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*In ASA format.
Religion and Social Change*
Anthony J. Yarbrough
University of Nebraska - Omaha
SOC 4850: Sociology of Religion
December 20, 2013
(last edited: February 17, 2014)
This paper examines secularization and other effects that social change has on organized
religion and individual religiosity, concluding that the final outcome will be a single
Religion and Social Change 2
Religion and Social Change
The Secularization Thesis--that secular empirical thought has been stamping out religious
ideologies in the Industrialized West--has been a fairly controversial tropic since its inception in
the 60s. The term became “part and parcel of the sociological lexicon” (Roberts and Yamane
2012:330), and a large fraction of research in Sociology of Religion has been aimed at proving,
disproving, or altering the thesis. This paper begins with the background of that thesis and its
alternative interpretations as one example of the effects of social change on religion and
religiosity and continues on to survey the other effects that various forms of social change has on
religion. The conclusion the author wishes to make is that religions will not go away completely,
but will instead merge as secular, empirical thought brings the corners of the world closer
together to form a single global religion.
THE SECULARIZATION AND NEOSECULARIZATION THESES
According to Roberts and Yamane (2012), sociologists have long recognized two ways in
which the United States (and many other industrialized countries) is becoming more secular. The
first is an increase in institutional differentiation. In many ancient societies, nearly every aspect
of life was under the control of the church. Now, government and business are both run with
little thought toward the will of God. The other is an increase in empiricism, both in the thought
processes of individuals and the actions of groups. Secularization can be defined as a
combination of these two factors or as “the declining scope of religious authority” (p. 336).
In the 1960s, the question was “are we becoming secularized?” and the answer was
“yes.” Peter Berger ( 2011) believed that secularization--“the process by which sectors of
Religion and Social Change 3
society are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols” (p. 107)--was
inevitable. Berger has since changed his position on the matter, but the idea of the inevitability of
absolute secularization is not completely dead, as Richard Dawkins (2007) has recently shown
I am optimistic that the physicists of our species will complete Einstein's dream and
discover the final theory of everything … [a]nd I am optimistic that this final scientific
enlightenment will deal an overdue deathblow to religion and other juvenile superstitions
Dawkins is not alone in this thought, but much of the sociological community has, like Berger,
changed to the opinion that secularization to the point of absolute dissolution of religion is not as
guaranteed as we once thought.
That said, secularization of some sort is a long established fact, both in institutional
differentiation and in increasing empiricism.1 2
Before the neosecularization movement, the
observation of these two aspects manifested itself either in a theory of religious decline or in a
theory of religious evolution.
Religious decline. Berger’s definition of secularization became the base that the religious
decline theory was built on. Berger ( 2011, 1979) did not bullet-point his thesis, but if I
might be allowed to, so as to make his logic slightly more clear, then it might look like this:
1. Religion is, as has been stated by Durkheim and others, the group practice of sacred
orthodoxy and orthopraxy; that is, it is the glue that holds society together.
Recent research by Rodney Stark (1999) and Roger Finke (Finke and Stark  2005) has
shown that religious adherence (affiliation with a religious organization)--an often used measure of
secularization--has not been declining in Europe and the U.S. over the past couple of centuries but has
instead, by some counts, been increasing during that time. However, this research denies neither
institutional differentiation nor the increased empiricism of individual thought.
Some neosecularization theorists concede the continued power of religion at the micro level and
stress the primacy of institutional differentiation and macro level secularization in the current debate
(Roberts and Yamane 2012:338-9). Even so, increased empiricism at the micro level in light of scientific
discovery has been (and continues to be) a long established fact (Stark and Bainbridge 1985 as cited in
Roberts and Yamane 2012:331).
Religion and Social Change 4
2. The strength of religion is the strongly held belief in only one possible view.
3. Empirical thought denies that anything is sacred (beyond being questioned) and
encourages differing viewpoints, not only in the various scientific realms, but also in
the individuals’ overall worldviews.
4. This pluralism relativizes all world-views and weakens religious conviction.
a. First, multiple conflicting, potentially legitimate worldviews gives rise to
doubts that any one can be deemed authoritative and absolute.
b. Second, the heretical imperative (that each person must choose a belief
system; Berger 1979) reduces the power of religion by reducing the freewill
initially inherent in choice.
5. Each religious institution must then cater to the public, thereby risking secular
dissolution from the inside, or cut itself off from outside influence and risk being
6. The consequences of this are two-fold:
a. Uncertainty about life’s meaning and purpose can (and will) disorient
individuals and cause existential anxiety.
b. Reduced societal religious consensus eliminates the “sacred canopy” that
protects a society and holds it together.
