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Katarzyna zieliŃska

Concepts of religion in debates on secularisation

efining the concept of religion is a recurring was developed by religious institutions interested in
theme in the sociology of religion. Yet the con- understanding the changing nature of the religious
stant attempts to determine the subject of the practices of European and American populations af­
study do not necessarily indicate the immaturity of the ter World War II. The first sociological research on the
discipline. The ongoing discussions are rather part of a condition of religion was mostly done under the aus­
broader problem, as the acceptance or rejection of cer- pices of both the Catholic and Protestant Churches­,
tain understandings of the core concepts determines which limited the scope of interest of the researchers
the scope of the discipline’s field. More importantly, (Schreuder 1966, Dobbelaere 1968). Hence, in this
it also permits other concepts to be understood, along research religion was frequently understood in terms
with the social reality beyond them. Since the social based on the particularity of Christianity and its spe­
reality is changing under the influence of various dy-
cific institutional forms. Such a ‘religious heritage’ of
namics taking place in the contemporary globalised
the discipline became a subject of concern among the
world, so should the conceptual apparatus aiming at
sociologists in the 1960s and the early 1970s. Discus­
describing those dynamics. This paper aims to grasp
sions focused not only on the need to secularise the
this changing nature of the central concept – that of re-
discipline (Dobbelaere 2000: 435), but also pointed
ligion. This is done through analysis of the debate on
secularisation theories.
to the limitations of the concepts used in it, i.e. reli­
gion, religiosity, and secularisation (Robertson 1970,
Luckmann 1963).
Sociology of what? Struggling to define the subject In terms of the topic of this article, the discus­
Defining religion is a very difficult task, not only in sions on the concept of religion are of particular in­
the field of the sociology of religion but also in other terest. Initially, in the 1960s, the main theme was the
disciplines dealing with this phenomenon (e.g. the problem of what today might be called the cultural
philosophy of religion, religious studies). In the field embeddedness of the concept. Scholars pointed to
of the sociology of religion difficulties with defin­ the exclusive character of the definitions of religion
ing the subject of our studies can already be traced based on the Christian peculiarities and their ethno­
in the writings of the ‘founding fathers’ of sociology. centricity (Cohn and Klausner 1962: 25; Luckmann
Max Weber, at the beginning of his work on religion, 1963: 148). These early debates contributed to the
claimed that the definition of religion can only be attempts to redefine the concept and reach beyond
worked out at the end of a study, rather than at its the limitations imposed by Christian heri­tage. They
outset (Weber 1978: 399). Émile Durkheim pointed called for more inclusive definitions of religion. In
to the limitations stemming from the cultural embed­ this context Thomas Luckmann coined his defini­
dedness of defining concepts, which are meant to be tion of religion in which it is understood as ‘the
universal (Durkheim 2001: 25–6). Karl Marx, on the transcendence of bio­logical nature by the human
other hand, perceived religion as a product of alien­ organism’ (Luckmann 1967: 48). As a consequence,
ation which would disappear with the elimin­ation of ‘[f]rom the narrowly institutional, the notion of reli­
the conditions causing it (Marx and Engels 2008: 42). gion becomes quite simply part of being human; it
Attempts to define the subject matter of the soci­ is that which transcends biological nature’ (Davie
ology of religion were further complicated by the 1998: 148). Simi­larly, James E. Dittes (1969) spoke
‘religious heritage’ of the discipline itself. Initially it of secular religion as a phenomenon characteristic

