Secularisation UK

There are many different definitions and understandings of the process of secularisation. How do you quantify or measure something so complex and abstract?

Secularisation UK Secularisation UK

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Table of contents

    Likewise, how do you explain secularisation when religion itself has changed so much over the last century or so and is still evolving?

    In this explanation, we will address these questions.

    • We will first look at a definition of secularisation.
    • We'll then go over how secularisation is measured.
    • We'll examine the reasons behind secularisation and examples of it.
    • We'll look at the purported benefits and issues with secularisation.
    • Finally, we'll consider evaluations of the theory of secularisation.

    What is secularisation?

    Let us look at a classic definition of secularisation that incorporates three broad indicators and has been adopted in many sociological resources.

    Bryan Wilson (2016) defined secularisation as 'the process whereby religious thinking, practices and institutions lose social significance'.1

    Measuring secularisation

    The three indicators in Wilson's definition of secularisation correspond to the three Bs of religion:

    • Belonging (institutions)

    • Behaving (practices)

    • Believing (thinking)

    These can be used to measure the level of religiosity (or lack thereof) in a society.

    Religious beliefs

    It is vital to gauge the extent of religion's influence on people's beliefs and values; namely, the importance of religion in their lives, whether they see themselves as religious people, whether they believe in God(s), spirits, an afterlife, etc.

    Religious practice

    The behaviours and rituals that people engage in to fulfil their religious duties, such as the extent to which they take part in religious worship, can also tell us a lot about their religiosity.

    Religious institutions

    Religion's importance to wider society can be measured by the degree to which religious institutions have maintained their position and influence in society, and how far they are actively involved in the day-to-day operations of public life.

    Benefits of secularisation in the UK

    Secularisation is a controversial topic, and, as we will explore below in the "evaluations" section, some argue that the process does not even exist. Similarly, the positives and negatives of secularisation are also contested.

    When it comes to benefits:

    • Religious minority groups would not be marginalised by a dominant religion, and non-religious people would likewise not be forced to follow religious laws, rules and norms that they do not ascribe to. Religious persecution would reduce.

    • People would be freer to lead their lives on an individualistic basis and create their own meanings and goals.

    • Cultural stigmas associated with religion around certain issues such as women's rights and relationships outside marriage would be reduced.

    • Research also shows that the most secular nations of the world are generally the most well-off - they are generally the most peaceful,2 they have the lowest rates of crime3 and corruption,4 the highest levels of happiness,5 etc.

    Problems of secularisation in the UK

    However, it can also be argued that:

    • For the religious, secularisation may feel as if their beliefs and lifestyles are declining in significance. This can be especially difficult for some religious minorities who base much of their identities on religion and feel that they cannot practice their religion in public.

    • The dissolving of religious communities, rituals and traditions; and the lack of belief in a higher power/purpose could make some people feel physically and spiritually lonely, and that something is missing from their lives.

    Examples of secularisation in the UK

    Possibly the strongest example of secularisation is the change in the percentage of people in the UK who identify as religious.

    According to the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey of 2018, the proportion of the British population who identify as Christian, the majority religion, has fallen from 66% in 1983, when the BSA first began, to 38% in 2018.6

    Most of this shift has been to religious non-affiliation, with 52% saying they do not regard themselves as belonging to any religion in 2018.

    Can you think of more examples of secularisation in the UK?

    Secularisation and the UK church

    Sociologists have theorised multiple reasons that explain and support this idea of secularisation. These include:

    • Rationalisation
    • Structural differentiation
    • Industrialisation and multiculturalism
    • Religious diversity
    • Cultural defence and transition

    Although much of the following theory is based on the UK church, it is important to note that the theory may also apply to other religions.

    Reasons for secularisation in the UK

    Let's now look at some possible reasons behind the rise of secularisation in the UK.


    Max Weber claimed that the rationalisation of society is what led to its eventual secularisation.

    Rationalisation refers to the process by which rational ways of thinking and behaving come to replace religious ones.

    Weber believed that Western cultures have undergone mass rationalisation.

    The Catholic world-view dominant in Europe during the Middle Ages saw the world as an 'enchanted garden' in which God and other supernatural beings shaped and explained every aspect of life.

