Religion in Secular Society: Fifty Years On

Here are some excerpts from the updated 2016 edition:

* Bryan Ronald Wilson came from unusually humble origins. He was born in 1926 in a working-class terrace in Leeds. The house had no running hot water, and the communal toilet, which was emptied once a week, was ‘up the street and 30 yards around the corner’. The identity of his biological father was not known to him, and he was given the name of his mother’s first husband. The family was not particularly religious, but Wilson was sent to a Methodist Sunday School to give his parents some privacy in a tiny crowded house. Wilson’s schooling ended at the age of 13, when he started work as an accountant and office boy.

* Religious thinking, religious practices and religious institutions were once at the very centre of the life of Western society, as indeed of all societies. That there were, even in the seventeenth, and certainly in the eighteenth and nineteenth, centuries many unchurched people to whom religious practices and places were alien, and whose religious thinking was a mixture of odd piety, good intentions, rationalizations and superstitions, does not gainsay the dominance of religion. It was entrenched, if not always strictly by law, then by some of the institutions of society, in the customs of the people and by the precepts of the ruling classes. That there were other countervailing forces, economic or political necessity, which frequently overrode God’s will, or churchmen’s apprehension of it, does not contradict the fact that religious motives, religious sanctions and religious professionals were all of them socially of very great influence indeed.
In the twentieth century that situation has manifestly changed, and the process of change continues.

* People’s religious orientations to the world occur within a wider social context with which they interact in highly complex ways. It would be impossible to ignore the growth of new channels for emotional expression, new prospects for the realization of wishes, and new agencies which function for people in ways which, in the past, have been more or less a monopoly of religious agencies. Thus, to choose almost at random, if we look at political movements, we see that the development of industrial society and the emergence of democratic patterns of political behaviour have had diverse consequences of importance for religion. The very conception that social arrangements, distributions of power, wealth, prestige, life chances and the general pattern of life circumstances can be affected by instrumental action, and primarily by mass decision-making (or decision-making in the name of the masses), has in itself gradually altered people’s recourse to demands for supernatural intervention in their affairs. The widespread religious teaching that we must show contentment with our lot, and fulfil our obligations, or, alternatively, the religious hope that God will enter the human scene (again) and impose a new dispensation, are both orientations which diminish in strength as realistic political possibilities are increasingly apprehended. The change of focus from the afterlife to this one has obviously been strongly associated with this development of the sense of social self-direction.

* If, as is common, we recognize that we are less effectively selfdirecting than ideally we should like to be, increasingly we acknowledge that this is the consequence of the complexity of human purposes and emotions, and not God’s disposition ‘to try us in this world’ or to ‘give each his cross to bear’. Religious–moral interpretations of factual circumstances have disappeared and politico-moral interpretations have taken their place. Preoccupation with the morality of nation states has largely replaced individual morality as a dominant concern of the intellectuals in modern society. Moral suppositions which are now applied to international affairs are dismissed at the individual level of behaviour.

As scientific orientations increase, and in particular those of the behavioural and organizational sciences, so we can expect conceptions of society itself to become increasingly affected by rationalistic assumptions. As social processes are increasingly subjected to rational planning and organization, so people are more and more involved in social activities in which their own emotional dispositions are less immediately relevant. They may have become more rational, and their thinking may have become more matter of fact, as Veblen expressed it, but perhaps even more important is their sustained involvement in rational organizations—firms, public service, educational
institutions, government, the state—which impose rational behaviour upon them. The Churches, with their dominant function as the institutionalization of emotional gratification, necessarily stand in sharp and increasingly disadvantageous contrast.

Political movements, and the growth of organizational and manipulative techniques, have not only affected our sense of social decencies and proprieties and our judgement about them, and about suitable action to be taken in regard to deviations; they have also provided new outlets for individual effort and energy.

* In Methodism, despite its somewhat reactionary character, the process of laicization went further, and the layman acquired, despite a somewhat reluctant Wesley, the preaching role, as, in that more circumscribed context, he had previously done among Quakers. Even the celebration of the sacraments was now open to laymen. The floodgates were open now for a wider participation of volunteering laymen in diverse religious activities. Opportunities for prestige, good-standing in the community acquired by voluntary effort, now became possible. In some ways this was the first process of mass social mobility in modern society—not necessarily involving change of occupation, income or formal position, but certainly presenting opportunities for acquiring new prestige
and general respectability, which was often itself a first step to mobility of other kinds.

