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Home > definition and current debates > UK: How Religious Identity has Changed since the 1980s, and what it means (...)

UK: How Religious Identity has Changed since the 1980s, and what it means for policy

Wednesday 13 November 2013, by siawi3


Linda Woodhead

Professor of Sociology of Religion, Lancaster University

Religion and religious identities in Britain have changed dramatically since 1989. Being religious means something quite different for young people today than it did for their grandparents – for this is a fault-line that runs across living memory and between the generations.

Religion has been reformed by a step-change in change itself. Although change has always been inevitable, after 1979 it became inescapable. It took the place of belief in progress, that ideal which lay behind the vast secular projects of the earlier 20th century. Progress involved change, but it was centrally-planned, managed change within human control. What took its place was more sprawling and unplanned. It was championed by a new crop of political leaders, including Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA, who no longer believed that state planning, technology and welfare could deliver a harmonious mass society. Britain wasn’t working, Thatcher argued, because this combination was holding back change, stifling individual endeavour and crushing choice. By loosening ties on finance and consumer capitalism, change would become something in which everyone would have to participate – and take responsibility for the consequences.

Established religion in Britain was part of the paternalistic consensus that was left shaken and angry by these developments. Guardians of the ‘common good, and supporters of the welfare state which they had helped to create, the leadership of the established Church of England and Church of Scotland were deeply hostile to Thatcher. Tellingly, her main religious support came from minority faiths – from her own Methodist background and from Orthodox Judaism and the Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits.

In fact, though it was barely noticed at the time, the 1980s were the gestation period for all the forms of religion which have since come to the fore in British life – charismatic Christianity (the tradition which nurtured the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby), Pentecostal Christianity of African and West Indian origin, Buddhism and associated forms of meditation and mindfulness, holistic or ‘mind-body-spirit’ spirituality and its traditions of alternative healing, and a range of minority traditions swelled by immigration, most notably Islam. As they grew, the old was starting to die.

For centuries, the Christian narrative had been something into which people in Britain were born. It read you just as much as you read it, for it supplied the framework into which life slotted. Religious identities were given rather than chosen: Methodist parents had Methodist children, Catholic parents had Catholic children, and anyone who wasn’t sure what they were would be designated Church of England. In rural areas, and urban ones too before planners disrupted things, children were still born into communities which parted just enough to give them entrance, and allotted them roles depending on class, gender and age. Being baptised was the community’s way of gathering you into itself and the churches’ way of making you part of the body of Christ. It was incorporation, not choice.

By 1989 this way of being religious, which had lasted for centuries, had come to an end. It had lingered on in the 1960s and 1970s despite the ridicule and mockery of the baby-boom generation who had been born into it. For their children it ceased to be a living reality. This was not the onset of secularisation – that was a process which had been in train for a century, promoted by forces of secular progress. This was about how religion changed, even for those who still identified with it.

Nothing signalled the change more clearly than protests over The Satanic Verses in 1989. Rushdie was a liberal-secular cosmopolitan who, like many others, assumed that God had been laid to rest forever. As Marina Warner put it, ‘We thought we were living in a stable secular age’. From this perspective, the sight of Muslims in Bradford burning books was as unsettling as seeing a corpse rise from the dead. True, the spectre had previously appeared in Iran in 1979 when forces of secular progress were confounded by Khomeini – but whereas Khomeini in Iran could be ignored, Khomeini encouraging the slaughter of a novelist in Britain could not.

Suddenly there was a problem, or at least a set of choices to be made, which simply hadn’t been there before. Secular elites had assumed they were at the cutting edge of progress, with Europe leading the way and the rest of the world bound to follow. They might continue to believe it, but for the first time they had to defend it – the ‘new atheism’ flowed directly from this challenge, and was further galvanised by the events of 9/11 and 7/7. Religious people also had to make choices. Many children of postwar migrants to Britain had abandoned their parents’ faith for political identities centred around ethnicity, and campaigns against racism and inequality. Now, faced by secular attacks on religion in general and Muslims in particular, many re-evaluated and claimed more explicitly religious identities. Even Christians had to make a stand. Their majority status had grown fragile. Muslims were gaining greater visibility in national life, and a new ‘inter-faith’ industry was growing up in which they were becoming just one voice amongst many. Newspapers like the Mail and Telegraph began to defend ‘Christian values’ in a way that would not have been necessary before.

The year in which the Berlin Wall fell marked the symbolic end of both the great secular progressive projects and of traditional religion. It saw boundaries of all sorts – personal, political and geographical – contested, rubbed out and redrawn, sometimes with accompanying unrest and violence. Migrations and movements speeded up, and the rapid growth and deregulation of communications technologies, including the internet, intensified the process. Religion had to change even to stay the same.

The forms of religion hardest hit were those which depended on tradition – on that which is handed down and taken for granted. The fact that ‘we’ve always done it like this’ and ‘that’s just how it is’ ceased to count as reasons. It wasn’t just that mobility dissolved settled communities and broke their chains of memory, or that the new came to have a premium over the old, but that only that which was personally-chosen now seemed authentic. Moreover, the blurry boundaries, loose beliefs and accustomed practices of traditional forms of faith sit uneasily with the demands and opportunities of branding and product placement which tempted religious leaders. The ’mission statement’, which had migrated from religion to business, was claimed back again, as churches gained logos, management structures and PR departments.

