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Britain: An Increasingly Secular Society

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Religion
Wordcount: 3285 words Published: 27th Apr 2017

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The secularisation of society 'Is the loss of religion's public significance , and its relegation , to the private sphere: its privatisation.' ( B.Wilson, 1985) Whether Britain is or is not becoming a secular society cannot be explained via a few simple arguments , this essay will focus on a few crucial elements such as immigration , culture , science , pluralism and modernity including New Age Religions and there place in society . These need to be focused on in order to distinguish whether in fact Britain is becoming gradually more secular or whether religion is in fact just hard to define or it's becoming increasingly hidden within modern society. Secularisation within Britain has been an ongoing debate for numerous years and arguably it was enhanced due to The Enlightenment period which ultimately decreased church attendances, however ultimately British society cannot be classed as becoming increasingly secular especially with up and coming new religious movements.

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The Enlightenment period in the late 17th century , brought about a shift in philosophical thinking , the influence of science grew greatly and seemed to bring numerous flaws to the previous untouchable religious culture within Britain. Unnervingly this period brought about Deism where individuals formed a desire to define what religion actually consisted of and too some extent it threatened the authoritative nature of the church. Over the years The Enlightenment period due to its influence within society has forced the question is Britain becoming increasingly secular if this is the case then the authoritative nature of science in terms of explaining how we came to be , undermines the key beliefs and theories within religious tradition such as the creation. Alternatively is it merely the fact that people are more inclined to hide their faith and therefore a false picture is created as regards to Britain becoming an increasingly secular society.

British Society in relation to religion as a whole is too complex to define as different religions prosper in different areas and there are many explanations regarding what makes a religion. Moreover to say whether British society as a whole is becoming secular means identifying what religion is classed as and applying it to British culture. This can cause problems when focusing on certain groups in certain cultures for example in the UK 2001 census one of the 'religious' groups that was mentioned was the Jedi's .

One may argue that there is no such religion as it is primarily based upon a fictional story, and therefore this opens numerous issues when trying to distinguish between a religious and secular society especially in Britain where new religions are rapidly forming such as the Church Of Divine Science. The connotations used to define religion can vary significantly , for example definitions can either be to broad e.g. 'A sense of the sacred' , or to narrow such as classing religion as purely a 'Belief in God' . The problem created here is that can frequently exclude many forms of different religious groups for instance Buddhism , where as broad definitions can often include literature and music which some people may not class as a religion. One's belief , practice and experience as regards to religion are of vital importance when focusing on modern religious developments within Britain, especially when discussing the secularisation of society. There are two main streams of thought when focusing on one's beliefs and practices that should be kept in mind when distinguishing between movements that are classed as religious and those that are classed as secular, for instance just because one believes ,but does not practice a certain aspect of their religion does not mean that they are not religious . Weber believes that ' Belief' is a key dimension of religion and that you can't have a faith or be part of a religious group unless you have strong belief , moreover Durkheim emphasises the fact that practicing a particular aspect of one's faith is as important as believing in the first place as well as the importance of belief.

On the one hand, it is predominately argued that Britain is becoming increasingly secular via the significant reduction in people attending church and church membership. For example P.Brierley showed how church membership fell dramatically from 27% ( members of population as a percentage) in 1900 to merely 10 % in 2000. Moreover in 1900's church membership reached 8,664 and in 2000 membership had decreased to 5,682 despite an increase in population ( P.Brierley 1999.) This is heavily supported by Brown (2001) and Bruce (2002) who both believe that religion within Britain has been declining over the last four decades . However it is important to point out that these figures cannot be taken literally , as evidence to support the theory that Britain is becoming an increasingly secular society as membership typically only occurred amongst 'dissenting congregations'. However the majority of churches for example national churches such as the Church Of Scotland did not have a form of membership. ( Bruce 2002 : 68) Consequently the statistics can arguably be flawed as certain churches may have been exempt from the findings such as The Church Of England , Wales and Scotland. This is heavily supported by (P. Brierley and Longley 1993) as the statistical data regarding church members highlights the decrease in the 20th century , in 1975 for instance the total number of church members which incorporated free churches totalled 8,000,169 where as in 1992 it only totalled 6,718,247 including the free churches .

However huge problems are faced when just relating to statistical data for instance , the wording of the questions asked can play a vital role in the answers given as individuals have a tendency to interpret things differently . For example one may only class themselves as a church member if they go to church every week were in another section of society someone may class themselves as a church member if they have only been once before or are religious but just don't have the time to participate in services at church . Finally a huge flaw in relation to the table by P.Brierley et al (1999) is the fact that by using the word 'Church' it can disregard other religious groups who don't call their meeting place a church for example Quakers merely have what they call a meeting place or house as opposed to a church. A combination of these statistical flaws greatly reduces the credibility and reliability of the data which therefore weaken the claim that Britain is becoming increasingly secular, as none of the empirical evidence is reputable.

