For most of the 20th century the received wisdom within the sociology of religion was that ‘Western’ societies exemplified the accuracy of Max Weber’s ‘secularisation thesis’….Religion was in retreat, incresingly confined to the margins of society and rationalism ruled….
From the vantage point of the early 21st century the landscape looks very different indeed. Not so much religion in retreat as resurgent and re-framed. On the one hand we see the ‘rise of spirituality’ partially displacing organised religion [as Linda Woodhead and Grace Davie] note – think the ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’ section in any Waterstones book-shop. And on the other hand we’ve witnessed the increasing political significance of religion and of the social capital that faith groups possess – something that UK politicians from the left and the right have recognised over the last 15 years.
British political leaders appear to be confused – Sometimes they insist that the UK is a ‘secular’ society [usually just after the leaders of faith communities have criticised government social policy as the Archbishop of Canterbury did in 2013 over the dramatic rise of the use of foodbanks and the rise in levels of poverty]. On other occasions the same political leaders claim the Britain is ‘a Christian country’ [although this can seem more like an implicit critique of the multi-faith nature of the UK in the 21st century than a clearly defined ‘theological’ assessment].
So where are we now? Here is one take on the current climate from a former advocate of the secularisation thesis, the sociologist Peter Berger –