How convincing are the arguments for the secularisation thesis?

Knowledge has been defined by Plato and more recently Alfred Ayer and his band of Logical Positivists as ‘justified true belief’. The most reliable- no, that is inaccurate, the only method we have in our current time to arrive at a kind of knowledge that satisfies all three of the above conditions is science- as far as the material world is concerned, anyway. Mathematics, logic and philosophy work well in the realm of abstract absolutes but they do not leave a person any space to justify their truths in an observable way. The logical positivists' philosophy has already been exposed as near logic-free beyond an intial, just barely satisfying look over, but this definition of knowledge is adequate for most things. Put in other words, the above definition means that to know something, one must be able to justify one’s belief that something is true.

(One might argue that this sort of knowledge includes things we might not even know we ‘knew’, but these avenues and side streets, should we include them in the following journey, would complicate the debate I intend to present to an unfunny level- it is best to simply agree with the definition for now.)

The scientific method is a rather beautiful thing as it provides the means of justification for our beliefs. So we can observe events in the material world and gradually bring together the pieces of the puzzle in a coherent way, incorporating new pieces into whatever theory is being developed as new discoveries are made, and form laws for the behaviour of objects at the macro- and microscopic levels and everything in between. The laws thus hypothesised may themselves be tested by using them to predict future events. In a controlled environment, circumstances that would push the tested objects to behave in the predicted manner are simulated and depending on how accurate the predictions were, the laws are either reinforced or replaced once the new information has been incorporated into the puzzle.

Sociology is a field of study that is only half scientific, and I am being very generous with this judgement. I say this because sociological laws cannot be put to the same kind of examination as in the scientific method. Societies cannot be observed scientifically- from the inside, the sociologist risks affecting the object, the society, simply by being there to observe it. To look in on a society from the outside removes the uncertainty from the question but any laws posited upon observation cannot immediately be tested for accuracy- the sociologist must wait and watch for something completely unprecedented to happen and until it does, his theories will remain mere theory. Even Darwinism may be assessed and proven by observation, and has been seen happening live at the cellular level, but societies are not fractals like life or matter and there is no self-similar level of society that may be used as a microcosmic equivalent of study. Societies are by definition hugely dissimilar to e.g. an individual or a family within them. But this is not to put the field down by any means- sociology has a different purpose from science, it is not its job to make predictions about its object of study, simply to join the dots of recorded historical facts and data. The only way to verify a sociological hypothesis is to wait for things to happen the way the theorist expected. If it turns out they were right all along, congratulations, but by that time they would probably have already been digested by worms.

The two greatest contributors to the field of sociology of their time, Emile Durkheim and Herbert Spencer, both predicted the decline in religiosity in the West, and an increase in a scientific, secular worldview. There is evidence to suggest they may have been right, but there is also evidence to suggest the contrary. Their theory was based on a mixture of dialectical materialism and their intellectual environment in the early 20th century when scientific revolutions were taking place and the claims of the Bible could no longer be supported in seriousness. And with all the above in mind, I shall discuss some definitions of secularisation as well as assessing various historical sociological theories about the evolution towards secularisation, and whether or not hindsight has shown these theories to be sufficient.

G. E. Hegel’s philosophy is far too vast and complicated to even introduce briefly but I shall try to describe in very basic terms the aspect that is relevant here, his dialectics (as applied to history). (Please correct me if I am wrong, but according to my understanding:) In Hegel’s philosophy, history is a string of the victories and defeats of ideas. The current thesis that runs a time and place will eventually be challenged by its antithesis and either a compromise is found and both ideas are synthesised, the new assimilated into the old, or exactly one out of the old and new theses is overwhelmed by the might of the other and is annihilated. This is the mechanism by which time moves along, progressive and at once linear and spiralling.

We can see a dialectic chain of evolution in the popular theology of the Middle East from ancient times because it is recorded in the Bible. (While the Bible should never seriously be read as a record of history, it may confidently be seen as a record of the popular beliefs of the time, or at least those held personally by the authors). Moses challenged the old polytheism with a kind of twisted, tribal xenophobic henotheism and was, in his own turn, superseded by the writers of the Old Testament and their monotheism, centred on a Holy God. Jesus, as far as Biblical scholars can tell, replaced the old ideas with his idea of a personal god who is close to his creation and not shy of placing himself in a profane situation in the slightest. The authors of the New Testament, most dominantly Paul, then wrote down various sides of the debate around what Jesus and the apostles may have done and said and what they meant by doing or saying what they did, and this resulted in the very complex and at times internally contradictory Christian theology we have around us today.

Dialectics can also explain the secularisation of Western societies. And so from Christianity to secularism: Britain has consistently been largely a Christian country since it was introduced to the idea by foreign settlers. Even today she remains mired in the old ways as the church and state are still quite firmly interdependent, although not to the same degree as in the past. The monarch heads both and as long as this is the case they will never be truly separate and at the highest level, Britain cannot be called secular. Secularisation is a tendency in society towards a more material base and has little to do with the position of the state, though the ongoing interdependence of church and state in what likes to think of itself as a world-leading western European country does affect statistics quite heavily, and the field of sociology depends on statistics for life-preserving sustenance. In Britain, everybody is a member of the Church of England by default, and most people who were baptised into the Church will claim to be a member, even if they do not personally accept the theology. This is why statistics can be misleading and meaningless.