25 Approaching Religion • Vol. 3, No. 1 • June 2013

of modern societies, where religious elements may Debates on secularisation – what are they about?
more likely be found in various spheres such as the The question of secularisation as a theoretical model
family and politics than in the religious sphere. Will or a social reality seems to be a recurring theme in
Herberg’s (1962) proposal of operationalised religion the sociology of religion. As early as the 1960s, when
and Robert Bellah’s (1967) notion of civil religion can the initial theories were constructed, scholars in the
also be interpreted in this spirit. field argued that the term was ideologically loaded
Deliberations on the subject of study continued in (Martin 1965: 182). Not only was the usage of the
the 1970s. However, then they concentrated largely concept criticised, but the existence of the seculari­
on the differences between substantial and functional sation process itself was put in doubt (Greeley 1972:
definitions of religion. They focused respectively on 2–3). Despite all reservations, theories about secu­
defining religion in terms of the contents of the phe­ larisation seemed to offer the best explanation for
nomena pertaining to it, or in terms of its place and the religious transformations taking place in mod­
role in the social and/or psychological systems (Berg­ ern (Western) societies. With time those approaches
er 1974: 126), and on the applicability of those defini­ were accepted by scholars in the field and widely used
tions (Berger 1974, Luckmann 1977). Both types of in interpretations of the observed changes regarding
definitions have their supporters and critics. Substan­ religion which were taking place in modern society.
tive definitions are often accused of being culturally Steadily, more and more empirical data showing
specific (King 1999 in Bruce 2011: 112; Dobbelaere the persistence, or resurgence, rather than weaken­
2011: 193). On the other hand functional definitions ing, of various religions started to challenge the as­
are often perceived as too inclusive (Bruce 2011: 110; sumptions behind secularisation theories. The crucial
Dobbelaere 2011: 192), difficult to operationalize moment from the point of view of an intensification
(Weigert 1974) and ideological (Berger 1974: 127). of the debate was the emergence of the first articles
Reaching beyond the question of the usefulness and presenting the arguments which outlined a theory of
validity of both types of definitions, some scholars religious economy, as described by Rodney Stark and
interpret these discussions as attempts to de-West­ William Sims Bainbridge (1980). The new theory, in
ernise the sociology of religion and as enabling the the opinion of its authors, would be better equipped
inclusion of non-Christian religions in the field of the to cope with the anomalous observations emanat­
sociology of religion (Voyé 2004). ing from the USA, which were problematic from the
Currently, the problem of defining the subject of point of view of secularisation theories. It was also
the discipline seems still to persist in the sociology of supposed to offer better explanations for changes tak­
religion (e.g. International Sociology Review, March ing place in other parts of the world.
2011). Yet constant attempts to determine the param­ Observations coming from around the world be­
eters of the subject do not necessarily indicate its im­ came a further challenge to the assumptions of the
maturity. The ongoing discussions are rather part of secularisation paradigm. Particularly the Islamic
a broader problem, as acceptance or rejection of cer­ Revolution in Iran, the growth of the New Christian
tain understandings of the core concepts determines Right and the emergence of religious fundamental­
the scope of the discipline’s field. More importantly, it isms and radicalisms contradicted assumptions about
also permits other concepts to be understood, along the separation of religion from the public sphere and
with the social reality beyond them. Since the social its privatisation (Casanova 1994, Shupe and Hadden
reality is changing under the influence of various dy­ 1998). The third element contributing to the discus­
namics taking place in the contemporary globalised sion was a growing number of new religious move­
world, so should the conceptual apparatus aiming at ments, as well as new forms of religion; phenomena
describing those dynamics. However, we may ask the particularly visible in Western Europe (Knoblauch
question: to what extent is this true? 2003). The old model was not able to deal success­
This paper aims to grasp the changing notion of fully with these observations, which in Kuhnian lan­
the central concept – that of religion. This is done guage could be called anomalies. Hence, it intensified
through an analysis of the debates about secularisa­ a debate on the limitations of the old paradigm and
tion theories which indicate well the widening focus­ the search for new approaches.
of the sociology of religion as it aims to embrace The discussion in question embraces the most re­
changing social realities. cent theoretical and empirical developments in the
sociology of religion, so the analysis of the arguments
of the dispute will allow hidden assumptions and

