Secularization in the Long 1960s

Numerating Religion in Britain

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Clive D. Field
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     2017.
     248 pages.
     $90.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198799474.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In the past sixteen years, considerable debate has raged over the possible pivotal significance of the 1960s in the history of secularization and religious change in Britain.  In no small part this debate was sparked by Callum Brown’s provocative thesis in The Death of Christian Britain (Routledge 2001), which argued that the “long 1960s” were not (as previous consensus held) the latest in a series of chapters of slow, gradual Christian decline, but a decisive and revolutionary moment marking the beginning, rather than the end, of real secularization.  The “death of Christian Britain” thesis has since been challenged or qualified by numerous historians and sociologists, most recently by Clive Field, whose book Britain’s Last Religious Revival? Quantifying Belonging, Behaving and Believing in the Long 1950s (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) challenged Brown’s portrayal of a marked religious resurgence in the decade and a half after the Second World War.  Secularization in the Long 1960s is Field’s sequel to this earlier book.  Through an exploration of church statistics, public opinion surveys, and other quantitative data, he attempts to construct the most comprehensive picture yet of the statistical evidence for religious change between the early 1960s and the late 1970s. 

The book covers religious belonging, behaving, and believing, considering a range of indicators of religiosity from church attendance to self-professed religiosity, the uptake of religious rites of passage, attitudes to religion, religious and spiritual beliefs, the interplay of religious and political views, and the numerical strength of religious institutions.  Although Christianity is the book’s main focus, Field also includes data on other faith communities and alternative spiritualities.  While some of the national studies discussed (e.g., English Church Census, Mass Observation studies, and Gallup opinion surveys) are already relatively well known, I particularly appreciated the inclusion alongside them of results from smaller local surveys of belief and practice in particular localities.  That all this data is marshalled for the first time within a single, comprehensive and meticulously footnoted volume is reason enough to recommend this as a must-read book for anyone researching religious change in post-war Britain.  However, it does more.  For one thing, Field’s facility with the interpretative challenges and possibilities of the statistics makes this a valuable handbook for any researcher grappling with recent numerical data on religious belief and practice.  Moreover (though it is not Field’s primary objective), the book also works well as an account of the changing ways in which individuals and organizations in the long 1960s thought about religion and tried to count it.  Even as a specialist on this period I learned a great deal: for example, about how the perception of crisis prompted several denominations to establish research services that would allow concentrated study of social and religious trends, albeit with mixed success (10-14).  Such a mass of statistical data does not always make for an easy read, in spite of Field’s clear prose.  As a result, I would have found it useful to have a stronger concluding section at the end of each chapter to summarize the general direction of the argument thus far (much of the synthesis is left to the final chapter).  However, this was my only real concern about the structure and presentation of the material.

On the central question of whether the “long 1960s” constituted a decisive turning point in Christian fortunes and secularization more generally, Field finds little evidence for Brown’s thesis, arguing that the religious change of the period needs to be seen within a much wider historical canvas, and with attention to all the statistical evidence.  Here, he suggests that Brown’s claim that 1963 marks an “annus horribilis” for British Christianity rests excessively on just a few statistical measures, and on a privileging of certain kinds of oral, autobiographical, and contemporary textual evidence.  For Field, the numerical data is clear: many indicators of religious believing and belonging were “remarkably stable” over the period (206), while most formal indicators of Christian church participation declined more gradually than Brown claims: “The flight from the pews was a progressive phenomenon, and these two decades did not make a truly dramatic difference” (210).  If anything, he argues, the sharpest downturn in formal measures of Christian practice occurred both before (in the 1880s-1910s) and after the early 1960s (much later in the decade, or into the 1970s, depending on what is being measured).  This tantalizing suggestion opens up the field for further research into the wider cultural and social changes of the period from the 1980s to the present.  Secularization in the Long 1960s by no means closes the debate on that decade.  Historical interpretation is always fundamentally affected by the sources one uses: here Field deliberately confines himself to a discussion of numerical data and is careful to underline that this offers only part of the picture.  Oral and contemporary documentary evidence still persistently suggest that something big was afoot in the shifting religious landscape of the 1960s, even if it was part of a longer historical story and unfolded only gradually thereafter.  So the debate will continue.  However, in the particular matter of religious statistics, it is difficult to see how Field’s account of a gradual change in religious belonging, believing, and behaving can be refuted.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ian Jones is director of the St. Peter'sSaltley Trust, honorary senior lecturer at the Institute of Education at the University of Worcester, and honorary research fellow at the Queen's Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Birmingham.

Date of Review: 
November 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Clive D. Field is honorary research fellow in the school of history and cultures at the University of Birmingham and a former Director of Scholarship and Collections at The British Library. He has researched and published extensively on the social history of religion in Britain from 1689 to the present with special reference to religious statistics and the history of Methodism. His previous works include Britain's Last Religious Revival? Quantifying Belonging, Behaving, and Believing in the Long 1950s (2015). He is co-director of British Religion in Numbers, a British Academy Research Project.

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