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What is the future for religion in Britain?

What is the future for religion in Britain?

This is the sixth in our series of blogs looking at the future of religion in Britain. To read the others click here

Future forecasting is difficult, but not impossible. At least three considerations are useful when gazing into the crystal ball: the functions which the subject of forecasting plays, the fitness landscape in which it is operating, its current strengths and vulnerabilities in fulfilling its functions. Existing research, including trend data, is essential. 

If we look at religion in Britain, the data reveals the relentless decline of broad, moderate, majority, ‘ethnic’ religion.  Dogmatic, demanding and confessional forms of minority religion which sit aslant mainstream society have also been declining in absolute terms, but their strength relative to majority religion has in many ways been growing.

The interesting and rarely-noticed trend is that overall, the field of ‘religion’ in Britain has been getting increasingly counter-cultural and reactive towards broader social values, and inclined in a conservative, even fundamentalist direction. What used to be majority religion, closely articulated with everyday life, has been in relative decline at least since the 1980s. To take the Church of England as an example, since the 1990s it has been increasingly dominated by clerical leaders whose views do not reflect those of the majority of Anglicans, nor the rest of society. I uncovered this yawning gap in a series of recent surveys of laity, clergy, and the general population. It is an important factor in church decline.

The ‘dogmatisation’ and growing counter-societal trend in British religion has been reinforced by wider factors: operation of charity law, equality law and human rights legislation (all of which tend to demand that religions and religious identities be more sharply defined and differentiated), the vitality of some conservative groups and congregations, global processes which have allowed conservatives to ally with like-minded religious people on a global scale, the orchestrated takeover of some ‘liberal’ religious institutions by well-organised conservative groups, and weak liberal leadership combined with wider loss of interest in religion on the part of the media and parliament.

This is where we need to think about the fitness landscape for religion. In terms of beliefs and values, Britain is now an overwhelmingly liberal society in its values and institutions. To take the former, which I have researched, Britain is now overwhelmingly liberal in relation to personal morality with over 90% of the population of Great Britain believing that each individual should be free to make his or her own decisions about his or her life and death (measured by a wide range of indicators). The moral minority which disagrees is increasingly small, and dominated by religious people.

This trend, allied with the rise of violent forms of Islamic extremism from 9/11 onwards, obviously reinforces the majority’s increasing distance from religion. It helps explain why saying you have ‘no religion’ has now overtaken saying you have a religion amongst young people.   

Now consider all this in relation to what are probably religion’s four main functions in Britain, and its ability to carry them out in the future.

First, religion serves people’s spiritual needs. It puts them in touch with transcendence, provides meaning and motivation, offering healing and holiness, and provides inspiration. The existing ‘world religions’, with the exception of Islam, are, increasingly, failing to meet these needs for a majority. This is particularly evident for the old majority churches. So meaning-making and ‘sacralisation’ take place in other ways. One of the most vibrant is the realm of mind-body-spirit practices, whose rise we documented in The Spiritual Revolution. They continue to multiply, divide, and renew, and are likely to continue to do so. They do not replace ‘religions’ in a straightforward way because they generally eschew most of their formal characteristics. Many other people, including atheists, find meaning and significance in a variety of other ways, or none.

Second, civil functions. As Emile Durkheim and his more recent disciple Robert Bellah remind us, religion allows societies and whole nations to hold up a higher vision of who they are and to reflect on their better selves. Events like coronations, state funerals, and jubilees help hold Britain together. This is ‘civil’ religion. Here the historic cathedrals, which have resisted the dogmatising, counter-cultural trend, are likely to continue to perform many of these functions, particularly in England, but with more openness to other groups. At the same time, the growth of alternative forms of local, civic, and global rituals is likely to continue. Recent examples include the recent display of ceramic poppies by the Tower of London, and the rising popularity of calendrical pagan festivals like Beltane.

Third, religion offers communitas – that sense of close community and common purpose which is especially important to those who are activist members of religious groups. For some, like first-generation migrants, religion will continue to provide this kind of support, often of a material as well as spiritual kind. But the appeal of communitas will probably continue to dwindle in a mobile society in which individuals are increasingly networked to one another beyond the local, neighbourhood setting. Still, occasional local communitas like that provided by churches when people gather for special rituals like weddings or funerals or a Christmas or Harvest service will continue, if churches are willing and able to provide them in the future.

Fourth, religion can serve as an engine of altruism. Religion offers narratives, symbols, and rituals to support it, and appropriate institutions to shape and channel sisterly love. But alternative ‘engines’ are likely to continue taking over this role – particularly campaigning and charitable bodies. The growing concern with an ecological ethic and lifestyle will be carried by them.

Finally, religion serves to transmit tradition. As they become more counter-societal, the old religions have been abandoning this function – rejecting ‘traditionalism’ in favour of more scriptural forms of dogmatism, and trying to excise ‘accretions’. Other bodies, like the National Trust, history societies, and parts of the heritage industry are likely to continue to inherit this function.

In conclusion, if Britain remains an affluent, peaceful, liberal country, the trend of liberal shrinkage relative to non-liberal minorities in the old ‘world religions’ – within the overall decline of ‘religion’ – is likely to continue. These religions will continue to provide religious functions for their members, but turn their backs on wider cultural values. Around this old religious bloc a new majority will continue to grow, in which a proliferation of suppliers – including many more women – will offer all sorts of ways of meeting people’s need for meaning and purpose, some labelled spirituality, some not labelled either religious or spiritual at all. Altruism will be driven by a broad range of religious and non-religious bodies, and tradition – or rather many different traditions – will be passed on in new ways, including revival of ancient practices. The focus of the sacred will continue to shift, opening up not only to a global vision, but a planetary one.

If you care about the old religions, you will mourn. If you think they have made themselves irrelevant, you will rejoice. And if you believe a bit of both, you will probably have mixed feelings.

Linda Woodhead is the Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University


Image from wikimedia, available in the public domain.


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