26 Approaching Religion • Vol. 3, No. 1 • June 2013

limitations to the conceptual apparatus of the discip­ porters of the secularisation approach. The authors of
line to be revealed. In the following I will attempt the rational choice theory of religion – the principal
to present the focus of these discussions and, more critics­of the secularisation thesis – define religion
importantly, indicate what they say about the under­ as the individual’s choice and experience. Therefore,
standing of religion in the field. The analysis will be secularisation is seen as the effect of a change at the
largely based on the works (i.e. academic journals, individual level and something which concerns indi­
monographs and collections) published from 1980 vidual beliefs, values, affiliations, practices and reli­
till 2006 – the period when the debate was in its most gious rites (Stark and Bainbridge 1981, Stark 1999).
dynamic phase. Publications emerging after that date They tend to see secularisation as the disappearance
seem to rather recycle the existing arguments than of religion at an individual level and – contrasting
add new dimensions to the discussion (e.g. Warner this claim with data on beliefs and practices of vari­
2010, Turner 2010). ous religions, including new religions – they show
the inade­quacy of the thesis. On the other hand, the
defenders of the secularisation theory are mostly
Theoretical issues concerned with the societal location of religion and
Critics of the secularisation thesis accused it of its power and strength. Consequently, they claim that
ideolo­gism and dogmatism. In their view seculari­ the main focus of the secularisation process is at soci­
sation theories are based on criticisms of religion etal level (Bruce 2013: 2). It is
stemming from the Enlightenment. The authors of
those theor­ies were supposed to be not only neutral a process by which the overarching and trans­
scholars, but people directly involved in the strug­ cendent religious system of old is being reduced
gles between new secular and old religious orders in a modern functionally differentiated society
(Hadden­ 1987: 590). As a consequence of this legacy to a subsystem alongside other subsystems, los­
the secularisation thesis was sacrificed, and the pro­ ing in this process its overarching claims over
cess of secularisation began to be treated as evident, the other subsystems. As a result, the societal
even without data supporting its persistence. The significance of religion is greatly diminished
secularisation thesis was ‘never either rigorously ex­ (Dobbelaere 1999: 232).
amined or even formulated explicitly and systematic­
ally’ (Casanova 1994: 17). Answering these accusa­ So it is a social process with social differentiation at
tions, the defenders of the secularisation paradigm its heart. Despite the various stances on the condi­
stressed that the first secularisation theories were try­ tions and consequences of that differentiation among
ing to explain the observable processes taking place different scholars, they stress that changes at the in­
on both sides of the Atlantic which were researched dividual level are only one possible consequence of
by the representa­tives of ‘religious sociology’ (Helle­ the secularisation process (Wilson 1981, Dobbelaere
mans 1998: 68; Berger 2001: 444). Therefore, in their 1981, Chaves 1994) and that the data on individual
view the secularisation thesis is not religiosity cannot be treated as
an ideology based on anti-religious its only credible and apt measure.
sentiments, but the first attempt at Philip Gorski argues that the iden­
developing a theory in the field of tification of secularisation with
the sociology of religion, based on its individual dimension means
empirical data indicating the de­ passing over its core assumptions
cline of religious practices and the and focusing on the peripheries of
weakening position of the Chris­ the secularisation thesis (Gorski
tian Churches. 2000: 142). Therefore, by focus­
Other areas of fervent discus­ ing on changes at the individual
sion concern attempts to define the level critics­ignore transformations
secularisation process, predictions at the societal level­, in particular
about the future of religion and changes in the relations between
the universality of the secularisa­ religion and other social institu­
tion model. Striking are the dif­ tions (Chaves 1994: 759).
ferences in the understanding of the phenomena of Discussions also focus on the question of the fu­
religion and secularisation between critics and sup­ ture of religion in modern and postmodern societies.