    When the Protestant Reformation swept through Europe, it also brought about a very different religious outlook. Protestants rejected the 'enchanted' world-view and believed life operated on natural principles, which meant people could not turn to religion to explain every event any longer.

    This created space in society for the development and influence of science. Steve Bruce (2011) argues that the growth of a technological world-view completely replaced previous religious views as it provides logical explanations and arguments and replaces religion.

    Structural differentiation

    Talcott Parsons (1951) defined structural differentiation as a process of specialisation that occurs with the increasing development of industrial society. Parsons asserted that secularisation has come about due to the development of separate, specialised institutions to carry out duties previously performed by a single institution - religion.

    The sections of society that religion historically had influence over, e.g. education, social welfare and law, were gradually passed over to institutions like the state.

    Religious institutions like the church became disengaged from wider society. Privatisation contributed to this as well - as it disengaged from public life, religion started to be seen as a purely private matter. As a result, both reliance on and confidence in establishments such as the church have decreased.

    According to the BSA of 2018, confidence in religious institutions has fallen over the last two decades – 54% had some degree of confidence in 1998, falling to 50% in 2008 and 46% in 2018.6

    Secularisation UK Man sitting in church pew, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Religious institutions have seen a decline in significance and levels of trust.

    Industrialisation and multiculturalism

    When society moved from pre-industrial, tightly-knit communities influenced by religion, to its modern form, it became more fragmented and consequently secularised. According to Émile Durkheim, industrialisation and urbanisation led to greater individualism and therefore a loss of social solidarity.

    Wilson adds that the decline of religion is to do with industrialisation and the erosion of community. Industrialised society has brought together large, urban groups of people from all backgrounds, overshadowing smaller, closer religious communities.

    The presence of many different cultures and beliefs also undermines the overall believability of the dominant religion. Also, without an actively practising society, both religion and religious practices seem to decline.

    Religious diversity

    Peter Berger (1969) believes that the many conflicting views of religion within modern European society also contribute to secularisation. The existence and knowledge of other religions in contemporary times challenge the idea of an 'absolute' religion or one true interpretation, affecting levels of religiosity.

    This is because, in the Middle Ages, the shared set of beliefs held by everyone formed a 'sacred canopy' over society, giving greater plausibility to religion. With the effects of the Protestant Reformation, there was no longer an unchallenged monopoly of truth, creating a crisis of credibility for religion. Religious beliefs, therefore, became relative rather than absolute.

    This change in attitude can be seen in the findings of the UK Census of 2011.7

    • The percentage of the population identifying with Christianity, the dominant religion, went down from 71.7% in 2001 to 59.3% in 2011.

    • 25.1% of the population reported having 'no religion', up from 14.8% of the population in 2001.

    • There was a rise in identification with all other main religions. The percentage of Muslims increased the most, from 3% in 2001 to 4.8% in 2011.

    Cultural defence and transition

    Steve Bruce (2000) argues that religion is used for either cultural defence or cultural transition. Cultural defence is when religion is used to defend an identity that is under threat. For instance, under Communism, Polish people secretly practised Catholicism as a way of expressing their culture under state oppression.

    Cultural transition, on the other hand, occurs where religion provides a sense of community for ethnic groups as they adapt to a new society or culture, e.g. immigrants to the UK gather in mosques and synagogues to stay connected to their culture.

    Although these trends seem to disprove secularisation, Bruce asserts that religion only thrives when it provides an external function to the individual. In the case of Poland, now that Polish people are free to practice their religion, church attendance has fallen.

    Evaluations of secularisation theory

    Despite all the evidence supporting secularisation, there is still much debate about the extent to which society has secularised, or indeed if it has at all. These include issues with measuring secularisation, the growth of new religions, changes in religion over time, and ethnocentrism.

    Issues of measurement of secularisation

    Secularisation is a notoriously difficult topic to study. There are many reasons for this.

    • Statistics can be unreliable.

    • Definitions may vary between sociologists.

    • Comparisons may be inaccurate.

    • Places of worship may lie about figures, or may count them differently.

    • Data may not be representative of the population.

    • Validity of data is open to question. As an example, people may have attended church due to social pressure in the past.