* as voluntary associations arose with more secular aims, so the impetus of the spread of office and prestige through activities of a religious kind, or activities sponsored by the Churches, was overtaken by first political and then recreational associations in which similar prestigious roles were to be had. If they lacked the qualities
and connotations of reverence, esteem and often wider community regard which attached to voluntary religious efforts, over time they often came to provide their incumbents with a wider application of power, better apparatus and equipment, until the balance has swung and religious office now appears to be less worthwhile as a way of
disposing of one’s leisure than involvement in an organization whose benefits are largely recreational and more explicitly ‘here and now’. These tend to be interest associations, and their spread reflects the decline of corporate and community allegiances in which religious affiliation was dominantly located.

* Diversity of leisure opportunities meant that for recreational pursuits other possibilities were open, particularly in the sphere of educational and intellectual recreation, which had previously been almost exclusively the province of the Churches. The growth of new techniques for the presentation of information necessarily led to the emergence of new occupations expert in production and in presentation—the development of the film industry illustrates the process most vividly.

* Thus the entertainment industry—and it became an industry in the full sense only with the development of advanced technical means of presentation—was from the outset a challenge to religion, offering diversion, other reinterpretations of daily life, and competing for the time, attention and money of the public. In its actual content it may be seen as more than an alternative way of spending time, but also as an alternative set of
norms and values. It replaced religion’s attempt to awaken public sentiments by offering titillation of private emotions. In this whole development, and it is necessarily a complex one, relating to the expansion of literacy and the development of a secular Press, as well as to the cinema and subsequently to the radio and television, the Church was steadily losing its near-monopoly, and at least its dominance, of the media of communication.

* From being a very powerful voice in the local community, the clergyman became one of several voices with divergent religious messages, and subsequently competed further with the increasingly effective voices using the new technical means of mass communication offering non-religious distractions.

Today, even though the Church is able to use the means of mass communication, it does so only marginally—marginally to its own total communication, which still relies on the nexus of pulpit and pew and on religious literature, and marginally to the total content of the mass media as a whole. Compared to the amount of entertainment, music, news, drama, secular education and all the other types of item carried by television, radio, Press and cinema, religious information has become a very tiny part indeed. Nor are religionists as good at
using the media as those who are instructing or entertaining. They have developed few, if any, new techniques for its use, and they use it by courtesy and on sufferance. They tend to be older and middle-aged men using media increasingly dominated by the young. It might not be untrue to say that they are the deference note of the mass communicators, ‘employed’ to whiten the image of an industry which is frequently charged with subversive, immoral and deleterious presentations.

As long as the Church connives in using the media, the media controllers can use this fact in their own defence, as evidence of their social responsibility. But, given the religionist’s necessary assumption that religious truth is pre-eminent and that it ought to take a dominant place in our minds, the relegation of religious material to a marginal place in the programmes of the mass communications is itself a derogation of the religious message. In using the mass media the Churches permit their own material to be reduced to the level of the medium, to be put forth without much differentiation of presentation from a wide variety of highly heterogeneous and at times incongruous material. This in itself must detract from the high claims to pre-eminence which—of necessity—religion makes for itself. There is indeed some evidence that the use of mass media themselves alters the image of the Church. In the secularized society, religion must accept a marginal position in the communications agencies in
defiance of its own self-assessment of the relative importance of different types of information!

* The expansion of science and the fact that scientific operations ‘proved themselves’ in the eyes of the man in
the street led to a new pragmatic test for all ideological systems. Science not only explained many facets of life and the material environment in a way more satisfactory than alternative religious interpretations, but it
also provided confirmation of its explanations in practical results. The very same factors which might be said to have very significantly affected the early spread of Christianity—its efficacy as a healing agency, and as an agency which could affect material conditions—were those which furthered the development of science, at least in its public acceptability. Even if science were deficient at the level of ‘meanings’, people had the alternative religio-artistic approach to the world which offered emotional rapport and empathic involvement with nature and with other people.

* Once ‘liberated’ from the view of the world as depicted in a particular religion, artistic conceptions of the world may be very much more challenging to religious orientations than science is.

* art deals, as religion deals, in emotional matters, in meaningful communications, in interpreting,
evaluating, evoking responses and inviting the individual’s participation in a complex set of conceptions and feelings.

* There was an imperceptible gradualism in the way in which the arts freed themselves from religious preconceptions, in literature with moral tales which were often intrinsically shocking, as in Defoe; in painting with the gradual romanticization of the landscape and the invocation of other gods; in poetry with the candid expression of other emotions in clearly non-allegorical contexts. But, once the process had begun, the arts still in the service of the Churches were steadily emaciated: they lost spontaneity and lost their earlier deeper sense of values and their sense of intrinsic association. Late-nineteenth-century religious art, poetry and architecture
make evident this emaciation. Outside the service of religion, the arts came—however uncertainly—to represent other values, whether drawn from human predicaments, political ideals, or the theory of art for its own sake.

