive, stimulating among other things a process of pillarization and the organization of Catholic Action and calling for a second evangelization of Europe. Consequently, secularization expresses a description and an interpretation of an experience: It is not a causal concept. The sociological explanation starts with the process of functional differentiation. Secularization is situated on the societal level and should be seen as resulting from the processes of functional differentiation and the autonomization of the societal subsystems. Consequently, we state forcefully, with Wilson, that secularization "maintains no more than that religion ceases to be significant in the working of the social system" (1982:150). This says nothing about the religious consciousness of individuals, although it may affect it. This conception of the process of secularization allowed Chaves to state that secularization refers to the declining scope of religious authority (1994:754).

Declining religious authority allowed the development of functional rationality. The economy lost its religious ethos (Weber 1920:163-206). Consequently, the political subsystem also had to rationalize, and little room was left for traditional and charismatic authority. Political authority became rational. Economic production and distribution developed large-scale economic organizations, and modern states extended their administration. These structures needed more and more people trained in science and rational techniques. Consequently, in education, a scientific approach to the world and the teaching of technical knowledge increasingly replaced a religious-literary formation. The development of scientific techniques had their impact also on the life-world: Domestic tasks became increasingly mechanized, and even the most intimate, sexual relationships and their "consequences" were considered to be calculable and controllable. Not only could one better control the consequences, but in modern "handbooks" the sexual act itself is also presented as "technically improvable." The consequences of these developments are the disenchantment of the world and the societalization of the subsystem.

Indeed, the world is increasingly considered to be calculable and man-made, the result of controlled planning. Such a world has engendered not only new roles, but new, basically rational and critical, attitudes and a new cognition. According to Acquaviva (1979), this new cognition has eliminated prelogical and thus religious concepts and has been objectified in a new language that has changed the image of reality. The media, using this new language, have radicalized the process and made it a social phenomenon. This suggests a possible impact of the macro on the micro level, that is, the consciousness of the individual.

Subsystems are also gesellschaftlich , or societalized. The organized world is "based on impersonal roles, relationships, the coordination of skills, and essentially formal and contractual patterns of behaviour, in which personal virtue, as distinguished from role obligations, is of small consequence" (Wilson 1982:155). In such systems, Wilson goes on, control is no longer based on morals and religion, it has become impersonal, a matter of routine techniques and unknown officials—legal, technical, mechanized, computerized, and electronic. Thus religion has lost one of its important latent functions; as long as control was interpersonal, it was based on religiously based mores and substantive values.

Berger and Luckmann stressed another consequence of the process of functional differentiation and the autonomization of the secular spheres, that is, the privatization of religion. According to Luckmann (1967:94-106), the validity of religious norms became restricted to its "proper" sphere, that is, that of private life, and Berger (1967:133) stressed the "functionality" of this "for the maintenance of the highly rationalized order of modern economic and political institutions," that is, the public sphere. This dichotomy, private-public, carries with it at least two shortcomings (Dobbelaere 1981:79-84). It suggests that secularization was limited to the "public" sphere, which is incorrect; family life was also secularized. Second, it is the adoption in sociological discourse of ideological concepts used by liberals and socialists in the nineteenth century to legitimate functional differentiation and the autonomization of "secular" institutions: "Religion is a private matter." Later, these concepts were used by workers to defend their political, religious, or family options against possible sanctions and eventual dismissal by the management of Christian organizations (e.g., schools or hospitals) if they failed to behave according to ecclesiastical rules in matters of family life, politics, or religion. They defended their "private" options, their "private" life, in what managers of ecclesiastical organizations called the "public" sphere.

Clearly, the dichotomy "private-public" is not a structural aspect of society but a legitimizing conceptualization of the world, an ideological pair used in conflicts by participants. Sociologists might, of course, study the use of this dichotomy in social discourse and conflicts, but it is not a sociological conceptualization. It should be replaced by Habermas's conceptual dichotomy—system versus life-world, used here in a purely descriptive sense. It is in the systemic interactions that societalization occurs: Relationships became basically secondary, segmented, utilitarian, and formal. By contrast, in the life-world—the family, groups of friends, social networks, the neighborhood—interaction is communal. Primary relations are the binding forces of such groups; relationships are total, trustful, considerate, sympathetic, and personal (see Wilson 1976, 1982). The trend toward societalization is very clear in the distribution and the banking sector—such as the replacement of neighborhood stores by large department stores where the interactions between shopper and seller are limited to a money exchange for goods. Beyond the life-world, interactions became societalized.

