Religion in Secular Society

Fifty Years On

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Bryan R. Wilson, Steve Bruce
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Over time certain texts generate a fair amount of criticism. Some of those criticisms may be unwarranted and need to be addressed in a newer edition. Bryan Wilson’s Religion in Secular Society is one of these texts. In this book, Wilson posits that the predominance of religion—via its institutions, practitioners, pedagogy, and so on—has undergone a change in the twentieth century that continues to the present day. Wilson’s subsequent chapters address these political, societal, ecumenical, and economic changes. Of special note is the attention Wilson brings to personal religiosity. Differentiation, exhibited through denominationalism, facilitates a marketplace of religious traditions that accommodate individualism in a way that, in some contexts, diminishes communal cohesion and singular modes of religious identification. As the religious marketplace emerges and continues to diversify, one has many options to choose from. This creates a scenario in which religious traditions must compete amongst themselves and conform to a supply and demand model. These are factors Wilson identifies as part of religious decline.

Steve Bruce makes clear in Appendix 2 that at the time Wilson wrote this text there was more evidence for religious decline than there was for religious change. Bruce’s clarification is apt and necessary given that Wilson’s critics impugn him for a lack of foresight regarding religious change. As time has progressed, however, evidence supporting religious decline has grown. Recent studies (including PEW’s 2014 religious landscape study and PRRI’s 2017 religious landscape data) speak to these changes in church attendance, membership, modes of identification, and so forth that ultimately support religious decline. Wilson did not rule out religious change. Bruce makes clear that Wilson addressed both religious change and religious decline in his text as forces potentially animating the social landscape, but given the limited evidence in support of religious change, Wilson’s text made a stronger case for religious decline.

Wilson’s writing style is direct, but as Bruce mentions in his introduction, Wilson wrote according to the conventions of his time. Bruce’s editing and updating of Wilson’s work proves helpful in increasing readability and better conveying the utility of Wilson’s text for a younger audience. This new edition and its relevance for the US’s current religious landscape couldn’t be more timely. In Appendix 2 Bruce provides updates to what has changed since 1966, when Wilson’s text was original published, in terms of politics, policy, modes of identification, economic factors, and societal changes. Overall, I have to commend Bruce for clarifying Wilson’s position and providing much needed updates to this text. This new edition is one that should be kept in conversation as future religious landscape data becomes available.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sean Dixon is a doctoral student in religion at Claremont Graduate University.

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

Bryan R. Wilson, (1926 - 2004), was Reader Emeritus in Sociology at the University of Oxford and President of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion (1971). He became a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford in 1963.

Steve Bruce is Professor and Chair of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. His previous publications include Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory (2013), Paisley: Religion and Politics in Northern Ireland (2007), Sociology: A Very Short Introduction (2000), and Choice and Religion: A Critique of Rational Choice Theory (OUP, 1999).


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