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Daily Sociology Questions and Answers with Mwiinde Laison - Discuss the vitality of secularization

by Mwiinde Laison (sociologist, teacher and author)
30 September 2017 | 449 Views
QUESTION: Discuss the vitality of secularization


The seminal social thinkers of the nineteenth century -- Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud -- all believed that religion would gradually fade in importance and cease to be significant with the advent of the industrial society.

Wright Mills summarized this process: "Once the world was filled with the sacred - in thought, practice, and institutional form. After the Reformation and the Renaissance, the forces of modernization swept across the globe and secularization, a corollary historical process, loosened the dominance of the sacred. In due course, the sacred shall disappear altogether except, possibly, in the private realm." During the last decade, however, this thesis of the slow and steady death of religion has come under growing criticism; indeed, secularization theory is currently experiencing the most sustained challenge in its long history. Critics point to multiple indicators of religious health and vitality today, ranging from the continued popularity of churchgoing in Zimbabwe.

Peter L. Berger, one of the foremost advocates of secularization during the 1960s, recanted his earlier claims: "The world today, with some exceptions…is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labeled ‘secularization theory' is essentially mistaken." In a fierce and sustained critique, Rodney Stark and Roger Finke suggest it is time to bury the secularization thesis: "After nearly three centuries of utterly failed prophesies and misrepresentations of both present and past, it seems time to carry the secularization doctrine to the graveyard of failed theories, and there to whisper ‘requiescat in pace."

The dazzling achievements of medicine, engineering and mathematics -- as well as the material products generated by the rise of modern capitalism, technology and manufacturing industry during the 19th century -- emphasized and reinforced the idea of mankind's control of nature. Personal catastrophes, contagious diseases, disastrous floods and international wars, once attributed to supernatural forces, primitive magic and divine intervention or to blind fate, came to be regarded as the outcome of predictable and preventable causes. Priests, ministers, popes, rabbis and mullahs appealing to divine authority became only one source of knowledge in modern societies, and not necessarily the most important or trusted one in many dimensions of life, when competing with the specialized expertise, certified training and practical skills of professional economists, physicists, physicians or engineers.

The division of church and state, and the rise of secular-rational bureaucratic states and representative governments, displaced the rule of spiritual leaders, ecclesiastical institutions and hereditary rulers claiming authority from God. As Bruce summarized this argument that: "Industralization brought with it a series of social changes – the fragmentation of the life-world, the decline of community, the rise of bureaucracy, technological consciousness – that together made religion less arresting and less plausible than it had been in pre-modern societies. That is the conclusion of most social scientists, historians, and church leaders in the Western world."

Durkheim argued that industrialized societies are characterized by functional differentiation, where specialized professionals and organizations, dedicated to healthcare, education, social control, politics and welfare, replaced most of the tasks once carried out exclusively in Western Europe by monasteries, priests, and parish churches. Faith based voluntary and charitable organizations in the medieval era – the alms-house, the seminary and the hospice - were displaced in Europe by the expansion of the welfare state during the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The growth of the state created publicly-funded schools, health care and welfare safety nets to care for the unemployed, the elderly, and the destitute. Stripped of their core social purposes, Durkheim predicted that the residual spiritual and moral roles of religious institutions would gradually waste away in industrial societies, beyond the traditional formal rites of births, marriages and death, and the observance of special holidays.

The demand-side accounts of secularization initiated by the work of Weber and Durkheim has been subjected to massive intellectual battering during the last decade. After reviewing the historical evidence of churchgoing in Europe, Rodney Stark concludes that secularization is a pervasive myth, based on failed prophecies and ideological polemic, unsupported by systematic data: "The evidence is clear that claims about a major decline in religious participation [in Europe] are based in part on very exaggerated perceptions of past religiousness. Participation may be very low today in many nations, but not because of modernization; therefore the secularization thesis is irrelevant." For Jeffrey Hadden, the assumptions within secularization constitute a doctrine or dogma more than a well-tested rigorous theory: "a taken-for-granted ideology rather than a systematic set of interrelated propositions." He argues that benign neglect, rather than confirming evidence, kept the claims of secularization intact for so long.

The idea that religion would shrink and eventually vanish was a product of the social and cultural milieu of its time, fitting the evolutionary functional model of modernization. The emergence of new spiritual movements, and the way that religion remains entangled in politics. Hadden suggests that secularization is not happening as predicted. He argues that those who claim that secularization has occurred have exaggerated and romanticized the depth of religious practices in the European past and also simultaneously under-estimated the power and popularity of religious movements in the present era, exemplified by an evangelical revival in Latin America and New Age spirituality in Western Europe. The body of scholarship that arose during the last decade has generated a vigorous debate about the contemporary vitality of religious life, raising important questions about the links that were assumed to connect the process of modernization with secularization.

CONCLUSION In a nutshell it is notable that rich societies are secularizing but they contain a dwindling share of the world's population; while poor societies are not secularizing and they contain a rising share of the world's population. Thus, modernization does indeed bring a de-emphasis on religion within virtually any country that experiences it, but the percentage of the world's population for whom religion is important, is rising. Lastly we predict, although we cannot yet demonstrate, that the expanding gap between the sacred and the secular societies around the globe will have important consequences for world politics, raising the role of religion on the international agenda.

®All articles have been written by the author Mwiinde Laison. Articles cover questions from both ZIMSEC and Cambridge. Contact the author on +263771161432. Email: Articles to be published on can be requested from the author. Follow the author's Daily Sociology Academic Articles on bulawayo24 online. Laison Mwiinde is an author who have written Sociology Books. For more information on Sociology seminars, conferences and books contact the author. "Education that shines" (Mwiinde L)

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Source: Mwiinde Laison


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