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International Relations: Secularization

At the beginning of the 21st century, growing religiosity and secularization are the direct causes of political, economic and social crisis affected modern society. Within the context of increasing secularization, religion undergoes two crucial changes. First, its authority is narrowed to an ever-diminishing realm, as social institutions differentiate from religion and rely upon alternative solutions. The social space left for sacred things becomes marked by the very instrumental reason that defines the conduct of public life in the secular sphere. Thus constrained and compromised, religion is rendered less and less plausible in the public sphere, and its influence decreases in the private sphere as well. Contemporary scholars who examine the effects of secularity on religion no longer posit the straightforward decline that Weber anticipated. Instead, theorists believe that American religion will survive as an important social institution, as data about church attendance and religious belief suggest. People think, secularity is affecting the internal contents of religion—its ideology, speech, and practice forcing it to undergo serious changes. Today, there is a long-teem growth in secularization caused by economic and political crisis.

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The growing importance of secularization can be explained by the fact that modern culture reflects traditional religious beliefs, articulations, and behavior, elbowing religious tenets and pronouncements into increasing conformity with the norms of the secular world. Topics of religious concern— the nature of God and his relationship to humankind, the problem of sin and the hope of salvation, the configuration of the individual person and responsibility to the community, explanation for evil and comfort for suffering—all are subject to adaptation as religion strives to make its place within modern secular culture (Ahlstrom, 2002).

Secularization refers to the shrinking sphere of plausibility of religion in the modern world, as religious explanations are rendered increasingly irrelevant. The social world of the modern West has been differentiated into domains of public and private life. As bureaucratic institutions have come to dominate the public sphere, the rational practices by which they operate have mooted religious explanations and procedures from application to public life. As a result, the only social space remaining to religious relevance is the private sphere, the domain of the individual and her close relationships, such as family and friends (Casanova, 1994). The migration of religion from the public to the private sphere has had multiple effects on religious speech. For one thing, it has constricted the scope of topics that religion may legitimately address. As religion is disconnected in the West from the institutional life of the state, the law, and the economy, topics concerning the conduct and goals of these public sphere activities are no longer seriously considered from a strictly religious point of view within the political forum. The public sphere no longer seriously entertains debate solely on religious grounds concerning issues of justice or morality (for example, the issues of abortion, the right to die, or acts of civil disobedience aimed at industries of war) (Yamane, 1997).

Modern approaches in secularization affect religious ideology through its tendency to separate religious tenets from one another. As religion becomes increasingly privatized, believers may decide not to accept the creeds or doctrines of their church as a “package deal.” Instead, they may exercise their freedom to pick and choose among church teachings, professing and following some and denying the importance or the relevance of others. Secularization determines the proliferation of socially legitimated ideologies in the West (Martin, 2002). The retreat of religion from the public sphere has been accompanied by a massive deinstitutionalization of religious belief and practice. The state has lost its power to constitute a single religious ideology or institution as official. No public body, including the state, has enforcement rights over the religious behavior of citizens. As a result, religion loses its ability to compel participation; the field is thus open to multiple religious ideologies competing for the allegiance of potential believers. This development has been abetted by the social forces of cultural diversity, including urbanization and the growth of the mass media. As life in cities forces subcultures into close proximity with one another, and as television, radio, films, and newspapers portray divergent lifestyles, people come into close contact with belief systems and ways of life other than those to which their group traditionally has adhered (Hall 1995).

As people are relatively freed to choose their religious affiliation, a condition arises which is much like that of an open market. Religious bodies vie with one another for believers, selling themselves as if they were commodities. In addition to competing with one another, religious organizations contend with overarching secular worldviews for believers (Martin, 2002). These worldviews, which offer a coherent, unified vision of life, much as does religion, help people to overcome social crisis and improve their self-esteem. The establishment of religion as a market commodity by the forces of pluralism has important implications for religious speech. First, it drives churches to supply potential believers—who are, in effect, comparison shoppers—with specific inducements to participate in one religious body rather than another, or in none at all. As might be expected, these inducements are based on the promise of benefits rather than on explicit or implicit threats for noncompliance. The deinstitutionalization of religion, and the accompanying change of faith, makes it difficult for any religion or denomination to claim a monopoly on truth. Therefore, threats that one will miss out on the chance for salvation and be punished in the afterlife if one does not adhere to a unique version of religion, lack plausibility in the modern context (Witten, 2002).

Secularization leads to religious pronouncements which become closer to secular ideologies. Theorists speculate that since most potential “consumers” of religion spend their everyday lives in a fully secular context, religious ideologies that lean too far in the direction of supernaturalism will appear contradictory to their routine experiences and will therefore be unacceptable. Thus, we see the tendency to demythologize religion, to soften or eliminate its traditionally supernatural content. This can take the form of omitting references to less commonly accepted spiritual entities such as the Devil, of giving explanations for putatively supernatural phenomena in natural vocabularies of common sense or psychology, and of stressing the human, as opposed to the supernatural, personality of the Christian God. The academic discourses of anthropology, history, philology, and comparative religion are invoked to make theological points (Witten, 2002). A related outcome, in a pluralistic world in which there is no clear right and wrong belief, is an increase in civility. Toleration of others’ beliefs is stressed, and points of similarity or relatedness between one’s own faith and that of others are marked (Wallis and Bruce 1992).

