Encyclopedia of Religion
, (New York: Macmillan), Vol.13, pp.159-165.
SECULARIZATION. The term secularization came into use in European languages at the Peace
of Westphalia in 1648, where it was used to describe the transfer of territories previously under
ecclesiastical control to the dominion of lay political authorities. The term secularis was already
in use, and the distinction between sacred and secular, roughly equivalent to the differentiation of
Christian conceptions of the supernatural from all that was mundane or profane, was widely
invoked to assert the superiority of the sacred. Furthermore, the church had long distinguished
between those priests called "religious" and those designated as secular priests, that is, between
those clergy who functioned within a religious order and those who served the wider society.
Later, the term secularization was applied in a different, though related, sense, to the
dispensation of priests from their vows. The term was applied in even more diverse ways once
the concept acquired a more general, sociological connotation in the twentieth century.
Sociologists have used this word to indicate a variety of processes in which control of social
space, time, facilities, resources, and personnel was lost by religious authorities, and in which
empirical procedures and worldly goals and purposes displaced ritual and symbolic patterns of
action directed toward otherworldly, or supernatural, ends.
The term was later applied to denote a pattern of social development that earlier
sociologists, including Auguste Comte (1798-1857), had already recognized before the term
secularization was in general sociological use. In the process thus described, the various social
institutions become gradually distinct from one another and increasingly free of the matrix of
religious assumptions that had earlier informed, and at times had inspired and dominated, their
operation. Prior to this change, social action over a very wide field of human activity and
organization (including work, decision-making, social and interpersonal relationships, juridical
procedures, socialization, play, healing, and life-cycle transitions) is regulated in accordance
with supernaturalist preconceptions. The process of structural differentiation in which social
institutions (the economy, the polity, morality, justice, education, recreation, health maintenance,
and familial organization) become recognized as distinctive concerns operating with
considerable autonomy is also a process in which conceptions of the supernatural lose their
sovereignty over human affairs, a pattern broadly identified as secularization. Conceptions of the
supernatural are gradually displaced from all social institutions except those specifically devoted
to cultivating knowledge about, and maintaining relationships with, the posited supernatural
order. While those agencies still seek to influence other areas of social life, they become
recognized as separate and increasingly circumscribed religious institutions.
Definitions. This brief discourse already indicates the changing nature of the concept of