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Steve Bruce


Secularization in the West

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2002).

Although it is widely agreed, even by churchmen, that the influence of religion is declining in many post-industrial societies, commentators often try to soften the impact of this conclusion by pointing to trends that seem to run in the opposite direction. Even if conventional Christianity is becoming weaker, they claim, more radical forms of it are flourishing and represent a spirit of renewal. They may also point to manifestations of the New Age as evidence of a seeking after spirituality, and frequently maintain that human beings have an inherent need for religion that will always cause it to exist in one form or another.

Bruce, however, will have none of this. He regards the decline of religious belief as irreversible in Western liberal democracies, especially in Europe; hence the uncompromising title he has given his book. He is led to this view, not by philosophical or psychological considerations, but from a sociological standpoint. And in fact the first chapter in his book, "The Secularization Paradigm", is fairly technical and seems to be aimed largely at his fellow professionals. It may put off readers who are not familiar with sociological language and concepts, which would be a pity because much of the subsequent material in the book is very interesting; such readers should probably skim the first chapter, at least to begin with.

Nevertheless, Bruce presents certain ideas in his first chapter which are important to recognize at this stage. It is commonly supposed that the reason we are becoming more secular is increase in scientific knowledge that is incompatible with religious belief. Bruce, however, says that no sociologists regard opposition between Christianity and science as the key to secularization. The real enemy of religion, he says, is relativism: "the greatest damage to religion has been caused, not by competing secular ideas, but by the general relativism that supposes that all ideologies are equally true (and hence equally false)."

Bruce also makes it clear that his arguments apply to western Europe since the Reformation and to its North American and Australasian offshoots; he does not say that secularization will inevitably occur in other societies, though it may. He also does not say that the trend is inevitably towards atheism; rather, it is towards religious indifference.

But has there really been a decline in religious belief? Before reading this book I had been largely persuaded by Keith Thomas's argument in Religion and the Decline of Magic (1978) that society in earlier times was less religious than we suppose. Bruce presents fairly compelling evidence that the original picture of a more religious past was broadly right. We need not suppose that people in earlier times held "correct" theological views, he says, but only that they were much more concerned with supernatural beliefs and practices than we are.

When he turns to modern Britain, Bruce makes a persuasive case, backed by evidence, for the view that interest in Christianity, in all its forms, is declining. On present trends, which there is no reason to think will be reversed, the Methodist Church will finally disappear in about 2031 and the Church of England will by then be reduced to "a trivial voluntary association with a large portfolio of heritage property". It takes him rather more pages to dismiss the New Age, but he comes to the same conclusion about it, though for different reasons. He concedes that certain sections of the population will continue to be interested in spirituality, but he does not see any possibility that a coherent shared faith will emerge from this.

At one time, notably in the 1970s, the house church movement was touted as heralding a Christian revival. In the 1990s we had the Toronto Blessing, the most recent manifestation of the charismatic movement. Journalists and others hailed these things as evidence of Christian revival, but Bruce sees them as ways in which conservative evangelical Protestants tried to break out of a stifling orthodoxy. Their children, he suggests, will not have the same incentive to become involved in such activities and will progressively lose interest in all forms of religion.

The United States is frequently cited as a major exception to the secularization trend, but Bruce makes four claims. First, there is ample evidence that Christianity is losing power, prestige, and popularity in the USA. (I am not myself convinced that this is the case.) Second, Christianity in the USA is changing in ways predicted by his "secularization paradigm". Third, the "new Christian Right" has not had the impact on the social system that was expected in the 1970s. Fourth, the differences between Europe and the USA can be explained by the federal and diffuse structure of the USA, which allows conservative Christians to construct distinct subcultures in which Christianity preserves some of the hegemony it once possessed in pre-industrial Europe.

Many readers will find the sociological perspective on religion to be unfamiliar but illuminating. Some sections seem to be directed more towards specialists but there is ample material here to interest non-specialists. They should, however, read with a degree of caution. There are, as usual today, some unfortunate proofreading errors: "extrication" instead of "extinction"; "rights of passage" instead of "rites of passage". And "Beatitude" is Latin, not Greek as stated here.

At a more serious level, occasional careless phrasing could mislead readers with little knowledge of religion. For example, we are told that it is a function of established Christianity to say "what one must do to attain life after death" (p.157). But postmortem survival has generally been taken for granted in Christianity; the function of religion has been to ensure that one's ultimate destination is heaven rather than hell. Again, on p.158 we read that the clergy are supposed to provide "early release from limbo". But this is misleading in two ways: first, the concept of limbo is mainly if not entirely confined to Roman Catholicism, and second, limbo is a place of contentment intended for people such as babies who die unbaptized and so cannot go to heaven; there is no question of release from limbo. Presumably it was purgatory that Bruce was thinking of here. Errors such as these should not exist in a scholarly text and make me rather wary of accepting Bruce's other arguments.

As for Bruce's essential thesis, I am not persuaded. Religion of one kind or another has existed in practically every society we know of, and while there are different explanations for this it does strongly suggest that there is something in human nature that inevitably gives rise to religion. And the rise of religious fundamentalism in many societies across the world today is also a sign that religion is unlikely to decline any time soon; in fact, quite the contrary.

%T God is Dead
%S Secularization in the West
%A Bruce, Steve
%I Blackwell Publishers
%C Oxford
%D 2002
%G ISBN 0-631-23275-3
%P xv + 269 pp
%K religion, sociology
%O paperback edition
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