a) Declining church attendance - Hadway et al found that people in America lied in polls about going to
church and in fact the level of attendance claimed by interviewees was 83% higher than their
estimates of church attendance. The gap may be due to the fact it is still seen as normal to go to
Secularisation from within – the emphasis on traditional Christian beliefs and glorifying God has
declined and religion in America has become psychologised. The purpose of religion has changed
from seeking salvation to seeking personal development. Churchgoers are now less strict in their
adherence to traditional religious morality.
Religious diversity – Bruce identifies a trend towards practical relativism among Americans. That
involves the acceptance of the view that others had different beliefs to ones own. Alongside this, the
erosion of absolutism is the idea that people hold different views which undermines the assumption
that one set of beliefs are absolutely true.
b) As seen in Item A secularisation theorist argue that religion is declining in Britain. They present
various forms of evidence to support this view.
In 1966 Bryan Wilson argued that Western societies had been undergoing a long term process of
secularisation. An example of this is that church attendance had fallen from 40% i n the mid
nineteenth century to 10-15% in the 1960s. These trends have continued and only 6.3% of the
population attended church on Sundays in 2005 and is projected to fall even further by 2016.
Another example is also shown in Item A. Sunday school attendance has decline and only a small
proportion of children now attend. The English church census shows a decline in people attending
large religious organisations such as the Church of England and the Catholic Church.
Evidence about religious beliefs from over 60 years of opinion polls show that religious belief is
declining alongside the decline in church attendance. Robin Gill et al found a significant decline in
belief in a personal God and found that in 1950 only 23% replied no when asked if they were part of
any religion, whereas in 1996 this had increased to 43%.
The influence of religion as a social institution has also declined. In particular the state has taken over
many of the functions that the church used to perform. Thus, whereas religion once pervaded every
aspect of life, it has increasingly been relegated to the private sphere of the individual. An example is
that until the C19th, the churches provided education but now it is mainly provided by the state. The
number of clergy has fallen from 45,000 in 1900 to 34,000 in 2000. A lack of clergy on the ground in
local communities means the day to day influence of the church is reduced.
Sociologist have developed a variety of theories and concepts to explain the process of secularisation.
Many sociologists have argued the Western society has undergone a process of rationalisation in the
last few centuries. The most important of these is Max Weber. He argued that the Protestant
Reformation started a process of rationalisation of life in the west. This process undermined the
religious worldview and replaced it with the scientific outlook found in modern society.
Instead of the interventionist god of medieval Catholicism, Protestantism saw god as transcendent.
Although God created the world, he did not intervene in it. This meant that events were no longer to
be explained as the work of supernatural beings but as the predictable workings of natural forces. In
Weber’s view therefore, the Protestant Reformation begins the disenchantment of the world.
Following Weber, Bruce argues that the growth of a technological worldview has replaced
supernatural explanations of why things happen. A technological worldview leaves little room for
religion explanation in everyday life which only survive in areas where technology is least effective eg
praying for help if we have an illness. Bruce concludes that whilst scientific explanations do not
challenge religion directly, they have greatly reduced the scope for religious explanations.
Talcott Parsons defines structural differentiation as a process of specialisation that occurs with the
development of industrial society. Separate institutions develop to carry out functions that were
previously performed by a single institution. According to Parsons , structural differentiation leads to
disengagement of religion. Its functions are transferred to other institutions such as the state and it
becomes disconnected from wider society. Bruce agrees that religion has become separated from
wider society and lost many of its former functions.
The move from pre-industrial to industrial society to industrial society brings about the decline of
religion. Wilson argues that when religion lost its bases in stable local communities, it lost its vitality
and its hold over individuals.
The view that the decline of community causes the decline of religion has been criticised. Aldridge
points out that a community does not have to be in a particular area. Religion can be a source of
identity on a worldwide scale and Pentecostal groups often flourish in impersonal urban areas.
According to Berger another cause of secularisation is the trend towards religious diversity where
there are many interpretations of faith. After the Protestant Reformation society was no longer
unified under a single sacred canopy but instead diversity had created a plurality of life worlds.
Berger argues that diversity undermines the plausibility structure. Bruce sees the trend towards
religious diversity as the most important cause of secularisation.
Bruce also identifies two counter trends; cultural defence and cultural transition and he argues that
these show that religion is most likely to survive where it performs functions other than relating
individuals to the supernatural.
Some sociologists argue that a ‘spiritual revolution’ is taking place today where Christianity is giving
way to New Age beliefs and practices that emphasise personal development.
In their study of Kendal, Heelas and Woodhead found that traditional churches were losing support to
but evangelical churches were holding their own. They offer an explanation that New Age spirituality
has grown because of subjective turn in todays’ culture and as a result traditional religions are
declining. Heelas and Woodhead argue that a spiritual revolution has not taken place and conclude
that secularisation is occurring in Britain because the turn in beliefs but undermined the basis of
There are various forms of evidence which do seem to suggest that Britai n is becoming a secular
society. The decline in church attendance and the loss of institutional influence both suggest this.
There are also various ways of explaining why these changes have occurred and whilst some argue a
spiritual revolution has taken place, it is fair to say that the introduction of a technological world view
and diversity have had a huge effect on the influence of religion and it is therefore fair to say that
Britain is becoming a secular society.
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