Salvation: great time to buy

Choice and Religion
April 21, 2000

Steve Bruce, who is professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen, assumes that the process of secularisation is largely about "the possibility of choosing a religion", which he regards as a rather novel situation in human life. His book is concerned both with how this situation has come about and its implications for the future of religion as a social phenomenon. Sociological orthodoxy, which Bruce shares, argues that secularisation is generated by three main features of a modernising society. First, social differentiation. In a modern society people have specialist roles with technical skills and expertise. Second, societalisation. Intermediate communities are now dominated by the state and major institutions. Third, rationalisation, which is not just the habit of looking at life rationally but technically effective means of securing this worldly end. This process of modernisation means that we now live in an increasingly pluralistic and diverse society. Religion no longer binds people together in an overarching and all-inclusive system. It becomes a matter of personal choice with increasingly less influence in the public sphere.

A counter view to this, put forward by some sociologists, agrees that religion is a matter of personal choice, indeed rational choice, but argues that it is a permanent feature of human life because people will always be looking for some supernatural compensation for the frustrations of this world. At the same time, so it is argued on the basis of an economic model, if there is a genuinely free market in religion, those offering most in the way of supernatural recompense and reward will gain the major market share.

Whatever merit this view might have in understanding the role of religion in the United States, Bruce shows that it is certainly false to the experience of Europe. Both state-dominated religions and ones that emerged as a result of the newly emergent bourgeois classes rose and fell together. No less significant is that there is a fundamental flaw in the model itself. If we are choosing between two brands of cereal it is possible to make a rational choice about which offers the better value. But when it comes to "eternal salvation" there is no common understanding or basis upon which a rational judgement can be made. "There is a dramatic switch at the point of belief. What the atheist thought was a complete waste of space becomes an extremely rewarding activity when he becomes a believer."

There is one vital qualification to Bruce's view of the inevitable decline of religion as a social force. "Modernisation erodes religion except where it finds or retains social functions other than its central task of mediating between the natural and supernatural worlds." Religion can act as "a cultural defence" as it has done in, for example, Ireland and Poland. It can help a community or a whole nation cohere in the face of adversity or during a period of rapid social transition. Bruce makes it quite clear that his analysis applies only to Europe. This is just as well because in the world as a whole modernisation is leading to an enhanced role for religion in the public sphere, not only in Muslim countries but in India and elsewhere. In Indonesia, for example, as modernisation draws people in from outlying islands to work in factories in the city, they lose their identity as part of the village community and find a new identity round the mosque or church. With religion playing such a role in shaping cultural identity it is not surprising that people now write books on the "desecularisation" of the modern world.

A number of major questions arise about this book. First, there is Bruce's understanding of religion as "mediating between the natural and supernatural worlds". This appears to be a stipulative definition ruling out the possibility of a significant social dimension from the outset. But religions have always bound people to one another as well as linking them to the divine. Christianity first emerged in the world as a new group, community or konoinia . In due course, and quite properly, it came to inform whole communities and nations whose culture and history came to exhibit a deep debt of gratitude to that which inspired its art, music, values and history. Christianity has an inescapable social dimension which in itself forms and sustains communities and whole societies. It is, of course, true that if a society then adopts the religion, particularly if its king or rulers do, there will be pressure to conform. The religion that originally formed and sustained that society will be reinforced by a range of pressures - ethnic, cultural, national, political and economic. It is then very difficult to separate out what is a social expression of the religion and what is its social reinforcement. But Bruce seems to ignore or discount the social dimension as valid in its own right. This social dimension can be dangerous, particularly when it is allied to ethnic or national features. Yet as David Martin has recently argued, in the modern world at any rate, Christianity itself is not a cause of conflict but can very often be a "marker of identity" when a large power bloc breaks up along ethnic or national lines. But any religion with a social dimension is bound to become a "marker of identity" whether or not this overlaps with other social indicators.

To return to the example of Indonesia, where modernisation means that people are finding their identity round the mosque or church. This is by no means a new phenomenon. Islam, or in some cases Christianity, has long held together a particular island or village community. Rapid social transition makes this dimension more apparent - and may even strengthen it - but it existed prior to that social transition as a social force in its own right. Bruce maintains that he is simply writing sociology, eschewing personal judgements. Yet so much of this book is laden with assumptions that are certainly not value-free. For instance, he seems to think that all liberal religion is in the end parasitic upon religion of a more fundamentalist or conservative type. Now it is certainly true that a number of people who have, for example, been brought up as Plymouth Brethren go on a spiritual pilgrimage and end up as much more open, but still orthodox believing, Anglicans. They have found Anglicanism a liberation, yet a core seriousness about belief is inherited from their early upbringing. But there are many different kinds of spiritual pilgrimage and that is not the only one. People can come out of relativism and agnosticism, into a liberal Catholicism, whether of an Anglican or Roman type, without having been first plunged into an Evangelical cold bath.

At this point let me make one quite clear value judgement. It is a good thing that people are now free in Western Europe, as never before, to pursue their own spiritual path with the minimum of state pressure. Indeed all the pressure and fashion now, as exhibited for example by the colour supplement intellectuals, is to disparage and denigrate religious belief. But we have been created with free choice and Christ respected that freedom to choose. In Dostoevesky's famous grand inquisitor chapter in The Brothers Karamazov , the grand inquisitor accuses Christ of treating human beings as free when they were not capable of exercising that freedom and did not want it. So, says the inquisitor, the church had to correct Christ's work and human beings rejoiced that once more they were led like sheep. What is interesting is the number of people who have agreed with the judgement of the grand inquisitor - including, surprisingly, D. H. Lawrence. But it is a chapter that brings out powerfully the value of freedom for Christianity. It presents the Christian churches today with a particular challenge. No longer able to rely on state pressure or social conformity of any kind, they have to exhibit what is simply and sheerly persuasive in its own right, as far as both belief and quality of Christian community are concerned.

Bruce has a fair amount of fun at the expense of New Age religions and no doubt his criticisms are sustainable. But his analysis of the main features of the great variety of religious opinions that gathers together under the description "New Age religion" offers an interesting challenge to Christians. For example, the first characteristic of New Age religion, according to Bruce, is a belief that the self is divine. On the face of it, this is inimical to Christianity, which believes that there is an abyss between the uncreated source of all existence and what is created. Nevertheless, there are within Christianity, spiritual insights that can resonate with the gropings of New Age religion. For orthodox Christianity teaches that in Christ the divine and the human, heaven and earth, are joined never to be unjoined and that through association with Christ this divine life can grow within us to become, as it were, our true self. Indeed, St Paul said that the mystery hidden through the ages and now revealed is "Christ in you, the hope of glory". There is also the fundamental conviction of the early Christian fathers that Christ became human in order that we humans might become divine. This process of theosis or divinisation has rather dropped out of fashion in western Christianity but it is still fundamental to the orthodox church. Without comprising essential Christian belief, it is possible to see how there are resources and treasures within the Christian tradition for meeting the spiritual aspirations of our time.

Sociology, almost by definition, can only look at present trends and project them into the future. What it ignores is the fact that history keeps on taking us by surprise. One recent surprise in China has been the way in which modernisation, in the form of the internet, has made it possible for a new religion to grow up despite strong state disapproval. It is now claimed that the Falum Gong has 70 million adherents. They communicate over the internet and were able, at very short notice, to gather 20,000 people together in a protest. This proved such a threat to the regime that they sought out some of this new movement's leaders and imprisoned them.

Religion has plenty of surprises still in store, not all of them happy ones, alas, as the recent massacres/mass suicides in Africa show. Meanwhile, as in the rest of the world religion becomes more prominent, what has been termed "European exceptionalism" remains. In Europe the challenge to traditional Christianity is a very serious one. But in so far as people are free, as never before, to make up their own minds about it, this must be a good thing.

The Rt Revd Richard Harries is bishop of Oxford.

Choice and Religion: A Critique of Rational Choice

Author - Steve Bruce
ISBN - 0 19 829584 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 247

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