Secularization Research Paper

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In its precise historical sense, ‘secularization’ refers to the transfer of persons, things, meanings, etc., from ecclesiastical or religious to civil or lay use. In its broadest sense, often postulated as a universal developmental process, secularization refers to the progressive decline of religious beliefs, practices, and institutions.

1. The Term ‘Secularization’

Etymologically, the term secularization derives from the medieval Latin word saeculum, with its dual temporal-spatial connotation of secular age and secular world. Such a semantic connotation points to the fact that social reality in medieval Christendom was structured through a system of classification which divided ‘this world’ into two heterogeneous realms or spheres, ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular.’ This was a particular, and historically rather unique, variant of the kind of universal dualist system of classification of social reality into sacred and profane realms, postulated by Emile Durkheim.

In fact, Western European Christendom was structured through a double dualist system of classification. There was, on the one hand, the dualism between ‘this world’ (the City of Man) and ‘the other world’ (the City of God). There was, on the other hand, the dualism within ‘this world’ between a ‘religious’ and a ‘secular’ sphere. Both dualisms were mediated, moreover, by the sacramental nature of the church, situated in the middle, simultaneously belonging to both worlds and, therefore, able to mediate sacramentally between the two.

The differentiation between the cloistered regular clergy and the secular clergy living in the world was one of the many manifestations of this dualism. The term secularization was first used in canon law to refer to the process whereby a religious monk left the cloister to return to the world and thus become a secular priest. In reference to an actual historical process, however, the term secularization was first used to signify the lay expropriation of monasteries, landholdings, and the mortmain wealth of the church after the Protestant Reformation. Thereafter, secularization has come to designate any transfer from religious or ecclesiastical to civil or lay use.

1.1 Secularization As A Historical Process

Secularization refers to the historical process whereby the dualist system within ‘this world’ and the sacramental structures of mediation between this world and the other world progressively break down until the medieval system of classification disappears. Max Weber’s expressive image of the breaking of the monastery walls remains perhaps the best graphic expression of this radical spatial restructuration initiated by the Protestant Reformation. This process, which Weber conceptualized as a general reorientation of religion from an other-worldly to an inner-worldly direction, is literally a process of secularization. Religious ‘callings’ are redirected to the saeculum. Salvation and religious perfection are no longer to be found in withdrawal from the world but in the midst of worldly secular activities. In fact, the symbolic wall separating the religious and the secular realms breaks down. The separation between ‘this world’ and ‘the other world,’ for the time being at least, remains. But, from now on, there will be only one single ‘this world,’ the secular one, within which religion will have to find its own place. To study what new systems of classification and differentiation emerge within this one secular world and what new place religion will have within it is precisely the analytical task of the theory of secularization.

Obviously, such a concept of secularization refers to a particular historical process of transformation of Western European Christian societies and might not be directly applicable to other non-Christian societies with very different modes of structuration of the sacred and profane realms. It could hardly be applicable, for instance, to such ‘religions’ as Confucianism or Taoism, insofar as they are not characterized by high tension with ‘the world’ and have no ecclesiastical organization. In a sense those religions which have always been ‘worldly’ and ‘lay’ do not need to undergo a process of secularization.

In itself such a spatial-structural concept of secularization describes only changes in the location of Christian religion from medieval to modern societies. It tells very little, however, about the extent and character of the religious beliefs, practices, and experiences of individuals and groups living in such societies. Yet the theory of secularization adopted by the modern social sciences incorporated the beliefs in progress and the critiques of religion of the Enlightenment and of Positivism and assumed that the historical process of secularization entailed the progressive decline of religion in the modern world. Thus, the theory of secularization became embedded in a philosophy of history that saw history as the progressive evolution of humanity from superstition to reason, from belief to unbelief, from religion to science.

