In sociology, secularization (or secularisation)[1] is the transformation of a society from close identification with religious values and institutions toward nonreligious values and secular institutions. The secularization thesis expresses to the idea that as societies progress, particularly through modernization and rationalization, religious authority diminishes in all aspects of social life and governance.[2] The term "secularization" may also occur in the context of the lifting of monastic restrictions from a member of the clergy.[3]

Secularization involves the historical process in which religion loses social and cultural significance. As a result of secularization the role of religion in modern societies becomes restricted. 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 as a historical process. Social theorists such as Karl Marx (1818-1883), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Max Weber (1864-1920), and Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) postulated that the modernization of society would include a decline in levels of religiosity. Study of this process seeks to determine the manner in which, or extent to which religious creeds, practices and institutions are losing social significance. Some theorists[which?] argue that the secularization of modern civilization partly results from our inability to adapt broad ethical and spiritual needs of mankind to the increasingly fast advance of the physical sciences.[4]

In contrast to the "modernization" thesis, Christian Smith and others argue that intellectual and cultural élites promote secularization to enhance their own status and influence. Smith believes that intellectuals have an inherent tendency to be hostile to their native cultures, causing them to embrace secularism.[5]

The term "secularization" also has additional meanings, primarily historical and religious.[6] Applied to church property, historically it refers to the seizure of church lands and buildings, such as Henry VIII's 16th-century dissolution of the monasteries in England and the later acts during the 18th-century French Revolution, as well as by various anti-clerical enlightened absolutist European governments during the 18th and 19th centuries, which resulted in the expulsion and suppression of the religious communities which occupied them. The 19th-century Kulturkampf in Germany and Switzerland and similar events in many other countries also were expressions of secularization.[7]

Still another form of secularization refers to the act of Prince-Bishops or holders of a position in a Monastic or Military Order - holding a combined religious and secular authority under the Catholic Church - who broke away and made themselves into completely secular (typically, Protestant) hereditary rulers. For example, Gotthard Kettler (1517-1587), the last Master of the Livonian Order, converted to Lutheranism, secularised (and took to himself) the lands of Semigallia and Courland which he had held on behalf of the order - which enabled him to marry and leave to his descendants the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia.

The 1960s saw a trend toward increasing secularization in Western Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. This transformation accompanied major social factors: economic prosperity, youth rebelling against the rules and conventions of society, women's liberation, radical theology, and radical politics.[8]


Secularization is sometimes credited both to the cultural shifts in society following the emergence of rationality and the development of science as a substitute for superstitionMax Weber called this process the "disenchantment of the world"—and to the changes made by religious institutions to compensate. At the most basic stages, this begins with a slow transition from oral traditions to a writing culture that diffuses knowledge. This first reduces the authority of clerics as the custodians of revealed knowledge. The shift of responsibility for education from the family and community to the state has had two consequences:

  • Collective conscience as defined by Durkheim is diminished;
  • Religion becomes a matter of individual choice rather than an observed social obligation.

A major issue in the study of secularization is the extent to which certain trends such as decreased attendance at places of worship indicate a decrease in religiosity or simply a privatization of religious belief, where religious beliefs no longer play a dominant role in public life or in other aspects of decision making.

The issue of secularization is discussed in various religious traditions. The government of Turkey is an often cited[by whom?] example, following the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate and the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923. This established popular sovereignty in a secular republican framework, in opposition to a system whose authority is based on religion. As one of many examples of state modernization, this shows secularization and democratization as mutually reinforcing processes[citation needed], relying on a separation of religion and state. In expressly secular states like India, it has been argued that the need was to legislate for toleration and respect between quite different religions,[9] and that the secularization of the West was a response to drastically violent intra-Christian feuds between Catholicism and Protestantism. Some[who?] have therefore argued that Western and Indian secularization is radically different in that it deals with autonomy from religious regulation and control. Considerations of both tolerance and autonomy are relevant to any secular state.[citation needed]