In studies of religion, modern Western societies are generally recognized as secular. This is due to the near-complete freedom of religion, the fact that beliefs on religion generally are not subject to legal or social sanctions. Some societies become increasingly secular as the result of social processes, rather than through the actions of a dedicated secular movement; this process is known as secularization. Secularization is the transformation of a society from close identification with religious values and institutions toward nonreligious values and secular institutions. The secularization thesis refers to the belief that as societies "progress," particularly through modernization and rationalization, religion loses its authority in all aspects of social life and governance.
Coined by the British writer George Jacob Holyoake in 1851, secularism is often associated with the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, and it now plays a major role in Western society. In political terms, secularism is a movement towards the separation of church and state. This can refer to reducing ties between a government and a state religion, replacing laws based on scripture with civil laws, and eliminating discrimination on the basis of religion. This is said to add to democracy by protecting the rights of religious minorities. Due in part to the belief in the separation of church and state, secularists tend to prefer that politicians make decisions for secular rather than religious reasons. In this respect, policy decisions pertaining to topics like abortion, contraception, embryonic stem cell research, same-sex marriage, and sex education are the prominent issues many secularist organizations focus on.
Secularization in Different Realms
When discussing social structures, secularization can refer to differentiation. Differentiation refers to the increasing division of labor and occupational specialization in society. When discussing institutions, secularization can refer to the transformation of an institution that had once been considered religious in character into something not thought of as religious. When discussing activities, secularization refers to the transfer of activities from institutions of a religious nature to others without that character. Finally, when discussing religion, secularization can only be used unambiguously to refer to religion in a generic sense. For example, a reference to Christianity is not clear unless one specifies exactly which denominations of Christianity are being discussed.
Responses to Secularization
Because religion continues to be recognized in Western thought as a universal impulse, many religious practitioners have aimed to band together in interfaith dialogue, cooperation, and religious peace-building. Recent interfaith initiatives include "A Common Word," launched in 2007, which is focused on bringing Muslim and Christian leaders together, the "C1 World Dialogue," the "Common Ground" initiative between Islam and Buddhism, and a United Nations sponsored "World Interfaith Harmony Week. "
Some evidence suggests that the fastest growing religious status in the United States is "no religion" Irreligion is the absence of religion, an indifference towards religion, a rejection of religion, or hostility towards religion. When characterized as the rejection of religious belief, it includes atheism and secular humanism. When characterized as hostility towards religion, it includes antitheism, anticlericalism and antireligion.
Sacred and Secular
The secularization thesis refers to the belief that as societies "progress," particularly through modernization and rationalization, religion loses its authority in all aspects of social life and governance.