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Outline and assess the main positions in the secularisation debate

| February 8, 2017


This essay tackles the main positions of the secularisation debate. To begin with, this essay examines the ‘bottom up/demand-side’ theory of secularisation, which postulates that as societies go through the process of industrialisation, the religious values that underpin the societal fabric will inevitably erode as the citizenry become more impervious to spiritual pursuits. This essay also examines the importance of the ‘market’ approach to the theory of secularisation, arguing that the top down/supply side perspective is of fundamental significance in order to understand the persistence of religious practice in modern societies.


The secularisation debate has acquired a growing influence in recent years, due to the onset of the postmodern age. Postmodernism posits that in the age of instantaneous communications and ubiquitous access to technology, rigid and fixed classifications pertaining to religion, class, gender and race have been significantly eroded.  The main positions in the secularisation debate focus on two distinct approaches (Fitzgerald, 2000: 133). The first perspective that is postulated for examination relates to the ‘bottom up/demandside’ idea of secularisation. According to this view, as societies go through the process of industrialisation, the religious values that underpin the societal fabric will inevitably erode as the publics become more impervious to spiritual pursuits (Gauchet, 1999: 40). At the same time’, the ‘top down/supply side’ theory of secularisation, which highlights that the need for spirituality remains constant across national boundaries, places a great deal of emphasis on the role of religions institutions in maintaining adherence to theological principles.  This essay will begin by charting the idea that secularisation responds to the gradual phasing out of religious values in modern societies. The second part of the essay will concentrate in the manner in which these values are permanently re-imposed on societies by religious leaders and organisation. Crucially, the second section of the essay highlights the importance of the ‘market’ approach to the theory of secularisation, arguing that the top down/supply side perspective is of fundamental significance in order to understand the persistence of religious practice in modern societies.

The bottom up/demand side theory of secularisation

The main view propounded by this theory of secularisation is that the advent of the scientific method and rational observation as a method to create societal improvement has shaken the theological foundations that were influential in shaping the evolution of the Western world (Gauchet, 1999: 45). The erosion of supernatural interpretations of the nature of the world has been a permanent cultural phenomenon in the Western world since the advent of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on universal categorisation that could be subject to empirical observation and rational testability standards (Martin, 1993: 93). The rational template endorsed by industrialised societies rendered the theological claims imposed by the major religions incompatible with the needs of the existence of human collective that relied in an increasing manner on the benefits brought forward by technological advancement (Martin, 2005: 55). There was a gradual and consistent loss of religious faith in Western societies that ultimately resulted in the unravelling of theological practices and Church attendances (Martin, 1993: 97). In addition, this provoked a relative corrosion of the social and cultural meanings attached to religious identity, along with a move away from allegiance to political parties and organisations based on denominational values.  According to this theory of secularisation, religious and scientific values are at loggerheads, with a constant undermining of Bible teachings by making reference to the Darwinian teachings put together in the theory of evolution (Martin, 1969: 25).

The knowledge gained by society through scientific advancement and its application to technological improvements, coupled with the expansion of education opportunities, impacted on the cultural changes that were ushered in Western societies. It could be posited that the tenets of the Enlightenment undercut the metaphysical principles that were responsible for maintaining societal cohesion during the Middle Ages (Martin, 2005: 59). Thinkers like Max Weber stated that the onset of industrialisation and mass capitalism produced an environment of opinion conducive to reducing the idea of the supernatural to the domain of human rationality and subjected to the explanations taken from the hard sciences rather than making reference to metaphysical arguments (Gauchet, 1999: 49).

