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The cultivation of conformity

The cultivation of conformity

Madeleine Pennington reviews Ben Pink Dandelion’s latest book, The Cultivation of Conformity. 24/02/2020

“This book is about the inter–relationship between religious groups and wider society, and about the way religious groups change in relation to societal norms…”

Thus begins Ben Pink Dandelion’s latest book, The Cultivation of Conformity. And whether it’s the recent private member’s bill to remove bishops from the House of Lords, or the decision by St Hilda’s College in Oxford to abolish its Christian chapel in favour of a multi–faith space, it is tempting to imagine the relationship between religion and society in modern Britain leading in one direction: one submits to the other. In these examples, secularism takes on the role of gracious host – and faith groups should ideally bring a friend, as multi–faith spaces are assumed to be fairer and more neutral than confessional ones.

Should we, then, simply expect to see an increasingly muscular secular hegemony in the coming years? Numerical shifts towards non–religion in the UK as a whole might seem to suggest as much, just as received sociological wisdom tells us that religious groups generally moderate their truth claims to cohere with those of the majority over time. Yet historically such drifts towards the mainstream have resulted from the need to avoid persecution and secure rights – that is, a negotiation between vulnerable religious minorities and the State. Applying the same argument in modern Britain would imply that, even in a liberal democracy, religion must negotiate with the State to ensure its survival. It would also suggest (ironically) that secular states behave in a similar way to hostile religious governments.

Enter Pink Dandelion who, by refreshing and timely contrast, argues that the direction of travel is neither unidirectional nor inevitable. Rather, interactions between religion and society are in a constant state of motion, and change does not follow a straight line. Crucially, this is because negotiation between religion and society is not merely between Church and State, but is just as much (if not more so) directed by the role of wider popular culture and individual believers. This is a four–way dynamic between civil authorities, wider culture, organisational religion, and popular faith. Religion, like anything else, operates in a marketplace of ideas.

Dandeliontakes the Quaker movement as his case study, and his headline argument is that widespread popular non–religion in our own time has led British Quakerism to “secularise” from the inside. This process has not been driven by a desire to placate hostile civil authorities, but by the preferences of Quaker members themselves: many explicitly cite the “lack of religious dogma” as their main reason for attraction to the group, so naturally de–emphasising elements of distinctive belief in their interactions with those outside the movement.

Yet if we were tempted to view the “liquid religion” of Quakerism merely as an unusually vulnerable recipient of culture – or indeed, even as a canary in the mine foreshadowing the wider implosion of religion in the United Kingdom – Dandelion alsonotes how the same four–way dynamics can produce unexpected reversals. His most compelling example in this regard is the Quaker response to the First World War, interrupting a time of increasing assimilation for the Religious Society of Friends. Internal Quaker regulations around endogamy and plain dress were relaxed in the mid–nineteenth century, Friends were finally allowed admission into British universities in 1871, and responsible citizenship had gradually been accepted as a legitimate expression of faithfulness. However, the outbreak of war – and especially the introduction of conscription in 1916 – meant that “citizenry was no longer an adequate response” for the pacifist Quakers. They instead “chose to be outlaws”, and many faced prison as a result. Even those whose conscientious objection was approved faced significant social stigmatisation. This led, in sociological terms, to the reassertion of sectarian tendencies within Quakerism even from a time of growing coherence with wider society.

Taken together, these two vignettes – the internal secularisation of contemporary British Quakerism, and the Quaker response to war a century ago – present a compelling challenge to fatalistic readings of Britain’s religious landscape. Things can (and do) play out in unexpected ways where interactions between institution, state, believer and culture are concerned – and Dandelion’s re–orientation of our attention towards the popular is particularly appropriate to the modern world. It is not that the choices of our civil authorities are unimportant. But in today’s Britain, “soft” forces can be just as transformative as the hard edge between Citizen and State. This is demonstrated by Theos’ upcoming report on the religious demographics of London: immigration plays a particularly significant role, and globalisation – so often portrayed as the preserve of a liberal, cosmopolitan elite – can in fact increase levels of religiosity rather than undermining them. The result is that London is now the most religious place in the UK.

The Cultivation of Conformity is a thoroughly readable and consistently thought–provoking reflection on the future of religious expression in an increasingly non–religious culture. At a time when the place of faith in society is changing along multiple axes, the search for solid ground is understandable – but Dandelion encourages us to look beyond lazy assumptions of neutrality and inevitable secularisation. Where we go next is far from certain.


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 Image: Scott Betts

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine joined Theos in 2018 as a researcher on the Free Churches Commission, investigating the impact of churches on social cohesion across England. She holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and previously worked as a research scholar in Philadelphia. She is the author of The Christian Quaker: George Keith and the Keithian Controversy (Brill: 2019) and is now working on her second book, entitled Quakers, Christ and the Enlightenment (OUP, forthcoming).

Posted 24 February 2020

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