Mind, body and spirit: it’s the de-reformation of religion

Church attendance my be declining, but real individual religion has undergone a huge revival in the past 30 years.

Look for the religion section of almost any bookshop in Britain, and you’ll find it’s been subsumed under “Mind, body and spirit”. The reason is simple: what we call religion has changed – dramatically – in just the past 30 years.

I think the change is so significant we can call it a “de-reformation” of religion. In other words, the main features that have characterised religion in Britain since the Reformation of the 16th century have given way. For most people, religion has ceased to be a matter of belonging to a clerically led community, affirming unchanging dogma, participating in prescribed rituals, and holding conservative social attitudes. It’s transformed into something else.

Let’s start with rituals, both national and personal. From the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 onwards, the church has gradually ceded control. It still has a role to play, but by the time of Diana’s death in 1997, that role had become secondary to popular practices and innovations. Similarly, the churches’ hold over birth, marriage, and death has weakened dramatically.

Religious belonging has transformed as well. It used to be about local and national belonging. Now it’s a matter of association with like-minded people by way of real and virtual networks that transcend local and national boundaries. A British Muslim, for example, may associate face-to-face with a few like-minded friends, spend a lot of time reading and chatting on the web, feel part of a global ummah, and long to go on hajj. And you can say something similar for young Catholics, evangelicals, neo-pagans and others.

The statistics on church attendance confirm it. Between 1950 and 1980 attendance halved, and between 1980 and 2005 halved again – down to 6.3% of the population, according to Christian Research.  Continue reading

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