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British Gods: Religion in modern Britain, by Steve Bruce

08 January 2021

This sociologist informs but does not comfort, Abby Day concludes

THIS is a fun, fascinating book, highly recommended for non-academic readers who want a detailed, but accessible, overview of an eminent scholar’s narrative of Christianity’s decline during the past 200 years or so.

The Scottish social scientist Steve Bruce is an internationally respected academic and prolific author, self-confessed positivist, and loyal adherent to the secularisation thesis that posits that as countries modernise, so religion declines. Although his oeuvre relies heavily on large-scale statistical surveys, his first area of study was qualitative sociology and religious studies. That training in fine-grained attention to small, human-scale data returns here to enliven and inform this book.

His sources, listed in extended notes at the end of each chapter, but not intruding on the readability of the text, range from Daily Mail clippings and snippets of conversations to historical and community studies.

The greatest strength of this book is its location in historical and cultural contexts, giving readers a fascinating glimpse into lives, beliefs, and practices long lost. For example, Bruce describes the important part performed by the aristocracy in the 19th century and early 1900s. Their willingness, for reasons both religious and secular, to maintain local churches and impel their workers to Sunday services had a profound effect on the country’s religiosity which was suddenly curtailed after the First World War. Bruce correctly suggests that such a phenomenon has been generally ignored by most sociologists of religion, including himself.

Ten remaining chapters take the reader through times, places, and themes: an editorial structure that, Bruce says, might be a bit “clunky”, but which, I think, works well, particularly allowing non-academic readers to skim through passages that might be too polemical for their taste as Bruce hammers home (and several, mostly female, scholars) his convictions about secularisation.

It is that latter aspect that academic readers may find irritating, particularly those familiar with his other works, where the usual cast of people with whom Bruce disagrees are routinely trotted out and then dismissed, often unkindly. Describing the eminent professor Kim Knott’s work as “unhinged”, for example, is uncalled for and not language befitting his station.

After describing his “Big House: Elite Patronage of Religion” in Chapter 1, Bruce looks at the part played by religion in rural communities of Wales and Scotland, with astonishing attention to detail (it therefore comes as no surprise that his previous book on Scottish religion won a history prize). His theoretical conclusion, mainly of interest to academics who follow such debates, is that diversity weakens religion.

Chapter 3 will be read closely by Church Times readers as Bruce examines the social function of the clergy, puzzling over how they maintain public profiles as they preside over failing institutions. Again, this is a fascinating chapter that readers will learn from and enjoy (apart from another unpleasant phrase that, in unsavoury terms, likens today’s clergy to eunuchs in a harem, tolerated only because they are impotent.) Nevertheless, like the rest of the book, it is replete with colourful examples, such as the competition launched by Country Life, “the house magazine of the rural upper classes”, to find the best example of a church building morphing into a secular venue.

Bruce then moves to chart the history and impact of various schisms and ruptures, both within and between Churches, often over issues related to sex and gender. He considers the Charismatic movement and related abusive behaviour, concluding that its rise hastened rather than stemmed Christianity’s decline.

Significantly, and again of particular interest to religious professionals, Bruce explores the impact of migration, mainly to London, and points out that migration from more religious countries may have boosted the Christian numbers, but insufficiently to make up for overall drops. Associated media panics about apparent magical and abusive practices, although unfairly negatively stereotyping some migrant religions, only, Bruce argued, strengthened growing public opinion that religion is dangerous.

The writing about Islam occasionally makes for uncomfortable reading and gave this reviewer pause. Surely, Bruce has been made aware of the important moves across academe to “decolonise” the curriculum? Relying on Malinowski, for example, in his discussion about spirituality is puzzling: many other scholars have discarded a reliance on him in light of his racist diaries, making the same points with other more contemporary scholars. There is also a consistent thread that Islam is inimical to British values. For example, his discussion of the Rotherham case in which Muslim taxi drivers abused young girls fails to engage with the final report that showed that it was the police dismissal of the girls’ complaints which allowed the problem to continue.

Finally, Bruce contemplates whether the decline is reversible. In a word, “No”; but his discussion of factors such as generational changes, decline of religious knowledge, and mass-media influence may at least inform, if not comfort.


Dr Abby Day is Professor of Race, Faith and Culture in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.


British Gods: Religion in modern Britain
Steve Bruce
OUP £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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