In sociology there are broadly two approaches to the definition of religion. Social theorist, Emile Durkheim (1912), defines religion in terms of its social functions: religion is a system of beliefs and rituals with reference to the sacred which binds people together in social groups. This definition however has been criticized for being too inclusive as almost any public activity, take football for example, may have an integrative effect for social groups.
The second approach, which follows research by Max Weber, defines religion as any set of coherent answers to human existential dilemmas – birth, sickness, death – which make the world meaningful. Again there is a criticism and that is that this approach implies that all humans are religious, since we are all faced with problems such as ageing, illness and death.
The two above approaches are not ‘set in stone’ definitions of religion; they are simply a starting point for discussion. It is not possible to compact all beliefs and practices of a given religion such as Christianity, Judaism Islam etc. into one definitive statement. A second difficulty in defining religion is identifying the essential difference between the religious and the non-religious. (Taylor et al. 1995: 493).
When looking at If and why religion is on the decline, one must firstly look at why people hold religious beliefs in the first place. This is a question that has intrigued social scientists and many theories have been put forward in relation.
Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1931) saw religion as a gap fill between human aspirations and abilities. He believes that “ religion provides an institutionalised means of adjusting oneself to life’s uncertainties and risks” (1931: 625).
Another theory is that of Talcott Parsons (1952), who saw religion as a filling gap between social expectations and experiences. Parsons said, “ In all societies, some expectations are doomed to failure, that pain and deprivation are distributed haphazardly, that violations of moral standards are rewarded and upstanding behaviour may end in personal loss and defeat” (1952: 312).
There are numerous more theories but these examples highlight some of the reasons for which people turn to religion. Human beings need to feel that the world is comprehensible, that there is a reason for the events of their life. Therefore they hold on to religion because “ religion deals with problems of meaning” (Weber 1904).
Many sociologists share the view that the role religion plays in society has changed. Traditionally religion was seen as authority in all areas of social life; farmers prayed to the gods before planting crops, Priests or Shamans were responsible for healing. Conflicts and disputes between families or villages were acted out in religious rituals or through religious trials and formal education was in the hands of the clergy. In modern industrial societies, religion is one of many specialized institutions and as a result has been stripped of many of its former functions and must compete with other institutions for authority. A religious organization may declare that people should give generously or that birth control is a sin, but individuals may choose not to take these announcements seriously. In the past, however, religion was considered a complete guide for living (Gelles et al. 1995).
If we look at the future of religion in Britain and in many other western societies it is not bright. Falling congregations, churches up for sale and in a condition of disrepair, increasing numbers of people married in registry offices and fewer children attending Sunday school suggest a steady decline in the influence of religion.
Many researchers believe that this is evidence that western societies are experiencing a process of secularization. The term Secularization refers to the removal of religious control over social life (Gelles et al. 1995: 459). This can occur on two levels, on the institutional level, the church loses control over such things as marriage, schooling and law enforcement. This loss of control greatly reduces the power of the church and of church officials. On the individual level, religion loses control over personal decisions as more scientific, rational explanations for human behaviour and events replace the religious interpretations of reality.
According to British Sociologist Bryan Wilson (one of the strongest supporters of the view that secularization is occurring in western societies), the signs of a decline in religion became increasingly clear after World War II had ended in 1945. War memorials lost many of their religious symbols which they traditionally adorned; some were often not put up at all.
In 1947 the BBC, which had traditionally supported the side of the Church of England, abandoned its policy of not broadcasting opinions hostile to Christianity. Except for events such as the coronation and the opening of parliament, the church is rarely seen or heard on the national stage. (Haralambos et al.1983).
Wilson (1977) also suggests that people no longer seek guidance and information from the pulpit. Instead they are more likely to turn to books, newspapers and television. Control of social welfare has also been moved away from the church and into the hands of specialists employed by the state that educate, counsel, cure, rehabilitate and care for the poor and the aged.
More evidence of the decline in religion comes in the form of the position of the clergy on the social scale. In the 1950`s their wages were similar to those of many professional workers. Today many of them are amongst the low paid, with unskilled manual workers often earning considerably more. The church buildings are suffering a similar fate. They were built, ornately decorated and repaired in a much poorer society. Yet in today’s richer society even their basics are often not maintained.
The decline is also evident in people’s attitudes. Religion seems less and less likely to guide people’s thoughts and actions. They no longer appear to ask, ‘What is Gods will?’ but rather ‘What shall I do to get on?’ They seem less concerned by death and afterlife and more about happiness in the here and now (Haralambos et al. 1983: 404).
