dali christ

Linda Woodhead is one of the most acute observers of contemporary religion. Professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University, director of the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society research programme, and organizer of the Westminster Faith Debates, her empirical work has helped shape the understanding of the ways in which the meaning of faith has transformed in recent decades. I am delighted that she has written an essay for Pandaemonium on the changing landscape of religious identity in Britain. The essay presents an important argument about what has changed, and why, an argument that challenges many current ideas about ‘the return of religion’. My thanks to Linda for the essay, and I hope that it provides a useful framework for debate.

Linda Woodhead on ‘How Religious Identity has Changed’

Religion and religious identities in Britain have changed dramatically since 1989. Being religious means something quite different for young people today than it did for their grandparents – for this is a fault-line that runs across living memory and between the generations.

Religion has been reformed by a step-change in change itself. Although change has always been inevitable, after 1979 it became inescapable.  It took the place of belief in progress, that ideal which lay behind the vast secular projects of the earlier 20th century. Progress involved change, but it was centrally-planned, managed change within human control. What took its place was more sprawling and unplanned. It was championed by a new crop of political leaders, including Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA, who no longer believed that state planning, technology and welfare could deliver a harmonious mass society. Britain wasn’t working, Thatcher argued, because this combination was holding back change, stifling individual endeavour and crushing choice. By loosening ties on finance and consumer capitalism, change would become something in which everyone would have to participate – and take responsibility for the consequences.

Established religion in Britain was part of the paternalistic consensus that was left shaken and angry by these developments. Guardians of the ‘common good, and supporters of the welfare state which they had helped to create, the leadership of the established Church of England and Church of Scotland were deeply hostile to Thatcher. Tellingly, her main religious support came from minority faiths – from her own Methodist background and from Orthodox Judaism and the Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits.


In fact, though it was barely noticed at the time, the 1980s were the gestation period for all the forms of religion which have since come to the fore in British life – charismatic Christianity (the tradition which nurtured the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby), Pentecostal Christianity of African and West Indian origin, Buddhism and associated forms of meditation and mindfulness, holistic or ‘mind-body-spirit’ spirituality and its traditions of alternative healing, and a range of minority traditions swelled by immigration, most notably Islam. As they grew, the old was starting to die.

For centuries, the Christian narrative had been something into which people in Britain were born. It read you just as much as you read it, for it supplied the framework into which life slotted. Religious identities were given rather than chosen: Methodist parents had Methodist children, Catholic parents had Catholic children, and anyone who wasn’t sure what they were would be designated Church of England. In rural areas, and urban ones too before planners disrupted things, children were still born into communities which parted just enough to give them entrance, and allotted them roles depending on class, gender and age.  Being baptised was the community’s way of gathering you into itself and the churches’ way of making you part of the body of Christ. It was incorporation, not choice.

By 1989 this way of being religious, which had lasted for centuries, had come to an end. It had lingered on in the 1960s and 1970s despite the ridicule and mockery of the baby-boom generation who had been born into it. For their children it ceased to be a living reality. This was not the onset of secularisation – that was a process which had been in train for a century, promoted by forces of secular progress. This was about how religion changed, even for those who still identified with it.

Nothing signalled the change more clearly than protests over The Satanic Verses in 1989.  Rushdie was a liberal-secular cosmopolitan who, like many others, assumed that God had been laid to rest forever.  As Marina Warner put it, ‘We thought we were living in a stable secular age’.  From this perspective, the sight of Muslims in Bradford burning books was as unsettling as seeing a corpse rise from the dead. True, the spectre had previously appeared in Iran in 1979 when forces of secular progress were confounded by Khomeini – but whereas Khomeini in Iran could be ignored, Khomeini encouraging the slaughter of a novelist in Britain could not.


Suddenly there was a problem, or at least a set of choices to be made, which simply hadn’t been there before. Secular elites had assumed they were at the cutting edge of progress, with Europe leading the way and the rest of the world bound to follow. They might continue to believe it, but for the first time they had to defend it – the ‘new atheism’ flowed directly from this challenge, and was further galvanised by the events of 9/11 and 7/7. Religious people also had to make choices. Many children of postwar migrants to Britain had abandoned their parents’ faith for political identities centred around ethnicity, and campaigns against racism and inequality. Now, faced by secular attacks on religion in general and Muslims in particular, many re-evaluated and claimed more explicitly religious identities. Even Christians had to make a stand. Their majority status had grown fragile. Muslims were gaining greater visibility in national life, and a new ‘inter-faith’ industry was growing up in which they were becoming just one voice amongst many. Newspapers like the Mail and Telegraph began to defend ‘Christian values’ in a way that would not have been necessary before.

