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Modernization and Secularization in Spain: Evidence from Values Surveys

Published onMay 09, 2022
Modernization and Secularization in Spain: Evidence from Values Surveys


Secularization is one of the most visible and widespread processes linked to modernization and subsequent value transformations in Europe across the 20th century. Spain is no exception to this relevant value shift and transformation. This chapter explores the process of secularization in Spain, showing, on the one hand, the evolution of various indicators of individual secularization, and, on the other hand, reflecting on which factors explain this process in Spain. For this purpose, we rely on EVS data catalogue for Spain from 1981 to 2017. Our main findings is that Spain has experienced a clear process of secularization during the last decades, although relevant differences can be found in terms of age, job status, post-materialism and political ideology.

9.1 Introduction

As is well recognized in the existing literature and research, the systematic improvement in economic and material conditions, and the resulting massive access to education and health services, have consequences for citizens’ value systems. In modern societies we observe a general process whereby external sources of authority, such as the Church, are substituted by more individualized options when it comes to establishing the orientation of citizens’ values (Ester, Halman and De Moor, 1994). In this respect, Loek Halman has made an outstanding contribution to the explanation of the process of secularization in Europe, in relation to the process of modernization and connecting secularization with other processes such as morality (Halman and Van Ingen, 2015). Spain is no exception to this process; in fact, the country has been one of the most visible examples of the transition from a predominantly Catholic and religious society to a broadly secular one. This chapter presents the data for this evolution towards post-materialism and secularization, while also demonstrating which factors explain these positions around religion at different levels: individual, institutional and societal (Dobbelaere, 2012).


9.2 The Rise and Fall of the Theory of Secularization Understood as a Consequence of Modernity

In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche published his work The Gay Science. In section 125 he wrote his oft-repeated affirmation, “We have killed him – you and I…. God is dead!”. A few lines down, he added: “There was never a greater deed – and whoever is born after us will on account of this deed belong to a higher history than all history up to now!” (Nietzsche, 2001:119-120).

In the year 2014, Peter L. Berger published a book in which he reflects on an anecdote about a bumper sticker: “I saw the following, of all places, just off Harvard Yard: ‘Dear Mr. Nietzsche, You are dead. Yours very truly, God’. This comes rather close to the empirical reality of our age” (Berger, 2014:21).

Between these two assertions by Nietzsche (2001) and Berger (2014), the process of secularization is carved out. During the 1960s the idea of the death of God, as extoled by Nietzsche (2001), returned with a vengeance in the sociology of religion. Its influence was enormous, especially in Europe; in many places, such as Spain, it continues today. Let us recall the following titles: The Death of God by Gabriel Vaharían (1961), Honest to God by John A.T. Robinson (1963), and The Secular City by Harvey Cox (1965), to name but a few.

Other authors followed, in the first place Protestant theologians or intellectuals who moved in left-wing academic circles, with particular reference to society and Christianity in the United States, where the eclipse of God was obvious (Knox, 1962) Time magazine opened its 8 April 1966 issue with the question, “Is God Dead?” Shortly afterwards the subject of the death of God arrived in Spain. In 1968 the philosopher Victoria Camps was the first in that country to publish a study on the theologians of the death of God (Los teólogos de la muerte de Dios). One year later appeared the Spanish translation of Jourdain Bishop’s essay “Theologians of the Death of God” (Bishop, 1969).

Of what does the phenomenon of secularization consist of ? Charles Taylor (2007), in his great work A Secular Age emphasizes the following features:

  1. The withdrawal of religion from the public sphere. This could involve two not necessarily simultaneous processes: 

    a)  The privatization of religion. This thesis is very much supported in Spain, where secularism is understood to exclude religious practice. 

    b)  The marginalization of religion, meaning religious considerations should not have any influence on public life and in public decision making. 

  2. The shrinking or decline of religious belief and practice. 

  3. A change in conditions of belief. This third aspect is linked to the formation of a humanist alternative, with an immanentist sign. Taylor (2007, p. 514) notes:

there is a … powerful unthought operative: an outlook that holds that religion must decline either a) because it is false, and science shows this to be so; or b) because it is increasingly irrelevant now that we can cure ringworm by drenches; or c) because religion is based on authority, and modern societies give an increasingly important place to individual autonomy; or some combination of the above.

The reading of religion as something that comes from “out there”, which injects itself into the self-determination and decisions of the individual, of each and every one of us, is intellectually unsustainable.

