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Identity Crisis: the Nones and Habitual Christianity

This podcast coincides with Linda Woodhead’s recent Croall Lectures, aimed at interrogating the question: Is Britain still a Christian country? Drawing on her own qualitative research and recent surveys in the UK, and from the nearly 80 projects funded by the Religion and Society programme, Woodhead is extremely well placed to examine this broad, nicely impossible question. I decided in the end to do two things, first to give a summary of some of the key points and second, to stick with what I know of this topic – drawing on my own research with (secular) humanists, based in the UK.

There has been much debate generated about the Christian status in Britain, not least following the comments of David Cameron in 2014 – who stated that Britain was a Christian country. Cameron had made his comments in a letter published in the Church Times on 16th April 2014[1] and his target audience should be borne in mind. He wrote:

I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives (Cameron, 2014).

Here (as elsewhere) Cameron emphasises that such a confidence in Christianity will help people get out there and do something. He also emphasises that: “Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love are shared by people of every faith and none” (ibid.).

In this podcast, Linda Woodhead takes up this debate from a sociological perspective, drawing on her experience as the overseer of the AHRC/ESRC funded Religion and Society programme which commissioned 75 UK based research projects over a five year period (2007-2012). In response to the question ‘Is Britain a Christian country?’, Woodhead’s response is a qualified ‘yes’. This means, Britain is not Christian in every way; numbers of people attending Church are certainly falling as are the number of people who self-identify as Christian[2]. She also states that Britain will certainly not be Christian forever if current trends continue, and, further, argues that Britain is not straightforwardly secular and a rise in ‘nones’ (those ticking ‘no religion’ on the Census) does not equal a rise in atheist or new atheist discourse. Many people continue to believe in a God (although not necessarily the Trinity) or consider themselves ‘spiritual’. But, in sum she argues that: “the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.”

Secular Humanists

Over the last four years, I have been working on an ethnography of nonreligious[3] groups and individuals in the UK. I was resident archivist and volunteer for the Rationalist Association (publishers of the New Humanist magazine), and through these activities I was able to meet many, many nonreligious individuals. I also interviewed and observed humanist celebrants in action across the UK and met couple’s marrying in humanist ceremonies. Woodhead points out in this interview, the ‘nones’ (those who ticked no religion on the census) are a broad category, who do not easily conform to atheism per se nor should they be understood as self-identifying Christians.

My own research confirms, as Woodhead suggests, that the ‘none’ category is in no way monolithic nor should it be equated with ‘atheism’ per se. I rarely met people who wholeheartedly sympathised with new atheists or who were hardline secularists. In the course of my work it also become clear that many situate their nonreligious identity in relation to a Christian heritage, either as a result of personal experience or of education. This familiarity emerged in a number of ways. One such example is in regards to religious criticism; many of my participants felt that familiarity with Christianity permitted them to be critical in a way that they could not with other religious traditions. In an interview with Peter, a 28 year old writer and doctoral student, we came onto the topic of the Danish Cartoons in which he made the following comments:

‘[W]ell I think it was more, Christianity I [am] up for taking the piss out of, because I always take the perspective that, and I’ve heard comedians point this out, Stewart Lee and Dara Ó Briain, Christianity’s kind of ours to take the piss out of. I went to church, I got dragged to the Church of England every Sunday, so we get, so I could get into the right school, whereas I’ve always felt that something like Islam [for example] is tied into racial minorities [and is thus off limits].’ [London, April, 2013]

I was particularly interested in the explicit reference to the Church of England in relation to “other religions.” This certainly raises a number of questions for me. Does Cameron mean all denominations of Christianity? Or just Anglicanism? Moreover, what does it really mean to state that we are Christian anyhow? Woodhead illuminates some of these points more clearly – that it is in institutions and in a sense of ‘cultural Christianity’.

Certainly, by self-identifying with Christianity, Peter situates himself very clearly inside both nonreligious and Christian groups, at least nominally. Abby Day brings some qualitative description to the category of ‘Christianity’ in her research ‘Believing in Belonging’ (2006). The non-faithful are categorised by Day as ‘nominalist’; that is, ethnic, natal and aspirational. This group are: ‘not merely unchurched and neither are they indifferent to Christianity: it functions to reinforce familial, ethnic and social connections.’ (2006: 126). Day’s work is useful in demonstrating how despite being anti-religious or not-religious, Christianity can continue to provide a reference point. The choice to call oneself ‘Christian’ whilst not ‘practicing’ can be understood as ‘cultural’ Christianity (Demerath, 2000: 127) or a quasi-ethnic category (Voas and Bruce, 2004; Voas and Day, 2007: 3). Yet despite familiarity my own participants do not personally identify as Christian and, as Woodhead points out, there should be caution used in labelling anyone ‘Christian’ who does not do so for themselves. Thus, I am not suggesting that my participants are ‘nominally’ Christian, simply that their attitude to religions was inflected by their experiences of it.

What such examples demonstrate is a negotiation of this term ‘Christianity’. Whilst many of my participants were aware of their own ‘habitual Christianity’, they were also at pains to break the habit[4].

Concluding Thoughts

I would be very interested to hear of other research addressing these issues. My own research – as I state – was within smaller scale populations and other researchers will be able to illuminate these debates at the macro-level, more clearly than I can. What I will state in summary is that central to this question – ‘Is Britain is a Christian country?’ – is a tension between issues of privilege and privatisation. Moreover, the debate rests on that tricky dichotomy between religious institution (and power) and people’s personal religious experiences and identities. As Woodhead stated in her article ‘How Religious Identity has Changed’ [in the UK]: ‘for a majority today, being religious is just a part of life and identity, not what defines them’ (2013). To say that Britain is a Christian country, as per Cameron’s speech, is therefore problematic not so much because the historical and (fragmented) contemporary trends it speaks to are contestable. It is problematic because it is totalising. Further, as Day points out, people who are otherwise ‘not religious’ state that they are Christian and give reasons of upbringing, culture or national identity. On a micro scale, this might resonate, and many, including my own nonreligious, secular participants may share this sense of ‘cultural Christianity’. However, despite any protestations from the PM, when a politician makes such a statement, there is a magnification of natal, national and cultural themes, and it is perhaps understandable that this creates anxieties about the political agenda implied by such bold statements – whether real or otherwise.

References

DAY, A. (2006). Believing in Belonging: a Case Study from Yorkshire. Unpublished PhD

Thesis, Lancaster University.

DAY, A. (2011). Believing in belonging: Belief and social identity in the modern world. Oxford University Press.

ENGELKE, M. (2012) ‘In Spite of Christianity: humanism and its others in contemporary Britain’ Talk given at the NSRN annual conference.

ENGELKE, M. (2014), ‘Christianity and the Anthropology of Secular HumanismCurrent Anthropology, Vol. 55, No. S10, pp. S292-S301

LEE, L. (2011). From ‘Neutrality’ to Dialogue: Constructing the Religious Other In British Non-religious Discourses In Modernities Revisited, Behrensen, M., Lee, L., & Tekelioglu., A. S. Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences 2011Available at www.iwm.at. [accessed 21 August 2012]

LEE, L. (2012). Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27(1): 129-139.

OFFICE OF NATIONAL STATISTICS (2012). Religion in England and Wales 2011. 12 December. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_290510.pdf [accessed 2 December 2014]

VOAS, D. & BRUCE, S (2004) ‘Research note: The 2001 census and Christian identification in Britain’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 19:1, 23-28

VOAS, D & DAY, A (2007). Secularity in Great Britain. In Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives, edited by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar. Hartford, CA: ISSSC: 95-110.

WOODHEAD, L. (2012) ‘How Religious Identity has Changed’ published on Pandemonium.

 

 

[1] This follows remarks from other conservative MPs, including Baroness Warsi, who argued in 2011 that Britain should become more Christian.

[2] The results of the 2001 Census suggest 15.5 per cent of the population (8.6 million people) considered themselves to have no religion. Whilst 77.2 per cent of the population considered themselves to have some religious belief, with the majority identifying as Christian at 71.8 per cent (41million people). Results of the more recent 2011 Census demonstrate a marked shift in numbers. The number of people now reporting as Christian decreased to 59.3 per cent and there was an increase in those reporting no religion to 25.1 per cent of the population (ONS, 2012)

[3] Non religion is understood as different to the ‘secular’ and defined as defined as: ‘any position, perspective or practice which is primarily defined by, or in relation to, religion, but which is nevertheless considered to be other than religious (Lee, 2011).

[4] In my forthcoming thesis, I discuss the great length humanists and other nonreligious people went to, negotiating the boundaries between what is ‘culturally’ Christian and what was not (see also Engelke, 2014); the equation of moral values and Christianity was a particular sticking point. More space would also have allowed me to comment on the British Humanist Association’s Census campaign and letter to the Prime Minister, both relevant to this topic.

Beyond Maps: Eoin O’Mahony’s Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland

Eoin O’Mahony’s work reflects a growing and consolidating movement in the Geography discipline over the last 15 years, which after a history of stops and starts, has made significant progress in attempting to understand spatiality of religion. This movement has moved away from ontological assumptions of sacred and profane space (Eliade, 1957) and the privileging of the institutional manifestations of religion over informal and often non-representational forms of spirituality (summarised in Park, 1994): Geographies that privileged institutional, regional and national structures of religion at the expense of the local and personal scales. In an assessment of the field, Kong (2001) observed the movement towards understanding the construction and consumption of sacred space (for example Chidester and Linenthal, 1995) and called for a shift in focus to the informal and unofficial geographies of religion, challenging the narratives of global secularisation. This call paralleled a shift in focus within more sociologically orientated studies in religion towards ‘the spiritual revolution’ (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005) and an observed disconnect between forms of institutional belonging and popular beliefs (see Davie, 1994). In the wake of this work, Knott (2005) developed a spatial methodology for the investigation of religion, locating and defining the boundaries between religious and secular discourses within everyday life, practice and representation. Her methodology, drawing on Henri Lefebvre, reveals the religious within secular space through investigating how a space is promoted to users, how it is used by these people and how this space holds together both of these abstract and practical images. And this is where we find O’Mahony’s work.

In the interview, O’Mahony examines how contestation between the religious and the secular in Ireland unfolds ‘in particular places in particular ways’, with this tension manifesting in three case studies: (1) A series of Marion statues dispersed around Dublin; (2) the (annual) pilgrimage to the summit of Croagh Patrick in Country Mayo; (3) and the contestation between State and Church for the provision of primary school education in Ireland. Throughout these sites, religious and secular discourses make claims upon the space yet neither can fully establish themselves over the other. The Marion statues of Dublin are neither owned by the Church nor by local authorities yet they exhibit a concrete presence, informally and unofficially recognised in the landscape design of the parks they often inhabit as well as being reflected in the behaviour of those who used the park. Croagh Patrick is framed as a pilgrimage site to believers and promoted as a site for health, fitness and outdoor recreation to non-religious visitors. Finally, the case of primary schools in Ireland thrusts the issue of contestation between a secularising State power and that of the Church in the public arena with the recent political concern ‘to take religion out of schools’. Throughout these case studies, religious and secular discourses are found to compete, contest and co-habit with each other, providing distinct channels for the making of place through investing meaning and significance into a space.