* That the Churches today are so concerned to assert that there is no conflict between science and religion is perhaps the best indication that the struggle is over, and that religion has conceded wide territories to science. The real conflict reposed in the minds of people, in terms of their proclivity to regard science as more reliable and more valuable than religion.

* Conflict came as society espoused the pragmatic values that were so much more manifest in the scientific enterprise than in religion. At the fringes there developed religious movements which sought to be no less pragmatic than the sciences, which sought to confer distinct benefits on people, and to convince them that religion—rightly understood—could also work. The whole ‘New Thought’ group of movements, of which Christian Science was the most effectively organized and best known, sought to assert in the last years of the nineteenth century that religion too was a set of scientific principles which would enable us to live better. These principles were applied to much the same ends as those of science at that time—the search for bodily health and material well-being. The movements had correspondingly very diminished emphasis on the traditional religious concern with life after death. It is no accident that these new religious movements arose in the USA. Pragmatism was by no means confined to these marginal developments, but even in more orthodox denominations there was some growth of would-be healing cults, spiritualist ‘proofs’ of the afterlife, and the continued emphasis (especially in America) on the value of religion as an agency of mental therapy. The real danger of science to religion, however, was rather in the increased prestige of science and the decline in the intellectual prestige of religion. Since science had answers, and had positive tangible fruits, it came increasingly to command respect and approval. As governments became less concerned with the promotion of religion, so they became increasingly disposed to sponsor science, at first by prizes and awards, and later by ever-increasing endowments to scientific enquiry
and scientific education.

…the ‘wise’ men of society, had necessarily been religionists, since the Church maintained virtually an intellectual stratum whose principal obligations had become the maintenance of cultured, civilized and educational values. But increasingly intellectual concerns passed beyond the knowledge and the ability of clergymen. Even if
from among their numbers many of the early scientists had come, as science became more specialized, and as specifically scientific education developed, so the possibility for the cleric to be a scientist diminished.
Science grew up outside the control of the religious intellectual strata, and a new professional grouping came gradually into being.

Reflected in this process is also the shifting reliance on science for economic advance. Whereas nineteenth-century businessmen in the early period of industrialization relied on religion as an agency of social control, which helped to instil a sense of discipline and order into the workforce, which was still the primary factor of production, in the twentieth century, as industry became more capitalized, so machinery increasingly ‘controlled’ labour, and that control could now be specifically adjusted for the particular task in hand without implications for controlling people in their private lives outside the work situation. The old control, with its ‘letters of testimony’ (‘characters’ as the working class knew them), relied on a worker’s general dispositions to industriousness, punctuality, thrift, sobriety, willingness and reliability; the new control demanded nothing of his or her ‘character’—the conveyor belt could exact all the control that was needed. Industry has thus passed from internalized ‘character’ values to mechanical manipulation. Thus it has turned from religious socialization
to technical devices for the means of regulating the work situation and the productive process.

Eventually, for this imperative need to control workers, industry has turned to new so-called sciences, of ‘management’ and ‘industrial relations’. In economic terms it is wasteful to demand that the whole person, in all his or her facets, should be self-disciplined when a more specific method of manipulation can be evolved of just that part of the person which is needed for the job. Industry has thus rejected the blanket control of religio-moral socialization of workers for methods which control them very much more as if they were mechanical
instruments of production. Thus, whereas once businessmen, if they engaged in philanthropy, gave to religious causes, today they increasingly pass their surpluses to the endowment of science and education—and ‘education’ usually means scientific education.

* The steady development of science meant the gradual emergence of separated disciplines which had earlier been embraced within—embedded within—a general theological interpretation of the world and society. The older sciences had freed themselves over centuries, as Comte had illustrated in his sociological treatise of the Three Stages,
and by the nineteenth century the Church had little claim to provide the basis of cosmology.5 As geology and biology developed, so the authenticity of the Christian interpretation of the world became patently less tenable, and steadily, often with bad grace and sometimes with scant respect for objective procedures for the discovery of the truth, the churches retreated from their earlier assertions concerning geological and biological facts. Psychology and sociology, in which specific propositions capable of testing are more difficult to formulate, have not experienced the same dramatic confrontation with Church teaching, but their attempt to create dispassionate, non-evaluative approaches to people and society are undoubtedly as much, if not more, at variance with the religious orientation per se, as any of the earlier sciences.

