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Britain, religion’s duty-free zone

11 September 2015

Robin Gill considers a classic of sociology of religion updated


Religion in Britain: A persistent paradox (Second Edition)
Grace Davie
Wiley Blackwell £21.99
Church Times Bookshop £19.80 (Use code CT611)


AFTER 21 years, Professor Grace Davie has returned to the book that made her famous, and has given it a very thorough re-write.

In the introduction, she recognises that it was her original subtitle that attracted most (sometimes unwanted) attention: Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without belonging. Religious broadcasters, for example, latched on to it, since it suggested that there was still a sizeable audience of believers for their programmes beyond the minority that went to church. Yet she acknowledges that “believing without belonging” always was susceptible to widely different interpretations, and now gives this concept much less space.

As in all of her most recent writings, she recognises more frankly than she did in the past that institutional church decline has been a dominant feature of most of Europe, Australasia, and Canada, as well as a radical decline in Christian belief, especially among the young, who are now largely unchurched.

Instead of “believing without belonging”, two other concepts now dominate her analysis of religion in Britain: “vicarious religion” and the shift “from obligation to choice” in religious belonging. She has used these two concepts for a while in her other writings and lectures, and they, too, have attracted wider attention (she is skilled at devising memorable phrases).

She explains that “by vicarious is meant the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who (implicitly at least) not only understand, but appear to approve of what the minority is doing”.

There is much to commend this concept. It largely accords with the self-perception of national or established Churches such as the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, or indeed the Lutheran Church in Sweden. Christmas carol services, church weddings, and royal funerals all offer obvious examples of occasional but mostly vicarious religion.

The concept of “from obligation to choice” also makes much sense, especially in the context of religiously pluralistic Britain. Here she explains that “religiously active individuals now go to a church . . . because they choose to, sometimes for a short period or sometimes for longer, sometimes regularly and sometimes occasionally, but they feel little obligation either to attend that church in the first place or to continue if they no longer want to”.

This she depicts as a shift from a culture of obligation or duty to a culture of consumption or choice. Personal autonomy now rules even within our congregations. Parish priests will know that it is only a minority in their congregations who feel duty-bound to be there every week (let alone attend midweek as well).

Davie writes (and speaks) so clearly and with manifest knowledge and common sense. It is not surprising that she is popular at diocesan conferences. Buyers of this new edition will not be disappointed.

Of course, she has critics, and would not be worth reading if she did not. Some argue, for example, that her concept of vicarious religion is either too patronising, or that it underestimates a growing distrust of institutional religion (for its misogyny, homophobia, or hypocrisy). Other critics suggest that she overplays the notion of churchgoing as “consumption” (based on so-called rational-choice theory).

There are also other concepts that she might also have deployed more fully to depict religion in Britain today. Durkheim’s notion of “collective effervescence” captures much Charismatic worship, and Weber’s notion of the transposition of religious values into secular culture accords with my own experience of public bioethics.

None the less, many will still conclude that overall this is a well-researched and judicious sociological assessment of religion in modern Britain, and one that outstrips most of its rivals. I recommend it strongly.


Professor Robin Gill is editor of Theology and Canon Theologian of the Cathedral Chapter of the diocese in Europe.

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