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the process in modern societies in which religious ideas and organizations tend to lose influence when faced with science and other modern forms of knowledge. Included here are such phenomena as the decline in formal church membership (e.g. number of baptisms) or a reduced role for religion in formal education. However, the extent of secularization across Western societies is highly variable. Notably for example, in the US religious membership has remained high, which is perhaps explained by the need for social location in a ‘melting pot’ society (Herberg, 1960). Nor has the formation and the membership of new CULTS and SECTS ceased in modern societies. Apart from this, a majority of members of most modern Western societies continue to profess religious beliefs, however truncated these may be and cut off from any fuller religious practice. That the secularization of society cannot be assumed to accompany modernization is also indicated by the resurgence of religion in some modernizing societies (e.g. recent Islamic revolutionary movements), or the importance of religion in more developed societies where it may exist in association with nationalist movements (e.g. in Poland), or may re-emerge in conditions of POSTMODERNITY.



(l)The transformation of church property (primarily land) into secular property by the government. During the early Middle Ages secularization involved primarily the redistribution of church property by the state and the transfer of land from ecclesiastical to secular feudal lords, most of whom were from the military service stratum. Extensive secularization of church lands was carried out in the first half of the eighth century in the Frankish kingdom by Charles Martel, who gave the military nobility confiscated church lands in the form of benefices. Secularization was carried out often in Byzantium, especially by emperors who supported Iconoclasm.

During the period of the formation of centralized national states, secularization of church property was a means of liberating the royal power from the guardianship of the church and strengthening state finances at the expense of the clergy. These objectives inspired the confiscation of the property of the Templar Order in the beginning of the 14th century. Ecclesiastical landownership, which perpetuated the most backward feudal order, was an obstacle to the development of the capitalist mode of production.

Secularization was especially common in the 16th century, owing to the Reformation. Secular lords and rulers who wanted to use secularization to advance their own interests supported demands for secularization voiced by the 14th- and 15th-century reformers J. Wycliffe and J. Hus and, in the 16th century, by M. Luther. After the suppression of the Peasant War of 1524–26, secularization was carried out by German princes allied with the Reformation. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) recognized secularization carried out before 1624. Extensive secularization accompanied the spread of Zwinglianism and Calvinism in the Swiss cantons. During the 16th-century bourgeois revolution in the Netherlands, secularized church lands were transferred chiefly to the bourgeoisie.

In England the Reformation was accompanied by the secularization of property held by the monasteries (1536–39). Church lands secularized by royal power were sold to the bourgeoisie and the gentry. Secularization accelerated the expropriation of the English peasants and facilitated the process of primitive accumulation (K. Marx, Das Kapital, vol. 1, 1973, pp. 725–73). Secularization was a crucial element in the agrarian reforms during the period of the English bourgeois revolution of the 17th century (the Ordinances of 1646 concerning the abolition of archbishoprics and bishoprics and the secularization and sale of their lands).

In the second half of the 18th century secularization was an important aspect of the policy of enlightened absolutism. In Austria church lands were secularized by Joseph II, and in Portugal, by the Marquis of Pombal. The Great French Revolution dealt a decisive blow to the feudal landholdings of the church in France. Under a decree issued on Nov. 2, 1789, church and monastery lands were nationalized. They were sold primarily to members of the bourgeoisie. After the Treaty of Lunéville (1801), Napoleon Bonaparte allowed his allies among the German princes to secularize the ecclesiastical principalities.

Church property was secularized during the period of the unification of Italy (1855, 1866, and 1870 [the abolition of the Papal States]). In France, decrees passed in 1901, 1904, and 1905 did away with the religious orders and congregations that had emerged in the 19th century. Their property was transferred to the government.

Secularization, which promoted the strengthening of capitalism and the bourgeois states, had a generally progressive significance. Church property has been secularized periodically in the Eastern and Latin American countries. The popular masses received no material advantage from secularization, which was first carried out in the interests of the people as a result of the victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution, when a decree passed in 1917 made church property in Russia available to everyone. In other socialist countries the large landholdings of the church were liquidated during the agrarian reforms after World War II(1939–45).


In Russia. When the Russian centralized state was formed at the end of the 15th century, the government of Ivan III tried to restrict landownership by the church. The question of secularization was first posed at a church council in 1503. However, secularization was temporarily postponed, because the government needed the support of the church in the struggle against feudal fragmentation and the heretical sects in Russia. When internal political stability had been achieved, the government acted in the second half of the 16th through the 17th century to limit landownership by the church. Decisions adopted in 1551 and between 1580 and 1584 prohibited the monasteries from acquiring land. The government’s Sobornoe Ulozhenie (Assembly Code) of 1649 prohibited the clergy and monasteries from acquiring new lands. From 1649 to 1652 the government confiscated urban settlements and holdings owned by the clergy. However, the government’s policies were inconsistent, and in the second half of the 17th century landownership by the church increased (grants, including those from the tsars; gifts; and barter). Between 1653–54 and the beginning of the 18th century, the number of peasant holdings owned by the church increased by approximately one-third. By the early 18th century, the monastery peasants (monastyrskie krest’iane) constituted almost one-fifth of all the peasants in Russia.

At the beginning of the 18th century the government of Peter I carried out a temporary and partial secularization of church property. The holdings of the monasteries were divided into “appointed” votchiny (patrimonial estates), the income of which was used to maintain the monasteries, and “overappointed” votchiny, the income of which went to the government. With the creation of the synod, which strengthened the subordination of the church to the emperor, the majority of the votchiny were returned to the monasteries. However, part of their income was to be turned over to the state treasury.

In the second quarter of the 18th century the Russian Orthodox Church strengthened its economic and political position somewhat. The clergy’s predatory exploitation ruined the peasantry and provoked endless disturbances. By the beginning of the I760’s, approximately 100,000 people had been involved in these disturbances. To weaken the struggle of the monastery peasants and simultaneously fill government coffers, in 1757 the government ordered the creation of special commission to carry out secularization, and decided to transfer control of the monastery and church votchiny to officers. For a while the opposition of the clergy impeded the implementation of these measures. More peasant disturbances broke out, leading the government of Peter III to publish in 1762 a decree on secularization written during the reign of Elizaveta Petrovna. Rebelliousness among the clergy and a power struggle among groups at court forced Catherine II to curtail secularization until 1764. In 1786 church property was secularized in the Ukraine. Approximately 1 million male monastery serfs in Russia, excluding the Ukraine and the Baltic region, became the property of the government treasury. They were referred to as economic peasants (ekonomicheskie krest’iane).

Between 1841 and 1843 church property in the western provinces of the Russian Empire was secularized. Secularization aimed at the abolition of feudal church property was progressive in character, but in prerevolutionary Russia the process was not carried to its conclusion. Secularization was completed only as a result of the Great October Socialist Revolution. Under the decree on land (1917) all church and monastery lands still owned by the clergy after secularization (about 3 million desiatinas, or 3.27 million hectares) were confiscated. A decree of Jan. 20 (Feb. 2), 1918, separated church from state and left only the buildings used for religious services in the ownership of the church.


Tserkov’ v istorii Rossii (IXV.-1917): Sb. St. Moscow, 1967.
(2) In Western Europe the transition of a person from the clergy to the laity, with the permission of the church. Secularization entails release from church position and loss of corresponding rights.
(3) A term referring to the liberation of a culture, individual consciousness, or science from the guardianship or spiritual influence of the church or from the religious world view.
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