Image of writings on the wall saying ~"Freedom, Equality, Secularism"

Anthropology: Exploration of Secularization in the Contemporary World

Western societies have become less religious over recent decades and centuries. According to research, many European countries value religion as the least important. According to Hämäläinen and Tomaszewska (2017), “in most European Union countries, less than 10 percent of people consider religion one of their most important values and even most people that identify themselves as having religious beliefs regard other things as more valuable to themselves than their faith”. 

It is assumed that the Western world became less religious because it modernized. In the last centuries, there has been a significant spread of scientific knowledge, mass education, urbanization, globalization, urbanization, industrialization, capitalism, pluralism, advances in technology, prosperity, and significant improvements in health and life expectancy. The belief that modernization causes secularization was shared by all founding founders of the 19th century (Hidlitch 2021).

In this article, I am going to explore what secularization and secularism are and how they are explained, where they occur in the world and why, and finally, what are some of their socio-cultural implications.

Secularization and secularism

image of the term 'secularism' in a book

Secularization is defined as the process of social change during which society is becoming less religious over time.  It is during this transformation, that society is moving from close identification with religious values and institutions towards non-religious values and secular institutions. This happens as societies progress through modernization and rationalization, religious authority is no longer significant in all aspects of social life and governance.

While secularism is the ideological stance that promotes the loss of religion in society. Social theorists such as Marx, Freud, Weber, Stuart Mill, and Durkheim have all suggested that the modernization of society would lead to a decline in religiosity (secularization). 

How does religion contribute to a cultural change?

According to Durham, culture is a “process by which humans organize and give meaning to their actions through symbolic manipulations which are the basic attributes of all human endeavor” (de Silva Moreira, 2014). Culture is a collection of mental representations, or beliefs, moral values, symbols, and ideas. Thus, cultural change involves the transmission of these from one individual to another.

“Culture is made up, first and foremost, of…contagious ideas…To explain culture, then, is to explain why and how some ideas happen to be contagious” (Sperber 1996)

When discussing cultural and religious transformation, we take for granted that religion is part of the culture. Religious beliefs, traditions, and rituals can significantly contribute to social and cultural change. Similarly, religious practices (or lack of) are shaped by the culture around them.

The European Enlightenment and the idea of secularization

Black and white image of the frontpiece of Encyclopédie from 1772
Frontpiece of the Encyclopédie (1772) representing the thought of the Enlightenment (

When exploring what caused secularisation in the world, we have to look back at the period of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. The movement was centered around the idea that reason is the primary source of authority and legitimacy. It emerged from another intellectual movement called Renaissance humanism. Some date it back to 1637 and the philosophy of René Descartes “I think, therefore I am“. Some of the other major contributors to the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution included Cesare Beccaria, Denis Diderot, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, John Locke, Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Hugo Grotius, Baruch Spinoza, and Voltaire.

According to the book by Anna Tomaszewska and Hasse Hämäläinen titled “The Sources of Secularism: Enlightenment and Beyond” – modern thought and the ideas that emerged from the Enlightenment play an important role in explaining and understanding secularism. The Enlightenment period enabled developments in natural science and brought various challenges to religion. One of the first enlighteners during that period was Baruch (de) Spinoza – a Dutch philosopher and one of the early thinkers of the Enlightenment and biblical criticism. He’s considered one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy. According to the British writer, Jonathan Israel, Spinoza was a great contributor to the “making of modernity” and he devoted much of his studies to religion. In “Ethics”, for example, he said:

“certainly nothing but grim and gloomy superstition” would prohibit one’s laughter. “To make use of things and to take pleasure in them as far as he can”—in eating, drinking, perfumes, dress, music, sports, and theatre without any hurt to his fellows—“is the part of a wise man.”

This shows that the emergence of an interlocking complex of abstract concepts, such as “liberty, democracy, freedom of expression, comprehensive toleration, racial and sexual equality, freedom of lifestyle, and full secularization of all legal institutions and educational establishments” derived from the Radical Enlightenment (Hämäläinen, H. and Tomaszewska, A. 2017).

