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Are we as secularized as we think we are?
Secularisation theory claims that the social significance of religion has declined, and is declining 1. It can be disaggregated into theories of individual-level, 'micro' secularisation and, institutional-level, 'macro'
secularisation. That is, it predicts declines in both the standing of religious institutions, and a decline in the religiously-motivated actions and beliefs of individuals. What follows is analyses of four challenges to secularisation theory. These challenges are the 'believing without belonging' theory, the alleged robustness of religion in the USA, the 'true religion' theory, and a set of theories based in demography.
The 'believing without belonging' theory concedes that the extent of religious affiliation has declined in post-industrial countries, but argues that belief remains robust; the second challenge is the alleged robustness of religious faith in the USA; the 'true religion' theory accepts the functional differentiation argument, but says that, shorn of its secondary functions, religion continues to shape and address a range of 'ultimate' questions; the demographic theory is perhaps better described as a series of related theories,
which suggest that higher fertility among the religious, and migration of the religious to post-industrial countries, are inhibiting, and will continue to, inhibit secularization. I will find that these challenges at best represent addendums to the theory of secularisation. Given that secularisation theory is highly contested - one academic says it ought to be 'consigned to the dustbin of history' 2 - this essay therefore demonstrates that we may in fact be more, not less, secularised than we think.
One objection to the secularisation thesis is the 'believing without belonging' (hereafter: 'BWB') thesis which states that whilst affiliation and/or church attendance have declined, belief has not 3. Religious beliefs are relevant to our question insofar as they inform behaviour and social attitudes. The BWB thesis has strong and weak versions. Davie proposes a weak version, in which belief is understood quite loosely,
as "variables concerned with feelings, experience and the more numinous aspects of religious belief" 4.
Others, such as Avis5, understand belief as referring to more orthodox Christian belief. The strong iteration of the BWB thesis is disputed by Voas and Crockett, who show that belief in the existence of
God has, in Britain, declined at the same rate as attendance, and that this decline is a product of generational change, rather than any specific period effects or changes to the population structure 6. Even 1 Wallis, Roy and Steve Bruce (2011) 'Secularization: the Orthodox Model' in Bruce, Steve (ed.) Religion and
Modernisation, pg. 11 2 Stark, Rodney (1999) 'Secularization R.I.P'
3 Davie, Grace (1990) 'Believing without Belonging: is this the Future of Religion in Britain?
4 Davie, op. cit.
5 Avis, Paul (2003)'The State of Faith', in Peter Avis (ed.) Public Faith? The State of Belief and Practice in Britain 6 Voas, David and Alistair Crockett (2005) 'Religion in Britain: Neither Believing nor Belonging' then, purely metaphysical beliefs about the existence or otherwise of God, tout court, are not obviously important for our question, since they do not necessarily motivate particular actions: God exists - so what? More important in terms of religion's social significance are, for example, beliefs about the duties implied by faith, which would seem to encourage certain behaviours. I imagine these are harder beliefs to chart across time and space - within surveys, responses are probably particularly prone to bias arising from question wording and a state's political climate- but it is probably the case that these sorts of belief have declined78. The weak version of the BWB thesis, associated with Davie, conceptualises belief too broadly to be vulnerable to decisive empirical critique. She states that "if we widen the definition of religion to include questions about...the future of the planet...the 18-24 age group may respond much more positively than they do to traditional religious instruction". This seems a bafflingly wide understanding of religion and I do not think that the alleged heightened interest of young people in ecological matters is a serious challenge to secularisation theory.
