Grace Davie – Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox, Book Review

davie2015Grace Davie’s 1994 book, Religion in Britain since 1994: Believing without Belonging, has become a classic in the sociology of religion and its memorable subtitle has even filtered into the popular consciousness. I’ve heard clerics and Christian activists use the term ‘believing without belonging’ to describe the dynamic where church attendance has declined, but people still retain belief in God and some Christian doctrines, or consider themselves ‘spiritual, but not religious.’

Davie has now written a substantially updated version of the book, Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox (Wiley Blackwell, 2015). It admirably informs readers of substantial research and development in the sociology of religion in the intervening two decades, and provides an assessment of the complex ways in which religion continues to impact public life in a seemingly ‘secular’ Britain.

The ‘paradox’ which Davie includes in her subtitle is this (p. 205):

‘… the decline in active membership in most, if not all, churches in this country, alongside the growing significance of religion in public – and therefore political – life.’

Accordingly, Davie paints a picture of a complex secularization in Britain, where declines in church attendance are balanced not only by the persistence of some traditional forms of religion, but also by more dynamic, experiential forms of religion. In this milieu, which some theorists have described as a ‘market’, there is a shift from religious ‘obligation’ to religious ‘consumption,’ with individuals increasingly choosing their religion.

Davie helpfully identifies six ‘factors to take into account’ when considering religion in contemporary Britain, arguing that these also apply to varying degrees in other European societies. (In my forthcoming book, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, I introduce Davie’s six factors and discuss them in the context of the island of Ireland.) The factors are (adapted from pp. 3-4):

  1. The role of the historic churches in shaping British culture;
  2. An awareness that these churches still have a place at particular moments in the lives of British people, though they are no longer able to influence – let alone discipline – the beliefs and behaviour of the great majority of the population;
  3. An observable change in the actively religious constituencies of Britain, which operate increasingly on a model of choice, rather than a model of obligation or duty;
  4. The arrival into Britain of groups of people from many different parts of the world, and with very different religious aspirations from those seen in the host society;
  5. The reactions of Britain’s secular elites to the increasing salience of religion public as well as private life;
  6. A growing realization that the patterns of religious life in modern Europe (including Britain) should be considered an ‘exceptional case’ in global terms – they are not a global prototype.

Davie acknowledges that these and other changes have been carefully documented by a growing community of sociologists of religion in Britain, whose work has been supported by a number of British and European funding schemes specifically focused on religion. While I suspect much of this funding may have been driven by a fear of Islam, and therefore a desire to understand it, it also has contributed to advances in the academic field. One of the pleasures of reading Davie’s book is how she adeptly condenses the depth and breadth of this research into the narrative, providing perspectives on immigrant religion, the growth of New atheism and committed secularism, the role of religion in the public health service and the armed forces, religion in the regions, the explosive (and unexpected) growth of religious practice in the city of London, the increased popularity of city centre cathedrals, the appeal of conservative religious enclaves, media portrayals of religion, and more.

The book also updates Davie’s own thought, including her development of the concept of ‘vicarious religion,’ which she sees as an advance on ‘believing without belonging.’

Davie describes vicarious religion as a situation where an active minority believe and practice on behalf of an inactive majority – with the implicit and explicit approval of the majority.

This concept, which Davie has developed over the last decade, resonates with French sociologist Daniele Hervieu-Léger’s idea of ‘religion as a chain of memory,’ which persists and continues to impact people’s social lives even if they are not committed to regular religious practice. Davie also sees vicarious religion as socially important in other ways, such as offering a space for debate for controversial topics like as same-sex marriage. She argues that the ‘unremitting attention’ the Church of England, in particular, has received in this debate ‘…leads me to suggest that this is one way in which society as a whole comes to terms with profound shifts in the moral climate’ (p. 83).

The section on each region of the UK in the book are quite short – about two pages each for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – so for local readers it’s not the place to go for a full-blown analysis for the changing dynamics of religion in Northern Ireland. Davie does, however, note that by certain indicators, the Catholic population of Northern Ireland seems to be ‘secularizing’ more rapidly than the Protestant population – something that I explore in more depth in the forthcoming Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland.

There is much in Davie’s new book for sociologists of religion, as it provides a succinct and elegantly written overview of the state of the field. I anticipate it will become essential reading for students not only in Britain, but also in Europe and North America, as it engages effectively with so many of the debates that are relevant in Western religious contexts.

But there is also plenty in the book for the religious activists and practitioners who may already have been influenced by Davie’s development of ideas like ‘believing without belonging’ and ‘vicarious religion.’ It is clearly written and even the theoretical sections on secularization and religious markets are done with a light and balanced touch. Davie seems aware that this constituency may also be part of her audience, at times even providing advice for them (p. 80):

‘Specifically the churches’ personnel need to appreciate that the situation described as believing without belonging is neither better nor worse than a more straightforwardly (if one may use that term) secular society. It is simply different. Those that minister to a half-believing, rather than unbelieving, society will find that there are advantages and disadvantages to this situation, as there are in any other.’

Near the end of the book, she points to research by Linda Woodhead on the ‘fuzzy’ religious ‘nones’ – people who ‘do not decisively reject God’ but rather ‘ … resist … any kind of identification with ‘religion’ (whether general or specific) or with the label ‘religious’’ (p. 226). She wonders whether ‘believing without belonging’ will gain a new lease of life in describing this growing constituency. For me, this leads to further questions about how religion may continue to influence social and political life in subtle and unexpected ways.

It is questions like that which will continue to occupy not only academics, but those who are living out their faith in changing contexts such as Britain, Ireland, and other parts of Europe and North America. Religion in Britain provides useful insights to those wishing to understand these changing contexts better.


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