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Secularization and Sacred Space  

David Bains

Secularization, or the decline in the authority of religious institutions, became a pronounced feature of Western culture in the 20th century, especially in its latter half. Secularization has affected the history of Western sacred space in four ways: (a) It has helped to shape the concept of “sacred space” so that it designates a space that helps generate a personal religious experience independent of religious rituals and teachings. (b) It has caused many houses of worship to use architectural forms not previously associated with religion in order to link their religious communities to the respected realms of business, science, and entertainment. And it has motivated religious communities to craft spaces that encourage worshipers to recognize God at work in the secular world and to demonstrate to others the continued relevance of religion. (c) Many former houses of worship have been destroyed or converted to other uses. Sometimes this occurred not because of declining membership but in order to relocate to a more favorable building or location. Nonetheless, these changes have created a more secular cityscape. Other times destruction and conversion have been the product of state-sponsored regimes of secularization or a decline in the number of clergy or church supporters. The reuse of these former houses of worship often results in the association of religious symbols with commercial or personal endeavors. It also raises challenges for maintaining public space in dense urban environments and for preserving artistic and cultural heritage. Given the increasing closure of churches, in 2018 the Pontifical Council of Culture issued guidelines to guide Roman Catholics in determining best uses for buildings no longer needed for worship. (d) Spaces which are not linked to religious communities, especially museums and monuments, came to be frequently designed in ways similar to historic sacred spaces. For this reason and others, they are esteemed by many people as places to encounter the sacred in a secularized world.