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date: 25 January 2021

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter looks at the relevance of the concept of ‘differentiation’ for the study of religion. Differentiation plays a major part in most explanations of secularization, but it is important to distinguish two different senses of the term. Social differentiation—social division resulting primarily from the division of labor in modernizing nations—is normally secularizing due to the fragmentation of overarching religious institutions into competing sects and denominations. This is correlated with increased religious pluralism, which is generally secularizing, due to decreasing dogmatism. Functional (or structural) differentiation has important implication for religion: as religion becomes separated off as a discrete subsystem, it loses power and influence. The creation of secular alternatives leads to a decline in the popularity of religious services. The chapter argues that claims that modernization is characterized by de-differentiation—as advanced by rational choice theory/supply-side approaches—are unconvincing.

Keywords: functional differentiation, modernization, rational choice theory, religious pluralism, secularization, social differentiation

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