As an example of individual disorientation and existential anxiety, a recent Religious Studies
student at the University of Nebraska - Omaha3
started his collegiate career with the intent of
learning everything he could about his faith (Christianity) so that he could then share that
knowledge with the world. As his studies confronted him with several inconvenient facts, he
began to question his career choice and fought desperately to assimilate this new information
into a frame of reference that might not completely discredit everything Sunday School had
taught him. He is now, for the most part, a secularist, if not completely atheist. He now feels
fairly comfortable with his place in life, but this cannot reduce the anxiety he went through, and
he is still not as sure of himself as he once was.
As a final point, Berger viewed the secularization process as an unstoppable force. It
would be, in Berger’s opinion, bad for society, but it would happen regardless.
Religion and Social Change 5
Religious evolution. Secularization is, again, both institutional differentiation (especially,
with regards to religious institutions) and increasing rationalization (individually and within
groups). Historically, Berger’s theory of religious decline has been only one (now outmoded)
interpretation of these phenomena. Roberts and Yamane (2012) give us another interpretation,
furthered by Talcott Parsons, Robert Bellah and Andrew Greeley, of “religious evolution” or
increasing religious autonomy and complexity of thought. In its most basic form, this
interpretation states that religion and religious symbols are evolving in complexity and
significance alongside a continually evolving society just as they always have. Furthermore, this
view does not hold that secularization is bad.
Robert Bellah suggested that religious evolution is going through the most recent of five
stages, beginning with Durkheim’s Aborigines and ending with modern religious individualism.
In each stage, religious symbols have grown increasingly complex as religious life has grown
increasingly differentiated from the other public spheres. Through this evolutionary process,
theology is able to remain relevant as the ever more complex symbols maintain the capability of
affecting the lives of the laity, often without the people even knowing that these ancient symbols
still have a now indirect, implicit effect. These symbol systems, which thrive and evolve in the
minds of society at-large, continue to play a large role in the lives of the individuals and are the
greatest evidence that religiosity is not decreasing as the other secularization theorists thought,
but is instead (according to this interpretation) evolving.
Rodney Stark. Rodney Stark has spearheaded another interpretation similar in parts to the
first two and based primarily on rational choice theory. These theorists see the importance of
some aspects of religion declining as empirical methods fulfill an increasing number of specific
Religion and Social Change 6
needs but consider secularization to be self-limiting since empiricism cannot properly address
and replace the greater general compensators that religion offers.
Though there have likely always been a few interspersed throughout western society for
whom the inexistence of God was common sense, modern atheism arose in the early 1800s:
“Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzche, and Sigmund Freud
forged philosophies and scientific interpretations of reality which had no place for God,
[and] by the end of the century, a significant number of people were beginning to feel
that if God was not yet dead, it was the duty of rational, emancipated human beings to
kill him” (Armstrong 1993:346).
Herbert Spencer (1860) brought natural selection to the social sphere. Sigmund Freud defined the
psychoses that control us, and the American people welcomed his ideas as a way to make sense
of the reasons we behave the way we do. The poets and philosophers of the Romantic movement
fought against the rationalistic wave, arguing against theories that seemed to throw away every
form of imagination, theories that might reduce life to a state of existence in which no
transcendent truth could exist; however, the roots of atheism had taken hold on society, and
science was slowly displacing religion in nearly every realm of life (Armstrong 1993).
In light of scientific development, God of the Christian Bible now seemed inadequate at
best, vulnerable to the unstoppable empirical crusade. Because of this, Armstrong writes, some
of the clergy began developing theologies that might free God from “the inhibiting systems of
empirical thought” (1993:346). Even Nietzsche, in Thus Spake Zarathustra, pleaded with God
for him to return (Armstrong 1993:358).
Despite the best efforts of the clergy, religion continued to wane in importance until a
peak occurred in 1966. On April 8, Time Magazine published an article titled “Theology:
Toward a Hidden God” (This article is commonly known by the words on the issue’s cover page:
Religion and Social Change 7
“Is God Dead?”). The article described how the “death-of-god group” was trying to construct a
“theology without theos, without God” (Elson 1966:para. 2). This kick-started the sociological
study of secularization. The very next year, Peter Berger published The Sacred Canopy, the book
that defined “secularization” for the next few decades (Roberts and Yamane 2012:327-8).
Neosecularization theorists have decided that the phenomena are too complex for “God is
dead” or “Religion is evolving” to be adequate conclusions. This newer interpretation claims that
institutional differentiation and empiricist thought processes are increasing--with religion
possibly decreasing--to different extents in different societies and on different levels (p. 347).
