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Secularization: An Analysis at Three Levels

Second Printing


Karel Dobbelaere

In an epoch in which religion has explicitly and sometimes violently returned to the forefront of the global public scene, the process of secularization that has fundamentally marked Western and particularly European societies demands attention and analysis. This book, written from a sociological perspective, takes up that challenge.
The author distinguishes three levels of secularization. Societal secularization which is a typical consequence of the processes of modernity, and of programmes of «laïcisation» promoted by political parties. Individual secularization that is manifested in the decline of church commitment; occurring as individuals re-compose their personal beliefs and practices in a «religion à la carte»; and as the individual's meaning system becomes compartmentalized and religion is separated from other areas of life. A third level, organizational secularization, covers the incidence of the adaptation of religious bodies to secularized society.
The entire work is marked by meticulous description and analysis of numerous theoretical and empirical studies, and by due recognition of the intricate relationship between levels of secularization and the impact of various actors in the many conflicts over religion's roles.


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PART I SECULARIZATION: A MULTI-DIMENSIONAL CONCEPT1 1 Reprinted by permission of the International Sociological Association who published this text in 1981 in Current Sociology, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 1-216, under the title “Secularization: A Multi-Dimensional Concept”. 17 Introduction Most sociologists of religion divide the history of their specialty into three periods: a classical period dominated by Durkheim and Weber, an intermediate period of denominational or church sociology inspired by a misreading of Le Bras, and a neo-classical period, which is character- ized by a return to the sources of the sociology of religion, and which focuses on “the problem of personal existence in society, [which] is essentially a question of the social form of religion” (Luckmann, 1967: 18). Individual Secularization In the mid-1960s several sociologists of religion were dissatisfied with the narrow “positivistic” methodology of their sub-discipline. Some criticized the decline of the theoretical significance of the sociol- ogy of religion, which survived as an applied or ancillary science “at the service of the churches or denominations” (Luckmann, 1967: 20). Others looked for the theoretical frame of reference that was implicitly used in the empirical studies of the intermediate period (e.g. Dobbelaere and Lauwers, 1969). The empirical studies of involvement in denominations were basi- cally studies of normative integration (Landecker, 1951: 340) which measured the accord between the norms of religious communities – in the fields of belief, ritual, and ethics – and the knowledge, attitudes, and conduct of their members. Such studies analyzed individual participa- tion in social structures, but...

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