Sunday, May 18, 2014

The decline of religion in sometime Protestant Britain is a matter of serious historical interest not because Britain is still a world power, but because it was the first country to enter modernity through the furnaces of the first industrial revolution and now lies with sometime Protestant Holland close to the epicenter of northwest European secularity. Interestingly the British pattern is reflected in Australasia, above all in New Zealand, which is England and Scotland geographically "upside down." The other two closely affiliated societies, the U.S. and Canada, are sufficiently different in their religious patterns to continue to intrigue historians and sociologists working on comparative trajectories of secularization.

Nearly half a century has passed since I first raised questions about secularization as a universal trend and almost as long since I proposed a delimited theory of secularization pointing to sharply varied historical patterns even in its Western European epicenter. Since then the debate has shifted back and forth, with contributions in Britain by scholars like Grace Davie stressing mutation and the exceptional character of "secular Europe," or Steve Bruce (like Simon Green in his new book, following Bryan Wilson) stressing irreversible and potentially universal decline and religious privatization, or analyses of contemporary spirituality by scholars like Linda Woodhead and Paul Heelas. Something depends on how broadly you define religion, and much depends on how wide you cast your net back in time and across cultures globally. However you look at it, Britain offers a major instance, either of the universal fate awaiting religion as a significant social force everywhere, or else of peculiar features shared with much of northwestern Europe. The debate could hardly be more fundamental.

Simon Green is a historian writing about the institutional death of Protestantism, particularly in its Puritan form as the most characteristic expression of English religion during the period between 1920 and 1960.

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