Nov. 5, 2014
For years, social scientists who studied religion tended to see it as the study of something fated to decline and therefore the key, and almost only, question in their hymnbook was, "Do you still go to church?" But as societies modernise, religion has not gone away. It has, however, changed, mutating into something more institutional than spiritual for some, more fundamental for others, and generally more complex for all.
Enter Linda Woodhead, a sociologist of religion at Lancaster University. The author of such books as 2013's Everyday Lived Islam in Europe, Religion and Change in Modern Britain and The Spiritual Revolution, she looks at how religion is lived in current societies, and how the new forms interact and contest with the traditional ones amid the context of broader social conditions.
Take the case of Britain (and the narrower story of the "spiritual laboratory" of the town of Kendal): "The historic religions like the Roman Catholic Church or the Church of England – which is still the established state church – have been in very rapid decline in terms of attendance, in terms of the number of people who call themselves Catholic or Anglican – all those things are declining," Woodhead tells Nigel Warburton. "And yet, that’s not the only picture. So in some ways, they remain very central in life. For example, they run schools, and there’s a huge demand for faith schools."
Looking just at Kendal, she continued, "we looked at how the churches were declining, but we found to our astonishment, even in 2000, this huge proliferation of alternative forms of spirituality: of mind, body, spirit care. We found 126 different practitioners in this one small town. And, since then, those sorts of things have continued to grow, and, of course, we’ve become more multi-faith."
Between 2007 and 2012, Woodhead directed the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme, a £12m research investment which embraces 75 separate projects.