Approaching Religion • Vol. 3, No. 1 • June 2013

Opponents of secularisation theories claim that these Answering both these claims, supporters of the
theories see the future of religion as a linear process secularisation thesis stress that in most secularisa­
which involves an unavoidable disappearance of vari­ tion theories the process in question is not presented
ous aspects of religion (Warner 1993). The seculari­ as linear. Its patterns should be rather described as
sation process is ‘an irreversible trend that will, soon­ cyclical/spiral, dialectical, and paradoxical and ones
er or later, spell the end of religion and of religious which assume simultaneous occurrences of seculari­
organisations as a significant factor in advanced soci­ sation and sacralisation (Goldstein 2009: 158). The
eties’ (Stark and Bainbridge 1981: 161). Alternatively, secularisation process is ‘not universal, but context
they propose redefinition of the relationship between dependent and therefore often non-linear’ (Pickel
religion and modernity and argue for seeing cur­ 2011: 4). Moreover, the critics do not seem suffi­
rent developments as either a transformation of reli­ ciently to take into account the societal dimension
gion or a cyclical decline and resurgence of religion. and the role of new religions in social life (Lechner
The latter argument suggests that secularisation is a 1991: 1112). Even if new gods emerge, they will not
self-limiting process, initiating religious resurgence have an analogous influence on social life as that of
(Stark and Bainbridge 1981: 362). The former stand­ the old gods.
point claims that modernisation transforms religion, The analysis of the arguments of both sides allows
initiating the emergence of new religions or a trans­ for interesting observations regarding the under­
formation of those that already exist (Crippen 1988: standing of religion. The defenders of secularisation
332). theory seem in their claims to equate religion with its
Christian forms. This is suggested by both the geneal­
ogy of secularisation theory (i.e. the European experi­
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ence of Christianity) and by stressing the societal

dimension of religion (i.e. the experience of the dom­
inant Churches in the European context). The cases
used by the critics imply broader understandings of
religion including both old Christian Churches­and
denominations and new, individualised forms. Reli­
gion is changing its form and functions.

Empirical data as a challenge to the secularisation

thesis’s claims
The debate on secularisation became particularly
fierce when more and more data and observations
started to contradict the predictions of the seculari­
sation thesis. Analysis of the arguments used by both
sides allows us to uncover the normative assumptions
regarding religion on both sides of the discussion.

Age of piety?
The ‘age of piety’ is perceived as a period of time in
European history when Christianity maintained a
strong position, and is often used by secularisation
theories as a contrast to modern times. In other
words, it is often presented as a starting point for the
process of secularisation. Critics of the secularisation
thesis point to new historical research and stress that
there was no period of time when religion dominated
and the majority of the population was religious or
practising (Brown 1992: 38; Swatos and Christiano
1999: 220). As Stark comments:
Piety. British School, before 1626.

