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The Plight of Western Religion: The eclipse of the other-worldly, by Paul Gifford

18 December 2020

Sea of faith is still going out — or so it is argued here, says Jeremy Morris 

THE situation of Christianity in the Western world is fraught with acute scholarly disagreement. There seemed to be broad consensus among sociologists, historians, and theologians four decades ago that, in the wake of the dramatic cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s, organised Christianity was in steep, even terminal, decline as a seemingly unremitting process of secularisation ran through Western Europe. But that consensus has been thrown wide open by the growing strength of what are often called the “revisionists” (among which I am often included myself).

Actually, there is no clear alternative consensus to the secularisation model, except perhaps the sole point of departure that that argument lacks nuance and explanatory credibility. But anyone immersing themselves in the relevant scholarly literature — and there is an awful lot of it — will find wildly disparate, opposing views.

Paul Gifford’s new book is no exception. Written from the perspective of a specialist in African religion, this is a forceful, combative, brisk defence of the secularisation thesis — or, at least, it claims to be that, although, as I shall show in a moment, it is perhaps more limited in its implications. Gifford has no truck with those who, like Grace Davie, argue that Western religion is not so much declining as mutating (actually Davie’s is a more sophisticated position than Gifford suggests), or with those who think that a critique of the arguments of secularisation’s proponents somehow magically reinstates the very phenomenon that they are studying in the first place.

He thinks that there is a kind of intellectual delusion — mind you, that’s not how he puts it himself — about somehow assuming a continuity of religious experience between, say, the medieval past and today: that world has gone. That’s what his subtitle means: if we confine ourselves simply to a tight definition of religion “substantively” as belief in otherworldly or spiritual forces that explain our experience in the world, then unquestionably Christianity has long been in decline, and effectively evacuated of its original frame of reference. New ways of understanding the world, and especially scientific cognition, have replaced it.

This is a very readable, brief, perceptive, and well-judged statement of a specific position, drawing on a wide range of material, and dealing with sometimes touted exceptions such as the US. There’s even a chapter “The Future”, which could be summarised as saying that traditional Christianity in the West doesn’t really have one. Even if you don’t altogether agree with him, Gifford’s presentation of his argument is very stimulating, and he reminds us — rightly, in my view — of the substantial changes in religious experience over time.

But the secularisation thesis was never one thing. There were always, at the very least, two distinct forms of it. One, leant on heavily by many historians and some social scientists, was essentially a historical argument: religion, at least as it is observable in the evidence available, has been in decline in Europe at least since the late 19th century. The other was a more systematic, intrinsic argument, positing secularisation as the twin sibling of modernisation, an inevitable process that did not require explanation so much as those situations, places, and populations where the general trend of decline seemed not to be true.

Gifford’s book, in adopting a narrow, substantive definition, doesn’t take him far beyond the former. It’s like a soldier who daren’t advance far from his line of defence without risk. You can perfectly well accept that traditional Christianity in the West is in decline without accepting the conclusion that this is part of an inevitable, one-way process of modernity.

The genie of a new “cognitive style”, as he puts it, can’t be put back in the bottle: historical change is real. But most believers seem to me not to be quite so binary in their view of divine action and material cause as Gifford assumes. That was probably true in the past, too. Just as they prayed for a good harvest, and gave thanks when it came, just as they attributed misfortune to God’s anger, medieval peasants, after all planted their seeds, watered their crops, bound up their wounds, and so on. But this is just to suggest that even contemporary religion is a more sophisticated and complex reality than, I think, Gifford assumes here.

All the same, this is a book well worth reading for a sobering essay on the difficulties of mission today.


The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris is the Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.


The Plight of Western Religion: The eclipse of the other-worldly
Paul Gifford
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