These tendencies damage traditional ideas of religious identity. Combined with the effects of rationalization, the availability of various competing religious options simultaneously loosens and tightens denominational self-definition. On the one hand, church organizations are forced toward isomorphism: In terms of their structures and their teachings, denominations increasingly come to resemble one another. Rationalization, as the element of secularity, entails the growth of practices in various areas of life that calculate the efficiency or effectiveness of alternative means to a given end. These include an emphasis on handling the affairs of everyday life, a focus on positive inducements for religious affiliation, and explanations of religious phenomena in secular terms of psychology or common sense. We should, however, also note the impact of rationalization on the formal structures of religious creeds and procedures (Hart, 2001). Generalization and systematization turn doctrines into mass-market commodities, easily comprehended and adopted by broad constituencies. For example, some researchers have noted the tendency of popular Christian speech to conflate the once-specific qualities of the persons of the Trinity into a general characterization of “God,” and, further, to reduce qualities of the deity into terms most amenable to straightforward understanding (Hadden, 1987).

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Some critics admit that there is a resistance to secularization. The group of strategies is associated, in its most marked forms within contemporary American Protestantism, with fundamentalist and some evangelical reactions to the modern world. Fundamentalism was self-consciously conceived as an attempt to protect central tenets of conservative Christianity, such as biblical inerrancy, from the onslaught of change developments within biblical criticism and from the Darwinian theory of evolution (Hall, 1995).

Modern religious believers sense that religious symbols have important functions other than that of referring to a set of supernatural truths. They feel that, in addition, the symbols themselves are available for use in order to make meanings. In effect, this belief about the dual role of symbolism makes possible a type of compartmentalization. On the one hand are the transcendent truths that the symbols have traditionally conveyed, which many modern people may not accept. But on the other hand are the symbols themselves, still resonant with significance even within a secular context, which can be used to construct a set of ultimate meanings for humankind. For example, for some contemporary Christians, the symbol of the cross may no longer plausibly refer to the accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as they appear in the gospels. For many people, the cross may take on significance in another way as speakers use it to condense and dramatize notions of suffering and its transcendence, or overwhelming love, or the possibilities of human transfiguration (Davidman, 1990).

In many communities, religion becomes the main way and approach of communication and serves as overarching themes to help give meaning to all of one’s life. Instead of propositional truths giving meaning to religion, it is religion that gives meaning to the propositional truths of other realms. For as religious practitioners orient around religious symbols and simultaneously recognize the socially constructed nature of meaning, as they are aware that, singly and collectively, they create the significations that these symbols have for them, they are bound together even so in the relations and obligations of the larger social order. The making of meaning is a serious business. It is fraught with issues of authority, of justice, and of moral responsibility, as many contemporary religious practitioners, struggling over issues of inclusiveness and fairness, well know (Hart, 2001). The seriousness of the task underscores the centrality of religion to human life, to persons and collectivities alike, even if religion may no longer lay claim to reflecting and recording the truth. Pluralization has created a situation wherein numerous forms of religious and secular belief and practice become available, which must be sold to potential consumers (Aldridge, 2000). Modern secularization leads to the process when religions renovate themselves as consumer items, which compete with others in a marketplace of creeds and practices. As religious speakers accept the need to market their pronouncements, they tacitly ratify the capitalist notion of consumer choice (Appleby and Scott 2000).

In sum, the growing importance of secularization is explained by increased social problems affected life of people. Positive inducements far outweigh threats for noncompliance in the sermons. Consonant with contemporary marketing practices, secularization is posed as an answer to consumer needs; religious adherence is seen as solving problems that arise in the psychological or practical everyday experience of men and women. When we examine the “benefits” of religion offered in the sermons against the backdrop of contemporary culture, we can see the problems that the benefits are meant to address. To counter the cold, calculating weight of social and political neutrality, the sermons offer self-esteem regardless of the merit one actually earns. In the context of a modern world that presupposes one’s need for intimacy, yet whose busyness and mobility make it difficult to attain, God is promised as a perfect interpersonal partner. In light of the uncertainties and complexities of contemporary pluralism, the speech holds forth the remission of anxiety and feelings of alienation. And as one’s expressive side is dampened by the rationalization of modern work, the sermons teach people how to “get in touch” with their feelings. This may provide additional evidence that the persistence of religion on the American scene is in part connected with the ubiquitous social need for transcendent coherence and meaning, which may set limits to the degree to which accommodation may take place.


Ahlstrom, Sidney. 2002. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Aldridge, A. 2000. Religion in the Contemporary World: A Sociological Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Appleby, R. Scott. 2000. The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield.

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Arjomand, Said, ed. 1993. The Political Dimensions of Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Casanova, Jose. 1994. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Davidman, Lynn. 1990. “Accommodation and Resistance: A Comparison of Two Contemporary Orthodox Jewish Groups.” Sociological Analysis 51: 35–51.

Hadden, Jeffrey K. 1987. “Toward Desacralizing Secularization Theory.” Social Forces 65: 587–611.

Hall, John A., ed., 1995. Civil Society: Theory, History, Comparison. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hart, Stephen. 2001. Cultural Dilemmas of Progressive Politics: Styles of Engagement among Grassroots Activists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Martin, David. 1978. A General Theory of Secularization. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wallis, Roy, and Steve Bruce. 1992. “Secularization: The Orthodox Model.” In Steve Bruce, ed., Religion and Modernization (pp. 8–30). New York: Oxford University Press.

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Witten, M. G. 2002. All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism. Princeton University Press.

Yamane, David. 1997. “Secularization on Trial: In Defense of a Neo-Secularization Paradigm.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36: 109–22.

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