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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Ethnographies
  • Historicizing Secularization
  • Secularization and Society
  • Challenges to the Secularization Thesis
  • Subjective Secularism
  • Gendering Secularization
  • The State and Religion
  • Secular Rituals and Practices
  • The Secular Observer
  • Ideology
  • Science
  • The Postsecular

Anthropology Secularization
Abby Day, Simon Coleman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0078


Put most simply, secularization refers to the notion of a society becoming less religious over time, while secularism refers to the ideological stance that actively wishes to promote the loss of religion in that society. Ideas relating to secularism and secularization have been central to the development of the social sciences since the 19th century, as scholars working in disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, and political science have generally assumed that they could understand the workings of human society, even religion itself, through observation and reason rather than faith. However, over the years, there has been considerable lack of agreement over the appropriate criteria to define and measure secularization: Should we see it as fundamentally about lack of personal belief (raising questions as to whether belief can be understood in similar ways across time and across religions) or more about a lack of influence over human behavior? If it is about influence, should this matter be examined at public, institutional levels or also within private, domestic spheres of life? Examining these issues raises difficult but fascinating questions as to how we understand religion—or its absence—in very different cultural contexts. It also raises the key question of whether secularization can be seen as a unilinear and global process. In other words, is it irreversible, and is it universal? There have been differences between sociological and anthropological ways of thinking about such themes. While both disciplines trace roots to social theorists of the 19th century who suggested that the future world would appear less obviously religious, secularization per se proved to be far less of a point of interest for anthropologists for much of the past century. This attitude is striking, given the centrality of the debates to sociologists. The explanation may relate to the tendency of anthropologists to work in non-Western, smaller scale contexts as opposed to Euro-American institutions. However, with the shift of some anthropological attention not only to European and North American contexts but also to institutional elites and indeed to the religious roots of some anthropological thought, the situation has changed, and anthropologists have begun to focus more on what may be meant by secularization and the secular. The timing of this shift is somewhat ironic as, according to some scholars, even parts of the world previously considered to have been secularizing are now experiencing religious revival.

General Overviews

Secularization and secularism are all too easily conceptualized as involving absence, a removal of the influence of religion from all or some spheres of life. This understanding poses as many questions as it answers. For instance, is the experience of becoming “less” Buddhist or Christian the same as becoming less Muslim? Brown and Snape 2010 contributes to a more refined understanding of the apparent disappearance of religion by showing how “de-Christianization” is experienced and proceeds in very different ways in different European countries. This book can be read alongside other texts that complicate an understanding of supposedly the most secular continent in the world. Halman and Draulans 2006 refers to a distinction between belief and practice in suggesting that decline in one may not mean precisely commensurate decline in the other. While it refers to Europe in its analysis, its conclusions have broader implications for examining the religious and secular worldwide. Bullivant and Lee 2012 encourages both a comparative and an interdisciplinary approach in understanding nonreligion and secularity. Meanwhile Garnett, et al. 2006 again points to important questions of measurement in suggesting that we need to develop sensitive methodological tools to assess the presence or absence of religion, and it focuses on one European context, Britain since the end of the Second World War, to make its case. Another way to challenge the idea of secularism as invoking absence is to see it, quite as much as religion, as a culturally constructed category, ideology, and even set of practices. Scherer 2011 (also Hirschkind and Scherer 2011) helps to consider such issues in relation to the work of Talal Asad, while also exploring Asad’s distinction between the secular and secularism, with the latter being seen as a political doctrine. Another influential theorist is discussed in Baldacchino and Kahn 2011, where the work of the Roman Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor (see Taylor 2007, cited under Historicizing Secularization) is examined in an anthropological context. Once again, Taylor can be seen as attacking the idea of mere absence. He opposes the notion that modernity per se is inherently opposed to the presence of religion and argues instead that being religious in plural, global society means that one takes a reflective view of one’s orientation. Religion may be relocated in modernity in relation to individual and social life, but it is not removed. Cannell 2010 provides a useful overview of both Taylor and Asad, while also arguing against the hierarchical and conventionally modernist positioning of religion below the political in significance.

  • Baldacchino, Jean-Paul, and Joel S. Kahn. 2011. Believing in a secular age: Anthropology, sociology and religious experience. Australian Journal of Anthropology 22.1: 1–13.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1757-6547.2011.00106.x

    Introduction to an issue of Australian Journal of Anthropology that addresses contemporary issues of belief (see Branford 2011, cited under Science; Kahn 2011, cited under Subjective Secularism). Explains how articles are influenced by Charles Taylor’s work concerning the experiential nature of secularism. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Brown, Callum, and Michael Snape, eds. 2010. Secularisation in the Christian world. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

    A wide-ranging collection of essays addressing the subject of de-Christianization in the West. Bringing together anthropologists, historians, and sociologists, this book provides the space for contributors from several countries to examine the diverse themes that have risen over the past thirty years of study into secularization.

  • Bullivant, Stephen, and Lois Lee. 2012. Interdisciplinary studies of non-religion and secularity: The state of the union. In Special issue: Non-religion and secularity. Edited by Stephen Bullivant and Lois Lee. Journal of Contemporary Religion 27.1: 19–27.

    DOI: 10.1080/13537903.2012.642707

    Introduction to a special issue on nonreligion and secularity. Brings together views on Europe, North America and Asia and perspectives from sociology, international relations, cognitive anthropology, and religious studies. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Cannell, Fenella. 2010. The anthropology of secularism. Annual Review of Anthropology 39:85–100.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.012809.105039

    Discusses both Talal Asad’s and Charles Taylor’s views of secularism, framing them in the context of wider arguments that argue for the reality of the secular and those that see it as a historically constructed category. Problematizes the tendency in modernity to see the political as more real than the religious. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Garnett, James, Matthew Grimley, Alana Harris, William Whyte, and Sarah Williams, eds. 2006. Redefining Christian Britain: Post 1945 perspectives. London: SCM.

    The collection explicitly positions itself against the dominant secularization theses advanced by, in particular, quantitative social scientists who are said to have neglected more nuanced and subjective forms of religiosity.

  • Halman, Loek, and Veerle Draulans. 2006. How secular is Europe? British Journal of Sociology 57.2: 263–288.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-4446.2006.00109.x

    Halman and Draulans argue that declining church attendance does not account for the varying rates and character of European secularization. Using quantitative evidence, they demonstrate the important differences between the decline of religious belief and the decline of religious practice. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Hirschkind, Charles, and Matthew Scherer. 2011. Introduction. Cultural Anthropology 26.4: 620.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2011.01114.x

    Introduction to a set of essays focusing on the critical discourses on secularism. By revisiting political theorist Wiliam E. Connolly’s Why I Am Not a Secularist (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999) and Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, and Modernity (see Asad 2003, cited under Challenges to the Secularization Thesis), the essays (see Scherer 2011) trace new trajectories for work on modern secularism. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Scherer, Matthew. 2011. Landmarks in the critical study of secularism. Cultural Anthropology 26.4: 621–632.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2011.01115.x

    Scherer poses several questions aimed at drawing out the most important arguments in Connolly (see Connolly 2011, cited under Ideology) and in Asad’s landmark works. These arguments explore issues such as the fundamental nature of secularism, its relation to Christianity, and its status as a modernizing process. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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