The year in which the Berlin Wall fell marked the symbolic end of both the great secular progressive projects and of traditional religion. It saw boundaries of all sorts – personal, political and geographical – contested, rubbed out and redrawn, sometimes with accompanying unrest and violence. Migrations and movements speeded up, and the rapid growth and deregulation of communications technologies, including the internet, intensified the process.  Religion had to change even to stay the same.

The forms of religion hardest hit were those which depended on tradition – on that which is handed down and taken for granted. The fact that ‘we’ve always done it like this’ and ‘that’s just how it is’ ceased to count as reasons.  It wasn’t just that mobility dissolved settled communities and broke their chains of memory, or that the new came to have a premium over the old, but that only that which was personally-chosen now seemed authentic. Moreover, the blurry boundaries, loose beliefs and accustomed practices of traditional forms of faith sit uneasily with the demands and opportunities of branding and product placement which tempted religious leaders. The  ‘mission statement’, which had migrated from religion to business, was claimed back again, as churches gained logos, management structures and PR departments.

Other forms of religion adapted better, and managed to attract some young people. The most vocal is that which can loosely be called fundamentalism, not in the sense that it involves violence or fanaticism, but in the sense that it bypasses lived tradition and seeks to return to the original sources and ‘fundamentals’ of a religion. Fundamentalists offer religion packaged into neat bundles of beliefs and directives – clear, portable, and accessible to all.  Its adherents search for a pure message free of later accretions and a simple ethic which will slice cleanly between believer and non-believer.  For Christianity, this meant evangelicalism and charismatic-evangelicalism which slough off all but very recent tradition in favour of a single text – the Bible – read as having a single clear meaning.  For Islam, it means the sort of packaged, clear, and scripturally-based religion (based on Qur’an and hadith) that attracts so many young Muslims today, but which bypasses over a thousand years of interpretation and the enculturated Islam of parents and grandparents.

Fundamentalism remains, and always will be, a minority movement. In Britain its strict adherents account for around 4% of the population. Its demands are so high that it is hard to sustain in a liberal society like Britain. It appeals most to young people, and is often found wanting once they encounter the moral complexities of adult life. But for all its strictness, such textual conservatism actually allows the individual – as a seeker after truth – a larger and more heroic role than traditional religion ever did. It makes room for charismatic authority – for compelling teachers and interpreters of scripture – but not for obedience to traditional authorities and elders, nor for submission to established communities of practice. (It is fundamentalism, but ‘fundamentalism-lite’, without even a deep understanding of the scriptures, which is at play in the minds of the young perpetrators of the latest wave of Islamist attacks, as seen in Boston and Woolwich.)

etheldreda martyrs

As for the established churches in Britain, which had been reliant on tradition and had become ambient forms of religion, when faced by the pressures of change and choice, their leaders made the disastrous decision to retrench and ‘fundamentalise’ (as has the wider Roman Catholic Church). Instead of finding new ways of making their ancient traditions modern and allowing greater participation by an increasingly educated laity, they dug in. They reasserted central clerical authority, and allowed voices of reaction and fundamentalism to take precedence over those of the majority of believers.  Although a minority is attracted, most people are appalled by ‘happy clappy’ vicars taking over their churches and turning religion into something extravert and embarrassing. They don’t approve of the wholesale loss of tradition, and they are far more liberal over issues like women’s leadership and same-sex marriage than their churches have become (surveys I carried out recently show that a slim majority of both Anglicans and Catholics in Britain are now in favour of same-sex marriage, though you wouldn’t know it from reading the papers or listening to ‘spokesmen’).

The result of this reactionary turn by the traditional churches is a massive haemorrhage of support both in terms of churchgoing (which has more than halved since the 1980s) and affiliation (only 11% of those in their twenties identify as Church of England, compared with half of over-70s).  What was once a Christian nation in terms of affiliation will soon cease to be: the number identifying as Christian fell from 72% in the 2001 census to 59% in the 2011 census, while the proportion of people saying ‘no religion’ continues to rise.

Yet despite the collapse of established religion, around half of all British people believe in God, and only 20% are atheists (the remainder aren’t sure whether there is a God or not).  Even among young people between 18 and 24, only 23% are atheists  – with quite a few of those who say that have ‘no religion’ nevertheless believing in God.  Strong secularism is in as much trouble as religion in this country, and has no organised movement of any size.

religion praying

The majority of the population in Britain today is left with some sort of spiritual commitment – more informed by tradition in the case of older people than younger ones – but no visible means of institutional support.  People want religion when they need it – at key moments of life like birth and death – and they don’t eschew the spiritual. Yet for a majority today, being religious is at just a part of life and identity, not what defines them.  They borrow from many sources in shaping the narratives and rituals which give meaning to life, and no longer accept the entire religious packages that faith leaders would like to sell them. Despite this, government and commentators remain fixated on the more conservative and totalising forms of religion, and ignore the majority of people whose religious beliefs and identities are not represented by existing religious leaders or organisations. The problem of disconnect is made highly visible in misbegotten measures like the ‘quadruple lock’ which the government has designed to ‘protect’ religions from having to carry out same-sex marriages, but which has the effect of strengthening the hand of conservative religious leaderships against the majority of liberal believers.

