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Do all societies become secular?

Do all societies become secular?

Ryan Schram

Mills 169 (A26)


11 May 2015

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2667/10


Mahmood, Saba. 2001. “Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual: Disciplines of Şalat.” American Ethnologist 28 (4): 827–53. doi:10.1525/ae.2001.28.4.827.

Deeb, Lara. 2009. “Piety Politics and the Role of a Transnational Feminist Analysis.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15: S112–26.

Other readings

Harding, Susan. 1991. “Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other.” Social Research 58 (2): 373–93.

Other media

Ali, Lorraine. 2010. “For American Muslims, Choosing to Wear the Veil Poses Challenges.” The New York Times, June 11. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/13/fashion/13veil.html.

Cohn, Nate. 2015. “Big Drop in Share of Americans Calling Themselves Christian.” The New York Times, May 12. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/12/upshot/big-drop-in-share-of-americans-calling-themselves-christian.html.

Eltahawy, Mona. 2015. “My Unveiling Ceremony.” The New York Times, April 10. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/11/opinion/mona-eltahawy-my-unveiling-ceremony.html.

Liptak, Adam. 2015. “Muslim Woman Denied Job Over Head Scarf Wins in Supreme Court.” The New York Times, June 1. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/02/us/supreme-court-rules-in-samantha-elauf-abercrombie-fitch-case.html.

Perez, Michael. 2014. “Does a Women-Only Pool Mean Segregation? Not Quite.” The Islamic Monthly. March 30. http://theislamicmonthly.com/does-a-woman-only-pool-mean-segregation/.

Scott, Joan Wallach. 2008. “Gender Equality and Islamic Headscarves.” The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion and the Public Sphere, February 10. http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2008/02/10/gender-equality-and-islamic-headscarves/.

Questions of religion, atheism, and secularism

In many parts of the world, religions seems to be on the decline.

  • In Australia, 65.3% say religion is 'not very important' or 'not at all important' (World Values Survey 2014).
  • In Scandinavian countries, 60% of people say religion is unimportant (ibid.).
  • In some Western European countries, notably France, 40-30% of people profess no belief in any God, spirit, or life force (Eurobarometer 2010).
  • In these same countries, over half do not attend any religious service.

Questions of religion, atheism, and secularism

In other parts of the world, religious identity seems to have a new prominence.

  • The “Islamic Revival” in the Middle East and other Muslim-majority countries.
  • The revival of Orthodox Christianity in former Soviet states.
  • The house church movement in China, and a general revival of interest in religious practice.
  • The growth of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa.

Religion and social change: A two-way street

Based on Weber's ideas about religion and change, he predicted that as society became more complex, and its division of labor became more specialized and rational, religion would become restricted to certain areas of life, and many areas of life would be completely secular and indifferent to religious ideas. This has become the secularization thesis.

A thesis statement is one possible answer among many to a research question.

There are two pretty obvious problems with this thesis:

  • Is it based on a flawed assumption about social change.
  • It really doesn't look at all the relevant changes in this area, only the decline of religious observance among some people.

In short, the secularization thesis is wrong, but then again, we can see now that it was really asking the wrong question. Sociology is still recoving from this.


Secularism means neutrality with respect to religion, and the absence of religious influence. Specifically, one normally associates this concept with:

  • The separation of church and state, or official neutrality on religion.
  • One's religion is private matter, and does not affect other roles.
  • One has freedom to worship and freedom of belief.
  • In some cases, religious expression of any kind is banned in some areas of life, e.g. in French public schools. French secularism is better known as laïcité.

Why is secularism and religion so problematic?

  • France: Headscarf controversies, 1989-1994 (Jones 2009); burqa ban, 2014.
  • Australia: Ban of face coverings in the gallery of Federal Parliament, 2014.
  • US: Sultaana Freeman denied a Florida driver's license, 2002.
  • Turkey: Ban on headscarves in universities lifted, 2008.

Freedom of conscience

The freedom of belief, thought, or conscience has historically had two elements in international law (Slotte 2010, ):

  • forum internum (internal forum)
  • forum externum (external forum)

What is the difference?

WISH: Women in Solidarity with Hijabis

What is this?


Share what you know about this. What do you think? What are people doing here?


Eurobarometer. 2010. “Special Eurobarometer 341, Wave 73.1: Biotechnology Report.” http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_341_en.pdf

Eurobarometer. 2012. “Special Eurobarometer 393, Wave EB77.4: Discrimination in the EU 2012.” http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_393_en.pdf

Jones, Nicky. 2009. “Beneath the Veil: Muslim Girls and Islamic Headscarves in Secular France.” Macquarie Law Journal 9: 47.

Petkoff, Peter. 2012. “Forum Internum and Forum Externum in Canon Law and Public International Law with a Particular Reference to the Jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights.” Religion and Human Rights 7 (3): 183–214. doi:10.1163/18710328-12341236.

Slotte, Pamela. 2010. “The Religious and the Secular in European Human Rights Discourse.” The Finnish Yearbook of International Law 21 (1): 231–86. SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 2592380.

World Values Survey. 2014. “World Values Survey Wave 6: 2010-2014: Online Data Analysis: V.9 Important in Life, Religion.” World Values Survey Database. Accessed June 30, 2014. http://worldvaluessurvey.org/.

A guide to the unit

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