Secularisation theory – the idea that as societies modernise they become less-religious in outlook and governance – is not only a key component in the Sociology of Religion, it’s also a relatively complex set of ideas with which students need to get to grips when presenting a coherent evaluative argument around the topic in an exam.

One possible way to make it easier for students to structure such arguments is to get them to think along two related lines:

1. Belonging without Believing

This involves questioning the over-easy assumption that in pre-modern societies “religion was everywhere” in the sense that it both dominated people’s lives and involved a necessarily strong and lasting commitment to the religious beliefs and practices of, first the Roman Catholic Church and, subsequently, the Church of England.

While conventional measures of religiosity, such as church attendance, were clearly very, very, high in Medieval England we shouldn’t simply assume attendance equates to high levels of belief. There may well, for example, be a much wider set of social processes at work promoting religious attendance.

These range from, on the one hand, coercive forms of social control – there were huge normative pressures placed on people living in relatively small, close-knit, communities to conform to the prevailing religious orthodoxy in Medieval society – to, on the other, incentives to attend services that had little or nothing to do with religious beliefs and quite a lot to do with the generally harsh lives lived by the majority of the population.

For one thing, being given a day-off from back-breaking agricultural labour to attend church was probably seen as something of an attractive bonus rather than the largely-incomprehensible service it undoubtedly was for most. It wasn’t, for example, until the mid-16th century that the use of an English Bible – as opposed to one printed in Latin – was authorised. Even then it took until the early 17th century and the 1611 King James Version of the Bible before church services started to be conducted in English…

For another, religious feast days were important parts of the Medieval calendar in a society where popular forms of entertainment were severely lacking. Medieval peasants could, for example, count on at least one such feast a month ­- with something like Christmas extending over a couple of weeks – with the key qualification for such events being church membership. In contemporary parlance, a “strict door policy” meant that if you weren’t a member, you didn’t get in – which was probably sufficient for most to at least profess a certain level of belief in order to avail themselves of the benefits of membership.

One way to get a handle on this general idea – that an unknown number of people in the past attended religious services for reasons other than a strict set of religious convictions – is to think about contemporary events such as St Patrick’s Day. For the vast majority it’s highly-likely their reasons for celebrating have little or nothing to do with recognising the coming of Christianity to Ireland (the religious aspect) and more to do with a wide range of alternative explanations: from celebrating Irish identity to having a good time…

The general argument here, therefore, is that when considering the concept of secularisation it’s important not to see things like religious belief, as opposed to practice, as something that was necessarily very high in pre-modernity and, as a consequence of various forms of social change, much lower in modernity. The key point here, when comparing past and present, is that a high level of statistical uncertainty surrounds religious beliefs and practices in the past – just as, in rather different ways, they surround religious beliefs and practices in the present.

2. Believing without Belonging

The second aspect to understand in relation to secularisation, therefore, is that a range of contemporary research evidence suggests religious beliefs and practices are undergoing a process of diversification: one that has seen a marked decline in orthodox measures of secularisation, from falling attendance at religious services to the organisational disengagement of the Church from secular governance, that can be explained in two main ways:

Firstly, in terms of the idea that religious beliefs and practices in contemporary Western societies have become more individualised and individualistic. The classic expression of this is the idea that a substantial – if largely unknown – number of people hold some form of individual religious beliefs about things like God, heaven or sin that are rarely, if ever, expressed in organisational terms, such as attending a Church service.

The reasons for this are, of course, many and varied. One recent explanation for falling levels of church attendance in America, for example, argues that the existence of high-profile Christian Fundamentalist groups and Churches has created an “allergic reaction” amongst non-Fundamental or liberal Christians. While they may stop publicly attending religious services, they still maintain their private religious beliefs.

Secondly, in terms of changing definitions of “religiosity”, with a move away from conventional forms, such as attendance at organised religious services, towards more “unconventional forms” such as different expressions of spirituality – from yoga through witchcraft to an interest in the paranormal and a variety of New Age “spiritual therapies” – that tend to be both more-individualised and less socially visible.

The basic idea here, therefore, is that while various forms of organised religion in contemporary western societies appear to be in fundamental retreat and decline, we shouldn’t necessarily assume this is evidence of secularisation, per se.

It could, rather, be interpreted as changing forms of religious belief and expression…

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