This essay will critically evaluate secularisation theory as a means of understanding the current state of religion within the United States.
The end of religion has for centuries been predicted with passionate conviction by a large portion of western academics and sociological commentators. Since the period of the Enlightenment and the rise of reason and science in the Western world, a great number of seminal thinkers have linked this supposed decline of religion and its waning influence in the public arena with the ongoing process of modernisation, a paradigm which has come to be known as secularisation theory. During the 20th century, writing on the sociological study of religion came to be dominated by this framework with many regarding it as “the master model of social inquiry” (Norris and Inglehart 2006). In the last few decades, however, critics of the theory have gained significant traction and some leading proponents have retracted their former support, culminating in Rodney Stark’s 1999 article Secularisation R.I.P. (Stark 1999). Criticism of secularisation theory can generally be traced back to the fundamental issue that has plagued sociologists since its inception; that of clearly defining what is meant by the term ‘secularisation’ as well as its antithesis in ‘religion’ and religiosity. Further, the United States - widely considered the most powerful nation in the modern world yet with a markedly religious citizenry – persists as a striking exception to the rule that modernity equals secularity. This essay will seek to evaluate the extent to which secularisation theory can be applied to the United States, offering an analysis of the most common approaches which have been used to define and measure secularisation and religious belief before examining a variety of explanations offered by social theorists for the state of religion in contemporary America. In doing so, this essay will evaluate the main criticisms against secularisation theory and consider alternative hypotheses before ultimately offering an assessment as to what degree the United States constitutes a genuine exception to the secularisation thesis.
Variations on the Secularisation Thesis:
When considering secularisation theory and its application to any particular context one of the most notably problematic factors sociologists have encountered is pinning down a conclusive definition, not only of secularisation but also its inevitable counterpoint, religion. Social theorists have struggled simply to pinpoint whether secularisation ought to be viewed as a process, an outcome, or both (Gorski and Altinordu 2008; Christiano, Swatos, and Kivisto 2008, 56) and in more recent decades numerous scholars have refrained from even narrowing down a definition at all, instead preferring to pontificate on the polemic nature of debate on the issue (Gorski and Altinordu 2008; Shiner 1967). However, even these works can be seen to approach the subject of secularisation from one of several standpoints. These standpoints can broadly be broken down into the following models, each of which offers a particular interpretation of the meaning of secularisation as well as the means by which it ought to be measured.
1. Secularisation as the end of religion:
Pioneers of secularisation theory, prominent among them Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, postulated that as reason and science gained hold and the world modernised religion would eventually fade out to the point where it ceased to exist; as Rodney Stark derisively explained it in his 1999 post-mortem on secularisation, “each generation has been confident that within another few decades… humans will “outgrow” belief in the supernatural” (Stark 1999, 249). Most contemporary literature has discredited this view with the majority of sociologists all but ruling out the idea of religion disappearing in the foreseeable future (Hout and Fischer 2002, 166; Christiano, Swatos, and Kivisto 2008, 62; Horton 2013, 38; Norris...
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