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’.footnote1 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’.footnote2 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.

The secularization thesis concentrates heavily on Great Britain, with some attention to western Europe. Its advocates attribute American exceptionalism to such factors as a multiplicity of churches and ethnicity, or to the supposedly secular nature of American church teachings.footnote3 The non-Christian and non-Western worlds are generally omitted from this debate. There secularization has, as I will show, been more influenced by government action than by autonomous societal changes, and trends toward secularization have sometimes been dramatically reversed. The original secularization thesis, and even its modifications, tended to see secularization as a one-way street. Religious revivals in the us or elsewhere were generally ignored or explained away. A leader of this school even wrote a book on the rise and fall of the us religious Right, published in 1988.footnote4 Reversing the old saying, one might comment, ‘I’ll see it when I believe it’.

It is not just the conclusions of the secularization thesis that can be challenged, but also its limited concept of secularization and the secular which centres on declining religious belief and church membership. Secularization theory shares the linear-progressive viewpoint of modernization theory, and is really a sub-category of that theoretical approach. Although it is broadly true that societal secularization has usually accompanied modernization, the theory is undialectical and plays down contradictory forces. Hardly noted are the counter-examples to the view, including the fact that government secularization policies often bring about anti-secular reactions, especially among certain classes and groups. In recent decades, rapid modernization has contributed not only to secularism but to major anti-secularizing trends, especially in countries with growing fundamentalist movements.

Even Bryan R. Wilson, a founding father of the secularization thesis, notes that many who write of it limit their evidence to church membership, their subject of study to Christianity, and their idea of secularization to just one of its many meanings.footnote5 One may add that even such major Christian countries as France and Italy are rarely mentioned in such works. Nor is history much mentioned by the sociologists involved.

One may agree with these sociologists that modernization and its subcategories of urbanization, migration, and industrialization were by and large associated in the West with a weakening of religious institutions and belief. But we might find other modernizing forces that correlate with secularization, including such cultural factors as the rise of literacy and public education, and the emergence of new types of reading material and entertainment. There seems no reason to pick some aspects of modernization and not others as causing secularization.

Further, there is little reason to think that levels of church membership or declared belief are sufficient measures of secularization. Secular attitudes and behaviour are characteristic of many church members and believers. In many societies, modernization has produced two major cultures in each religion, roughly, that of the secular and that of the true believer, and in many areas there has been a reaction against secular nationalist culture and rule. Particularly in the us, in some excommunist countries, and some non-Western ones there has been a religious reaction which also has political implications. Studies including more countries might yield more complex and dialectical generalizations than those posed by the secularization thesis.footnote6

A different trend in the scholarly study of secularization and secularism is to stress the role and writings of intellectuals like Locke, Milton, Voltaire, Jefferson and others. While, like the purely sociological view, this outlook contains some truth, both views greatly understate the role of politics and the state in both social secularization and the spread of secularist views.