Implicit Religion

By Dutton, Edward | Contemporary Review, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Implicit Religion


Dutton, Edward, Contemporary Review


IT was pushing towards closing time in 'The Jolly Farmer' in Guildford and some of the drinkers were starting to become philosophical. I can't remember the rest of the conversation but the remark of one middle-aged man to his friend sticks in my memory: 'At the end of the day, life's just about, you know, enjoying yourself'.

A defining idiom of the 'noughties' - the first decade of this century--it seems that many English people cannot discuss anything they regard as 'profound' without invoking it. The phrase refers to the 'ultimate': life at its deepest when everything else is stripped away. Many sociologists, such as Aberdeen University's Professor Steve Bruce, are convinced that 'religion' in Britain is declining. As evidence for the Secularization Thesis - the ineluctable decline of 'religion' set-off by Modernization - they point to empty pews and collapsing participation in any church's Rites of Passage. For such sociologists, it is bordering on absurd even to begin to argue that what people are saying to each other about life in pubs has anything to do with religion. However, the increasingly influential 'Implicit Religion' school began its research into religion precisely by going round English pubs and chatting to the punters.

'Implicit Religion' is very much the brain-child of one man: the Rev'd Edward Bailey, a former Bristol vicar and now assistant chaplain at St John's College, Oxford. The concept first came to attention at a conference at Denton Hall. Yorkshire, in 1977, though Bailey had been developing it since 1968. Prof Bailey produced his seminal PhD thesis - in which he analysed what people were saying in pubs, schools and a local parish as 'religious' - and for a long time it was only available in manuscript form. In 1997, the book - Implicit Religion in Contemporary Society - was finally published, by Peeters, an academic publishing house based in Belgium. Not long after, Middlesex University produced an abridged version aimed at undergraduates - Implicit Religion: An Introduction. In the same year, despite no pool of post-graduates to churn out into the world of Religious Studies, there was enough interest in the concept to establish the 'Centre for the Study of Implicit Religion and Contemporary Spirituality' at Middlesex University. Bailey even edits a respected peer-reviewed journal - Implicit Religion - dedicated solely to discussing the idea. It has attracted contributions from the world's most eminent scholars of religion: Prof William Swatos (President of the American Association for the Sociology of Religion), Timothy Jenkins (Assistant Director of Cambridge University Theology Department) and Peter Brierley (Britain's most eminent collector of data on church involvement). Bailey has been Visiting Professor of Implicit Religion at Middlesex and Staffordshire Universities and taught it at the University of California.

Of course, 'Implicit Religion' did not arrive from nowhere. The 1960s and 1970s saw a gradual attempt to redefine 'religion' away from the kind of 'dictionary definition' method espoused by sociologists such as Steve Bruce. Notions such as the German sociologist Thomas Luckmann's 'Invisible Religion' or the Belgian anthropologist Clifford Geertz's 'religion as a system of symbols ... that seem uniquely realistic' were already widely known amongst experts. Such scholars disliked the 'dictionary definition' because it tended to be overtly Western-centric meaning - according to some definitions - many tribal 'religions' would simply not be religions. Moreover, it assumed a Western division - popular since the Enlightenment - between 'sacred' and 'secular'. No matter how clearly something 'secular' behaved exactly like 'religion' it could not be discussed in religious terms because it was 'secular'. Such a division does not exist so starkly beyond Europe which may lead us to misunderstand religion in Japan or India.

As early as the 1940s, the Austrian-British philosopher Sir Karl Popper (1902-1994) was implicitly criticising this division in The Open Society and its Enemies when he described as 'false rationalist' secular ideologies which functioned like religions - often with irrational foundations - such as Romantic Nationalism and Marxism. …

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