2. The Secularization Paradigm

Secularization might have been the only theory within the social sciences that was able to attain the status of a paradigm. In one form or another, with the possible exception of Alexis de Tocqueville, Vilfredo Pareto, and William James, the thesis of secularization was shared by all the founders. Paradoxically, the consensus was such that for over a century the theory of secularization remained not only uncontested but also untested. Even Durkheim’s and Weber’s work, while serving as the foundation for later theories of secularization, offer scant empirical analysis of modern processes of secularization, particularly of the way in which those processes affect the place, nature and role of religion in the modern world. Even after freeing themselves from some of the rationalist and positivist prejudices about religion, they still share the major intellectual assumptions of the age about the future of religion.

For Durkheim, the old gods were growing old or already deAdvand the dysfunctional historical religions would not be able to compete with the new functional gods and secular moralities which modern societies were bound to generate. For Weber, the process of intellectual rationalization, carried to its culmination by modern science, had ended in the complete disenchantment of the world, while the functional differentiation of the secular spheres had displaced the old integrative monotheism, replacing it with the modern polytheism of values and their unceasing and irreconcilable struggle. The old churches remain only as a refuge for those ‘who cannot bear the fate of the times like a man’ and are willing to make the inevitable ‘intellectual sacrifice.’

Only in the 1960s one finds the first attempts to develop more systematic and empirically grounded formulations of the theory of secularization in the works of Acquaviva (1961), Berger (1967), Luckmann (1963), and Wilson (1966). It was then, at the very moment when theologians were celebrating the death of God and the secular city, that the first flaws in the theory became noticeable and the first systematic critiques were raised by Martin (1969) and Greeley (1972) in what constituted the first secularization debate. For the first time it became possible to separate the theory of secularization from its ideological origins in the Enlightenment critique of religion and to distinguish the theory of secularization, as a theory of the modern autonomous differentiation of the secular and the religious spheres, from the thesis that the end result of the process of modern differentiation would be the progressive erosion, decline and eventual disappearance of religion. Greeley (1972) already pointed out that the secularization of society, which he conceded, by no means implied the end of church religiosity, the emergence of ‘secular man,’ or the social irrelevance of religion in modern secular societies. Yet after three decades the secularization debate remains unabated. Defenders of the theory tend to point to the secularization of society and to the decline of church religiosity in Europe as substantiating evidence, while critics tend to emphasize the persistent religiosity in the United States and widespread signs of religious revival as damaging counterevidence that justify discarding the whole theory as a ‘myth.’

3. The Three Subtheses Of The Theory Of Secularization

Although it is often viewed as a single unified theory, the paradigm of secularization is actually made up of three different and disparate propositions: secularization as differentiation of the secular spheres from religious institutions and norms, secularization as general decline of religious beliefs and practices, and secularization as privatization or marginalization of religion to a privatized sphere. Strictly speaking, the core and central thesis of the theory of secularization is the conceptualization of the historical process of societal modernization as a process of functional differentiation and emancipation of the secular spheres—primarily the state, the economy, and science—from religion and the concomitant specialized and functional differentiation of religion within its own newly found religious sphere. The other subtheses, the decline and privatization of religion, were added as allegedly necessary structural consequences of the process of secularization. Maintaining this analytical distinction should allow the examination and testing of the validity of each of the three propositions independently of each other and thus refocus the often fruitless secularization debate into comparative historical analysis that could account for obviously different patterns of secularization.

3.1 The Differentiation And Secularization Of Society

The medieval dichotomous classification of reality into religious and secular realms was to a large extent dictated by the church. In this sense, the official perspective from which medieval societies saw themselves was a religious one. Everything within the saeculum remained an undifferentiated whole as long as it was viewed from the outside, from the perspective of the religious. The fall of the religious walls put an end to this dichotomous way of thinking and opened up an entire new space for processes of internal differentiation of the various secular spheres. Now, for the first time, the various secular spheres—politics, economics, law, science, art, etc.—could come fully into their own, become differentiated from each other, and follow what Weber called their ‘internal and lawful autonomy.’ The religious sphere, in turn, became a less central and spatially diminished sphere within the new secular system, but also a more internally differentiated one, specializing in ‘its own religious’ function and losing many other ‘nonreligious’ (clerical, educational, social welfare) functions (Luhmann 1977). The loss in functions entailed as well a significant loss in hegemony and power.

