David Voas: “The power of nones: Why secularization matters”

Professor David Voas is Head of Department of Social Science at University College London, and member of the Executive Committee of the European Values Study . He will give a speech entlitled “The power of nones: Why secularization matters


In her Presidential Address at the 2018 conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Korie Edwards urged social scientists to study the way that religion affects the distribution and use of power.  In doing so, she criticized the amount of attention given to secularization.  She advises scholars to avoid “framing our work in ways that could be construed to suggest that religion is losing power.  This is simply not true.”

Using data from various sources, I will make four points in response:

1) Whether, why and to what extent religion is losing power is an empirical question.  The evidence strongly suggests that in nearly all highly developed societies, religion is less central in personal and social life now than in the past. 

2) The common claim that “the presuppositions that informed secularization theory have been effectively refuted” is odd, in view of the evident association between modernization and religious decline.

3) Scholars who are interested in the power of religious ideas, institutions and leaders should be attentive to studies of secularization; “The decline in power, popularity, and prestige of religion across the modern world is not a short-term or localized trend nor is it an accident” (Bruce 2011).

4) The undoubted power of religion can be deployed for good or ill, and there is a widespread belief that religion has done more harm than good.  People are increasingly choosing to live without religion partly because they reject the exercise of its power over their own affairs.