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The quiet revolution in UK faith

07 February 2012

by Linda Woodhead

THERE is a great deal of talk at the moment about the return of religion, desecularisation and post-secular­ism. The editor of The Economist, John Micklethwait, co-authored a book, God is Back (Penguin, 2009).

This raises some questions. Where did God go to — did he fall asleep like Rip Van Winkle? And now that he is back, does he look the same?

My answer is that religion has not really returned at all. It never really went away — even in “secular” Eur­ope. Rather, we chose to turn a blind eye to it. For a while — especially in the aftermath of the Second World War — the shining hopes of various secular ideologies blinded us to the continuing, rather duller, presence of familiar forms of religion. The latter, as a consequence, suffered a crisis of confidence, and some real decline — particularly the historic Christian Churches.

Once we started to notice religion again, after the 1980s, it was no longer the same as it had been before. A quiet revolution had taken place during the period of secular neglect, and this has gathered pace in the 21st century.

Since 2007, I have been leading the largest-ever research initiative on religion in the UK, the Religion and Society Programme, funded by two research councils. It has involved more than 200 academics from across the UK, working on 75 different projects. Their findings help us to see more clearly how religion in Britain has changed since the 1950s.

Religion as a carrier of manifold identities

A SIGNIFICANT shift is the way in which religion has become a carrier for a vastly expanded range of ident­ities.

Of course, religion in Britain has always been tied up with identity — but chiefly national identity. As manifest in various churches, chapels, and denominations, religion has for centuries supported Scottish, Welsh, Irish, and English identities. In the imperial age, under the guise of Protestantism, it did the same for British identity.

This civic role has not ceased completely, as the recent royal wed­ding demonstrated; but it has greatly diminished. Religion in Britain today supports a much wider range of identities, with their associated val­ues, commitments, and belongings.

This was first brought home in 1989 by the Salman Rushdie affair. It was a moment when a minority that had formerly been subsumed under categories of the majority’s choosing — such as “black”, “Asian”, and (worse) “Paki”/“Pakistani” — took con­trol of its own identity. Religion pro­vided the means: to be Muslim in this sense has a dignity, and allows an agency, that had been previously denied.

‘Christian in my own way’

BUT even being Muslim, Hindu, Christian, or whatever in this way does not do justice to what has been happening to religious identities. People are no longer content to be identified by such broad categories. They probably never were. Even in the 1950s or 1850s, a believer would have been more likely to identify him- or herself as “Catholic”, or “Primitive Methodist”, or “a member of St George’s”, than as “Christian”.

The multiplication of identities has now gone much further. We are increasingly reluctant to accept ascribed identities, packages of beliefs and values handed down from on high that say who we are. A large number of white British people whom I interview say that, yes, they are Christian, but “Christian in my own way”. The one-size-fits-all confes­sional or catechetical mode of religion is in serious trouble.

I do not believe that this makes us shallow consumers of religion. I dislike talk of “pick ’n’ mix” or “fuzzy” religion. The market, and the model of an informed consumer, are certainly in play; but my experience is that most spiritual quests are sincere, serious, and hard-nosed. If anything, we have become less rather than more credulous: less willing to take things on trust, more concerned to test them out to our own satisfaction.

Orthodoxy has always been diffi­cult to impose. You only have to read a book such as Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms: The cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980) to realise that, even when Christendom was at its height, people still shaped religion to fit their own convictions.

But the maintenance of orthodoxy has become much harder since the 1950s. Until then, clerics and dons had a significant monopoly over cul­ture in a country such as Britain. The explosion of the cultural classes (in education, media, advertising, and elsewhere) since the 1960s, combined with the deregulation of the media and easy access to information and cul­tu­ral symbols, has made it im­possible to maintain the same control.

We are more highly educated, and there is a new imperative on us to think for ourselves. The fact that people apply this in relation to their most fundamental beliefs and com­mit­ments does not mean that they are shallow or consumeristic. The ana­logy with choosing sweets in a shop is unfair. Why should we ap­plaud ex­ploration and critical reflec­tion in one sphere, and denigrate it when it comes to religion?

Tested tradition

DESPITE this rejection of packaged identities, the research shows that religious people have not abandoned religious traditions, scriptures, and institutions.