In pre-Enlightenment societies, God and divine commands were absolute. Religious beliefs and superstitions were strong and individuals’ actions were primarily motivated by the desire to go to heaven and avoid hell. For example, in the 16th century, the church in European countries was bound together with the state via the ‘Divine Right of Kings’. As a result of this, the King could only be judged by God and no other human being.

Disenchantment of society

One of the founding fathers of Sociology, Max Weber, borrowed the term ‘disenchantment’ from Friedrich Schiller to describe modernized, secularized Western society. Disenchantment occurred when the role of religion, magic, mystery, superstition, and faith became less prominent in society. Religion and superstition are replaced by rational motives. For example, people no longer want to get married because religious authorities say they should (religious motives), they would rather spend the money on buying a house instead (rational motives) (Revise Sociology 2018).

Institutional disengagement as evidence of secularization

According to Max Weber, modern society is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and by disenchantment within the world. Weber argued that the spread of Protestantism and Calvinism led to individualistic forms of worship by preaching that individuals should get to know God personally. In consequence, there began to be a decrease in church attendance, known as secularization. Disengagement is the process of religious institutions becoming less involved and therefore, less important in social and political life. Religious institutions essentially withdraw from the wider society. There is evidence that religious organizations play a less significant role in society and politics today (Revise Sociology 2018).

Religious pluralism as evidence of secularization

Religious pluralism happens when there is no one dominant religion. Instead, there are many religions. This occurs especially in modern and postmodern societies. Globalization, industrialization, and modernization in Europe and America brought ethnic and religious diversity into society. There has been the growth of cults and sects, different cultures, and religions emerging, which has led to religious pluralism. Due to religious pluralism, the state cannot formally support one main religion without causing conflict. Therefore, people are no longer bound to society as a whole through membership of their particular religion. One main religion continues to exist in communities such as the Amish community. However, such communities are isolated from the rest of society (ReviseSociology 2018).

World’s most secular regions

Image of a world map showing world's least religious countries

According to sociologists, Ariela Keysar and Juhem Navarro-Rivera’s review of several global studies on irreligion, there is an estimated total of 450 to 500 million positive atheists and agnostics worldwide. This is around 7% of the world’s population.

According to the World Population Review and the data from WIN/Gallup International polls, in 2021 the five least religious countries in the world are China, Japan, Estonia, Sweden, and Norway. In China, over 65% of people surveyed consider themselves “convinced atheists” (more than twice the number of any other country). Meanwhile, only 7% of people in China feel religious (World Population Review 2021).


In 2012, a study called Beliefs About God Across Time and Countries was unable to find a single person under the age of 28 in Eastern Germany who believed in God. In 2010, a Eurostat Eurobarometer Poll found that 20% of European Union citizens said they “don’t believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force”. According to the survey, the countries where the largest numbers of people stated that they “don’t believe there is any sort of spirit, God or life force” were France (40%), the Czech Republic (37%), and Sweden (34%), the Netherlands (30%), and Norway (EEA, not EU) (29%). Countries where the highest number of people stated they “believe there is a God”, were Malta and Turkey (94%), Romania (92%), and Cyprus (88%), Poland, and Greece (79%).

Countries with largely religious populations

Despite the fact that many countries in the world are losing their religion and becoming secular, there are still many countries with largely religious populations. Countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Niger, and Somalia indicate 100% of their population believing that “religion is important in daily life”. Similarly, countries such as Kosovo, India, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Papua New Guinea class themselves as mostly religious (World Population Review 2021).

Arguments against secularisation

Image of a person in crowd holding up a banner saying "I have faith in science"


Although secularisation is continuing to occur, researchers such as Heelas et al, argue that secularization happens in terms of traditional religions. Simultaneously, there is a renewal and continuing vitality of religious beliefs ( known as ‘re-sacralization’). People are moving from traditional religions and ways of worshipping towards focusing more on spirituality and focusing on individualistic ways of worshipping. Therefore, showing that secularisation is not necessarily growing but rather, religious beliefs are being reoriented (Heela et al. 2005).