The attainments made by Western societies in the sciences and the feats that took place in the realm of engineering and technology has emphasised the importance of subjecting nature to the control of man (Bruce, 2002: 59).  These developments were responsible for a change of perception regarding the advent of personal tragedies and natural disasters on the part of a growing number of individuals, who started to regard those eventsin rational terms, instead of attributing them to mysterious forces outside the control of man. Accordingly, the intellectual authority held by religious ministers became just one of the sources of knowledge to be taken into account (Berger, 1969: 30). Their authority was put in direct competition with the people who displayed their professional expertise across many fields of study and who made use of the rational method. At the same time, the gradual \ separation between state and church that took place in many European nations and the United States, coupled with the emergence of bureaucratic apparati and modern political parties led to the discrediting of traditional religious institutions. The industrialisation of Western societies had attached to it a series of changes that impacted upon the ability of individuals to experience mystical experienced (Harris, 2005: 61). This includes the steep decline in communal life, the fragmentation between nature and man and the increased use of technology.  It is worth mentioning that the interpretation put forward by Max Weber regarding the bottom up/demand side theory of secularisation is based on the effects that the Lutheran Reform and the industrial revolution had on the development of political and religious life in Western Europe and North American (Idinopulos and Wilson, 1998: 101). The idea of disenchantment with the world, as propounded by Weber, compelled individuals to seek salvation in the pursuit of material gain, hence eroding the very foundations of transcendental Christian thinking (Tremlett, 2009: 22). The growing importance of Rationalism was necessarily conducive to being sceptical about the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient God, ultimately resulting in the debunking of religion as a method of explain natural phenomena (Bruce, 2002: 67).

It is also important to stress that a bottom up/demand side theory of secularisation can also be understood according the functionalist perspective underlined by Émile Durkheim (Durkheim, 1912, 1995: 73). The French sociologist identified the loss of functional purpose as one of the main reasons behind the erosion of the centrality of religion in the institutional make-up of modern societies (Norris, 2004: 130). This functionalist perspective highlights the idea that a scheme of theology does not just represent a system of beliefs about the nature of existence (Asad, 2003: 90). Instead, it is also a framework of actions concerning certain and certain rituals and symbolism that are performed to signpost the passage of time across the person’s natural lifespan (Durkheim, 1912, 1995: 30). These symbolisms were responsible for maintaining a high degree of social cohesion and stability, hence producing common goods that could be enjoyed by all members of society (Davie, 1994: 88). Conversely, the industrialisation Western European and North American societies generated the fragmentation of the social space by inducing process of technical differentiation that dispersed the sources of knowledge (Wilson, 1966: 76). The specialisation of knowledge production stripped the ecclesiastical authorities of the powers that they had in determining which epistemological approaches should be pursued and how the knowledge created was to be disseminated (McCutcheon, 2003: 119).  In addition, all the charity organisations of Christian extraction that had for centuries been in charge of providing for the disenfranchised members of society were replaced by welfare states subsidised by government institutions (Bruce, 2002: 62).  These events were the immediate result of the reappraisal of the role of religious doctrines and organisation. By the late nineteenth century, the doctrines and practices proposed by the Church were not deemed to be functional to the task of ensuring the material welfare of the population (Tremlett, 2009: 19). Instead, the state had become a kind of secular god that had encroached into many areas of the lives of individuals (Berger, 1969: 147). This entailed that the role of religious institutions were strictly confined to the personal realm; in the public domain, the faith gradually ceased to become a powerful force in the shaping of the political evolution of the nation.

The top up/supply side theory of secularisation

The views exposed in the previous section can be juxtaposed to the perspective highlighted by the top up/supply side theory of secularisation. This perspective underlines the conditions brought about by the spread of religious freedom in contemporary societies, which led to a competitive environment in the market for religious adherents amongst theological organisations (Davie, 1994: 93). This view makes an analogy between theological organisations and business firms, all of which struggle in order to capture a growing segment of the market. The top up/supply side theory of secularisation postulates that the competition between different religious denominations has a positive impact on the preservation of religion as a vibrant force in society (Asad, 2003: 33). This approach explains the manner in which, for example, the level of religious adherence is larger in countries like the United States, where the different theological denomination are engaged in permanent competition in order to attract new adherents (Idinopulos and Wilson, 1998: 111).  This theory puts forward the notion that an intense competition between the different denominations result in churches striving to keep a dynamic spiritual environment in their congregations, hence helping to retain the relevance of religion in their community (Harris, 2005: 58). In the United States, this has generated a situation in which the older denominations such as Lutherans, Catholics and Presbyterians are losing ground to the evangelical religious organisations.  Whilst the evangelical movements demand a great deal of effort on the part of the would-be adherents, they also offer a more intense religious experience than the older denominations; which seems to be a determinant factor in attracting support for their cause (Asad, 1993: 145).

