The Implications of the “Separation of Church and State” in Contemporary Society

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The Implications of the “Separation of Church and State” in Contemporary Society

The concept of “Separation of Church and State” remains a pivotal aspect of modern democratic societies. This essay will delve into the historical origins of this principle, its implementation in various countries, and the challenges it faces in contemporary society. It will discuss how this separation affects legislative processes, individual rights, and societal norms, particularly in areas of education, public policy, and religious freedom. The essay aims to provide a comprehensive overview of how the separation of church and state shapes interactions between religion and governance, exploring both its advantages in maintaining religious neutrality and the controversies it ignites in pluralistic societies. At PapersOwl too, you can discover numerous free essay illustrations related to Progress.

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Separation of Church and State and Personal Experiences

Recently, I was listening to a podcast by one comedian, Chris D’elia. As comedians go, cynicism, coupled with the acceptability that anything and everything is available for jokes, is the name of the game. Amidst the podcast, D’elia began ranting about the heterosexual-homosexual divide in social acceptance. This led quite bluntly to religion. D’elia believes it is “asinine” for religions to dictate how people live. His position is anti-religion. As it is, he grew up in New Jersey and was raised Catholic.

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Later in his teenage years, his family moved to California, and as he left for college, he left his religion behind. D’elia, along with many others, grew up in similar contexts. While listening, I could not help but think further about public opinion of religion. How has religion declined in society? Is religion today good for society? By examining the history, philosophy, and sociology of religion, I will attempt to answer these questions.

Defining Religion: The Sociological Perspective

There are two methods of defining religion. Emile Durkheim defined religion by its social functions. He suggested that religion is a system of beliefs and rituals connected to the sacraments that bind people together in groups. However, Durkheim’s definition is too inclusive to the point that many public activities can be included, such as sports or music, where many individuals are drawn to social groups based on systems and rituals. Max Weber defined religion as any attempt to answer existential questions which can, in turn, bring meaning to human existence. Here again, Weber’s definition is quite inclusive because all humans face existential problems and thus are religious.

Durkheim and Weber’s definitions are leading influences in two major approaches to defining religion in sociology. However, a solid definition of religion has been debated in many disciplines throughout history, and no one definition has been accepted as “true.” Because of the various beliefs and practices that differ between the many world religions, it is challenging to reduce each religion to a single all-encompassing definition. Furthermore, a definition of religion must distinguish between that which is considered religious and non-religious.

The Role and Lure of Religion in Society

A consensual definition of religion is complex and will debate for time to come. Now, the focus is on individuals and society and why people have religious beliefs. Several sociological theories are moving in this direction. Bronislaw Malinowski viewed religion as the bridge spanning human aspirations and abilities. He stated, “Religion provides an institutionalized means of adjusting oneself to life’s uncertainties and risks.”

Another sociologist, Talcott Parsons, labeled religion as the bridge between social expectations and experiences. He stated, “In all societies, some expectations are doomed to failure, that pain and deprivation are distributed haphazardly, that violations of moral standards are rewarded, and upstanding behavior may end in personal loss and defeat.” Both believed that religion filled the gap that plagues human existence. Many more theories try to explain the lure of religion, but Malinowski and Parsons work well. Human beings face crises and need an answer they can understand and accept. Thus, religion is a lure that answers humanity’s problem of meaning.

Religion’s Changing Role Throughout History

When looking at the history of religion, sociologists claim that religion’s role in society has changed. Traditionally, religion acted as an authority throughout social life. Farmers prayed for rain and good crops—God-ordained priests. Conflicts and disputes between families or villages were acted out in religious rituals or through religious trials, and formal education was in the hands of the clergy. In the industrial era, religion became enveloped by other specialized institutions and lost much of its social authority and function.

Religious doctrines have traditionally dictated social behavior, such as upholding heterosexual relationships, supporting pro-life, giving generously, or refraining from alcohol; however, now many individuals who know the rules choose not to follow them, as the authority of religion in society has taken a backseat. Anywhere you look in the United States, let alone the world, you can see evidence of the decline of religion. Right here in Birmingham, Alabama, where once were the most churches per square mile in the U.S., there are empty buildings and waning congregations.