The church’s traditional disapproval of issues such as divorce, artificial birth control, sexual relationships outside of marriage and homosexuality appear today to have little influence. In fact it seems as though changing attitudes in society about these issues have changed the church’s. The church seems to be following rather than leading.
This decline in the church’s influence on beliefs and actions is evident in people’s participation of organized religious activities. In 1950, 67% of Children in England were baptised in the Church of England, in 1973 only 43%. In 1953, 6.5% of the population took Easter Communion in the Church of England but 20 years later the figure dropped to 4%. This same trend is apparent in the Roman Catholic and non-conformist (e.g. Methodist and Presbyterian) churches. Information from public opinion polls echoes this trend. In the early 1950’s, 90% claimed to believe in God: by the mid 1970’s this figure was down to 64% (Wilson, 1977).
Social theorists of the 19th and early 20th centuries generally agreed that religion was a declining power in western societies. Modern societies were becoming more complex, social institutions and occupations were becoming more specialised. Class and status groups were drifting further apart (Taylor et al. 1995).
Karl Marx famously described religion as ‘the opium of the masses’. Opium being a hallucinatory drug, which gives a feeling of well being and produces illusions which twist reality. By saying this Marx was implying that religion gives a false picture of society, prevents people from seeing the truth and offers an imaginary escape from problems. He believed that religion helped keep the poor and oppressed in their place.
For Marx, secularization was to be expected as religion was predictably dying as socialism approached. He believed the overthrow of capitalism would destroy the need for religion and it would die out (Haralambos et al. 1983).
For Emile Durkheim the death of religion was not inevitable. He saw secularization as a reflection of people’s weakening sense of the sacredness and the greatness of society (Taylor et al. 1995: 525). Durkheim was concerned that the changes associated with industrialisation and urbanisation would lead to feelings of anomie and peoples confidence in society’s traditional beliefs and practices would be dented. He feared that religion would become a privatised matter no longer capable of embracing society and unifying individuals.
Durkheim had a conflicting view to that of Marx in that he believed that secularisation was not an irreversible trend and that at a certain point in its decline, religion would re-establish itself, because ‘all societies must have sacred symbols and communal ritual if they are to survive’ (Taylor et al. 1995: 526).
Max Weber was one of many social theorists who view the changes in relationship between religion and society as evidence of decline. Weber (1904), saw secularisation as part of a trend toward rationalization. By this he meant ‘the adoption of norms and values that emphasise effectiveness, efficiency, and cost-benefit equations. Traditional and social obligations have no place in a rational economy’ (Gelles et al. 1995: 460). In a rational society working, learning and even marriage is seen as a mean to an end, not as essentially valuable in themselves. Weber (1904) believes that the result of rationalization is ‘disenchantment.’ Things people once regarded with respect and awe are stripped of their religious meaning and become mundane.
However even after all the research done on the decline of religion it is very difficult to measure the strength of religious beliefs. Simply because church attendance has declined, this does not necessarily mean that people are any the less religious. People may well have turned to ‘privatised’ religion, favouring to worship in the privacy and comfort of their own homes. Another reason may be because many of the social welfare responsibilities of the church, such as the importance of caring for the poor, have been taken over by the state. This does not mean that religion has lost any of its influence in society. Some people argue that it is due to the strength of Christian beliefs that the state has taken over such responsibilities.
There is a great deal of evidence to show that religion remains important to many people and also to their perception of themselves. For instance, a 1987 Church of Scotland survey found 58% of Scots regarding themselves as definitely Christian, with only 18% saying emphatically that they were not and 24% uncertain. Over half claimed to pray to God and 41% believed that Christ rose from the dead (Taylor et al. 1995).
Although mainstream Christian churches and denominations have declined in the West throughout this century, cultic and sectarian movements have been on the increase. Movements such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have grown and so have the evangelical Charismatic movements in the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. Also the so-called ‘New Age’ groups such as magick, pagan and UFO cults are increasing in number.
Most social scientists and theorists agree that there is an obvious trend toward secularization in modern societies; however, they are not entirely sure what this trend means exactly. Some believe that it is evidence that the importance of religion is on a decline. Others see it as evidence of some kind of transformation, but not necessarily a decline.
It would be a mistake to conclude that religion is doomed as there is, and probably always will be a deeply committed minority of people who believe in religion. Though for the vast majority of people religion is simply becoming an ‘optional extra’.