Religion & Change in Modern Britain by Linda Woodhead and Rebecca Catto; Woodhead to Speak at Belfast Conference, 3-5 September 2014

woodheadcoverIn September (3rd-5th), Belfast will host the bi-annual meeting of the European Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Research Network, the theme of which is ‘Religion in the Public Domain.’

Among the keynote speakers is Prof Linda Woodhead (Lancaster University), whose address will address ‘How Public Religion has changed now that ‘Church and State’ isn’t the Only Game in Town’

Other keynote speakers are Prof John D. Brewer (Queen’s University Belfast) on ‘The Public Value of the Sociology of Religion’ and Dr Erin Wilson (Groningen) on ‘Global Justice in a Postsecular Public Domain: Challenges and Possibilities.’

Woodhead has published widely on religion and social change, including changes in Hinduism, Christianity, alternative spiritualities, paganism, and Islam in Europe. Woodhead’s 2005 book, co-authored with Paul Heelas, The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality, has been one of the most influential in debates in the sociology of religion in the last decade.

Her most recent books are Everyday Lived Islam in Europe (2013), co-edited with Nathal Dessing, Nadia Jeldtoft, and Jorgen Nielsen; and Religion and Change in Modern Britain (2012), co-edited with Rebecca Catto. I expect Woodhead’s recent work in these areas will inform her lecture in Belfast.

Today I review Religion and Change in Modern Britain, to stimulate thinking around some of the themes that are likely to be discussed in Belfast.

Religion and Change in Modern Britain is an ambitious book. It not only introduces readers to the landscape of religion in Britain since 1945, it also invites them to explore that landscape in exceptional depth.

The book is a product of the AHRC-ESRC Religion and Society Research Programme – the largest ever research initiative on religion in Britain – on which Woodhead was a Principal Investigator. Catto, now lecturing in Coventry University, was a Research Associate. You can listen to Woodhead and Catto talk about the conception of the book, and its main themes, here.

It features contributions from 38 scholars of religion over 12 chapters and seven case studies (most chapters were written collaboratively), as well as an introduction by Woodhead. Many, but not all, of the scholars who contributed to the book had received grants from the Religion and Society Research Programme.

At this point I should declare my own interest in the volume: I am a co-author, with Peter Jones of the University of Newcastle, of a chapter titled ‘Religion, Politics and Law.’ This is the part of the book where Northern Ireland receives the most sustained analysis, and I am responsible for writing this section, which begins with the sub-title: ‘Northern Ireland: A Law Unto Itself?

Religion and Change in Modern Britain is primarily geared towards undergraduate students in the social sciences and religious studies. Its companion website is designed to enhance student learning, including audio-visuals (images and podcasts), a timeline of key dates, a glossary of key terms, discussion questions, links to further websites, and suggestions for further reading.

The print book also includes the kinds of features that help students focus on key ideas, such as lists of key terms and suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter. The paperback version sells for £28 on the Routledge site and on amazon, making it more accessible to the general reader than some more highly-priced academic books.

As I have already declared my own involvement and therefore potential bias, I will quote an assessment by Ekaterina Kolpinskaya, reviewing the book in The Political Studies Review:

All in all, Religion and Change in Modern Britain presents a truly collaborative work which is consistent in its main argument and benefits greatly from the expertise of scholars from different disciplines. It is essential reading for those who are interested in religious studies and societal change. Largely targeted at students and scholars, the book is written in a light and comprehensive style, which is a remarkable achievement for a collaborative piece.

The book sets itself the task of addressing four main themes. All four have direct relevance to the theme of ‘Religion in the Public Domain,’ which will be explored at the Belfast conference:

  • The increasingly important role played by non-Christian communities
  • The growth of secularism and the rise of alternative spiritualities
  • Religion and media, welfare and education, politics and law
  • Religious change from cultural and social perspectives

For the wider European/international audience attending the Belfast conference, the details of the British case will be of varying degrees of interest. But the book also has chapters which are strong on theoretical material and contribute to wider debates in the international sociology of religion.

For example, Woodhead’s ‘Introduction’ is useful in its critique of the wider secularization versus de-secularization debate which has raged among sociologists of religion. Woodhead writes that overall, ‘the contributions to this book endorse neither perspective,’ noting that ‘the statistical evidence … is ambiguous: it supports both positions – and neither’ (p. 3). (The maxim ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’ springs to mind …)

But in refusing to align the book with either a secularization or de-secularization perspective, Woodhead challenges the idea that the history of religious change in Britain, or elsewhere for that matter, can be thought of as an evolutionary tale where religion either dies or thrives.

Rather, the British case demonstrates the breakdown of a religious ‘monopoly’ with the decline of the Church of England in some measurable areas (see chapters by Malory Nye and Paul Weller on ‘Controversies as a Lens on Change’ and Matthew Guest, Elizabeth Olson and John Wolffe on ‘Christianity: Loss of Monopoly’).

Britain’s Christian monopoly has been replaced with a complex religious field that includes other religions, committed secularists and humanists, new age spiritualities, and ‘much looser forms of association including small groups, occasional gatherings and festivals, and real and virtual networks’ (p. 27).

Elisabeth Arweck and James A. Beckford’s chapter on ‘Social Perspectives’ engages with some of the key debates in the sociology of religion, including theories that advocate either a ‘secularization’ or ‘de-secularization’ perspective. This chapter adds more depth to points made briefly by Woodhead in the Introduction.

The final chapter, by David Martin and Rebecca Catto on ‘The Religious and the Secular’ is an illuminating reflection on how terms like religious/secular, sacred/profane, and faith/world are ‘mutually constituted’ and dependent on each other. As they conclude (p. 373):

‘It is no longer possible to employ them as neutral and unencumbered once their complicated genesis and entanglement with various modern projects are taken seriously.’

Religion and Change in Modern Britain ultimately describes, analyses, and complicates images of religion in ways that raise further questions about religion’s continued public role not only in Britain, but further afield.

Read the review of John Brewer’s The Public Value of the Social Sciences

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