Secularization has a long history of theory relating to the idea that religion will become less powerful as a social institution with the progress of “modernity.”  For example, Berger defines the term as meaning: “The process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols” (1967:107).  Secularization perspectives are varied, but in general there are three levels upon which secularization is theorized to occur (see Tschannen 1991).  These are: 1) Macro – social differentiation; 2) Meso – the decline of significance of religion in organizations; and 3) Individual – a reduction in levels of practice, belief, or affiliation at the individual level.  A hotly debated topic concerns the degree to which secularization is an inevitable process as societies “modernize,” or whether instances of secularization are “exceptions” (see Davie 2002; Martin 1991).  Another source of contention is whether all three levels of secularization are necessarily linked together or whether processes at one level may occur without those at another.

Secularization was for a long period the dominant perspective on religious change in the social sciences.  Yet there has never been a single theory of secularization.  A family of theories drew on classical sociological theory.   Durkheim posited that increasing social differentiation as a result of the expanding social division of labor would lead to the separation of the sacred and secular realms.   Secular institutions would become predominate, the “collective conscience” generated by religious participation would erode, and the functions performed by religion would be taken over by newly specialized institutions, such as the nation-state and the education system.  Weber proposed that the increasing dominance of instrumental rationality in economic and political institutions was leading to the “disenchantment” of everyday life, and eventually the eclipse of religious reason.  Marx saw religion as little more than an ideological system for the justification and perpetuation of class domination, arguing that as class consciousness and materialism advanced religion would disappear.

In general, contemporary proponents of various secularization theories observe that modernity tends to erode religion’s plausibility, intensity, and authority. Further, these theories tend to posit the contemporary retreat of sacred institutions, the privatization of faith, and the “progressive shrinkage and decline of religion” in public life (Casanova 1994).   Within this broad consensus, however, there are a variety of theoretical positions.

Peter Berger (1967) offers a micro-level version of the theory that focuses on the plausibility of religious concepts.   He argues that changes in religious consciousness are due not only to science and the Enlightenment but also to the expanding social and cultural pluralism that is a central feature of liberalizing societies.  This confrontation with pluralism was posited to damage the plausibility of religious dogma.  When religious adherents encounter credible others with rival and fully incompatible claims to ultimate truth, their own certitudes begin to suffer.  In liberal societies, multiple religious and secular groups jostle for influence on the basis of philosophical and ethical claims, undercutting each of their claims to predominance, and ultimately leading to the privatization of religion in civil society.

There is also a macro version of the theory. In the decades following the Second World War, most social scientists expected convergence among the Western industrial democracies and, with varying degrees of lag, a general move toward modernity by the “developing” societies. Modernization was expected to bring prosperity and opportunity, initiating a “culture shift” to post-traditional values and lifestyles (Inglehart 1990). As Ronald Inglehart and Wayne Baker (2000) explain, “Modernization theorists … have argued that the world is changing in ways that erode traditional values. Economic development almost inevitably brings the decline of religion, parochialism and cultural differences.”  In fact, cross-national research does suggest a generally negative association between development and religiosity, though with some caveats.  More recently, the modernization theory of secularization has been modified. Neo-modernization theory now rejects the linear implications of past formulations and seeks to link the micro and macro-levels in its explanation for religious change.  The key micro-level factor is now held to be existential insecurity; the greater that insecurity, the more likely that people will be religious.  But where economic, political and social conditions have improved such that personal security improves, religion loses its impact.  This does not mean that the world is growing secular, however, since most of the world’s population growth is occurring in the poorest, most unstable, and most traditional societies (Norris and Inglehart 2004).

There is no unified theory of secularization, and some of the mechanisms proposed by secularization theorists seem to remain obscure. In addition, it is not clear why indicators of “secularization” are high in some modern societies – for instance, in many Western European societies – but lower in others such as the United States, or why some countries that are far less developed than the Western industrial democracies are more irreligious.  Berger (2002), once a prominent proponent of the secularization thesis, now declares, “Our age is not an age of secularization. On the contrary, it is an age of exuberant religiosity, much of it in the form of passionate movements with global outreach.”  Social scientists proposing the religious economies model have generally been highly skeptical of secularization theory. Rodney Stark (1999) advised that the thesis be left to “rest in peace”; contrary evidence and theoretical shortcomings effectively consigning it to the dustbin of history.

Others note that secularization often appears to be an intentional political project, rather than a spontaneous socio-cultural development (Smith 2003; Froese 2009).  Many studies identify the central role played by church–state institutions in causing variation in secularization across societies. Political mobilization on the basis of religion is often triggered by the efforts of political elites to reduce the public role of religion (institutional secularization) or extend governmental authority to domains previously organized by religious organizations. State regulation or penetration into areas once dominated by religion often provokes conflict, especially where it threatens the influence of religious authorities. “Reasonable” government regulation of religious expression or activities in the interest of secularization is often viewed as an attack on religion.

Finally, there are the new cultural approaches to secularization theory that argue against linear secularization narratives but still contend that secularization is manifest in the pluralism of religious worldviews and highly individualized assemblages of religious and supernatural beliefs. As is becoming apparent in Europe and the United States, even where belief in the supernatural remains, denominational and confessional attachments appear to be weakening.  As a result, religious preferences are becoming more individualized, the status of orthodox religious authorities is diminishing, and growing proportions of people seek a spirituality divorced from conventional religion (Lambert 2004).  As Phil Gorski (2005) aptly puts it, “the weakening of traditional Christianity appears not as a decline of religion per se … but as a return to polysemism, since the new worldviews are not uniformly theistic.”  Thus it is not that religion inevitably declines but that religion as it has been theologically and institutionally understood in the West for the last several centuries is being irresistibly altered.


