Assess the view that religious beliefs and practices are changing to reflect a new era of diversity and choice.
Current religious beliefs and practices are very different in Britain from 100 years ago. No longer do the masses attend the established church, attendance is down to 6% of the population and the 2001 Census identified 170 distinct religions in Britain. 72% claim to be Christian but less than half of the population believe in God and only 18% claim to be a practicing member of an organised religion.
Clearly today’s patterns are very different from those of the past. How then to explain them? There are two fields of thought here. Secularists take the simple opinion: lack of attendance and reduction of belief means a lack of interest and a decline in interest and influence of religion. However, opponents of secularisation claim it is not as simple as that. Society itself has changed dramatically in recent years but that does not mean a decline in society, just a change. Religion, therefore, can not be expected to stagnate in a changing society but must also change with the times. Religion then must met the needs of a late modern or postmodern society which offer levels of diversity and choice which have not existed before and can not do this by behaving as it did in a modern or pre-industrial society.
Grace Davie is a proponent of this point of view. For her, religion has simply become more privatised, that is: it is now a private matter of personal preference. This is more appropriate for a society which emphasises individualism and simply echoes what is happening in other institutions in society: the family, for example, is no longer a simple traditional nuclear family, other groupings are now widely accepted. People are then free to decide whether they wish to attend church, worship on their own or even use modern technologies to help them worship, whereas in the past the norm was to attend church and people felt obliged to do so. Davie describes this new pattern as believing without belonging and believes it is a new form of religion. As evidence of this, she points to wider attendance or reliance on religion in times of crisis. People are content to practice vicarious religion where a small number of professional clergy practise religion on behalf of a much larger number of people until times of national or personal tragedy.
However, if Davies is correct then this would mean high levels of belief and low attendance which Voas and Crockett point out is not the case. Bruce argues that if people are not willing to get involved then their belief must not be sincere or strong so Davie’s defence is unrealistic.
Hervieu-Leger points to an increase in individualism and a decline of tradition in society, ideas associated with late modernity, as reasons for a decline in institutional religion. Parents are reluctant to tell their children what to believe so traditional ideas can not be passed down, what Hervieu-Leger calls cultural amnesia. Churches can not be authoritarian and impose beliefs. This leaves people without a fixed religious identity or knowledge of traditional beliefs and thus they are forced to choose or create new religious beliefs and practices for themselves, whereas their ancestors simply repeated patterns of their forebearers.
Fortunately having to select one’s own religion is not too demanding for people living in a postmodern society as one of its defining characteristics is consumerism, where we construct our identities through what we consume. H-L describes us now as ‘spiritual shoppers’: without a traditional fixed identity, we must select our own and we do this to best suit ourselves, choosing the beliefs which give most meaning to our lives and suit our interests and aspirations – an individualised religion.
Thus instead of merely going to the church our parents went to, today we can take our own personal journey and this explains the wide range of organisations we can join from church to sect to cult. Some H-L describes as pilgrims focusing on self-discovery who join NAMs that concentrate on personal development and others are converts who want a religious group which offers a strong sense of belonging, to re-create a sense of community.
Lyon, a postmodernist, supports the idea that traditional religion is giving way to a variety of new religious beliefs and practices because we are living in a postmodern society. In this society globalisation, the increased importance of the media and communications and the growth of consumerism all create a new era of diversity and choice in all aspects of life. Lyon demonstrates how these have affected religion. We are now exposed to a wider range of religious ideas than ever before and these have become ‘disembedded’ from their original local contexts so we can now adapt ideas and beliefs to suit our own purposes.
Much new religious belief is simply a watered down version of Eastern religions, adapted to suit Western tastes. Practice of worship is also different because it is no longer necessary to attend a local church. Instead the ‘electronic church’ on the internet and televangelism allow us to stay at home. However, if it is difficult to get convincing statistics of how many people attend church and what effect this has on them, it is even more difficult to research the numbers involved in and the influence of this new form of worship.
The very diversity of religions on offer forces a change in religious belief. People become sceptical that any one religion can offer the truth and are, therefore, willing to ‘sample’ any of the new NRMs on offer. Again this is a reflection of postmodern society where we no longer trust in any kind of expert, and have rejected ‘meta-narratives’ which seek to explain the world. This can even be seen in politics where the old certainties of left and right politics have been reduced to the centre ground – one could argue here that their beliefs have also become less strict. This means that new ideas will continue to flourish as we become increasingly disenchanted with the world.
Courtney from Study Moose
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