A main theme underlying O’Mahony’s case studies in this interview is an exploration of the secular project to modify, regulate and moderate locality, including its religious ties, in order to decontextualise and universalise. He astutely criticises a discourse in which a linear progression assumes religious places are those spaces that have not yet been secularised; that secular ideas contest, replace and subordinate the religious within space without resistance. As he argues, religious places are not waiting to be secularised but exist inside and outside of public, secular space. Moreover, the local and contingent daily practices and behaviours of people produce meaning that is integral to the making of place for these inhabitants. As with other confrontations between the local and the global, we should be aware of the delocalising effect of attempts to remove religion from public spaces and the consequences this process has for those who dwell and invest meaning within these spaces.

In addition to this focus on the making of place through daily and recurrent religious practices, I would be keen to see further work on the multi-directional projection of this travel to include the channels in which this secular discourse are also resisted, partially resisted and appropriated by the actors present within a place. Linda Woodhead’s (2012) call for an awareness of both strategic and tactical scales of religion in everyday life, recognising the increasing influence of Michel de Certeau in the study of Religion and Geography is useful here. Everyday tactical practices are those, often unrepresented or non-representable, that enable the actor to manipulate the strategic practices of dominant hegemonies and discourse. The entangled nature of religion and the secular in public space is well illustrated in O’Mahony’s interview and it would be interesting in future research to hear more of the individual voices within these case studies as well as the competing public discourses and claims for these spaces.

With these case studies O’Mahony has neatly illustrated the potential of the geographic approach in drawing out the contestations, tensions and synergies of competing religious and secular voices in public and private spaces. His interview has provided an insight into the complex, multiple layers of space within which religion and the secular co-habit and interact in an Irish context, proving a value to the geographic approach beyond mapping material distributions of religious phenomena.

References:

Chidester, D. and Linenthal, E.T., eds. (1995) American Sacred Space. Bloomington: Indian University Press.

Davie, G. (1994) Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging. Oxford: Blackwell.

Eliade, M. (1957) The Sacred and the Profane. New York; London: Harcourt Books.

Heelas, P. and Woodhead, L. (2005) The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell.

Knott, K. (2005) The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis. London; Oakville: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Kong, L. (2001) Mapping ‘new’ geographies of religion: politics and poetics in modernity Progress in Human Geography. 25 pp.211-233.

Park, C.C. (1994) Sacred Worlds: An Introduction to Geography and Religion. London: Routledge.

Woodhead, L., ed. (2012) Strategic and Tactical Religion. University of Edinburgh, 10th May 2012. Religion and Society: Sacred Practices of Everyday Life Conference.

Editors’ Picks 4: The Secularisation Thesis

In this, the penultimate Editors’ Pick, David tells us why he chose his interview with Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation thesis as his favourite.

The secularisation thesis – the idea that traditional religions are in terminal decline in the industrialised world – was perhaps the central debate in the sociology of religion in the second half of the 20th century. Scholars such as Steve Bruce, Rodney Stark and Charles Taylor argued whether religion was becoming less important to individuals, or that only the authority of religions in the public sphere was declining. Data from the US and South America, however, began to challenge many of their basic assumptions. Professor Linda Woodhead joins us to discuss the background and legacy of the secularisation thesis.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below the original posting of this podcast. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?

If you have been listening to the podcast for the past couple of weeks, you will be aware that we are about to go on a brief hiatus until September, to give our listeners some time to catch up, and to give Chris and David a chance to catch up on some of their other commitments. The website will still be releasing content on a less regular basis, and we have at least one more roundtable discussion for your delectation over the coming weeks. We will also be re-releasing our ‘editors favourites’ from the first batch of podcasts – so there will still be plenty of material to keep you occupied. However, before we ‘leave you’ we wanted to go out with a bang, and it is therefore with pleasure that we present the second of our compilation episodes.

As with the first of our compilation episodes (What is the Future of Religious Studies?), every time David, Chris and Jonathan have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: ‘Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?’ The result is this compilation of differing opinions and interpretations of key terms from eight top scholars from a variety of disciplines – sociology, psychology, religious studies, theology – on how academics should position themselves in relation to the groups and individuals that they study.

However, we decided to push things one step further with this one. The inspiration for this episode came from one of Russell McCutcheon’s works which we had encountered through the undergraduate Religious Studies programme at the University of Edinburgh, entitled ‘Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion‘. We thought it would be an excellent idea to invite Russell to respond to the opinions of the other scholars in this podcast, and are very grateful that not only was he happy to be involved, but he sent a ten minute response recording. Enjoy.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, and others’ are still on our ‘to-do’ list, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation. We apologise for the UK-centric nature of these recordings… that’s just what happened in this instance.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

Whether you stick with us over the break, or come back to us in September, we can assure you that we have another great lineup in store. Future podcasts include interviews with David Morgan (Duke University), Kim Knott (Lancaster University), Robert Orsi (Northwestern University), Gordon Lynch (University of Kent), Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity University College), J Gordon Melton (Baylor University), Brian Victoria (Antioch University) and more…

Please keep telling people about us… if you are a lecturer, please consider incorporating this material into your courses… and please keep supporting us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for listening!

Secularization: A Look at Individual Level Theories of Religious Change

The Demise of Established Religiosity

While it is often argued that the secularization thesis only referred to macro-level secularization – the separation of religion from other societal spheres in the process of functional differentiation (cf. e.g. Wilson 1998) – there is no way of denying that most specific secularization theories also refer to a loss of significance of religion on the individual level, explicitly or implicitly, which may be prompted by macro-level differentiation and individualization, and which itself may affect the meso-level in the form of a steady decrease in church membership or attendance (cf. Dobbelaere 2000). As an explanation for this observed or expected micro-level secularization either one or both of two reasons are commonly given. It is either assumed that there was or will be no further need for religion – as, in Weber’s case, rationality and science have taken over its explanatory function or as, in Marx’s case, its solace function will not be required any longer in a perfect socialist society. Or it is postulated that the individual will eventually lose confidence in the established religion’s supernatural truth claims, will literally fall from or at least be shaken in his or her faith. This was the central argument of Peter L. Berger’s early approach (before his conversion to being critical of secularization theory), which was built on the idea that any belief or belief system relied on an intact “plausibility structure”, provided through social affirmation. But Christianity’s plausibility structure – the taken-for-grantedness particularly of its metaphysical claims – had suffered from the accessibility of a plurality of competing religious faiths and other worldviews, made commonplace by modern media, travel, education, and cultural exchange, and thereby from decreasing affirmation or even widespread refutation. The result of this, in any modernized society, would be a doubting, secularized populace as well as secularized churches, which would refrain from overly demanding metaphysics and, instead, turn to the individuals’ this-worldly needs in order to avoid their complete demise (cf. Berger 1980).

This concentration on the decline of institutionalized, established, church religiosity by early secularization theorists prompted some criticism. Berger’s companion in other projects, Thomas Luckmann (who defined as religion anything that helps people to overcome different sorts of “transcendences”), claimed that religion had not disappeared but only changed its location – e.g. to psychotherapy, esotericism, and other hedonistic projects of self-fulfillment. To him, religion had become privatized and thereby “invisible” for the social scientific study of religion (cf. Luckmann 1967). Similar to this is Grace Davie’s (1994) concept of “believing without belonging”, and other theories of individualized religiosity, which claim that spirituality persists outside institutionalized churches. Relying on Durkheim’s integration model of religion, Robert N. Bellah, too, denied that religion had disappeared but claimed that, in a multidenominational nation such as the United States, it had to manifest itself differently – not in an all-encompassing, European style nation church, but in what he called “civil religion”, composed of reference to a generalized “God” as well as of “sacralized” national institutions, documents, figures, holidays, and symbols, whose role it was to achieve national integration (cf. Bellah 1967). Nevertheless, both Luckmann and Bellah agreed that the significance of conventional churches and denominations, as well as of personal (substantively defined) religious belief and activity, had diminished over the past decades.

The American Challenge

An early critic of the view that modernity necessarily meant secularization, as pointed out by Linda Woodhead, was David Martin. Besides rejecting an ahistorical, undifferentiated theory of secularization as a universal, linear, and irreversible process, Martin warned against secularists (and for him this might just as well apply to proponents of secularization theory) taking “Catholic laments about the period when men were truly religious” too seriously (Martin 1969: 30). In order to diagnose secularization in the present one would have to believe in the existence of a former “Golden Age of Faith”, a highly sacralized past. But for critics of the secularization thesis this constituted largely a fiction. They argued that there had never been a time of universal and widespread religious belief and presented examples of medieval impiety as proof (cf. Bruce 2011).

Yet attacks on secularization theory were not only directed against its depictions of the past, but also of the present, with the most prominent (twofold) challenge coming from the United States of America. Firstly, the empirical situation in the U.S. had always given reason for doubt. American rates of church affiliation had constantly been high, as had rates of individuals’ belief in a personal god and other religious indicators. Particularly surprising was that this situation was to be found in a highly modernized as well as religiously pluralized country. Secondly, starting in the U.S. during the 1980s, these doubts were translated into a forceful theoretical onslaught on secularization theory, brought forward by the so-called “rational choice” or “market” theorists of religion. Rodney Stark, Laurence R. Iannaccone, William S. Bainbridge, and Roger Finke wholeheartedly dismissed the idea of micro-level secularization. Instead they claimed that demand for religious products, for other-worldly “compensators”, was always stable and about the same in any society – with a range of societal “niches” with differing degrees of such demand. What really differed when comparing different societies – and the historically specific characteristics of which had produced the, in their view, exceptional case of European “secularization” – was the makeup of the “religious marketplace”, the degree to which religious entrepreneurs were free or hindered to do their business. In contrast to Berger’s original view, religious pluralism was not seen as undermining religious faith and vitality, but on the contrary as a prerequisite for sufficient supply to meet the diverse kinds of religious demand (cf. Stark, Bainbridge 1987, Stark 2000, Stark, Finke 2000).

