Arguments regarding secularization greatly depend upon the protagonists' definitions of religion itself. As a starting point for discussion, let me first of all put forward my operational hypothesis about religion.
Religion, as well as other cultural and social phenomena such as politics, economics, and education, is one of the essential elements of a cultural environment, created by human beings in order to accommodate themselves to nature and to survive. Although all such elements are, so to speak, apparatuses for human existence, religion characteristically is a system of symbols which brings the cosmological framework of a given cultural environment into existence, maintains it, and stabilizes the view of values or the meaningful order in the environment. In that process, it is a means of transmitting to the cultural environment, in some form or another, those expression, namely "transcendence, or value standards which do not exist within human experience."
Thus religion is an attempt on the part of human beings to approach the transcendent, an attempt which produces authorities and gives birth to the legitimation system which makes the cultural society a cosmos. The transcendent always conceals itself from human beings. It is an authority which on the one hand gives closure to a cosmos, in other words, gives an absolute order to the cosmos, but on the other hand, it relativizes and diversifies a number of separate universes. According to the relation between religion and the transcendent, therefore, the latter becomes an authority, and occasionally relativizes a given cultural society, thus harboring the potential for becoming a motive force toward social change.
From this point of view, former arguments about secularization appear doubtful. Is it certain that secularization means a general decline of religion in all its dimensions? If so, who do religious customs or rites such as shichi-go-san (shrine pilgrimage on a child's 3rd, 5th and 7th birthdays), hatsu-mode (first pilgrimage of the new year), and funerals flourish, and why is it that the expansion of new religious groups continually become the topic of news in Japan, while statistically, the number of Japanese who claim to have no religious belief is increasing?
In European countries where parish churches have broken down, and even funeral rites are being secularized, why are new fundamentalist sects constantly coming to life, and why do private religious rituals, such as the spiritual exercises of Zen, flourish in spite of the decrease of social attendance at churches?
The assertion that secularization means religious decline seems to be based on statistical and apparent phenomena such as decrease of the number of members of particular religious groups (religious communities and religious voluntary associations), or the disappearance of certain religious customs. The view of religion implicit in that argument is that of a primitive or peasant society where the society itself is a religious community, not yet functionally differentiated from law and politics.
Thus secularization might be explained more accurately as being a process of the functional differentiation of other social elements, such as politics, law, economics, and education, from religion, as the result of social changes in the society where religion was once the dominant norm. From the Parsonian point of view, when "hardware" turns out to be functionally differentiated, gigantic and complicated in order to gain greater application capacity, "software" should be more generalized to keep the cybernetic balance as a whole. This can be explained as follows:
(a) While the religious world view becomes more abstract and more distant from the world of the masses, each individual as one internal mechanism of the hardware system, tends to participate in more familiar sub-world programs, that is, decline of established religions on the one hand, and the flourishing of new religions or political groups as references groups on the other hand.
(b) As Fenn analyzed excellently, this "functional differentiation" means the process whereby "natural actors," who were in harmony with the society and its religious view of the universe, change into "corporate actors," who belong to diverse sub-ideology system and compete with each other as a result of the diffusion or weakening of that religious world view. In this process, a society changes in character from a natural integrity system to the state, which as a control system depends on the agreement of "corporate actors." Therefore, in modern society, the state, as a source of social integrating power, often conflicts with corporations or associations which serve to give a core of identity to the individual person. Rather than being a source of total social power, religion is more often a symbol used by persons or groups who protest against society in the name of the transcendent.
(c) Under these situations, religion, once the integrity symbol of the whole society, differentiates itself functionally and works separately in other secular domains. For example, (1) religious symbols which could not cope with more transcendent and abstract programs have become "customs" such as initiation rituals or funeral ceremonies performed by established religions, working covertly among secular domains such as politics, law, and ethics; (2) it becomes the ideology of such diverse reference groups as religious organizations or political parties, and a symbol of goal-attainment behavior; (3) most remarkably, it becomes a modern myth in the form of science fiction or poetry, which helps the formation of individual identity. Or it is used as a mass medium to sell a diffused world view to the individual consumer, serving as a secular means of maintaining a latent cultural framework.
I regard this as a process of differentiation of religion from other social domains. In this process, the religious function of integrating the cosmos or challenging established norms, diffuses itself into other social domains. It is not called religion any longer, but it remains religious functionally. The aspect mentioned in (1) above, I call culture religion, or institutional religion. The aspect described in (2), organization religion with the function of goal attainment. And the aspect of (3), private religion, or "invisible religion," according to Luckmann.
I think it is only from this point of view possible to solve the contradictory situation obtaining between the decline of religion and the concurrent maintenance of religious customs in modern societies. On the surface of society, however, conflict between state and other "corporate powers" or individuals over the issues of authority and identity can often be observed, making the endless effort of society towards integration stand out. This is the process of Rousseau's "political religion" attempting to extend its influence. When one substitutes Ballah's "civil religion" for "political religion," the following conditions should be taken into account: first, a state admits the coexistence of various religions and politics as sub-systems of ideology under the name of "transcendence," whose meaning has already been weakened even on the symbolic level; and second, the authority of civil religion should be established only after obtaining a national consensus. If one describes secularization in this way, then as Ikado and Vernon pointed out in the 1960's, while religion itself continues to be functionally differentiated (in other word, former religious functions are turned over to other social phenomena), it still performs its original cultural function, and in that sense it is aligned on a par with politics, economics, etc. In this way it is still active as a cultural product inevitably brought about in the course of the human struggle for existence.
In surveys of political consciousness, while many respondents note that they have no interests in political matters, they nonetheless constitute a political powerful "indifference group." Similarly, many people who express a superficial indifference to religious matters actively participate in religious functions.
As pointed out earlier by Swanson and Margaret Mead, ontological theology, which gave authority to past experiences in the name of God, declined after the Reformation in the West, and in its place arose epistemological theology. Epistemological theology proclaimed the god of eschatological hope, the hope for a yet unreachable utopian goal which appeared in the context of the dialectical development of human experience, namely the contradictory, conflicting nature of experience (and as Skinner has pointed out, to the degree that it was utopia, it was no different from a transcendental existence). From theologian Patric Masterson's viewpoint, it is possible to define the philosophers from Marx to Ernst Bloch as "modern religious men" on the same plane as Martin Buber.
Such Copernican change in theological matters may be one aspect of secularization, and if so, the first characteristic of secularization may be the "functional differentiation of society, and the functional differentiation of religion in response," and the second, "the process whereby transcendental sources of value come to be expressed by the use of future-oriented symbol systems, such as `hope'."
In this sense, Duvos, the author of A God Within, or Erich Fromm may be considered representative of modern theologians, and similar examples of modern-type religious groups in Japan might be the Yomagishi-kai and Itto1-en, groups which aim at the realization of Buddhist communal society.