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This paper will critically analyse and debate the question ‘is religion in decline as a major social institution?’ I will be focusing my paper primarily on the United Kingdom (UK) but will touch on other Western countries. To begin, this paper will look at the definitions of religion – as this in its self is surrounded by debate, and then it will go on to look at what is meant by secularisation. The main body of the paper will look at various perspectives, both for and against the idea that religion is in decline within the UK using not only the well documented thoughts of Sociologists but also using data that has been collated through various methods, such as the Census and British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA).
Religion could also be thought of in various other situations, such as in football for example, a group of people come together in a ‘belief’ of something. They perform rituals and sing the ‘praises’ of what could be described as their common god – their football team. However, for the purpose of this paper we will assume religion to be of the most commonly perceived form ie the belief and praying to ‘god’ -regardless of the god’s title ie God Allah etc.
When we speak of the decline of religion in society we often hear the word ‘secularisation’ being mentioned, Bryan Wilson (Religion in Secular Society, 1966), describes secularisation as “the process whereby religious thinking, practices and institutions is becoming less prominent in society and its institutions less important and influential in the lives of individuals”. Whilst Peter Berger in The Social Reality of Religion, 1969 puts an argument forward that it is “The process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols” Wilson also stated that those who defined religion in substantive terms are more likely to be in agreement of the secularisation thesis, this is due to the fact that they can show that religious beliefs has declined as people accept other more rational explanations of the world due to factors such as post-modernity, the Industrial Revolution – bringing about a greater understanding of the sciences and technology has also brought about a decline in the beliefs of a god within the minds of UK citizens, especially Christian UK citizens. Many Sociologists are in agreement that changes in society will directly impact on changes in religion. Going a step further, some sociologists have claimed that the continuing advancement of science will eventually mean a further weakening, or even complete disappearance of religion within our society.
Berger (1967) states that with the rapid growth of technologies, media and sciences comes a decline of religion and a questioning of its place in society. He goes on to state that religion, in the past, has held the answers to our unanswerable questions and gave meaning to lives. Now that our questions are now answered by science and technology then the church and religion is no longer needed. This process is also referred to as the Rational Choice Theory (RTC) of Religion
. Another supporter of the secularisation theory is Bruce (1995) whom argues that by measuring the size of the clergy is a direct indicator of the popularity of religion. At the start of the 1900’s, there were over 45,000 clerics in Britain, this had declined to just over 34,000 100 years later in 2000. The clergy had decreased by almost twenty five percent, despite the fact that the population had all but doubled in size (Bruce 1995). Bruce also states that another pointer to secularisation is the rising divorce rate, coupled with fewer religious marriage ceremonies. In 1995 Bruce stated that 30 years ago church weddings used to make up 75% of all marriage ceremonies, but now this figure has fallen to less than half . When you add this statistic with the facts that there is an ever increasing divorce rate, cohabitation is becoming commonplace and the percentage of children being born outside of a marriage is at am all time high; it has to be seen that religion and its moral value system exert little influence today (Bruce 1995).
Durkheim stated ” A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practicesâ€¦which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (Durkheim 1915: 62). He emphasised that religion brought people together, they shared a common belief and commitment to the same sacred symbol. It must be pointed out that Durkheim states that it is the coming together and bonding that is important not the reason of their togetherness. Durkheim argues that religion holds an essential social function “There can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and collective ideas which make its unity and its personality” (1915, 474-475) Although Durkheim was speaking here regarding religion we can see this happening in other ways in society, going back to the football match you could relate this statement back to the Emirates stadium, Anfield, Old Trafford and indeed any of the 100’s of football grounds around the UK on any given Saturday between August and May!
Weber’s The Protestant Ethic & The Spirit of Capitalism shows us how Calvinists in the 16th and 17th century looked upon a person’s success within business and savings was an indication that they were destined for salvation. We can relate this to the early beginnings of capitalism and a person’s responsibility and prospects, with time the emphasis of religious beliefs was eroded as capitalism prospered. With this new society came increasing rationalisation, this lead to disenchantment and inevitably along with that came a decrease in religious belief systems and church attendance
Anthon y Giddens (1997) wrote “The three ‘classical’ sociological theorists, Marx, Durkheim and Weber [all] thought that the significance of religion would decrease in modern times. Each believed that religion is in a fundamental sense an illusion. The advocates of different faiths may be wholly persuaded of the validity of the beliefs they hold and the rituals in which they participate, yet the very diversity of religions and their obvious connections to different types of society, the three thinkers held, make these claims inherently implausible.”
