'God isn't compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You just make your choice. Our civilization has chosen machinery, medicine and happiness.' (Huxley 1965)
One of the major debates in the sociology of religion is concerned with the extent to which modern industrial societies have become secularised. The founding fathers of sociology saw secularisation as the inevitable outcome of modernisation.
Comte, Durkheim and Weber each assumed that when societies achieved scientific and technological complexity, individuals would cease to rely on religious meanings and explanations and instead use rational explanations to understand their world. It seems important to acknowledge then that religion should be understood, at least in part, as a source of knowledge.
Both sociologists and philosophers have made a comparison between science and religion as belief systems. A belief system is a set of beliefs and ideas, which help people to make sense of and interpret the world. A community of experts who claim a special insight into the truth also supports such systems.
Durkheim was one of the first to point to the connection between religion and other forms of knowledge. He claimed that it was through religion that humans first attempted to interpret the world and that it is from religion that other ways of thinking, such as science, evolved. Weber argued that as societies became industrialised, rational and scientific ideas would destroy traditional and irrational sources of authority and belief such as religion. Our way of interpreting the world became in Weber's terms less enchanted and sacred.
Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, claim that a sociology of knowledge is impossible without a sociology of religion, and vice verse. They claim that in all societies there exists a universe of meaning, which becomes institutionalised and is seen as the true and objective way of seeing the world. They claim that in the past, religion has probably been the most important source of legitimation for any universe of meaning. It is, they argue, only relatively recently that the scientific worldview has posed a serious challenge to the religious worldview.
Religion imposes meaning and order in a world of chaos and uncertainty. People don't like uncertainty and so it is natural for humans to prefer control and explanation, this is a social process. Humans do not explain the world in an infinite variety of individualistic ways but rather understand the world as revealed, and thus determined for them, by their culture.
The order imposed upon the world is, however, under constant threat from unexplained phenomena - natural disasters, death and suffering. In an effort to explain such things and give then meaning, humans place them in a category we might describe as mysterious or awesome, and develop a body of knowledge that Berger calls a cosmology.
A cosmology divides the world into the sacred and the profane. The sacred is something that has strange or potentially dangerous powers, which, through special ceremonies, can be harnessed for the good of the community. The sacred inspires acts of devotion and worship. The profane refers to the secular side of life, the everyday realities of basic needs.
One of the most important aspects of a religion, according to Berger, is its ability to explain phenomena such as evil, suffering and death. The explanation of such things in religious terms is known as a theodicy. Berger borrows the term from Weber; it literally means the justice of God. In western societies, the theodicy has to reconcile apparently contradictory beliefs, the belief in a benevolent and omnipotent God with the existence of a world full of evil and suffering. Weber suggests Hinduism as the most comprehensive and rational theodicy, a theodicy that preaches that everyone, no matter how unfortunate, deserves to be in the position they are in.
However, for a religious view of the world to exist, it must have a firm base. Berger describes this base as a plausibility structure. Destruction of this plausibility structure implies the collapse of the universe of meaning. A redefinition of reality becomes necessary. The plausibility structure might be destroyed quickly, as with the Incas when the Spanish conquered Peru, or slowly, as Berger suggests is happening in the west through gradual secularisation. So, secularisation can be seen as an effect of the declining of one knowledge system and the rise to prominence of another.
For many writers, the most important factor leading to secularisation has been rationalisation. This is a concept first developed by Weber in his book, 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism'. Weber argues that rationality has replaced mysticism in our understanding of the world. Clearly, societies organised on the basis of rationality can be very different from societies guided by tradition and superstition.
'A sky empty of angels becomes open to the intervention of the astronomer and. eventually, the astronaut.' (Berger, 1973)
The process of rationalisation has not been smooth because it encountered resistance from the purveyors of religious knowledge, the church. For example, the clash between Galileo and the church, in which the church was able to silence a challenge to its knowledge and control official knowledge.
Now, though, it is believed that religion is less able, indeed may be less willing, to defend itself against forms of knowledge that compete with it for acceptance. This battle for supremacy in the realm of knowledge and belief is the basis for the secularisation debate.