Churchmen have, of course, sought to make use of these disciplines, to harness them to their purposes. Science is always easily restricted to the realm of means, and is neutral concerning ends. The very development of the Higher Criticism was a considerable concession to the scientific spirit by theologians. To recognize that sacred books must, despite their sacredness, have been written by men, and must contain human apprehensions of the deity, was in itself a remarkable admission of the spirit of empiricism and reason to the theological sphere. It is true that when the results of such enquiry proved grossly inconvenient, and fell under pontifical disfavour in the Roman Church in the first two decades of this century, then the interest of the clergy shifted from historical to mystical interpretations of the beginnings of Christianity. Steadily, however, a scientific orientation has persisted, not only in textual matters, but in stylistics, archaeology and in the interpretation of the Dead Sea scrolls.† The attempt to offer counterscientific interpretations of the physical world, which religionists
sought to do so urgently in the nineteenth century, have been largely abandoned. More radically, clerics have increasingly recognized religion as itself a subject of psychological and sociological interest.

* not only has knowledge of the material world, and the ability to pronounce upon it, passed from the clergy, but so, too, has systematic knowledge concerning the minds of men and the organization of society. It is not uncommon today to see clerics as students in universities, particularly in the social sciences, where—little more than half a century ago—those who would have been teaching what there was to know on these subjects would themselves have been clerics, and this was not much less true in America than in Britain. Even in their pastoral functions, the clergy may be said to have lost influence, and to have been transformed, by the growth of specialists in social work, into amiable amateurs.

* It is in the organized religious conferences that the most acute and clearly crystallized responses to the events taking place in the wider society are articulated and it is here that religious leaders commonly pronounce on social and moral—and sometimes on economic and political—issues. In the Catholic Church, with its stronger hold on its following (a hold directly associated with the elevated and authoritative conception of the priesthood, and especially of the higher echelons of the clerical profession), pronouncements on birth control, on aspects of medical practice, on divorce, and on education still have important political and sometimes economic significance.
The Protestant Churches have not had this type of control of the laity: indeed, there is a sense in which such authority would inveigh against the rights of conscience and individual responsibility, which have always been stronger elements of Protestant (including Anglican) faith.

* The economic sphere of production has become separated from consumption; the family and its concerns have separated from the productive sphere; education has acquired autonomy. All of these developments, together with the earlier distinction of the political and judicial areas of social life, and the more recent separation of recreational facilities from the community and the family, have tended to leave religious agencies very much less associated with the other social institutions than once was the case. There has been a compartmentalizing of life; religion, which once had a general presidency over people’s concerns, and endowed their activities with a sense of sacredness, has increasingly lost this pre-eminence and influence.

Life activities have been secularized, and the sense of mystery, the religious meaning of objects and acts, has steadily waned. This demystification of the world has meant both that everyday thinking has become more instrumental and matter of fact—that emotional involvement with nature, with the community, and with other people
has been reduced—and that the external world has been ‘drained of meaning’. The process has been twofold, in the loss of the ‘religious sense’ of activity, the disappearance of the religious interpretation of the purpose of life, and the actual loss of influence of the institutions which embodied these sentiments. It is not merely that the churches have lost members, but that people have largely ceased to think of—or respond to—the world with a sense of mystery and awe.

* At levels of social control other than the formal operation of law, there has been an increasing recognition that morals are private matters. People are less prepared to be their brothers’ keepers, and the force of community opinion about what is ‘done’ and ‘not done’ and what is decent diminishes as local community life itself diminishes. Those attitudes of moral regulation of one’s fellows, and of each by all, were of course, in Western nations, entrenched in strong religious attitudes, and underpinned by Christian values. In the twentieth century we have seen a general relaxation of moral and religious demands made on the individual by the community… What is apparent is that the age of economic laissez-faire has introduced an age of moral laissez-faire, and, in Western Europe at least, just at the time that economic laissez-faire is itself under heavy attack and has, in some departments, given way to regional or national planning.

* At one time moral values were held to be derived, if not actually prescribed, by him, from the word and will of God. In such a circumstance, prescribed morality was unchanging and authoritative. But the Churches have increasingly faced the circumstance in which the authoritative will of God has made less and less impact on men in a society where social and legal control have become increasingly separate from religious control, and where men cease in large measure voluntarily to put themselves under the guidance of ecclesiastics.

* From being the arbiters of moral behaviour, the Churches have steadily become more like reflectors of the practice of the times, gradually and hesitatingly endorsing change. In the emphasis on ‘getting up to date’, the Churches tacitly recognize their own increasingly marginal capacity to influence society. The shifts of Church
response on the issue of birth control illustrate the way in which moral theologians have attempted to come to terms with the changing moral practice of societies which they increasingly realize they know very little about.