Furthermore in order to heighten the claim that society in Britain is not becoming increasingly secular , it is imperative to focus on the reasons behind why academics believe that Britain is becoming an increasingly secular society in order to disprove their theories. For instance, (Starke and Finke 200:61) believe that 'it is science that has the most deadly implications for religion' and therefore is responsible for Britain becoming increasingly secular one could argue. Science often undermines key aspects of Religious beliefs for example Jesus' miracles and the 'Creation Story' for example for those who believe in God, it relates to how he made the world in 6 days and rested on the seventh. Whereas Science as a whole believes in the theory of the 'Big Bang' , where in fact the world was created via a set of chemical reactions. The discrepancies that appear between science and religion including the fact that one could argue there is no empirical evidence that miracles or visions of God for instance occur. This problem has caused huge problems for religion , especially due to the work of Emmanuel Kant who discredits the 'Kernel' which is used to relate to something that every individual can relate to for instance God as the creator . The 'Husk' predominately focuses on the aspects of religion which rely on faith and belief such as miracles, as there is no empirical evidence and therefore the 'husk' is also discredited. Due to the Enlightenment period more and more individuals were seen to be following the thinking of Kant as regards to needing proof to believe in God. However this has been counteracted by (David Martin and Roy Wallis ), as both individuals believe that science and religious beliefs should be treated in the same way and not so that one receives more attention or status than the other. Moreover Bruce (1992) opposes Starke and Finke as he believes that 'I do not actually think that science has directly contributed much to secularization.' ( S. Bruce)

'Believing without Belonging' (G. Davie 1994) is becoming an increasingly popular line of argument that one uses when trying to discuss whether or not a society is in fact becoming increasingly secular , here it relates to British society as regards to whether or not British society is becoming increasingly secular. The basis of Davie's thesis, is that one can believe without necessarily belonging in this case individuals can believe in God or in a metaphysical being without going to church or proclaiming their religion in public. The 2001 Census table 13.19 in Great Britain reinforces the fact that actually people's believing in religion has not decreased ,as this table shows an increase in religious believing , despite the fall in church attendance. The chart is done in terms of percentages of the population (%) :





Church of England/Anglican






Roman Catholic






Christian - no denomination






Presbyterian/Free-Presbyterian/Church of Scotland






Baptist or Methodist



Other non-Christian



Other Protestant/Other Christian






United Reform Church



Refusal/Not Answered/Didn't Know









Furthermore the belonging and believing debate is highlighted by Beckford (1992) who sees this feature of religion as 'an underexplored aspect of the secularisation debate in Britain' In addition he claims that 76% of British adults profess to believe in a God and 50% claim that God is still vitality important in their lives . The argument relates to how change is not necessarily dependent of other social change within Britain, Religious believing seems to be detached from religious belonging ( G . Davie 1990a) . G. Davie successfully uses this central theme to highlight a key parallel within Britain which can evidently be used to discredit the view that Britain is in fact becoming an increasingly secular society. She relates to all the volunteer associations and how they find it difficult to attract and retain members, 'belonging' simultaneously loosing popularity just like in religion and in other fields the decline in religious belonging does not directly relate to the decline of religious belief , it is merely a decline in faith in traditional religious institutes (S. Bruce 2002 : 71 ) . The view that there has been a general flight from institutions has been supported by a leading Anglican Cleric , who furthermore relates to how 'trade union membership is down as is that for political parties' ( Petre 1999: 15 ). This reinstates the view that , it is not purely religious trends have declined which supports the fact that secularisation is not occurring within British society.

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Despite this, one could argue that British society is becoming increasingly secular even though the Uk census 2001 figures do not support this theory. Many believe that for example the growth of Catholicism is due to immigration as opposed to traditional British society, as immigrants traditionally practice religion more than the rest of the population. Moreover this relates to modernity and how in the 21st Century culture and society do change for example , Berger (1990) believes that British society has changed dramatically as regards to pluralism becoming more widely acceptable , he believes that pluralism actually undermines the key concepts within each religion and religion in general . He believes that religion has been marginalised and that we're heading towards an increasingly secular future within Britain. However Berger has since changed his mind and now supports the view that secularisation within British society is not occurring. Although despite his change of mind, he still does not look at the world with religious meaning , where as Weber (2002) is interested in how religion is meaningful in our lives on a daily basis for instance when we think about birth or death or natural disasters we often turn to religion for answers.