A note about secularisation: the various academics have defined the concept in essentially similar terms. Loen (1967: 27) defines it as ‘the historical process by which the world is de-divinised as far as human consciousness is concerned’. Glasner (1977) sunk deeper into the question and attempted to define more basic terms in order to strengthen the basis of his argument. Influenced by Ferdinand Tönnies and Emile Durkheim, he defines this term negatively, placing the secular at the opposite pole from religion and defining religion as essentially social: ‘No man is a religious island’ (Glasner, 1977: 58). This implies that by contrast, a secular society would be non-social. This is a grossly oversimplified interpretation of this suggested definition, though not entirely inaccurate. Tönnies (1955, quoted in Glasner, 1977: 56) puts it in far more sophisticated and reasonable terms. He calls the two extreme ends of his version of the religious-secular continuum Gemeinschaft (community) and Gessellschaft (association). These two poles represent the Natural and the Rational. In Gemeinschaft society, an organic harmony develops out of individual natural wills, whereas Gessellschaft society is based on formal social contracts: ‘The contract is the result of two divergent individual wills’ (Tönnies, 1955: 82 quoted in Glasner, 1977: 57). In Tönnies’s philosophy, secularisation is when a society shifts from the former type to the latter.

Durkheim dressed the above idea up a little, and while his flavour is more complex than Tönnies’s, it fundamentally describes the same spectrum- however the base has been shifted slightly. He places at his two ends of the spectrum the concepts of mechanical and organic social solidarity, but between them lies not a movement between the religious and secular but between one kind of religious society and another. A society based on mechanical solidarity is based on personal relationships, whereas the organic brand of social solidarity relegates interpersonal relationships to a lower level than the way a society based on this kind of solidarity is able to operate, through the division of labour across a network of internally strong but small and numerous groups within society (quoted in Glasner, 1977: 58).

In Durkheim’s philosophy, the move to secularisation will happen over two different dimensions. The first is when religion erodes or melts away- it is a selection of small balls of ice and it cannot handle much heat at all: the smaller religious groups simply shrink into obscurity. The second way it occurs is through the division of labour. Durkheim illustrates the transitional period between the two ends of the spectrum as occurring throughout the breakdown of society into anomie when the consumers of goods produced in their society no longer have much contact with the producers when the micro-markets group together, swallow one another and become monstrous. Communication between owners of the means of production and their workers will have become, to use Durkheim’s own analogy, like cells in an organism, each doing their individual part, having no clue whatever about what their part actually contributes to the whole, not even able to be sure that there is a whole. This kind of disaffection ought to lead to a total and unanimous rejection of belief in anything supernatural.

So now I shall return to the point I was making earlier, about statistics. My point is this: They are basically useless. A myriad of factors can affect anything quantifiable. Secularisation is not something that can accurately be measured this way- it must be experienced and intuited, inhaled into one’s skin by osmosis and simply understood. The mistake sociologists make is assuming the study is one of numbers. People lie about all sorts of things, for all sorts of reasons and to treat questionnaires and church attendance figures as reliable sources of information scientific theories can be built around is asininity.

And indeed, research seems to support the unreliability of what looks like empirical fact, as S. Lipset discovered upon reading through lists of numbers from the 1830s up until his present time. in ‘The First New Nation: the United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective’ (1963, quoted in Glasner, 1977: 16)- ‘Lipset concludes that much of the data shows small ‘ebbs and flows’ with no basic long-term changes occurring.’ However, his finding were published in 1963, the year in which the following things happened: John Robinson published the first book on popular theology, ‘Honest to God’, Pope John XXIII died, and John Lennon famously boasted that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. This year was also 4 years since the contraceptive pill was introduced to the drug market, resulting in a loosening of sexual mores and a general attitude of permissiveness spanning the generations. These are the reasons why Callum Brown, in ‘The Death of Christian Britain’ pinpointed the hinge of time specific to that year.

The origins in the movement from one end of the spectrum to the other probably lie in the area of time commonly known as the Enlightenment. Loen (1967: 13) places it much earlier, as early as the thirteenth century and the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, probably as a consequence of and a backlash against his thought rather than in spite of him. Between the Mediaeval period and modern times, there has arguably been a shift from a national God-consciousness towards a more rational and scientific popular worldview. Maybe the movement began to show its first signs in the 13th century, gaining speed throughout the Renaissance but it was on the backs of such giants and Newton and Copernicus the Enlightenment and Victorian philosophers and scientists rode. Those giants gave us the germs of the ideas our collective worldview is based upon today.

Secularisation is what Nietzsche meant when he mentioned the death of God. Mankind simply has no more need for the concept- the species has evolved into a more advanced race than it once was. We can now explain most observable phenomena immediate to us with reference to scientific models that could not have existed before the 17th century, when God was simply an accepted fact, even if we did have the technology to enable us to discover then what we know now. But even if we do live in a society where science and reason are supreme, we are still in some kind of transitional period, on our way to a truly secular society but not quite there. Societies are comprised of individuals and it is those certain individuals who insist on keeping the dying beast alive who are preventing our society from progressing, those people who claim they find comfort in outmoded, all but disproven concepts.

Glasner, P. E. (1977), The Sociology of Secularisation: a critique of a concept, trans. M. Kohl, Routledge and Keegan Paul, London

Wilson, B. (1966), Religion in Secular Society: a sociological comment, Watts, London

Loen, A. E. (1967), Secularisation: Science without God? SCM Press, London

Pratt, V. (1970), Religion and Secularisation, Macmillan, London