* what the Church condemns as sinful at one time, it acknowledges as perfectly appropriate at another…

* If modern people demand rather less by way of consolation than they have traditionally demanded, yet it is also evident that they are under greater continuing strain in their daily lives, and have evolved means of handling this situation other than through religious agencies. The welfare services, which once were prompted by Christian motives and a sense of charity, have been almost completely secularized. What was once done from Christian duty is now an accepted state provision as part of the extension of general political, civic and social rights, which have been universalized in many countries…

* If the problems of identity and anxiety have become worse, they have also become susceptible to new methods of treatment. If we are more alienated in the industrial society, the decline of religion and the loss of widely accepted meanings and emotional orientations have been part of the process. The Churches are no longer in a position to undertake their preventative therapy, and special agencies of mental hygiene arise.14 The mental health agencies cannot provide general social reassurance; they operate as essentially private rehabilitation
services for individuals with specific and acute problems. The cost of the affluent industrial society is a high incidence of mental ill health, widely diffused strain, addiction to drugs, high rates of suicide, crime
and delinquency, the disorientation of youth in a social context increasingly bewildering and in which older moral and religious shibboleths no longer seem valid.

Religious orientations are part of what have been surrendered in the development of this type of society, and, since common consensual solutions appear impossible, it is evident that individual priests and ministers of religion contend with a pastoral problem which in the social structural character of its origins exceeds their competence, and in its magnitude exceeds their resources.

* Even where personal counselling is the remedy, it is the specialist techniques of psychiatry, and not religious pastoral care, which society calls for. Mental health and moral behaviour become ‘research problems’ and scientific enquiry moves to ever more elaborate analysis, and to manipulative remedial action, in sharp contrast to the synthetic and socially holistic approach of the Churches.

* We have already seen that the clergy tend to have lost social standing. Scientists have increasingly replaced them as the intellectual stratum of society, and literature and the arts have passed almost completely out of the religious sphere. The scepticism of modern society has affected the clerical profession profoundly. The attempt
to find other levels at which religious propositions are true—that is to say, levels other than the common-sense and literal level—has led to widely diverse clerical interpretations of religion in its contemporary meaning. Clerics have now come to disbelieve in the ultimacy of any answers which they can supply about social questions, as they did earlier about physical questions. As the range of empirical information has increased, acquisition of the knowledge of it and the skills to analyse it and interpret it pass beyond the range of clerical education.
The awareness of the relativity of modern knowledge has made the cleric more guarded and less confident in the intellectual content of religion.

* The professional can afford to play an intellectual game—as a cleric he is bound and committed by vows of
obedience and loyalty, and, no less important, held very often by economic dependence. The layman very often wants only assurance and certainty—of a kind which clerics feel increasingly less able to provide.

That some clergy themselves become sceptical, and cease to believe in many of the things which laymen believe in as essentials of the faith, or believe in them in an entirely different way, can only be a source of confusion and despair to those who want to believe in certain, and usually simple, truths.

* The speculative intellectuals among the clergy resemble in their professional position (and I make no judgement of the warranty of their specific ideas) the charcoal-burners or alchemists in an age when the processes in which they were engaged had been rendered obsolete, technically or intellectually. The clergy become a curiously placed
intelligentsia, many of them uncertain of their own faith, uncertain of the ‘position’ of their Church on many matters, and unsure whether they agree with that position. The more advanced among them sometimes suggest that simpler men believe the right things for the wrong reasons. They themselves are institutionally entrenched but
intellectually footloose. They have no real continuity with the actual beliefs of the past, but only with the forms, the rituals, the involvement in a persisting organization. At the same time, they have no part in the
faster-moving intellectual debate within their own society. Neither the scientists nor the literary intellectuals seek theological opinions, and least of all the social scientists.

* Superficially, then, and in contrast to the evidence from Europe, and particularly from Protestant Europe, the United States manifests a high degree of religious activity. And yet, on this evidence, no one is prepared to suggest that America is other than a secularized country. By all sorts of other indicators it might be argued that the United States was a country in which instrumental values, rational procedures and technical methods have gone furthest, and the country in which the sense of the sacred, the sense of the sanctity of life, and deep religiosity are most conspicuously absent. The travellers of the past who commented on the apparent extensiveness of church membership rarely omitted to say that they found religion in America to be very superficial. Sociologists generally hold that the dominant values of American society are not religious: ‘American culture is marked by a central stress upon personal achievement, especially secular occupational achievement. The “success story” and the respect accorded to the self-made man are distinctly American.

