Theories of Secularization: Rationalization and the Despair of Society

Secularization refers to the historical process in which religion loses social and cultural significance, In secularized societies faith lacks cultural authority, and religious organizations have little social power. Secularization has many levels of meaning, both as a theory and a historical process.

The rationalization of society led to the disenchantment of society and as a result religious motives for action were replaced by rational motives for action. This post considers arguments and evidence for and against this theory.

In traditional society, in which religious beliefs were strong, actions were primarily motivated by religious beliefs or superstitions. People were motivated to act out of a religiously motivated desire to go to heaven and avoid hell. (Or at least to avoid the social sanctions of those with religious power.)
However, with the Enlightenment and the Industrial revolution, the power of the of the temple was increasingly questioned, and over a period of many years religious ways of thinking came to be replaced with more scientific or rational ways of thinking. Science and the scientific method became more central to social thought: knowledge was increasingly constructed through empirical, rational methods, rather than being dictated through religious channels.

From the Enlightenment onward, society went through a process of ‘disenchantment’ – the role of religion, magic, mystery, superstitions and faith became less prominent, and replaced by more rational motives for acting: rather than acting because faith leaders or religious tradition dictated that you should act in certain ways, without thinking about it, people were increasingly free to act for themselves. People en mass started to think more about how they should act, what they should do, and the best way to achieve their goals.

Factors which encouraged rationalization and undermined religion

  • The rational organisation of society – the establishment of schools, workplaces, governments all imposed systematic ways of acting on people.
  • A greater scientific knowledge of the social and natural world – Science provided more satisfactory explanations of many social and natural phenomenon than religions ones, and were better able to help people in tackling such problems.
  • The development of rational ideologies – such as Marxism which offered more immediate solutions to our problems in this life further challenged and undermined religion.

Criticisms of the idea that rationalization undermines religion

  • Although science and especially technology have challenged some religious beliefs, people may still turn to religion when technology fails.
  • Some people are skeptical of the promises of science. In some ways, science has made the world a riskier place.

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