The opposing argument to the view that people always need religion is that of secularisation. Defined by Bryan Wilson as ‘the process whereby religious beliefs, practices and institutions lose social significance’ Wilson notes that Western societies have been undergoing a long-term process of secularisation, meaning that religion is no longer needed by all people. Evidence to support this can be seen in Church attendance in Britain which was only 6. 3% in 2005 halving from 10-15% in the 1960’s.
Sunday school attendance has also declined and now only a tiny proportion of children now attend. Our religious beliefs have also changed too, Robin Gill et al 1998 reviewed almost 100 national surveys from 1939 to 1996 showing a significant decline in belief in a personal god, and in traditional teachings about the afterlife and the bible. All of which leading Wilson to conclude that Britain has become a secular society. There is also evidence to say that secularisation is taking place in America too.
Bruce identifies three sources of evidence to support his claim, declining church attendance with opinion polls exaggerating attendance by 47% in 1972 to 101% in 1996, secularisation from within meaning religion in America has remained popular by becoming less religious, and lastly religious diversity leading to the erosion of absolutism. This evidence from Britain and America opposes the view that people always need religion. However secularisation theory can be criticised by the view that religion is changing rather than declining.
Therefore supporting the view that no matter how much is changes and varies people always need religion. One advocate of this view is Grace Davie, in her view religion is simply taking a more privatised form. Where people still hold religious beliefs but attendance is a matter of choice, she calls this ‘believing without belonging’. Davie also notes a trend toward vicarious religion, where despite low levels of attendance people still use church for rites of passage and for providing support and ritual when facing tragedy or loss. This shows that religious practices and beliefs are still important in modern society and therefore as unctionalists would say religion is always needed in order to provide these vital functions, a source of social solidarity. Davie’s view has been criticised however by Voas and Crockett (2005) who do not accept that there is believing without belonging. Evidence from British Social Attitudes surveys from 1983 to 2000 shows that both church attendance and belief in God are declining. However another sociologist Hervieu-Legar continues the theme of personal choice and says that individual consumerism has replaced traditional religion.
People now feel they have a choice as consumers of religion – they have become spiritual shoppers. Religion is now individualised and we can pick and choose when beliefs to develop in order to give meaning to our lives and fit with our own interests. This ‘spiritual shopping’ is a result of the growth of new religious movements. Since the 1960’s there has been an explosion in the number of new religious movements such as the Moonies, the Children of God, Transcendental Meditation and many more.
Explanations for the growth of religious movements help to support the view that people always need religion. One explanation is that of relative deprivation, although many societies are now materially well-off, individuals may feel they are spiritually deprived, especially in today’s materialistic, consumerist world. As a result sects have formed to accommodate for this need for religion and a sense of community. Another explanation that supports the view people always need religion is social change.
Wilson argues periods of rapid social change disrupt and undermine established norms and values, producing anonmie or normlessness. In response to the uncertainty this creates individuals turn to religious organisations such as sects to provide a sense of community and clear norms and values. For example, the dislocation created by the industrial revolution in the late 18th and early 19th century led to the birth of Methodism as people wanted the warmth and fellowship and the promise of salvation that religion offered.
In Bruce’s view these functions are still needed by individuals but people are less attracted to traditional churches as they demand too much commitment, people now prefer cults because they are less demanding and require fewer sacrifices. David Lyon (2000) also argues that traditional religion is giving way to a variety of new religious forms that demonstrate its continuing vigour. He explains this as a result in recent decades of a shift towards post-modern society in which globalisation is changing the nature of religion.
Lyon argues ideas and beliefs have become disembedded, taken out of their original context and moved to a different time and place. For example the electronic church and televangelism disembed religion from real local churches and relocate it on the internet. As a result believers can express their beliefs without physically attending church meaning religion has become a vital cultural resource than individuals can adapt for their own purposes. These arguments support the view that although religion is changing people still feel a need for it in their lives.
Lyon also notes that the last 3 or 4 decades have been a period of re-enchantment, with the growth of unconventional beliefs, practices and spirituality. This view opposes that of Max Weber who sees that the Protestant reformation brought with it a new world view and began the ‘disenchantment’ of the world. Weber also argues that rational ways of thinking and acting have come to replace religious ones. With the introduction of technology and globalisation we now have a ‘technological world-view’. Whereby we don’t look to religious explanations for why things happen but instead we use scientific logical explanations.
This has resulted in religion not being taken as seriously and religious explanations are only needed where technology is least effective. Therefore it can be argued people no longer need religion in rational post-modern societies. A theory which supports this view is existential security theory. Norris and Inglehart argue that different degrees of existential security will effect a societies need for religion. Existential security is ‘the feeling that survival is secure enough that it can be taken for granted’.
Religion meets a need for security, and therefore societies where people feel secure have a low demand for religion. Poor societies where people face life threatening risks such as famine and disease have high levels of insecurity and therefore are likely to turn to religion to provide this security for them. Whereas rich societies where people have high standards of living and are at less risk have a greater sense of security and therefore lower levels of religiosity. Therefore people’s need for religion is not constant and varies within and between societies.
This explains why Third World countries remain religious, while prosperous Western countries have become more secular. However Vasquez (2007) makes the criticism that Norris and Inglehart only see religion as a negative response to deprivation. They ignore the positive reasons people have for religious participation and the appeal that some types of religion have for the wealthy, such as the spiritual demands new religious movements can meet for wealthy individuals. Having looked at the arguments for and against, I believe despite evidence of secularisation people do always need religion.
This can be seen in the emergence of new religious movements which offer a place for people to join who still believe and feel a need for religious values and views in their life, but who may have turned away from traditional religions as a result of post modern society. Religion I simply changing to fit the needs of peoples modern busy lifestyles who may not have time to attend church but still want to feel part of a community, and religious rituals ceremony’s such as marriage, christenings and funerals are still demanded by people as they are needed to deal with important life events, and only religion can provide this type of support.
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