Resisting Easy Characterisation by Alexander Black

Turning our attention to the twentieth century history of religions in Britain – we notice that the waters of the ‘religious decline’ narrative, are muddied by the continual growth of alternative religious traditions imported with post-war immigration from the Caribbean, South Asia and Africa. This is because the decline narrative is closely linked to the dominant religion of the British Isles: Christianity. In particular, the Protestant strains associated with established Churches. Church attendance is often considered the benchmark of religious observance, considering it is the dominant religious tradition in the islands. However, surveying the history, one finds that church attendance has been in decline since long before the twentieth century: “Church attendance in England had already dropped to 40 per cent by 1850 – nine years before the Origin of the Species was published”. Notice the process was well underway before Darwin – this is because the real reason attendance dropped, was the rapid urbanisation of the Industrial Revolution. No wonder that in 1808, Blake lamented the appearance ‘dark Satanic mills’ – the lapse in parish activity was caused not by (relatively late) scientific challenges to theological doctrine, but rather the geographic facts of employment patterns: “Church attendance dropped after 1850 from about 40 per cent to 20 per cent by 1900. Some rural churches closed, and communities died with them”. 

Church attendance has long been a skewed measure of religious observance, as it was initially highly contingent on population concentration, but also remains problematic today. That many country pews stood empty and parish life withered prior to 1900, didn’t at that time mean that religious belief had been discarded, it just meant that the people were working elsewhere. In modern times, it may well be that same English reserve which is exerting contradictory pressures on their national church. The Church of England has still not fully decoupled from English identity, and a great many (a large plurality of the population) continue to loyally enter ‘CofE’ into their census forms every decade. Simultaneously however, these same people will cringe at the Church’s attempts at boosting attendance through spectacle. The British are too self-conscious to be swept-up in the soaring rhetorical-style of American preachers; the vibrant ‘happy clappy’ gospel choirs seem more suited for balmy Caribbean beaches, than a draughty old chapel in Margate or Musselburgh. The Church of England’s catch-22 position, since attempting to reclaim parishioners through contrived gimmicks, not only appears desperately undignified, but to do so undermines the Church’s Protestant emphasis on scripture and works. The ‘market’ approach to analysing religious reinvigoration clearly fails in this instance because “cultural diversity prevents a religion from existing in the ‘church’ form”.

One might make the case that the appalling horrors of the Great War (and later Holocaust), had entirely stripped religious belief from successive generations. For some people, the experience undoubtedly had such an effect – Robert Graves, whose ‘Goodbye To All That’ chronicled how the trenches’ futile brutality left his worldview bereft of hope or faith. Yet such harrowing experiences are deeply polarising. Like Job, many will have clung to their beliefs much more strongly when confronted with suffering. The memorials to the fallen, found in every village throughout the country, are overtly religious in nature –– and stand as a perennial counterpoint to any absolutist interpretation. Nonetheless, whilst “in a formal sense, Britain was still a recognisably Christian country”, the material loss of an entire generation of parishioners, through rainy marching in the painful field, did much to diminish the moral authority of churches in the Roaring Twenties and Depressed Thirties. This trend for receding religiosity continued in the post-war era: “[1940s Britain] was then a religious society, though less so than in any previous time”.

However, the title statement alludes to a particular shift that has taken place during the 20th century. From the social upheavals of the 1960s, there has been a creeping secularisation of public discourse. An interesting parallel can be noticed on either side of this mid-century pivot in attitudes. 50 years previously, David Lloyd-George, was privately agnostic, but cultivated a public persona of piety. 40 years on from the Swinging Sixties, Tony Blair, was privately deeply religious, but publicly “didn’t do God”, in the words of his spin doctor. We are far from the days of Gladstone whose high-minded oratory was marked by rich Biblical allusion and theological justification. The only contemporary politician who makes equally conspicuous displays of religiosity is the rather less eminent George Galloway. 

It is not just the political sphere however, that has been gradually desiccated of reference to religion – sociology’s secularisation theory now frames much of the public comment surrounding religious matters. In essence it argues that religion’s role and importance in declines commensurate with modernisation and developed market economies. 

In a narrow sense, there is some validity in this – living in an advanced society, one has far more options on how to spend time than in the parochial pre-industrial days of old. Church was a daily occurrence; on Sundays it was not unheard of to attend several times. Naturally, many people today are reluctant to go to that often – it jars with the ‘express’ rhythm of atomised modern life. There is a strong case that relaxed sexual attitudes so prevalent today, are an area in which traditional religious authority has lost moral authority. Nonetheless, one would also have to admit trysts have always occurred, but now shorn of surreptitiousness they seem more prevalent for their visibility. 

Yet secularisation theory fails to explain American religiosity; the 5 daily prayers of European Muslims; relatively unstructured practice of European Buddhists; strict piety of developed Gulf States; the non-compartmentalised, simultaneous blending of religious practice with daily life by Hindus – for instance the not uncommon satisfaction of a Hindu shopkeepers with a lighting a stick of incense and a hurried prayer to Lakshmi the wealth goddess whilst taking stock-check. Despite claims “the thesis of long-term secularisation is well supported, both theoretically and empirically”, a suspicion is that the thesis is trying to draw a universal observation from a particular trend. It seems mainly applicable to a European lapse in formal Christian practice, but grapples unsuccessfully with non-Eurocentric or non-formal religious manifestations. Furthermore, it ignores the increasing tendency for individuals to choose various beliefs a la carte. It is this conceptual frame which led Morgan’s survey of 20th century British history, to commit the error of noting in the closing chapter “Religious observance was [now] confined to a small minority. 