It is unnecessary to enter into the controversial search for first causes setting the modern process of differentiation into motion. It suffices to stress the role which four related and parallel developments played in undermining the medieval religious system of classification: the Protestant Reformation; the formation of modern states; the growth of modern capitalism; and the early modern scientific revolution. Each of the four developments contributed its own dynamic to modern processes of secularization. The four of them together were certainly more than sufficient to carry the process through.

The Protestant Reformation by undermining the universalist claims of the Roman Catholic church helped to destroy the old organic system of Western Christendom and to liberate the secular spheres from religious control. Protestantism also served to legitimate the rise of bourgeois man and of the new entrepreneurial classes, the rise of the modern sovereign state against the universal Christian monarchy, and the triumph of the new science against Catholic scholasticism. Moreover, Protestantism may also be viewed as a form of internal secularization, as the vehicle through which Christian religious contents were to assume institutionalized secular forms in modern societies, thereby erasing the religious/secular divide.

If the universalist claims of the church as a salvation organization were undermined by the religious pluralism introduced by the Reformation, its monopolist compulsory character was undermined by the rise of a modern secular state which progressively was able to concentrate and monopolize the means of violence and coercion within its territory. In the early absolutist phase the alliance of throne and altar became even more accentuated. The churches attempted to reproduce the model of Christendom at the national level, but all the territorial national churches, Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic, and Orthodox, fell under the caesaro–papist control of the absolutist state. As the political costs of enforcing conformity became too high, the principle cuius regio eius religio turned into the principle of religious tolerance and state neutrality towards privatized religion, the liberal state’s preferred form of religion. Eventually, new secular raison d’etat principles led to the constitutional separation of church and state, even though some countries such as England and the Scandinavian Lutheran countries may have maintained formal establishment.

Capitalism, that revolutionizing force in history which according to Marx ‘melts all that is solid into air and profanes all that is holy,’ had already sprouted within the womb of the old Christian society in the medieval towns. No other sphere of the saeculum would prove more secular and more unsusceptible to religious and moral regulation than the capitalist market. Nowhere is the transvaluation of values which takes place from Medieval to Puritan Christianity as radical and as evident as in the change of attitude towards ‘charity’—that most Christian of virtues— and towards poverty. Following Weber (1958), one could distinguish three phases and meanings of capitalist secularization: in the Puritan phase, ‘asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life’ and secular economic activities acquired the meaning and compulsion of a religious calling; in the utilitarian phase, as the religious roots dried out, the irrational compulsion turned into ‘sober economic virtue’ and ‘utilitarian worldlines’; finally, once capitalism ‘rests on mechanical foundations,’ it no longer needs religious or moral support and begins to penetrate and colonize the religious sphere itself, subjecting it to the logic of commodification (Berger 1967).

The conflict between the church and the new science, symbolized by the trial of Galileo, was not as much about the substantive truth or falsity of the new Copernican theory as it was about the validity of the claims of the new science to have discovered a new autonomous method of obtaining and verifying truth. The conflict was above all about science’s claims to differentiated autonomy from religion. The Newtonian Enlightenment established a new synthesis between faith and reason, which in Anglo-Saxon countries was to last until the Darwinian crisis of the second half of the nineteenth-century. Across the Channel, however, the Enlightenment became patently radicalized and militantly anti-religious. Science was transformed into a scientific and scientistic worldview which claimed to have replaced religion the way a new scientific paradigm replaces an outmoded one.

