The Death of Secularisation

As part of our ‘Contemporary British History Now’ conference, we were able to award 10 postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

Next up is PhD student Ruth Lindley (Birmingham) who discusses the secularisation panel.

Many thanks to Maggie Scull and everyone at KCBH for organising ‘Contemporary British History Now’, especially for being brave enough to experiment with a new panel format that really seemed to work. My comments below are primarily concerned with the ‘secularisation’ panel on which I spoke; however, I also touch on the conference format and how we might usefully go forward from here.  

My one big disagreement with the experimental panels has more to do with the choice of themes and ‘big books’ than the format itself. Asking us to think about ‘declinism’ and ‘permissiveness’ seemed like turning back the debate thirty years rather than addressing the conference aim of surveying contemporary British history now. Haven’t sophisticated scholars already shown us that linear narratives of decline and resurgence flatten out all the bits of historical texture we love? And that terms like ‘permissiveness’ are not neutral analytic categories but come loaded down in historically specific political and cultural meaning?

This issue seemed especially obvious during the secularisation panel, where Callum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain (2001) was selected to represent scholarship on religious change in modern Britain. As I said in my paper, sophisticated gender historians have done a huge amount to challenge linear narratives of inevitable religious decline. I’m thinking, in particular, of edited collections like Lucy Delap and Sue Morgan’s, Men Masculinities and Religious Change in Twentieth-Century Britain (2013) and Jacqueline Devries and Morgan’s, Women, Gender and Religious Cultures in Britain (2010). These interventions are not empirical – wrangling over causal-moments and rates of decline – but challenge secularisation at its conceptual core. By applying gender theory to the binary analysis that underpins secularisation (and every other linear narrative), these scholars show us that the theory’s central tenets rest on easy assumptions about the nature of contemporary Britain (modern-secular-rational) as opposed to ‘the past’ (traditional-religious-superstitious). These taken-for-granted characteristics of modernity are not, of course, self-evident, they need historicising. This calls for embracing textured history and taking it seriously on its own terms, rather than squeezing it all into one big explanatory framework.

In saying that, going back to Brown was useful in that it revealed the tenacity of secularisation theory. The sociological grand narrative appears to have taken on a ‘common sense’ gloss, as if we are all in general agreement about its trajectory, rather than acknowledging that it is one idea about religious change among many. It even insinuated its way onto other panel discussions; woven into all kinds of different stories about mid-century Britain, endlessly participated in, reproduced and embellished upon. The death of secularisation still seems like a really long way off.

Why does any of this matter? Why should we be so suspicious of secularisation and its proponents? Because I think the same structures that privilege Brown with having delivered the ‘dominant’ narrative of religious change in modern Britain are the same structures that conceptualise ‘dominant’ religiosity in Britain as institutional and therefore necessarily pale and male. By holding up institutional religiosity as the marker of legitimate belief, historians collude with the religious institutions themselves that have all the say in who is ‘inside’ and who is ‘outside’, who is ‘religious’ and who is ‘spiritual’, who is ‘orthodox’ and who is ‘heterodox’. Through the lens of these implicit value-judgements, women’s spirituality – and, as we learned, BME religious adherence – are ignored, or marginalised, or seen as signs of ‘resurgence’ rather than evidence of the ever-changing, myriad forms and modes of religiosity.

At the next conference, let’s spend less time thinking about exclusionary narratives and concepts, and more about the challenges facing us as we seek to write inclusive and socially responsible histories of modern Britain.

Ruth Lindley is an AHRC-funded doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. Her thesis uses the feminist spirituality movement to open up histories of gender, secularism and religious change in post-1960s Britain. You can find Ruth on Twitter @RuthLindley

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