Furthermore, the top up/supply side theory of secularisation posits that in cases where religious life is dominated by theological organisations that are directly subsidised by the state, the clergy seems to be less keen to engage with the community of believers, hence leading to the decay of spiritual life in their communities (Stark and Iannaccone, 1994: 232). This theoretical approach seems to replicate the idea that state-owned organisations, be them of an economic or religious nature, tend to be less innovative than private ones (Davie, 1994: 19). For example, in Northern Europe, the established Protestant churches are able to fend off the threat posed by other Christian denominations (Wilson, 1966: 58). This means that the clergy does not have to overexert itself in order to attract the attention of their would-be religious adherents (Asad, 2003: 14).  Consequently, this led to a situation in which religious attendance declined in a significant manner, since the number of options available in the spiritual market tends to be quite reduced (McCutcheon, 2003: 46). However, this does not explain the reasons behind the consistently high levels of religious attendance in Southern European and Latin American countries, in spite of the monopoly enjoyed by the Catholic Church (Martin, 1969: 28). It could be argued that a pluralist religious template as the basis for a high level of religious attendance represents a theoretical blueprint that can only be successfully applied to particular settings (Berger, 1969: 61).  It would appear that many of the tenets espoused by this particular theory of secularisation are not based on a sound methodological framework (Harris, 2005: 55). To be sure, the idea of a competitive religious market as an instrument that allows countries to reverse religious decline can only be applied to the United States, which is a society that has traditionally been based around the development of communal life; strongly informed by religious values in order to connect individuals to their particular cultural and geographical setting (Asad, 1993: 66). At the same time, it has been argued that the level of religious attendance have remained quite consistent across the ages, which entails that there have been no substantial secularisation process as a result of the onset of modernity (McCutcheon, 2003: 48). In addition, it has been noted that the ‘market’ theory of religion can provide a sound basis for explaining overall trends in religious adherence (Stark, 1999: 249). In fact, in Western societies, periods of low attendance alternated with periods of higher levels of religious fervour (Idinopulos and Wilson, 1998: 98). It is therefore important to concede the possibility that the top up/supply side theory of secularisation may provide with a sound framework of reference in order to examine the level of religious adherence in across the ages (Stark, 1993: 389). It would appear that the postmodern condition does not necessarily mar the possibility of a reconstitution of religious life along more fluid doctrinal lines (Stark, 1999: 260). This goes some way towards rebutting the assumptions put forward by the bottom up/demand side theory of secularisation (Wilson, 1966: 61). The ‘market’ interpretation of religious adherence may provide a better way of understanding the extent to which modern societies have been secularised (Wilson, 1966: 82). The dynamic interactions that take place in the social space give rise to the possibility of more fluid (and therefore more vibrant) religious denominational structures that may rehabilitate the spectrum of religious life in postmodern societies (Stark and Iannaccone, 1994: 231). It could be posited that this trend, directed from the top down and informed by a strong supply side approach borrowed from the field of economics, is ultimately a better way to understand the reasons behind the persistence of religious life in modern societies (Asad, 2003: 14).


By way of conclusion, it may be posited that the bottom up/demand side theory of secularisation provides with some interesting insights regarding the evolution of religious life in societies that have been affected by the process of industrialisation and modernisation, to be sure, the application of scientific methods of interpreting the nature of reality resulted in profound changes in the nature and extent of religious practice in Western European and North American societies (Berger, 1969: 77). The specialisation of technical knowledge production removed power from the religious authorities regarding the way in which knowledge was to be pursued, created and spread (Norris, 2004: 41).  Moreover, the onset of modernisation and industrialisation gave the state a great deal of power in order to provide welfare provisions for its citizens, hence stripping the church institutions of their functional purpose (Fitzgerald, 2000: 122).  Notwithstanding the validity of these arguments, they do not explain the persistence of religious attendance throughout the ages (Stark, 1993: 390). There seems to be an inherent human drive to seek the ultimate explanations of the nature of existence by referring to supernatural forces, which explains the resilience of religious practice across the ages. The postmodern condition has given rise to new forms of religious and spiritual practices that thrive thanks to the way in which they are able to utilise technology in order to fulfil their mission (Asad, 1993: 45). For all the reasons cited above, it could be concluded that the theory of secularisation fails to explain the continued interest shown by people in pursuing spiritual avenues for personal advancement; an interest that seems to be more vibrant than ever in the age of fluid doctrinal requirements for religious practice.


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