* In a country in which the tenor of life is highly impersonal; in which individuals are often exposed to manipulation; in which the economic organizations of society have reached giant proportions and threaten the very identity of the individual, so there is likely to be a persistent demand for something which provides a less associational and more communal orientation. Since, in many areas, Americans are often on the move—with travel to and from work or for pleasure, and, in the longer time span and for the sake of their careers, frequently moving
house—community values are difficult to establish. There are few spontaneous agencies to support community life, and in this circumstance the Church takes on functions and provides facilities which, even if they do not actually rest in a community structure, give the impression of doing so.

The Church, then, represents the values of the agrarian or communal pre-industrial society: its forms are moulded from that stage of social development, and it participates in the warmth, stability and fundamental mutual involvements of a type of community life. That this community is, in the nature of American society, not so much a
fossil as a reproduction piece is less damaging in the eyes of those who have little experience of community life than in the eyes of visiting Europeans. The synthetic nature of the community orientation of many American Churches is evident to those from more traditional cultures; the personalized gestures of the impersonal society acquire an almost macabre quality for those who have experienced the natural spontaneous operation of rural community life, in which the Church may fit as a part. And yet it seems evident, whether the Church does fulfil genuine functions of this kind or not, people obviously get some, perhaps purely sentimental, satisfactions from pretending that it does.

This circumstance is obviously related to the trauma of the immigrant who, though experiencing better economic conditions, may miss the community values of the (usually) peasant society from which he or she came to America. That many of the early Churches were the repository of immigrant values is evident. In the Church, as nowhere else in the new society, immigrants could continue their language, their customs, their folkways.

* To [Will] Herberg the Churches in America fulfil their function of supporting the nation, however, only by losing their distinctiveness of tradition. Thus he notes that the teaching of the Churches tends to grow more vacuous. Were they to persist in their distinctive theological orientations, they would become new agencies of divisiveness in American life, and, in a nation of many different sorts of immigrant, divisiveness would be intolerable. As the second generation settled into American-ness, so they tended to ignore the Churches which
reminded them of their diversified past. Only as the Churches became similar to each other in function, and indistinct in ideology, could they significantly satisfy the various needs of the third and subsequent generations for community life and reassurance about the past and—simultaneously—their commitment to American nationality. ‘The American way of life’ thus embraced ‘going to church’ as one of its facets, without much concern about which church anyone went to.

Religion became privatized, and different preferences became as significant as different brands of cigarette or different family names—at least in the case of the major denominations. In some ways, the functions of the churches as community centres are facilitated by different brand images for rather similar products. Thus
when President Eisenhower could assert that a man should have a faith, no matter which it was; and when President Johnson (a Disciple) and his wife (an Episcopalian) could assert that their daughter’s conversion to Roman Catholicism did not disturb them, since religion was a private matter, they made evident the American faith that one religion is as good as another. But this, be it noted, is an American value. It is not a Christian value, and has no respectability of pedigree in Christianity.

Belonging to a faith in America thus becomes unconnected with distinctive belief to an extent quite unparalleled in Europe. Precisely because Church adherence still has a content of distinctive teaching, and precisely because commitment to one organization means more than merely ‘preferred religion’ (as American official forms refer to
religious allegiance) and implies the belief that one denominational creed is true in at least some respects in which others are false or less than wholly true, so religious commitment means rather more in Europe.

* Britain, as a traditional society, was ‘naturally’ a religious society. Its Established Church, though one which had experienced change, and at times dramatic change, represented a religious association of the powers and the people which could reasonably be regarded as ‘from time immemorial’. Implicit religious commitment was thus posited in the existence of the society; at any particular time, religion could be assumed to be part of the order of things. A religious view of the world was officially held, and the institutions of religion were established and continuing. People inherited a religious world view which changed only slightly and only gradually over time, at least until the mid-twentieth century. Furthermore, religion was entrenched and privileged, and, although increasingly admitting of challenge, it was deeply involved in all areas of national life.

* The American case is almost directly the contrary. Despite the piety of the early settlers, and their early experiments in near-theocratic government in New England, the state, once independently established, chose to be a secular state. Although God was invoked in the federal constitution, nonetheless religion was to be free, and divergent religious creeds were to be tolerated—hence the secular state. In eliminating by 1833 (in Massachusetts) the last remnants of an Established Church, America also eliminated anything which could be called Nonconformity. The state proceeded as a secular institution, and, just as judicial and legislative and executive functions were
separated from each other, so religion was separated from all—a voluntary affair in which, almost as an extension of strong Protestant sentiments, each person was to wrestle with his or her conscience. Religion was apart; commitment to it, and to a particular branch of it, was a matter of voluntary choice.