Research by Jasjit Singh among young British Sikhs illustrates the point. He wanted to find out how the Sikh faith is being transmitted today. Until now, we have assumed that religion is transmitted across genera­tions. Singh finds something very different: it is peers more than par­ents who are now transmitting it. Young Sikhs learn about Sikhism from their friends, by attending uni­versity Sikh societies, camps, youth-focused events, and on the internet.

This does not mean that young people reject traditional authorities. Far from it: Singh found this out the hard way. He had devised a questionnaire to find out why many young Sikhs still attend the gurdwara (the place of worship and com­munity). He gave a range of options to tick including: “To meet friends” and “Because my parents do”. What he had missed off was a reference to the Guru Granth Sahib (the holy scripture, a living and eternal guru). “TO PAY MY RESPECTS TO GURU GRANTH SAHIB” typed in one respondent. “I AM SURPRISED YOU DO NOT HAVE THIS AS A STANDARD OPTION TO SELECT? WHY??”


TO CHRISTIAN readers, this re­newed quest for “authentic” sources of authority may sound rather Pro­testant. It echoes the Reformation’s purificatory cry ad fontes (back to the sources). Both then and now, people are motivated by a quest to purify religion, to return to reliable funda­mentals uncontam­inated by human meddling.

So, for example, young Muslims speak of seeking for “real” Islam, not the “cultural” version practised by their parents. They embark on this quest themselves, guided by the scriptures and their own judgement, internet sources, peers, and charis­matic figures whom they find personally compelling.

But to leave it there is to miss an equally important Catholic dimen­sion of the post-war transformation of religion. In many ways, Protest­antism narrowed down a sense of where the sacred could be found: in the Word working in the mind and heart of the believer. The embodied, sacramental presence of the sacred in material existence was largely denied. Churches became plainer, barer spaces, where individuals could com­mune directly with the unseen God. Saints, spirits, “pagan” practices, holy places, healing wells, relics, and groves were abandoned or destroyed, and the altars were stripped.

What we are seeing today is rather the opposite: an opening up to mystery, magic, and enchantment in the material world and embodied life — particularly in the majority population. Much of my own research has been dedicated to exploring this re-enchantment as it is manifest in the rise of various forms of alternative or “holistic” spirituality — the extensive world of “mind, body, spirit” practices.

But the spirit of re-enchantment goes much further, reaching well beyond the ranks of the dedicatedly “religious” or “spiritual”. This is brought home by the work of Dr Jacqueline Hayes on the Religion and Society Programme, which looks at the experiences of bereaved people.

Dr Hayes works in psychology. For more than 50 years, the medical-psychiatric establishment has denied the reality of bereaved people’s ex­periences of a continuing relation­ship with the dead. But Dr Hayes and others have found that about half of bereaved spouses in the UK experi­ence some form of presence — whether voice, vision, or feeling. Many interpret it as a continuing rela­tion­ship, which is often of great significance to them, with largely positive consequences for emotional well-being.

SO FAR as we can tell, these ex­periences never went away, and they have not returned. But it is clear that there is a new willingness to embrace them. It goes with the emergence of a whole range of new practices and beliefs around death and bereave­ment. These include leaving gifts for the dead at graves and wayside shrines, carrying around portions of ashes — even having them mixed with ink, and tattooed into the body — setting up shrines to the dead, and communicating with angels.

Other examples of re-enchantment that emerge from the research include the revival of pilgrimage, the re-sacralisation of holy wells, the creation of prayer cairns on moun­tains, the revival of pagan festivals and rituals, the “green­ing” of mainstream religions, the reworking of various forms of religious dress, charms, and symbols, and the explosion of spiritual activities focused around bodily healing.

We can safely conclude that God never really went away — but he changed a great deal. He now appears with a thousand faces: as personal Creator, impersonal Spirit or Energy, immanent Goddess, and many more. We relate to God in new ways as well, as we do to those authorities that claim to bring the divine into our lives. It is not true that religion disappeared in post-war Britain; what happened was that it went under­ground and incubated new forms.

Dr Linda Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University. Her new book, written with Rebecca Catto, Religion and Change in Modern Britain, is published by Routledge next week.

Westminster Faith Debates on religion and society are being held fortnightly in London from February to April: www.religionandsociety.org.uk/faith_debates

They are organised by the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Pro­gramme, Charles Clarke, and Theos.

Westminster Faith Debates on religion and society are being held fortnightly in London from February to April: www.religionandsociety.org.uk/faith_debates

They are organised by the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Pro­gramme, Charles Clarke, and Theos.

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