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December 06, 2004

Religious America and Secular Britain: is there an explanation?

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

Organised religion is thriving in the USA, while it is in very bad shape in the UK. This fact has been heard repeatedly, especially recently as an explanation of the outcome of the US presidential elections. Much less often, however, is an adequate explanation offered for this difference. Prof. William D. Rubinstein considers the accuracy of the claim and what the explanation for it might be.

The recent American presidential election has focussed attention, yet again, on one of the most obvious examples of what historians term "American exceptionalism", the fact that organised religion continues to be far more important in the United States than in Britain - or, for that matter, than virtually anywhere else in the Western world. From a truly international perspective, to be sure, this aspect of American social behaviour is not strange or deviant at all: in virtually every socio-cultural region of the world except for Britain, western Europe, and a few places historically derived from them, religion, especially in its fundamentalist form, is arguably more important today than it has been at any time in the previous century, and has become more central and more visible since the abrupt decline of secular universalistic ideologies like Communism. In most social and cultural trends America and Britain normally experience fairly similar tendencies. With religion, however, they are plainly very different.

It is, of course, quite easy to exaggerate these differences. The proposition that America is more religious than Britain is by no means unproblematic and may be much more ambiguous and debatable than many would suppose, even assuming that there is common agreement on what being "religious" means. According to the 2005 New York Times Almanac, in the year 2000 there were precisely 158,294,022 members of any Christian religion in the United States. The number of adherents of all the non-Christian religions in the United States totalled, I suppose, about 13 million or so, meaning that about 171 million Americans were members of any religion in 2000. But the population of the United States, according to the 2000 American census, was 281.4 million, meaning that over 110 million Americans - nearly 40 per cent of the population - were not official members of any religion. This figure of 158.3 million Christians is also obviously open to any amount of questioning.

By far the largest Christian denomination in the United States is Roman Catholicism, which in 2000 had no fewer than 62 million members - more than the entire population of Britain. What this figure means is plainly very debatable. How many American Catholics obey their Church's teachings on artificial means of birth control, for instance (very few, according to most surveys), go to confession, or even attend mass? With this and all other denominational statistics, too, one wonders how inflated these numbers really are - how much double counting among parishes, how many "dead souls" still enumerated in the records, although they died years earlier, etc.

With Britain, the opposite situation would seem arguably to be the case. On the face of it, attendance at recognized Christian churches and chapels has unquestionably suffered a catastrophic decline. Membership in any Christian church in Britain actually continued to rise in absolute numbers until the 1930s, increasing from 8.7 million in 1900 to 10.4 million in 1930. It declined slowly until about 1960, but since then has suffered a 40 per cent drop, to 5.9 million in 2000. (Peter Brierley, ed., UK Christian Handbook- Religious Trends 2000/2001, No. 2, p. 2.12). In 1930, 31 per cent of the adult British population were members of a Christian church; in 2000 the figure was 12 per cent. Virtually every Christian denomination has undergone the same level of decline, with the exception of a handful of groups such as the Eastern Orthodox and Pentecostals, and then almost always due to immigration. Sunday school enrolments, the backbone of the intergenerational transmission of the Christian religion in modern times, have undergone a particularly steep decline - and so on, each indicator of shrinkage following upon the next.

Nevertheless, there is another side of the British coin, although this is often very difficult to discern. The 2001 British census was the first to ask an optional religious question about the religious identity of residents of the UK. Seventy-two per cent of the British people described themselves as Christians, with another five per cent or so as adherents of non-Christian religions. Only about one person in five, therefore, claimed not to be an adherent, in some sense, of a religion. In times of national tragedy or crisis, religious identity always immediately rises, at least for a short period of time. For instance, church attendances in Britain increased immediately after Princess Diana's death and just after September 11, 2001. Organised religion still appears to act as a rallying point in times of crisis. After the Soham murders in 2002, it will be recalled that the local Anglican vicar became the spokesman for the local community.

Perhaps the most striking evidence against there being a comprehensive decline in organised religion in Britain may be found in one area which, for some reason, is seldom mentioned in discussions of this subject, namely funerals. I know of no real statistics which exist on the matter (if any are known to readers, I would be interested in learning about them) but it seems likely that something like 80-90 per cent of funerals in Britain are carried out with a religious service. Funerals are, it seems, the very last area of human experience in Britain which has not been secularised and which remains in the domain of religion in the old, pre-modern sense. One might offer several explanations as to why this is so, but I suppose the most important is that nearly everyone regards a secular funeral as inappropriate and unseemly. Even hard-core agnostics appear to be taking no chances: it might all just turn out to be true.

