Secularization: A Look at Individual Level Theories of Religious Change

The Demise of Established Religiosity

While it is often argued that the secularization thesis only referred to macro-level secularization – the separation of religion from other societal spheres in the process of functional differentiation (cf. e.g. Wilson 1998) – there is no way of denying that most specific secularization theories also refer to a loss of significance of religion on the individual level, explicitly or implicitly, which may be prompted by macro-level differentiation and individualization, and which itself may affect the meso-level in the form of a steady decrease in church membership or attendance (cf. Dobbelaere 2000). As an explanation for this observed or expected micro-level secularization either one or both of two reasons are commonly given. It is either assumed that there was or will be no further need for religion – as, in Weber’s case, rationality and science have taken over its explanatory function or as, in Marx’s case, its solace function will not be required any longer in a perfect socialist society. Or it is postulated that the individual will eventually lose confidence in the established religion’s supernatural truth claims, will literally fall from or at least be shaken in his or her faith. This was the central argument of Peter L. Berger’s early approach (before his conversion to being critical of secularization theory), which was built on the idea that any belief or belief system relied on an intact “plausibility structure”, provided through social affirmation. But Christianity’s plausibility structure – the taken-for-grantedness particularly of its metaphysical claims – had suffered from the accessibility of a plurality of competing religious faiths and other worldviews, made commonplace by modern media, travel, education, and cultural exchange, and thereby from decreasing affirmation or even widespread refutation. The result of this, in any modernized society, would be a doubting, secularized populace as well as secularized churches, which would refrain from overly demanding metaphysics and, instead, turn to the individuals’ this-worldly needs in order to avoid their complete demise (cf. Berger 1980).

This concentration on the decline of institutionalized, established, church religiosity by early secularization theorists prompted some criticism. Berger’s companion in other projects, Thomas Luckmann (who defined as religion anything that helps people to overcome different sorts of “transcendences”), claimed that religion had not disappeared but only changed its location – e.g. to psychotherapy, esotericism, and other hedonistic projects of self-fulfillment. To him, religion had become privatized and thereby “invisible” for the social scientific study of religion (cf. Luckmann 1967). Similar to this is Grace Davie’s (1994) concept of “believing without belonging”, and other theories of individualized religiosity, which claim that spirituality persists outside institutionalized churches. Relying on Durkheim’s integration model of religion, Robert N. Bellah, too, denied that religion had disappeared but claimed that, in a multidenominational nation such as the United States, it had to manifest itself differently – not in an all-encompassing, European style nation church, but in what he called “civil religion”, composed of reference to a generalized “God” as well as of “sacralized” national institutions, documents, figures, holidays, and symbols, whose role it was to achieve national integration (cf. Bellah 1967). Nevertheless, both Luckmann and Bellah agreed that the significance of conventional churches and denominations, as well as of personal (substantively defined) religious belief and activity, had diminished over the past decades.

The American Challenge

An early critic of the view that modernity necessarily meant secularization, as pointed out by Linda Woodhead, was David Martin. Besides rejecting an ahistorical, undifferentiated theory of secularization as a universal, linear, and irreversible process, Martin warned against secularists (and for him this might just as well apply to proponents of secularization theory) taking “Catholic laments about the period when men were truly religious” too seriously (Martin 1969: 30). In order to diagnose secularization in the present one would have to believe in the existence of a former “Golden Age of Faith”, a highly sacralized past. But for critics of the secularization thesis this constituted largely a fiction. They argued that there had never been a time of universal and widespread religious belief and presented examples of medieval impiety as proof (cf. Bruce 2011).

Yet attacks on secularization theory were not only directed against its depictions of the past, but also of the present, with the most prominent (twofold) challenge coming from the United States of America. Firstly, the empirical situation in the U.S. had always given reason for doubt. American rates of church affiliation had constantly been high, as had rates of individuals’ belief in a personal god and other religious indicators. Particularly surprising was that this situation was to be found in a highly modernized as well as religiously pluralized country. Secondly, starting in the U.S. during the 1980s, these doubts were translated into a forceful theoretical onslaught on secularization theory, brought forward by the so-called “rational choice” or “market” theorists of religion. Rodney Stark, Laurence R. Iannaccone, William S. Bainbridge, and Roger Finke wholeheartedly dismissed the idea of micro-level secularization. Instead they claimed that demand for religious products, for other-worldly “compensators”, was always stable and about the same in any society – with a range of societal “niches” with differing degrees of such demand. What really differed when comparing different societies – and the historically specific characteristics of which had produced the, in their view, exceptional case of European “secularization” – was the makeup of the “religious marketplace”, the degree to which religious entrepreneurs were free or hindered to do their business. In contrast to Berger’s original view, religious pluralism was not seen as undermining religious faith and vitality, but on the contrary as a prerequisite for sufficient supply to meet the diverse kinds of religious demand (cf. Stark, Bainbridge 1987, Stark 2000, Stark, Finke 2000).