Peter Berger, one of the pioneers of the secularization thesis in the second half of the twentieth century, edited a collective in work in 1999 in which he retracted a large part of his previous thesis. This is his central proposition of his novel findings in which he questions secularization (Berger, 1999, p. 2):

“the assumption that we live in a secularized world is false. The world today, with some exceptions is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labeled ‘secularization theory’ is essentially mistaken.” Berger (1999, p. 203) continues:

“Although the term “secularization theory” refers to works from the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of the theory can indeed by traced to the Enlightenment. That idea is simple: modernization necessarily leads to a decline in religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals. And it is precisely this idea that has turned out to be wrong.”

In an extraordinary work, the German sociologist Hans Joas (2020, p. 243) argues that in the contemporary period “in the Social Sciences predominant thinking has moved away from the secularization thesis to a rejection of it. The question today is how to understand religion when it emerges in the post-secular age.

According to Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart (2011 [2004], p. 4) various phenomena in the present day call into question religion’s death sentence. These range from the continued popularity of churchgoing in the United States to the emergence of New Age spirituality in Western Europe, the growth in fundamentalist movements and religious parties in the Muslim world, the evangelical revival sweeping through Latin America, and the upsurge of ethno-religious conflict in international affairs. This leads the authors to conclude that the importance of religion and religiosity take on greater meaning in contexts of vulnerability, fragility and poverty (Norris and Inglehart, 2011 [2004].

Wolfram Weisse (2016, p. 32) argues that in modern societies religion plays a new role: “change processes are taking place in different countries based on different contextual backgrounds, with different motives, actors and aims, but nevertheless in a way that similarly affects both religious pluralization and secularization.” And yet in spite of the process of secularization, we see that religion continues to be highly influential. This can be explained by the fact that different religions have differing impacts on the process of secularization. For example, studies reveal that “the religious tradition of countries appears to be relevant” (Voicu, 2012:336). Halman and Draulans (2004) also maintain that Catholicism has a strong impact on the maintenance of religious values.

A number of studies (Halman, 2015:4) have related the process of secularization to the rise of moral frameworks unconnected to the views of ecclesiastical institutions, to such an extent, for example, that Halman and Van Ingen (2015, p. 4) hypothesize that “a decline of church attendance at the country level is accompanied by a growing diversity of moral opinions (about homosexuality, euthanasia, abortion, and divorce) at the country level.”

However, research such as that by Emma T. Budde (2017, p. 58), which references the level of tolerance for abortion and euthanasia, indicates that “the larger the share of the population that adheres to a religion that strongly opposes the liberalization of such policies, the more restrictive the regulation.” This should not be interpreted to mean that the process of secularization involves greater moral polarization (Storm, 2013, p. 111; Finke and Adamczyk, 2008, p. 634). But it could be explained by the relationship which appears to be established between the process of secularization, individual autonomy and morality. In this sense, according to Ingrid Storm (2013, p. 111), “religious decline has been accompanied by an increase in autonomy values, but not self-interest, that the relationship between religion and morality is stronger in more religious countries, and that it has declined since the 1980s.” In Storm’s view, the influence of religion on moral standards diminishes where the process of secularization is greatest.

Relevant social processes that are also related to the process of secularization in the studies of values are modernization and postmaterialism. Modernization theory (Inglehart, 1977; Inglehart and Welzel, 2005) claims that a maintained and steady economic growth have as a consequence a systematic improvement in living conditions, massive access to education and healthcare, and rising life expectancy. These improvements allow for an unprecedented human development, shaping citizens´ value structures as a consequence of better material conditions. This modernization, by the hand of economic prosperity and welfare state facilitated the conditions for more individualized value systems in relation with personal and social conditions and new psychological needs related to survival and social order. Individualization of value orientations and secularization would be, in this regard, direct consequences of the process of modernization

In this context, materialist and postmaterialist values (Inglehart, 1977) are at the core of these value transformations. Inglehart´s main hypothesis is that those generations that have not suffered conflicts such as Second World War or the economic grievances of the post-wars, and that have been socialized in abundance prioritize issues of an immaterial nature: orientations such as social and political participation, self-realization at work or creativity in the education of their children. The question is whether post-materialist values respond to the socialization process or to the age cohorts; the latter would imply the assumption that as we age our values tend to be more conservative and more materialistic. What has not been demonstrated is the dichotomy materialism vs postmaterialism overlaps with other related concepts such ideology (left vs right) since it is possible to establish materialism and postmaterialism on both sides of the ideological continuum (Silvestre, 1996).


9.3 Religious Values in Spain: Evolution from 1981-2017

Values studies, for their part, have defined and measured the process of secularization with reference to a threefold dimension: micro (individual), meso (institutional secularization) and macro (social). According to the literature (Dobbelaere, 2012; Pérez-Agote,2014, p. 897), secularization occurs at these three levels. At a personal level, individuals give less and less importance to religion and God in their lives. In the institutional realm, secularization translates into a fall in church membership and attendance. Finally, at a social level there is a decline in the value of religion and its leaders in society.

The process of secularization in Spain has taken place over a period of some decades. We have selected some of the variables that bring together the three levels of secularization (individual, institutional and societal) in order to observe its evolution between 1981 and 2017 (see Figure 9.1).

Figure 9.1 Evolution of religious values in Spain 1981-2017. Total percentages. EVS-Spain.

Source: Constructed by authors based on data from EVS for Spain 1981-2017. Deusto University [Please note that items in the graph appear as they appeared in the actual survey] 1981 (n= 2303), 1990 (n= 2637), 1999 (n= 1200), 2008 (n= 1500), 2017 (n= 1209)

Individual secularization was studied based on the importance given to religion in a person’s life (this question was not asked in 1981). Here we observe the greatest decline between 1990 and 1999, when it went from being very important for 21.8 per cent of the population to being very important for 14.8 per cent almost a decade later. We have also taken into account religious identity, an identity that has lost strength over the past few decades. Whereas in 1981, 61.5 per cent of the population declared themselves to be religious people, this percentage fell to 34.3 in the last wave of the EVS in 2017. Once again, the greatest jump was between 1990 and 1999.

Institutional secularization was analysed based on weekly attendance at church. In this case, the most significant data come from the difference between attending mass on a weekly basis at the time of answering the question and attending mass once a week in childhood, at age 12. The differences here are very significant because in all the waves analysed there was a difference of more than 25 percentage points: 26.2 (1999), 30.6 (2008) and 25.7 (2017). In this case, we observe that church attendance declined progressively between 1981 and 2017 and, above all, we note how this behaviour has changed if we compare childhood to adult life in the present. The difference in the decrease between 2008 and 2017 is due precisely to the fact that when asked in 2017 about church attendance in childhood, it has decreased and, therefore, the difference also decreases. This data confirms Van Ingen’s and Moor’s (2011) conclusion that the greatest decline in religiosity is found in attendance at religious rituals and services.

Societal secularization is measured with reference to the trust the Church enjoys as an institution. We analysed the evolution of no trust in the Church and observed that in 1981 and 1990 those who declared no trust in the Church were a small minority. From 2008 until 2017, that is, during the contemporary period, this position was endorsed by more than a third of the population.

A descriptive analysis of the decline in religious values in Spain using data from the different waves of the European Values Study (EVS) leads us to conclude that in the case of individual and institutional secularization the change was produced above all in the 1990s, while societal secularization appears to have taken on more force in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Individual secularization shows the greatest oscillation in the data. On one hand, we’ve observed that religion has ceased to be important in the lives of a significant part of the Spanish population, though the starting point was not very high. On the other hand, we can see that in 2017 almost half the population (49.2 per cent) considered themselves to be religious. While it is true that this percentage has dropped 12.3 points since 1981, it still represents an important part of Spanish society. Given the obvious levels of social and institutional secularization, we are led to conclude that the religiosity expressed by almost five out of ten people corresponds to a range of different, varied and complex ways of defining religion, or religious sentiment. This marks a move away from Catholicism as the majority and omnipresent religion during the forty years of the Franco dictatorship, from 1939 to 1978. As Weise argues, notwithstanding the process of secularization, religion continues to be important and conditions behaviour and moral frameworks. In this regard, secularization, religiosity and religious plurality coexist (Weise, 2016: 38).

According to Manuel Urrutia (2020), the second wave of EVS data collection, in 1990, enabled us to confirm empirically that in Spain, the process of political democratization was accompanied by an important process of secularization. In the words of Grace Davie (1999, p. 78): “The Spanish case is particularly instructive sociologically in that it is san artificially delayed and therefore speeded-up version of modernity, in which the competing tensions are unusually clear. What has taken a century in most parts of Europe has happened within a generation in Spain.” The subsequent waves of the EVS, in 1999 and 2008, confirmed that Spain was going through an intense process of secularization which, since the turn of the century, appears to be to be gradually slowing down (Urrutia, 2020).

In Spain, the moral dilemmas have been subject to different and conflicting ideological debates, in which it has been shown that the proposals of the Catholic Church are taken on by political conservatives. The Spanish data from the fifth wave of the EVS show that religious values have declined and tolerance for homosexuality, euthanasia, abortion and divorce is among the highest in Europe (Silvestre, 2020).

9.4 What Factors Explain Individual Levels of Religiosity in Spain?

Based on the three levels of secularization (personal, institutional, societal) mentioned above we have selected the dependent variables, measured at the individual level. First, in relation to the personal level of secularization, we have chosen the importance of God in people’s lives as well as the importance of religion. Second, we include the frequency of attendance at religious ceremonies as the indicator of secularization at the institutional level. Finally, trust in the institution of the Church serves as the measurement of secularization at the societal level.

Table 9.1 shows the results of the regression analyses for the chosen dependent variables and which factors explain these levels of religiosity in society. The data used in this model are taken from the EVS for Spain in the years 2008 and 2017.

We can see that formal membership in a religious denomination is a very significant factor in terms of explaining the importance of God, religion and participation in religious services and trust in the Church, with a clearly positive effect. This indicator has been used in previous studies (Voicu, 2012, p. 338) as a predictor for religiosity. In addition, according to our results, there is a strong positive effect by age. Younger people tend to demonstrate significantly lower levels of religiosity, importance given to religion and trust in the Church, as is shown by the impacts. Contrary to our expectation, 2017 shows a positive effect parameter (that is, a greater level of religiosity compared to 2008). The composition of the Spanish population, with a progressive higher number of people in older cohorts, exhibiting higher levels of religiosity might be a factor explaining this effect.

In Spain, the impact of political ideology is also very strong, with a clear and significant positive effect, indicating that people who identify with the political right show a higher level of religiosity. The same holds for educational level, with an effect consistent with theories of modernization which show a relationship between cognitive mobilization and weakening traditional forms of authority in the orientation of individuals’ value systems. In the same way, and in accordance with this same relationship between modernization and secularization, we can observe that for two of our four dependent variables, post-materialist values are accompanied by higher levels of secularization. This association is significant with regard to the importance of the Church and the trust in ecclesiastical institutions.

There is also a clear relationship between higher salaries and a lower value placed on religion, though this is only significant in the case of the importance of God. Reinforcing this relationship, we can also see that being employed has a negative impact on the value placed on religion and the Church. According to Inglehart (1997), higher levels of cognitive mobilization and a personal situation of higher autonomy in terms of income and employment would tend to reflect the shift from external religious reference in personal decisions and religious practice towards a more individualized perspective towards religious values and morality. This relationship is significant in almost all models. We can thus observe that a higher level of personal and economic freedom is associated with a lower relevance of religion in people’s lives.

Levels of personal welfare and life satisfaction, which measure the degree of satisfaction with people’s life conditions, demonstrates a positive but weak effect, only significant in relation to the importance of God in a person’s life.

As for the relationship with gender, we observe a significant regression coefficient in all models, demonstrating that in all that the Church and religion have a significantly lower relevance for men than for women.

Table 9.1 Regression models analysing secularization at the personal, institutional and societal levels in Spain


Importance  of God

 Importance of religion

 Frequency of  attendance rel. service

Trust in the Church











Belonging to a religious denomination







Gender (1=male)





Age Completed Studies

















Household net  income. Deciles










Political view:  left-right





Birth cohort - 10 years






R2= .394

R2= .294

            R2 = .322

R2 = .352







Source: Constructed by authors based on data from EVS for Spain 2008-2017. University of Deusto



9.5 Discussion and Conclusions

Based on the analysis above, the case of Spain appears to confirm the thesis that the process of secularization does not mean the end of religion; secularization, modernization and religiosity coexist. Just as the literature suggests, the process of secularization is compatible with the demand for and maintenance of spirituality at the individual level.

As part of this process of individualization and the loss of a reference to institutionalized religion as an external source of authority, we observe a decline in the relevance of religious rituals, which translates in turn into a decline in the importance and frequency of attendance at religious services. This observation is particularly visible with reference to the contrast between present levels of church attendance and those at age 12.

If we look at the overall picture of secularization in Spain, we observe that the most secularized part of the population is that which is the most economically independent, with postmaterialist values and the highest levels of education, as well as being young, male and politically on the left. This picture of Spain concurs, therefore, with the image that runs through modernization theories of secularization, along with the thesis that the process of cognitive mobilization arises from a systematic improvement in material conditions. This in turn has the effect of a change in values towards post-materialism and self-expression, particularly visible in younger cohorts, away from external sources of formal authority such as the Church and religion and towards increased levels of individualization.

This secularization has relevant implications for our society. Secularization is accompanied by a growing moral tolerance and individualization of value orientations. In those groups and cohorts in which religion is less important and less present, there is greater moral tolerance. In contrast, those who are closer to religion and its dogma tend to be governed more by these and to be more morally strict. This is also linked to political ideology, as shown in our data.


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