Notwithstanding any of this, there are, of course, very significant differences between religious observance in the two countries, the most important of which being that many more people go to church or other religious services in America than in Britain. In the United States, virtually all recent surveys of religion have arrived at the same conclusion, that about 40 per cent of the American population are regular church-goers, normally attending a place of worship at least once a month. In Britain, the figure is probably about ten per cent - 15 per cent at most. Moreover, there does not appear to be any evidence of a decline in the United States among younger people: about 40 per cent of teenagers and university-age students are regular churchgoers. At most American colleges and universities, as anyone who has ever spent time there will be aware, student religious groups are normally among the largest and most active societies on campus, dwarfing in size the various radical factions which often receive far more publicity. In Britain, while church-going among young people has not become extinct, it is obviously far more marginal, even eccentric, something approaching an embarrassment about which one is secretive and apologetic.

The question, therefore, is why, and here we run into a considerable problem, in that there does not appear to be a single cogent explanation or short series of cogent reasons as to why this is so: it seems simply to be the case. (Try making a list in your mind of possible explanations and then assess how compelling they really are.) One influential book on religion in this country, Callum G. Brown's The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000 (Routledge, 2000) linked religious decline with a systematic change in the status of women, with the social revolution of the 1960s seen as virtually ending the domestic nature of women's self-identity and perceived role, as well as ending the sexual "double standard" and barriers to women's full participation, without guilt, in professional and business life. Brown's book has been widely praised for its insight. He honestly (pp. 196-197) discusses the United States, concluding, rather lamely, that although the same trends have occurred in the United States as here, the antireligious "challenge" has been "emerging…but not triumphing" in America - which, of course, is not an explanation at all. All social surveys of American behaviour have identified precisely the same behavioural trends there as here - 75 per cent of married women aged 15-44 claimed to have had premarital sex, with 52 per cent having their first sexual experience by the age of eighteen; 15 per cent of married women (and 22 per cent of married men) admitted to having had extramarital affairs, and so on - without the loss of religious identity as has occurred in this country.

Explaining these differences is, indeed, very difficult, and one can offer only a number of tentative explanations. One reason might stem from the very decentralised nature of American society where there is, of course (and cannot be) an established church, and only a very limited facsimile of a national "Establishment", in the manner of the traditional London-Oxbridge elite in this country. America's highly decentralised, continent-wide structure of individual communities seem to be productive of social structures and modes of behaviour which are locally-based and only loosely influenced by wider trends outside, especially by intellectual trends initiated by metropolitan sophisticates. Not only is America more formally religious than here, but the array of religious denominations is also very different, with only a tiny percentage of Americans belonging to what could be described as a "liberal" church. For instance, there are only 2.4 million Episcopalians (Anglicans) in the United States, less than one per cent of the population, only 186,000 Quakers, fewer than 50,000 Unitarians. In contrast, there are 28.3 million Baptists, 11.1 million Pentecostals, 8.3 million Lutherans, 5.1 million Mormons, and so on. In many communities, church membership, and participation in a church, remains central to the life and identity of that local community, in a way which arguably has not been seen in the UK since the decline of working-class Non-conformity after the First World War.

It may be that the continuing existence of an Established church here, working as part of the much more centralised nature of British society on a small island, has been very harmful in the long run to organised religion here. It may also be that religion here is another example of the fact that while the institutions of the traditional British "Establishment" worked in the past to further Conservative interests and conservative values, in recent years they have, like the BBC and the universities, been hijacked by the left and use the centralised power residing in these institutions against traditional values. It is extremely difficult, as things stand, to see how that British Conservative party can realistically replicate the success, given current British conditions, of the right-wing "Moral Majority" in American politics, such as strikingly occurred in the November presidential election.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales - Aberystwyth.


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Being an "established" Church - whether de jure as in the UK or de facto as in Ireland - seems to be disastrous in the longer term for those very faiths. America's free market of unestablished religions has lead to a situation where the possiblility of "faith based" supplementing and even replacing welfare is realistic, as opposed to the near-absurdity such a statement would be now in Europe.

Posted by: Jimmy McQueen at December 6, 2004 07:31 PM
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Yes, but what did Establishment really mean?

The Church was rarely a particularly strong institutional arm of the English State, either doctrinally, offering a teaching voice to lead the nation in moral matters (finished first with Laud and then with Newman), or as an Erastian foundation (after Catholic Emancipation).

I don't agree that there isn't a potential Moral Majority out there - it's just that it might be very differently configured, as yet very unorganised, and will respond to different issues.

Posted by: Blimpish at December 6, 2004 09:43 PM
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