Defining ‘Religious Observance’ is integral to this essay, yet requires some knowledge of prevailing British culture. A complex element in British social mores is a particular diffidence, which discourages indulgence in ostentatious behaviours, or any displays of earnestness result in (to the observer) an apparent “benign indifference” for many Christians. It is important to be cognisant of this strain of British practice, in order to avoid mistaking the lack of overt religious activity, for a lack of private belief –– masterfully summarised as “believing without belonging”. 

However, this is a particularly English approach to religious identity, in which one’s membership of the CofE is a latent element of identity. There are those in Britain, for whom their identity is closely infused with their identity. This manifests in 

various ways – a relatively benign form of religious identity could be claimed by Jews, whose religion is inherently linked to ethnicity, as members of the scriptural ‘Tribe’. More aggressive observance of religious identity might be found in Glasgow or Belfast, where complex sectarian conflict is inseparable from competing Protestant-Catholic ethnicities. A more defensive adoption of religious identity might be the instance of inner-city British- Bangladeshis, with their increasing trend for the women to wear full veil (despite this being highly unusual in Bangladesh itself). It has been argued that the intergenerational trend for younger Bangladeshi women to identify as Muslims more strongly than their mothers and grandmothers is primarily due to the extensive public consciousness of Islam, as a result of post-9/11 political trends. Indeed the excessive focus on Muslim women’s religiosity has been a key catalyst in such trends. We are assured by the latest research that disparagement or suspicion of minorities weakens their sense of belonging, and makes more fertile ground for disharmony and violence as “those who insist that the country is one's enemy become more plausible. It is in this way that the willingness to cooperate with authorities diminishes and the appeal of radical groups increases”. With such awareness, it is clear that many religious leaders’ tolerance, such as Pope Francis’ history of fostering “encounters, dialogue and co-operation with Christians of other denominations as well as with members of other world religions is necessarily a welcome development. 

Clearly, from considering these few examples, religious identity in Britain is a complex issue, resisting easy characterisation. However, even by hitching observance to identity briefly, it is clear that sweeping statements about British religious practices – such as the title –– are at the very least incurious about nuance, and perhaps even damaging in their material effects. 

In conclusion, this essay would dispute every individual presumption of title statement, and assert that it suffers from a lack of perspective. Religious observance almost certainly hasn’t entered terminal decline. Whilst it has certainly declined in relative terms (with respect to previously dominant established religious practice) the extent is disputable. In any case, it did not enter or begin solely since the beginning of the 20th century – the causes of apparent formal decline are rooted much further back. Moreover, even accepting the ‘secularisation’ case as correct, it cannot be assumed that the assumptions would hold true beyond the 20th century – even within their own model, there remains possibility for religious belief to experience resurgence in the future modernity. Examples and trends abound, for which secularisation’s model cannot account, as it lacks both structural and empirical integrity – resting on conflations, distortions, contradictions and blinkered perspectives. The only valid empirical buttress, is the decline of formal churchgoing observance and census responses. Other than that, it has largely been misled steady advance of assertive secularism in the public sphere, which has presented itself as a neutral, equalising void, obscuring the more complex societal realities that public life fails to reflect. It is perhaps this false impression which has convinced the advocates of ‘religious decline’ narrative –– so beloved of the ‘New Atheists’ –– that the local curve of history observable to them is the culmination of that particular saga. 

In his recent work ‘Religious Diversity: Philosophical and Political Dimensions’, Oxford theologian Roger Trigg asserts that

The cognitive science of religion predicts that impulses leading to religion will always be present in humans, and religion is always likely to be resurgent in one form or another. The sociological theory of an inevitable secularisation... was always doomed as a theory. 

We can be sure that firstly, globalisation will increase cultural proximity, fusions and frictions, and secondly that religion will not be exempt from this broader trend, as demonstrated by observing the identity impact of religious observance. “Identities are not hats. Human beings can and do put on several at a time – evidently it is possible to combine overlapping layers compatible identities, such as being a Yorkshire Muslim, or a Belfast Catholic, and this puts the lie to the assumption that interfaith relations of diminishing relevance. It is reductive to assert that religions today “being a matter of individual... preference... detached from communities [making] their political associations simpler – the twin pressures of globalisation and atomisation have intersected to make religions’ socio-political relations more complex, precisely because they are unmoored from earlier cultural restrictions. 

Just last month, Jews were granted their own Scottish tartan, with the rabbi asking “A friend of mine told me about a Polish tartan and a Sikh tartan had been registered, so why not a Jewish one?”.


Such trends highlight that disdain for all matters religious, is neither accurate in assessment of interfaith relations nor their amelioration– therefore such a conceit in public life which would be better rolled back, if greater social and interfaith harmony is to flourish.