This is a difficult position for both a country, and for individuals, to find themselves in.  It is a problem born out of a change which has been too rapid for most institutional religion to keep pace with. When it comes to religion, most people are now homeless. Some older people cling on, but most young people would rather dissociate themselves from the very word ‘religion’ than associate with what it – and atheism for that matter – has come to stand for: a strange mixture of dogmatism and superficiality.  Existing leaders have been unable to meet people’s spiritual needs in compelling ways, and new modes of religion appropriate to an era of change and choice are only beginning to emerge.  Meanwhile, the most strident claim to speak for ‘true religion’,  and the majority of religious people are ignored.

Linda Woodhead

(All statistics except the census results are from two surveys I conducted with YouGov for the Westminster Faith Debates in January and June 2013.)


  1. One of the major problems for many forms of religious belief since the 1980s has been the revolution in credit. This has also been a problem for many forms of political progressivism. Earlier generations were habituated to the idea of “saving up for things” – to the idea that privations in the short term led to happier times hereafter.

    Just as every form of socialist struggle anticipates that there will be sacrifices to be made in the short term for a fairer society in the future, so every traditional religion has preached that material privations in this life prepare the way for a blessed afterlife. Nowadays, even the most “fundamentalist” of American protestant churches say little about Heaven and nothing whatsoever in favour of the ancient defining Christian teachings regarding poverty.

    I would like to see a debate about the crucial decline in the concept that there might be something “blessed” or even “admirable” about the ability to tolerate relative poverty.

  2. “In Britain its strict adherents account for around 4% of the population. Its demands are so high that it is hard to sustain in a liberal society like Britain. It appeals most to young people, and is often found wanting once they encounter the moral complexities of adult life.”

    So true which helps to explain for example that kids growing up in the Jehovah’s Witnesses 80% of us leave before adulthood. Like myself – and more likely than most groups on leaving not to be affiliated to any other religion.

    Linda, if you are reading this are there any papers regarding secularisation of society and atheism that you would recommend?

    Thanks for posting this – will re blog tomorrow.

    • Linda Woodhead

      Hi John

      The best book on secularisation is probably Charles Taylor’s ‘A Secular Age’ – even though it’s a bit too long. It’s quite recent but has become a classic.

      There’s a huge literature on secularisation (what it is, its causes, is it really true, why in some parts of the world not others etc) which goes back over 100 years now.

      A more introductory book on this literature and the current debates (a summary overview) is Rob Warner ‘Secularization and its Discontents.’

      Best wishes

  3. Hi Linda,

    I don’t understand this paragraph:

    ‘They reasserted central clerical authority, and allowed voices of reaction and fundamentalism to take precedence over those of the majority of believers. Although a minority is attracted, most people are appalled by ‘happy clappy’ vicars taking over their churches and turning religion into something extravert and embarrassing. They don’t approve of the wholesale loss of tradition, and they are far more liberal over issues like women’s leadership and same-sex marriage than their churches have become’.

    Are you saying charismatic Christianity necessarily entails a ‘wholesale loss of tradition’? Charismatic Christianity has its own traditions – going back through Methodism, through Quakerism, through Moravians, through Franciscans, through Humanists like Ficino and Erasmus (yes, they were charismatic, they believed in Platonic ecstasy), all the way back to Acts. And that tradition has never been reactionary – on the contrary, its often been on the cutting edge of social change. TR Luhrmann put it well in her recent study of charismatic Christianity in the US: it’s the ‘democratization of the Spirit’.

    Of course there’s a danger that charismatic Christianity becomes all ‘about me’, and loses touch with older traditions, scripture and theology – but I don’t think thats the case with, say, HTB (the biggest charismatic CofE church in London), which has good links to theological colleges like St Mellitus or St Pauls Theological Centre. I don’t think that church is unintellectual or out-of-touch with tradition – or indeed with modernity.

    I agree with you that the CofE – including its evangelical bits – needs to modernize with regard to same-sex marriages. I also think charismatic Christianity needs to be balanced out with a revival of more contemplative / introverted traditions. But from my brief time as a Christian in London, the charismatic bit of the CofE seems pretty vibrant – it has growing congregations, and its produced the Alpha course, which is the CofE’s main contribution to global Christianity in the last ten years. Isn’t that worthy of some respect rather than what seems your somewhat contemptuous dismissal of it as ’embarrassing’ and ‘happy clappy’? How would you rather people worshipped?

