On 13th April 2015, Prof Grace Davie, a world-renowned sociologist, delivered a lecture at Tabor College addressing the future of religion. The lecture was sponsored by Tabor College Victoria, Harvest Bible College and the Christian Research Association. Prof Grace Davie’s lecture drew substantially on her latest book, Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox.
Does Modernity Imply Secularisation?
Prof Davie began by asking whether modernisation implies secularisation. She noted that there is considerable diversity in religion and secularisation around the world. In Europe itself, there is considerable internal variation in attitudes to religion. The United States has experienced increased polarisation between those who are highly religious and those who are opposed to religion. While the economy of Latin America is growing and modernisation is occurring at a great rate, there has been an unexpected growth of Pentecostalism. She made reference to diversity in the Muslim world, the Indian sub-continent, and the Pacific Rim, and asked is it possible that one theory would be able to cover all these cases? Rather, is it not possible, she suggested, that there will be multiple versions of modernity and a variety of futures for religion?
Prof Davie focussed on the Western European case and noted that there are a range of questions and tensions that are important in understanding the future of religion in that context.
Factor 1. Cultural Heritage and Vicarious Religion
One of the factors in understanding the future of religion is the importance of cultural heritage. The calendar, the seasons, the festivals, the holidays, and the very nature of weekends have been shaped, at least partly, by the religious dimension in the cultural heritage of Europe.
Prof Davie noted that most of Europe is geographically divided into parishes. This means that there is a religious dimension to how location is defined. The skylines of many European cities are still dominated by the spires of the churches.
On the other hand, most Europeans do not attend a church frequently. Prof Davie suggested that, for many people, religion operates ‘vicariously’. It is seen as a public utility which can be drawn on in times of special need. Such occasions include both national and personal tragedies and celebrations. For example, she noted the prominent role of the churches in Britain in providing a place where grief could be expressed at the time of the death of Princess Diana. Prof Davie defined ‘vicarious’ in the following way:
By vicarious, I mean the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much
larger number, who (implicitly at least) not only understand, but quite clearly, approve of what the
minority is doing.
Prof Davie suggested that vicarious religion can operate in a number of ways:
• by performing ritual on behalf of others;
• by believing on behalf of others;
• by embodying moral codes on behalf of others; and
• by offering space for the vicarious debate of unresolved issues such as the understanding of sexualities and bio-ethical issues.
One of the signs of vicarous religion in Britain has been the numbers of people identifying as Christian: 72 per cent in 2001, most of whom were not frequently involved in religious services. However, there was a significant drop to 59 per cent in 2011, accompanied by a rise in the percentage of people indicating that they had ‘no religion’ from 15 to 25 per cent (Davie 2015, loc.1314). While holding that vicarous religion has been important in Europe, Prof Davie asked how widespread is it and how long will it last.
Factor 2. From Obligation to Consumption
A second factor in contemporary European religion has been the movement from ‘obligation’ to ‘consumption’. She noted that, until recently, religion was seen as imposed or inherited and many people felt that they were obligated to identify with a religion, and, in some cases, to carry out religious ceremonies. For example, most English people have assumed that they were obliged to baptise their infants. However, in recent years, the proportion of people baptising their children has fallen considerably. Religion has become, for most people, a matter of personal choice.
The choices that people are making in relation to religion are seen in the growth of the charismatic evangelical churches and in the growth of cathedral and city-centre churches. While the sorts of experiences offered in these two settings are quite different, Prof Davie argued that the growth of both arises out of the importance of experience to contemporary British people. Some people are drawn to the charismatic evangelicals by the experience of enthusiasm and celebration, close community and fervent faith. Other people are drawn to the cathedrals and city-centre churches by the experience of world-class music, preaching and ritual, and also the anonymity and lack of demands of a close community.
Factor 3. Immigration and Global Movements of People
A third factor in contemporary religion in many parts of the Western world has been immigration and the movement of people. In Britain, as in Australia, there was considerable expansion of the economy in the 1960s and 1970s and industries and major State projects invited workers to come from other parts of the world. Many people from former colonies of Britain including India and Pakistan, parts of Africa, and islands of the Caribbean flowed into England during those years. The flows of people have increased and there has been a very considerable flow of people within Europe. There are now close to 1 million people from Poland living in Britain. Immigrants have formed their own religious communities as well as joining existing communities. They have had a considerable impact on the diversity of religious faith in general, and Christian faith in particular, in Britain as in Australia. Afro-Caribbean churches, for example, have become a significant part of the growth of faith in London.
It should be noted that the Muslim community is by far the largest religious community in Britain apart from the Christians. Five per cent of the population of England and Wales identified themselves as Muslims in the 2011 Census, with just 4 per cent identifying with religions other than Islam and Christianity. The next largest religious community is the Hindu with approximately 1.5 per cent of the population (Davie 2015, loc.1336). This contrasts with Australia where Muslims were 2.2 per cent of the population in 2011, and the Buddhist community surpassed them with 2.5 per cent of the population (Hughes, Fraser and Reid 2012, pp.30 and 70).
