Although the secularisation debate in sociology has a number of different dimensions, involving arguments over issues like sacralisation, desacralisation, resacralisation, post-secularisation, religious fundamentalism and the like, one key assumption in the debate is rarely, if ever, questioned: the idea that “secularisation” is effectively a zero-sum game that consists of two, fundamentally-opposed, sides:

1. The Religious, defined in a variety of ways from the very narrow – adherence to what we might call conventional forms of religious practice (such as attendance at religious services) and belief (such as prayer) – to the very wide, which includes things like a range of New Age spiritual beliefs and practices. An even wider interpretation of “individual religiosity” might include something like Davie’s “believing without belonging” argument which, at it’s most elastic, can be used to argue that even within widely-secularised societies there is a fundamental core of religious belief. As a leading article in the conservative Spectator magazine put it (2017): “While fewer of us in Britain call ourselves Christian, we remain a country steeped in Christian values”.

Whatever the merits – or otherwise – of this particular argument, there’s little doubt the evidence relating to conventional religious practice and belief points in a quite specific direction. In the UK, for example, the 2017 British Social Attitudes survey notes:

• 50% of the UK population say they have no religion
• 75% of young people (18- to 24) say they have no religion
• Just under 1 million people attend church services each week. Depending how you count the UK population, a maximum of around 5% are regular worshippers.
• Around 6% of the UK population are “practising Christians” – defined as “people who read or listen to the Bible at least once a week, pray at least once a week and attend a church service at least once a month”.

In the USA, often cited as a “more religicised” or “resacralised” population, Routledge (2017) notes:

• 75% of the population reported “belonging to a religious group” (down from 95% 25 years ago). This “belonging” is, however, likely to be very weak (akin to people in the UK identifying with the “Church of England” rather than having any active engagement in that Church).
• Around 15 – 20% of the population are ”active churchgoers”
• Over the past 25 years “the percentage of Americans who reported being absolutely confident God exists dropped from 71% to 63%”.

2. The Secular defined in terms of a lack of religious practice, organisation or belief. In other words, everything that is not explicitly “religious”.

When this debate is conceived in zero-sum terms it follows that for one of these “sides” to win, the other must lose: in simple terms, either contemporary societies are becoming increasingly secularised or they are reinventing different forms of religious beliefs and behaviours that defies the idea of “simple secularisation”.

While both sides have, of course, a place in the evaluation of secularisation at a-level (it is arguably more-important to critically reflect on the journey rather than the eventual destination) it’s possible to add a further dimension to your students’ ability to successfully debate the issue by questioning the assumption that any decrease in religious organisation, practice or belief automatically means an increase in secular beliefs and behaviours.

And one way to do this is to introduce the concept of a belief in the paranormal.

Paranormal Beliefs and Behaviours

The paranormal is a widely-drawn set of ideas that encompasses such diverse phenomena as a belief in ghosts, the spirit world, hauntings, ufology, aliens, crop circles as interdimensional gateways, cryptids (a creature – such as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster – whose existence is unconfirmed by science) and much, much, more.

Paranormal beliefs can, for example, run from one extreme that touches upon religious ideas, images and practices (such as ghost-hunting that may also involve some form of religious or quasi-religious exorcism) to another – such as a belief in the existence of parallel dimensions – that has little or no religious content.

The key question “paranormal beliefs” introduces, however, is whether the decline in overtly religious beliefs and behaviours is indicative of a belief-shift that while it may, in some instances, be tenuously religious, is also not necessarily secular.

Routledge (2017), for example, suggests that the question “Are Americans becoming less religious?” can be answered by the observation that it “depends on what you mean by “religious”. In this respect he notes:

• 30% of Americans report they have felt in contact with someone who has died.
• 20% believe they have been in the presence of a ghost.
• 30% believe ghosts exist and can interact with and harm humans
• 60% hold supernatural or paranormal beliefs of some kind, including beliefs in reincarnation, spiritual energy and psychic powers.

Similarly, in the UK, Field (2017) notes:

• 36% believe in ghosts or spirits
• 16% believe in astrology / horoscopes
• 34% believe in life after death
• 49% believe in aliens / extra-terrestrials
• 51% believe in “karma”

Routledge suggests that the relationship between the religious, the secular and paranormal beliefs is a subtle one (notwithstanding one significant observation is the fact that “These American numbers are much higher than they were in previous decades, when more people reported being highly religious”). As he notes:

• People who do not frequently attend church are twice as likely to believe in ghosts as those who are regular churchgoers.

• The less religious people are, the more likely they are to endorse empirically unsupported ideas about U.F.O.s, intelligent aliens monitoring the lives of humans and related conspiracies about a government cover-up of these phenomena.”

If you’re interested, Routledge’s (psychological) research explains these observations in terms of the idea that:

“Interests in non-traditional supernatural and paranormal phenomena are driven by the same cognitive processes and motives that inspire religion…the link between low religiosity and belief in advanced alien visitors is at least partly explained by the pursuit of meaning. The less religious participants were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful. This lack of meaning was associated with a desire to find meaning, which in turn was associated with belief in U.F.O.s and alien visitors. But because beliefs about U.F.O.s and aliens do not explicitly invoke the supernatural and are couched in scientific and technological jargon, they may be more palatable to those who reject the metaphysics of more traditional religious systems”.

More-pertinently for our current purpose, perhaps, is the implication of an increase in “paranormal beliefs and behaviours” for the secularisation debate at a-level. What it suggests is that in both the UK and USA there is a large – and increasing – grey area between “the religious” and “the secular”.

While this is similar to “believing without belonging” – the idea certain “religious beliefs” (such as prayer in times of crisis, the baptism of children or wanting to be married in a religious setting) linger within a largely secularised society as a kind of privatised or non-organised religion – it offers a much stronger sense of “religious-type” behaviours and beliefs persisting inside a broadly-secular social framework. In other words, it suggests two interesting conclusions:

1. It radically expands what we might consider “religious-type” behaviour because paranormal beliefs and behaviours suggest there may be a relatively strong investment in these beliefs – far stronger than the generally-vague notion of “religious values”, for example.

2. The distinction between “the religious” and “the secular” is not one easily maintained in late-modern societies (for a variety of reasons we really don’t need to delve into here) and, as a consequence, we should perhaps consider the secularisation debate as a variable – rather than zero – sum game.

Share your thoughts on this post: