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A crude distinction

Eric Kaufmann's division of the world into religious and secular blocs is absurd and Gradgrindian

By Theo Hobson   November 2006

Eric Kaufmann seeks to contribute to the debate on secularisation by observing that demography means secularisation is on the wane in Europe: religious believers are breeding faster than secularists. Whether he is right about this is in my view a non-question. For the entire concept of “secularisation” is too vague to be of any use at all. A useful definition of “secular” relies on a useful definition of “religion.” So what is “religion”? Kaufmann simply assumes that we all know what it means: people are either religious or secular.

This distinction is absurdly crude. It’s like talking about “left-wing” and “right-wing” members of society; seeing ideological, dynamic constructions as neutral unchanging descriptions. To speak of secularisation in this way is not a reasonable shorthand; it imposes a crude narrative on the most complex subject matter in the world.

So what about the fact that far fewer Britons go to church than they used to? The decline in churchgoing is clear, but to call this secularisation is to imply that true religion—or at least Christianity—equates to churchgoing; that someone who ceases to attend church has moved from Bloc Religion to Bloc Secular. Why should we kowtow to this simplistic narrative? Sociologists of religion handle evidence of this sort of thing all the time. On the one hand, they know that regular church attendance in Britain is well under 10 per cent. On the other hand, they know that in the 2001 census, 72 per cent of Britons identified themselves as Christian. It makes little sense to say that the “true” figure of Christian allegiance in Britain is somewhere in the middle, for there can be no neutral criterion of “authentic” Christian identity. And of course “religious” identity is even wider than “Christian” identity. (See the excellent recent research by Heelas and Woodhead on the rise of new age spirituality.) Where does Kaufmann place the earth-mother hippie with four children, perhaps by four different men?

On one level, Kaufmann acknowledges some of this complexity: he cites Grace Davie’s phrase “believing without belonging” to describe the position of “non-attending believers.” He treats them as a sub-category, but according to the two statistics I just cited most Britons believe without belonging. This category undermines the myth that something called religion is contending with something called secularism, for we do not know how to locate either thing. The situation is more complex still if you consider that many Britons who do not believe nevertheless approve of the empowerment of Christianity by means of the established church and the monarchy (and perhaps also a Christian prime minister).

Kaufmann has to ignore this complexity, for his thesis depends on the idea that there is a religious bloc that is breeding faster than the non-religious bloc. So he tells us that “the population balance in [France and Protestant Europe] stands at roughly 53 per cent non-religious to 47 per cent religious.” He reveals that his research suggests that the non-religious bloc will peak at 55 per cent in three to four decades. The Gradgrindian earnestness of this is laughable. As he has not defined “religious,” or told us how these figures are calculated, the prediction is meaningless.

The cardinal sin of this sort of discussion of religion is to treat it as a coherent entity, as one thing. The attempt to identify people as either religious or non-religious is a category mistake. It is an act of hubris.

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