According to this theory, citizens in the United States, with its free and rich religious market, were able to make a “rational choice” about their religious affiliation and pick one according to their specific preferences. Those segments of society, for example, who took a specific interest in the supernatural promises of a religious brand – such as compensation in the afterlife for earthly suffering – would favor fundamentalist churches, because these, with their high costs for membership (e.g. abstinence from some earthly pleasures, stigmatizing appearance, denial of contact to wider society), were able to generate a dependent and committed congregation. For these religious searchers, a vibrant community of believers is seen as crucial, since, other than a congregation of lazy and sullen churchgoers, only this would be able to provide at least some testimony to a highly insecure and untestable expected reward, such as other-worldly promises. This would explain the success particularly of “strict churches” in the U.S. (cf. Iannaccone 1994). Religious vitality in Europe, on the other hand, was thwarted by a lack of religious choice and, in addition, a lack of incentives for pampered state church officials to make their regulated religious brand somewhat more appealing. To the rational choice authors, the dearth of religious vitality in most of Europe has nothing to do with diminished demand, or individual secularization, but everything with insufficient supply. Accordingly, they expect that with further separation of church and state and further cutbacks of church privileges in Europe, these countries will, after some generations, eventually be de-secularized and become as religiously vital as the United States, leaving proclaimed individual-level secularization a mere fiction, or even an ideology, and Europe’s meso-level secularization nothing but a historical oddity (cf. Stark, Iannaccone 1994, Stark, Finke 2000).

Refined Theories of Secularization

This economic approach has, from its conception, drawn a lot of criticism – in particular from Steve Bruce, whom Linda Woodhead called “probably the most important defender of secularization theory now”, and who has published a book length refutation of the economic theory of religion, hoping that this might be “the stake through the vampire’s chest”, as which he sees his opponents (Bruce 1999, 2). Somewhat more moderate is the criticism by Christopher G. Ellison (1995) and Darren E. Sherkat (1997). They agree with Stark and his colleagues that people make their religious choices rationally, but doubt that they necessarily do so for inherently religious reasons. Instead, on many occasions, people would enter, remain in, or actively participate in specific churches with the reactions of others in mind – e.g. in order to set an example or not to suffer social sanctions. This would make individual-level secularization compatible with high levels of religiosity on the organizational level – people may remain active in churches for social reasons, without actually believing.

Steve Bruce agrees and concludes that the supposed “free choice”, central to the rational choice approach of religion, was actually a fiction. While overall in the United States there really existed a plurality of religions and denominations, at the local level, where people actually made their religious choices, this was not so. Even if there were a plurality of churches in one town or county, membership was not open to everyone, but bound up with ethnicity, class, or other forms of social identity and related sanctions: “Racial segregation is still such that adding a black Pentecoastal church to a town does not in the least increase the choice for white Americans. Adding a German language Lutheran church makes no difference to a Swedish American.” (Bruce 1996, 135). Yet, Bruce does not doubt that many Americans actually are highly religious and practice their faith fervently and wholeheartedly. But, in his view – and in contrast to the rational choice theorists’ – this does not falsify secularization theory as such. Bruce’s explanation is that, in many places in the United States, modernization did not and could not have its secularizing effects. Due to the deregulation of the informational and educational sectors, the United States enabled fundamentalist Christianity to build its own universe, shielding its members from different views in the privatized media, schools, and even universities, and thereby leaving the religion’s “plausibility structure” intact (cf. Bruce 2002, 2011).

Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart offer a different explanation for why Americans seem to cling to religion in large numbers. Analyzing a range of international surveys and indices, they show that subjective religiosity is positively correlated with existential insecurity. In line with the classical view of Marx and Freud, but also with the rational choice theorists, they conclude that religion may serve as consolation or compensation. But they differ from the rational choice theorists in that they do not assume such need to be universal, but rather dependent on the specific economic situation and other alterable factors under which individuals live and grow up – and that in this respect the United States is, at least for now, an exceptional case in the western world: “Relatively high levels of economic insecurity are experienced by many sectors of U.S. society, despite American affluence, due to the cultural emphasis on the values of personal responsibility, individual achievement, and mistrust of big government, limiting the role of public services and the welfare state for basic matters such as healthcare covering all the working population” (Norris, Inglehart 2004, 108). Being and feeling more vulnerable to existential risks, Americans were more likely to turn to religion for solace and comfort than were citizens of other western nations.


Over the past decades, the secularization thesis has been discarded – but only insofar as it postulated an inevitable, universal, and uniform process. It would be going too far, though, to assume that “there was nothing really ever there”. Theories of secularization have, instead, been refined. Karel Dobbelaere (2002) and José Casanova (1994) have shown that secularization may work differently on different levels – for example affecting the institutional organization of society, but not individual religiosity. Concerning the latter, Bruce and Norris/Inglehart maintain that modernization is very likely to have a secularizing effect – yet only insofar as it is accompanied by 1) access to a plurality of worldviews as well as 2) feelings of existential security for wide sectors of society. Both conditions depend on political and economic arrangements and are prone to change. Consequently, secularization is no longer seen as a natural development – even by its theoretical proponents –  but, rather, as a contingent phenomenon.


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