As each of these carriers—Protestantism, the modern state, modern capitalism, and modern science— developed different dynamics in different places and at different times, the patterns and the outcomes of the historical process of secularization varied accordingly. Yet it is striking how few comparative historical studies of secularization there are which would take these four, or other, variables into account. David Martin’s A General Theory of Secularization is perhaps the single prominent exception. Only when it comes to capitalism has it been nearly universally recognized that economic development affects the ‘rates of secularization,’ that is, the extent and relative distribution of religious beliefs and practices. This positive insight, however, turns into a blinder, when it is made into the sole variable accounting for different rates of secularization. As a result, those cases in which no positive correlation is found, as expected, between rates of secularization and rates of industrialization, urbanization, proletarianization, education, in short, with indicators of socio-economic development, are classified as ‘exceptions’ to the ‘rule.’

3.2 The Decline Of Religion Thesis

The assumption, often stated but mostly unstated, that religion in the modern world was declining and would likely continue to decline has been until recently a dominant postulate of the theory of secularization. It was based primarily on evidence from European societies showing that the closer people were involved in industrial production, the less religious they became, or at least, the less they took part in institutional church religiosity. The theory assumed that the European trends were universal and that non-European societies would evince similar rates of religious decline with increasing industrialization. It is this part of the theory which has proven patently wrong.

One should keep in mind the inherent difficulties in comparative studies of religion. Globally, the evidence is insufficient and very uneven. There is often no consensus as to what counts as religion and even when there is agreement on the object of study, there is likely to be disagreement on which of the dimensions of religiosity (membership affiliation, official vs. popular religion, beliefs, ritual and nonritual practices, experiences, doctrinal knowledge, and their behavioral and ethical effects) one should measure and how various dimensions should be ranked and compared.

Nevertheless, one can prudently state that since World War II, despite rapid increases in industrialization, urbanization, and education, most religious traditions in most parts of the world have either experienced some growth or maintained their vitality (Whaling 1987). The main exceptions were: the rapid decline of primal religions mostly in exchange for more ‘advanced’ ones (mainly Islam and Christianity), the sudden and dramatic decline of religion in communist countries, a process which is now being reversed after the fall of communism, and the continuous decline of religion throughout much of Western Europe (and, one could add, some of its colonial outposts such as Argentina, Uruguay, New Zealand, and Quebec).

What remains, therefore, as significant and overwhelming evidence is the progressive and apparently still continuing decline of religion in Western Europe. It is this evidence which has always served as the empirical basis for most theories of secularization. Were it not for the fact that religion shows no uniform sign of decline in Japan or the United States, two equally modern societies, one could still perhaps maintain the ‘modernizing’ developmentalist assumption that it is only a matter of time before the more ‘backward’ societies catch-up with the more ‘modern’ ones. But such an assumption is no longer tenable. Leaving aside the evidence from Japan, a case which should be crucial, however, for any attempt to develop a general theory of secularization, there is still the need to explain the obviously contrasting religious trends in Western Europe and the United States.

Until very recently, most of the comparative observations as well as attempts at explanation came from the European side. European visitors have always been struck by the vitality of American religion. The United States appeared simultaneously as the land of ‘perfect disestablishment’ and as ‘the land of religiosity par excellence.’ Yet, Europeans rarely felt compelled to put into question the thesis of the general decline of religion in view of the American counterevidence. Religious decline was so much taken for granted that what required an explanation was the American ‘deviation’ from the European ‘norm.’ The standard explanations have been either the expedient appeal to ‘American exceptionalism’ or the casuistic strategy to rule out the American evidence as irrelevant, because American religion was supposed to have become so ‘secular’ that it should no longer count as religion (Luckmann 1963).

From a global–historical perspective, however, it is the dramatic decline of religion in Europe that truly demands an explanation. A plausible answer would require a search for independent variables, for those independent carriers of secularization present in Europe but absent in the United States. Looking at the four historical carriers mentioned above, neither Protestantism nor capitalism would appear as plausible candidates. The state and scientific culture, however, could serve as plausible independent variables, since church–state relations and the scientific worldviews carried by the Enlightenment were significantly different in Europe and America.

