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Secularization of Society: Definition & Theory

Instructor: David White
Secularization has played a significant role in shaping the state of modern societies and cultures. Through this lesson, you will learn what defines the secularization process and gain some insight into the various ways in which it is explored by theorists.

What is Secularization?

For quite some time now, Americans have argued vehemently over the role of religion in society. In public schools, for example, references to God or lessons on the Bible have been a serious point of contention between religious sects and the wider society, largely because of the value that most Americans place on the separation between church and state. The reason that this is an important argument is because the United States is a secular society, which means that the social structure is not based on or tied to any one particular religion.

In sociology, the process by which a society moves away from a religious framework or foundation is known as secularization. For example, when the colonization of the United States began, many of the colonists held strong religious beliefs that guided their behavior and served as the structural framework of their society. As that society progressed, however, advances in science and technology, in addition to increased diversity among the population, meant that one single religion was no longer adequate as a framework and over time religion came to be replaced by other socio-cultural systems.

Secularization Theory

The role of religion in society has long been an area of focus for sociologists, with early considerations coming from prominent 19th century theorists like Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx. For example, in his writings on the origins of modern capitalism, Max Weber theorized that the development of European capitalism was rooted in the Protestant value of hard work. However, as society modernized, the connections between capitalism and religion, making capitalism a wholly secular pursuit.

Beginning in the late 1960s and 70s, sociologists again began to focus their attention on the declining influence of religion and the implications for the future. From their perspective, as societies become more modern, the need for and power of religion begins to decline. Depending on whose perspective you consult, there could be several reasons for this, but it can in many ways be attributed to rationality. For example, in the 14th century there existed many natural phenomena that people could not explain, and they turned to religion for answers. As the field of science expanded and provided answers outside of a religious context, the attribution of divine intervention in the human world began to lose credibility.

It is important to recognize that although the concept of secularization has been explored by many theorists for over a century, there is no single theory of secularization. Likewise, scholars tend to have different perspectives on why secularization occurs in society. Talcott Parsons, for example, suggests that secularization occurs when societies begin to assign certain purposes and authorities to other institutions when there is no longer a singular dominant faith. This, according to Parsons, is to ensure that societies will continue to evolve, even after religion is no longer the dominant social framework.

Tschannen's Levels of Secularization

In the late 20th century, Olivier Tschannen offered a streamlined and easily understandable explanation of the secularization process, which he suggested happens in three steps:

1) Social Differentiation: In step one, societies begin to move away from religion as a whole social framework, and instead assign it to a particular part of society and culture. For example, the separation of church and state means that church still has a role in public life, but it has comparatively little power.

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