    I’m interested also to hear more about the ‘new modes of religion’ which you think are more appropriate to modernity.

    All the best

    Jules Evans

  4. Lin

    Hi Jules

    As you know, charismatic Christianity as we know it now dates from the 1970s, and derives from Pentecostalism, which starts at the beginning of the 20th century. That doesn’t mean that charismatic Christianity can’t claim ancient roots, all the way back to St Paul (see my book ‘An Introduction to Christianity’ for its geneaology). But as we know it today, it’s a relatively new and distinctively modern type of Christianity. (I don’t make any value judgement about that – my point is that all forms of religion constantly change, and that change has speeded up recently.)

    What I mean is that in sociological terms, it is a different type of religion from what I’m calling ‘traditional’. A key difference is that you are just born into traditional forms of religion, you don’t need or have a conversion experience – but you do to be ‘born again’.

    What matters in traditional religion is being faithful to the past – to how things have ‘always’ been done. You don’t need to have any personal ‘experience’ at all, and there is no individual conversion.

    Charismatics themselves make the distinction: for a born-again Christian, what I am calling ‘traditional’ religion is viewed as ‘dead’, as ‘dry bones’, as lacking the Spirit. It is seen as wrong that people do things because that is how they have always been done – and not because they are spirit-filled. Charismatics view the old ‘ecumenical’ churches in this way – and have always distanced themselves from them.

    Another difference is that charismatic conversion is relatively quick – people can convert in a single ‘altar call’,and be filled with the spirit with very little preparation, Even in say, Methodism, which is an early modern form of Protestantism, the process of conversion took years. And in ‘traditional’ Protestant and RC forms of Christianity, you don’t need have it at all – you are baptised as an infant because you don’t have to make a personal choice.

    ‘Happy clappy’ is not a judgement i am making, I am conveying the reason people give me in interviews for why they don’t like charismatic evangelicalism, and it helps explain why it has never taken off in the country compared to USA, S.America, Africa, Asia.

    The answer to your excellent question about how religion needs to change to appeal to more people is too long to give here – I’ll write it up properly soon.

    • I think you are prevaricating a bit saying you’re not making value judgements of charismatic Christianity – you are! ‘Reactionary, ‘disastrous’, ’embarrassing’, ‘fundamentalist’…

      Surely traditional Christianity, as far as I understand it as a newbie, means trying to be faithful to God, not the past. And thinking people have been consciously choosing their religious path (rather than simply being born into it) all the way back to Jesus, through all the different ‘types’ of Christianity there have been since then (Arminian, Montanist, Albigensian, Beghard, Lutheran, Methodist, Quaker, etc etc etc). It’s not a new thing to choose your path – although I take your point that ‘cultural Christianity has declined’.

      I don’t think charismatic Christians view non-charismatic Christians as ‘dead’. They (or rather we) just don’t want to be ridiculed or deemed un-Scriptural for their experiences and their style of worship by other Christians. Charismatic as I understand it means you believe that, contrary to dispensationalism, the Holy Spirit still gives gifts, such as healing, wisdom, prophecy etc. That seems fairly common sense to me – the eccentric belief is to think that the Holy Spirit had stopped giving such gifts. If wisdom and knowledge are defined as gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:8) then even dry and sober academics like us are, in our inspired moments, receiving the Spirit!

      Definitely, there’s a lot to be learned from other traditions and styles of worship. There seems to be a growing spirit of ecumenicism and a desire to go beyond labels in Christianity (though again, as a novice, I may be wrong).

  5. abraham wilson

    The Herald

    Seven Religions in confusion
    Do not know which way to go
    The leaders read the scriptures
    But still they did not know.
    Then there appeared a Herald in 1844

    The Bab said He had a message
    The world had been waiting for
    He said.
    A ‘Universal Messenger
    Would very soon appearTo start

    ‘‘A New and Wondrous age’’

    But sadly caused ignorant people
    To turn on him in rage.
    So they killed the messenger
    A kind and peaceful soul

    His life on earth brought to an end
    He had fulfilled His role.
    Seven hundred and fifty Bullets
    Tore his body to shreds

    It was duly noted
    No Bullets touched His head.
    Nineteen years later
    The Bab’s words came true

    ‘‘The Prince of Peace Baha’u’llah’’

    His Life His Book His teachings
    are here for all to view.

    World Leaders have ignored ‘‘The Proclamation Letters of Baha’u’llah to the kings and leaders of the world’’
    Baha’u’llah (1817-1892) sent the tablets/letters whilst held as a prisoner in The prison city of Akka in Israel.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: