What Is Secularization?

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Over the last few centuries, and especially in the last few decades, Western society has become increasingly secularized, meaning that religion plays a less and less prominent role. The shift represents a dramatic cultural change whose effects are still widely debated.

Secularization Definition

Secularization is a cultural transition in which religious values are gradually replaced with nonreligious values. In the process, religious figureheads such as church leaders lose their authority and influence over society.

In the field of sociology, the term is used to describe societies that have become or are becoming modernized—meaning that features of society such as the government, the economy, and schools are more distinct, or less influenced by religion.

Secularization in the Western World

Secularization in the United States is a hotly debated topic. America has been considered a Christian nation for a long time, with many Christian values guiding existing policies and laws. However, in the last few decades, with the growth of other religions as well as atheism, the nation has become more secularized.

In the United States, there have been movements to remove religion from government-funded daily life, such as school prayer and religious events in public schools. Further evidence of secularization can be seen in laws overturning prohibitions on same-sex marriage.

While the rest of Europe embraced secularization relatively early, Great Britain was one of the last to adapt. During the 1960's, Britain experienced a cultural revolution that reshaped people's views on women's issues, civil rights, and religion. Over time, funding for religious activities and churches began to wane, reducing the impact of religion on daily life. As a result, the country became increasingly secularized.

Religious Contrast: Saudi Arabia

In contrast to the United States, Great Britain and most of Europe, Saudi Arabia is an example of a country that has not experienced secularization. Almost all Saudis identify as Muslim. While there are some Christians, they are mainly foreigners, and they are not allowed to openly practice their faith. Atheism and agnosticism are forbidden, and such apostasy is punishable by death.

Because of strict attitudes toward religion, Saudi Arabia's laws, customs, and norms are closely tied to Islamic law and teachings. The country has religious police, known as Mutaween, who roam the streets enforcing religious laws regarding dress codes, prayer, and the separation of men and women.

Daily life in Saudi Arabia is structured around religious rituals. Businesses close several times a day for 30 minutes or more at a time to allow for prayer. In schools, approximately half of the school day is dedicated to teaching ​religious material. Almost all books published within the nation are religious books.

The Future of Secularization

Secularization has become a growing topic as more and more countries modernize and shift away from religious values toward secular ones. While there remain many countries that are focused on religion and religious law, there is increasing pressure from around the globe, especially from the United States and its allies, for countries to secularize. Nevertheless, some regions have actually become more religious, including parts of Africa and Asia.

Some scholars have argued that religious affiliation itself is not the best measure of secularization. They believe that a weakening of religious authority can occur in certain areas of life without a corresponding change in the religious identities of individuals.