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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds How we analyse the role of religion, in present day conflicts, has a lot to do with our assumptions about the face of religion, in general. Within the social sciences, the so-called secularisation thesis, for a long time, provided us with the main framework for organising our perceptions of what was happening to religion. Furthermore, secularism has historically emerged as one of the main ways to organise religious pluralism in societies– at least, in the west. Both of these concepts, in turn, have a lot to do with what we think is modern and what direction societies should develop into. Let’s begin by taking a look at secularisation theory. Currently formulated, the secularisation thesis refers to the declining influence of religion.

Skip to 1 minute and 0 seconds As we saw in week one, religion can have many different meanings in many different contexts. Secularisation theorists, however, generally assume that religion refers to religious institutions, such as churches, and to sets of beliefs. Building on Max Weber’s concepts of enchantment and mystery, a key assumption of this theory is that religion is often irrational, based on superstition and illogical beliefs. Secularisation has traditionally been seen as a consequence of modernisation. In turn, modernisation has often been defined as the process through which political, cultural, and economic institutions of society become more autonomous– less entwined with each other and with religion. This view is particularly characteristic of secularisation theorists of the 1960s.

Skip to 1 minute and 55 seconds The mainstream secularisation thesis states that as societies become more modernised, the authority and influence of religious beliefs and institutions will eventually disappear from public life and will only be relevant to individuals on a private level, if at all. As William Swatos, Jr. and Kevin Christiano argue, “the principal thrust in secularisation theory has been a claim that in the face of scientific rationality, religion’s influence on all aspects of life– from personal habits to social institutions– is in dramatic decline.” The key assumption has been that religion’s influence in the public realm– and often the private, as well– will abate as people become more educated and rational.

Skip to 2 minutes and 43 seconds This inherent assumption that religion is irrational also affects how we understand the proper place of religion in the world and how we understand its relationship with conflict. Religion is positioned as irrational, backward, and premodern, in contrast to secularism’s rationality and progressiveness. Modernisation Theory also argues that as societies become more modernised and more secular, they will become more peaceful. Thus, conflict, and especially violent conflict, is frequently assumed to be characteristic of premodern societies. Religion’s supposedly irrational nature is seen as an explanation for why it is often involved in conflict. But the reverse is also true. The perceived frequency with which conflicts are characterised as religious is seen as evidence that religion is irrational.

Skip to 3 minutes and 40 seconds It also contributes to a perception that religion is somehow inherently violent. Often, however, designating a conflict as religious can be a way of trying to simplify situations that are highly complex– far too complex to understand in just a short newspaper article or TV news report. We will explore, in more detail, assumptions about religion’s relationship with conflict and violence, in the next lesson. What is important for us, as scholars and people interested in understanding the role of religion in conflict in a more nuanced way, is to reflect on our own assumptions and the assumptions implicit in the secular position.

Skip to 4 minutes and 24 seconds Often, we assume or are told that secularism provides us with a universally accessible logic, unhindered by particular worldviews, ideologies, or fanatical religious beliefs. What we often forget, however, is that secularism is not a universal logic of reasoning. It developed in a very specific historical and cultural period– European society, between the 17th and 19th centuries– and was heavily influenced by Christian theology and philosophy. Indeed, many scholars argue that the emergence of secularism as a way of thinking and organising relationships between religion and other aspects of society would not have been possible without the influence of Christian thought.

Skip to 5 minutes and 10 seconds This raises significant questions about how secular secularism is and reminds us that we must always carefully reflect on our own assumptions when we are interpreting information about complex situations, issues, and areas of the world that are different from our own.

Secularisation theory

In this video the role of religion in conflict is analysed based on the secularisation theory. This theory refers to modernization leading to the declining influence of religious institutions on society. This video focuses on how assumptions of religion determine religion’s place in society and more importantly in conflict.

Up for debate

These are some points you might like to consider that will be useful for future steps:

  • Which factors have lead to implicit assumptions about secularisation theory?
  • Why is there a differentiation made between religion and its institutions?
  • What role might this play in understanding how we frame conflicts?

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Religion and Conflict

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