28 Approaching Religion • Vol. 3, No. 1 • June 2013

Everyone “knows” that once upon a time the resurgence and rise of religious organisations. Those
World was pious – that in olden days most processes spread unevenly in society – they had a dif­
people exhibited levels of religious practice and ferent impact, time and speed in its various strata and
concern that today linger only in isolated social locations and therefore the author calls for a more
subcultures such as the Amish, ultra-orthodox nuanced approach.
Jews, or Muslim fundamentalists. But, like so
many once-upon-a-time tales, this conception Pluralism – religious mobilisation or degradation?
of a pious past is mere nostalgia; most promin­ The interpretation of religious pluralism as the fate
ent historians of medieval religion now agree of religion in the modern world is one of the central
that there never was an “Age of Faith” (Stark elem­ents of the debates on secularisation. Secularisa­
1999: 255). tion theories interpret religious pluralism as a threat
to the credibility of a religion (Berger 1967, Wilson
Speaking of the decline of religion is therefore unjus­ 1966). Critics of secularisation offer contrasting in­
tified, as there was no time when religion was faring terpretations. In their opinion religious pluralism
better than it is now. is a consequence of deregulation, initiating the free
The defenders of the secularisation thesis answer religious market (Finke and Stark 1988: 42; Stark
by stressing that the age of piety means that there 1992: 262; Stark et al. 1995: 433; Greeley and Hout
were times when the social life and culture of a so­ 1999: 814). Churches, lacking the support and pro­
ciety were dominated and characterised by religion, tection of the state, depend only on the number and
and the entire life of a person was controlled by reli­ involvement of their believers; hence they need to
gious institutions (Bruce 2013: 5). They stress that the make an attractive and appealing offer to their adher­
process of secularisation does not mean the decline ents (Finke and Stark 1988: 42; Finke 1990). In this
of religious practices or of religious institutions’ in­ view religious pluralism causes religious resurgence
fluence on individual lives, but the disappearance of rather than decline. To support such claims Stark and
the social functions of religion (Wilson 1981: 207–8; his colleagues use a wide set of data on religious af­
Bruce 2002: 58). filiation, religious practices and beliefs from different
parts of the world and different historical periods
Early modernisation – religious decline or revival? (Iannacone 1991: 156–77; Stark et al. 1995: 191).
Critics of the secularisation thesis also refer to data Answering these claims, defenders of seculari­
presenting religion in early modern societies (the end sation theories stress that a distinction needs to be
of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth made between the presence of religions in someone’s
century) which, in their opinion, contradict the claim surroundings and the real availability of options. Ad­
about the decline of religiosity and weakening of re­ ditionally, deregulation of the religious market – a
ligious institutions. The data, mostly from the USA, necessary condition for religious pluralism – may
showing high levels of affiliation to religious insti­ be relative. In various regions of the USA one reli­
tutions, mostly Christian, in early modern times, is gious organisation functions informally as a domin­
used to prove the argument. It shows that migration ant mon­opoly and plays a crucial role in the social
from villages to cities and urbanisation did not re­ and pol­itical life of a given community (Bruce 1992:
sult in a decline in membership of various Churches, 191). Some scholars also challenge the research done
which on the contrary managed to successfully mo­ by Stark and his colleagues. David Voas and his team
bilise their members, even in industrialised areas draw attention to the incorrect interpretation of the
(Finke 1992: 156; Finke and Stark 1988: 43). results of the research. In their opinion a positive or
Hugh McLeod’s (1992) views can be presented negative correlation does not reflect dependences,
as a counter-argument to such claims. In his opin­ but is rather an artefact being a consequence of a
ion from the end of eighteenth century we can ob­ wrong construction of indicators. Moreover, these
serve periods of both religious decline and resur­ correlations differ depending on the measures of reli­
gence. In the second half of the nineteenth century giosity (e.g. church affiliation, church attendance).
the decline of religion was caused by various factors: They conclude by saying that it may be the case that
class conflict between the working, middle and up­ religious pluralism does not have any impact on reli­
per classes; the development of science; the growing gion (Voas et al. 2002: 213–19).
affluence of society and the rise of leisure activities. Other authors stress the contextual character
However, each of these factors could also initiate the of the relationship between pluralism and secu­

