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Response to Review no. 611

I want to thank Peter Webster for a very thoughtful and engaged review of my book, and his extremely kind remarks about it. Trying to write a book with a broad sweep to a whole century, when there is no agreed form as yet to that sweep amongst scholars, is both challenging and by the very nature of the exercise likely to spark contradictory critiques. To gain for my attempts the generous comments he gives is all the more pleasing.

Peter raises a number of most interesting issues.

First, he raises historical causation of religious change. The thorniness of this is, of course, to be widely acknowledged. Causation of religious change is the almost unanswerable question of all religious history. It raises issues that are often deeply informed by faith or ideology, and frequently wholly irreconcilable. Scholarship in religious history and sociology of religion is thus conducted in a kind of chaotic dance where the participants are on the same dance floor, seemingly entranced by each other’s moves, performing Paul Jones switches that take them around a variety partners, but often ending up bumping into each other (very politely) because their footwork is responding, not to the music of a single band, but to different tunes heard on personal iPods. This is the nature of the business of religious scholarship; there is no agreement on the nature of what ‘it’ is, what ‘causes’ it to exist, or what tends to incur growth or decline (however those might be measured). That position of disagreement in the academy is not going to change.

Consequently, the way that the decline of Christian faith, for instance, is perceived varies enormously amongst faith-based historians, and is usually very different from the perceptions of non-faith-based historians such as myself. Yet again, the intellectual change (‘the tangled cluster of debates’) discussed by the elites in a society, which Peter thinks is important as a driver of religious change in the 1950s and 1960s, is to me less significant (by a long way) than the fundamental demographic and cultural changes experienced by the many. Sometimes we may be talking about the same things―sexuality, gender, freedom of the individual―but whether these are being changed by high debate or by people’s pressure depends on where the historian is coming from. For my part, I come strongly from ‘below’, looking at the experiential conditions that underpin the place of religiosity in popular culture. In this regard, contrary to his suggestion, I am very concerned with causes of religious change. It is just that I don’t entirely agree with what he thinks are the ‘causes’ of such change. Even when the causes are ‘the same’, I suspect we think differently in how they did this. For instance, we both seem to rate sexuality as important to change in the place of religion in the sixties; but Peter sees this as evidence of ‘remarkable intellectual change’, whilst I see it as a powerful groundswell of popular (mostly youthful) opinion that subverted ecclesiastical authority. In this way, my book is about religion and society, and for this reason it is devoted to the cultural, social, and economic context which framed religious change in Britain during the century, and I offer extensive commentary about causation of that change (notably in chapter 1). Intellectual change is for another scholar to review and, more importantly, to demonstrate how exactly it might have instigated secularization of British society, the rise of multiculturalism, the growth of religious militancy, and the blossoming of the New Age.

Of great interest to a cultural historian are Peter Webster’s comments on ‘the establishment’. This was a topic that enthralled Britons in the fifties and sixties―no more so than the satirists and comedians who did much to provide young Britons with the rhetoric with which to identify and challenge reaction. There is fine work underway now to dissect the cultural reactionaries of the period, and the establishment was not, as he rightly says, monolithic. By the same token, the liberals of those decades were not uniform, distinguished by diverse ideologies, religiosities, and cultural alignments. In trying to distil these trends for a one-volume book on the whole century, I have undoubtedly tended to dichotomize these. But for the most part what I am describing is the way in which the hardening conservativism of official and civic culture in the fifties heralded the pretty uniform oppositional mindset of the establishment as it met the liberalization of popular culture and morality in the sixties. And there was a very tangible collision between two poles played out in the mid to late sixties―in many cases almost nightly―on television, the stage, concert hall, and the press. Malcolm Muggeridge and Mary Whitehouse were two of the leading public faces confronting student radicals, women’s liberation, sexual revolution, pop music, and (as many saw it) young people’s hopes in general, on behalf of a reactionary, albeit eclectic, establishment. The notion of variation to each camp does not negate the tangibility in the decade of a pretty two-sided moral combat.