The most obvious mark of neosecularization theory is the different levels at which the
process can occur: macro, meso and micro. Like the evolution theorists, neosecularization
theorists hold the macro (societal) level in highest regard. It is at this level that the religiosity of a
single entity has the most effect, and it is also at this level that religiosity and secularization can
best be observed. The sociologically minded can watch the increasing separation of church and
state as well as the increasing secularity of public discourse. Meso level secularity is primarily
concerned with individual religious organizations, though the theory could be applied to secular
organizations as well. Meso level secularization is measured in the increase of secular/empirical
administrative processes and the decrease in theological reasoning. This typically occurs as a
result of macro level secularity and the organizational expectations of greater society or micro
level secularity and the decreasing religiosity of the organization’s leading members. Most meso
level neosecularization research does not study secular organizations in the Western world
because the process has already run its course, and most decisions are made in government and
in business with little regard to what someone’s theology might deem most appropriate. The
Religion and Social Change 8
most difficult level to study conclusively is micro (individual) level secularity. The most
important question--one that is not often asked--is not “how often do you go to church?” but
rather, “how often does church affect your life; to what extent does theology factor into your
daily decision making process?” This is because the null hypothesis states that the scope of
religious authority is not decreasing. “Sheilaism,” the “Cindy Crawford religion” and the
Middletown studies all suggest that, despite a possible increase in church attendance and
affiliation, religion’s sphere of influence is waning.
The other major mark of neosecularization is the conclusion that each society is
experiencing the aforementioned phenomena at different rates. The result is that secularization is
no longer the end theory, but rather a variable to be studied.
RELIGIOUS EFFECTS OF SOCIAL CHANGE
Invariably, the secularization thesis shows that social change can cause changes in
religiosity. A public debate took off in early 2013 after three different research institutions
released similar results: approximately one-fifth of American adults do not claim a specific
religious affiliation. The General Social Survey, the Pew Research Center, and Gallup Daily
tracking all showed an increase in the number of religiously unaffiliated adult Americans over
the past several years. This indicates pretty clearly that secularization is a statistically verifiable
fact and not just hypothetical interpretation.
The GSS data showed an increase in the religiously unaffiliated (or “Nones”) from 8% in
1990 to 20% in 2012 (Hout, Fischer and Chaves 2013:1). Nevertheless, the study conducted by
sociological researchers from Berkeley and Duke claimed that “belief in God” is the “clearest,
Religion and Social Change 9
most direct summary of religious belief” (p. 4), and they used this marker to suggest that
religious belief itself is not declining. The atheist indicator (absolute disbelief in God) only
increased from 2% in 1991 to 3% in 2012. While this cannot be shown to be statistically
significant, Hout, Fischer, and Chaves do indicate that it is part of a continuing trend that has
persisted since 1965. 4
What Hout, Fischer and Chaves have shown is that the truth of the matter
is more complex than the original secularization theorists believed.
A closer examination of the data reveals patterns which hint at the cause. The individuals
likeliest to self-identify as having no religious preference are politically liberal, college-educated,
white males in their late teens and early twenties, living in the Western half of the country or in
the Northeastern states according to the GSS data. Liberals are approximately four times more
likely than their conservative counterparts to claim no religious preference. People with
advanced degrees are 50% more likely than high school drop-outs to claim “no religion.”
Caucasians generally show less religious preference than African Americans and/or Mexican
Americans. Concerning gender, men are also 50% more likely to prefer “no religion.” Younger
Americans are typically four to five times less religious than their elders. Finally, geographic
variation ranged from 28% unaffiliated in the Mountain Time Zone to 15% unaffiliated in the
South (pp. 2-3). For the most part, those who have been exposed the most to other worldviews
are most likely to claim “no affiliation.” Put in other words, increased exposure to secular
empirical thoughts seems to lead individuals through a “declining scope of religious authority”
(Roberts and Yamane 2012:336)--micro level secularization.
Statistical significance measures the likelihood that a perceived trend in a data set is not just a random
effect of the sampling technique used; a small enough trend in the population can be nearly impossible to prove. If
the statistical analysis had been applied to the 1965 figures and the 2012 figures instead of 1991 and 2012, then the
difference may have shown itself to be “statistically significant.”
