This is the third in a series of blogs looking at the future of religion in Britain. To read the others click here
Various theses – let’s call them Theses: they are big enough to merit capitalisation – dominate thinking about religion and modernity.
The most famous is the Secularisation Thesis. This contends, in various different forms, that as societies modernise they invariably become less religious. For many years, as Europe led the way, it held well. America was a fly in the secular ointment – indeed, so big a fly that it was more like a spider – but if scholars could swallow it, everything else seemed to fit together. Then, the rest of the world, especially South and East Asia, modernised without losing, and in some instances actually gaining, their religion, and the whole, vaguely tautological foundations of the theory were exposed.
A second idea, which grew alongside Secularisation feeding off its decay without ever actually replacing it, was the Economistic Thesis. This posited that it was the market structure in which religions operated that dictated their health. Heavy regulation (lack of religious freedom, established churches, etc.) deadened the religious market; freedom and liberalisation energised it. This was why America remained so Christian and Europe did not.
This contained some truth – as, it should be stressed, did the Secularisation Thesis – but it too failed to fit the full facts. Some of the most religiously regulated countries on earth remain the most religious, whereas others, like Wales, which enjoyed complete disestablishment, or like England, which underwent progressive deregulation throughout the 20th century, still endured secularisation.
A third idea, less widely known, might be called the Governmental or State Thesis. This argues that “state welfare spending has a detrimental, albeit unintended, effect on long-term religious participation and overall religiosity.” The hypothesis here is that the bigger the state, especially the more extensive its provision of welfare, the smaller space there is for religion, with that which remains being occupied by incidental welfare provision and general moralising.
Anthony Gill and Erik Lundsgaarde have tested this thesis empirically and it seems to do quite well. Uruguay is a strangely irreligious country for South America, despite its comparatively high levels of religious liberty. The reason for this, they argue, lies in its extensive social welfare system. The same reasoning can help explain the religiosity of countries as different as Norway and America, UK and Colombia.
The Governmental Thesis has weaknesses like its competitors. Not only are some of the data questionable (the UK does not have a weekly church attendance of 33.2% as Gill and Lundsgaarde’s paper assumes) but knotty questions about the direction of causality, or indeed the question of causality per se, are not really dealt with. Moreover, the problems with the other Theses suggest that religion may simply be too big – being, as it is, about more or less everything – to lend itself to single, simple, elegant hypotheses. Explanatory ideas should perhaps seek to be humbler and more local.
Such caveats aside, if the Governmental thesis has any merits, we should see the evidence over coming decades in 21st century Britain. There is no doubt that the fall in British religiosity closely tracked the expansion of state welfare provision; nor that there is a certain logic to this: previous generations came into contact with Christianity not through good arguments but through good deeds. They came to believe in the God of love if they experienced the love of the godly. The more such deeds and such love were pushed to margins of society, as the state stepped in to do things that the churches had long thought their responsibility, the less people knew or cared about Christianity.
If this is so – and remember the correlation here is not evidence of causation – the retrenchment of the state in the 21st century may prompt a de-secularisation. “May”: socio-cultural-political trends of this size do not sway smoothly like a pendulum, and there is much that might get in the way of any swing back. Religious groups may not step in to fill the gap, either because they don’t think they should or because they simply can’t. The state may impose such draconian regulations on any such religious welfare provision – ‘we want your help but not your reason for helping’ – that people will still remain blind and oblivious to religious motivations. The market may hoover up what the state’s withdrawal dumps on the shore, leaving only the most difficult (i.e. least profitable) cases to the voluntary sector. And the state may not continue its withdrawal from the provision of welfare, thereby ending the whole social experiment.
Nevertheless, this forest of caveats notwithstanding, it may just be that as public opinion drives the state ever further away from the post-war settlement (and if anyone doubts that this has to do with public opinion they should read some of the recent British Social Attitude reports) it is just possible that churches (and other religious groups) find themselves with a growing opportunity to embed their talk of love in a serious walk of love.
If they do, there will be a significant irony, on which we might end. The most persistent, most serious and noisiest defenders of the welfare state over the last generation have probably been the bishops of the Church of England, with senior clerics from virtually all other denominations matching them in message and tone, merely lacking the volume that establishment affords. This has been done with the best of motives, and usually based on deep-felt pastoral experience, rather than the kind of knee-jerk, anti-government loathing of which some accuse them. It would be ironic if this principled defence of the welfare functions of the state was the thing that had at the same time been strangulating the church’s own attempts to grow.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos and editor of The Future of Welfare
Image from wikimedia, available in the public domain.
 Anthony Gill and Erik Lundsgaarde, ‘State Welfare Spending and Religiosity: A Cross-National Analysis’, Rationality and Society 2004, Vol. 16(4): 399–436.