British Gods

Religion in Modern Britain

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Steve Bruce
  • Oxford: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     2020.
     304 pages.
     $35.00.
     E-Book.
    ISBN
    9780198854111.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

If Steve Bruce needs no introduction, the same can be said about his vision of his main research subject: secularization. He devoted a large part of his academic career not only to investigating empirical trends about levels of secularization in the United Kingdom and, more generally, in Western societies, but also to restating every now and then the fundamental accuracy and solidity of what has come to be called the classical theory of secularization.

The latest effort in his prolific career makes no exception. British Gods: Religion in Modern Britain is both a thorough examination of specific case studies, exemplifying some of the main features of the secularization thesis, and an assertive argument for secularization by someone who does not seek to hide his own investment in the subject.

While the title of the book might suggest a study on religious pluralism in British society—and its secularization—what actually interests Bruce is the fate of “Britain's Christianity” (251) and its loss of popularity and social power, a dynamic that Bruce overlays with general processes of secularization and the idea that “modernization of the West has weakened religion” (vii; this sort of synecdoche—taking a part for the whole—in which Britain is taken as paradigmatic for the West is something that recurs throughout the book).

The book is the result of empirical research conducted with both quantitative and qualitative methods and data. Bruce returns to a number of towns and villages that were already the subject of community studies in the 1950s and 1960s, examining phenomena such as baptism rates, church weddings, and church attendance in order to prove the continuing decline of Christian faith and institutions. The book consists of ten core chapters framed by a short but illuminating preface and a provocative last chapter, titled “Can the Decline Be Reversed?”

The ten main chapters are fascinating paintings of different aspects of secularization and religious decline as embodied in many specific places all over Britain. However, when one focuses on the general framework and premises of this research, which can be found in the preface and the last chapter of this book but also elsewhere in Bruce’s highly coherent production, one can draw some broader considerations. Bruce himself defines British Gods an “end-of-career summation study” (vi). He feels the need to spend most of the preface explaining why he does not have to apologize for being the last man standing in front of the advance of those who “caricatured and derided” the secularization thesis, and the sole heir of Bryan Wilson in his role of spokesman for the “inherited” model (vii). The main point of Bruce’s firm stance in favor of secularization, in fact, remains that Christians and Christianity have declined “in power, popularity, and plausibility for 150 years” (270) with no sign of countertendencies, and that any other manifestation that might be identified as religious or spiritual (pluralism, “new” religions, New Age) is either quantitatively or qualitatively irrelevant.

It is undeniable that Bruce’s position is, to say the least, consistent: it has remained the same throughout more than three decades of scholarly activity. The main point of Bruce’s argument in 2020 remains—and it is worth a long quote—that “It is always possible that religion has not so much declined as changed its form. . . . But there is no evidence of this. Migration has brought significant numbers of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist, and Sikhs to Britain since the 1960s, and more recently they have been joined by West African Pentecostalists and by European Catholics, but there is no evidence that the native British are converting” (v). Also the “social requirements” that, for Bruce, would be necessary for a reversal of the situation and for “religious revivals” (of which he sees no sign) belong in this context: mass conversions due to fear (of fundamentalism, immigrants, or some catastrophic event); generic new-media influence on the younger generation; dramatic changes in demographics due to immigration.

British Gods is therefore a book particularly suited for nonspecialist readers who want to approach the specific position of a renowned academic on a never-ending subject of debate as well as a pleasant rereading of an equally renowned thesis, rooted in a diverse array of sources and middle-ranging case studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ilaria Biano is the Mario Pannunzio Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for Historical Studies.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steve Bruce has been professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen since 1991. An internationally-known expert on religion and politics, he is a fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Previous Oxford University Press publications include: Secular Beats Spiritual: the Westernization of the Easternization of the West (2017); Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory (2013); and Sociology: A Very Short Introduction (2000). His book Scottish Gods: Religion in Modern Scotland 1900-2012 (Edinburgh University Press, 2014), won the Saltire Scottish History Book of the Year Award, 2014.

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