* As religious denominations have been reabsorbed into the mainstream of national life, so they have lost their distinctive qualities. Religion has placed its common values at the service of the political and social institutions of the nation, and has become one of the various approved values of American culture.

* as Luther conceded the supremacy of state authority above priestly authority, so the American Churches have, in effect, if less explicitly, subordinated their distinctive religious values to the values of American society. Thus, though religious practice has increased, the vacuousness of popular religious ideas has also increased: the content and meaning of religious commitment have been acculturated.

* Since men had religious rights before they had political rights, religion was, in England, as it has since been in many less-developed societies at certain stages of their history, the agency for general discontent and
disaffection.

* The diversity of Churches offered people a choice (‘religion of your choice’ is an American phrase which amuses
Europeans), but, as with so many other choices of the mass society, the choice was increasingly less real, as the values of the Churches increasingly approximated each other, and as they all came to reflect increasingly the American way of life. That there were many Churches, which appeared different from the outside, was an accident
of the diverse sources of population recruitment in America. None of them could be discriminated against in the interests of keeping tensions down in a society with so many potential sources of division—ethnic, regional, linguistic; all of them were to be identified with the American way of life as an expression of dominant consensus.

* In…Europe…part of the function of religion was to vindicate the ascribed and fixed status of society.

In America, entirely different ideas about mobility necessarily prevailed. It was a society of opportunity, for people to become ‘self-made’, for getting on, and even for assuming the lifestyles and claiming the status limited, in Europe, to a hereditary elect. Religion necessarily had to adjust to this circumstance, to make itself at least compatible with direct and naked goals of competition, self-seeking and social mobility. Thus religion in America necessarily abandoned some of the functions it had fulfilled in Europe. Even in the midnineteenth century, it was already emphasizing love, joy and personal security, rather than the social control functions of hellfire.

* Two distinct processes can be observed in American religious development. One was the gradual acquisition of enhanced status by whole movements, and the other was the tendency for individuals who rose in status more rapidly than the generality of their fellows within a religious movement to shift allegiance to a denomination which more adequately expressed the congruity of religious and social status.

* an individual rising in the world cannot afford to continue in association with religious groups that practise rituals which are strongly associated with lower classes. The man who has been brought up as a Holy Roller is likely, as he advances in the world, to find it less and less attractive for a businessman with a public reputation to roll in the aisles with the least sophisticated members of the locality.

* Whereas in England secularization has been seen in the abandonment of the Churches—as in other European countries—in America it has been seen in the absorption of the Churches by the society, and their loss of distinctive religious content.

* In America, the Churches act as agencies for the expression of community feeling. Such communities are not natural communities, of those who live in face-to-face contact for generations, rarely moving, and rarely receiving strangers. Such was the condition of traditional societies, and from such a context the European sense of community persisted into modern times.

* Churches became the agencies of synthetic community life, drawing people together as ‘neighbours’, even though many of the natural features of neighbourhoods, as they had existed in Europe, were no longer evident.

* This development gave American Churches that distinctly ‘welcoming’ characteristic on which Europeans so often (and by no means always favourably) comment. People who did not know each other, whose lives, though temporarily lived in physical propinquity, impinged relatively little on each other, except in secondary relationships,
could go through the fiction of being a community. It was, after all, a pattern of response to which they were accustomed, and about which they had heard a great deal from their parents and grandparents, and from literature, even though it now had a very different relevance for their own lives. The search to retain community; the felt
need for sociability and association with those around; the persisting desire to ‘belong’; the need for a context in which to claim status and display status; the persistence of an affective need to be ‘someone’ in terms of the actual direct responses of others, and not simply in terms of abstract consideration of receipt of wages; acknowledgement of identity with the ‘nation’ or ‘the state’—all of these elements were probably involved in the steady growth of the American Churches. The stability of the organized institutional framework could create the
illusion of a stable community life, even if the gestures of friendliness and involvement necessarily had to be prostituted by their extension to relatively anonymous people.

* The increasingly fictional quality of assumptions of settled community life, of parishes and local government units in which people have a genuine stake, is a feature of modern life in Britain…

* The local community, the home, the school are no longer focal points of allegiance in British society, and the discontinuities of a keenly cultivated mobility make religious traditions difficult to sustain. Thus young people are early bent on ‘getting away from home’, from small towns and villages, to college, to work, ‘and to lead a better life’.