According to this theory, citizens in the United States, with its free and rich religious market, were able to make a “rational choice” about their religious affiliation and pick one according to their specific preferences. Those segments of society, for example, who took a specific interest in the supernatural promises of a religious brand – such as compensation in the afterlife for earthly suffering – would favor fundamentalist churches, because these, with their high costs for membership (e.g. abstinence from some earthly pleasures, stigmatizing appearance, denial of contact to wider society), were able to generate a dependent and committed congregation. For these religious searchers, a vibrant community of believers is seen as crucial, since, other than a congregation of lazy and sullen churchgoers, only this would be able to provide at least some testimony to a highly insecure and untestable expected reward, such as other-worldly promises. This would explain the success particularly of “strict churches” in the U.S. (cf. Iannaccone 1994). Religious vitality in Europe, on the other hand, was thwarted by a lack of religious choice and, in addition, a lack of incentives for pampered state church officials to make their regulated religious brand somewhat more appealing. To the rational choice authors, the dearth of religious vitality in most of Europe has nothing to do with diminished demand, or individual secularization, but everything with insufficient supply. Accordingly, they expect that with further separation of church and state and further cutbacks of church privileges in Europe, these countries will, after some generations, eventually be de-secularized and become as religiously vital as the United States, leaving proclaimed individual-level secularization a mere fiction, or even an ideology, and Europe’s meso-level secularization nothing but a historical oddity (cf. Stark, Iannaccone 1994, Stark, Finke 2000).

Refined Theories of Secularization

This economic approach has, from its conception, drawn a lot of criticism – in particular from Steve Bruce, whom Linda Woodhead called “probably the most important defender of secularization theory now”, and who has published a book length refutation of the economic theory of religion, hoping that this might be “the stake through the vampire’s chest”, as which he sees his opponents (Bruce 1999, 2). Somewhat more moderate is the criticism by Christopher G. Ellison (1995) and Darren E. Sherkat (1997). They agree with Stark and his colleagues that people make their religious choices rationally, but doubt that they necessarily do so for inherently religious reasons. Instead, on many occasions, people would enter, remain in, or actively participate in specific churches with the reactions of others in mind – e.g. in order to set an example or not to suffer social sanctions. This would make individual-level secularization compatible with high levels of religiosity on the organizational level – people may remain active in churches for social reasons, without actually believing.

Steve Bruce agrees and concludes that the supposed “free choice”, central to the rational choice approach of religion, was actually a fiction. While overall in the United States there really existed a plurality of religions and denominations, at the local level, where people actually made their religious choices, this was not so. Even if there were a plurality of churches in one town or county, membership was not open to everyone, but bound up with ethnicity, class, or other forms of social identity and related sanctions: “Racial segregation is still such that adding a black Pentecoastal church to a town does not in the least increase the choice for white Americans. Adding a German language Lutheran church makes no difference to a Swedish American.” (Bruce 1996, 135). Yet, Bruce does not doubt that many Americans actually are highly religious and practice their faith fervently and wholeheartedly. But, in his view – and in contrast to the rational choice theorists’ – this does not falsify secularization theory as such. Bruce’s explanation is that, in many places in the United States, modernization did not and could not have its secularizing effects. Due to the deregulation of the informational and educational sectors, the United States enabled fundamentalist Christianity to build its own universe, shielding its members from different views in the privatized media, schools, and even universities, and thereby leaving the religion’s “plausibility structure” intact (cf. Bruce 2002, 2011).

Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart offer a different explanation for why Americans seem to cling to religion in large numbers. Analyzing a range of international surveys and indices, they show that subjective religiosity is positively correlated with existential insecurity. In line with the classical view of Marx and Freud, but also with the rational choice theorists, they conclude that religion may serve as consolation or compensation. But they differ from the rational choice theorists in that they do not assume such need to be universal, but rather dependent on the specific economic situation and other alterable factors under which individuals live and grow up – and that in this respect the United States is, at least for now, an exceptional case in the western world: “Relatively high levels of economic insecurity are experienced by many sectors of U.S. society, despite American affluence, due to the cultural emphasis on the values of personal responsibility, individual achievement, and mistrust of big government, limiting the role of public services and the welfare state for basic matters such as healthcare covering all the working population” (Norris, Inglehart 2004, 108). Being and feeling more vulnerable to existential risks, Americans were more likely to turn to religion for solace and comfort than were citizens of other western nations.

Conclusion

Over the past decades, the secularization thesis has been discarded – but only insofar as it postulated an inevitable, universal, and uniform process. It would be going too far, though, to assume that “there was nothing really ever there”. Theories of secularization have, instead, been refined. Karel Dobbelaere (2002) and José Casanova (1994) have shown that secularization may work differently on different levels – for example affecting the institutional organization of society, but not individual religiosity. Concerning the latter, Bruce and Norris/Inglehart maintain that modernization is very likely to have a secularizing effect – yet only insofar as it is accompanied by 1) access to a plurality of worldviews as well as 2) feelings of existential security for wide sectors of society. Both conditions depend on political and economic arrangements and are prone to change. Consequently, secularization is no longer seen as a natural development – even by its theoretical proponents –  but, rather, as a contingent phenomenon.

References

Bellah, Robert N. (1967): Civil Religion in America. Daedalus 96, 1-21.

Berger, Peter L. (1980): The Heretical Imperative. Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation. London: Collins.

Bruce, Steve (1996): Religion in the Modern World. From Cathedrals to Cults. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Bruce, Steve (1999): Choice and Religion. A Critique of Rational Choice Theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Bruce, Steve (2002): God is Dead. Secularization in the West. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Bruce, Steve (2011): Secularization. In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Casanova, José (1994): Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Davie, Grace (1994): Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing Without Belonging. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Dobbelaere, Karel (2000): Toward an Integrated Perspective of the Processes Related to the Descriptive Concept of Secularization. In: Swatos Jr. et al. (eds.): The Secularization Debate. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 21-39.

Dobbelaere, Karel (2002): Secularization: An Analysis at Three Levels. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Ellison, Christopher G. (1995): Rational Choice Explanations of Individual Religious Behavior: Notes on the Problem of Social Embeddedness. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34, 89-97.

Iannaccone, Laurence R. (1994): Why Strict Churches Are Strong. In: American Journal of Sociology 99, 1180-1211.

Luckmann, Thomas (1967): The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society. New York: Macmillan.

Martin, David (1969): The Religious and the Secular. Studies in Secularization. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Norris, Pippa and Ronald Inglehart (2004): Sacred and Secular. Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sherkat, Darren E. (1997): Embedding Religious Choices. Preferences and Social Constraints into Rational Choice Theories of Religious Behavior. In: Young (ed.): Rational Choice Theory and Religion. Summary and Assessment. London, New York: Routledge, 66-86.

Stark, Rodney (2000): Secularization R.I.P.. In: Swatos Jr. et al. (eds.): The Secularization Debate. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 41-66.

Stark, Rodney and William S. Bainbridge (1987): A Theory of Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Stark, Rodney and Roger Finke (2000): Acts of Faith. Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Stark, Rodney and Laurence R. Iannaccone (1994): A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the “Secularization” of Europe. In: Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33, 230-252.

Wilson, Bryan (1998): The Secularization Thesis: Criticisms and Rebuttals. In: Laersmans et al. (eds.): Secularization and Social Integration: Papers in Honour of Karel Dobbelaere. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 45-66.

The Secularisation Thesis

The secularisation thesis – the idea that traditional religions are in terminal decline in the industrialised world – was perhaps the central debate in the sociology of religion in the second half of the 20th century. Scholars such as Steve Bruce, Rodney Stark and Charles Taylor argued whether religion was becoming less important to individuals, or that only the authority of religions in the public sphere was declining. Data from the US and South America, however, began to challenge many of their basic assumptions. Professor Linda Woodhead joins us to discuss the background and legacy of the secularisation thesis.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation Thesis (16 April 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. Robertson. Transcribed by Martin Lepage.

 

David Robertson: The secularisation thesis is probably the biggest central theme and certainly the most hotly debated in the sociology of religion, certainly since the 1960’s. Why is it so important and how has it changed? To talk to us today about this, we’ve got Professor Linda Woodhead, from the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Perhaps, you could just begin at the beginning with where does the secularisation thesis come from? Where does it begin?

Linda Woodhead: Actually, the origins of secularisation theory are coterminous with the origins of sociology itself. It’s absolutely fundamental to the whole discipline and all the great fathers of sociology – Weber, Durkheim and Marx – believed and expounded some version of secularisation theory. At the very heart of the social sciences, this belief that, as societies modernized, religion will decline. And each had a different way of explaining that. For Weber, it was primarily about the rise of scientific knowledge and it was about the application of rational standards, bureaucratic standards, in life more generally. He thought that that way of thinking and reasoning disenchanted the world, it cast out the magical, the religious. Durkheim had a rather different explanation of why religion declines. He thought that religion binds societies together, and he particularly thought that religion binds small groups together, and they meet face to face and celebrate the sacred. He thought that as societies modernized and urbanized, those fundamental bonds are broken, and religion is broken in that process as people move to cities and are individualized more. And Marx thought, of course, that religion would die out once you get the perfect socialist communist State. He thought it was a symptom of all that was wrong with society, a way of coping with the oppressions and difficulties of society. Once we realised the perfect society, you won’t need religion. In different ways, all of those classical theories are evolutionary or they’re progressive.

DR: I was going to ask that. Are they strongly tied to this notion of the gradual perfection of society and the move out of the darkness and into the light?

LW: They are really, and that’s a kind of, in a way, a blind spot of classical secularisation theory, in modern forms, that they didn’t really, perhaps… they weren’t sociological enough about their own background and presuppositions. This early crop of the classical theories, are all bound up with Nation-States developing, growing, extending their power and with their new elites, including academic elites, like the sociologists establishing their status. There was a kind of implicit optimism that the way that European society is developing is at the cutting edge of social evolution. So all societies are going to follow, so eventually everyone will become secular like we are. That’s never quite said, but that really does lie behind this theory. That we are not just talking about the tie of religion and particularities of here and now, we’re talking about an inevitable, inextricable process that everyone is destined to go through.

DR: That’s a critique of the narrative of modernization and westernisation anyway, that this is inevitable and even desirable motif. Maybe we can move on to the… I don’t want to call them the classical theorists, but the most famous describers of the secularisation thesis in the simple form that we know it.

LW: You could say that those classical sociologists, Weber, Durkheim, Marx, are sort of phase one of secularisation. And then there’s been a phase two. Phase two came in the wake of the Second World War, really. It was really flourishing in the 1970’s, and around about then. Again, it was very much European. In the UK, one of the chief figures was Brian Wilson, of Oxford University. (5:00) He fully endorsed secularisation theory, he gave it thoughts of new twists and explanations and interpretations. He particularly emphasised that secularisation is about the decline in the social significance of religion. He didn’t deny that some people were still religious, but he said “what’s changed, is that religion doesn’t have the same status in society. For example, politicians don’t have to refer to it anymore. They go on and do their business according to their own logic, they don’t take any notice of religion, whereas before the political ruler and religious elites would have to be in compensation with each other. He talked about that in every sphere, how religion ceases to be a point of reference in the public life.

DR: Perhaps you could clarify that, that sounds like the first development of the secularisation thesis, isn’t it? It’s one of the explanations for it, that it’s not that religion is going to completely disappear from society, rather it moves out of public sphere and into the private sphere.