Religion and Social Change 10
The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life (2012) found an increase of
unaffiliated Americans “from just over 15% [in 2007] to just under 20% [in 2012] of all U.S.
adults” (p. 9). Likewise, Gallup (2013) found an increase of 3.2% of the total adult American
population between 2008 and 2012, though most of that change occurred between 2009 and
2011. Pew also found the same generational difference and that being a registered Democrat or
leaning toward the Democratic Party significantly correlated with being religiously unaffiliated
(another sign that the progressively minded seem to secularize faster). Neither is this trend the
result of religious attitudes on college campuses nor “are the unaffiliated composed largely of
religious ‘seekers’ who are looking for a spiritual home and have not found it yet” (Pew
Research Center 2012:12). Despite the apparent apathy toward religious institutions, other
measures of religiosity remain as strong as ever. Seemingly contrary to the GSS data (but in line
with Hout’s other findings), The Pew Research Center found a decrease in the percentage of
adults who “never doubt the existence of God” (p. 18). A simple interpretation of this is that the
“God” religious symbol has evolved beyond the church walls of organized religion.
By Bruce’s (2002) definition, America is definitely secularizing: religion is less
important in secular institutions; individuals are attending religious services and performing
religious practices less often; and especially, the importance society places on organized
religious institutions is in decline. The Pew Research Center included a short list of reasons why
the “Nones” are on the rise. Among them was the connection between economic development
and secularization. This could mistakenly be seen as another variable, but it is already covered
by exposure to other worldviews; individuals living in more highly developed societies are more
likely to come into contact with external, still-plausible worldviews and are thus more likely to
find decreased personal significance of any religious worldview.
Religion and Social Change 11
By most accounts, the data clearly shows increasing secularity as a result of progressively
empirical thought. Though secularization is the most controversial form of religious change
resulting from social change (and often the easiest to identify), it is not the only manner in which
social change in other public spheres creates a change in the religiosity of a nation or the
The mass perception of increasing secularization often causes an increase in religiosity
sometimes termed “reverse secularization” (Farinas Dulce 2004; Tibi 2008);5
that particular effect is slightly beyond the scope of this paper.
Religious switching can be another effect of social change. Studies of religious switching
show that it correlates most highly with intermarriage and increased education (Roberts
and Yamane 2012:137), though it can be the result of increased empiricism or especially
of globalization (Varga 2002; Misra 2011).6
This effect is also slightly beyond the scope
of this paper, primarily because of its micro-level nature.
Three other effects of social change are orthodoxic evolution, orthopraxic evolution and
By “orthodoxic evolution,” I refer to the change in the beliefs of the laity and/or clergy of
a single religious group which occurs as a result of globalization and increasing empiricism.
The easiest example to point to--one that likely surfaces in most sociology of religion
courses in America--is the increasing liberal outlook of Christian Americans. Dr. David Moore
(2013) has pointed out to his classes that modern religious conservatives have more in common
with older religious liberals than with the conservatives of the 70s and 80s. This is, most likely, a
Maria Jose Farinas Dulce examines how multiple forms of fundamentalism occasionally unite
against modernity and how radicalized religious messages “reverse the very process of secularization of
the modern Western world" (2004:abstract). Bassam Tibi (2008) shows the shari’atization of civil matters
in some Islamic nations, which occurs in part as a result of Islamic fundamentalist defiance against
Ivan Varga (2002) reviews the effects of globalization on religion and religious identities to
include conversion and religious switching. Amalendu Misra (2011) examines the politics of conversion
in India as globalization brings Christians into the nation in droves.
Religion and Social Change 12
direct result of global and national current events shaping the views of the religious laity, which
in turn shapes the views of the church over time. An example of a recent and rather drastic
change is this quote from Pope Francis: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has
good will, who am I to judge?” (as quoted in Donadio 2013). The previous pope called
homosexuality “an intrinsic moral evil” (as quoted in Donadio 2013). These two statements show
a clear shift in the views of the Catholic Church.
As another example, Ke-hsien Huang’s (2013) dissertation looks at how Pentecostalism
in China has reformed itself into a “more rationalized, more institutionalized and less self-
closured group” (p. 3).
By “orthopraxic evolution,” I refer to the changes in the way religious people practice
their beliefs, changes that result from increasing globalization and increasing empirical thought.
Roberts and Yamane (2012) spend an entire chapter “highlight[ing] the benefits of ‘thinking
outside the (God) box’ for understanding religion in modern society” (p. 374). This occurs
primarily in the laity, but religious leaders like Billy Graham often recognize and use these
transformations to further spread their belief systems.