Relationship between the Macro and Meso Levels

According to Parsons (1967), pluralization, or the segmentary differentiation of the subsystem religion, was possible only after the Christian ethic was institutionalized in the so-called secular world, in other words, once the Christian ethic became generalized. Consequently, pluralization was not to be considered an indicator of secularization, quite the contrary (for a critique, see Lechner 1991:1109 f); however, the relationship is not causal, it is functional. Pluralization will indeed augment the necessity of generalization. Together with Bellah (1967), Parsons stressed the need for a civil religion that overarches conventional religions to legitimate the system. One may also consider the need for laws, overarching religiously inspired mores. Martin suggests that when religion adapts to every status group "through every variety of pullulating sectarianism," then there is a need to preserve the unity of the nation "by a national myth which represents a common denominator of all faiths: one nation under God" (1978:36). Indeed, civil religion generalizes the different notions of God present in the various denominations: the God of Jews, Catholics, Unitarians, Calvinists, and so on. The national myth sacralizes its prophets, martyrs, and historical places, has its ritualistic expressions, and also may use biblical archetypes (Bellah 1967:18).

Such myths, such legitimations, are not always religious: Civil religion is one possibility; there are also secular myths, such as the French myth based on the laïcité , which legitimates the French state, its schools, and its laws. What explains the emergence of a "religious" rather than a "secular" myth, or vice versa? And, more generally, what explains how such a myth—religious or secular—emerges? Fenn suggests that this is possible only when a society conceives of itself as a "nation," as "really 'real' "—typical examples are the United States, Japan, and France. On the other hand, the myth instead is seen as a cultural "fiction," according to Fenn, to the extent that a society sees itself as an arena for conflicting and cooperative activities of various classes, groups, corporations, and organizations (1978:41-53). Another issue for inquiry is how and to what extent in certain countries a conventional religion may function as a civil religion in a religiously pluralistic society—such as Anglicanism in England and Calvinism in the Netherlands. What degree of pluralism is incongruent with a church fulfilling the role of civil religion?

The Meso Level

On the meso level, pluralization has resulted in a religious market, where different religions either compete for the souls of the people or make agreements not to proselytize, as the Anglican Church has agreed with the Catholic Church in Belgium. Religious pluralism and competition augments the relativity of their respective religious message, or in Berger's terms "it relativizes their religious contents," their religious message is "de-objectivated," and, more generally, "the pluralistic situation . . . ipso facto plunges religion into a crisis of credibility" (1967:150 f).

The emergence of new religious movements (NRMs) is related to the process of secularization. The "Christian collective consciousness" of the West was disintegrating. Pluralism had undermined its "objectivity," and the slowly perceived useless character of Christian religions on the societal level, accompanied by a loss of status and power, allowed exotic religions to improve their position on the religious market. Some, such as the Unification Church, The Family, or ISKCON (Krishna Consciousness) wanted to resacralize the world and its institutions by bringing God back in, such as in the family, the economy, even the polity. Wallis (1984) designates them "world-rejecting new religions." The vast majority, however, are of another type; they are "world affirming." They offer members esoteric means of attaining immediate and automatic success, recovery, heightened spiritual powers, assertiveness, and a clearer mind. Mahikari provides an omitama , or amulet; TM, a personal mantra; Scientology, auditing and the E-meter; the Human Potential Movements offer therapies, encounter groups, or alternative health and spiritual centers; Nichiren Shoshu promotes chanting of an invocation before a mandala, while Elan Vital offers the Knowledge revealed by Maharaji or one of his appointed instructors.

Luckmann suggests that the level of transcendence in many religions was lowered; religions became "this-worldly" or mundane (1990). The historical religions are examples of "great transcendences," referring to something other than everyday reality. Many new religions, especially the world-affirming religions, appear to reach only the level of "intermediate transcendences." They bridge time and space, promote inter-subjective communion, but remain at the immanent level of everyday reality. Consequently, some (e.g., TM) claim to be spiritual rather than religious movements.

If one employed a substantive definition of religion, referring to transcendent beliefs and practices, the supernatural or the sacred, many NRMs would not be considered religions. They would not qualify as religions even according to some functional definitions. Luhmann, for example, might not call some of them religion because they do not relate "to the problem of simultaneity of indefiniteness and certainty" (1977:46), the typical function of religion. Indeed, these world-affirming religions are not concerned with the problems of simultaneity of transcendence and immanence because they focus only on the immanent, the everyday life. Stark and Bainbridge (1987) miss this point when they criticize secularization theory when referring to changes on the meso level. Moreover, their argument, that the newly emerging "spiritual movements" prove that secularization is a self-limiting process, backfires because these so-called new religious movements are adaptations to a secularized world.

This mundane orientation of religion is not new; Berger and Luckmann have suggested that the higher attendances in American churches compared with European churches might be explained by the mundane orientation of religion in America. Luckmann called it internal secularization: "a radical inner change in American church religion. . . . [T]oday the secular ideas of the American Dream pervade church religion" (Luckmann 1967:36 f.). In asserting that American churches were "becoming highly secularized themselves" (Berger 1967:108), these authors sought to reconcile data at the level of the individual that conflicted with secularization theories. However, they missed the point; church attendance is not an indicator of the process of secularization, which is a societal process. This does not imply that people's religious consciousness and their behavioral practices may not be influenced by the societal situation, but that the explanation of individual behavior is more complex.

