Theories of secularisation assume an irreversible decline of religion in modern society, usually from the mid 18th century. It is proposed that unable to provide a generally held conception of meaning, due to the emergence of plurality of life experiences and rapidly changing social order, religion loses its ideological, political and social relevance. This loss of function in Modern day Britain can be demonstrated in numerous ways: previously religion has provided legitimacy for secular authority, endorsed and sanctioned public policy, socialised the young, sponsored a broad rang of recreational activities. However more recently, in contrast, sources of ethical concern have been replaced with manifestly secular systems, and religious values have become relinquished. Moreover, this can be confirmed statistically: through religious attendance and practise rates. Historians have sought to explain these transformations in sociological terms, arriving at a variety of conclusions regarding the causes and extent of these changes. The rise of rationalism has often featured prominently in such accounts explaining the reasons for the decline of religion in modern society. Firstly, however, some methodological warning seems necessary as there is some confusion over what exactly secularisation is taken to mean. It is important to stress religion as not necessarily equated with Christianity – although granted that it is the biggest indicator of institutionalised religion, a wide variety of alternative religious systems and values exist in modern Britain. Also, a more encompassing concept of what constituted religion is necessary to investigate the religious situation of the past century as secularisation can not simply be taken to mean who attends Church as it may be interpreted within and effect social, economic and political spheres. This essay examines the process of secularisation in all these spheres, examining the extent to which rationalism has determined its cause and course, quantifying its important in contrast to alternative factors and models of secularisation.
Rationalism has a respected historiographical tradition as an explanation for the increasing levels of secularisation over 20th century: indeed, such an interpretation, as was initially competently expounded by Alan Gilbert in “The Making of Post-Christian Britain”, seems intuitive and realistic. He proposes industrialisation as root of secularisation, providing a “profound discontinuity” leading to the emergence of distinctively modern types of culture and social structure which came to undermine religion. This is illustrated by the failure of religious organisations to adapt to industrial towns. This modernised social system was a reaction of human experience to the experience of modernisation, which by creating alternative beliefs, values, myths and symbols came to marginalize religion. Rationalism was crucial to the transition from the idea of the world as ‘vale of tears’ to be negotiated on the way to eternal damnation or salvation to the notion that the world could be systematically improved through the application of human effort and intelligence. Scientism, a closely related phenomena, illustrates the importance of rationalism to this newly created mindset: a worldview derived from popular conceptions of nature and efficiency of science asserted that all realms of knowing are accessible to rational science thus fatally enfeebling the credibility of religiosity. Rationalism declared that the modern world was artificial and epiphenomenal, creating an intellectual context which only allowed for the possibility of ‘this world’ in which no mysterious incalculable or divine forces operated. This rather dry theoretical notion can be generalised into a subtle assumption of rationality into the subconscious of the population fostering a crisis in the plausibility of religion if not a specific intellectual doubting or atheistic orientation. This can be contextualised in the replacement of the reliance on assumed and ‘natural’ ideas (for example tides, seasons and weather) with human construction (for example of railway timetables and television programmes) in which the manmade complexity of life (for example in the artificial rhythms of economic and social systems) dominated over unpredictable and celestial forces. In such a intellectual framework rationality had reeked havoc creating a crisis of relevance and verification in religion.
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The dominance of rationality can be seen at grass roots level. It seems plausible that secular culture came about as traditional religious assumptions ceased to be normative, and Churches came into competition with each other in addition to new ideologies. Increasing secularised views of death and morning provide an example of the rationale of science replacing religious attitudes: the psychological trauma of death lessened as the decline in uncertainty of illness was counteracted by advancements in medicine, diet, and sanitation. Whereas previously death was faced candidly through Christian belief and ritual due to its frequency, it increasingly became a private matter, marking an important shift in conception of death, which blunted the force of death as an occasion for religiosity. Equally persuasive of the dominance of rationalism is the creation of secular movements based on rationalist principles: such as the Rationalist Press Association, founded in 1899, and the Ethical Union founded in 1896. Budd’s study of the reasons for unbelief among Members of the Secular Movement in the first half of the 20th century stressed the important of reason and rationality, most obviously in deriving inspiration from Paine’s “The Age of Reason”. It is possible to detect an obvious attempts to rationalise Christian belief which resulted in the realisation that Christian doctrines and ministers were wicked or politically reactionary. Interestingly, such rationalisations took place in a secular (within this world) context, most evident in their strong social criticism, for example of the Church’s involvement with politics, and animadversion of Christian teaching regarding hell and the after-life as a notion used mendaciously to keep men unnecessarily tied to the churches. Similarly, the most explicit demonstration of the welding of rationalism and secularism can be found in their criticism of Judgement Day as theoretically impossible because men could not be divided into moral and the damned because mankind was made up of graduations rather than polarities of virtue. The British Humanist Association, founded 1963, can be seen as the modern manifestation of this trend, whose aim is “to support and represent people who seek to live good and responsible lives without religious of superstitious beliefs”, and list their primary belief as “this world and this life are all we have”. Fascinatingly, humanist values can be found reflected in a political context, most evidently in policies of international intervention that must transcend religious boundaries. The BHA smugly posts the Statement of values by the National Forum for Value in Education and the Community as another example as humanist values directing policy: indeed this document shows awareness of secular concerns at the expense of religious issues. This seems to be the case at both a personal and political level.
