Review of Grace Davie, Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox

daviereligioninbritainGrace Davie. Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox (Second Edition). Wiley Blackwell: Chichester, 2015.

I would not normally do a full review of a second edition, but this particular second edition is well worth investing in. This is a sociological, big picture view of the religious context of the UK that is an informative and stimulating read. For some readers it will be more a case of articulating and clarifying what you already know, but for those who are thinking through these issues for the first time, this is an excellent introduction to the religious landscape of the UK.

Much has changed in Britain since the first edition of Religion in Britian was published in 1994, when Davie first introduced the notion of “believing without belonging” to describe the religious habits of many in the UK, in particular the place of religion within public life. The secularization hypothesis of the increasing marginalization and personalization of religious belief and practice has come in for serious scrutiny, but to simply declare it wrong is perhaps an oversimplification of a complex picture. Davie herself has developed her own thinking on the topic, introducing the notion of “vicarious religion” to complement that of “believing without belonging,” by which she means a small minority believe on behalf of the masses, and are subject to critique if they “do not do this properly” (p.6).

Davie identifies six key factors shaping religious life in the UK:

  1. the role of the historic churches in shaping British culture;
  2. an awareness that while these churches have a place at particular moments in the lives of British people, they are no longer able to influence the beliefs and behaviours of the majority of the population;
  3. a shift from a model of obligation to a model of choice or consumption in religious activity;
  4. the recent arrival of immigrants who have a variety of religious aspirations;
  5. the reactions of Britain’s secular elites to the increasing saliance of religion in public as well as private life; and
  6. a growing realization that patterns of religious life in the UK (indeed in Europe) are the global exception, not the global norm.

These six factors are discussed at length throughout the book.

Davie writes as an outsider, a sociological observer who asks questions of those whom she terms “religious professionals” (arguably anyone serious about communicating faith). As an Anglican cleric, the concepts of “vicarious religion” and “believing without belonging” do resonate with my experience of the occasional offices. Mourners at funerals want me to believe in the bodily resurrection even if they are uncertain themselves; all those at a wedding – at that moment at least – ascribe to the concept of a faithful life-long marriage between one man and one woman. The reality that most will not then involve themselves at all in the worshipping life of the church does potentially support Davie’s argument that belief has been outsourced to me as a religious professional. As she puts it

Those that minister to a half-believing, rather than an unbelieving, society will find that there are advantages and disadvantages to this situation, just as there are in any other. Working out appropriate ministerial strategies for this continually shifting and ill-defined context is the central and very demanding task of the religious professional. A firm and necessary grasp of the sociological realities is the beginning. (p.80).

Religion in Britian offers an overview of these sociological realities, in a very readable and accessible form. The book is divided into five parts, covering preliminary issues; religious legacies; shifiting priorities (from obligation to consumption); public religion and secular reactions; and finally a concluding chapter. The discussion is wide ranging, but focuses primarily on Christianity. This is one weakness of the book: at least some discussion of how those of other faiths practise their beliefs would have given a fuller picture. There is much for Anglicans to engage with, including discussions of chaplaincy, faith schools, women bishops, same-sex relationships, and why cathedrals have a lot in common with large charismatic churches. From Davie’s sociological perspective, “both the cathedral and the charismatic service embody religion in the sense of the sacred or ‘set-apart.’ It seems that late modern populations respond warmly to this feature” (p.143).

Davie has written sociology, not theology. This is clear from her observation that Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons are, sociologically speaking, difficult to distinguish from some smaller Protestant denominations. Her aim in writing is simply to increase the religious literacy of her readers, and in this she succeeds. She acknowledges areas of growth as well as those of decline. Her summary of the overall state of the nation is cogent:

Britain is markedly more secular than it used to be, but by no means totally so; it is also more diverse, but unevenly – the regional variations are considerable. Indifference, moreover, interweaves with unattached belief on the one hand, and more articulate versions of the secular on the other. Each of these elements, morover, on the others (p.223).

This book should be read as a complement to the discussions of the church growth movement. It provides a good overview of the state of religion in Britain today (although, as noted above, this is perhaps overly biased towards Christianity) and thus gives people a place from which to begin. If you want to help anyone who lives primarily in a Christian environment understand the whole of British society, this is an excellent place to start.

This book review was originally produced for Anvil Journal. The Journal is currently transitioning to a new partnership with CMS. During this phase, book reviews are being published by Fulcrum.

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