When was Secularization?

Secularization continues to be a hotly-debated topic with academics, especially among sociologists and historians. There is certainly no consensus about its nature, timing and causation, while a few would even dispute its very existence.

The latest contribution to the literature comes from that arch-pro-secularizationist Professor Steve Bruce of the University of Aberdeen. In collaboration with Tony Glendinning, he has written ‘When was secularization? Dating the decline of the British churches and locating its cause’, British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 61, No. 1, 2010, pp. 107-26.

The principal aim of the article is to defend traditional sociological accounts of secularization through a critique of Callum Brown’s ‘recent-and-abrupt’ view of the process in Britain, as set out in his The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation, 1800-2000 (London: Routledge, 2001, second edition, 2009), and reprised in his Religion and Society in Twentieth-Century Britain (Harlow: Pearson, 2006). Brown sees the social and cultural changes of the 1960s (the permissive society as shorthand) as the trigger for the decline of institutional Christianity in Britain.

Bruce and Glendinning review, rather cursorily, the extant statistical evidence, as it relates to church membership and attendance (but with some reference to rites of passage and social surveys), to restate the more gradual and ‘lumpier’ view of secularization.

According to them, ‘the decline in church attendance began at or before the middle of the nineteenth century and the decline in membership began in the Edwardian years. At best what we see in the late 1950s and 1960s is an acceleration of a pattern established at least half a century earlier.’

They also argue, more speculatively (as they acknowledge), ‘that the explanation of decline may often be located at least a generation earlier than the period in which that decline becomes apparent because it owes as much or more to a failure to recruit children than to adult defection’.

Special significance is thus attached to ‘declining success in socializing the offspring of [church] members’. This is illustrated by data from several surveys, including a birth cohort analysis of the 2001 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey.

Within this context, attention is drawn by Bruce and Glendinning to the social dislocation, particularly in respect of family formation, caused by the Second World War. This is offered as a partial explanation for the breakdown in family transmission of religion and, thereby, religious decline in the late 1950s and 1960s. The war is also alleged to have ‘given a considerable filip’ to religious inter-marriage, which would likewise have impacted negatively upon the inter-generational transmission of faith.

While not entirely implausible, this section of the paper is not wholly convincing, nor well-evidenced (after all, Bruce and Glendinning are not historians).

In terms of religious belief and practice, the authors concede that Clive Field is ‘probably right that the war brought a small acceleration in existing trends rather than any great change’ (Field, ‘Puzzled People revisited: religious believing and belonging in wartime Britain, 1939-45’, 20th Century British History, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2008, pp. 446-79.)

To access the article by Bruce and Glendinning, check first whether your institution (if you have one) or local library has a print or online subscription to British Journal of Sociology. If not, you can order a copy of the article from the British Library Document Supply Centre or pay for short-term access via the publisher’s website at:


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