Secularization Research Paper Starter


One of the reasons that religion continues to be important in modern society is because members of religious organizations frequently take a stand against some of the ills of society. However, in order to remain robust and attract new adherents, religious organizations need to demonstrate that they are relevant to each generation. A problem arises, however, when attempts at remaining relevant and changing to meet the societal expectations of a generation compromise the message of the religion. This is particularly easy to do in contemporary American culture, with its emphasis on skepticism, rationalism, and a postmodern rejection of certainty and absolute truth. When religions are unable to walk the line between relevance and secularization, they run the risk of being seen as irrelevant or of not being differentiated from other cultural institutions.

Keywords Adiaphora; Church; Empirical; Postmodernism; Secularization

Sociology of Religion: Secularization



For purposes of brevity, this article will primarily use Christianity as an example in its discussion. This is not to say that secularization does not occur in other religious traditions (for instance, Buddhist shrines have become tourist attractions in China, and Islam is commonly married with secular politics in the Middle East.) The example of Christianity is used primarily due to the widespread familiarity that most Americans have with that religion regardless of their faith tradition. For a detailed description of the variety of world religions see Huston Smith's (1991) World Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions.

It can be argued that in order to continue to survive, a religion must adapt to the times in order to be relevant to each generation. For example, no matter how sincerely contemporary Christian churches believe that they are adhering to the practices and beliefs of the first-century church, few if any of them are doing so in all aspects. In most churches, for example, very few Christians literally give away all that they own to the poor as dictated by the New Testament. Indeed, nearly every church is interpreting which doctrines are essential, core values and which are adiaphora and, therefore, open to interpretation. However, just how this interpretation is done is open to much debate and has even caused (and still threatens to cause) schism within the church. The results of one church's or theologian's exegesis on these matters may lead to a different conclusion than that of another church or theologian. The line between making a religion relevant and allowing it to become secularized can be a fine one.

Arguably, secularization has been a problem since the time that a difference between religion and secular society could first be distinguished. In the Hebrew Bible, for example, the Hebrew people are told that they have been "set apart from the nations" (Leviticus 20:24). In the Christian New Testament, St. Paul warns first-century Christians not to be "conformed to the pattern of this world" (Romans 12:2). Religions have always struggled to keep their unique identity and be faithful to their beliefs. Syncretism — the fusing of two or more different religious or philosophic belief systems, particularly with the end result of heterogeneity and loss of unique identity of the original systems — has been a related problem as religions were tempted to accommodate other beliefs. The Hebrew Bible describes how King Solomon's marriage to multiple pagan wives set up the scenario for a slide into syncretism, and the first-century Christians were similarly plagued by questions of what was and was not acceptable behavior vis–à-vis the religious acts of other religions. However, the modern use of the term “secularization” did not come into its own until the Age of Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment: Growing Skepticism

One of the roots of modern thought can be traced back to the attitude of skepticism that arose in Europe during the Enlightenment. This method of reasoning and approaching problems paved the way for today's scientific method. The popularization of skepticism, however, led to a questioning of tradition and the substitution of rational thought for faith. In Europe, rationalism (as exemplified by Rene Descartes) emphasized the application of the mind and mathematical ability as the surest source of knowledge. In Britain, empiricism (as exemplified by Francis Bacon and John Locke) emphasized the actual observation of the world as a primary basis for knowledge. This combination of skepticism, rationalism, and empiricism led to serious doubt about traditional religious belief in many quarters in the modern West. Secularism grew out of this worldview.

In general, secularization is the process of transforming a religion to a philosophy and worldview based primarily on reason and science rather than on faith and supernatural concepts. Through the process of secularization, religious groups and activities lose their religious significance. Although it would be easy to consider dismissing the Enlightenment and all outside influences in order to allow a religion to remain "pure," as mentioned above, it is important for religions to show their relevance to the problems of the current era. The majority of practitioners of most religions live in society and are a part of the contemporary culture for their age. Typically, it is the relatively few who can sequester themselves away from the influences of secular culture. Therefore, religions must make a reasoned response to the demands, mores, and standards of the secular world in order to demonstrate that they are still relevant to the needs of people. The line between relevance and secularization is often a fine one to walk.

Christianity: Seeking Relevance, Avoiding Secularism

An example of a religion in the throes of attempting to maintain relevance without becoming secular is Christianity in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Rapid advancement in technology has changed the way that many people today perform common activities. The fine art of letter writing is long dead in many sectors, having been replaced by the quickly typed e-mail message. Many academic lectures and professional briefings are now accompanied not only by charts and graphs but also by animation and computer presentation. People used to this type of culture and this level of technology are often left cold when faced with the trappings of an "old time religion" that does not incorporate such things. In addition to technological expectations, culture in general has changed. The sedate hymns and music of bygone years and centuries seem remote and out of touch. Many people relate better to hip-hop than to Bach, so fail to be touched by the worship forms of previous generations. Even the dress standards of the twenty-first century differ from those of the mid-twentieth century: White gloves and tuxedos are things of the past and have been replaced by polo shirts and blue jeans. It is difficult to explain to people who dress informally for the office that more formal attire is required to be respectful in church. Perhaps most importantly, however, is the increasing view of religion as irrelevant to the times and trials of twenty-first-century postmodern culture. The view of a religious leader as the holder of ultimate truth is rejected by many who question or reject claims of absolute certainty and objective truth in other areas of their lives.

Religious Modernization

Because of these factors, many religious institutions and organizations today seek to become more relevant to the needs and expectations of their target audience. In some cases, this merely means relaxing dress codes and introducing more contemporary forms into worship. In other cases, it may require embracing today's technology to meet modern societal expectations. In many cases, these are only tools and forms that make it easier for twenty-first-century individuals to see the relevance of and identify with a religion today — mere adiaphora that do not impact the core beliefs and values of the religion. However, there is the frequent and persistent fear that such accommodations to the trappings of the world may bring with them an accommodation in the core values as well. Postmodern skepticism can bring with it a concomitant rejection of doctrines central to a religion such as a disbelief in miracles or the refusal to see an accepted canon of scripture as the sole source of truth. As these things happen, religion becomes more and more like the culture that surrounds it and can lose its identity and power as a social institution.

Evolution of Other Religions

It is not only Christianity that is undergoing such debates and changes. Contemporary Judaism comprises various levels of adherence to tradition through the Orthodox, Reformed, and Conservative approaches. Whereas many orthodox groups would not consider the ordination of women rabbis, for example, the conservative and reform traditions do ordain women. Similarly, contemporary Islam is fraught with debate over the role (and even the dress) of women in the twenty-first century, with women taking on more active, less traditional roles in some quarters while being oppressed (at least by secular standards) and confined to traditional roles in others.

Cultural Secularization

In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), French sociologist Emile Durkheim separates the components of society into two types: sacred and profane. Sacred elements of society are those that are seen as extraordinary and holding great cultural meaning. These elements are often of a religious nature, but they are not necessarily religious. Lenin's tomb in the...

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