Approaching Religion • Vol. 3, No. 1 • June 2013

The European religious scene – secularisation or sacralisation?
Theories of secularisation were also challenged by the
data coming from Western Europe showing that tra­
ditional Churches persistently play an important role
in politics and policy-making (e.g. the influence of
the dominant Churches on family or abortion pol­icy)
(Minkenberg 2002), as well as in civil society (e.g.
they may define what religion is and through this ex­
clude potential competitors) (Knoblauch 2003: 270).
Research also seems to indicate their influential role
in shaping the culture of European societies (Casa­
nova 2004; Hervieu-Léger 2001: 125).
Arguments against the secularisation thesis are
also based on the discrepancy between various indi­
cators measuring individual religiosity; for ex­ample
the drop in religious affiliation on the one hand and
persistently high levels of belief in God on the other.
Critics also point to the process of religious individu­
larisation. Peter L. Berger aptly comments on this: alisation referring to the data showing such phenom­
‘[m]odernity pluralises the lifeworlds of individuals ena as ‘religion à la carte’, ‘religious bricolage’ or ‘be­
and consequently undermines all taken-for-granted lieving without belonging’.
certainties. This pluralisation may or may not be Refuting arguments regarding the discrepancy
secularising, depending on other factors in a given of the data on religiosity, Pippa Norris and Ronald
situ­ation’ (Berger 2001: 449). Inglehart stress that the secularisation process can
neither be confirmed nor rejected by using the data
USA – exception or rule? gathered over such a short period of time. Their own
Religious developments in the United States have research, collecting and comparing data on religious
always posed a challenge to the secularisation thesis affili­ation, church attendance and beliefs in religious
and often been referred to as an example in refutations dogmas gathered in various research projects from
of its claims (i.e. in terms of its high levels of church 1947 till 2001, shows a different picture of the dynam­
attendance, of church affiliation and of beliefs in re­ ics of the European religious scene. In most countries
ligious dogmas) (Sherkat and Ellison 1999, Greeley­ data on religious involvement shows a decline, de­
and Hout 1999). In response to this, defenders of the spite periodical fluctuations. The authors conclude
secularisation thesis point to some problems with the that ‘(t)rends in recent decades illustrate the consist­
way the data has been gathered and show that us­ ency of the secularisation process irrespective of the
ing indirect indicators presents a different picture of particular indicator or survey that is selected’ (Norris
the religious involvement of Americans (Hadaway et and Inglehart 2004: 87).
al. 1993). For example, using such indirect ways of However, most often the defenders of the secu­
measuring religious involvement indicated a decline larisation thesis stress the multidimensionality of the
in church attendance (Chaves and Stephens 2003: process and lack of a casual relationship between its
92). Also, the acceptance of the dogmas central to various levels (Dobbelaere 1999: 245). Furthermore,
the Christian belief system seemed to show a ten­ they argue that this approach mainly applies to the
dency to decline and their influence on individuals’ societal level, so the decline or temporary growth of
activ­ities was rather weak (Gorski 2000: 142; Chaves religious practices does not necessary mean the ab­
1994: 769). There is a consensus on both sides that sence of a secularisation process (Wilson 1998: 49).
the USA is, among the most affluent countries, still In the argument reviewed above, both sides of
one of the most religious (Norris and Inglehart 2004: the debate mostly use data on Christian Churches or
94). However, the inconsistency of data does not al­ denominations (in the case of the USA). The main
low for unambiguous interpretation, so we need to be indicators concern churchgoing, church membership
careful not to offer oversimplified stories about the and to a lesser extent individual religiosity (i.e. belief
secularisation process or to make excessively hasty in God) – the elements constitutive of the Christian
repudi­ations (Chaves and Stephens 2003: 93). tradition. So the term ‘religion’, used in general terms,

