virus: Berger's theory of religion pt. 6: secularization

David McFadzean (
Thu, 15 Apr 1999 19:09:59 -0600

For the first time in history many humans, especially members of the advanced industrial West, live in largely non-religious societies. Our societies have been become increasingly secular since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. This process of secularization is the overriding feature of religion in the modern world, and hence the backdrop to all contemporary research in the sociology of religion, in particular the study of NRMs [new religious movements].

Berger defines secularization quite simply as 'the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols'. For most scholars there is little doubt that secularization has occurred, and as Berger's popular theory of religion suggests, it is commonly thought that this social development represents a highly significant break with the dominant pattern of human history.

There is ample debate, however, about the precise nature, causes, and prospects of secularization. Berger's arguments on these counts have helped to fashion the view of secularization that has been most prevalent in sociology for the past several decades. But this prevailing view presents only one set of interpretive possibilities for the explanation of the nature and significance of the new religions that have emerged since the 1960s.

The alternative reading of the situation by Stark and his colleagues suggests another set of interpretive possibilities that is stimulating renewed debate about the truth of secularization and the present and future significance of NRMs.

Next: rationalization