He is heavily supported by Stark who is more inclined to support the view that religion is not decreasing within British society . His theory developed with William Brainbridge (1987)relates to how firstly, people will always need religion even if it is just for immortality , and secondly he argues that British society before '1851 was not as religious' as we first though, which therefore suggests then when comparing figures from 1900 and before it will lead to inaccurate conclusions being drawn. The need for religion in British society which Stark briefly relates to, can be proven via the government , as society has changed it is apparent that the government are increasingly trying to integrate different faiths into schools as opposed to keeping secular religious schools or colleges. This heightens the view that despite pluralism and immigration within Britain society is not becoming increasingly secular. As regardless to whether immigrants have increased the figures of Catholicism or not , levels of religious belief as a whole in Britain are increasing and this also corresponds to the increasing number of new religious movements in Britain today.

Is British society becoming increasingly secular , no , it's changing and adhering to new cultural guidelines and beliefs. A variety of academics believe that secularisation is occurring due a decline of attendance at church's . However this is inaccurate as New religions within Britain are constantly developing especially since 1945 , it has been estimated that there is over 500 new religious movements that have occurred between 1945-1990 . ( G. Parsons 1993: 277) Scientology , The Unification church , the Divine Light Mission are a few of the most well known movements in Britain since 1945. New Age Religions also relate to 'self-religions' which often include spiritualities and psychotherapies such as Taoism , white witchcraft , Occult , Jungian psychology , martial arts and yoga. ( Heelas, Lyon , M. Bowman 2nd edition 1993 ). New Age religions, are as much about a specific lifestyle choice as adhering to a set of beliefs as most new religious movements are not authoritarian run as some traditional religions are, they tend to follow more of an egalitarian route. It is highly probable that 'over a million people have at least dabbled or flirted with some kind of new religious movement'. (G.Parsons 1993: 278) Therefore as regards to whether or not Britain is becoming increasingly secular it can be argued that no it isn't as religious movements are continuing to grow and develop with vast amounts of support.

On the other hand , one could question how 'exactly a New Religious Movement is to be defined.'( Barker ,1989a, 145-9) Problems with defining what a religious movement is causes many issues within society as one could argue that if there is no religious teachings attached to the movement or a pattern of set beliefs that need to be followed then , it is not a true religious group . The Jedi's are a clear example as define themselves as a religious group despite the fact they do not believe in any traditional religious values or beliefs . How can one develop a new religious group when there is no religious beliefs involved? It is vital to develop the understanding behind what is classed as a religious group and what in fact religion is. In conclusion it proves to be a weak oppositional point regarding British society not becoming increasingly secular, as there is no empirical evidence to prove that some of the movements are even religious.

However, a paradox is created as sociologists have been studying New Religious movements to such an extent that they know a great deal about the amount of people who participate in these 'Religions'. However this then results in less being known about principal Christian churches and about the 'silent majority ' of the British population , who claim they believe in God but yet fail to specify any further information. (G.Parsons :277) By heavily focusing on either New Age Religions or Traditional Religions it leaves room for error when trying to evaluate whether British society as a whole is becoming increasingly secular . Resulting in the fact that one cannot conclude that British society is becoming increasingly secular if one's focus is predominantly on the trends within Traditional Religions , likewise if one focuses purely on New Age Religions then the information regarding traditional religions is merely forgotten about. However by incorporating both aspects of religion it is clear that British society is not becoming increasingly secular as strong traditional churches have ongoing backing due to the development of new religious movements.

Despite statistical evidence that infers that secularisation is occurring within British society , the flaws mentioned in relation to the statistics such as how you define church membership and religion as a whole discredits the reliability and validity of the statement. Moreover as there is a vast increase in the number of new religions despite pluralism , it shows that whether individuals privately or publicly show their faith , religions within Britain new and old still shape society , especially as they have government support such as the development of religious schools . The influence of science within this debate is insignificant as , one who strongly believes will not alter that belief for anyone or any circumstance. Individuals do not need to belong to believe , one can pray and adhere to specific beliefs anywhere, for example one doesn't have to go to church to prove they are religious . Similar church membership as previously stated does not truly reflect the situation with Britain as membership as a whole within British society has declined for instance in volunteering organisations. (G. Davie 1994) Religion will always remain a prominent aspect of British society , as religion is ever changing , it adapts to new cultural expectations , beliefs and situations this is proven on a daily basis with new religious movements . The notion that Britain is becoming increasingly secular is inaccurate, Britain may not be as predominately religious as it previously was , however religion is still a vital aspect of British society and always will be whilst people still have faith.


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