If we are to examine secularisation it is common sense to evaluate church attendance. According to the 1851 British Census just over 40% of the population attended church. By 1950 this had dipped to 20% and in 2000 we saw just 7.5 % of people stating that they attended church. Looking towards the future we could look at Sunday school attendance. Attendance had also dropped to an all time low in 1900 55% of children attended Sunday School in the year 2000 this figure plummeted below 4% – this surely shows that religion is in decline, and at a very swift rate.
The UK Census Data (2001) shows that 71.6% claim to be Christian, 2.7% Muslim, 1.0% Hindu, 0.6% Sikh, 0.5% Jewish, 0.3% Buddhist and 23.2% either have no religion or did not state one. However, if we compare the Census 2001 data with data available from Social Trends 30 (2000) cited in Moore (2001) suggest that while Christianity seems to be in decline other religions are not. Within the UK Islam had increased 380% from 130,000 people stating it as their religion in 1970 to 495,000. The UK has also seen a massive increase in Sikhism by 250% from 1970 to 1990. It must be pointed out that although undoubtedly these religions are on the increase by 100’s of percent that the total number of individuals that say they are practising these religions is still quite a small percentage of the UK population. It also should be pointed out that although the Census data is usually accurate it is now almost 10 years old, and could be seen as outdated information.
An opposing view of secularisation argues that religious practices and participation have, in the past, been greatly overestimated and exaggerated. Martin (1967), has questioned the validity and reliability of past religious statistics. He argues that the demographic content is not valid and questions methods used for the collation of this data. Martin states that people’s religious belief systems and belonging to religious groups cannot be measured from statistics regarding religious practice. He goes on to state that although people may be religious they are choosing to express their belief in alternative ways. Martin also argued that some people attended Church for what the church can do for them in a non-religious capacity, for social motive, as opposed to holding strong religious beliefs. This mindset resulted in attendance of church numbers being inflated , Martin questions whether or not to interpret declining attendance to places of worship as evidence that points towards a loss of religious faith within society.
Demaroth and Hammond (1969), also agree with this viewpoint and state that “We should avoid the quick assumption that Church members are always highly religious in their personal beliefs and activities, or that Church non-members are otherwise non-religious”..
Robert Bellah puts forward the argument that it is wrong to perceive that just because people do no longer attend church is vast numbers that region itself is in decline. Bellah states that people do not need to be a part of a large religious organisation in order to be religious, they can simply practice their beliefs in their own homes and lives and it is this that makes them religious, not the fact that they attend a church building. Luckmann (1967) calls this practice the ‘Invisible Religion’ Luckmann states that when society goes through periods of vast change and development it is also expected that religious practices and systems will also evolve, and new forms shall emerge. It is fair to say that both Bellah and Luckmann agree that religion is simply transforming rather than declining. They argue that whilst group and public meetings of religion are in decline that personal practice is as strong as ever, but cannot be scientifically measured.
A similar argument is put forward by Grace Davie (1995) she is in agreement with Bellah in that secularisation needs to be separated from belief and belonging. She argues the theory that in the UK religion is belief without belonging – people believe, but feel they do not belong to the church, so they practice their religion in the privacy of their own homes.
To conclude, it must be said that religion is in decline as a major social institution within the UK when referring to the Christian religions specifically Roman Catholics, Protestants and Methodists. These religious institutions have seen a rapid fall in church attendance- regardless of if people are practicing in their own homes or not. Within the UK religion, specifically Christianity, has seen a decrease, or disengagement, of power issues such as abortion and divorce used to be influenced greatly by the church today people do not look to the church for guidance on such issues but look more towards personal circumstance in order to reach decisions. With this in mind it can only be concluded that the major institution that we know as the church now holds less power, less cohesion and less importance within the UK today with traditions of religion and prayer being replaced by ‘new’ technologies and a wish for an individual to succeed in personal issues such as employment, status and wealth. The opposite could be argued for other religions such as Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, although it could also be argued that these religions are only on the increase due to immigration into the UK in the past 10 years. I found very little factual data that could show a large number of UK born citizens joining such religions so it is my belief that the growth of these religions is primarily due to the fact that the beliefs and practices of these religions have been ‘brought into’ the UK rather than developed within the UK.
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