Secularisation: Why Are People Less Religious?

Updated on July 19, 2019
Angel Harper profile image

Angel is currently studying for her A-levels (English, Sociology and Psychology) in the hopes to go to university next year.


Rationalisation and Decline in Religion

Rationalisation is the process in which religion is replaced by rational ways of thinking or acting, sociologists argue that the introduction of science is largely what influenced the transition from supernatural explanations of the world to rational. Max Weber (1905) argued that the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century sparked the process of rationalisation in Western society and encouraged a scientific approach. Science provided us with a logical explanation for the laws of nature and the world - making religious explanations no longer needed. Weber argued that the Protestant Reformation began the 'disenchantment' of the world as supernatural and magical elements were extinguished and replaced by science and logic.

Similarly, Bruce (2011) believes that a growth in a technological worldview has replaced religious beliefs. For example, if people get stuck in an elevator, instead of blaming evil spirits one would look for the scientific and technological reasons for the malfunction. The great advances in technology leave little room left for religion, but religion is still present in areas where technology cannot help or provide an explanation. Bruce argues that technology and science isn't a direct attack on religion as the presence of science doesn't convert people into atheists (there are many religious scientists) but it does limit the previously broad scope of religious explanations.

Structural Differentiation and Secularisation

Structural Differentiation is the process of specialisation that happens in the development of an industrial society; separate institutions perform functions that were previously controlled by a single group. Talcott Parsons (1951) believes that structural differentiation has happened to religion as a result of our industrialised society. The church used to have absolute control and power, however, now the Church and State are separate. Many of the functions the Church used to perform are done by other institutions e.g. the church has lost influence over the law, education, social welfare etc. Religion has become a more private affair that happens within the walls of family, home or small religious communities - religion has become a personal choice rather than a required expectation.

St Nicholas church, Halki
St Nicholas church, Halki

Social and Cultural Diversity

Sociologists believe that the move to an industrialised society has encouraged individualisation resulting in a decline in a sense of community. Researcher Wilson says that communities from a pre-industrialised society used religion to have a shared consensus on norms and values - religion provided a sense of solidarity. Now that our society is more individualistic such unity of values is less vital, thus religion is less practised. However, this argument is criticised because some religious communities are imagined, members may not meet in person but they commune through the media instead.

Our industrialised society also means that globalisation has exposed us to a large variety of different cultures, lifestyles and religions. Being aware of alternative belief systems makes religions seem less plausible, the variety of choice also allows people to become 'spiritual shoppers' where they can pick and chose their beliefs and swap if they want to. Hervieu-Leger blames 'cultural amnesia' for the decline in industrial religion. Religion has become a personal choice so not as many children are taught a religion by their parents, this could be one of the reasons why people have become less religious.

Berger (1969) argues that another cause of secularisation is religious diversity. In the past (since before the 15th century) there was a single reigning belief system: the Catholic Church. There were few or no conflictions with this as it was believed by everyone making it seem plausible. Once other interpretations of Christianity and other religions came about it undermined the religion's 'plausibility structure'.

However, Berger (1999) later changed his mind, arguing that religious diversity can in fact stimulate interest and even participation in religion.

Cultural amnesia occurs because parents don't bring their children up religiously
Cultural amnesia occurs because parents don't bring their children up religiously | Source

Religion In America

According to opinion polls, church attendance rates have remained similar since 1940, yet a study by Kirk Hadaway (1993) found that this that conclusion did not match his research into individual church attendance rates. This implies that the idea of going to church is still valued and socially desirable yet isn't put into practice as often as people let on.

Sociologists note that the purpose of religion has changed; people used to turn to religion for salvation but now people are religious for self-improvement or a sense of community e.g. in 1945, Poland was under communist rule and although the Catholic Church was repressed many took to church and used it as a rallying point to oppose the Soviet Union and the communist party.


Criticisms of the Secularisation Theory

A criticism for Hadaway's observation in American church attendance rates is that low attendance rates are not a reflection of a decreased belief in religion. People can be religious and still not attend church - especially as religion has become less traditional and strict.

The secularisation theory focuses on the decline of religion but ignores come-backs or new religions. There has been a whole New Age of religions (including spiritual beliefs and astronomy/ horoscopes). Many argue that religion hasn't decreased but has changed.

To Conclude

Many sociologists argue that industrialisation, globalisation and diversity have led to the decline in religion. Alternative interpretations of Christianity, for example, weaken it's plausibility as there is not a consensus belief. The presence of other religions also means that people can decide on what they believe rather being taught that only one belief system is correct. Industrialisation acted as a catalyst to the transition in religious beliefs. With a rise of individualism, the functions religion previously provided are not needed as much compared to the medieval times.

However, many criticise these beliefs as religion still plays a huge and important role in our everyday lives. They argue that religion has changed, it's purpose has changed, new forms of belief systems have been created and that this does not mean people are less religious.

Are You Religious?

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Townend, A., Trobe, K., Webb, R., Westergaard, H. (2015) AQA A level Sociology Book One Including AS level. Published by Napier Press, Brentwood

Townend, A., Trobe, K., Webb, R., Westergaard, H. (2016) AQA A level Sociology Book Two Including AS level. Published by Napier Press, Brentwood

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Angel Harper


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      • Gyanendra Mocktan profile image

        gyanendra mocktan 

        15 months ago

        Angel Harper, I agree to your point of view. FEAR of death, fear of success and fear of failure.

        Please will look for God in various forms. If we change the position of g and d, we get Dog,

        Thank you,

      • Angel Harper profile imageAUTHOR

        Angel Harper 

        15 months ago

        Ellison Hartley, I think there is less pressure on parents to raise their children religiously which is probably why so many aren't - which of course has an affect on beliefs later on in life. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

      • Angel Harper profile imageAUTHOR

        Angel Harper 

        15 months ago

        gyanendra mocktan, no worries! I enjoyed reading your comment. I agree that although people may become less religious, and religion may have less of an influence over society, it will always exist. Where there is fear of suffering and death, there is religion.

      • Gyanendra Mocktan profile image

        gyanendra mocktan 

        15 months ago

        Angel Harper, I apologize for the wrong spellings on my comment. It should be spelt exist in the place of exited and exit.

        I hope you will forgive me for this glaring mistake of mine. Thank you.

      • Ellison Hartley profile image

        Ellison Hartley 

        15 months ago from Maryland, USA

        This was a really interesting article. I think that there are a lot of reasons why society isn't as religious as it used to be. I think a lot of it is just how you were raised, those who were raised in church are more likely to continue going and striving for a relationship with god throughout their lives.

      • Gyanendra Mocktan profile image

        gyanendra mocktan 

        15 months ago

        Religion exited. Religion exists and Religion will exit till the mankind exists on earth.

        But it will get refined every time for the betterment of humanity.

        Thank you for your in-depth article on religion.

      • Angel Harper profile imageAUTHOR

        Angel Harper 

        16 months ago

        Dora Weithers, thank you for your comment. I agree- the appeal for religion still exists and I think the use of online religious communities would help to make religion more accessible in this technology driven world.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        16 months ago from The Caribbean

        "The idea of going to church is still valued and socially desirable yet isn't put into practice." So we need to translate our belief into action; and the church needs to re-establish its authenticity. Thanks for your insight on the topic.

      • profile image

        Jenny Dale 

        16 months ago

        Very interesting!


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