Attention has been drawn to the internal secularisation of the Church of England, and this too can be interpreted as a response to rationalism. The gradual erosion of the distinctive characteristics of Christian thought and life as part of the rationalisation of the intellectual climate can be identified amongst both clerics and the laity. Badham has suggested that the abandonment of belief in a transcendental god by the Church of England amounts to the reduction of doctrine of a wholly this world dimension – and explicitly secular trend. Moreover this is obviously rationalist as the shift has been in the collapse of confidence of the rationality of belief in God amongst clergy, resulting in a type of fideism which sees faith as an act of will independent from rational considerations. This can be illustrated by the Biblical Theology movement which actively distrusts human reason or any appeal to religious experience and consciously focuses on revelation as the sole source of Christian knowledge. This rationalisation is also evident in the most recent books of sermon guidelines which very rarely focus on God in metaphysical terms, and prefer to concentrate on Christain behaviour in the current life. Equally belief in the future life is increasingly rarely affirmed among Church of England adherents, clerics, and doctrine, again confirming a trend towards secularisation based on the rationalities of religious belief. Rather than discussing resurrection, immortality, and eternal life, the future life is expressed in the more rationally credible terms of present experience within life. Again the secular and rational go hand in hand.
In addition to the rationalisation of religious thought, it is possible to suggest that religious institutions rationalised their own role. This is a slightly confused way of proposing that the intellectual climate of rationalism caused religious organisations to become more rational about the religious assistance they offered. Parsons has suggested that the Church of England developed a self-justification in providing for a comprehensive range of religious beliefs. He lists the huge choices in doctrines: ranging from Conservative Evangelicalism to credal Catholic Conservatism, a variety of liberal and radical theologies, and the charismatic movement, which mirror the diversity of styles of worship embraced under the umbrella organisation of the Church of England. In catering to such a variety of tastes it is not surprising that the Church of England has veered towards increasing secularisation. One can develop this notion to suggest that for the Church of England the process of gradual secularisation is a rational one, enabling it to cater to the needs to all its adherents. This can be observed in terms of the Church of England’s rational policies to meet the religious needs of changing economic and social contexts, as discussed by Davie in “Religion in Britain since 1945”. For example, during the 1960s the Churches faced challenges on every front, during a period of social revolution (effecting social mores and the role of women) and traditional Christian based values were no longer normative. This fostered a decade of theological ferment, during which radicals urged the merits of ‘secular Christianity’, as a necessary response to ‘man’s coming of age’ as ‘a new reformation’. This led to reforms such as the acceptance by the General Synod of the 1975 recommendation to replace the 39 articles with a more general and secularised assent. Similarly, the Roman Catholic Church went through a process of aggiornamento led by Pope John XXIII. More recently, since the 1990s religious institutions have further rationalised their role in a consumer society, in which people ‘shop around’ for their spiritual needs. In response, religious organisations have adopted aggressive marketing techniques. Interestingly, this has led to the emergence of new types of unorthodox religiosity referred to under the catch-all term ‘new age’: at the risk of generalisation it is possible to assert that such movements, for example the spiritualism of modern self-help, have successful adopted a rational approach to the religious requirements and ‘markets’ of modern British society. It seems that rationality triumphed within religious organisations as part of the process of internal secularisation.
