Recent Historical Articles on Secularization

Historians continue to debate the nature and the timing of secularization in Britain, and some even question whether the concept is still meaningful as a framework for understanding long-term religious change. Such debates provide an essential context for evaluating and interpreting the available quantitative evidence, and four new contributions are highlighted in this post. All are articles in commercial academic journals and are thus not yet freely available in the public domain, although copies can be obtained through document delivery and pay-per-view services.

Callum Brown, ‘The People of “No Religion”: the Demographics of Secularisation in the English-Speaking World since c. 1900’, Archiv für Sozialgeschichte, Vol. 51, 2011, pp. 37-61

Brown explores the social history of the rise of the people of ‘no religion’ in the UK, Ireland, Canada, and the USA, with additional evidence from Australia and New Zealand. He uses population census (in the main) and sample survey data. He particularly covers the period 1950-2010, but also includes a review of data back to 1900. He concludes that the 1960s ‘changed everything in the history of “no religion”’.

Jonathan Clark, ‘Secularization and Modernization: the failure of a “Grand Narrative”’, Historical Journal, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2012, pp. 161-94

Clark rejects as untenable the traditional model of progressive secularization devised within the sociology of religion, less for its statistical base (which he barely discusses) than for the historical framework within which such data are set and interpreted. His argument rests upon the major historiographical trends he perceives from the 1980s onwards, which have undermined the notion of a fundamental divide between ‘modern’ and ‘pre-modern’ societies.

Jeremy Morris, ‘Secularization and Religious Experience: Arguments in the Historiography of Modern British Religion’, Historical Journal, Vol. 55, No. 1, March 2012, pp. 195-219

Morris surveys the secondary literature on religious decline in Britain during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, commencing with Edward Wickham’s Church and People in an Industrial City (1957). He argues for ‘dispensing with the straitjacket of secularization’, which he sees as deriving part of its authority from ‘Christianity’s own pathology of decay and renewal’, and for a more broadly-based, ethnographic approach which focuses on the nature of popular religious experience.

Dominic Erdozain, ‘“Cause is not quite what it used to be”: the Return of Secularisation’, English Historical Review, Vol. 127, No. 525, April 2012, pp. 377-400

This is a review article of six books on secularization published between 2007 (Charles Taylor’s massive and philosophical account of A Secular Age) and 2011. Most space is found for a discussion of Steve Bruce’s Secularization: in Defence of an Unfashionable Theory, of which Erdozain is often sharply critical, and Secularisation in the Christian World: Essays in Honour of Hugh McLeod, edited by Callum Brown and Michael Snape. Erdozain’s final plea is to avoid confusing the decline of religion with its death.


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