In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Secularization

  • Introduction
  • Classical Works
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Recent Criticisms of Secularization Theory
  • Problems of Definition
  • Genealogical Use of the Term
  • Secularization Theories
  • Alternatives to Secularization Theory

Sociology Secularization
Detlef Pollack
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0073


Secularization theory was once the dominant sociological pattern of interpretation to describe and explain religious change in the modern period. The classic figures of sociology drew on the assumptions of secularization theory to work out the defining features of modern societies and the conditions necessary for the emergence of the modern. Since then, though, secularization theory has clearly lost validity in the historical and social sciences. To characterize religious change in the modern period, scholars are talking more and more in terms not of the decline of religion, but of the deprivatization of the religious (José Casanova), of the return of the Gods (Friedrich Wilhelm Graf), of the reenchantment of the world (Ulrich Beck), or, simply, of desecularization (Peter L. Berger). At the same time, though, there are still vocal supporters of secularization theory who defend it partly in revised form and partly through drawing on the classics (Bryan Wilson, Karel Dobbelaere, Steve Bruce, Pippa Norris) (cf. “Secularization Theory” below). The ongoing conflict concerning the validity of secularization theory has been the central point of controversy in the sociology of religion for decades now and has had a major impact both on empirical analyses and theoretical work.

Classical Works

The assumptions of secularization theory were a major component in the classical approaches of sociology. Works from the classic figures of sociology—from Comte 1875–1877, through Durkheim 2008 (originally 1893), Tönnies 2001 (originally 1887), Weber 1980 (originally 1920), Parsons 1966, and Berger 1967, to Luhmann 1977—assumed a sharp break between traditional and modern societies, so that we can, indeed, claim without exaggeration that sociology emerged as an academic discipline to deal scientifically with the political, economic, and social processes of upheaval in the 19th century. If the classic figures of sociology argued from the perspective of secularization theory, then they did so partly because they saw in the marginalization of religion a central feature of these processes of upheaval, but also because the decline of religion illustrated and reflected particularly well the full drama of these processes.

  • Berger, Peter L. 1967. The sacred canopy: Elements of a sociological theory of religion. New York: Doubleday.

    In contrast to his later work, Berger’s early work adopts positions representing secularization theory, and these had a great influence on debates in the sociology of religion. On the one hand, the early Berger traces secularization back to the increasing pluralization of the religious field. With the pluralization of religious offerings, religious practices and beliefs have lost their status as taken-for-granted certainties and are exposed to mutual contestation and relativization. On the other hand, Berger holds long-term processes responsible for secularization, such as the rationalization that has been effective since ancient Judaism, as well as the erosive effects of industrialization and mechanization. Republished as recently as 1990 (New York: Anchor).

  • Comte, Auguste. 1875–1877. System of positive polity. 4 vols. Translated by J. H. Bridges, Frederick Harrison, E. S. Beesly, R. Congreve, and H. D. Hutton. Books for College Libraries. London: Longmans, Green.

    In this work, Comte developed his now-well-known “law of three stages,” according to which human history passes through three phases. In the “theological” or “fictitious” phase, we write in an attempt to explain our environment, the causes of the phenomena of higher beings that surround us and that act much like ourselves. In the “metaphysical” phase, we draw not on fictitious, but on abstract, entities to explain things. In the “positive” phase, we understand phenomena in the way that they really are. The development of the human spirit is therefore characterized by the steady elimination of all excesses of fantasy and the increasing dominance of the mind. Originally published in 1851–1854; republished as recently as 2001 (Bristol, UK: Thoemmes).

  • Durkheim, Émile. 1995. The elementary forms of the religious life. Translated and introduced by Karen E. Fields. New York: Free Press.

    In contrast, the late Durkheim shows that every society, including the modern, has a religious dimension. Not only are almost all major institutions of society born from religion, but also the most-important aspects of collective life are, actually, nothing but different aspects of religious life—precisely because the idea of society is the soul of religion. Therefore, when man worships God in a religious cult, then society is worshipping itself in him. Originally published in 1912 (New York: Macmillan).

  • Durkheim, Émile. 2008. The division of labor in society. Translated by Wilfred D. Halls. New York: Free Press.

    The early Durkheim assumes an increasing loss of function of religion in the course of social evolution. While religion at the beginning of history extended to everything social, the political, economic, and scientific functions have gradually separated themselves from the religious function and have taken on an increasingly secular character. For Durkheim, it becomes problematic how the integration of society once guaranteed by religion can be ensured by modern society. First, Durkheim points out that the exchange between the functions made necessary by functional differentiation can itself provide social solidarity. Second, to solve the problem, Durkheim also draws on moral ideas, such as the cult of the individual uniting society. Originally published in French as De la division du travail social in 1893 (Paris: F. Alcan).

  • Luhmann, Niklas. 1977. Funktion der Religion. Theorie. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

    Luhmann argues that, through the conversion of the primary form of social differentiation that accompanies the formation of modern society from stratification to functional differentiation, the possibilities and the need to provide socially binding semantics and structures decline. For religion, that means on the personal level that what someone believes becomes a matter of personal choice. On the social level, it means that it is no longer values and norms binding the whole of society that guarantee social integration. On the world pictorial-cognitive level, it means the widening of the horizon of the socially ascertainable, so that religious forms of meaning increasingly lose their plausibility. Reprinted as recently as 2009.

  • Parsons, Talcott. 1966. Religion in a modern pluralistic society. Review of Religious Research 7.3: 125–146.

    DOI: 10.2307/3509920

    Parsons argues that Christian values become diffuse, and therefore generalized, in modern society, and that a rejection of traditional religious organizations, a retreat of the religious into the private sphere, and an increasing laicization of the population have come about due to the emancipation of the “societal system” from religion (p. 145). Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Tönnies, Ferdinand. 2001. Community and civil society. Edited by José Harris. Translated by José Harris and Margaret Hollis. Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Tönnies examines the tense relationship between community and society, which he treats as opposites. He understands the history of society as a development from straightforward forms of community, formed by coherence and direct interaction, to market-driven society. His distinction between community and society was very influential, being picked up by, for example, Talcott Parsons in his notion of pattern variables, and by Bryan Wilson in his identification of the differences between modern and premodern societies. Originally published in German as Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft in 1887 (Leipzig: Fues).

  • Weber, Max. 1980. Religious rejections of the world and their directions. In From Max Weber: Essays in sociology. Edited and translated by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 323–359. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The decline in the social significance of religion in modern societies leads Weber to differentiate between the various spheres of value that compete with religious behavior, and to deal with processes of demystification and rationalization. Weber notes, however, not only a decline in the importance of religion in the modern world, but also, accompanying its marginalization, a transformation of religion from the rational power that it once was to the “irrational or anti-rational power par excellence.” At the same time, Weber emphasizes the religious roots of the rise of the modern bourgeois world. Originally published in 1920.

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