Televangelism is the first and best known major change in the way people practice
religion. Social life and entertainment moved from radio to TV in the 50s and 60s, and religion
followed suit. By 1986, over 15 million homes tuned into televised religious broadcasts every
week (p. 353). Likewise, the formation of the internet in the past couple of decades has led to
another shift in religious orthopraxy; websites like Lutheran.org, Hindu Online (a “.co”) and
Religious Movements (a “.org”) allow users and visitors alike an opportunity to be in church and
on Facebook at the same time. Additionally, nearly every major church in the US now has a
Religion and Social Change 13
Facebook page and a home site. Www.LifegateOmaha.com is the internet home of a church
whose main building is at 156th
Street and West Dodge Street in Omaha, Nebraska. The
website’s main purpose is to bring visitors into the church, but a carefully designed hotlink at the
top entices the user with an opportunity to “Watch the latest messages, commercials and
announcements!” (Lifegate Church 2013). It is now okay to miss church because those who do
can simply watch that week’s message at their own convenience, perhaps when Facebook
politics and mindless tweets have become too much to bear.
Furthermore, the move to the new media is not the only way the practice of religion
(especially Christianity in the post-modern world) has changed. Organizations like the Young
Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes have mixed
religion and sports so that religious ideals are now taught at practice and at camp.
The most significant change that religions go through is the process of religious merging
that occurs during cultural diffusion. The process of religious merging takes place as peoples
with very different backgrounds meet through conquest or immigration of one form or another.
There are countless examples of this: the ancient blending of Middle Eastern theologies (Porter
1993; Coogan 2011), Greco-Roman interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the First
Nations artwork of the Pacific Northwest (Townsend-Gault 1994; Larsen 2013).
The ancient Middle East saw several civilizations come and go in close proximity to one
another. Through this, many aspects of the ancient religions blurred together. The Sumerians,
Assyrians, Akkadians and Babylonians all had flood myths very similar to the Biblical narrative.
It is likely that the Sumerian myth is the oldest and was the prototype for the others (Porter
Religion and Social Change 14
1993:63). The creation myth of Genesis 1 also shares several elements with Enuma Elish--the
Babylonian myth (Coogan 2011:36).
In the first and second centuries, a new Jewish movement based on a belief that the long-
awaited Christ had finally come began to spread through the Greco-Roman world. The Hebrew
Scriptures were translated to Greek to accommodate this shift, and the new writings, which
would become canon, were written in Greek instead of Hebrew. As the oral traditions were
written down about Jesus (the Latinized version of Y’eshua, and yet another example of cultural
diffusion), the writers stressed the idea that he was the Hebrew savior according to the (now
Greek) ancient scriptures. The Hebrew word for maiden (“almah”) was translated into the Greek
word for virgin, and so conflicting stories in the New Testament writings portray Jesus as “born
of a virgin” even though it had never happened before. This example shows how this new branch
of Judaism evolved through globalization instead of dying out.
The twentieth century artwork of the Pacific Northwest gives us an example somewhat
closer to the stereotype. As the Europeans invaded the new land and formed Canada and the
United States, Canada’s First Nations artists began to create works of art showing the permeation
of Christianity throughout local belief systems. Don Yeomans created Raven on a Cross, which
“is open to at least two, potentially contradictory readings. One is the usurping of one way of
explaining the mysteries of the universe by another. The other is their alliance” (Townsend-Gault
1994:462). Wayne Alfred’s Christ at Gol-Go-Tha shows another First Nations interpretation of
the crucifixion story (Larsen 2013:72-3). Its primary portrayal is of the importance in Alfred’s
life of both First Nations artwork and Christianity, but it says something else in the context of
this paper: globalization is changing the way Christianity is being thought about and practiced.
Religion and Social Change 15
GLOBALIZATION AND RELIGIOUS CHANGE
Sociologists of the 60s and 70s thought globalization was bringing about an imminent
phase of religious decline, possibly to the point of the absolute extinction of religion. Several
great minds today believe religiosity is declining, and some of them hold on to a hope that such
“juvenile superstitions” will vanish completely one day, but the truth has proven itself to be far
more complex than that. The fact is that overall religiosity is not declining. The secularization
thesis was formed in-part on a failure to recognize non-traditional forms of religiosity;
Americans are not attending church as frequently as they used to, but it is because they are
finding, through globalization, alternative forms of religious practice and religious belief.
Millennia of increasing globalization have not extinguished the flames of religious belief.
All it has done, and all it will continue to do, is change the way religion is believed and
practiced. Religious beliefs and practices have merged since the dawn of human history, and the
only conclusion this paper can come to is that what has happened, will happen; eventually, the
religious atmosphere of the planet will comprise many local flavors of a single global religion.
Religion and Social Change 16
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