Factor 4. Public and Private Religion
Prof Davie argued that the development of significant Islamic communities in Europe has re-opened the debate about the place of religion in public life. It had been assumed that one of the trends associated with modernisation was that religion became increasingly a private matter and many British Christians have been content for their religious faith to be that way. However, Islam has always been communal and public and has assumed that Muslims live in Muslim communities. Islamic teaching contains many instructions about how those communities should operate. In that Muslim women often wear distinctive forms of dress, religious identity in Islam is publicly evident.
Different countries in Europe have dealt differently with the public nature of Islam. France, for example, has had a very strong sense that religion should not be part of public life. Because of this, they have banned the wearing of the veil in public. The Swiss have refused permission for minarets to be built on mosques. Britain, on the other hand, has had a longer tradition of tolerance towards different religious groups and has accepted both the veil and minarets. When official uniforms, such as that of the police have conflicted with religious dress, compromises have been developed.
On the other hand, not all British people feel comfortable with the compromises. There have been many occasions when British people have expressed concern at the public nature of Islam. Prof Davie gave the example of the outcry which occurred when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, suggested in a lecture that there may be a need to respect communities exercising their own controls. Within this context, the Archbishop suggested there might be a place for Shari’ah law within the Islamic community’s own exercise of discipline. There was outrage throughout Britain at this suggestion.
All over Europe, Prof Davie said, populations which were largely secular were having to address complex religious issues. They were responding to these issues from the basis of their own particular histories and usually did so largely from ignorance of the religious communities. Prof Davie suggested that the academic world was also having to take greater notice of the religious factor and needed to assist in addressing these issues.
One reaction has been that of militant atheism which proclaims that all religion is bad. Prof Davie spoke of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Fry and others. She noted how this was a reaction to the re-emergence of the public nature of religion and that some of the expressions of militant atheism were fundamentalist and intolerant. Some of the arguments used by the militant atheists, she said, were just plainly wrong. For example, Prof Davie reminded the audience of the need to continue to emphasise that, while religion has been a factor in some conflicts, it is not the major cause of conflict and war in our world.
In concluding, Prof Davie reiterated the complexity of the picture of the future of religion. In some places there is decline, but in other places growth. In some respects, religion has become a more private matter, but in other ways it has become more public.
Prof Davie noted that there have been three major dates in the changing world order. In each case, they have had a profound impact on the world order, and in each case the events were not predicted. In the UK, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher came to power and began to demolish many aspects of the welfare state, and redefine the role of the state. In her book, Prof Davie notes 1979 as the year of the abrupt end of the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s (Davie 2015, loc. 1074-7).
It was the beginning of the pre-eminence of the market as the major force in society. She has also suggested that it marked a major development in the market mentality in religious faith. It was also the year that one of the major charismatic festivals began in England: Spring Harvest (Davie 2015, loc. 3778). Associated with the ‘emerging market’ in religion is what Davie describes as proliferations of the spiritual’ (Davie 2015, loc. 4108).
However, 1979 was also significant on the global front. It was the year of the Iranian Revolution (Davie 2015, loc. 5808). It marked the end of the secular Iranian state and the beginning of an Islamic state. Since that time, a number of other secular governments have been replaced by Islamic governments throughout the Middle East and north Africa. On a global scale, these events, more than any other, have signalled the return of religion to the public sphere.
1989 was another very significant year with the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of communism. It was soon followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Like the events of 1979, the rapid demise of the aggressively secular ideology of communism was not anticipated, but has had a profound impact on global order (Davie 2015, loc.1117).
The other date which marked a changing of the world order was 9/11 in 2001: the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York in the name of religion. Again, Davie describes this as a ‘pivotal moment in the re-ordering of the modern world’. She notes it as a major factor in the ‘war on terror’ and the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. She suggests that it led to a shift in the perception of Islam and made host nations more wary of religious minorities (Davie 2015, loc.1168).
Over recent years, then, globally there has been a world-wide decline in secularism and in the power of the state, and a rise in religion and the power of the market. Prof Davie concluded by saying that there was a continuing process of secularisation in much of Western Europe, accompanied by what she referred to as ‘a worrying loss of religious literacy’. Yet, this process was offset by religious growth in some areas and an increasing salience of religion in public as well as private debate. Today, religion has an obvious presence in the contemporary world order. In these diverse trends is the persistent paradox of religion in modern Europe.
Davie, Grace (2015) Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox, Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
(References are to locations in the e-book.)
Hughes, Philip, M. Fraser and S. Reid (2012) Australia’s Religious Communities: Facts and Figures, Melbourne: Christian Research Association.
This article was first published in Pointers: The Quarterly Bulletin of the Christian Research Association, Vol. 25, no.2, June 2015. pp.13-14.