Review of British Gods by Steve Bruce

The following book review by BRIN’s co-director may be of interest to BRIN readers. This author’s original version is reproduced in accordance with the author self-archiving provision of Brill’s publishing licence. The review was subsequently published in Ecclesiology, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2021, pp.  142–5,

Steve Bruce, (2020) British Gods: Religion in Modern Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press. xv + 282 pages, ISBN 978–0–19–885411–1 (hbk), £25.00.

Steve Bruce is an internationally renowned sociologist who has become a household name in theological circles through his prodigious output of books and journal articles on the sociology of religion. In one of his latest titles, Researching Religion (Oxford University Press, 2018), he persuasively contended for the value, indeed the necessity, of social scientific methods and approaches for the effective study and understanding of religion. Across all his outputs, he has written authoritatively from both contemporary and historical perspectives, and with a dual grounding in theory and empirical sources (qualitative and quantitative). Over the years, he has especially built a reputation for inheriting, from the late Bryan Wilson (whose 1966 classic Religion in Secular Society Bruce edited in 2016), the mantle for promulgating the secularization thesis, which, from roots among the founding fathers of sociology, envisages religious decline in the West as the inevitable but unintended consequence of ‘modernization’ (as defined on p. 2 of the work under review). The thesis gained widespread scholarly acceptance during the long 1970s, but it has subsequently been much contested, even by some of those who do not otherwise deny the waning social influence of religion. Such was the academic turning of the tide that, in 2011, Bruce felt compelled to publish Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory (Oxford University Press) as a vigorous restatement and elaboration of the paradigm.

In its own way, Bruce’s latest book, British Gods, which he describes as an ‘end-of-career summation study’ (p. vi), is an equally strong and insightful reaffirmation of the secularization thesis, but with less overt emphasis on theory and greater synthesis of the evidence. Emulating the model adopted in his Scottish Gods (Edinburgh University Press), which won the Saltire Society Scottish History Book of the Year Award for 2014, Bruce investigates the process of religious change in Britain, mostly since the Second World War, through ‘two overlapping structures: a series of places and a series of themes’ (p. viii). The cross-cutting themes that frame ten of the eleven chapters are, in order of their appearance: the demise of local religious paternalism; religiosity, community cohesion, and external isolation; the social roles and status of the clergy; Christian ecumenism and divisions; the charismatic movement and New Churches; migrant Christians; Muslims and Islamophobia; folk religion and superstition; Spiritualism and spirituality; and religion and politics. Cumulatively, these themes illuminate a vast expanse of the British religious landscape–Christian, non-Christian, and alternative–but, even with the sub-themes that open up within them, inevitably they cannot possibly paint the entire picture within a single volume. This is not a textbook.

These thematic chapters are underpinned by a variety of sources. Several draw upon Bruce’s restudies of religion in places originally examined by anthropologists and sociologists between the 1940s and 1970s. With initial funding from the Leverhulme Trust, these reinvestigations were conducted by Bruce in 2007–14 through a combination of ethnographic fieldwork and archival research. The communities featured (in chapters 2, 3, 5, and 7) in British Gods comprise: three Scottish islands, four Welsh parishes, Gosforth in Cumbria, Northlew in Devon, Banbury in Oxfordshire, and Bolton in Greater Manchester (the last written up here for the first time). The handshake between each of the case studies and the parental chapter theme is not always clean, and there are points at which the structure creaks a bit; as Bruce acknowledges, ‘some of the locale-theme links are a little clunky’ (p. viii). Relevant local, as well as national, trends are further illustrated by mining the large collection of printed and online news clippings that Bruce has assembled over forty years, and by his own participant observation: ‘For an unbeliever I actually spend an inordinate amount of my time attending church services and other religious events’ (p. x). Finally, there is some use of statistics, both in the restudies (which report changes in the number of places of worship, members, and attenders) and through national figures (notably the results of sample surveys). However, the recourse to quantitative data is not obtrusive and perhaps not as extensive as some may think warranted.