Other forms of religion adapted better, and managed to attract some young people. The most vocal is that which can loosely be called fundamentalism, not in the sense that it involves violence or fanaticism, but in the sense that it bypasses lived tradition and seeks to return to the original sources and ‘fundamentals’ of a religion. Fundamentalists offer religion packaged into neat bundles of beliefs and directives – clear, portable, and accessible to all. Its adherents search for a pure message free of later accretions and a simple ethic which will slice cleanly between believer and non-believer. For Christianity, this meant evangelicalism and charismatic-evangelicalism which slough off all but very recent tradition in favour of a single text – the Bible – read as having a single clear meaning. For Islam, it means the sort of packaged, clear, and scripturally-based religion (based on Qur’an and hadith) that attracts so many young Muslims today, but which bypasses over a thousand years of interpretation and the enculturated Islam of parents and grandparents.

Fundamentalism remains, and always will be, a minority movement. In Britain its strict adherents account for around 4% of the population. Its demands are so high that it is hard to sustain in a liberal society like Britain. It appeals most to young people, and is often found wanting once they encounter the moral complexities of adult life. But for all its strictness, such textual conservatism actually allows the individual – as a seeker after truth – a larger and more heroic role than traditional religion ever did. It makes room for charismatic authority – for compelling teachers and interpreters of scripture – but not for obedience to traditional authorities and elders, nor for submission to established communities of practice. (It is fundamentalism, but ‘fundamentalism-lite’, without even a deep understanding of the scriptures, which is at play in the minds of the young perpetrators of the latest wave of Islamist attacks, as seen in Boston and Woolwich.)

As for the established churches in Britain, which had been reliant on tradition and had become ambient forms of religion, when faced by the pressures of change and choice, their leaders made the disastrous decision to retrench and ‘fundamentalise’ (as has the wider Roman Catholic Church). Instead of finding new ways of making their ancient traditions modern and allowing greater participation by an increasingly educated laity, they dug in. They reasserted central clerical authority, and allowed voices of reaction and fundamentalism to take precedence over those of the majority of believers. Although a minority is attracted, most people are appalled by ‘happy clappy’ vicars taking over their churches and turning religion into something extravert and embarrassing. They don’t approve of the wholesale loss of tradition, and they are far more liberal over issues like women’s leadership and same-sex marriage than their churches have become (surveys I carried out recently show that a slim majority of both Anglicans and Catholics in Britain are now in favour of same-sex marriage, though you wouldn’t know it from reading the papers or listening to ‘spokesmen’).

The result of this reactionary turn by the traditional churches is a massive haemorrhage of support both in terms of churchgoing (which has more than halved since the 1980s) and affiliation (only 11% of those in their twenties identify as Church of England, compared with half of over-70s). What was once a Christian nation in terms of affiliation will soon cease to be: the number identifying as Christian fell from 72% in the 2001 census to 59% in the 2011 census, while the proportion of people saying ‘no religion’ continues to rise.

Yet despite the collapse of established religion, around half of all British people believe in God, and only 20% are atheists (the remainder aren’t sure whether there is a God or not). Even among young people between 18 and 24, only 23% are atheists – with quite a few of those who say that have ‘no religion’ nevertheless believing in God. Strong secularism is in as much trouble as religion in this country, and has no organised movement of any size.

The majority of the population in Britain today is left with some sort of spiritual commitment – more informed by tradition in the case of older people than younger ones – but no visible means of institutional support. People want religion when they need it – at key moments of life like birth and death – and they don’t eschew the spiritual. Yet for a majority today, being religious is at just a part of life and identity, not what defines them. They borrow from many sources in shaping the narratives and rituals which give meaning to life, and no longer accept the entire religious packages that faith leaders would like to sell them. Despite this, government and commentators remain fixated on the more conservative and totalising forms of religion, and ignore the majority of people whose religious beliefs and identities are not represented by existing religious leaders or organisations. The problem of disconnect is made highly visible in misbegotten measures like the ‘quadruple lock’ which the government has designed to ‘protect’ religions from having to carry out same-sex marriages, but which has the effect of strengthening the hand of conservative religious leaderships against the majority of liberal believers.

This is a difficult position for both a country, and for individuals, to find themselves in. It is a problem born out of a change which has been too rapid for most institutional religion to keep pace with. When it comes to religion, most people are now homeless. Some older people cling on, but most young people would rather dissociate themselves from the very word ‘religion’ than associate with what it – and atheism for that matter – has come to stand for: a strange mixture of dogmatism and superficiality. Existing leaders have been unable to meet people’s spiritual needs in compelling ways, and new modes of religion appropriate to an era of change and choice are only beginning to emerge. Meanwhile, the most strident claim to speak for ‘true religion’, and the majority of religious people are ignored.

(All statistics except the census results are from two surveys I conducted with YouGov for the Westminster Faith Debates in January and June 2013.)