LW: Yes. He thought that was that. You could still be devoutly religious, but it will affect you in your private life rather than when you go to work, or when you’re being a politician or wherever that might be.

DR: It’s not a disappearance of religion, it’s just a radical change in its function?

LW: Yes, the sociological term is social differentiation. The different spheres of society become autonomous. In law, you don’t refer to religion anymore, and in politics, likewise, and in education likewise. All these things become autonomous and they run according to rational secular standards, not by reference to religion. Wilson thinks he sees that happening very clearly in the UK and gives lots of examples of that process in various spheres.

DR: Were there any other interpretations of the secularisation thesis?

LW: There were lots of clarifications at that time. There was another very important contribution by a European, a Belgian sociologist, called Karel Dobbelaere, and he made what’s become really well used in his account, is a distinction between three levels of secularisation. He talks about secularisation at the societal level, the meta level of society; secularisation at the organisational level, and he’s thinking in part of religious organisation themselves declining, like the churches having fewer members or attenders; and then thirdly, secularisation at the personal level, where fewer people believe or their lives are less guided by religion. He says : “Don’t just talk about secularisation. What sort are you meaning, or what level of society? The macro level, the meso level or the micro level?” And he thought that it could happen at different rates in different parts. That’s quite compatible with Wilson’s theory, really. It’s another clarification of secularisation theory. But the most important current exponent, still in post, is, of course, in Scotland, and that’s Steve Bruce at Aberdeen University, who’s probably the most important defender of secularisation theory now, even though it’s waned very very much, it’s very much fallen out of favour in the last ten or fifteen years. Steve is a true believer still in secularisation theory and defends it very very strongly. He combines really particularly Durkheim and Marx. He thinks that it is about individualisation, the Durkheimian theory that societies break down and we don’t need that bond anymore, and he thinks it’s about rationalisation, the more Weberian account and he restates it, but in those quite classical terms, and he accumulates a lot of data, and the data mainly has to do with Churches in Europe. So it’s about the demonstrable decline in the number of people who are members, attenders, who had their child baptised, who have a Christian wedding. There are lots of statistics that support his case, that he regularly cites.

DR: That’s a weakness of secularisation thesis, isn’t it? That it’s based on a very strict model of what religion is, on an institutionalised Church model of religion. And it wouldn’t really translate to less institutionalised forms of religion, say New Age.

LW: That’s a very good point, and Steve Bruce would reply to you, because he is criticised for that point, by saying New Age isn’t really a religion. He would say it’s just what he calls it, cults. It’s the kind of… like an entropy, (10:00) when religion get less and less and less important to people and New Age is just the very end of that process. It doesn’t really matter to them, it doesn’t have a big effect on their lives, they don’t give a lot of money to it, they’re not really committed, it’s just a sort of privatised leisure pursuit. That’s how he tries to explain new forms of spirituality’s growth. Is that convincing from your point of view?

DR: Not convincing to me, but I can follow his argument. We could get into a big debate about whether or not… you could argue that something like New Age is a different form, a more individualised rather than an institutionalised model of religion, for instance, in which case secularisation would be a change in the form of religion, which would go along with an individualised privatisation model.

LW: But you could say, in criticism of someone like Steve Bruce, you wouldn’t, say you’re looking up modern communications, you wouldn’t get the statistics for how many people send telegrams from 1950 to 2012, and say, “Well, it’s completely declined, so people don’t use instant messaging anymore”. You’d look at what new forms have taken its place, so why just look at the churches? Of course some forms of religions grown declined over time, because religion is constantly transforming. So why say that’s the only true religion and nothing else counts? And I personally think that’s a major weakness of the secularisation theory, which is only… if we’re looking at something very specific, the decline of particular sorts of European Church that had close connections with the State, and they have declined their question. They generalized from that very particular story to religion as a whole.

DR: Which is a perfect link to the second major weaknesses, I think, of the secularisation thesis, which is, it’s very culturally and geographically specific.

LW: That’s a great point and that brings us to the USA, because you’ll notice that all the theorists I’ve been talking about are European. And Europe is in many ways the most secular part of the globe. America never produced secularisation theory in a significant way partly because, even though America was as modernised as Europe, it didn’t suffer the same decline of religion, even of church going or congregation, they have different kinds of churches in the States of course. So Americans didn’t really believe in it, in the way Europeans did.

DR: It was never really accepted?

LW: It didn’t have the same theoretical importance. It was accepted by many social scientists, but in the study of religion, there aren’t great theorist of it who contributed new developments. And since the 1980’s, the most important critics of secularisation theory have been Americans in the sociology of religion. First, Peter Berger and then Jose Casanova. Berger’s particularly interesting because he was a secularisation theorist. So his career has spanned right from the 1960s through to today, for much of that carrier, he went along with the European secularisation theorists. But his interpretation was different. He thought religion declines because it becomes less plausible when there’s not just one worldview. So if you’re a Christian and you just live in a Christian village near a Christian town, you’re going to believe it. But it becomes less plausible when you meet an Hindu and a Buddhist. That was his theory of why it declined in modern societies. But then he had a complete conversion, he changed his mind in the 1990’s, and he said… I brought a quote, it’s a good one. He said :

“My point is that the assumption that we live in a secularised world is false. The world today, with some exceptions, is as furiously religious as ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists, loosely labeled secularisation theory, is essentially mistaken. In my early work, I contributed to this literature. I was in good company. Most sociologists of religion had similar views and we had good reasons for upholding them. Some of the writing we produced still stand up. Although the term ‘secularisation theory’ refers to works from the 50’s and 60’s, the key idea can be traced right back to the Enlightenment. The idea is simple. Modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals. And it’s precisely this key idea that turned out to be wrong.”

So a very strong change of mind, in his part.

DR: It’s rare to see a scholar doing that.

LW: It’s very rare and it’s particularly interesting. Then Jose Casanova had developed a very sophisticated theory of public religion which accepts that there’s differentiation, but it thinks religion continues to a public and not just a private role and he shows that (15:00) in relation to Poland and Spain and several other countries.

DR: Poland is a very good example. It’s obviously… the figures in Britain alone since the arrival of the Poles here shown a huge growth in church attendances. I think it was Casanova, I might be wrong, who argued that it was because the Church wasn’t identified with the controlling power but the Church was rather a revolutionary… that’s a bit strong, but… of the people, and that the Church hasn’t gone into decline in Poland as it has here. And where the Church is still seen as, perhaps, I think, cultural hegemony. I think those statistics have a very interesting thing to say about secularization.

LW: Yes, so the difficulty is to explain why the differential rates of secularization. Actually, I was going to come to the other kind of key figure who’s really the stand out figure in this whole story. He’s the one person who saw all this a long time before anyone else, long before Casanova or Berger, and that was David Martin, who’s an English sociologist of religion, still alive, retired now. In 1965, he wrote an essay criticizing secularization theory, and then in the late 1970’s, he wrote the famous book called A General Theory of Secularization. He didn’t completely throw it overboard, but he tried to refine it, and his point was just what you said. That it depends what role religion has in a particular society and what relationship it has to reactionary and revolutionary political power. So in a country like France, where all forces of liberalization and democracy who have opposed by the Catholic Church, you get a very very strong secularism. Because all progressive people want to overthrow this reactionary force. But, going across the Atlantic to America, where the churches were a force of democracy and liberation from colonial British rule, then religion becomes identified with those positive forces and it’s a very religious place. And he thinks he can do similar analyses across the world. So he rejected the general theory, an undifferentiated theory, long before anyone else. I think he gets sometimes slightly irritated today when everyone says “Oh, it’s a really great new theory!” He thinks “I was saying that forty years ago.”

DR: But it’s interesting that that’s, in that case, what we’re talking about really is a radical de-traditionalisation, particularly in Northern Europe. It’s a challenging of power bases and the decentralisation of power, and epistemological power as well, and in institutions rather than the other interpretation about the logic of religion not making sense.

LW: Yes, no, you’ve put it really raw, because the kind of general progressivist theories make it seem like it’s just a neutral historical process that inevitably happens, whereas people like David Martin say “No, look at the power relations here, there are power struggles going on. And what role is religion playing in relations to those struggles.” And I think that’s a much more interesting and convincing way of looking at it. And my own little contribution to this story in relation to the UK would be that a really important part of why secularisation theory was so powerfully developed here in the post-war period, was because of the welfare state settlement. The welfare state became a secular utopian kind of quasi-religious project. People really believed in the realization of a fairer and more just and equal society, symbolised by the National Health Service, which is a kind of sacred icon and the envy of the world. The doctor and the GP became like the parish priest, a trust-worthy father figure in the community. So you had a kind of secular faith.

DR: The NHS as sacred canopy then.

LW: In many ways, it was sacred. If you look at Harold Shipman, the murderer, the reason he killed so many people was that no one would believe that a doctor could behave like that, a bit like child abuse in churches. So there was such an alternative secular faith, such hope for that model, that religion became less important. Actually the churches played a big role, they threw in a lot with the welfare state (20:00) and tried to contribute to it. And that’s part of why there was the sense you didn’t need religion anymore. We found the right way to organise society. And as we lost a bit faith in that vision, people turned to religion again to find meaning and models of more just social order and so on. We’ve seen some pockets of interesting revival like the ones that you look at in Europe.

DR: So where does this allude to secularisation thesis? Is it still relevant to the study of religion?

LW: We can’t ever get rid of it, because it’s so engraved, for over a century, that everything we do is shaken by it. The questions we ask on questionnaires, the data we gather, the whole way we look at the world, it’s very hard to get rid of that framework, even if it’s not the most interesting framework anymore. But I think where it leaves us is, that we no longer think that it’s a purely descriptive neutral theory. We can see now that it belonged in a particular place and a particular time and it was ideological. It was a kind of faith in its own right, it supported a vision of Europe at the cutting edge of history of the secular Nation-State starting to take over a new role in society and so on. It was bound up with those very particular conditions, and in those conditions, it made a lot of sense of what was happening. But it’s not universally applicable timeless ahistorical theory.

DR: What I’m going to take away from this today is it’s a very good example of how we as scholars allow our ideologies or the ideologies of the culture that maybe we are not aware of to affect whole theories. When I started studying religions, the secularisation thesis was still essential part of what you learned and, yet, once you look at it, it kind of dissolves away, there was nothing really ever there.

LW: And people believed in it, that’s the right word.

DR: And argued furiously about it.

LW: And wrote passionately about it, because it stood for a certain vision of how society should be. It wasn’t just about interpreting the facts. It was always a bit more than that.

DR: That’s a perfect place to end, it’s absolutely fascinating. Thank you very much, Professor.

LW: My Pleasure.

DR: Thanks.