What the United States never had was an absolutist state and its ecclesiastical counterpart, a caesaro– papist state church. It was the caesaro–papist embrace of throne and altar under absolutism that perhaps more than anything else determined the decline of church religion in Europe. Consistently throughout Europe, nonestablished churches and sects in most countries have been able to withstand the secularizing trends better than the established church. It was the very attempt to preserve and prolong Christendom in every state and thus to resist modern functional differentiation that nearly destroyed the churches in Europe.

The Enlightenment and its critique of religion became themselves independent carriers of processes of secularization wherever the established churches became obstacles to the modern process of functional differentiation or resisted the emancipation of the cognitive–scientific, political–practical, or aesthetic– expressive secular spheres from religious and ecclesiastical tutelage. In such cases, the Enlightenment critique of religion was usually adopted by social movements and political parties, becoming in the process a self-fulfilling prophecy. By contrast, wherever religion itself accepted, perhaps even furthered, the functional differentiation of the secular spheres from the religious sphere, the radical Enlightenment and its critique of religion became superfluous. Simply put, the more religions resist the process of modern differentiation, that is, secularization in the first sense, the more they will tend in the long run to suffer religious decline, that is, secularization in the second sense.

3.3 The Privatization Of Religion Thesis

As a corollary of the thesis of differentiation, religious disestablishment entails the privatization of religion. Religion becomes indeed ‘a private affair.’ Insofar as freedom of conscience, ‘the first freedom’ as well as the precondition of all modern freedoms, is related intrinsically to ‘the right to privacy’—to the modern institutionalization of a private sphere free from governmental intrusion as well as free from ecclesiastical control—and inasmuch as the right to privacy serves as the very foundation of modern liberalism and of modern individualism, then indeed the privatization of religion is essential to modern societies.

There is, however, another more radical version of the thesis of privatization which often appears as a corollary of the decline of religion thesis. In modern secular societies, whatever residual religion remains becomes so subjective and privatized that it turns ‘invisible,’ that is, marginal and irrelevant from a societal point of view. Not only are traditional religious institutions becoming increasingly irrelevant but, Luckmann (1963) adds, modern religion itself is no longer to be found inside the churches. The modern quest for salvation and personal meaning has with-drawn to the private sphere of the self. Significant for the structure of modern secular societies is the fact that this quest for subjective meaning is a strictly personal affair. The primary ‘public’ institutions (state, economy) no longer need or are interested in maintaining a sacred cosmos or a public religious worldview.

The functionalist thesis of privatization turns problematic when instead of being a falsifiable empirical theory of dominant historical trends, it becomes a prescriptive normative theory of how religious institutions ought to behave in the modern world. Unlike secular differentiation, which remains a structural trend that serves to define the very structure of modernity, the privatization of religion is a historical option, a ‘preferred option’ to be sure, but an option nonetheless. Privatization is preferred internally as evinced by general pietistic trends, by processes of religious individuation, and by the reflexive nature of modern religion. Privatization is constrained externally by structural trends of differentiation which force religion into a circumscribed and differentiated religious sphere. Above all, privatization is mandated ideologically by liberal categories of thought which permeate modern political and constitutional theories.

The theory of secularization should be free from such a liberal ideological bias and admit that there may be legitimate forms of ‘public’ religion in the modern world, which are not necessarily anti-modern fundamentalist reactions and which do not need to endanger either modern individual freedoms or modern differentiated structures. Many of the recent critiques and revisions of the paradigm of secularization derive from the fact that in the 1980s religions throughout the world thrust themselves unexpectedly into the public arena of moral and political con- testation, demonstrating that religions in the modern secular world continue and will likely continue to have a public dimension.


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