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Obituary: The Revd Professor David Martin

15 March 2019

The Times

The Revd Professor Robin Gill writes:

THE Revd Professor David Alfred Martin, who died on 8 March, aged 89, was one of my closest academic mentors and fellow theological travellers for some 50 years, and had become a much-loved friend.

Martin was very unusual in being able to inhabit two contrasting intellectual worlds — sociology and theology — and to do so with considerable nuance in both. That is rare. Sceptical sociologists seldom show any nuance about religious issues, and theologians can be surprisingly naïve about sociological issues. They tend to talk across each other or, perhaps, simply ignore each other. In contrast, he took the trouble to read carefully in and beyond both disciplines and encouraged younger academics like me to do the same.

In his autobiographical book The Education of David Martin: The making of an unlikely sociologist (2013), he explained this facility as a product of an unusual academic training, or, rather, lack of training. He went to Westminster Teacher Training College, which in those days did not offer degrees, not to a university. His first degree was done by correspondence while he was teaching and, on the basis of this, he went in his early thirties to the London School of Economics (LSE) to undertake a doctorate, supervised by the formidable sociologist Donald MacRae. His thesis was subsequently published as Pacifism: A sociological and historical study (1965). As a result of this roundabout intellectual route, his early reading was not narrowed to any specific discipline — he read widely across disciplines and continued to do so throughout his life.

Having completed his doctorate, he resigned from school teaching and remained at the LSE, first as a lecturer, then a reader and, finally, a professor, until his retirement. As a religious believer in a world-class sociology department, surrounded by deeply sceptical colleagues, he sometimes likened himself to a pigeon among well-armed cats. Doubtless he was not helped by taking a sabbatical in his early fifties to study theology at Westcott House, followed by ordination in the Church of England. Yet, he persisted at the LSE and firmly resisted attempts to lure him into more theologically comfortable territory across the road at King’s College London.

The publication of his second book, A Sociology of English Religion (1967), sparked a new phase in British sociology which ever since has remained popular — the sociological study of religion, not to be confused with the faith-based religious sociology championed by some in the previous decade. Bryan Wilson’s Religion in Secular Society (1966) was equally important in developing this new phase. Martin and the agnostic Wilson together and separately supervised and/or generously helped almost all of those of us who taught the sociology of religion in the next generation.

Apart from developing the sociology of religion in Britain, Martin became internationally famous for two important innovations within the discipline.

His first innovation in the mid-1960s was to question the dominant assumption that, in the modern world, religion inevitably gets marginalised and disappears. That is to say that modernity inescapably brings with it a decline in religious belief and practice and an increase in secularity — the so-called process of secularisation. Most sociologists and historians, and even many theologians at the time, concluded that secularisation was simply a fact of the modern world.

Some regretted this secularisation, but many, including some radical priests who promoted it for “progressive” theological reasons, were delighted with it. For many of the latter, religious belief was meaningless anyway. Arguing against the tide in a seminal article “Towards Eliminating the Concept of Secularization” (1965), later included in his book The Religious and the Secular (1969), Martin questioned the evidence for this conclusion (it applies better in Europe than in most other parts of the world) and suggested that it had ideological roots. To put it bluntly, sceptical academics wanted secularisation to be true because it fitted their prejudices against all things religious.

In subsequent books, notably A General Theory of Secularization (1978) and On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory (2005), he nuanced his argument to take account of the widespread and continuing evidence of decline within most European Churches.

His second innovation two decades later, prompted by Peter Berger, was to call attention to the striking growth of Pentecostalism in South America. He went to several countries there to observe this growth at first hand. Far from becoming more secular, South Americans seemed to be becoming more fervent in their religious beliefs, albeit with many switching from Catholicism to Pentecostalism. In Tongues of Fire (1990) and Forbidden Revolutions (1996), he argued that Western academics had been slow to recognise this extraordinary shift in the global religious map.

In his private life, David Martin was a skilful pianist, a devotee of the works of Handel, and a lifelong lover of English poetry. He was also a devotee of the traditional language of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer and much regretted its demise in modern Anglican worship. This he argued forcefully in his collection Crisis for Cranmer and King James (1979) and in his book The Breaking of the Image (1980) — a book that combines lyrical defences of traditional liturgical language with polemical comments about modern liturgies.

He was a person of immense intelligence and curiosity and of deep sensitivity, as his 24 single-author books (six of them published in the past eight years, with his final book, Christianity and ‘the World’: Secularization through the lens of English poetry: 800 to the present currently in press), 13 co-written collections, and numerous articles admirably demonstrate. In an extraordinary way, he was able to combine intellectual rigour across various disciplines with an abiding undogmatic personal faith. One of the contributors to a very recent collection of essays paying critical tribute to his work (Hans Joas (editor), David Martin and the Sociology of Religion, 2018) concluded appropriately: “They don’t make sociologists like David Martin any more — but they never did. The man is a one-off.”

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