Berger, Peter L. 1967. The Sacred Canopy. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Bruce, Steve. 2002. God is Dead: Secularization in the West. Blackwell Publishers.

Casanova, Jose. 1994. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Chaves, Mark.  1994.  “Secularization as Declining Religious Authority.”  Social Forces 72:749-774.

Davie, Grace.  2002.  Europe: The Exceptional Case: Parameters of Faith in the Modern World.  London: Dartman, Longman, and Todd.

Froese, Paul D. 2009. The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gorski, Philip. 2005. “The Return of the Repressed: Religion and the Political Unconscious of Historical Sociology.” In Remaking Modernity, edited by J. Adams, E. Clemens, and A.Orloff. Durham: Duke University Press.

Gorski, Philip and Ates Altinordu.  2008.  “After Secularization.”  Annual Review of Sociology 34:55-85.

Inglehart, Ronald. 1990. Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society. Princeton: Princeton University Press,.

Inglehart, Ronald and Wayne Baker. 2000. “Modernization, Cultural Change, and the Persistence of Traditional Values.” American Sociological Review 65(1):81–82.

Lambert, Y. 2004. “A Turning Point in Religious Evolution in Europe.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 19(1):29–45.

Martin, David.  1991.  “The Secularization Issue: Prospect and Retrospect.”  British Journal of Sociology 42(3):465-74.

Norris, Pippa and Ronald Inglehart. 2004. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Christian. 2003. The Secular Revolution. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Stark, Rodney. 1999. “Secularization, R.I.P.” Sociology of Religion 60(3):249–73.

Tschannen, Oliver.  1991.  “The Secularization Paradigm: A Systematization.”  Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30:395-415

The following Concepts can potentially capture some of the ideas of this theory.

Irreligion refers to individuals who are “not religious.”  This can refer to a number of different dimensions including religious affiliation, belief, practice, and identification.  Absence of affiliation refers to those who claim “no religion.”  Although often conflated with atheism or agnosticism, research indicates that people may believe without belonging, or vice versa.  Irreligion may also refer to those who never engage in religious practice or do not consider themselves to be religious.  Due to the diversity of potential paths of operationalization, conceptualization and measurement significantly influence the proportion of individuals in a given area who are considered irreligious.  Research also indicates that individuals may move in and out of irreligion over the life course.

Pluralism refers to the amount of religious diversity in a given area.  Rather than being a simple count of the number of different religions, it is typically defined as the amount of “evenness” with regard religious affiliation in an area. Secularization and religious economies perspectives are at odds over the consequences of pluralism, with the former positing that it leads to increasing irreligion and privatization, while the latter suggests that increased religious competition fosters strength in religious organizations (cf. Berger 1967; Bruce 2002; Finke and Stark 1988, 1998; Stark, Finke, and Iannaccone 1995).  Pluralism has frequently been measured with the Herfindahl index; however the debate over the consequences of pluralism for religious vitality remains unresolved due to methodological problems resulting from the use of the Herfindahl index to predict adherence rates (see Voas, Olson, and Crockett 2002).
This refers to one's level of religious commitment. It is most commonly measured through self-report of various practices. Frequency of attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer, and reading sacred texts are all potential indicators of religiosity.  However, beliefs such as Biblical literalism can also be used as indicators of religiosity, but they are limited in their general application due to a tradition-specific relevance.  It is also worth noting that religious groups vary in the frequency with which they require certain types of practice.  Other potential measures, such as how much money a person gives to their place of worship, are occasionally used.
The type and amount of religious actions an individual exhibits. Closely tied to the concept of religiosity, religious behavior focuses upon what individuals are doing in relation to religion specifically. The most commonly used measure of religious behavior is church or worship service attendance. Research shows that the act of attending alone exerts a powerful influence on individuals. Private forms of practice such as frequency of prayer or the reading of sacred scriptures are also important considerations.  Other forms of religious behavior that can be operationalized are contributions toward, and participation in religious activities or entities outside of worship. Self-reported religious experience can also be used as a measure of religious behavior. This measure is less well-known and as such, utilized less in research.
On its most basic level, religious belief refers to views toward the supernatural. Usually paired in research with measures of religious tradition and religious behavior, measuring religious belief allows researchers to gain insight into what respondents are thinking concerning the supernatural. One of the most common religious belief measures is whether or not respondents believe in God. A new strain of research is focusing not just on if individuals believe in God, but specifically what they believe God to be like. The images of God variables are used to create various scales that have proven to be highly predictive of attitudes and behavior. Probably the most common religious belief measure used in religious research is biblical literalism. This variable grouped with religious tradition and religious behavior is a common set of religious controls for any statistical model. Beyond these religious beliefs, a less-used list of other beliefs exists. Belief in Hell, Jesus, salvation, Satan, angels, demons, heaven, or the "end times" provide a rich palate of possible research opportunities dealing with religious belief.
A person who does not report a religious affiliation or does not belong to a religious organization.  Although often conflated with atheism or agnosticism, affiliation and belief represent different forms of irreligion.  It has also been noted that many who fall into this category do so "liminally," oscillating between nominal religious affiliation and absence of affiliation (Lim, MacGregor, and Putnam 2010).
"The restrictions placed on the practice, profession, or selection of religion" (Grim and Finke, 2007:636).  Critical issues involved in assessing the amount of religious regulation in a given context include the level of separation or establishment between church and state, as well as the level of repression and coercion used against particular religious traditions.  The religious economies perspective posits that less regulation of religious markets results in greater overall levels of adherence, because the market can function freely and therefore meet a wider diversity of religious demand.  Conversely, greater regulation of religion is posited as leading to monopolistic religious firms that do not need to compete as rigorously for adherents and that will therefore have less interest in serving the needs of a wide variety of parishioners.
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