Secularization Essay

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Secularization is the result of the process of functional differentiation, which developed different sub-systems (e.g. economy, polity and family) performing particular functions for modern societies (production and distribution of goods and services; taking binding decisions and procreation and mutual support). To guarantee these functions and to communicate with their environment, organizations have been established (enterprises; political parties and families). Each of these organizations functions on the basis of its own medium (money; power; and love) and according to the values of their sub-system and its specific norms. Regarding religion, these organizations affirm their autonomy rejecting religiously prescribed rules – e.g. the separation of church and state; the rejection of church prescriptions about birth control, abortion and euthanasia – which allowed the development of functional rationality. Consequently, the influence of institutional religion is increasingly being confined to the religious sub-system itself. We may the define secularization as a process by which the overarching and transcendent religious system is reduced in modern functionally differentiated societies to a sub-system alongside other sub-systems, losing in this process its overarching claims over them it had in pre-modern times. This definition points out that the religious authorities of institutionalized religion have lost control over the other sub-systems.

Secularization can be an ”intended and recognized” consequence. Certain government policies are examples of such manifest secularization, which is called laicisation in France. This country gives a paradigmatic example of manifest secularization: the “laique Republic” is a constitutional principle, which implied the de-sacralization of authority, the separation of church and state and the autonomization of so-called secular institutions – e.g. medicine, law and education – vis-a-vis the Catholic Church in particular. Other examples are the secular Republic of Turkey and the establishment of secular Communist States in central and eastern Europe. However, secularization may also be an unintended and unrecognized consequence, i.e. a form of latent secularization. A good example of this is the introduction of the clock. at the turn of the fourteenth century. Time was no longer regulated by the time sequence of the monasteries which was based on bell ringing. The clock imposed a secular time order and time was also dissociated from God-given nature, which was provided by the sundial. Once the clock started regulating time it became controlled by humans (e.g. Daylight saving Time).

Consequently, secularization is not a mechanical evolutionary process, it is consciously or unconsciously human-made.   Neither is it a straightforward process, the de-secularization of former communist regimes attests to this. To rebuild society after the collapse of the communist regimes in 1989, religion served as a substitute for the communist ideology, alliances between church and state were to a certain extent re-established (e.g. in Russia), and religious classes were also re-introduced in school curricula in many of these countries.

On the individual level there are two aspects to be studied: compartmentalization and, what is traditionally called, individual secularization. Compartmentalization measures the impact of societal secularization on the secularization in the minds of individuals. Do people think in terms of the separation of institutional religion and the so-called societal subsystems? In other words, do they think that religion should not inform these sub-systems, that they are autonomous and that any interference of institutional religion in these sub-systems should be eradicated and disallowed? Individual secularization rejects religious authority, like the autonomous sub-systems reject religiously prescribed rules and societal secularization reduces institutional religion to its sub-system. More and more individuals became unchurched and many of the remaining church members do not take the set menu of their church but select ”a la carte” certain rituals, beliefs and moral prescriptions. However, individual secularization does not mean religious decline per se, since central in the definition is the reference to the lost power of the religious authorities of institutionalized religions to control individual religiousness. Consequently, a continuing individual religious sensitivity is not a falsification of secularization theory, but confirms it as does the use of the term spirituality in opposition to the term religion. Spirituality is non-dogmatic, it is flexible; it is a personal search, and God may not be the radical other,” nor the transcendent, but the immanent, the  God within.”


  1. Bauberot, J. (2005) Histoire de la laicite en France, 3rd enlarged edn. Presses Universitaires de France, Collection Que sais-je, no. 3571, Paris.
  2. Borowik, I. (ed.) (1999) Church—State Relations in Central and Eastern Europe. Nomos, Krakow.
  3. Dobbelaere, K. (2002) Secularization: An Analysis at Three Levels. P. I. E. Peter Lang, Gods, Humans and Religions series, no. 1, Brussels.

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