Citation Info: Woodhead, Linda, and David G. Robertson. 2012. “The Secularisation Thesis.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 April 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.2, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-linda-woodhead-on-the-secularisation-thesis/

Podcasts

Identity Crisis: the Nones and Habitual Christianity

This podcast coincides with Linda Woodhead’s recent Croall Lectures, aimed at interrogating the question: Is Britain still a Christian country? Drawing on her own qualitative research and recent surveys in the UK, and from the nearly 80 projects funded by the Religion and Society programme, Woodhead is extremely well placed to examine this broad, nicely impossible question. I decided in the end to do two things, first to give a summary of some of the key points and second, to stick with what I know of this topic – drawing on my own research with (secular) humanists, based in the UK.

There has been much debate generated about the Christian status in Britain, not least following the comments of David Cameron in 2014 – who stated that Britain was a Christian country. Cameron had made his comments in a letter published in the Church Times on 16th April 2014[1] and his target audience should be borne in mind. He wrote:

I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives (Cameron, 2014).

Here (as elsewhere) Cameron emphasises that such a confidence in Christianity will help people get out there and do something. He also emphasises that: “Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love are shared by people of every faith and none” (ibid.).

In this podcast, Linda Woodhead takes up this debate from a sociological perspective, drawing on her experience as the overseer of the AHRC/ESRC funded Religion and Society programme which commissioned 75 UK based research projects over a five year period (2007-2012). In response to the question ‘Is Britain a Christian country?’, Woodhead’s response is a qualified ‘yes’. This means, Britain is not Christian in every way; numbers of people attending Church are certainly falling as are the number of people who self-identify as Christian[2]. She also states that Britain will certainly not be Christian forever if current trends continue, and, further, argues that Britain is not straightforwardly secular and a rise in ‘nones’ (those ticking ‘no religion’ on the Census) does not equal a rise in atheist or new atheist discourse. Many people continue to believe in a God (although not necessarily the Trinity) or consider themselves ‘spiritual’. But, in sum she argues that: “the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.”

Secular Humanists

Over the last four years, I have been working on an ethnography of nonreligious[3] groups and individuals in the UK. I was resident archivist and volunteer for the Rationalist Association (publishers of the New Humanist magazine), and through these activities I was able to meet many, many nonreligious individuals. I also interviewed and observed humanist celebrants in action across the UK and met couple’s marrying in humanist ceremonies. Woodhead points out in this interview, the ‘nones’ (those who ticked no religion on the census) are a broad category, who do not easily conform to atheism per se nor should they be understood as self-identifying Christians.

My own research confirms, as Woodhead suggests, that the ‘none’ category is in no way monolithic nor should it be equated with ‘atheism’ per se. I rarely met people who wholeheartedly sympathised with new atheists or who were hardline secularists. In the course of my work it also become clear that many situate their nonreligious identity in relation to a Christian heritage, either as a result of personal experience or of education. This familiarity emerged in a number of ways. One such example is in regards to religious criticism; many of my participants felt that familiarity with Christianity permitted them to be critical in a way that they could not with other religious traditions. In an interview with Peter, a 28 year old writer and doctoral student, we came onto the topic of the Danish Cartoons in which he made the following comments:

‘[W]ell I think it was more, Christianity I [am] up for taking the piss out of, because I always take the perspective that, and I’ve heard comedians point this out, Stewart Lee and Dara Ó Briain, Christianity’s kind of ours to take the piss out of. I went to church, I got dragged to the Church of England every Sunday, so we get, so I could get into the right school, whereas I’ve always felt that something like Islam [for example] is tied into racial minorities [and is thus off limits].’ [London, April, 2013]

I was particularly interested in the explicit reference to the Church of England in relation to “other religions.” This certainly raises a number of questions for me. Does Cameron mean all denominations of Christianity? Or just Anglicanism? Moreover, what does it really mean to state that we are Christian anyhow? Woodhead illuminates some of these points more clearly – that it is in institutions and in a sense of ‘cultural Christianity’.

Certainly, by self-identifying with Christianity, Peter situates himself very clearly inside both nonreligious and Christian groups, at least nominally. Abby Day brings some qualitative description to the category of ‘Christianity’ in her research ‘Believing in Belonging’ (2006). The non-faithful are categorised by Day as ‘nominalist’; that is, ethnic, natal and aspirational. This group are: ‘not merely unchurched and neither are they indifferent to Christianity: it functions to reinforce familial, ethnic and social connections.’ (2006: 126). Day’s work is useful in demonstrating how despite being anti-religious or not-religious, Christianity can continue to provide a reference point. The choice to call oneself ‘Christian’ whilst not ‘practicing’ can be understood as ‘cultural’ Christianity (Demerath, 2000: 127) or a quasi-ethnic category (Voas and Bruce, 2004; Voas and Day, 2007: 3). Yet despite familiarity my own participants do not personally identify as Christian and, as Woodhead points out, there should be caution used in labelling anyone ‘Christian’ who does not do so for themselves. Thus, I am not suggesting that my participants are ‘nominally’ Christian, simply that their attitude to religions was inflected by their experiences of it.

What such examples demonstrate is a negotiation of this term ‘Christianity’. Whilst many of my participants were aware of their own ‘habitual Christianity’, they were also at pains to break the habit[4].

Concluding Thoughts

I would be very interested to hear of other research addressing these issues. My own research – as I state – was within smaller scale populations and other researchers will be able to illuminate these debates at the macro-level, more clearly than I can. What I will state in summary is that central to this question – ‘Is Britain is a Christian country?’ – is a tension between issues of privilege and privatisation. Moreover, the debate rests on that tricky dichotomy between religious institution (and power) and people’s personal religious experiences and identities. As Woodhead stated in her article ‘How Religious Identity has Changed’ [in the UK]: ‘for a majority today, being religious is just a part of life and identity, not what defines them’ (2013). To say that Britain is a Christian country, as per Cameron’s speech, is therefore problematic not so much because the historical and (fragmented) contemporary trends it speaks to are contestable. It is problematic because it is totalising. Further, as Day points out, people who are otherwise ‘not religious’ state that they are Christian and give reasons of upbringing, culture or national identity. On a micro scale, this might resonate, and many, including my own nonreligious, secular participants may share this sense of ‘cultural Christianity’. However, despite any protestations from the PM, when a politician makes such a statement, there is a magnification of natal, national and cultural themes, and it is perhaps understandable that this creates anxieties about the political agenda implied by such bold statements – whether real or otherwise.

References

DAY, A. (2006). Believing in Belonging: a Case Study from Yorkshire. Unpublished PhD

Thesis, Lancaster University.

DAY, A. (2011). Believing in belonging: Belief and social identity in the modern world. Oxford University Press.

ENGELKE, M. (2012) ‘In Spite of Christianity: humanism and its others in contemporary Britain’ Talk given at the NSRN annual conference.

ENGELKE, M. (2014), ‘Christianity and the Anthropology of Secular HumanismCurrent Anthropology, Vol. 55, No. S10, pp. S292-S301

LEE, L. (2011). From ‘Neutrality’ to Dialogue: Constructing the Religious Other In British Non-religious Discourses In Modernities Revisited, Behrensen, M., Lee, L., & Tekelioglu., A. S. Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences 2011Available at www.iwm.at. [accessed 21 August 2012]

LEE, L. (2012). Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27(1): 129-139.

OFFICE OF NATIONAL STATISTICS (2012). Religion in England and Wales 2011. 12 December. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_290510.pdf [accessed 2 December 2014]

VOAS, D. & BRUCE, S (2004) ‘Research note: The 2001 census and Christian identification in Britain’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 19:1, 23-28

VOAS, D & DAY, A (2007). Secularity in Great Britain. In Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives, edited by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar. Hartford, CA: ISSSC: 95-110.

WOODHEAD, L. (2012) ‘How Religious Identity has Changed’ published on Pandemonium.

 

 

[1] This follows remarks from other conservative MPs, including Baroness Warsi, who argued in 2011 that Britain should become more Christian.

[2] The results of the 2001 Census suggest 15.5 per cent of the population (8.6 million people) considered themselves to have no religion. Whilst 77.2 per cent of the population considered themselves to have some religious belief, with the majority identifying as Christian at 71.8 per cent (41million people). Results of the more recent 2011 Census demonstrate a marked shift in numbers. The number of people now reporting as Christian decreased to 59.3 per cent and there was an increase in those reporting no religion to 25.1 per cent of the population (ONS, 2012)

[3] Non religion is understood as different to the ‘secular’ and defined as defined as: ‘any position, perspective or practice which is primarily defined by, or in relation to, religion, but which is nevertheless considered to be other than religious (Lee, 2011).

[4] In my forthcoming thesis, I discuss the great length humanists and other nonreligious people went to, negotiating the boundaries between what is ‘culturally’ Christian and what was not (see also Engelke, 2014); the equation of moral values and Christianity was a particular sticking point. More space would also have allowed me to comment on the British Humanist Association’s Census campaign and letter to the Prime Minister, both relevant to this topic.

Beyond Maps: Eoin O’Mahony’s Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland

Eoin O’Mahony’s work reflects a growing and consolidating movement in the Geography discipline over the last 15 years, which after a history of stops and starts, has made significant progress in attempting to understand spatiality of religion. This movement has moved away from ontological assumptions of sacred and profane space (Eliade, 1957) and the privileging of the institutional manifestations of religion over informal and often non-representational forms of spirituality (summarised in Park, 1994): Geographies that privileged institutional, regional and national structures of religion at the expense of the local and personal scales. In an assessment of the field, Kong (2001) observed the movement towards understanding the construction and consumption of sacred space (for example Chidester and Linenthal, 1995) and called for a shift in focus to the informal and unofficial geographies of religion, challenging the narratives of global secularisation. This call paralleled a shift in focus within more sociologically orientated studies in religion towards ‘the spiritual revolution’ (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005) and an observed disconnect between forms of institutional belonging and popular beliefs (see Davie, 1994). In the wake of this work, Knott (2005) developed a spatial methodology for the investigation of religion, locating and defining the boundaries between religious and secular discourses within everyday life, practice and representation. Her methodology, drawing on Henri Lefebvre, reveals the religious within secular space through investigating how a space is promoted to users, how it is used by these people and how this space holds together both of these abstract and practical images. And this is where we find O’Mahony’s work.

In the interview, O’Mahony examines how contestation between the religious and the secular in Ireland unfolds ‘in particular places in particular ways’, with this tension manifesting in three case studies: (1) A series of Marion statues dispersed around Dublin; (2) the (annual) pilgrimage to the summit of Croagh Patrick in Country Mayo; (3) and the contestation between State and Church for the provision of primary school education in Ireland. Throughout these sites, religious and secular discourses make claims upon the space yet neither can fully establish themselves over the other. The Marion statues of Dublin are neither owned by the Church nor by local authorities yet they exhibit a concrete presence, informally and unofficially recognised in the landscape design of the parks they often inhabit as well as being reflected in the behaviour of those who used the park. Croagh Patrick is framed as a pilgrimage site to believers and promoted as a site for health, fitness and outdoor recreation to non-religious visitors. Finally, the case of primary schools in Ireland thrusts the issue of contestation between a secularising State power and that of the Church in the public arena with the recent political concern ‘to take religion out of schools’. Throughout these case studies, religious and secular discourses are found to compete, contest and co-habit with each other, providing distinct channels for the making of place through investing meaning and significance into a space.

