One of the abiding research questions I ask myself, despite frequent diversions, is how and why has religion survived into the twenty-first century. The twentieth-century endlessly noted its apparent decline and was even swaggering enough to predict its total disappearance. When this not only did not happen, but we actually saw an upsurge in interest in religion, this left many historians scratching their heads and searching for alternative explanations.
My research has been seeking to provide an answer to this conundrum by thinking about how religion has a specific ‘use’ for people in the circumstances of their modern life. This means the religious and the secular are not so much beliefs as tools that people pick up to make sense of situations, events and happenings. In my last book (Christian Ideals in British Culture: Stories of Belief in the twentieth century. Palgrave Publishing) I explored how Christianity in Britain used stories of pilgrimage, remembrance, sickness and death, the ‘just’ war and salvation to make sense of existence and people’s place in this. These stories were so strong that secular versions of them could also be found. This meant that previous ideas of religion being replaced by the secular was not borne out by this evidence. People at large in the twentieth century primarily wanted explanations and comfort instead of thinking deeply about the theology behind them as many historians presumed. For people in search of meaning ideas helped and this was irrespective of whether they were religious or not. If this could be true throughout the century then the idea of religion waning in favour of the secular forever was not only untrue – it was actually probably irrelevant!
To complete this idea the current book I’m working on (loosely entitled ‘Secular Stories in the twentieth century) is the other half of the circle of my argument, and I am delighted to be the recipient of a Brookes Research Excellence Award to enable me to write several chapters of this during the spring of 2018. Through this book I am now looking at secular stories and how both the secular and the religious have used these in similar ways to make sense of the world and civilisation. These stories include the individual turning their back on religion, the power of science as explanation, stories of material progress and welfare, the quest for freedom of expression, human sexual freedoms and morality and lastly the disestablishment of religion within the state. As in my first book both the religious and secular have grasped hold of and made use of these stories and such actions have left an imprint upon twentieth century cultural history. Again they do not follow any pattern related to the secular triumphing over the religious. Indeed a central point of this second book is that religion did not sit idly by let these narratives be identified as secular. In a more organic process they came to be used by the religious to find accommodation with a secular world.
The long term aim of this project is to get us away from increasingly fruitless discussions of when religion declined, discussions that often fragment into pieces when you look closely at some evidence. Instead recognising the strength of religious and secular stories can help us produce an alternative history of people interacting with religion rather than being seen as passive shoppers and consumers for pre-packaged belief systems.