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New Left Review I/226, November-December 1997


Nikki R. Keddie

Secularism and the State: Towards Clarity and Global Comparison

Debates about the process of secularization have, in recent years, centred on the work of a group of sociologists and historians, mostly British, who have put forth and debated what is known as ‘the secularization thesis’. [1] This article had its origins in a paper written for a conference on past and future fins de siècle held at the Library of Congress in late 1994 and organized by Bruce Mazlish and Alvin Kibel. Thanks for helpful suggestions are due to them and the other participants, and also to others who have read and commented on the paper, including Charles Tilly, Perry Anderson, Robin Blackburn and Theda Skocpol. This correlates modernization with secularization, and generally measures secularization primarily through declining church membership and declared religious beliefs. In most of this discussion, secularization is attributed almost exclusively to socio-economic change, without significant reference to the state, to ideas, or to political movements. While there have been modifications of the thesis over time, one recent definition shows that it still retains its essential characteristics: the secularization thesis is a ‘research programme with, at its core, an explanatory model’ which ‘asserts that the social significance of religion diminishes in response to the operation of three salient features of modernization, namely 1) social differentiation, 2) societalization, and 3) rationalization’. [2] Roy Wallis and Steve Bruce, ‘Secularization: The Orthodox Model’ , in Steve Bruce, ed., Religion and Modernization: Sociologists and Historians Debate the Secularization Thesis, Oxford 1994, pp. 8– 9. These factors are defined later, but clearly all three involve societal change rather than changes in ideas, political movements or the state. Advocates of the secularization thesis have also tended to see it as a progressive one-way process; societies and their constituent members become more secular as they become more modernized. This article, in contrast, contends that such an overwhelmingly ‘societal’ and non-political view cannot adequately explain secularization. Furthermore, it cannot explain the rise in recent decades and in many parts of the world of anti-secular movements and ideas.

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