A Short History of Secularism

Graeme Smith

The West is often described as a secular society. But what does this mean? Does it mean that the Christian church is in its final, terminal decline? Have we reached the endgame of Christianity? Have myth and superstition been replace d by scientific method and secular reason?

Or is the picture more complex than this? After all, in many Western societies, large majorities state that they believe in God and when asked call themselves “Christian.” For example, in the United Kingdom, often regarded as one of the more secular nations in Western Europe, 72 percent of the population described themselves as Christian in the 2001 national census. In some regions of northern England, this reached an amazing 80 percent. Similar numbers of people will also state that they believe in God. There are, of course, divergent interpretations of these figures. Some will say that they signify residual beliefs that will decline in the same way that church attendance has already declined. It is difficult for religious beliefs to exist for any length of time outside of the context of the institutional church.

Advocates of the secularization hypothesis argue that the forces of modernization are too powerful for this type of minimalist Christianity, and that ultimately, long-term religious decline is to be expected. Others argue that what the figures show is a persistence of belief that is independent of churches, an example of “believing without belonging.” For them, the figures for belief in God and Christian identity are to be taken very seriously.

In this article, I argue that it would be a mistake to equate secularism with the end of Christianity. Instead, we should view secularism as the latest expression of a transformed Christianity. What form does this new Christianity take? Secularism is ethical Christianity shorn of its concern with doctrinal questions. It is a commitment to be and do good without the questions about the nature of right and true belief. To argue this point of view I advance four key ideas. They are:

  • Christianity has always had a fluid identity that has changed when it comes into contact with new cultures and societies.
  • The Middle Ages were not the high point of church allegiance to be contrasted with our own period of decline. In fact, there are important similarities between the Middle Ages and our own times.
  • At the Enlightenment, the technological function of Christianity was taken over by science. This diminished the importance of doctrinal questions; however, it did not remove the need or power of Christian ethics. Christian ethics have continued to shape Western society in the form of a dominant liberalism.
  • The Victorian period was a time of exceptional church membership and evangelism, one that has not been rivaled.

When taken together, these ideas show how we can think of Christianity as transformed and also explain why we tend to speak of this transformation in terms of church decline. It is the discussion of these four ideas that will form the bulk of this article.

The Fluidity of Christian Identity

Christianity has always been capable of great change in its identity. The latest illustration of this capacity for change is the shift from a concern with church attendance and right doctrine to a preoccupation with ethical questions. The idea of the permanent fluidity of Christian identity is contested. Those who believe the West is becoming evermore secular argue that a permanently changing Christianity is not possible. For them, the Christianity that is declining is a Christianity with a fixed identity that must be capable of definition so that it can be shown to be rejected. There must be key beliefs and activities associated with Christian identity or else we reach a situation in which the identity itself is a meaningless concept. To explore this question, we need to look at the early expansion of Christianity.

The discussion of Christianity’s changing identity is a missiological question. As Christianity has spread and developed, it has changed. New contexts and new historical eras have led to new forms of Christianity. The Dutch missionary historian Anton Wessels has examined this process at work in his analysis of the early spread of Christianity. Wessels employed two aspects of H. Richard Niebuhr’s typology described in the latter’s Christ and Culture. The first type is Christ as the abolisher of culture. This is perhaps the common idea of what mission is. In this type, Christianity sweeps away the indigenous religion of the local population and replaces it with its own beliefs. Wessels gives the example of the missionary Boniface, who in 724 c.e. cut down an old oak tree dedicated to the Teutonic god Donar. Boniface remained unharmed after this blasphemy, thereby proving the superior power of the Christian God and leading many people in the German lands to choose baptism.

However, Christ as the abolisher of culture is not Wessels’s main concern. He is more interested in the idea of Christ as the transformer of culture. In this model, Christianity adopts local forms of indigenous religious belief but transforms these so that they become Christian. One example of this is the stories and beliefs that surround the Celtic goddess Brigit. The stories about her had a powerful hold on the local population. It was not easy for these to be swept away by the emerging Christian churches. Consequently, she was adopted and transformed by Christianity, becoming instead the Christian saint Bridget. Wessels says that this happened to such a degree that it is difficult for historians to distinguish the true identity of the historical Brigit, especially whether she was Celtic or Christian.

In one sense, stories and beliefs associated with local saints are not of central concern to the church. There is scope for some ambiguity about such figures because this does not affect core Christian doctrines. However, it becomes more serious when fundamental Christian festivals are involved. Wessels points out that there is a discrepancy between the English word for Easter and the Greek word pascha. Unlike, for example, the French or Swedish term, the English term bears no relation to the Greek word. Wessels argues that this is because of the connection between English celebrations of Easter and the rites and beliefs associated with the Saxon goddess Eastre or Ostara, the goddess of eggs and spring. Wessels quotes from the writings of the Venerable Bede, who reports that April was called “Eoster-month.” Ostara was regarded as the goddess of the resurrection of nature after the long death of winter. Eggs were eaten at her festival, and this was preserved by Christians, who transformed the symbolism of the egg to represent the resurrection of Christ. It may well be that this tradition reaches back to the practice of burying eggs in the fields to ensure a successful crop in the summer. What happened again was that these customs were so securely embedded in indigenous populations that they could not be removed and so were adopted but made Christian.

Wessels describes this process of adoption and transformation as one of “ongoing inculturation.” It is a two-way process. Not only were local indigenous religions transformed by Christianity, but Christianity was itself transformed as it accommodated the local religion. This was not just a matter of turning traditional stories about local goddesses into beliefs about Christian saints; it affected central Christian festivals like Easter. Beliefs and rituals about fertility were incorporated into Christianity’s main celebration of its fundamental doctrine, that of Christ’s resurrection. Nor was this process a limited or one-off phenomenon. Wessels identifies the pattern of ongoing inculturation in all the historical movements of early Christianity, from its Jewish origins
into the Roman Empire, and then throughout the Empire to the West and North of Europe. Christianity has always changed radically as it spread and encountered new religions. Furthermore, what happened in the earliest days of Christianity has continued into our own times. As we seek to identify and analyze Christian belief and practice, we need to be aware that Christianity is constantly changing. In fact, we are better thinking and talking about a range of different Christianities, both in local expression and historical manifestation. It is this Christianity, or Christianities, that is undergoing radical transformation in Western society.

The Medieval Church

The initial spread of Christianity was a haphazard affair. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, church life was affected by local circumstances. Had a church been built in the local area and within range for a Sunday visit? Was the parish priest faithful and caring toward his flock? Had the area been exposed to a concerted evangelistic effort by a friar? But there is an assumption that after these fragile beginnings during the medieval period, Christianity came to dominate the lives of ordinary people: church attendance was universal and Christian practice commonplace. In the popular account of the emergence of secularism, this represents the heyday of Christian belief and practice. There is an assumption that until the Reformation—really until the Enlightenment—Christian belief and practice was almost entirely universal. However, such a picture is far from easy to prove.

Much, although not all, of what is written about medieval churchgoing suggests it was far from what might be expected today. Although we do not have comparable statistics from the period, we do have historical reports of some of the extremes of behavior. For example, there are reports of parishioners being drunk in church, fighting—even shooting off guns, gossiping, trading goods and bartering, and conducting both licit and illicit romances. The poor and the young were especially prone to either missing church altogether, in some cases thereby being accused of bringing down God’s wrath in the form of famine or plague, or of turning up drunk and rowdy. The clergy were often not much better. The Archbishop of Rouen reported after his diocesan visitation of 1248 that he had clergy who were committing adultery and fathering illegitimate children, drinking to excess, and, in what might have seemed like a mild relief, being pugnacious and quarrelsome. Another archbishop reported that on a visit to a cathedral he found the canons rushed far too quickly through the psalms. Clergy also chattered and gossiped through the divine office, talking to and even across each other. They were frequently found to be ignorant of the basics of the Christian faith, not knowing the Lord’s Prayer or the Ten Commandments or understanding the Latin they mumbled at the high altar far from the sight and hearing of the people. With clergy like this, it is no surprise that the laity were equally irreligious and ignorant. What is clear is that churches were more like community centers or shopping malls than places of worship. Congregations did not sit quietly or reverently in pews, they did not expect to participate in the worship ceremony, and they would not have attained anything like the Christian literacy even the most infrequent of parishioners have today.

The exception to this picture of medieval churchgoing comes from some revisionist historical writing about the pre-Reformation church. The leading exponent is Eamon Duffy. Duffy argues that the picture of a corrupt and irreligious medieval church is predominantly post-Reformation propaganda put forward by the Protestant Reformers. He believes that there was far more piety and devotion among pre-Reformation Christians than is commonly supposed. He cites examples of Christian piety such as that displayed by Margery Kempe. Her devotional practice, while perhaps extreme, illustrates how levels of Christian belief and behavior were far higher than is usually imagined. Duffy also lists examples of religious processions, funeral rites, ceremonies, and practices—such as beating the parish bounds (that is, the whole congregation walking the boundaries of the parish) on Corpus Christi—that he maintains had widespread popular support. Duffy does make the picture more complex than we might first suppose. However, much of his evidence comes from the late medieval period just prior to the Reformation. This does not take into account earlier, less holy practices. Nor does his evidence lead one to suppose that the medieval church was in fact devout. It might have been more holy than the worst caricatures, but this does not signify a golden era of Christianity. The idea that the Middle Ages were a time of great Christian belief and practice (compared to our own time, which is viewed as secular and irreligious) is not borne out by historical accounts. Rather, it is probably safer to say that levels of religious activity mirror our own. There are examples of corruption and sacrilege, as well as devotion. But any account of secularism that supposes a Christian fall from the grace of the Middle Ages is flawed.

The Enlightenment

A second element of the popular account of secularism’s rise and triumph in the West is the supposition that beginning with the Enlightenment, science and reason have swept away Christian belief and practice. It is argued that at the Enlightenment humanity first began to shed the shackles of Christian myth, prejudice, and superstition. There are two parts to this account: one is substantially accurate and the other needs further attention. What we can say is that science replaced Christianity as the technology of humanity. But science was not able to remove the dominance of Christian ethics in Western liberal society; in fact, as a result of the Enlightenment, Christianity’s hold on ethics tightened.

The Enlightenment was a time of scientific discovery and innovation. Newton was the towering genius of the period. His scientific methodology of mathematics, observation, and experiment was imitated in all fields. Voltaire stated that “we are all his disciples now,” while Hume hoped to become the “Newton of the moral sciences.” On the coattails of science came technology. It was a time of new discoveries. In the one hundred years from 1660 to 1760, about sixty new patents were issued each decade. In the thirty years from 1760 to 1790, 325 new patents were issued. Innovation was everywhere—even, Samuel Johnson claimed, at the gallows in Tyburn. The major areas of advance were in medicine. Prior to the Enlightenment, local and family cures had combined with prayers to the saints and holy water as the main medicinal resource for people. Holy shrines would go through phases when they seemed particularly effective, before they declined and a new saint or shrine came to the forefront. This did not end overnight. Nor were quacks and fraudsters immediately abolished by the Enlightenment. However, famous physicians like Hermann Boerhaave laid the foundations for the scientific, empirical medical science we know today.

What is interesting, however, is that although Christianity’s technological function was undermined by the rise of a scientific mentality, its ethical function was reinforced. The great ethical thinkers of the age, for example Locke or Kant, who laid the foundations of liberal ideology, were Christians informed by their faith. Larry Siedentop has argued that the fundamental proposition of liberalism—that the individual has worth as individual and not as a member of a tribe or clan—is a Christian idea. Its ongoing expression in human rights is evidence of the continuing importance of this Christian belief. Interestingly, when philosophers like John Gray in his book Straw Dogs seek to write a philosophy that rejects this Christian heritage, what they produce is described as nihilist. That is, for Western li
berals, the absence of Christianity is not an alternative ethics; it is the removal of ethics. This, of course, is not to deny the atheism of Hume or the anticlericalism of Voltaire. But it is to recognize that their rejection of Christianity has been less influential for Western society than the individualism that finds its home in Christian belief.

The Fanatical Victorians

In 1851, Thomas Mann conducted a national census of religious worship. Based on his data, we can estimate that he found that about 40 to 50 percent of the population attended church. Compared with the United Kingdom today, this is a remarkably high figure. However, Mann saw it as a disaster. He said it revealed the extent of British godlessness, especially in the cities and among the poor. The findings were used to spur on more vigorous evangelistic efforts.

Mann’s survey fit the ethos of the age. It was a period of intense evangelism. Callum Brown believes there has been no comparable time. Systematically, doors were knocked on, and people street by street and neighborhood by neighborhood were encouraged to read the Bible, absorb improving stories, and attend the local church. Millions of pamphlets and tracts were printed and distributed. Shops open on a Sunday were picketed, Bibles were handed out, and the “fallen” rescued. It was a vast effort. And it worked. Large numbers of people did go to church as a result of this evangelistic campaign—more than have done so before or since. And this is why the church thinks of itself as in decline. Compared with the Victorians, the church is in decline—but then so would be any other church at any other point in history. The Victorians were exceptional, a blip that cannot be imitated and that should not be a point of comparison. It is, after all, no coincidence that the contemporary idea of secularism emerged in organizational form during the nineteenth century. It was an attempt to resist the unprecedented dominance of the church.

The picture I have been trying to paint is of Western society conforming to the usual patterns of Christian belief and behavior. We are experiencing the transformation of Christianity, but this is to be expected given the fluid nature of Christian identity. The support for the institutional church is of a similar type and nature to that of the medieval period. And Christian ethics are the dominant values and principles that underpin Western society. That we tend to think of this in terms of church decline and secularism, especially in Western Europe, lies in the fact that we follow the Victorians. But this is not the whole picture. Secular society is one in which Christianity is still prevalent. It is a transformed Christianity, ethical but not doctrinal. If this Christianity were removed, we really would experience religious change as never before—but it has not happened yet.

Graeme Smith

Graeme Smith is senior lecturer in practical theology at Chichester University. He is executive editor of the international journal Political Theology and has published widely in the field of religion and politics. His most recent book is A Short History of Secularism (IB Tauris, 2008).


The West is often described as a secular society. But what does this mean? Does it mean that the Christian church is in its final, terminal decline? Have we reached the endgame of Christianity? Have myth and superstition been replace d by scientific method and secular reason? Or is the picture more complex than this? …

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