A main theme underlying O’Mahony’s case studies in this interview is an exploration of the secular project to modify, regulate and moderate locality, including its religious ties, in order to decontextualise and universalise. He astutely criticises a discourse in which a linear progression assumes religious places are those spaces that have not yet been secularised; that secular ideas contest, replace and subordinate the religious within space without resistance. As he argues, religious places are not waiting to be secularised but exist inside and outside of public, secular space. Moreover, the local and contingent daily practices and behaviours of people produce meaning that is integral to the making of place for these inhabitants. As with other confrontations between the local and the global, we should be aware of the delocalising effect of attempts to remove religion from public spaces and the consequences this process has for those who dwell and invest meaning within these spaces.

In addition to this focus on the making of place through daily and recurrent religious practices, I would be keen to see further work on the multi-directional projection of this travel to include the channels in which this secular discourse are also resisted, partially resisted and appropriated by the actors present within a place. Linda Woodhead’s (2012) call for an awareness of both strategic and tactical scales of religion in everyday life, recognising the increasing influence of Michel de Certeau in the study of Religion and Geography is useful here. Everyday tactical practices are those, often unrepresented or non-representable, that enable the actor to manipulate the strategic practices of dominant hegemonies and discourse. The entangled nature of religion and the secular in public space is well illustrated in O’Mahony’s interview and it would be interesting in future research to hear more of the individual voices within these case studies as well as the competing public discourses and claims for these spaces.

With these case studies O’Mahony has neatly illustrated the potential of the geographic approach in drawing out the contestations, tensions and synergies of competing religious and secular voices in public and private spaces. His interview has provided an insight into the complex, multiple layers of space within which religion and the secular co-habit and interact in an Irish context, proving a value to the geographic approach beyond mapping material distributions of religious phenomena.

References:

Chidester, D. and Linenthal, E.T., eds. (1995) American Sacred Space. Bloomington: Indian University Press.

Davie, G. (1994) Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging. Oxford: Blackwell.

Eliade, M. (1957) The Sacred and the Profane. New York; London: Harcourt Books.

Heelas, P. and Woodhead, L. (2005) The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell.

Knott, K. (2005) The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis. London; Oakville: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Kong, L. (2001) Mapping ‘new’ geographies of religion: politics and poetics in modernity Progress in Human Geography. 25 pp.211-233.

Park, C.C. (1994) Sacred Worlds: An Introduction to Geography and Religion. London: Routledge.

Woodhead, L., ed. (2012) Strategic and Tactical Religion. University of Edinburgh, 10th May 2012. Religion and Society: Sacred Practices of Everyday Life Conference.

Editors’ Picks 4: The Secularisation Thesis

In this, the penultimate Editors’ Pick, David tells us why he chose his interview with Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation thesis as his favourite.

The secularisation thesis – the idea that traditional religions are in terminal decline in the industrialised world – was perhaps the central debate in the sociology of religion in the second half of the 20th century. Scholars such as Steve Bruce, Rodney Stark and Charles Taylor argued whether religion was becoming less important to individuals, or that only the authority of religions in the public sphere was declining. Data from the US and South America, however, began to challenge many of their basic assumptions. Professor Linda Woodhead joins us to discuss the background and legacy of the secularisation thesis.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below the original posting of this podcast. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?

If you have been listening to the podcast for the past couple of weeks, you will be aware that we are about to go on a brief hiatus until September, to give our listeners some time to catch up, and to give Chris and David a chance to catch up on some of their other commitments. The website will still be releasing content on a less regular basis, and we have at least one more roundtable discussion for your delectation over the coming weeks. We will also be re-releasing our ‘editors favourites’ from the first batch of podcasts – so there will still be plenty of material to keep you occupied. However, before we ‘leave you’ we wanted to go out with a bang, and it is therefore with pleasure that we present the second of our compilation episodes.

As with the first of our compilation episodes (What is the Future of Religious Studies?), every time David, Chris and Jonathan have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: ‘Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?’ The result is this compilation of differing opinions and interpretations of key terms from eight top scholars from a variety of disciplines – sociology, psychology, religious studies, theology – on how academics should position themselves in relation to the groups and individuals that they study.

However, we decided to push things one step further with this one. The inspiration for this episode came from one of Russell McCutcheon’s works which we had encountered through the undergraduate Religious Studies programme at the University of Edinburgh, entitled ‘Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion‘. We thought it would be an excellent idea to invite Russell to respond to the opinions of the other scholars in this podcast, and are very grateful that not only was he happy to be involved, but he sent a ten minute response recording. Enjoy.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, and others’ are still on our ‘to-do’ list, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation. We apologise for the UK-centric nature of these recordings… that’s just what happened in this instance.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

Whether you stick with us over the break, or come back to us in September, we can assure you that we have another great lineup in store. Future podcasts include interviews with David Morgan (Duke University), Kim Knott (Lancaster University), Robert Orsi (Northwestern University), Gordon Lynch (University of Kent), Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity University College), J Gordon Melton (Baylor University), Brian Victoria (Antioch University) and more…

Please keep telling people about us… if you are a lecturer, please consider incorporating this material into your courses… and please keep supporting us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for listening!

Secularization: A Look at Individual Level Theories of Religious Change

The Demise of Established Religiosity

While it is often argued that the secularization thesis only referred to macro-level secularization – the separation of religion from other societal spheres in the process of functional differentiation (cf. e.g. Wilson 1998) – there is no way of denying that most specific secularization theories also refer to a loss of significance of religion on the individual level, explicitly or implicitly, which may be prompted by macro-level differentiation and individualization, and which itself may affect the meso-level in the form of a steady decrease in church membership or attendance (cf. Dobbelaere 2000). As an explanation for this observed or expected micro-level secularization either one or both of two reasons are commonly given. It is either assumed that there was or will be no further need for religion – as, in Weber’s case, rationality and science have taken over its explanatory function or as, in Marx’s case, its solace function will not be required any longer in a perfect socialist society. Or it is postulated that the individual will eventually lose confidence in the established religion’s supernatural truth claims, will literally fall from or at least be shaken in his or her faith. This was the central argument of Peter L. Berger’s early approach (before his conversion to being critical of secularization theory), which was built on the idea that any belief or belief system relied on an intact “plausibility structure”, provided through social affirmation. But Christianity’s plausibility structure – the taken-for-grantedness particularly of its metaphysical claims – had suffered from the accessibility of a plurality of competing religious faiths and other worldviews, made commonplace by modern media, travel, education, and cultural exchange, and thereby from decreasing affirmation or even widespread refutation. The result of this, in any modernized society, would be a doubting, secularized populace as well as secularized churches, which would refrain from overly demanding metaphysics and, instead, turn to the individuals’ this-worldly needs in order to avoid their complete demise (cf. Berger 1980).

This concentration on the decline of institutionalized, established, church religiosity by early secularization theorists prompted some criticism. Berger’s companion in other projects, Thomas Luckmann (who defined as religion anything that helps people to overcome different sorts of “transcendences”), claimed that religion had not disappeared but only changed its location – e.g. to psychotherapy, esotericism, and other hedonistic projects of self-fulfillment. To him, religion had become privatized and thereby “invisible” for the social scientific study of religion (cf. Luckmann 1967). Similar to this is Grace Davie’s (1994) concept of “believing without belonging”, and other theories of individualized religiosity, which claim that spirituality persists outside institutionalized churches. Relying on Durkheim’s integration model of religion, Robert N. Bellah, too, denied that religion had disappeared but claimed that, in a multidenominational nation such as the United States, it had to manifest itself differently – not in an all-encompassing, European style nation church, but in what he called “civil religion”, composed of reference to a generalized “God” as well as of “sacralized” national institutions, documents, figures, holidays, and symbols, whose role it was to achieve national integration (cf. Bellah 1967). Nevertheless, both Luckmann and Bellah agreed that the significance of conventional churches and denominations, as well as of personal (substantively defined) religious belief and activity, had diminished over the past decades.

The American Challenge

An early critic of the view that modernity necessarily meant secularization, as pointed out by Linda Woodhead, was David Martin. Besides rejecting an ahistorical, undifferentiated theory of secularization as a universal, linear, and irreversible process, Martin warned against secularists (and for him this might just as well apply to proponents of secularization theory) taking “Catholic laments about the period when men were truly religious” too seriously (Martin 1969: 30). In order to diagnose secularization in the present one would have to believe in the existence of a former “Golden Age of Faith”, a highly sacralized past. But for critics of the secularization thesis this constituted largely a fiction. They argued that there had never been a time of universal and widespread religious belief and presented examples of medieval impiety as proof (cf. Bruce 2011).

Yet attacks on secularization theory were not only directed against its depictions of the past, but also of the present, with the most prominent (twofold) challenge coming from the United States of America. Firstly, the empirical situation in the U.S. had always given reason for doubt. American rates of church affiliation had constantly been high, as had rates of individuals’ belief in a personal god and other religious indicators. Particularly surprising was that this situation was to be found in a highly modernized as well as religiously pluralized country. Secondly, starting in the U.S. during the 1980s, these doubts were translated into a forceful theoretical onslaught on secularization theory, brought forward by the so-called “rational choice” or “market” theorists of religion. Rodney Stark, Laurence R. Iannaccone, William S. Bainbridge, and Roger Finke wholeheartedly dismissed the idea of micro-level secularization. Instead they claimed that demand for religious products, for other-worldly “compensators”, was always stable and about the same in any society – with a range of societal “niches” with differing degrees of such demand. What really differed when comparing different societies – and the historically specific characteristics of which had produced the, in their view, exceptional case of European “secularization” – was the makeup of the “religious marketplace”, the degree to which religious entrepreneurs were free or hindered to do their business. In contrast to Berger’s original view, religious pluralism was not seen as undermining religious faith and vitality, but on the contrary as a prerequisite for sufficient supply to meet the diverse kinds of religious demand (cf. Stark, Bainbridge 1987, Stark 2000, Stark, Finke 2000).

