Magazine article History Today

The Secularization Puzzle

Magazine article History Today

The Secularization Puzzle

Article excerpt

This is a puzzle, like those in which you used to find pictures of animals cunningly hidden in the foliage. This time you are looking for evidence of the cultural process which historians call 'secularisation'. The following hints may be enough.

There was a time in England's history when literally everything was connected to religion. Religion was broader than Christianity. It was too broad even to be a noun. Religion was more like an adverb: one did things religiously. One did everything religiously, or piously, with due regard for the unseen forces that could help you or could trip you up.

Religion in those days was not something to think about so much as a way of thinking. It was not just connected to culture; the culture was the religion, in that it gave men and women access to supernatural help. 'Secularisation' changed all that. Secularisation was the process of separating every aspect of life and thought from religion, leaving a much more spiritualised and intellectualised faith behind. The faith is still with us; the religious culture is not.

Historians have not given secularisation sustained attention because it has proven such a confusing subject; what looks like religious decline to one historian seems like spiritual advance to another. It depends on whether one is looking at the essence of a faith or a whole range of often-superstitious practice. The problem is in getting everyone to agree on a definition of religion. If one assumes that we mean Christianity, we find that we cannot get agreement on what we mean by that term. Oddly enough, it is easier to reach agreement on a generic definition of 'religion', which anthropologists view -- roughly -- as that which gives access to supernatural powers, or to the presence of those powers.

In 1500, the time of our fictional representative, Peter Taverner, tailor, the most ordinary practices of life were part of a religious culture which was to ensure success in this life as well as the next. By 1700 our (fictional) William Poole, printer, would have rejected many such practices as 'superstitious' (a new shibboleth for a rejected religion), although he would not have thought of himself as irreligious. In fact he probably thought of himself as religiously enlightened. But he lived in a world that had been shorn of religious associations. So the first stage of secularisation -- the separation of religion from most areas and activities of life -- was virtually complete. The second stage, the actual decline of religious belief, was still ahead, and may be impossible to calculate.

Historians have commonly supposed that this decline of belief is all there is to secularisation, and have concentrated their attention on the development of rationalism and urbanisation, and puzzled over the resilience of religious faith. The exercise of imagination you are about to undertake, which shows how religion had first become self-conscious and exposed, is a new one.

A Summer's Day, AD 1500

Day awakened for Peter Taverner with the tolling of the friary bell in the next street. He crossed himself and scratched and got his bearings from the crucifix and the indulgence stuck to his bedroom wall. It was the day of the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, the patron of his London guild, so it promised to be a busy one. The brotherhood of tailors would gather for their annual dinner, which on balance was an agreeable thought. But this year it involved the dedication of a new image of the saint in the Hall and this statue had become Peter's responsibility. His brother was a mason in the yard which was assigned the task, and the work had not been done when Peter checked just two days before. He now remembered his amusement at their efforts to render the tailoring of the Baptist's camel-skin suit. It would cause comment among the other masters.

Peter's maid evidently felt that he needed waking and sent his daughter, Elizabeth, in with some laundry. …

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