The alleged robustness of faith in the USA is often held up as an important counterexample to the secularisation thesis. For Berger, Davie, and Fokas, it is, "a big nail in the coffin of the theory" 9. Until approximately the 1970s, church attendance in the USA rose. However, since then, attendance has declined, although it remains above the levels seen in most other post-industrial countries 10. There is,
however, a compositional effect on Church attendance. Different affiliations have differing requirements for attendance - mainline Protestantism is generally the least strict due to the doctrine of sola scriptura and therefore the recent decrease in the mainline Protestant share of the religious population (between 2007 and 2014, it fell from 22 to 19%)11 could have upwardly biased operationalisations of religiosity based on church attendance, so it may be that the decline in religiosity is in reality even steeper. Secondly,
the most commonly told story about the continued relative strength of church attendance can also be interpreted as evidence of a decline in the social significance of religion. The common argument is that the American state's tendency not to regulate particular religions or denominations creates a competitive religious economy, which, borrowing from economics, tends to make for diverse and well-marketed religious products, and therefore it is more likely that individuals will find a denomination or church to their liking12. Therefore, Stark and Iannaccone argue, apparent secularisation in Europe is better explained by issues with the 'supply' of religion than by a fall in demand, which suggests that any secularisation we 7 Greeley, Andrew (1989) 'Protestant and Catholic: Is the Analogical Imagination Extinct?'
8 Stark, Rodney and Laurence Ianaccone (1994). 'A Supply-side Reinterpretation of the 'Scularization' of Europe'
9 Berger, Peter, Grace Davie and Effie Fokas (2008) 'Religious America, Secular Europe?' pg. 141 10 Voas, David and Mark Chaves (2016) 'Is the United States a Counterexample to the Secularization Thesis?'
11 Pew 'America's Changing Religious Landscape'. May 12, 2015. Accessed 12th June 2018 at:
https://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/ (my own calculations)
12 Stark and Iannaccone, op. cit. do observe is quite contingent. There are two problems with this challenge to secularisation. Firstly,
Halman and Draulans find that pluralism affects patterns of religious behaviour in Europe in the opposite direction - the more religiously pluralistic a society, the less religious its members are 13. In fact, this may also be the case in the USA - Land et al 14, and Olson15 find that pluralism actually decreases attendance.
The obvious reply to this line of reasoning is that it has no bearing on our question: the argument that apparent secularisation is a contingent matter still applies - it is just that it is deregulated religious markets which undermine faith, rather than regulated ones. However my intuition is that, whilst it is conceivable that states with a strong relationship between Church and state may become more laicised, states with a strong separation thereof are unlikely to become less laicised. Thus, if the arguments of Land, Olson and others are correct, there are grounds to predict further secularisation in future. A second point to make about pluralism is that, insofar as it is a product of religious deregulation, it reduces the social significance of the Church. Deregulation is surely, ordinarily, either a result of a liberal acknowledgment that there is no 'true' faith or denomination, or more cynically, a recognition that no faith or denomination should dominate a society. More boldly, Davies states that, 'Pluralism necessarily undermines the plausibility of all forms of religious belief - thereby encouraging a greater degree of secularization,
manifested in indifference just as much as hostility' 16.
The higher rates of religiosity in the United States may be better accounted for, at least in part, by the underdevelopment of the welfare state relative to Europe. The theory is that participation in a religious community can be a form of social insurance, and when the state increasingly assumes this role, there is less need to participate religiously. This has been empirically tested by Gill and Lundsgaarde, who find,
even after applying controls, a positive relationship between welfare spending and irreligiosity 17.
Furthermore, although I believe this remains empirically untested, it is at least plausible that exposure to the vicissitudes of life may increase the need for religious participation insofar as it provides spiritual comfort. Aldridge puts it neatly, "No social system is so well integrated that all legitimate expectations are fulfilled. Virtue is not always rewarded, vice often goes unpunished, innocent people suffer" 18. If rates of religious participation, then, are partly functions of the underdevelopment of welfare states and therefore the increased need for both spiritual comfort and the practical, voluntary welfare many churches 13 Halmans, Loek and Veerle Draulans (2006) 'How Secular is Europe?'
14 Land, Kennith; Glenn Deane and Judith Blau (1991) 'Religious Pluralism and Church Membership: a Spatial
15 Olson, Daniel (1999) 'Religious Pluralism in Contemporary U.S. Counties'
16 Davie, Grace (2002) 'Europe: The Exceptional Case', pg. 15 17 Gill, Anthony and Erik Lundsgaarde (2004) 'State Welfare Spending and Religiosity: A Cross-National
18 Aldridge, Alan (2013) 'Religion in the Contemporary World: a Sociological Introduction', pg. 70
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