Focus on spirituality and self

Sylvia Collins-Mayo et al. suggests something similar in the context of the United Kingdom. Their argument is that those born from 1982 onwards have faith. However, it is not focused on traditional expressions of religions but is associated with, for example, happy and fulfilling relationships with friends and family (Collins-Mayo et al. 2010). Therefore, it emphasizes that people focus more on self in relationships with others, rather than traditional expressions of religion.

Growth of Fundamentalism

In addition to this, as data shows, there are many parts of the world where religion appears to be thriving. According to Almond et al. (2003), there are parts of the world where religiosity has grown massively in recent years due to the rise of Fundamentalism around the world. Similarly, Roof and McKinney (1987), argue that the growth of conservative Protestant groups in the United States suggests that secularization is not occurring. People who belong to these groups are more likely than any others to attend church and support traditional morality.

High Religiosity in countries with low levels of security

Moreover, some researchers explain why third-world countries remain religious whilst more modernized and prosperous Western countries have become more secular. Norris and Inglehart (2005) argue that countries that have established high degrees of “security” – the ones with generous welfare states (such as the Scandinavian countries) – have higher levels of irreligiosity than the countries with lower levels of “security”. They define security as “access to basic necessities, social equality, employment, healthcare, low crime, and low fear of war”. Therefore, low-income societies with a lack of security are threatened by events such as famine, disease, poverty, premature death, and natural disasters, and remain as religious as centuries ago. Such societies regard beliefs in life after death, the soul, heaven, hell, and God as sacred and very important.

Socio-cultural implications of societies losing God

There are positive and negative effects of secularization. Positive secularism means mutual and equal recognition of all religions, where a state maintains equal separation from all religions. People have religious freedom, they can worship (or not) in communities or individually, and this is recognized by the state, but with no state interference. On the other hand, negative secularism means there is no recognition of any religion, thus religious freedom does not exist.

It has been found that increased secularization and a shift towards more individualistic ways of worshipping could make religion less socially acceptable (Lechner 2003).  Furthermore, increased secularisation results in higher engagement in riskier behaviors such as drug and alcohol consumption, fewer people are focusing on marriage, fewer people are baptized and confirmed, and religious festivals are losing their spiritual and religious meaning, but are becoming more of a tradition.

An example of negative secularisation includes Godless government systems, such as Nazism and Soviet Communism. These systems allowed dictators of the state to make people blindly trust them as their leaders and follow anti-human political systems by simultaneously restricting people’s religious freedom. As a result of this, the state could fully control social, political, and cultural life where there was no public control.

Cultural significance in Anthropology

The study of secularization and secularism in social sciences such as anthropology and sociology brings significant contributions to our understanding of societies and cultures around the world. There are various arguments for and against secularisation and whether the world remains religious or secular.

Although according to data, more countries are appearing to become more secular, there are arguments about how this process of secularisation really occurs and what it involves, suggesting that the issue of secularisation is much more complex than we might think. Religion continues to play a significant role in the majority of societies around the world, despite the modernisation and globalisation of those societies. However, as some critics of the idea of secularisation suggest, the way we express our religion is changing.


Almond, G., A., Appleby S., R., Sivan, e. (2003) Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalism Around the World. Available:

Hämäläinen, H. and Tomaszewska, A. (2017) The Sources of Secularism: Enlightenment and Beyond. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan

Heela, P., Woodhead, L., Seel, B., Szerszynski, B and Tusting, K. (2005) The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell

Hilditch, C. (2021) How the West Lost God. Available: Secularization Caused by Government Control of Education | National Review

Lechner, F., J. (2003) Secularization. Available:

Norris, P., and Inglehart, R. (2004) Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Revise Sociology (2018) Secularization. Available: ReviseSociology

Roof, W., C., and McKinney, W. (1987) American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future.  New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press

da Silva Moreira, A. (2014) Globalization, Cultural Change, and Religion: The Case of Pentecostalism. Available:

Smith, T., W. (2012) Beliefs about God across Time and Countries. Available:

Sperber, D. (1996) Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell

World Population Review (2021) Least Religious Countries 2021. Available:

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