* The Churches in the United States are an expression of status differentiation in some measure, whereas they have had much less importance as a status-confirming agency in Britain. The denominations in Britain expressed rather the basic divisions of social, political and economic orientation, and these divisions in turn had reference to
a class stratification of society which needed no further confirmation in religious terms—it was already evident enough. Only in the uncertainty of an increasingly homogenized society, with few elements of ascriptive status (abolished as all the remnants of the pre-immigrant past had to be eliminated), was it necessary for achievement and the struggle for status to find adequate social expression.

* If social processes have reduced religious differences between major denominations to merely verbal responses, liturgical patterns and organizational arrangements, has religion then no significant social influence in contemporary society? In the late 1950s an American sociologist attempted to assess the extent to which the Protestant ethic—the commitment to work, free enquiry and individual initiative among other values—was still influential in the United States… From a survey of citizens of Detroit, a city of mixed religious composition,
Gerhard Lenski concluded that there was still a significant religious factor at work in affecting the dispositions of Protestants and Catholics. He found that Jews and Protestants had a positive attitude towards work, and Catholics a negative attitude; that Jews and Protestants regarded it as important that a child should learn to
think for him or herself; Catholics that he or she should learn to obey. He found that Catholics attached more importance to kin groups, and he believed that Catholic family life might interfere with the development of motivation towards achievement and mobility.

* The sense of moral rectitude which once extended to almost all social and personal activities even in peasant
societies (to dress, forms of speech, eating, courtship, attitudes to strangers, neighbours, kinsmen, etc.), although they were often highly localized moralities, was a manifestation of local social unity. Many of these moral orientations were entrenched within a religious view of the world, and the influence both of religious morality and of the religious beliefs which supported them have been largely swept away.

* In an age when Christianity has been demythologized, when traditional ideas about God have been radically challenged by bishops of the Church, ecumenism becomes a new faith—something to believe in. There has been something like a mass conversion of the clergy.

* Whereas the low religious practice in England appears to imply considerable commitment on the part of the small minority of regular worshippers, in the United States it appears that much higher church involvement is associated with relatively low commitment to religious values. Whereas in Britain doctrinal positions of denominations still
bear something of the distinctiveness of the past, but denominational organization has grown weak, in the United States denominational doctrinal distinction has little consequence, but organizations, enjoying wide lay support, are relatively strong.

* The history of dissent is largely the history, as Max Weber long ago noted, of an Entzauberung, a process of demystification, in which the functions of the religious specialist were increasingly shorn of mystical or magical attributes. The denial of the doctrine of transubstantiation, the rejection of the idea that priests could forgive sins, the rejection of the immediate efficacy of the confessional were all aspects of emerging Protestantism, and particularly so as expressed in the Presbyterian and Independent movements, which reduced the mystical elements of the priest’s role. The very concept of priest was changed once the priesthood of all believers was asserted, and the religious functionary now became a pastor, a preacher or a minister; his functions became directed to the community and ceased to be those of an intercessor between community and God. In Quakerism the process was even more radical and the element of inspirationalism—although circumscribed in time, as older ‘weighty’ Quakers increasingly dominated proceedings in the nineteenth century—gave a genuine lay character to the movement.

* Thus, the process of advancing Protestantism was in the direction of the diminution of the distinctive status of the priesthood as a professional body, and of increased insistence that all religious functions could be performed by any committed and sincere believer. This development occurred with the growing individuation of people in
modern society, and came to its fullness in a period in which individualism, freedom of contract, the political doctrines of liberalism and liberty of the individual, and the economic doctrines of laissez-faire were all of them in the ascendant. The professional priesthood stood for a basic and almost ascriptive inequality among folk.

* As theology appears to have become bankrupt, so liturgy has burgeoned. The Churches have steadily returned to a stronger liturgical expression, the elaboration of the artistry of worship, even though they have simultaneously grown less certain about the nature, the history and the morality of the deity who is worshipped. This has been essentially a movement among the priesthood rather than among the laity, and it has been a development which has manifested itself in a wide range of denominations, many with traditions of a very contrary kind. The dissenting ministry have found for themselves status-enhancing functions by restoring forms and expressions of worship which are very much more ritualistic and very much ‘higher’ in their assumptions than those of their forebears or their lay followers.

* The sect affords a coherent community organization, a stable pattern of order. It provides norms and values which are indisputable. It usually brings into being an actual fraternity in which these values find expression and social application.

* Work, which ceased to be part of life itself with the passing of agrarian society (that is, for farmers), became a calling, and was recognized as a distinctive activity of life, sanctified in religious terms, and is gradually transformed into being a job, supported strictly by the institutional order and an unmediated interest relationship.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in Religion. Bookmark the permalink.