Peter speaks eloquently of the complexities of ecclesiastical and lay attitudes to innovation in worship in the fifties and sixties. Yes, there was great division within the churches on this, and, yes, there were (and remain) some laity more forcefully opposed to such innovation than church people. But many will have difficulty in accepting that the attempt of worship innovators to introduce pop music, coffee bars, and discos onto church premises was anything other than ‘a reactive movement, driven by changes in popular culture’. These were trends that started in popular culture, not in the churches, whatever diversity of response there was within them, and whatever clerical pioneers fought to achieve. Whilst American gospel and Caribbean Christian traditions played a part from the mid 1960s, the happy-clappy music in British white culture of the fifties and sixties had important origins in indigenous folk and pop-music traditions―often deeply secular, at best religiously-apathetic, sometimes strongly socialist, and in many parts of the U.K. associated with ethnic identities and nationalisms. The popularity of ‘If I had a hammer’ in youth worship by the early 1960s was one sign of that.

Peter is absolutely right about the importance of using religious labels with accuracy. I try to impose a rigid order and accuracy to this task, and I appreciate his elaborations on the issue of ‘fundamentalism’. As he will have noted, I differentiate the sometimes interlocking natures of ‘conservatism’, ‘puritanism’, ‘fundamentalism’, and ‘militancy’. Fundamentalism is very much in the eye of the beholder, and the most problematic and probably least useful category for the cultural and social historian. Conservative and puritan are more active and pertinent for description across the twentieth century. But it is the rise since the late 1980s of militancy that I find the most noteworthy development of contemporary British religions, for it describes changing methods (ranging from trying to ‘convert’ gays, to issue-based media campaigns and lobbying of the parliaments, secular charities and cultural media), increasing attempts at intruding on personal freedom (such as criminalizing abortion and broadening blasphemy laws), and attempts to influence the civil state (increasingly through cross-religious coalitions, threats of referenda, and the withdrawal of church communion from ‘disobedient’ members of parliament). Militancy in highly-religious USA, India, Nigeria, or Indonesia is comprehensible―militancy in the midst of secularizing Britain is a more perplexing proposition. And despite differences over the use of violence, the trend is one to be found across all Britain’s main religions.

Finally, Peter reproves me for allowing my ‘authorial objectivity to slip’. Well, I doubt whether anybody has such a thing. Whether ‘objectivity’ is really possible in any circumstances of historical research is a question of reflexivity and conceptual orientation. (I have written at length elsewhere that, beyond the need for evidence-based argument, I think it is neither desirable nor attainable (1).) But leaving that aside, it is the very job of the historian to provide a critical commentary on the past. A history book is not a collection of random facts, but an author-researched narrative that offers judgement on the past, on historical change, and, moreover, on the ‘correctness’ of arguments proffered by people in the past. So, yes, the churches in 1900 were very good at ‘spin’ on their own performance in reports to their members and to the press; I don’t think that is either startling or damning, just to be expected of large organizations facing altering prospects. It is an historian’s judgement, and not a ‘loss’ of objectivity, to report that a small number of Hare Krishna devotees, making startling religious performance of a type never seen before on streets and concert-halls across Britain in the late 1960s, were more influential in changing perceptions of religion than the two per cent of attenders at Billy Graham’s 1954 crusade who stayed for after-meetings in private rooms. And it is necessary and responsible for the historian to inform a young reading audience of today that some Anglicans opposing women’s ordination proffered incredibly sexist reasons―including the official Anglican report of 1966 that argued that, if appointed, female clerics would seduce their male counterparts in fornicating and adulterous relationships. Are such comments ‘beside the point’? Or are they the very stuff of historical judgement?

Despite such differences over the historian’s role, Peter Webster has been very generous in his review. Research on twentieth-century religion is very much work in progress, and with every passing year our contemporary world throws up a new angle.


  1. C. G. Brown, Postmodernism for Historians (Harlow, 2005). Back to (1)