Evidence of Religion’s Decline

The evidence of the decline of religion in Western societies has led to many sociologists coining the term secularization. The term Secularization refers to the removal of religious control over social life. On one end, the church has lost authority over marriage, law enforcement, and schooling. With the separation of church and state, religion has lost most of its authoritative stronghold. Conversely, religion has lost control over personal decisions and thoughts as science continues to disprove the rationale of traditional religious interpretations of reality. Bryan Wilson, a sociologist from Britain, stated that the decline of religion became evident after World War II. War memorials lost many religious symbols traditionally adorned; some were often not put up at all.

The Impact of Wars and Media

Shortly after the war, the Church of England significantly lost broadcasting time, and today, throughout Western culture, church institutions are rarely seen on television or in the news unless for scandal or ridicule. Wilson also saw fewer individuals seeking guidance and information from the church. He saw that “control of social welfare has also been moved away from the church and into the hands of specialists employed by the state that educate, counsel, cure, rehabilitate and care for the poor and the aged.” Church leaders and clergy members have fallen on the social ladder. In the 1950`s their wages were similar to those of many professional workers. Their salaries are much lower, with some unskilled jobs paying more. Church structures tell a similar tale about the decline of religion in society. Many churches and worship centers either stand empty or need significant repair. Some churches thrive, but the number of churches in communities has decreased significantly.

The decline of religion can also be seen in individuals’ attitudes toward the church. If you were to poll a group of people about their influence from religion, most would comment that their thoughts and actions are not related to or guided by religion. Wilson stated that [people] “no longer appear to ask, ‘What is Gods will?’ but rather ‘What shall I do to get on?’ They seem less concerned by death and the afterlife and more about happiness in the here and now.”

The church’s traditional disapproval of divorce, birth control, sexual relationships outside of marriage, and homosexuality appears to have little influence in society today. When the church upholds its views on controversial issues, it receives a bitter, cold reputation. Some churches adapt and veer away from their old creeds. It appears that the church is now following the influence of society rather than being a leading authority in society, as once the position it held.

Individual Attitudes and Societal Influence

Many sociologists have written about religion’s decline, especially throughout Western societies’ development. Karl Marx stated that religion is the “opium of the masses.” Opium is a hallucinatory narcotic that promotes well-being and produces illusions that alter an individual’s reality. Marx used this metaphor to criticize religion. He believed religion gave individuals a false sense of reality, drawing them away from the truth, ultimately maintaining the poor and oppressed, not helping them. Secularization was needed to drive out religion and bring about socialism. One of the reasons Karl Marx antagonized capitalism was because he believed it helped religion survive in society.

Differently, Emile Durkheim did not view religion as an ideology that must end or as an unnecessary construct. Instead of secularization being the opposition to religion, Durkheim viewed it as a reflection of peoples’ weakening sense of society’s sacredness and greatness. He was worried that industrialization and urbanization would cause social instability in people’s minds, resulting in less attachment to society’s traditional standards and values. Society was changing at a rate where religion would become a private matter, relinquishing its ability to influence and unite the public. However, Durkheim ultimately believed that secularization would decline, leaving room for the reemergence of religion in society, for “all societies must have sacred symbols and communal rituals if they are to survive.”

Max Weber spoke of the decline of religion by looking at the relationship it shared with society. He stated that secularization was a trend toward rationalization. Secularization was “the adoption of norms and values that emphasize effectiveness, efficiency, and cost-benefit equations. Traditional and social obligations have no place in a rational economy.” Work, school, and marriage are only a means to an end without actual value within a rational society. Weber believed that secularization brought about disenchantment, causing religion to lose flavor.

Religion’s Relationship with Human Rights

Throughout the twentieth century up until now, the decline of religion has been evident. Many works of literature and exploratory studies have been written covering the trend. However, even though religion has struggled with its fate, it is hard to properly appraise the validity of religion as a worldview, and harder to state that people today are just less religious. There may be more physical church structures than people to fill them, but it may not be concluded that people are less religious. It may be true that some people have “privatized” their religion, lessening their outward expression of faith. This is not hard to believe since religion is the butt of many jokes in today’s culture.

All in all, religion has declined but persists, and as stated by Emile Durkheim, it may emerge again. If you examine religion in Western society today, you may find that the general attitude is a mockery of religion. Moreover, this, in part, is due to the Christian contradiction. There are proclaiming Christians who only resemble a Christian by title. There are Christians of different doctrines and denominations. Some even Christians have different beliefs about creation, science, Jesus, and even God. Christianistic religion in Western societies is subdivided to the point that even Christians do not agree or claim to be related. Christianity is one example of several. Catholicism and Islam have subdivisions that complicate their religion. As science discovers more truths about the natural world and secularization enables rationalism, it is hard for religions to hold much ground in society with lasting contradictions.

