Religion, Secularisation and Politics: A Postmodern Conspectus
Third World Quarterly
Vol. 18, No. 4 (Sep., 1997) , pp. 709-728
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3993213
Anybody who had prophesied 30 years ago that the 20th century would end with a resurgence of religion, with great new cathedrals, mosques, and temples rising up, with the symbols and songs of faith everywhere apparent, would, in most circles, have been derided. It is beyond dispute that, during the last 30 years, religion has played an important political role in quite a few countries: the overthrow of the Shah of Iran; civil conflict in many African countries, including Sudan, Nigeria and South Africa; the demise of the Eastern European Communist bloc; demands for political change in the Islamic world; the reworking of politics in the USA; the wars in former Yugoslavia; the troubles of South Asia; and the dilemmas of a divided Israel. The question of the nature of this largely unexpected interposition of religion in politics is a troubling one. Does it necessitate a rethinking of the secularisation paradigm? This is a puzzle and a problem; yet all who assess the situation bring their perceptions and prejudices. Basically, however, views can be dichotomised thus: those who do not believe assign every cause but the divine to religious movements and effects; those who have faith perceive the hand of God in what appears to many a widespread religious efflorescence. I have sympathy for both positions. The decline in the social and political importance of religion in the West is solidly grounded in mainstream social science. As Shupe notes, 'the de-mystification of religion inherent in the classic secularisation paradigm posit[s] a gradual, persistent, unbroken erosion of religious influence in urban industrial societies'. Secularisation implies a unidirectional process, whereby societies move from a sacred condition to successively areligious states; the sacred becomes increasingly social and politically marginal. The commanding figures of 19th century social science - Durkheim, Weber, Marx -argued that secularisation was an integral facet of modernisation, a global trend. Everywhere, so the argument goes, religion would become privatised, losing its grip on culture, becoming a purely personal matter, no longer a collective force with mobilising potential for social change.
In short, secularisation is 'the most fundamental structural and ideological change in the process of political development'. It is a trend whereby societies gradually move away from being focused around the sacred and a concern with the divine, leading to a diminution of religious power and authority. A consequence is a gradual transformation in the traditional relationship between religion and politics.
Five components of the secularisation process are of importance in the relationship between church and state: a) constitutional secularisation: religious institutions cease to be given special constitutional recognition and support; b) policy secularisation: the state expands its policy domains and service provisions into areas previously reserved to the religious sphere; c) institutional secularisation: religious structures lose their political saliency and influence as pressure groups, parties and movements; d) agenda secularisation: issues, needs and problems deemed relevant to the political process no longer have an overtly religious content e); and ideological secularisation: 'the basic values and belief-systems used to evaluate the political realm and to give it meaning cease to be couched in religious terms'. Secularisation is clearest in the industrialised West, where falling income levels for mainstream churches, declining numbers and quality of religious professionals, and diminishing church attendance collectively point to 'a process of decline in the social