One of the major disputes in the sociology of religion concerns how important religion continues to be in an age of industrial and scientific progress. This debate is interesting not only for its religious importance, but also for the methodological issues that it raises. The word ‘secular’ means ‘worldly, not sacred, temporal, profane’. The process of decline, the social significance of religious thinking, practice and institutions is called secularisation.
On the one hand, there are those who suggest that religion has gone through a massive decline, from a ‘Golden Age of Religiosity’- A time presumed to have existed in the past when members of society were more religious than they are today. Some believe this time to be a myth, to a situation where religion has a limited and often formal importance in those societies. For example, Weber argues that science and rationality would gradually erode religious influence. This decline is most spectacularly seen in the decline in the numbers attending religious services over the past century.
Nevertheless, the formal acknowledgement of religion continues in the way that individuals use the Churches for baptisms, marriages and funerals, without seeing regular attendance as a necessary accompaniment to them. But, even these ‘rites of passage’ are no longer celebrated in church as much as they were in the past. Disengagement this argues there has been a decline in power, control, prestige and influence of the institutionalised church in contemporary society. This is an idea which is supported by Wilson who believes that the church has lost its functions and the church is now limited to the concerns of spiritual and rights of passage.
On the other hand are those who argue that the evidence is not as clear-cut as secularisation theorists maintain, for example Glock and Stark. Different industrial societies show different trends, with the US showing continued high levels of church attendance. Even when attendance has declined, religious belief continues to be strong as shown by many social surveys. Rather than seeing religion as declining, these sociologists argue that religion is adapting to meet the changing social circumstances of industrializing countries.
As traditional methods of worship no longer meet the needs of individuals in the industrialized West, new forms of worship will emerge. Therefore, the splitting of Christianity into many different groupings and the growth in alternative non-Christian religions in the West, are not signs of the disintegration of religion but symbols of religion’s continued growth and vitality. However, it is important to bear in mind that defining religion is problematic, and how it is defined will influence views on the process of secularisation.
Measuring religion is also difficult and thus it is not easy to measure the growth or decline. New religious movements, which take the form of sects or cults, involve smaller numbers than the major non- Christian religions. The UK Christian Handbook lists 18 such movements and has estimated the membership of these organizations along with that of other new religious movements. Membership rose by 5,000 between 1980 and 1995, an increase of 130% British figures are hard to trust attendance and membership figures may be distorted by the ulterior motives of those who produce them.
Membership figures can be calculated in different ways. Therefore, statistics on church membership are highly unreliable and the trends indicated by figures may be misleading. Sects are in many ways, the opposite of churches in everything except their belief that they have a monopoly on the truth. As with churches, sects will deny that what other sects and non- religious organizations say is true; only the sect can guarantee that people who join will, for example, be saved from the evils of the wider society. Sects have a small, exclusive membership.
They are usually small and their small size can be explained in terms of their claim to have some unique view of the truth, it depends upon close links between members and an oppositional stance towards the wider society. Membership is also exclusive: only people who know the truth and actively commit themselves to it count as members. This gives the sect its rationale- we know the truth and the majority of non-members do not-and its way of dealing with the wider society. Sects are usually in opposition to wider society.
Sects are much more likely than churches to reject what the wider society has to say and to be hostile to that wider society. The Amish, who formed small communities in the USA reject almost all of modern technology- e. g. cars, zips, and radios. Some become well accepted by wide society e. g. Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses. Members are asked to give their total commitment to the sect and this may include giving up their income for the benefit of the sect. Weber said that sect membership was strongest among the materially deprived or those facing discrimination.
People obtain a new dignity often denied them in wider society. Weber also argues that all sects are originally based on personal charisma that is on a leader who has special qualities, which followers see as inspirational. Wilson argued that sects develop and change; they are not static entities, but are diverse and Complex. They are attempts by people to construct their own societies, forging new normative patterns to fit their ideologies, which are usually in opposition to those of wider, society. He emphasis’s eight special qualities, which relate to a sect membership:
1. Voluntary . Based on merit 3. A source of identity 4. Elite identity 5. Expulsion is possible 6. Individual conscience is vital 7. Members must accept the sect as legitimate 8. Exclusive He classified sects according to their response to the world. The principal criterion is their response to the question ‘what shall we do to be saved? ‘ he noted that different types of sect made different types of appeal, and said the categories must not be from the Christian tradition alone nor form only a particular period in history. He thus identified 7 types and the fundamental message they offered.