Yet it would be misleading to claim that British society had become totally dominated by rationalism. At a personal level it is obvious that much irrationality persisted, as mysticism was perpetuated despite the prevalence of a rational intellectual climate. Abercrombie et al study of Islington suggests the persistence of metaphysical beliefs since the 1960s. In stark contrast to rationalist ideas, beliefs involving an outside agency to bring about an expected action or event still exist: for example in the idea that walking under a ladder brings bad luck. Superstitious beliefs were present in a high proportion of respondents, with 80% having formal knowledge of astrology, 60% believing in premonitions, over 75% touching good in order to gain good luck, and over 50% throwing salt over their shoulders if it was spilt. Most fascinatingly those who went to church were on average less superstitious than those who didn’t attend church: this is exactly the opposite from what one would expect in a society where secularisation and rationalism were triumphing over traditional religiosity. Moreover this acceptance of the mystical is conscious: one third of respondents declared themselves to be superstitious. Interestingly, however, it is possible to suggest that superstitions have been partially rationalise, as the study claims some superstitions are of a “scientific nature” thus “lucky numbers and touching wood are at one end of the ‘scientific’ continuum, astrology is in the middle, followed by beliefs in ghosts, with telepathy and water divination at the other end”. If we can assume that Abercrombie’s sample is typical of British society is seems and that superstitious beliefs persisted across British society in the 1970s, rationalism had only partially triumphed during the process of secularism.
Therefore, a more realistic picture of British religiosity is required: Britain was balanced between rationalism and mysticism in a type of private folk religion. It is generally estimated that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the population since 1950 believe in some sort of God. Thus despite the irreversible advancement of secularism reflected in the decline of traditional patterns of religious adherence, and although rationalism may have triumphed in the declining relevance of Christian doctrine, privatised religion has in turn replaced rational scepticism. Davies has explained this trend in terms of “believing without belonging”, referring to the gap between practise and belief. Thus Christian nominalism has remained a more prevalent phenomena than secularism despite rationalism. Sociological evidence provides startling evidence of this: Mass Observation studies in 1948 found that four-fifths of women and two-thirds of men “gave at least verbal rational assent to the possibility of there being a God” and more recently studies of Leeds in the 1990s found that 58% of people saw themselves as religious. Similarly, traditional religious ceremonies continue to mark major points in people lives – namely birth, marriage and death: in these respects British society has found it impossible to replace these ceremonies with secular services, despite the existence of Humanist Celebrants. Even though such ceremonies are only maintained through a sense of tradition, it is certainly not rationality that accounts for their persistence.
More over it is possible to assert that religion maintained a relevance to people’s lives since 1950 – the period one would assume rationalism to have the greatest influence. The traditional model of secularism, in which religious influence has dwindles into nothingness, as one might expected in a society dominated by rationalism, can be disputed. The 1950s were a period of surprising religiosity, during which the social role of the Church was confirmatory, sanctioning secular activities. Thus the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 can be seen as bringing the state, church and monarch together in an act of sacralization witnessed by million. Equally during the 1960s, despite the awareness that urbanised areas were slipping away from church influence, inspired and successful reforms were carried out: for example the Anglican Church underwent a period of organisational, doctrinal and ecumenical reform, and similarly the Roman Catholic Church shifted from symbolic to ethical action in attempt to bring relevant religious support to its members. Thatcher’s years mark a volte-face in the dwindling political power of the church, as religious organisations, particularly the Church of England, defended the sacred and those unable to defend themselves against Thatcherite reforms. Equally, in the last 25 years, religious controversies, for example the Rushdie controversy, have continued to catch the public imagination. Moreover, the government has increasingly been faced with moral, ethical and religious decisions as it has been forced to grapple with the consequences of scientific advance – thus IVF and cloning have focused the social conscience on religious and ethical debates. Davie has suggested that religion became particularly relevant to everyday life between 1970 and 1990, a period which she labels “re-emergence of the sacred”, as emerging schools of thought came to mistrust secular life in a climate lacking confidence following the collapse of domestic economic indicators. In this period, increasing awareness of the distinctiveness of the sacred can be identified. Similarly religion has continued to prosper in a number of contexts outside the Church of England, suggesting the religiosity has not yet been overtaking by secularism. Growth can be seen in black-led Penetcostal Churches since 1950 and religious dedication in Northern Ireland has by no means weakened.
In conclusion, it seems that rationalism has triumphed in providing the intellectual context that secularism has flourished in. The intellectual climate has been rationalised and secularised, and thus so have institutions in response to this; yet this has not affected grass roots level. An obvious parallel can be drawn to the religious controversies of the successive reformations, during which one can assert despite changes in doctrine and political spheres at grass roots level religion became privatised, for example in celebrating banned Catholic masses in private chapels or printed banned tracts. Equally we must remember the importance of social and economic factors in controlling the religious climate, as rationalism was only influential when socially, economically and political expedient – for example in the Churches’ secularisation of the 1960s in response to immense social change.
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