Edward Bailey was a maverick in the study of religion. He was an Anglican priest who was Rector of Winterbourne, Diocese of Bristol, UK,from 1970 to 2006. In the 1960s, he studied for his doctoral thesis by becoming a waiter at a pub and listening to the conversations of the customers. He argued that, underlying those conversations, were forms of ‘implicit religion’. He spent the rest of his life pursuing the study of this ‘implicit religion’. While remaining rector in Winterbourne, he taught at universities and spoke at many conferences on religion. He developed his own annual conference on implicit religion, which became known as the Denton Conferences. He founded a scholarly Journal of Implicit Religion which is now published by Equinox. He started a Centre for the Study of Implicit Religion at Middlesex University. He wrote several books and published many articles around the term.
The Notion of ‘Implicit Religion’
There has long been criticism of the notion of ‘implicit religion’ as something too vague to be very useful. What should count as implicit religion? In one of his publications, Bailey presented several
definitions. He saw implicit religion as being people’s commitments, their integrating foci in life, their ‘intensive concerns with extensive effects’ and finally ‘human depths’ (Bailey, 1998). However, these terms continue to leave very open what might be included under the term ‘implicit religion’ and what should be excluded from it. For example, are there conditions in which sport, or the passion for the environment, becomes people’s ‘implicit religions’? There are also many questions about how implicit religion relates to other terms such as civic religion and folk religion.
At the heart of Bailey’s interests was the boundary between the religious and the secular. While he argued that explicit religion (and religious institutions) could be a vehicle for implicit religion, implicit religion was much broader. He suggested that the nearest synonym was Thomas Luckmann’s term ‘invisible religion’ (Bailey 1997, p.39) and that another near alternative was Paul Tillich’s concept of ‘ultimate concern’ (Bailey 1997, p.39). He thought that such terms were helpful in inviting comparison with recognised religions, but that they also suggested that the object of interest was personal life in its many dimensions: familial and national, communal and associational, societal and social
(Bailey 1997, p.40).
Bailey felt that the lack of one clear definition of implicit religion was a strength rather than a weakness. He argued that religion itself was virtually impossible to define, even though it remains quite evident what it is. He wrote:
“[I]mplicit religion” is preferred as a concept because it keeps its options open with regard to its
referent’s structural and historical origins, its social and cultural location, its mode of religiosity, and
its relationship with other forms of religion (Bailey 1997, p.41).
At one level, it can be argued that most human beings have an ‘implicit religion’ in terms of having commitments or integrating foci in their lives. Thus, Bailey was pointing to a broad human phenomena that has been taken up in many ways in cultural, psychological and sociological studies. The strength of the term is to note the centrality of religion to the lives of human beings and to provide a basis for considering these in relation to the explicit religions promulgated by religious institutions.
In some respects, Bailey provides a basis for taking seriously the perspectives of those people who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’, and those who believe there is ‘something beyond’ but do not know what that ‘something’ is (Kaldor, Hughes and Black, 2010). At some points, there are overlaps also between the notion of ‘vicarious religion’ developed by Grace Davie (2015) and implicit religion. There are many people in Western societies who do not hold to secularist ideologies, but neither are they religious. Indeed, two-thirds of Australians are neither active in religious organisations nor avowedly atheistic. Bailey reminds us that there are dimensions of the lives of people who are not actively involved in religious organisations which intersect with religion.
Methodologies in Exploring ‘Implicit Religion’
Another strength of the work of Bailey was to encourage empirical methods of listening to these dimensions of people’s worldviews, values and beliefs. In his book Implicit Religion in Contemporary Society (1997), Bailey explains his methods of being a participant observer in a pub and being an observing participant in a parish. He also explored the use of explicit interviews in looking at people’s motivations, worldview, values, routines, beliefs and meanings.
I am reminded of the Japanese theologian, Kosuke Koyama, who worked for a while as a missionary in Thailand and wrote of the experience of going into the homes of Christian people. One sits in the living room, he said, and the missionary asks people about their faith. People have learnt what they should say and they repeat the formulas they have been taught. But the real theology, said Koyama, is happening out in the kitchen where all sorts of beliefs, ideas, and practices are being mixed in the wok, from which a wide range of rich aromas arise (Koyama, 1974). Edward Bailey encouraged us to examine what is being mixed in the wok and to take seriously the ways those ingredients feed and sustain people’s lives.
Indeed, it would seem to me unless ministry seeks to understand and interact with the ‘actual beliefs’ of people which direct and sustain their lives, as distinct from what has been learnt as the appropriate responses to questions about faith, ministry is unlikely to be experienced as nurturing. Just as the counsellor must take seriously the perspectives of the person who comes for counselling, so must those in ministry take seriously the perspectives of those who come for worship or to deepen their faith. If theologians are going to connect with the lives of people, as distinct from contributing to the world of ideas, they too must study and reflect on the ‘implicit religion’ in the lives of people in the societies to which they hope to contribute.
Some Personal Reflections
I personally enjoyed my conversations with Edward Bailey. I was privileged to attend one of his Denton Conferences on implicit religion. On one occasion, he invited me to give a lecture at his Centre for the Study of Implicit Religion at Middlesex University. On several occasions, we discussed the relationship between contemporary spirituality and implicit religion. He attended a paper that I gave at a conference in Turku, Finland in 2013 on spirituality and tolerance and asked me to re-work it for his Journal of Implicit Religion. The paper was published in April 2014.
Sadly, the Reverend Professor Edward Bailey died on 23rd April 2015. I sincerely hope that the study of implicit religion will continue to be taken seriously, not only by those who study religion, but by those in ministry, theology and teaching.
Edward Bailey’s books include:
Bailey, E. I. (1997) Implicit Religion in Contemporary Society, Leuven: Peeters.
Bailey, E. I. (1998) Implicit Religion: an Introduction, London: Middlesex University Press.
Bailey, E.I. (2002) The Secular Faith Controversy: Religion in Three Dimensions, London: Continuum.
Bailey, E.I. (ed.) (2002) The Quest for Meaning in Life: Denton Papers in Implicit Religion, Lampeter:
Bailey, E. I. (1997) Implicit Religion in Contemporary Society, Peeters, Leuven.
Bailey, E. I. (1998). Implicit Religion: An Introduction. London: Middlesex University Press.
Davie, G. (2015) Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox, Chichester, West Surrey: Wiley-Blackwell.
Koyama, K. (1974). Waterbuffalo Theology. London: SCM Press.
This article was first published in Pointers: The Quarterly Bulletin of the Christian Research Association, Vol. 25, no. 2, June 2015. p.15-16.