30 Approaching Religion • Vol. 3, No. 1 • June 2013

in fact reflects Christianity’s features and functions. peculiarity of the European experience in respect to
This claim is further supported by the fact that all the relationship between modernisation and secu­
the arguments are quite ethnocentric – they are geo­ larisation (Davie 2002).
graphically limited to the Euro-American context. As a result of the growing body of evidence, the
European experiences ceased to serve as a paradigm
Contextualising secularisation for understanding the relationship between mod­
Critics of the secularisation thesis also use data from ernisation and secularisation. In the European con­
the global religious scene showing that the develop­ text the secularising impact of modernisation was
ments taking place outside Europe do not confirm strengthened by those elements of European cul­
the predictions of secularisation theories; in particu­ ture which had their own secularising potential. In
lar claims that wherever modernisation happens it other cultural contexts the relationship between the
is accompanied by secularisation. Berger’s comment two may have a radically different effect. Examples
aptly redefines the relations between the two: coming from both the Middle East and the USA are
the best illustrations of the reverse impact of mod­
… the world, with some notable exceptions …, ernisation on religion (Inglehart and Baker 2000: 49).
is as religious as it has ever been, and in some The concept of multiple modernities (see Eisenstadt
places is more religious than ever. This, how­ever, 2000) came to be seen as particularly promising in
does not mean that there is no such thing as the attempts to grasp the complex relation between
secularisation; it only means that this phenom­ religion and various versions of modernity (Davie
enon is by no means the direct and inevitable 2007: 108–109).
result of modernity (Berger 2001: 445).
Religious innovations
The observations coming from the Middle East, with The final body of evidence which critics refer to is
the Islamic Revolution in Iran presented as a primary the data on the widespread existence of new religious
example, were most often used to challenge the link movements and phenomena connected to spiritual­
between modernisation and secularisation (Hadden ity. New religious movements were at the centre of
1987: 606; Berger 1999: 7–8). In various countries the attention of the authors of religious economy
of that region, secularisation did not emerge along theory. In their opinion the emergence of new reli­
with modernisation. On the contrary, modernisation gious movements is a natural stage of religious evolu­
initiated the revitalisation of Islam, often in its most tion and in fact a consequence of the secularisation
puritan and fundamental versions (Gellner 1992: 22). process, ‘[w]hen secularisation erodes the power of
Another example often used to contradict as­ respectable denominations, it leaves the market for
sumptions regarding the link between mod­ ernity general compensators first to the familiar intensity of
and secularisation is the success of conservative Prot­ sects and then to the novel innovations of cults’ (Stark
estantism, particularly in the post-colonial countries and Bainbridge 1996: 279). Proving their point, the
of Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Philip­ authors refer to the data showing a growing number
pines and Southern Asia (China and South Korea of new religious movements in the regions where tra­
in particular). Research also shows such success in ditional religions are weaker. Hence, the emergence
Western European countries (Great Britain, the of new religious movements is a direct effect of the
Netherlands and USA) as well as some of the post- secularisation process which, by stimulating religious
communist countries (e.g. Romania). Conversion to pluralism and religious competition, in fact contrib­
Protestantism, as was documented in the context of utes to the resurgence of religion.
Latin America, often means that religion becomes a Defenders of the secularisation thesis refuting
central value shaping the life of individuals, but also this argument interpret the presence of new religious
the success of those churches initiated a cultural movements in a strikingly different way – they stress
transform­ ation changing attitudes towards work the limited scope of the phenomenon and the lack
and consumption, as well as creating a new ethos of of a wider social impact associated with it (Lechner
education and a challenge to the traditional macho 1991: 111; Chaves 1994: 759). Furthermore, for some
model of masculinity (Berger 1999: 9; Martin 1999: scholars new religious movements present strong
37). Based on these observations from around the evidence supporting the secularisation thesis. In this
globe Grace Davie suggests adoption of the concept context Karel Dobbelaere speaks of secularisation at
of European religious exceptionalism, stressing the a meso level, which could also be called a religious