According to this theory, citizens in the United States, with its free and rich religious market, were able to make a “rational choice” about their religious affiliation and pick one according to their specific preferences. Those segments of society, for example, who took a specific interest in the supernatural promises of a religious brand – such as compensation in the afterlife for earthly suffering – would favor fundamentalist churches, because these, with their high costs for membership (e.g. abstinence from some earthly pleasures, stigmatizing appearance, denial of contact to wider society), were able to generate a dependent and committed congregation. For these religious searchers, a vibrant community of believers is seen as crucial, since, other than a congregation of lazy and sullen churchgoers, only this would be able to provide at least some testimony to a highly insecure and untestable expected reward, such as other-worldly promises. This would explain the success particularly of “strict churches” in the U.S. (cf. Iannaccone 1994). Religious vitality in Europe, on the other hand, was thwarted by a lack of religious choice and, in addition, a lack of incentives for pampered state church officials to make their regulated religious brand somewhat more appealing. To the rational choice authors, the dearth of religious vitality in most of Europe has nothing to do with diminished demand, or individual secularization, but everything with insufficient supply. Accordingly, they expect that with further separation of church and state and further cutbacks of church privileges in Europe, these countries will, after some generations, eventually be de-secularized and become as religiously vital as the United States, leaving proclaimed individual-level secularization a mere fiction, or even an ideology, and Europe’s meso-level secularization nothing but a historical oddity (cf. Stark, Iannaccone 1994, Stark, Finke 2000).

Refined Theories of Secularization

This economic approach has, from its conception, drawn a lot of criticism – in particular from Steve Bruce, whom Linda Woodhead called “probably the most important defender of secularization theory now”, and who has published a book length refutation of the economic theory of religion, hoping that this might be “the stake through the vampire’s chest”, as which he sees his opponents (Bruce 1999, 2). Somewhat more moderate is the criticism by Christopher G. Ellison (1995) and Darren E. Sherkat (1997). They agree with Stark and his colleagues that people make their religious choices rationally, but doubt that they necessarily do so for inherently religious reasons. Instead, on many occasions, people would enter, remain in, or actively participate in specific churches with the reactions of others in mind – e.g. in order to set an example or not to suffer social sanctions. This would make individual-level secularization compatible with high levels of religiosity on the organizational level – people may remain active in churches for social reasons, without actually believing.

Steve Bruce agrees and concludes that the supposed “free choice”, central to the rational choice approach of religion, was actually a fiction. While overall in the United States there really existed a plurality of religions and denominations, at the local level, where people actually made their religious choices, this was not so. Even if there were a plurality of churches in one town or county, membership was not open to everyone, but bound up with ethnicity, class, or other forms of social identity and related sanctions: “Racial segregation is still such that adding a black Pentecoastal church to a town does not in the least increase the choice for white Americans. Adding a German language Lutheran church makes no difference to a Swedish American.” (Bruce 1996, 135). Yet, Bruce does not doubt that many Americans actually are highly religious and practice their faith fervently and wholeheartedly. But, in his view – and in contrast to the rational choice theorists’ – this does not falsify secularization theory as such. Bruce’s explanation is that, in many places in the United States, modernization did not and could not have its secularizing effects. Due to the deregulation of the informational and educational sectors, the United States enabled fundamentalist Christianity to build its own universe, shielding its members from different views in the privatized media, schools, and even universities, and thereby leaving the religion’s “plausibility structure” intact (cf. Bruce 2002, 2011).

Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart offer a different explanation for why Americans seem to cling to religion in large numbers. Analyzing a range of international surveys and indices, they show that subjective religiosity is positively correlated with existential insecurity. In line with the classical view of Marx and Freud, but also with the rational choice theorists, they conclude that religion may serve as consolation or compensation. But they differ from the rational choice theorists in that they do not assume such need to be universal, but rather dependent on the specific economic situation and other alterable factors under which individuals live and grow up – and that in this respect the United States is, at least for now, an exceptional case in the western world: “Relatively high levels of economic insecurity are experienced by many sectors of U.S. society, despite American affluence, due to the cultural emphasis on the values of personal responsibility, individual achievement, and mistrust of big government, limiting the role of public services and the welfare state for basic matters such as healthcare covering all the working population” (Norris, Inglehart 2004, 108). Being and feeling more vulnerable to existential risks, Americans were more likely to turn to religion for solace and comfort than were citizens of other western nations.

Conclusion

Over the past decades, the secularization thesis has been discarded – but only insofar as it postulated an inevitable, universal, and uniform process. It would be going too far, though, to assume that “there was nothing really ever there”. Theories of secularization have, instead, been refined. Karel Dobbelaere (2002) and José Casanova (1994) have shown that secularization may work differently on different levels – for example affecting the institutional organization of society, but not individual religiosity. Concerning the latter, Bruce and Norris/Inglehart maintain that modernization is very likely to have a secularizing effect – yet only insofar as it is accompanied by 1) access to a plurality of worldviews as well as 2) feelings of existential security for wide sectors of society. Both conditions depend on political and economic arrangements and are prone to change. Consequently, secularization is no longer seen as a natural development – even by its theoretical proponents –  but, rather, as a contingent phenomenon.

References

Bellah, Robert N. (1967): Civil Religion in America. Daedalus 96, 1-21.

Berger, Peter L. (1980): The Heretical Imperative. Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation. London: Collins.

Bruce, Steve (1996): Religion in the Modern World. From Cathedrals to Cults. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Bruce, Steve (1999): Choice and Religion. A Critique of Rational Choice Theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Bruce, Steve (2002): God is Dead. Secularization in the West. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Bruce, Steve (2011): Secularization. In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Casanova, José (1994): Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Davie, Grace (1994): Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing Without Belonging. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Dobbelaere, Karel (2000): Toward an Integrated Perspective of the Processes Related to the Descriptive Concept of Secularization. In: Swatos Jr. et al. (eds.): The Secularization Debate. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 21-39.

Dobbelaere, Karel (2002): Secularization: An Analysis at Three Levels. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Ellison, Christopher G. (1995): Rational Choice Explanations of Individual Religious Behavior: Notes on the Problem of Social Embeddedness. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34, 89-97.

Iannaccone, Laurence R. (1994): Why Strict Churches Are Strong. In: American Journal of Sociology 99, 1180-1211.

Luckmann, Thomas (1967): The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society. New York: Macmillan.

Martin, David (1969): The Religious and the Secular. Studies in Secularization. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Norris, Pippa and Ronald Inglehart (2004): Sacred and Secular. Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sherkat, Darren E. (1997): Embedding Religious Choices. Preferences and Social Constraints into Rational Choice Theories of Religious Behavior. In: Young (ed.): Rational Choice Theory and Religion. Summary and Assessment. London, New York: Routledge, 66-86.

Stark, Rodney (2000): Secularization R.I.P.. In: Swatos Jr. et al. (eds.): The Secularization Debate. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 41-66.

Stark, Rodney and William S. Bainbridge (1987): A Theory of Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Stark, Rodney and Roger Finke (2000): Acts of Faith. Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Stark, Rodney and Laurence R. Iannaccone (1994): A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the “Secularization” of Europe. In: Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33, 230-252.

Wilson, Bryan (1998): The Secularization Thesis: Criticisms and Rebuttals. In: Laersmans et al. (eds.): Secularization and Social Integration: Papers in Honour of Karel Dobbelaere. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 45-66.

The Secularisation Thesis

The secularisation thesis – the idea that traditional religions are in terminal decline in the industrialised world – was perhaps the central debate in the sociology of religion in the second half of the 20th century. Scholars such as Steve Bruce, Rodney Stark and Charles Taylor argued whether religion was becoming less important to individuals, or that only the authority of religions in the public sphere was declining. Data from the US and South America, however, began to challenge many of their basic assumptions. Professor Linda Woodhead joins us to discuss the background and legacy of the secularisation thesis.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation Thesis (16 April 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. Robertson. Transcribed by Martin Lepage.

 

David Robertson: The secularisation thesis is probably the biggest central theme and certainly the most hotly debated in the sociology of religion, certainly since the 1960’s. Why is it so important and how has it changed? To talk to us today about this, we’ve got Professor Linda Woodhead, from the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Perhaps, you could just begin at the beginning with where does the secularisation thesis come from? Where does it begin?

Linda Woodhead: Actually, the origins of secularisation theory are coterminous with the origins of sociology itself. It’s absolutely fundamental to the whole discipline and all the great fathers of sociology – Weber, Durkheim and Marx – believed and expounded some version of secularisation theory. At the very heart of the social sciences, this belief that, as societies modernized, religion will decline. And each had a different way of explaining that. For Weber, it was primarily about the rise of scientific knowledge and it was about the application of rational standards, bureaucratic standards, in life more generally. He thought that that way of thinking and reasoning disenchanted the world, it cast out the magical, the religious. Durkheim had a rather different explanation of why religion declines. He thought that religion binds societies together, and he particularly thought that religion binds small groups together, and they meet face to face and celebrate the sacred. He thought that as societies modernized and urbanized, those fundamental bonds are broken, and religion is broken in that process as people move to cities and are individualized more. And Marx thought, of course, that religion would die out once you get the perfect socialist communist State. He thought it was a symptom of all that was wrong with society, a way of coping with the oppressions and difficulties of society. Once we realised the perfect society, you won’t need religion. In different ways, all of those classical theories are evolutionary or they’re progressive.

DR: I was going to ask that. Are they strongly tied to this notion of the gradual perfection of society and the move out of the darkness and into the light?

LW: They are really, and that’s a kind of, in a way, a blind spot of classical secularisation theory, in modern forms, that they didn’t really, perhaps… they weren’t sociological enough about their own background and presuppositions. This early crop of the classical theories, are all bound up with Nation-States developing, growing, extending their power and with their new elites, including academic elites, like the sociologists establishing their status. There was a kind of implicit optimism that the way that European society is developing is at the cutting edge of social evolution. So all societies are going to follow, so eventually everyone will become secular like we are. That’s never quite said, but that really does lie behind this theory. That we are not just talking about the tie of religion and particularities of here and now, we’re talking about an inevitable, inextricable process that everyone is destined to go through.

DR: That’s a critique of the narrative of modernization and westernisation anyway, that this is inevitable and even desirable motif. Maybe we can move on to the… I don’t want to call them the classical theorists, but the most famous describers of the secularisation thesis in the simple form that we know it.

LW: You could say that those classical sociologists, Weber, Durkheim, Marx, are sort of phase one of secularisation. And then there’s been a phase two. Phase two came in the wake of the Second World War, really. It was really flourishing in the 1970’s, and around about then. Again, it was very much European. In the UK, one of the chief figures was Brian Wilson, of Oxford University. (5:00) He fully endorsed secularisation theory, he gave it thoughts of new twists and explanations and interpretations. He particularly emphasised that secularisation is about the decline in the social significance of religion. He didn’t deny that some people were still religious, but he said “what’s changed, is that religion doesn’t have the same status in society. For example, politicians don’t have to refer to it anymore. They go on and do their business according to their own logic, they don’t take any notice of religion, whereas before the political ruler and religious elites would have to be in compensation with each other. He talked about that in every sphere, how religion ceases to be a point of reference in the public life.

DR: Perhaps you could clarify that, that sounds like the first development of the secularisation thesis, isn’t it? It’s one of the explanations for it, that it’s not that religion is going to completely disappear from society, rather it moves out of public sphere and into the private sphere.