Although religion has traditionally held power in society and dictated behaviors and beliefs, religion has a different position now. Religion has declined, and the secular prevails, letting the former dwell in the backdrop. However, religion can still influence society. Individual beliefs about God and the universe may well be kept, but the cold dogmas of traditional religion must not be the roadblock sustaining exclusion. Secularism has promoted the beneficiary of individual action to be the self. Religion, stripped of its rules defining how to live one’s life, holds the question of why one should live their life a certain way. Moreover, although existential questions may never be concretely solved, religion in its purest form promotes a life that benefits humanity, one that cares for the other. As Jack Caputo, Richard Kearney, Jeff Robbins, and many other philosophers have prompted, care for the Other, for the less fortunate, poor, and needy, is how religion can bring about a better world.

Human history is riddled with societal struggles for human rights. Ronald Dworkin claims that the concept of human rights is the ingredient that distinguishes democracy from “ordered brutality.” Both secularist members and religious members of society affirm human rights, but religion offers a foundation for human rights. It must be said that neither religion nor secular affirmations for human rights can dictate the other’s commitment. Being a Southern Christian Baptist from Alabama, I would be inappropriate in denying a secularist’s affirmations about human rights, as they would be inappropriate in denying my Christian foundation for affirming human rights. This is the first step in using religion to benefit society by stepping away from condemnation and opening ourselves to the other.

In an essay on a human rights initiative, Jan Patocka, a student of Edmund Husserl, focused on morality as a necessary condition of human existence. He stated that morality escapes by its very nature any state control, which no society can function without. It simply allows “human beings to be human” and is that “which defines man.” For Patocka, the respect for human rights comes down to a simple truth: “The idea of human rights is…the conviction that even states, even society as a whole, are subject to the sovereignty of moral sentiment: that they recognize something unconditional, that is higher than they are, something that is binding even on them, sacred, inviolable, and that in their power to establish and maintain the rule of law, they seek to express this recognition.”

C. S. Lewis viewed this unconditional, sovereign moral sentiment as natural (moral) law, an insisting code that tugs at us from within, given to us by the God of the universe. Lewis pointed out that we can learn more about God by “listening” to our moral law, just as you can learn more about a human by listening to their conversation. Perhaps Padocka and Lewis are correct that this moral law demands to be heard and enacted throughout society. Perhaps this moral law is the work of God. Then, it is essential that religion reemerges and solidifies itself as something for the greater good, promoting human rights, tolerance, and love for the other.

The Need for Progress and Adaptation

Robin Williams once said, “Change is not popular; we are creatures of habit as human beings. ‘I want it the way it was.’ However, if you continue how it was, there will be no ‘is.” Humans are comfortable in their habits, in what is certain, and there are not many human beings as habitual as the religious. Lewis wrote, “We all want progress. However, progress means getting nearer where you want to be.” Religion has declined and is seen as a somewhat fantastical hobby to meddle with. However, if religion seeks to regain a foothold of societal influence, it must progress.

Moreover, that begins with the religious members themselves. They must be hospitable and critical of what is new in society and their doctrines and texts. Religion can benefit and flourish in today’s secularized society but requires flexibility to allow transformative progress.


  1. Durkheim, É. (1915). The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Free Press.
  2. Weber, M. (1922). Economy and Society. University of California Press.
  3. Malinowski, B. (1954). Magic, Science, and Religion and Other Essays. Doubleday Anchor Books.
  4. Parsons, T. (1951). The Social System. Free Press.
  5. Wilson, B. (1982). Religion in Sociological Perspective. Oxford University Press.
  6. Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1848). The Communist Manifesto. Penguin Classics.
  7. Durkheim, É. (1897). Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Free Press.
  8. Weber, M. (1905). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Scribner.
  9. Dworkin, R. (1977). Taking Rights Seriously. Harvard University Press.
  10. Patocka, J. (1996). Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History. Open Court.
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The Implications of the "Separation of Church and State" in Contemporary Society. (2023, Aug 21). Retrieved from