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Modern Britain As A Secular Society Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1460 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The secularisation thesis which predicts the decline of religion in Modern Societies such as Britain, has become an important theory for religious change in the 20th century. Notable advocates of the secularist theory were Peter Berger and Bryan Wilson, both of which have similar definitions. Berger used the term to describe a process ‘by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.’ (Berger 1973) Wilson applied the term secularisation to ‘the process by which religious institutions, actions and consciousness lose their social significance.’ (Wilson 1982) Secularisation was not only used to illustrate the influence religion has on society, but also how it has been altered to deal with the changing values of society as it ceases to be the ‘cement’ of all social life and is slowly becoming privatised. (Hunt 2002) Secularisation is associated with Max Weber’s work as he explores one phase, ‘the disenchantment of the world’ that he regarded as a prominent aspect of Western Culture. (Weber 1930) Many contemporary scholars suggest that traditional religious practises and beliefs would not survive in the modern industrialised society. Not only this, there is also much dispute about whether contemporary society is less religious than past societies. Despite controversies surrounding the term, it can at least be recognised as an interpretive paradigm which allows us to describe and comprehend the interrelated themes of social and religious change in the West. (Hamilton 2001)

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Many theorists such as Tylor, Marx and later Freud all expected religion to fade away as science dominates the way of thinking in contemporary society. (Hamilton 2001) David Voas argues that secularisation in the United Kingdom is inevitable as commitments are ‘fuzzy’ and have no relevance in our lives. He believes that ‘fuzzy faithfuls’ attach no importance to church and that is it a phase before complete secularisation. (Voas 2008) An obvious example is the separation of the church and the state, as the church does not have control of the education system nor does it have control over the now capitalist economy. It could be said that religion is no longer part of our cultural preoccupations, fewer people come into contact with the church hence there is a decline. (Wilson 1982) For example, Anglican and Roman Catholic Church membership in the UK is projected to drop by 52% by 2020 (if current trends continue).REF HERE Increasing interest in other forms of unorthodox or fringe supernaturalism such as astrology, yoga and Transcendental Meditation. Berger and Luckmann (1967) highlight that instead of one religious tradition with a single, unchallenged worldview of the supernatural; there are now many divergent views. In some respects this is close to Wilsons view that one religion can no longer express and reinforce the values of society or sanctify its social institution. Another factor stressed by Wilson is the decline of community in the modern, bureaucratic and technical setting and how control is impersonal and removed from its former moral and ethical basis. (Wilson 1982) Berger, like Wilson, then argues further that religion has ceased to perform its traditional role of promoting social solidarity. In Modern Britain beliefs are seen as personal preferences and are no longer part and parcel of their membership of society. Berger also suggests that one can choose between one religious interpreter and another, hence there is competition between organisations. (Berger 1973) For example, in the UK alone, membership for the Church of Scientology has increased from 20,000 members and 12 churches in 1975, to 350,000 members and 55 churches in 2010. REF HERE The pluralistic situation where one can choose ones religion is also a situation, according to Berger and Luckmann, (1967) where can choose to turn to new religious movements, such as Scientology or can choose to disbelieve. Influential work by Max Weber (1958) discussed the reoccurring theme that science and rationality have eclipsed religion and that urbanization, technological advances and the growth of the capitalist economy are the reason for this significant change.

Britain is not a secular society:

There is much evidence against Modern Britain becoming a secular society, holding that religion is as much a part of modern society as it has been of any society in the past though its specific forms may indeed change. (Hamilton 2001) It is argued by some that we have a false view of the influence of religion in past societies and that there is as much irreligion as there is today. Theorists such as Bellah (1971) argue that since religion performs essential social functions in society, that it will return into the centre of our cultural preoccupations. Davie (1994) states that there are still many people who have core beliefs (for example, 35 percent of the UK describe themselves as a believer in God or a higher supreme) and identification with Christianity implies a rejection of the ‘classic’ secularisation model. Davies stresses that religion is changing but is not in terminal decline. For example, in the UK alone, every year within the Church of England there are approximately 110,000 Baptisms done and more than 55,000 couples married in the church.REF HERE Therefore, although church attendance may be in decline it does not necessarily or in itself indicate a decline in religion per se. It also emphasises that huge numbers of people in Britain have contact with the church at some point in their life. Many theorists such as Luckmann (1967) most notably at the beginning of his career, have simply denied that secularisation is taking place at all. The traditional forms of religion practised in the past no longer suit modern Britain and in place of these forms new practises are growing continuously. Shiner (1966) who refutes the secularisation thesis argues that the problem is

‘…of determining when and where we are able find the supposedly ‘religious’ age from which decline has commenced.’

Anthropologist Mary Douglas (1973) expands on this theory stating that there is no simple parallel between the supposedly ‘religious’ pre-industrial society and the Western World characterised by secularity. In addition, Brierley (2000) presented evidence from Britain that suggests that the number of people who would consider themselves atheists or agnostics has remained fairly consistent over the past few years at just under 27 percent. This evidence suggests that a sizeable majority of the population retain religious beliefs; therefore it would be wrong to say that Britain is becoming a secular society. This approach has been encouraged by Davie (1994) who characterises the situation in modern Britain as one of ‘believing without belonging.’ Widespread belief still remains but it is not expressed by institutional allegiance. Bellah (1964) believes that religion has undergone a process of individuation whereby people follow their own path to ‘ultimate meaning’ which is a truer form of religious expression since it is not enforced by established religious institutions or social pressures. The key point is that importance of religion has not declined in Modern Britain. Stark (1985) argued that religion will not lose its transcendental character despite the rationalism and scientific and technological basis of modern Britain.


The Secularisation thesis in relation to Modern Britain is complex model and one which has created much discussion amongst scholars. The main reason for this theory is primarily due to technological advancement and a shift in modern society from a reliance on faith and authority to a reliance on the logic of science enquiry and technology. It has been argued by many such as Wilson, Voas and Weber that religion has lost its social significance and is no longer the foci of our cultural preoccupations in modern Britain. Not only this, but religion is now a personal preference and not a ‘membership’ to be part of a society. Those opposing the secularisation thesis, notably, Grace Davie, Bellah, Mary Douglas and Stark (1985) argue that religion has altered to suit modern Britain and that there was just as much irreligion in past societies as there is today. Furthermore, a decline in church attendance does not suggest a decline in religion as many people in society still come into contact with the church at some point in their life and there are many people who still have core beliefs.


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