LW: Yes. He thought that was that. You could still be devoutly religious, but it will affect you in your private life rather than when you go to work, or when you’re being a politician or wherever that might be.

DR: It’s not a disappearance of religion, it’s just a radical change in its function?

LW: Yes, the sociological term is social differentiation. The different spheres of society become autonomous. In law, you don’t refer to religion anymore, and in politics, likewise, and in education likewise. All these things become autonomous and they run according to rational secular standards, not by reference to religion. Wilson thinks he sees that happening very clearly in the UK and gives lots of examples of that process in various spheres.

DR: Were there any other interpretations of the secularisation thesis?

LW: There were lots of clarifications at that time. There was another very important contribution by a European, a Belgian sociologist, called Karel Dobbelaere, and he made what’s become really well used in his account, is a distinction between three levels of secularisation. He talks about secularisation at the societal level, the meta level of society; secularisation at the organisational level, and he’s thinking in part of religious organisation themselves declining, like the churches having fewer members or attenders; and then thirdly, secularisation at the personal level, where fewer people believe or their lives are less guided by religion. He says : “Don’t just talk about secularisation. What sort are you meaning, or what level of society? The macro level, the meso level or the micro level?” And he thought that it could happen at different rates in different parts. That’s quite compatible with Wilson’s theory, really. It’s another clarification of secularisation theory. But the most important current exponent, still in post, is, of course, in Scotland, and that’s Steve Bruce at Aberdeen University, who’s probably the most important defender of secularisation theory now, even though it’s waned very very much, it’s very much fallen out of favour in the last ten or fifteen years. Steve is a true believer still in secularisation theory and defends it very very strongly. He combines really particularly Durkheim and Marx. He thinks that it is about individualisation, the Durkheimian theory that societies break down and we don’t need that bond anymore, and he thinks it’s about rationalisation, the more Weberian account and he restates it, but in those quite classical terms, and he accumulates a lot of data, and the data mainly has to do with Churches in Europe. So it’s about the demonstrable decline in the number of people who are members, attenders, who had their child baptised, who have a Christian wedding. There are lots of statistics that support his case, that he regularly cites.

DR: That’s a weakness of secularisation thesis, isn’t it? That it’s based on a very strict model of what religion is, on an institutionalised Church model of religion. And it wouldn’t really translate to less institutionalised forms of religion, say New Age.

LW: That’s a very good point, and Steve Bruce would reply to you, because he is criticised for that point, by saying New Age isn’t really a religion. He would say it’s just what he calls it, cults. It’s the kind of… like an entropy, (10:00) when religion get less and less and less important to people and New Age is just the very end of that process. It doesn’t really matter to them, it doesn’t have a big effect on their lives, they don’t give a lot of money to it, they’re not really committed, it’s just a sort of privatised leisure pursuit. That’s how he tries to explain new forms of spirituality’s growth. Is that convincing from your point of view?

DR: Not convincing to me, but I can follow his argument. We could get into a big debate about whether or not… you could argue that something like New Age is a different form, a more individualised rather than an institutionalised model of religion, for instance, in which case secularisation would be a change in the form of religion, which would go along with an individualised privatisation model.

LW: But you could say, in criticism of someone like Steve Bruce, you wouldn’t, say you’re looking up modern communications, you wouldn’t get the statistics for how many people send telegrams from 1950 to 2012, and say, “Well, it’s completely declined, so people don’t use instant messaging anymore”. You’d look at what new forms have taken its place, so why just look at the churches? Of course some forms of religions grown declined over time, because religion is constantly transforming. So why say that’s the only true religion and nothing else counts? And I personally think that’s a major weakness of the secularisation theory, which is only… if we’re looking at something very specific, the decline of particular sorts of European Church that had close connections with the State, and they have declined their question. They generalized from that very particular story to religion as a whole.

DR: Which is a perfect link to the second major weaknesses, I think, of the secularisation thesis, which is, it’s very culturally and geographically specific.

LW: That’s a great point and that brings us to the USA, because you’ll notice that all the theorists I’ve been talking about are European. And Europe is in many ways the most secular part of the globe. America never produced secularisation theory in a significant way partly because, even though America was as modernised as Europe, it didn’t suffer the same decline of religion, even of church going or congregation, they have different kinds of churches in the States of course. So Americans didn’t really believe in it, in the way Europeans did.

DR: It was never really accepted?

LW: It didn’t have the same theoretical importance. It was accepted by many social scientists, but in the study of religion, there aren’t great theorist of it who contributed new developments. And since the 1980’s, the most important critics of secularisation theory have been Americans in the sociology of religion. First, Peter Berger and then Jose Casanova. Berger’s particularly interesting because he was a secularisation theorist. So his career has spanned right from the 1960s through to today, for much of that carrier, he went along with the European secularisation theorists. But his interpretation was different. He thought religion declines because it becomes less plausible when there’s not just one worldview. So if you’re a Christian and you just live in a Christian village near a Christian town, you’re going to believe it. But it becomes less plausible when you meet an Hindu and a Buddhist. That was his theory of why it declined in modern societies. But then he had a complete conversion, he changed his mind in the 1990’s, and he said… I brought a quote, it’s a good one. He said :

“My point is that the assumption that we live in a secularised world is false. The world today, with some exceptions, is as furiously religious as ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists, loosely labeled secularisation theory, is essentially mistaken. In my early work, I contributed to this literature. I was in good company. Most sociologists of religion had similar views and we had good reasons for upholding them. Some of the writing we produced still stand up. Although the term ‘secularisation theory’ refers to works from the 50’s and 60’s, the key idea can be traced right back to the Enlightenment. The idea is simple. Modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals. And it’s precisely this key idea that turned out to be wrong.”

So a very strong change of mind, in his part.

DR: It’s rare to see a scholar doing that.

LW: It’s very rare and it’s particularly interesting. Then Jose Casanova had developed a very sophisticated theory of public religion which accepts that there’s differentiation, but it thinks religion continues to a public and not just a private role and he shows that (15:00) in relation to Poland and Spain and several other countries.

DR: Poland is a very good example. It’s obviously… the figures in Britain alone since the arrival of the Poles here shown a huge growth in church attendances. I think it was Casanova, I might be wrong, who argued that it was because the Church wasn’t identified with the controlling power but the Church was rather a revolutionary… that’s a bit strong, but… of the people, and that the Church hasn’t gone into decline in Poland as it has here. And where the Church is still seen as, perhaps, I think, cultural hegemony. I think those statistics have a very interesting thing to say about secularization.

LW: Yes, so the difficulty is to explain why the differential rates of secularization. Actually, I was going to come to the other kind of key figure who’s really the stand out figure in this whole story. He’s the one person who saw all this a long time before anyone else, long before Casanova or Berger, and that was David Martin, who’s an English sociologist of religion, still alive, retired now. In 1965, he wrote an essay criticizing secularization theory, and then in the late 1970’s, he wrote the famous book called A General Theory of Secularization. He didn’t completely throw it overboard, but he tried to refine it, and his point was just what you said. That it depends what role religion has in a particular society and what relationship it has to reactionary and revolutionary political power. So in a country like France, where all forces of liberalization and democracy who have opposed by the Catholic Church, you get a very very strong secularism. Because all progressive people want to overthrow this reactionary force. But, going across the Atlantic to America, where the churches were a force of democracy and liberation from colonial British rule, then religion becomes identified with those positive forces and it’s a very religious place. And he thinks he can do similar analyses across the world. So he rejected the general theory, an undifferentiated theory, long before anyone else. I think he gets sometimes slightly irritated today when everyone says “Oh, it’s a really great new theory!” He thinks “I was saying that forty years ago.”

DR: But it’s interesting that that’s, in that case, what we’re talking about really is a radical de-traditionalisation, particularly in Northern Europe. It’s a challenging of power bases and the decentralisation of power, and epistemological power as well, and in institutions rather than the other interpretation about the logic of religion not making sense.

LW: Yes, no, you’ve put it really raw, because the kind of general progressivist theories make it seem like it’s just a neutral historical process that inevitably happens, whereas people like David Martin say “No, look at the power relations here, there are power struggles going on. And what role is religion playing in relations to those struggles.” And I think that’s a much more interesting and convincing way of looking at it. And my own little contribution to this story in relation to the UK would be that a really important part of why secularisation theory was so powerfully developed here in the post-war period, was because of the welfare state settlement. The welfare state became a secular utopian kind of quasi-religious project. People really believed in the realization of a fairer and more just and equal society, symbolised by the National Health Service, which is a kind of sacred icon and the envy of the world. The doctor and the GP became like the parish priest, a trust-worthy father figure in the community. So you had a kind of secular faith.

DR: The NHS as sacred canopy then.

LW: In many ways, it was sacred. If you look at Harold Shipman, the murderer, the reason he killed so many people was that no one would believe that a doctor could behave like that, a bit like child abuse in churches. So there was such an alternative secular faith, such hope for that model, that religion became less important. Actually the churches played a big role, they threw in a lot with the welfare state (20:00) and tried to contribute to it. And that’s part of why there was the sense you didn’t need religion anymore. We found the right way to organise society. And as we lost a bit faith in that vision, people turned to religion again to find meaning and models of more just social order and so on. We’ve seen some pockets of interesting revival like the ones that you look at in Europe.

DR: So where does this allude to secularisation thesis? Is it still relevant to the study of religion?

LW: We can’t ever get rid of it, because it’s so engraved, for over a century, that everything we do is shaken by it. The questions we ask on questionnaires, the data we gather, the whole way we look at the world, it’s very hard to get rid of that framework, even if it’s not the most interesting framework anymore. But I think where it leaves us is, that we no longer think that it’s a purely descriptive neutral theory. We can see now that it belonged in a particular place and a particular time and it was ideological. It was a kind of faith in its own right, it supported a vision of Europe at the cutting edge of history of the secular Nation-State starting to take over a new role in society and so on. It was bound up with those very particular conditions, and in those conditions, it made a lot of sense of what was happening. But it’s not universally applicable timeless ahistorical theory.

DR: What I’m going to take away from this today is it’s a very good example of how we as scholars allow our ideologies or the ideologies of the culture that maybe we are not aware of to affect whole theories. When I started studying religions, the secularisation thesis was still essential part of what you learned and, yet, once you look at it, it kind of dissolves away, there was nothing really ever there.

LW: And people believed in it, that’s the right word.

DR: And argued furiously about it.

LW: And wrote passionately about it, because it stood for a certain vision of how society should be. It wasn’t just about interpreting the facts. It was always a bit more than that.

DR: That’s a perfect place to end, it’s absolutely fascinating. Thank you very much, Professor.

LW: My Pleasure.

DR: Thanks.

Citation Info: Woodhead, Linda, and David G. Robertson. 2012. “The Secularisation Thesis.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 April 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.2, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-linda-woodhead-on-the-secularisation-thesis/