It was Weber1 who first gave the sociology of religion the seminal concept of secularisation, later to be developed in greater detail by his colleague Troeltsch2 to describe what could be characterised as the decline in the influence of religion on society. The Latin root of the word - saeculum - provides a hint of its ecclesiastical origin, but its ambiguous meanings (era, age, the world, forever, etc.) act somewhat as a warning that every human effort to define it, much less pin it down into a neatly classified field of social scientific study, would either be an impossible task or a challenge that would take forever.
Sociologist Larry Shiner3 tried to arrive at a universally accepted modern definition of the word "secularisation" for purposes of both empirical research and interpretation. He argued that there was a total lack of agreement as to what the term signified and how it could be measured. His paper attempted to bring the secularisation concept into focus by considering its history, types of usage and application, a critique of various forms of the concept as analytical tools, and a critique of the secular-religious polarity. However, due to the term's polemical past, its extremely varied definitions, and its frequent use as a blanket term to cover several disparate processes, he concluded that the term "secularisation" should either be abandoned or be explicitly recognised as a comprehensive term covering three complementary but distinct processes: desacralisation, differentiation, and transposition.
After him, Martin argued that "the word 'secular', like the word 'religious', is amongst the richest of all words in its range of meaningfull of internal contradictions of which the conventional dictionary scarcely gives a hint". 4 Such a warning, however, should not be a source of discouragement but rather the prelude to an interesting discussion that is full of promise and insight that can help social scientists to better understand past, present, and future events.
Martin identified four groups of meanings of the word "secularisation" 5:
(1) Decline in the power, wealth, influence, range of control, and prestige of ecclesiastical (church) institutions. As a result, there is considerably less importance of the church's role in society, in the State, and in the professions. (2) Diminution in the frequency, number, intensity, importance, and efficacy of religious customs, practices, and rituals. These are treated as of marginal importance in life, leading to lower over-all attendance to religious worship, a decline in vocations, lower level or religious knowledge and more liberality in personal conduct. (3) Demystification and translation of religious concepts and symbols within a human and temporal reference. This includes rejection of mysterious and non-observable truths and turning to naturalistic, scientific, and objective facts. (4) Decrease in the sense of the supernatural depth and meaning, marked by rejection, indifference, lack of seriousness, dedication, and concern.
However, whilst Martin associated secularisation with the decline of what could be characterised as religiosity or religious practices according to the norms of organised (Christian) institutions, he also pointed out a series of paradoxes existing within each of these definition classes that hint at