Approaching Religion • Vol. 3, No. 1 • June 2013

change. According to this argument the new reli­ Research in Europe confirms the growing popu­
gious movements focus on the immanent reality of larity of new religious forms, accompanied by the
mundanity so they should be perceived as a religious decline in traditional religiosity. Spirituality as a new
adaptation to the secularised world (Dobbelaere form of religion is non-institutional and at best has
1999: 235–6). a form of informal networks. Furthermore, it has a
Yet another argument against the secularisation very individualised character – such religions are
thesis focuses on the widespread presence of new chosen or constructed by the individual, according
religious forms in late modern Western societies, to his/her needs and preferences (Knoblauch 2003:
particularly in Europe. There are different labels used 271; Luckmann 2003: 282).
for these phenomena – new, post-industrial, alterna­ Supporters of the secularisation thesis offer a
tive types of religion or spirituality (Houtman and contrasting interpretation of the existence of invis­
Mascini­ 2002: 455). Focusing on this type of religion ible religions. In their opinion the presence of such
allows us to discover a completely different picture phenomena is proof of the secularisation process.
of the European religious scene than that described New Age/spirituality is ‘the example par excellence
by secularisation theory. In fact, the picture which of this latter possibility: a complex of spiritualities
emerges presents the religious situation in Europe which emerges on the foundation of a pluralistic
which is much more similar to the religious situation secular society’ (Hanegraaff 1999: 151). Addition­
around the globe. These new forms of religion/spir­ ally, the limited­scope of its occurrence as well as the
ituality are a consequence of modernisation which lack of its social influence are considered the main
did not eliminate the questions about the meaning weaknesses in attempts to use the phenomenon of
and aim of life, but only altered the subjects provid­ spirituality as an example of a challenge to the secu­
ing these answers. As Danièle Hervieu-Léger stresses, larisation process. Steve Bruce questions the possibil­
‘[t]o the same degree that modernity does not elimin­ ity of the phenomenon of spirituality reversing cur­
ate the question of sense, it quite certainly produces­ rent trends or initiating a wider process of religious
belief, but it produces atomised, shattered belief, revitalisation. In this context it is difficult to speak
reflecting, in its very crumbling, the reality lived by about refuting the secularisation thesis as for this,
those concerned’ (Hervieu-Léger 1998: 75). in Bruce’s opinion, the societal dimension is central
(Bruce 2002: 103–5). Resolving the disagreement
Paul Heelas­points to the subjectivisation thesis as
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the explan­ation for both the growth of new religious

forms and the decline of the old ones:

As the assumptions, beliefs, and values of the

autonomous self oriented toward the subjec­
tive life become more widespread in Western
cultures, there are progressively fewer tradition­
alists, conformists, or conservatives who are
willing to remain with places of religious wor­
ship, let alone to start attending. And autono­
mous selves are unlikely to participate in forms
of worship that require living by an order of
things not of their own making, rather than by
something from within their own (not depend­
ent) life. (Heelas 2006: 58)

The last arguments indicate the emerging difference

in understanding of religion on both sides of the de­
bate. The critics of the secularisation approach refer to
the data on non-Western religions (i.e. Islam) and the
highly individualised religious forms characteristic of
late modern societies. This implies an inclusive un­
Wilhelm von Kaulbach: Schmetterlinge, c. 1860. derstanding of religion, going beyond the Christian

32 Approaching Religion • Vol. 3, No. 1 • June 2013

bias. On the contrary, by stressing the societal loca­ Katarzyna Zielińska is Lecturer at
tion and power of religion, defenders of secularisation the Institute of Sociology of the
seem to still limit the concept of religion to its Chris­ Jagiellonian University. Her aca-
demic interests focus on religion in
tian forms, even if they do not explicitly admit it. contemporary societies, gender in
Central Eastern European societies
and transformations of collective
Secularisation – decline of what? identity. She has participated in
The debate on secularisation is an interesting case several research projects such as
‘Religion at the European Parlia-
study which reveals certain aspects of the under­
ment’ (RelEP) and ‘Reconstituting Democracy in Europe’
standing of religion in the contemporary sociology of (RECON). Currently she is a leader of the project ‘Religion
religion. The presented arguments for and against re­ in Polish Politics in the Context of the European Integra-
veal the normative assumptions (often implicit) lying tion’. Her recent publications include: Collective Identity
behind the dispute and allow the understanding of and Democracy in the Enlarging Europe (Peter Lang, 2012,
religion to be unpacked in the discussion as a whole. co-edited with M. Góra and Z. Mach); Democracy, State
and Society: European Integration in Central and Eastern
The defenders of the secularisation thesis frequently Europe (Jagiellonian University Press, 2011, co-edited with
stress the social importance and centrality of religion M. Góra). Email: Katarzyna.zielinska(at)
in social life in their attempts to refute the arguments
of the critics. Taking into account the fact that only
traditional religions have the experience of serving as References
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