Each of the thematic chapters helpfully has its own conclusion, explaining how it contributes to the volume’s central argument, which is, to paraphrase Bruce’s more nuanced prose, religion in Britain has declined–in popularity, prestige, power, and plausibility–during the course of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Although he considers that this has especially been the fate of Christianity (whose net fortunes could not be revived by the charismatic movement, Pentecostalism, or immigration and which has allegedly refocused on ‘therapeutic improvement in the lives of believers’, p. 252), other expressions of religion are said not to have filled the vacuum left by the death and disaffiliation of Christians and, indeed, have often experienced a version of secularization themselves. The claims made by critics in refutation of secularization (sometimes even for resacralization), that religion has not decayed but merely been reshaped, are therefore rejected by Bruce, emphatically so when it comes to the discussion of contemporary spirituality (New Age). Over and above the causal undercurrents of modernization, religious socialization is identified as ‘a proximate lever’ of secularization (‘the failure of religious parents to pass on their faith to their children in sufficient numbers to replace the saints as they die’, p. 248), with the attendant decrease in the national stock of religious knowledge (pp. 76–81, 253–4). The book’s eleventh and final chapter addresses the question of whether the decline in religion can be reversed, firmly answering it in the negative, because religious capital has contracted so much, ambient religion has been lost, the state has become religiously neutral, the public reputation of religion has fallen, religious conversions are rare, religion has become alien, and the odds of meeting a true believer are negligible. At the same time, ‘None of this means that religion will die out any time soon’ (p. 270).

This general line of argument is largely not new. Many readers will be familiar with it from Bruce’s previous books, which remain essential to consult for the detail, for example, Politics and Religion in the United Kingdom (Routledge, 2012) in the case of chapter 10. Such readers will probably already have formed an opinion about buying into the secularization thesis, as articulated by Bruce, or not. Of itself, the representation, updating, and elaboration of the case in British Gods, enormously beneficial though it will be to students, will probably not alter the minds of many academics or practitioners. For this reviewer’s part, forensic examination of the metrics of religious change does confirm that secularization (in the descriptive sense of the word) remains valid as the dominant narrative and direction of travel in Britain during modern times, thereby aligning with Bruce (albeit not necessarily with his thesis, and occasionally baulking at one or other of his overstatements). Nevertheless, there are perhaps two areas that require some supplementation, and to which Bruce might wish to turn his attention in any subsequent research.

One field for further reflection is the existence of a wide range of alternative beliefs and worldviews in contemporary Britain, distinct from the conventional beliefs recognized by Christianity and non-Christian religions. These are considered by Bruce to the degree that he includes chapters in British Gods on folk religion and superstition (which are dealt with somewhat dismissively, portrayed as adjuncts to traditional forms of religion and destined to sink alongside them) and on Spiritualism and spirituality, but the beliefs and worldviews extend beyond these subjects. Two questions arise. Where should such beliefs be positioned on the religiosity/secularity spectrum, and how pervasive are they? In defining the cut-off for what constitutes ‘religion’, Bruce makes passing references to a ‘supernatural’ element as a necessary attribute, although the term does not appear in the index. As for the acceptance of such beliefs, there is no robust evidence since the millennium, apart from the module that Bruce was instrumental in getting included in the 2001 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey; for the rest, we are largely dependent upon rather inadequate commercial polling. The other area that needs highlighting is the burgeoning sub-discipline of non-religion, pioneered by scholars such as Lois Lee, but effectively absent from British Gods. Yet, the exponential rise of the nones has been the single most defining facet of the religious scene since the millennium; depending upon question formulation, they now constitute rather more than half the population, albeit they are far from being monolithically irreligious. An allied paradox is why the various secularist, humanist, and ethical agencies dedicated to the advancement of non-belief appear to have failed to record any significant growth in their paid-up membership as a consequence of secularization. The demand for their wares seems as limited as that for religion.

These considerations aside, British Gods is written with Bruce’s characteristic verve, lucidity, logic, and wit, and in an accessible style, minimizing the use of sociological and other technical jargon, which will prove attractive to the general reader beyond the secularization cognoscenti. While the chapter endnotes are adequate, for the most part, the lack of a bibliography or guide to further reading is perhaps regrettable in a volume that has a summative (and thus potentially introductory) purpose. A few typographical errors remain after copy-editing, some occurring more than once, and alphabetization of the index has gone awry in a few places. Otherwise, production standards are what one would expect from the publisher, and the cover price is highly competitive for a hardback edition. The book seems guaranteed to reach a large and diverse market and deservedly so.

Clive D. Field, University of Birmingham

© Clive D. Field, 2021

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