Religion in Modern Britain
by Steve Bruce (Oxford, OUP 1995), 143pp, ISBN 0-19-878091-5
Review by Bill Gent
There is a worrying tendency in religious education to treat 'religions' as 'fixed' entities with neat boundaries. Of course, the needs of educational planning encourage this tendency … "How can I divide up Islam into six lessons so that the pupils are not confused?" Examination syllabuses neatly divide the religious world into various isms. The model syllabuses for religious education produced by SCAA (the predecessor to QCA) in 1994 separated religions into definable blocks – as much, some would say, for political as for education reasons.
But what can be said of religion in particular, religions in general, in terms of growth, development and evolution? Why is it that in the Western, secularised world fewer and fewer people feel the need to partake in the institutional life of organised religion? Why, indeed, would many now regard religion as irrelevant? Religion in Modern Britain by Steve Bruce, Professor of Sociology at Aberdeen University, provides a useful guide for those who wish to explore such questions as these.
Bruce considers that there has been an evolution within British society from church (a socially acceptable term implying "We have the truth") to denomination (a socially acceptable term implying "We have some of the truth, but so do others"), from sect (a socially deviant term implying "We have the truth") to cult (a socially deviant term implying "We have some of the truth, but so do others"). As a sociologist, he attempts to explain this evolution.
Of particular interest is his analysis of 'New Age' forms of religion in the 1970s and 80s. He believes that, in terms of society at large, such movements have had little effect. But why, for example, should those caught up in such movements be predominantly women and the better off? Bruce is blunt in his assertion that, "Spiritual growth appeals mainly to those people whose more pressing material needs have been satisfied. Unmarried mothers raising children on welfare tend to be too concerned with finding food, heat and light to be overtly troubled by their inner lights, and when they do look for release from their troubles they prefer the bright outer lights of bars and discothèques." (p114). With such a book as this, the reader has to take into account such concepts as class and gender – which get little mention in 'standard' RE text books.
There are some statements in this book which teachers of RE will wish to question, and some assumptions that need exposing. Nevertheless, it does much to place 'religion' in its present puzzling and evolving context. Through its extensive use of the results of surveys, it might also suggest ways in which pupils might be encouraged to explore and respond to 'religion in modern Britain'.
Review by Bill Gent, Redbridge Advisory and Inspection Service, September 2000