The Micro Level

These arguments bring us to the individual, or micro, level and the exemplars individualization, unbelief, bricolage, and decline in church religiosity, that is, the unchurching of individuals and their lower church involvement. The individualization of religion has been related to its becoming part of the "private sphere." The church is the local congregation but also a "chosen community," "a loving community in which individuals can experience the joy of belonging," consequently "the ultimate meaning of the church is an expressive-individualistic one," and love is shared within the community, not with the world at large (Bellah et al. 1985:219-237). The church is considered to be part of the life-world.

How did individualization come about in the life-world? First, although the social system and the subsystems are still "an objective reality," a given, functional differentiation can only "work" if the independence of the subsystem is maintained. However, this cannot be enforced on the micro level, the level of individual motives, where interferences may occur. Luhmann suggests that a structural equivalent of enforcement is found in the "individualization of decisions," which may produce a statistical neutralization of these individually motivated choices (1977:233-242; Beyer 1990:374 ff). Functional differentiation has stimulated an individualization of choices, and this has had its impact on the life-world. It was made possible by the detraditionalization of the life-world: Ascriptive roles were becoming less pressing; cars allowed people to escape the control of family and neighborhood; traditions were relativized; TV carried conflicting visions, messages, ideas, and values into the living room; women were liberated from their ascriptive, biological roles particularly by oral contraceptives; and the educational level rose. The "golden sixties" were not only an economic boom, giving people more freedom, more choices, less constraint, but they made possible similar claims in religious matters. The rejection of the encyclical on birth control by an overwhelming majority of Catholics—that is, criticism of an imposing, "infallible" religious authority, and the rejection of its rules and legitimations—was symptomatic, as was the National Pastoral Council in the Netherlands and the Underground Church in America. In fact, Descartes's Cogito ergo sum was now being understood as "I think and I choose," not only my networks, my friends, my dress patterns but also the beliefs, norms, and practices that express my religious feelings.

Had secularization anything to do with this? First, secularization and individualization are produced by functional differentiation; they are two sides of one coin. Secularization meant not only that religious authority was undermined; the denominations also lost status and power, subverting the religious collective consciousness of society, which facilitated individualization, as Durkheim had already indicated. The foregoing arguments make clear that the religious situation at the individual level cannot be explained exclusively by the secularization of the social system; other factors were also at work, consequently the religiousness of individuals is not a valid indicator in evaluating the process of secularization.

The loss of church authority, and the rise of religious pluralism and individualization, have led to a religious bricolage, an individual patchwork or recomposition. The religious menu of a denomination was not accepted; rather, "a religion à la carte" was individually constructed. Referring to postmodernity, Voyé suggests that individual religiosity is characterized by the "end of Great Narratives," a "mixing of codes," and a certain

re-enchantment of the World. . . . The mixing of codes . . . is reflected in the religious field in a threefold manner: references and practices blending the institutional and the popular; occasional borrowings from scientific discourses as well as from religious ones; and inspiration sought in diverse religions, notably, oriental religions. (1995:201)

Whereas functional differentiation stimulated instrumental individualism, the individualism of the life-world is more expressive, and this type of individualism is not accommodated in the churches.

Empirical research records growing unbelief and unchurching as well as decline in church attendance and the religious involvement of church members (see Halman and de Moor 1993). This may be explained by relating it to changes on the societal level, referring to functional rationality and societalization in the steps of sociologists and anthropologists who have shown that people develop a concept of personified supernatural beings directly from the model that their society provides (see Dobbelaere 1995:177-181). Functional rationality promoted an attitude in people that they themselves or specialists could solve their problems, which removed God from the world and stimulated unbelief. However, if some people still believe in God, then they conceive Him rather as a general power and not as "a person," because people experience fewer and fewer "personal relationships" in their social lives. If they can no longer believe in "God as a person," they drop out of Christian rituals because these are centered on a relationship with God as a person.

The relationship is not one-sided because the processes discussed are manifestly or latently set in motion by people. Consequently, we may expect that growing unbelief and distancing from the denominations might lead to growing secularization on the societal level, even if the hard religious core and some fundamentalist denominations may do everything possible to prevent this.


Analysis of secularization theories, distinguishing levels of analysis and reordering the concepts employed, has made it possible to link processes and consequences, to suggest relationships between different levels of analysis, and to reformulate general theoretical propositions. This facilitates the deduction of hypotheses to be tested in empirical research. It was shown that the relationships are not causal but functional, such as the relationship between processes on the macro and the micro level and between generalization and pluralism. Many of these hypotheses and relations can be tested only on the basis of comparative research, and such research in the sociology of religion is rare. Such a general theoretical framework and international research should facilitate the construction of a theory of secularization rather than a paradigm.

Karel Dobbelaere


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R. N. Bellah, "Civil Religion in America," Daedalus 96(1967):1-21

R. N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)

P. L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967)

P. F. Beyer, "Privatization and the Global Influence of Religion in Global Society," in Global Culture , ed. M. Featherstone (London: Sage, 1990): 373-395

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