Prof Linda Woodhead may be the best known of the sociologists who have been trying to understand the phenomenon of religious commitment in England today, including, recently in particular, the rise in the number of ‘nones’, that is those who say they have no such commitment. She does not see a straight forward growth in hostility, secularism or atheism but rather a process of indifference, perceived irrelevance and invisibility.
I’ve been working through the last part of a newly published article of hers on this ‘emergence of a new cultural majority’. She focuses first on the ‘usual suspects’ of pluralism and individualism in the society of which we are part.
Pluralism can mean ‘it becomes harder and harder for religion to be an unquestioned part of the culture, handed down from generation to generation’. For many, it also ‘involves an embrace of the ideal of tolerance’ so that ‘a multicultural value set is normative for young people’. So there is both the decline in one cultural assumption (the Christian default setting – albeit still influential in many ways) and the growth of another (an increasing sense that absolute religious claims are not possible – quite apart from sometimes clearly being dangerous and destructive).
Individualism is not primarily about being self-centred but about both equality as an absolute value and a wish not to defer to what presents as a limiting higher authority. Her observation is that for much of our society ‘contrary to the view that there is pervasive moral fragmentation... there is actually a massive moral consensus about the importance of individual’s freedom of choice’.
As an aside, the picture clearly isn’t uniform. For some, individual choice in a pluralistic setting means taking strong personal ownership of an intolerant and/or religious position: I was struck by her footnote that ‘Olivier Roy argues in relation to many second-generation and third-generation Muslims in Europe, it leads to a rejection of the ‘cultural’ Islam of their parents in favour of a purified, scriptural ‘religious’ version of faith’; we are all also aware that ‘having enough of experts’ can mean ‘we don’t want to make room for a multi-cultural reality’.
Anyway, leaving the aside aside, I’ve been plotting her analysis in my own mind on top of an earlier piece of thinking which identified the problem for any society of attempting to be diverse, democratic and have an established religion; the suggestion was one of the three simply has to give way.
So perhaps it is simply that pluralism, individualism and the insights of a dominant tradition cannot play out together, and the present strength of the first two make it particular difficult at the moment for those of us who feel that the third has a lot to offer.
The photograph is again one from last year’s trip to Arizona, and is one I considered for making a Christmas card (except that many things, including a huge glut of Funerals in the ten days before Christmas, means I didn’t actually send any for the first time in ten years - and perhaps now need to get on with a circular letter for those who sent one to me).