    Such factors make it difficult to measure secularisation. It is possible that the extent of secularisation differs from our current understanding.

    Growth of new religions

    Secularisation theory has been criticised as being one-sided as it does not consider the development of new religions or revivals of religiosity in new forms.

    Theories and data tend to focus on the mainstream religions and investigate their membership and religious practices, ignoring newer religions and religious movements that have been gaining followers in recent decades.

    New Age religious movements and practices are rising in popularity, especially amongst younger people. They offer alternatives to traditional religions, emphasising the importance of spirituality and deeply personal relationships with a higher power. (Visit New Age Movements to learn more.)

    Secularisation UK, Image of tarot books and cards, StudySmarterFig. 2 - New spiritual practices, such as tarot, are increasingly popular.

    Changes in religion

    Religion may not be declining, just changing in nature. Some would argue it has shifted from being a collective tradition to a more private one. There are several theorists that hold this view.

    Grace Davie

    According to Grace Davie (1994), people may well be followers of a religion but may not engage in collective worship or do so in an institutional setting; they may simply prefer to practice their religion alone, or with family/friends. Also, people do not have to be members or affiliate themselves with religious organisations to be religious.

    Davie refers to this as 'believing without belonging'; namely, continuing to believe in religious values but without outwardly belonging to a particular church or religious organisation.

    Charles Glock and Rodney Stark

    Glock and Stark (1968) argue that although it is true that the forms and practices of religion change, this does not necessarily amount to a decline in religious belief.

    This is because there is no agreement among theorists as to what constitutes 'secularisation' or a 'religious society'. There are many aspects of secularisation. Religious commitment is so varied, we simply cannot draw grand conclusions from statistics alone.


    The secularisation thesis assumes that religion will decline or has declined. This may be the case in Europe and the Western world, but is not necessarily true globally.

    Religion continues to be of major social and political significance across many countries worldwide. Dismissing its role, especially in less economically developed nations, can be deemed unwise and ethnocentric.

    Secularisation UK - Key takeaways

    • Secularisation is defined by Wilson as the process by which religious thinking, practices and institutions lose social significance.
    • It can be measured by studying the extent of religious beliefs, behaviours, and belonging to religious institutions.
    • Evidence shows that religious identification has declined considerably in the past few decades.
    • Sociologists have theorised multiple reasons that explain and support secularisation theory. These include:
      • Rationalisation
      • Structural differentiation
      • Industrialisation and multiculturalism
      • Religious diversity
      • Cultural defence and transition
    • However, secularisation theory has been criticised because there are many complications with measuring religiosity. It also ignores new forms of, and changes in, religion, and has been deemed ethnocentric.


    1. Wilson, B. R. (2016). Religion in secular society: fifty years on. Oxford University Press.
    2. Institute for Economics & Peace. (2022). Global Peace Index 2022: Measuring Peace in a Complex World. Available from:
    3. World Population Review. (2022). Crime Rate By Country 2021.
    4. Transparency International. (2022). 2021 Corruptions Perceptions Index.
    5. World Population Review. (2021). Happiest Countries In The World 2020.
    6. Phillips, D., Curtice, J., Phillips, M. and Perry, J. (eds.) (2018), British Social Attitudes: The 35th Report, London: The National Centre for Social Research
    7. Office for National Statistics (2012). Religion in England and Wales 2011.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Secularisation UK

    Is the UK a secular society? 

    There is much debate on whether or not the UK is a secular society. Some point to the rising percentage of people who don't identify with a religion, while others say that this doesn't matter too much since the nature of religion itself is changing.

    What is an example of secularisation? 

    An example of secularisation is the fact that the church no longer controls areas of public life such as education, the law, and social welfare. 

    When did secularisation begin in the UK? 

    Sociologists such as Weber argued that secularisation began in the UK and Europe generally with the advent of the Protestant Reformation.

    What percentage of the UK is secular?

    According to the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey of 2018, the proportion of the British population who identify as Christian, the majority religion, has fallen from 66% in 1983, when the BSA first began, to 38% in 2018.

    What is secularism in the UK?

    Bryan Wilson (2016) defined secularisation as 'the process whereby religious thinking, practices and institutions lose social significance'.

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